Monday, 25 February 2013

Agang: a new direction for South Africa?

In the wake of the announcement by activist and business leader Mamphela Ramphele that she is working on launching a new party called Agang in South Africa, my worry is that most of the emphasis is on where the ruling ANC is going wrong.
That’s not enough. We need a positive principled alternative. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, politics in many countries has become a principle-free zone, as the space for alternatives on the left has closed off, and the mythology that the Soviet Union collapsed because robber baron capitalism is the best system has taken hold. The reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union are another whole discussion: the worldwide economic downturn in 2008 is evidence that we have not arrived at an alternative that represents perfection.

In essence, the major western economies have become trapped in the Reagan-era mindset of greed is good, and seem unable to deal with the obvious fall out from the failure of deregulated economics. A big part of the problem is that once you enter a principle-free zone, the temptation is to follow the line of least resistance: say or do whatever plays well to polls and focus groups.

What we need is a new set of principles that has a practical base, yet takes us beyond doing whatever seems expedient.

My aim here is to get the discussion started; I welcome other views on the principles that could be the basis for a new movement.

I like the pillars of Green politics, which I like to summarize as:

  1. grassroots democracy
  2. environmental and economic sustainability
  3. economic and social justice
  4. nonviolence

There are many variations on these principles; you may notice I put the word “economic” in two of them. That’s not because I place the economy ahead of everything else, but because we need to consider the economy in the context of both sustainability and social justice. An increasing number of economists capture this concept in the notion of a triple bottom line, the idea that you cannot express economic wellbeing by a single number reflecting financial well-being but you also need to consider whether your economic policies are working for the environment and for social goals.

Let’s look at these principles in detail and see how they apply to South Africa.

Grassroots democracy
Much of the “better life for all” promise of the ANC has been subverted to a better life for a few. We need to take back the instruments of policy that have been subverted to the interests of a small group, and place the well-being of the country as a whole back at the centre of policy-making. To do this, we need accountability, which is not achievable with a Chinese-style top-down interpretation of democracy, where the only election that counts is the selection of the leader of the ruling party.

Grassroots democracy does not mean every issue is decided by popular vote, but rather that when decisions are taken, the whole population’s views are taken into account, and decisions are taken after real consultation, not the fake kind where the outcome is predetermined, and public participation cannot change it.

In a political movement, all positions should be elected, and policy should be an outcome of open internal debate, not a fake consensus imposed from above. In government, a ruling party has to compromise to some extent because those in charge must make decisions on day to day running of the country, which most citizens lack the time to keep up with. The corrective here is maximum transparency: doing away with relics of the apartheid security state that make it possible to hide behind fake secrecy requirements, for example.

Environmental and Economic Sustainability
A crucial series of questions to ask is:

  • Is what we are doing still going to work for future generations?
  • Are we stealing from our children and grandchildren?
  • Are we consuming resources that will never exist again, with no thought of what will replace them?

If we do not ask these questions, and provide satisfactory answers, the promise of a better life for all is a hollow sham. The apartheid regime only tried to service 10% of the population. Since 1994, that 10% has not expanded in a meaningful way. While school attendance has increased, many resources to pull students out of disadvantage have been squandered or misapplied. There has been no serious attempt at building an affordable public transport network, or encouraging use of low-cost modes of transport like bicycles, leaving the poor at the mercy of commercial operators (taxis and long-haul buses), which operate at their convenience not that of their passengers. Unemployment remains stubbornly high.

We also are moving at glacial pace to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. If we cannot transition to energy sources with a long-term future, much of our population will remain excluded from a modern economy. Oil, coal and gas are depleting commodities, and will become ever-more expensive. The price gap between renewables and fossil fuels is closing fast, and we are not positioning ourselves to take advantage when the gap closes fully and renewables start to become cheaper. We have some of the best solar energy resources in the world, and are making scant use of them.

A greener economy in the short term is more labour-intensive because of the new infrastructure needed. So why are we waiting?

Economic and Social Justice
In the apartheid era, the economy was radically skewed to support the White population, and the rest of the population were excluded from the economy by a variety of measures, including limited land ownership, limited opportunities to own business, deliberately sub-standard education and limited access to better-paying jobs.

While some of these limits eased in later apartheid years (e.g., the dropping of job reservation and group areas), we have a long-term legacy of the majority of the population lacking a quality education and a capital base from which to grow.

Black economic empowerment (BEE) under the ANC has been a system of riches for the few, while leaving the majority with little or no opportunity for betterment. We need a change in emphasis to make the benefits more widespread. That has to include:

  • systematic reform of education – noting that some of the country’s worst-resourced schools produce creditable results
    • there has to be a management problem that makes so many others perform so poorly
    • the huge disparity in performance by province also indicates a management problem
  • professionalising the public service – the public service first and foremost is the engine of delivery of government services, not a job-creation programme. Placing services that are critical to opening up economic opportunity in the hands of the politically connected rather than those best qualified to provide those services is not BEE, it’s corruption

None of this precludes affirmative action in government employment, but that affirmative action cannot take the form of cadre deployment with no consideration for competence.

Non-Violence is not just about conducting peaceful protest (Ghandi-style). It is also about a public discourse that steers away from unnecessary confrontation.

Politics in a principle-free zone has increasingly become personalised. While anyone in the public space whose private life is indefensible has set themselves up for unwanted scrutiny, that should never be the sole basis for evaluating political leadership. That reduces political discourse to gossip, and turns leadership into a cult of personality (or lack thereof).

Nor should we be using war talk as routine campaign language. And a party of government should not be building up military capability to be in a position to engage in wars of aggression.

A country like ours with a violent past and a legacy of a police state that valued the lives of some far less than others needs to put strong emphasis on the equal value of every life, and that precludes policies and rhetoric like “shoot to kill”, a mentality that the police showed can have disastrous consequences at Marikana in August 2012.

A country’s military should primarily be an emergency force able to respond on short notice to disasters, with the potential to take part in genuine peace-keeping and democracy-building interventions.

We all need to work to undo the culture of violence with deep roots in colonialism and apartheid. We cannot point fingers back to the cause and fail to address in ourselves an inability to move on.

Where does this take us?
Let’s start talking what we want, not just what we are against, then we have a movement.

COPE was essentially only about where the ANC had gone wrong, and look how that ended.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

New York Times vs. Tesla

When a New York Times article is disputed for accuracy, you would hope a paper of that standing would ensure than any claimed factual errors are  either refuted or owned up to. But no. Public Editor Margaret Sullivan’s response to some very strong claims by Tesla CEO Elon Musk does neither. It contains an admission that the writer was sloppy on the details, but throws out an unsubstantiated allegation that Musk’s counter-attack was “sometimes quite misleading”. On what details? I would really like to know. And I am sure a substantial number of NY Times readers would also like to know.

All this is in response to a drive a New York Times writer, John Broder, undertook in Tesla’s top of the range Model S that apparently was a test of the utility of Tesla’s Superchargers, extra-fast charging stations designed to ease the pain of charging batteries on a long trip.

At issue is the factual accuracy of Broder’s report, amounting to a claim that he deliberately set Tesla up to fail.

Let’s be clear where I stand on this.

I am unconvinced of the case for the electric car. Its ideal use case exactly matches that of public transport or (in clement weather) a bicycle: relatively short-range travel in an urban area.

For long trips, an electric car has a severe disadvantage in needing long recharge stops (the Better Place solution, still a work in progress, of swapping batteries may fix that, but it requires battery standards to avoid outlets having to keep a wide range of different ready-to-use batteries).

Another big drawback of electric cars is the high cost of replacing batteries especially in an older car. While there are some ideas to mitigate that including leasing batteries or including cost of replacing the batteries in Better Place-style battery swaps, this is a problem not addressed currently on a systematic basis.

On the plus side, even when using dirty energy, the efficiencies of electric motors are so high compared with internal combustion, you generally come out ahead on emissions, and an electric motor’s full torque from zero speed puts it far ahead of internal combustion. And battery replacement aside, service costs are way lower for electric.

My concern is with journalistic integrity, not a desire to hype electric cars. What Tesla has done is magnificent but is only a small step on the road to cleaner energy travel.

Still unanswered: why claim incorrectly to have crawled at 45mph to conserve energy, and why claim incorrectly to have turned the heat down?

NY Times: ball in your court.

Friday, 15 February 2013

How to get something lost in the mail

In December 2012, after installing some RAM upgrades I bought for my Mac from a US dealer, I found one was a dud, and organized to send it back (along with a couple of used parts for which they would give me a rebate).

After about a month, I realized my package should have reached its destination. It hadn’t. I contacted the South African Post Office because their tracking site showed it had reached the last step in South Africa in two days. Their customer service person told me I should try to track it in the US. This I thought would go nowhere, but no, the USPS tracking service accepted my South African tracking number.

Now it gets interesting.

The prejudice people in this part of the world have is that it must have been stolen or lost in South Africa. Here’s the log of where it’s been in the US:

So it reached the US within three days of posting. Good so far. But why was it bouncing around between facilities in New York?

I asked the recipient if they could check, and they were told an enquiry had to be initiated from the originating post office. That, I thought would lead nowhere.

Again, I was wrong – at least in getting started. My local post office could not have been more helpful. The postmaster tried to find out more through their internal systems and when he couldn’t, helped me set up an enquiry. Some of the paperwork involved doing an affidavit via my local police station, a reminder of indifference to service from some parts of South African society.

But anyway, my enquiry is in the system. And maybe at some point my package will surface. Or be declared lost so I can claim on the insurance.

Maybe it’s not a huge plus for South Africa to have a friendlier, more efficient postal service than the US. But it’s great to be better sometimes.


On 30 April, I received notification from the US supplier that the package had arrived, nearly five months after I put it in the mail, and most of that time it was lost somewhere in the US postal system. As if to erase their embarassment, the USPS tracking site now only shows movements in the package’s final days, once it had somehow migrated from New York to Illinois.

Whether it’s been in Illinois or New York all that time or somewhere else will now doubt never be revealed. All I know is the USPS is capable of extreme incompetence. And possibly extreme embarrassment. Sorry USPS goblins: your secret is exposed on this page. Here is the latest tracking information as of 30 April 2013:


I visited my local post office and the postmaster checked with his tracking department. They put in three requests spaced roughly a month apart to trace the item. The last on 24 April was a final request that, if not satisfied, would have resulted in paying me compensation (I insured it; it turns out the postal service is very optimistic that things will eventually turn up, and this time they were right). Magically, four days later the item appeared and took one more day to get delivered.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

What’s really wrong with Apple?

Despite the huge tumble Apple has taken on their share price, the reality is they are doing well on most measures that count, and exceptionally on some. Take for instance the way they have pushed Samsung to second place in the US cell phone market in the last quarter of 2012. Samsung has a vast range of phones including some very cheap entry level models, whereas Apple only has premium models. This is like Mercedes-Benz pushing Toyota or VW into second place.

Here’s a much bigger story of decline.

Dell is buying back its shares and going private, while pretty much scaling back on manufacturing.

Anyone following this story will no doubt have seen numerous reminders of Michael Dell’s advice to Steve Jobs: close Apple and give the money back to the shareholders (repeated in the article I point to above). Apple right now could buy Dell for cash and still have $100-billion left in the bank. For now it seems that Apple had the right business model all along, it was just poorly executed until the Jobs revival.

Next year, we could have a different theory of the universe.

My view: Apple does some things right, other things wrong. They could still have a major stumble if one of the competition gets a major thing Apple is missing right, whereas they are all trying to do better than Apple at the minor things and missing the big picture.

Next year, we could have a different theory of the universe.

Microsoft Surface: a precision-engineered kick stand, I ask you: what major problem does that solve? Microsoft has designed a laptop you can’t use on your lap and is selling it as a better kind of tablet.

Many of the arguments about what Apple is missing revolve around minutiae, like the absence of this or that port, or this or that hardware or software feature deemed so essential that the Apple product will surely fail if one of the competition remedies the defect. One of the competition remedies the defect, and sinks without trace. How often have we been told some Apple product would be a success if only it had a USB port, could use SD flash cards, or could receive FM radio? Products like Zune that supposedly met one or more of these needs litter the trash heap (or, better, the recycling bin).

If any competitor is to get serious traction, they need to focus on finding something major that Apple is missing or getting wrong – and finding a product or niche is not enough. You need also to find a fundamental flaw in their business model that stops them taking on your new idea.

All these other things excite geeks, not people who just want something that works and don’t care about technology.

Of course Apple did get things badly wrong in the past. In the late 1990s, they almost went broke.

The original Mac OS did not have a proper kernel, so it did not implement memory protection or true multitasking, meaning one program could take over the machine if it went awry, destroying data of other programs or requiring a hard reboot to get the machine back under control. In the late 1980s, I told someone from Apple that they already had a solution. At the time, Apple had a version of UNIX, called A/UX, that included a way of running Mac apps in a compatibility layer called Blue Box. I proposed that they give up on their own operating system project that eventually became the disastrous Copland project, and create a new Mac-like interface on top of UNIX, with Blue Box for old apps. No, they said. UNIX was way too heavyweight for ordinary users. At the time, A/UX only ran on the top of the line Mac II (with a wicked fast 16MHz Motorola 68020). I tried to explain that they didn’t need all of UNIX, just the kernel, and the application layer could be a version of the existing Mac application layer, but they insisted it wasn’t possible. Nearly 10 years later, Apple bought NeXT, and the resulting new Mac OS, called Mac OS X, was pretty much what I proposed. You may argue that the entry level Macs of the day didn’t have hardware to support a proper operating system with memory protection, but that’s very short-sighted. By 1991, System 7 was launched with virtual memory support, requiring a hardware memory manager (though still without protection, since that would have required a major rewrite of many applications that relied on accessing a single common memory).

Where Apple went wrong in this whole exercise was taking focus off their key strengths: usability and clean integration between multiple hardware and software components. Design of an operating system kernel is secondary to this focus. Once they reverted to their traditional strengths, they recovered fairly quickly (in the process also addressing another of my criticisms, a complex product range no one could understand).

Apple went badly wrong because they took their eye off the ball, and wasted huge amounts of money on something that no one but a geek or hard-core computer scientist would care about, a highly innovative operating system kernel.

So if anyone is to seriously dent Apple’s dominance of their key markets, what it will take is a clear understanding of the important things Apple does well and the important things they do badly. Identify the latter, and address them, and you’re in with a chance.

What options are there? Here’s a few hints. Apple’s serious weaknesses are not in areas like ports, memory expansion or kickstands. So what are they then?

I do think Apple has some serious weak points, and I’ve been right on these things in the past. So what do I think Apple’s real problem is (or will be if someone sees it and exploits it)?

Sorry, I’m tired of giving my ideas away for free. If you have a serious amount of money to invest, let me know.