Monday, 28 November 2011

Save the Wail

Back in 1988, the apartheid regime threatened to close down the Weekly Mail, now called Mail&Guardian. I played a minor role in defending the paper, known popularly as The Wail because it kept complaining about how terrible things were (and rightly at the time). I’ve just had cause to haul out my tattered copy of the paper’s history,  …You have been warned, to compare against current events.

At the time, papers were under attack for “subversive” activities such as telling the truth, including things that were hardly state secrets because they were widely reported in the rest of the world. At one point, after a state of emergency was declared, Weekly Mail and other papers resorted to blacking out parts of articles that their lawyers thought would get them in trouble with the authorities. The Minister of Home Affairs was empowered to close down papers without recourse to the courts after a warning (hence the title of the history), so printing “subversive” material was risky. This is the first edition of the Weekly Mail after the emergency was enforced. Several issues followed equally blacked out, until the government decided that obscuring content like this was in itself subversive.

Mail&Guardian therefore knows fully the power of blacking out parts of an article, and that they should have to do this now, under a democratic rights-centric constitution is shocking. The circumstances of the case, a senior member of the government hiding behind legalities to refuse to confirm or deny that he lied in a police interview, are pretty disgusting in themselves. The stench of corruption of the arms deal in the early years of ANC rule will not go away until the whole thing is properly investigated, and this sort of defence against public exposure does not advance the cause of the ANC, rapidly becoming a rabble of defensive opportunists, far from the idealistic organisation that started out about 100 years ago.

When the minister threatened to close the paper down under provisions where a paper could be closed for a period of months as punishment for “subversion” the paper published this appeal. I was one of many who supported the paper. I collected about a dozen people who were prepared to put up money to buy an ad in the paper, and put their name to it, supporting it. No editor of another paper was willing to add their name. I spoke to one at length and he had all kinds of good reasons not to do so. He didn’t mention cowardice. Many others supported the paper in more meaningful ways than I could. Eventually the paper was closed for a month, a lesser “punishment” than was expected, though a hard financial blow for a small paper. During this forced vacation, I hosted a desktop publishing workshop presented by Irwin Manoim, one of the two editors at the time. This was more a morale-booster than money-spinner. Irwin had great design skills; I’m sure he could have made good money if he hadn’t taken on the impossible task of showing the mainstream media how to take on a police state.

Well, the Weekly Mail (now Mail&Guardian) survived, but the apartheid state didn’t. Sadly, some of the mindset of the apartheid state lives on. A government that is failing is all too easily tempted to blame the messenger. And that’s happening again now, with a law passed by parliament that imposes draconian penalties on whistle-blowers (along with spies etc., but we know in practice those are rarely caught). And now we have the Mac Maharaj case. Does this page of the paper look at all familiar?

Of course circumstances differ. Maharaj has threatened the paper with prosecution for “stealing” information, and has set the Hawks onto two reporters on the paper. Even is he is right, this is an incredibly heavy-handed response. If the paper has indeed broken the law, the evidence is right there, on the front page of the paper. All he has to do is refer it to the director of public prosecutions for an opinion as to whether it’s a prosecutable case. The paper’s lawyers argue otherwise, and in a constitutional democracy, it’s hard to accept the logic that the paper should have published and risked prosecution – but Maharaj is insisting on prosecution anyway. Bluster takes you only so far. Maharaj isn’t acting like an innocent person: he is doing everything possible to avoid answering direct questions. At least in today’s South Africa, these things will ultimately be heard out in the courts. But what is really worrying is that this is how the government behaves now, without draconian measures to punish whistle-blowers. How will they behave once the new law is in effect? And with talk of reining in the courts, and the recent fiasco over appointing one of the least qualified of the potential candidates as chief justice, how much longer will we be able to rely on the courts for protection from government excesses?

The government makes a huge issue of errors by the media, and they do make mistakes. But not half as many as the government, and none with as heavy a consequence. When did a newspaper ever fail to roll out anti-retrovirals, or fail to build RDP houses to an acceptable standard?

Against a hostile government, the media need to be doubly careful not to make mistakes. But we should not forget that ultimately the government is accountable to us, and if members of the government accused of corruption or inappropriate conflicts of interest are unable or unwilling to defend themselves, they are the issue, not the way the matter is reported. Some on the government side have tried to liken this to the Murdoch media scandal in the UK that closed News of the World. This is nothing like it. The Murdoch paper was eavesdropping on conversations to try to dig up dirt on private citizens. The Mail&Guardian has been trying to uncover corruption at the highest level. The UK scandal was about gross invasion of privacy in pursuit of profit. The South African situation is about a paper taking on a government over-sensitive to criticism, and unwilling to root out corruption in its ranks. UK: criminal behaviour with no public interest; South Africa: no proven criminal behaviour, strong public interest.

So how do you respond in a democratic society? A wide variety of civil society organisations have already mobilised around he secrecy bill. They should all mobilise to defend the paper. It just may need financial help to take on a series of big lawsuits. Should it come to that I would be happy to pitch in.

Time to wail again.

The Right2Know (R2K) campaign has issued a statement in support of M&G.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Pumkin and rhubarb pie with Lime Mousse Ice Cream

In another of my rare forays into cuisine (for another, see my trick for making gelato), here is a crossover of my own creation: pumpkin and rhubarb pie. This makes 2 pies (20cm) or 4 smaller (10cm) ones.

Pie crust
4 cups flour
200 ml macadamia oil
2 teaspoons sugar
6 tablespoons chilled water

Mix the dry ingredients thoroughly then gradually incorporate the oil, adding a little extra four if necessary to get a crumbly texture. Add in the iced water as you go. Roll it into a ball, wrap in waxed paper and chill it for 2 hours.

Rhubarb stage
1 bunch rhubarb (500g), trimmed, cut up
2/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons water

Cook the rhubarb mix over medium heat until it’s all softened, and drain off the runny syrup.

Pumpkin mix
4 cups pureed cooked pumpkin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cm fresh ginger, finely chopped
2 well beaten eggs

Mix the pumpkin ingredients, and add to the cooked rhubarb.

Pie stage
Grease the pie dishes and crumble in the crust mix, spreading it to an approximately even layer. Add the filling.

Cook at 230°C for 8 minutes, then reduce to 160°C and cook for about 40 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean.

Lime Mousse Ice Cream

By popular demand, as an accompaniment, here’s how to make lime mousse ice cream, based on a mousse recipe from The Silver Palate Cookbook, with measurements translated to metric. I also reduced the fat content and slightly adjusted the technique to allow for the fact that freezing holds it solid.

50g unsalted butter
5 eggs
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup fresh lime juice (4-7 limes depending on size)
grated zest of 4-5 limes (depending on size)
300ml cream

Melt the butter in a double boiler. Beat the eggs and sugar, and add to the molten butter. Continue whipping the mix over medium heat until it turns to a custard (about 8 minutes), i.e., starts to thicken. Do not overcook, otherwise you'll get sugary scrambled eggs.

Remove from heat and add the lime ingredients. Cool to room temperature.

Whip the cream to the point where it switches from light and foamy to thick, and fold into the custard mix, taking care not to flatten the aeration out.

Chill well, then freeze in an ice cream maker (not absolutely critical: it will not set very hard with this much fat content).

Friday, 21 October 2011

End of Gaddafi

For someone who styled himself as the king of kings and called his opponents rats, this was hardly a fitting end: being flushed out of  a drain and dying in doubtful circumstances in captivity.

What troubles me about Gaddafi's death is that it is not the form of "justice" one should seek in democratic society. Whether he was deliberately killed or died in cross fire as claimed by the provisional government we may never know. He should have been put on trial, and been made to answer for his actions, convenient though it may be for some to get him out of the way so expeditiously.

His death also leaves many questions unanswered. Many in the West will want to know more about his role in the Lockerbie bombing and in supporting causes like the IRA.

His apologists on the other hand will be as happy as governments of the US and UK that he is not around to interrogate about his questionable role in the "war on terror", including "rendition" of suspects to countries like Libya, where torture was legal.

Why has there been so much hypocrisy around Gaddafi and his Libya?

From the West, there's been an ambivalence between the "mad dog" appellation offered up by Reagan, and the desire to have bought dictators in resource-intensive parts of the world. When Gaddafi seemed to be out of control and willing to bankroll any anti-Western interest including the IRA, the "mad dog" label and isolation were relatively cheap options. While he controlled a fair amount of oil, Libya is not one of the biggest oil producers (about 2% of world output), and his output still reached world markets.

On the other hand, liberation movements failed to understand that he was just a military dictator who wrapped himself in leftist rhetoric. To some extent the infatuation of the South African ruling ANC with him is understandable if showing lack of judgement, because he was one of few world leaders who backed their struggle when it started in the 1960s, at a time when the West was cosy with apartheid. A similar misplaced affection for Robert Mugabe applies; the ANC on the whole appears to have forgotten that its liberation struggle specifically attacked the notion that human rights was purely an internal affair. More broadly, those on the left who continued to back him conveniently forgot his role in the "war on terror", and his equally convenient reversion to anti-Western rhetoric when NATO backed the opposition.

Libya has a tough battle ahead to establish a civil society on top of a state where previously only one person had any say. All those who backed Gaddafi in any form are equally guilty of perpetuating this sorry situation. NATO at least has helped effect change. Those on the left who supported Gaddafi on the basis of the enemy of my enemy is my friend need to sit back and think hard about what they really stand for. This man ran a vicious police state that tortured on a mass scale, killed many opponents and was a stooge of the West when it suited him.

What happens now should be up to the Libyan people -- as indeed should have been what happened before.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Great South African Bank Rip-Off

When I returned to South Africa after living abroad for 9 years, I was surprised to find how far the quality of service at Nedbank, a bank I've dealt with for 30 years, has slipped. Here's a small fraction of the problems I've had, all leavened with being asked "to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?" every time I've contacted the call centre.

For a start, my cheque account was a on a low monthly charge, high transaction fee structure, which was suitable when I had a low number of transactions on it. This I could change, but the change only took effect in the next billing cycle. In the meantime, I was waiting for a credit card, and used my cheque account card for shopping, and incurred transaction fees at a rapid rate. Had I opened a new account, the new transaction fee would have applied immediately. Why should it cost me more as an existing customer than a new customer who walked in the door?

Then there's the credit card. For a start, I was treated as a new customer with no credit history on setting the credit limit, and told this could only be reviewed in 6 months. That set me up for feeling positive about a 30-year relationship.

Then I had a failed transaction on my cheque account. The merchant tried the transaction three times, then I gave up and paid cash. This showed up as three purchases and three reversals with six transaction fees. I am still waiting for those to be reversed more than a month later.

The one that really took the cake was when I bought some prepaid air time for a couple of cell phones, using my credit card on the bank web site. All three transactions incurred an "SST transfer fee". In Nedbank terminology, "SST" means self-service terminal, the machines they have in branches, so this immediately looked odd to me because I did an internet banking transaction. What's more, for a purchase, no transaction fees should apply. After complaining several times, these were reversed, no reason given. I have not since bought air time on the web site, as I was unsure if the reason for the problem was resolved. When my statement showed up, I was charged 73c for finance charges, despite paying before the due date. Another round of calls to the call centre (actually, several call centres: I tried the complaints department, who said I should talk to the card division, who referred me to the SAA Voyager card division: by this time, I was thoroughly sick of "to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?").

It turns out that Nedbank regards any transaction on internet banking as a cash transfer. Please check this screen grab out. Does this or does this not include the word "purchase" in more than one place? How am I supposed to know that in Nedbank's world, this is not a purchase but a cash transfer? And why would any sane person, knowing that a cash withdrawal from a credit card incurs interest, make such a withdrawal to buy something that you can buy using a standard credit card transaction (the other meaning of "purchase") at thousands of locations around the country?

I think I made the point to them that I was sufficiently fed up that they should refund the 73c as well, but they ended with telling me this is the last time. Yes. It's also the last time I buy air time online from them, and if they really want last times, I'll be shopping for another credit card.

I do not phone a bank call centre because I want to make a new friend. I call them to solve a problem. Substituting fake politeness for competence is not a win. Get the same fake politeness a dozen times without useful effect, and you feel like throwing up when you get it again.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Angry African Response to Libyan Liberation

A group of 200 "prominent" South Africans have signed a letter objecting to the turn of events in Libya. This letter, titled "Libya, Africa And the New World Order - An Open Letter from Prominent Africans", is the most detailed apologia yet for the AU's position that there should be no outside intervention and only a "political" solution in Libya is acceptable

It's worth examining some of the claims in detail.
Our action to issue this letter is inspired by our desire, not to take sides, but to protect the sovereignty of Libya and the right of the Libyan people to choose their leaders and determine their own destiny.
Questionable. Failing to address the very real problems of the Gaddafi regime -- its total suppression of civil society, its lack of popular legitimacy and the extravagant lifestyle of the ruling elite who treated the country as a personal fiefdom -- is taking sides.
Libya is an African country.
That's clear. But it's also part of the Arab world, and the Arab League recognised this for what it was early on: a popular uprising being suppressed with brutal force.
When the UN Security Council adopted its Resolution 1973, it was aware of the AU decision which had been announced seven days earlier.

By deciding to ignore this fact, the Security Council further and consciously contributed to the subversion of international law as well as undermining the legitimacy of the UN in the eyes of the African people.
Or maybe the AU undermined its own legitimacy by failing to come up with an effective strategy. When this was all happening people were dying in large numbers, and there was absolutely no evidence that the regime was open to compromise. On the contrary, it repeatedly announced ceasefires and immediately violated them.
The Security Council allowed itself to be informed by what the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its June 6, 2011 Report on Libya characterises as the "more sensational reports that the regime was using its air force to slaughter demonstrators".
The letter writers conveniently ignore the next sentences in this report:
That said, the repression was real enough, and its brutality shocked even Libyans. It may also have backfired, prompting a growing number of people to take to the streets.
The ICG, while playing down some extreme claims of the violence against protesters, makes it clear that the Gaddafi regime was given to extreme brutality, totally suppressed civil society 
It [the UN] then proceeded to 'outsource' or 'sub-contract' the implementation of its resolutions to NATO, mandating this military alliance to act as a 'coalition of the willing'.
First, this kind of delegation is not without precedent. Much the same thing happened in Bosnia. Second, inserting the words "coalition of the willing" is a not-so-subtle attempt at invoking the memory of Iraq. The letter writers cannot directly make that connection of course because that would be dishonest, so why do so in a backhanded way? The Iraq war was was not authorised by the UN, and was launched on a pretext that turned out to be a lie.
Duly permitted by the Security Council, the two 'coalitions of the willing', NATO and the 'Contact Group', have effectively and practically rewritten Resolution 1973.
Since this is a Security Council resolution, why is it so offensive if the Security Council "permits" further steps to implement it? How does this square with the claim that the NATO action is not compliant with the resolution? Are we to assume that the major world powers on the Security Council, including Russia and China, are all dupes of the West?
The actions of its 'sub-contractors', NATO and the 'Contact Group', have positioned the UN as a partisan belligerent in the Libyan conflict, rather than a committed but neutral peacemaker standing equidistant from the Libyan armed factions.
When one of the parties in a conflict is in clear violation of international law and human rights, why should they expect equal treatment?

The George W. Bush war against Iraq began on March 20, 2003.

The following day, March 21, the UK newspaper, The Guardian, published an abbreviated article by the prominent US neo-conservative, Richard Perle, entitled "Thank God for the death of the UN".
Aha. The Iraq connection. But of course this happily ignores the fact that in Libya, the UN did mandate intervention.
Contrary to the provisions of the UN Charter, the UN Security Council authorised and has permitted the destruction and anarchy which has descended on the Libyan people.
Let's see now. The second point of the Preamble to the UN Charter says:
to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and ...
How often has the UN failed to deliver on the "human rights" promise embedded in the charter? And that is where I take strong exception to the AU position. South African liberation movements, most notably the ANC, overturned the long-held position of non-interference in internal affairs of another country when human rights are violated. That reading of the UN Charter is not a popular one among world leaders, especially despots but also including those who have reason to truck with despots. South Africans should be at the forefront of promoting human rights-based foreign policy, yet "leading" South Africans are at the forefront of insisting on even-handed treatment of a military dictator.

Have we forgotten our own history so soon?

And then there are the issues quietly ignored in the letter. The defections of Libyan diplomats, some quite early in the uprising when it was by no means clear. The consistent message from Al Jazeera reporting, a news organisation that favours reform but cannot be called stooges of the West, that this was a genuine grass-roots uprising, met with brutal force. The recognition of the new ruling body by much of the rest of the world. And finally, we mustn't ignore the fact that the Libyan government had at its disposal the option to accept the AU roadmap unilaterally and implement a ceasefire when the opposition was weak. They didn't. And now they are history.

The real lesson in all this is that learning from history requires that you understand all of it, not just the bits you like, or that support your case. That this open letter campaign was led by a senior academic does him and his university no credit. If Africa is to rise from its current trashed position, we need leaders who engage with and understand the wider world, not inward-looking leaders who are threatened by any external challenge. And the old Pan-Africanist mindset where anything African was to be defended at all costs does no one but our enemies any good, because defending the indefensible does not build strength. It builds weakness.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Libya: is the AU relevant?

Back in March, I wrote about how the Arab world was seeking a new modernity. The African Union, it seems is not.

While the Arab league was fairly quick to expel Libya, the AU treated the conflict in Libya as if it was a political dispute to which there was a political solution. I followed events on the Al Jazeera web site as well as twitter in the early weeks of the revolution and these unfiltered sources made it clear that this was a genuine grassroots uprising. What's more a major driving force in the continuation of the uprising was the certain knowledge that to be identified as a "rebel" in the Gaddafi world view, where everyone loved him, was to set yourself up to be killed.

Let's be clear on how this thing started. In line with the broader "Arab Spring" movement, peaceful protests broke out in Libya, and the regime responded by shooting at protesters with heavy calibre weapons. Once it became clear that things would not die down despite this, talk escalated to exterminating all rebels, and Gaddafi deployed tanks to shoot at civilians. In the early days of the conflict, the opposition was vastly outgunned, and the courage to face such odds is rare. I remember talking to someone at this stage whose view was that anyone prepared to machine-gun crowds couldn't be overthrown, and these people were not stopping at machine guns. They were firing anti-aircraft guns into crowds, and shelling residential districts.

I've been listening to various "experts" pontificating on the matter on South African talk shows and many come from the starting point that the AU had the right approach and the NATO intervention was excessive and unjustified. But look at the AU's track record. Zimbabwe and Kenya both had disputed elections. Rather than insist on correcting the results, both countries had solutions imposed on them that rewarded electoral fraud.

In South Africa, in particular, many in leadership view Gaddafi with affection because he supported liberation when western powers saw the apartheid South Africa as a "good" authoritarian regime, stopping the advance of communism. That the major liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), was a largely social democratic alliance (with a small communist membership) that at the time saw the British Labour Party as its role model was hardly indicative of communist tendencies, but such was the global politics of the time. Either you were in the communist camp or your weren't. The Cold War is now over, and such neat divides no longer apply. The Soviet Union, far from a utopian example of "scientific socialism" today is understood to be a corrupt state favouring a small elite, using harsh police state practices to suppress opposition. The West, on the other hand, far from promoting democratic values, has a long history of promoting authoritarian regimes.

In this post-Cold-War era, we need to abandon ideological preconception and see things for what they are.

Gaddafi was a bloodthirsty military dictator, who wrapped himself in a cloak of Africanist liberation rhetoric. The AU, by attempting to prolong his rule, has shown itself to be a creature of a bygone era. NATO, on the other hand, has intervened in a relatively principled way, doing the minimum to give the revolution the upper hand. Whether the end result is a truly free country remains to be seen, but comparing this with Iraq, where the UK, US and a rag-tag coalition went in on the basis of a lie is ridiculous. Rather than question why Libya, I question why not Barhain as well? Had the vicious suppression of that uprising been stopped too, what are the chances that the hesitant steps to reform in Syria, preceding the ongoing vicious crackdown, would have continued?

The ANC radically transformed the whole space of foreign policy by tearing down the notion that national sovereignty precluded intervention in the internal affairs of a country by outsiders. The struggle against apartheid did more than anything else to put human rights on the global agenda. Why, then, is the ANC today at the forefront of coddling dictators like Gaddafi and Mugabe in its own foreign policy? I can only see it as misplaced loyalty to old comrades in arms.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Market Share Bug

Ford did it with the Model-T. VW nearly went broke for the same reason. Is Microsoft heading for trouble by listening to their customers too much?

Not so long ago, I recall reading somewhere that Microsoft was not going emulate Apple's iPad design, because they had consulted their business clients and they all wanted something that looked like Windows.

This all reminds me of how VW battled to break away from selling the Beetle (Bug if you're American) for much the same reason. All their customers said they wanted one (or something much like one); as many as 90% could say that and still lead a company to terminal decline.

This picture is a tad complex but captures the basic problem. Let's assume a company launches a new product in a market with an overall growth of 10% per annum, and it consistently scores a 90% retention rate with clients (the red line): that fraction can be relied on to buy it again. Despite this very consistent figure, market share rises very fast at first, peaks, then goes into slow decline. Growth follows an even more spectacular variability, starting at over 40% the first year of production, shooting up to over 80%, then going into steep decline, steadying at around 5%. They key to understanding all this is the yellow curve, the fraction of the market the product doesn't already have that it takes from the competition. This fraction rises very fast until it levels off at 40% (first arrow, a) for a couple of years, then the competition starts retaining its customers a bit better (second arrow, b), and the rate of converting competitors declines for a couple of years to 20%, where it sticks for a while until the competition comes out with a product with significant new appeal (arrow c), and conversion from the competition enters a steady and terminal decline.

This graph doesn't correspond to a real scenario; plugging in actual market share numbers requires access to stats over a long enough time to do this properly. Nonetheless the basic model applies whenever a company hits a point where it has a very loyal client base and new buyers aren't interested.

Through all this, the company has been maintaining 90% of its loyal clients, yet if this trend continues, they will eventually go out of business. This is what happened with the Beetle (and before it, the Model-T). Increasingly, buyers who had not bought one before saw it as outmoded and uninteresting. Asking the existing client base what they wanted would have resulted in a resounding "more of the same".

This is why Microsoft today asking their clients what they want is to risk oblivion. Ford and VW recovered; will they?

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Grahamstown – The First Week

When I moved to Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa from Brisbane in Australia I expected a few surprises, but not too many because I have after all lived in South Africa before. 9 years ago, I moved from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Wits) to the University of Queensland, and things have not changed that much over that time. I’ve also lived in a rural area in the distant past. Still, it’s fun to contrast life here with Australia.

So how has the first week gone? Pretty amazing in some ways, frustrating in others.

I arrived a few days before the annual National Arts Festival, a monster event with over 1,000 attractions, from world-class orchestral recitals and ballet, top-ranked jazz performers and the like through to fringe events featuring little-known performers. I went to a symphony orchestra performance featuring a cello soloist whose performance I could appreciate without knowing much about the art. To be able to face an audience without a scrap of paper, and play with extravagant flicks of hair with attitude, while producing sounds which, though no doubt containing the right note, could not be described in such simple terms, is a rare thing to experience. I was also dragged to a performance of Swan Lake. Sadly, I don’t get ballet. Maybe if I’d ever had someone close to me who was into ballet and took the time to explain the vocabulary of the thing, I could make sense of it. To me, it’s just a bunch of people in tights and swirly clothes performing impressively athletic acrobatics to music. Fun to watch, but even with a synopsis of the story line, I battle to make the connections. Then there was a play called The Table, a interesting piece of modern theatre. In a different vein, I went to a talk by Dennis Beckett, an idiosyncratic commentator on politics and life in general, on Democracy Version 2, and met him the next day for breakfast to catch up on old times and new. In the distant past, I wrote a couple of articles for his magazine Frontline, though he remembers me for my interventions on talk radio, a habit I dropped in Australia, because talk radio there is for the mindless chatterati. Next I was supposed to go to some short films but at the time and place on my tickets, there was a panel discussion on the future of the Humanities (the academic disciplines that is).

That’s the first week of entertainments, with more in store, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and some of the country’s best jazz.

All this, in Australian terms, cost two of us about $100. You wouldn’t even get to see one world-class act for that price over there. So that’s the amazing (and the Arts Fest rightly uses “Amazing” in its branding).

Not only that: I reconnected with some of my favourite birds and plants. A hadeda is a kind of ibis unremarkable in appearance but with a loud call, like a musical crow. Some say hadedas cry out in flight because they are scared of heights. Some say anything that enters their heads. Not much I can do about that. Then there’s the wild flowers, including aloes that grow all around this part of the country, and the trees. I like eucalypts, but you can have too much of a good thing. A few varieties of yellowwoods are what it takes to make me feel at home. Then there’s the African hoopoe that wandered out in front of the Computer Science building, and nonchalantly rooted for grubs while I took several pictures.

Shopping is a bit of a mixed experience. The local branch of Pick ’n Pay (a big chain, but this one’s ran as a franchise) is open for absurdly long hours for a full supermarket: 6:30am-11pm every day of the week. And wine is deliciously inexpensive by developing country standards. On the other hand no one in town sells real fruit juice: permissive labeling laws make it possible to sell a (wait for it) 100% pure blend, a hard concept to compete against if you are selling something that’s actually 100% pure.

To continue though with the feel-goods: people here are generally so friendly and welcoming. On our first day in university temporary housing (not too shabby; shabby but not too), the chief administrator of my department showed up with a huge vase of flowers. The tech people in the department are friendly and helpful, and people make eye contact with strangers in the streets.

One final plus: no Murdoch media. Newspapers here may have smudged ink and occasionally be folded a bit off centre, but they don’t print junk as a matter of policy. The Mail&Guardian can be a tedious read because articles are at times excessively detailed, but the paper is not pushing an agenda beyond informing the public and pursuing the broad public interest. The other papers are less serious and can reduce news to gossip, a common problem around the world, but nothing here is comparable to News Very Limited in single-mindedness in the pursuit of publishing drivel.

So the frustrations?

In my first week I had two power failures in the office severe enough to defeat the office UPS. A UPS (uninterruptible power supply: a battery-backed unit between the computer and the mains power supply, designed to keep it going when the power goes down) is not exactly a standard fitment for a desktop computer in Australia. Here, it’s essential. What’s more, many people have generators at home that kick in when power goes down, the kind of thing you’d expect in a hospital. Part of the problem it seems is that the infrastructure can’t cope with full load. But with all the generators around the place, it would be way more efficient if owners of generators switched them on before power failed, i.e., to share the peak load. But if the national power utility, Eskom, was sufficiently switched on (ouch) to get that right, you wouldn’t need private generators.

Then there was my attempt at getting 3G Internet on my Mac. I went to a local MTN dealer. MTN is one of the biggest telcos in Africa, having been wildly successful in countries to the north like Nigeria, and should have decent coverage in South Africa. So I plug in this USB modem, and run the software that’s on it (it shows up as a USB drive), and it crashes. I then can’t get a connection. After talking to two people at MTN, I get a long list of options for what to do sourced from the manufacturer, HUAWEI – none of which works. After a few days of battling with this and looking up options on the web, I try calling MTN again, and end up being passed from one person to another until they dropped the call. In Australia, big telcos outsource incompetent tech support to developing countries. At least here, they keep it local. I eventually fall back to asking a question on a Mac support mailing list set up back in my Wits days by the person who then looked after our Macs, and someone helpfully solves the problem for me. My best guess: the first run of the software that crashed should have enabled data access for the device and since that didn’t happen, I had to do that by other means.

So that’s my first week. I don’t expect the entertainments to continue at the same pace, though there will be plenty in the second week, while the fest is still on. I expect to see more exciting birds and trees. I expect more frustrations. But I also expect to find friendly and helpful people to help work around them.

Is this better or worse than Australia? Yes.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Basics of Greenhouse Spectra

I am not an expert on climate science but every now and then I run into something that most people don’t understand and try to add to public understanding. A common question is the interaction between different greenhouse gases. Why does water (H2O) vapour, present in much higher concentrations, not dominate any changes in the greenhouse effect? Why is methane (CH4) said to be a much more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) molecule for molecule?

There are two major issues I address here: water vapour is not present in equal measure throughout the atmosphere, and greenhouse gases vary in the wavelengths of infrared they absorb preferentially, and hence complement each other to some extent, rather than competing for the same photons.

Water vapour is present in the atmosphere at highly variable concentrations, up to 4% at sea level (40,000 parts per million by volume, ppmv), compared with CH4, currently at about 1.8ppmv, as compared with CO2 at 387 ppmv (methane and CO2 numbers from NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory). Water vapour content of the atmosphere varies considerably because the capacity of the atmosphere for holding water vapour is temperature-limited. The average over the whole atmosphere is 0.4% (4,000 ppmv), but over 99% of this is in the lower atmosphere (troposphere).

Some of the answer to the CO2 vs. H2O issue is that CO2 is a well-mixed gas, meaning its concentration is not temperature-dependent and given time turbulence will mix any addition equally into the atmosphere, so CO2 additions contribute to the greenhouse effect throughout the atmosphere. H2O additions on the other hand are limited both by the fact that the addition can precipitate out rapidly and H2O is limited in the volume of atmosphere it can populate. But that is not the whole picture.

Look at these three pictures, lifted from Principles of Planetary Climate by Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, from which I also derive the following explanation:

The most important thing to observe in these pictures is that the peaks are in different places. This is important because the peaks represent parts of the spectrum in which each of the three greenhouse gases prefer to absorb. We cannot do an accurate calculation of the difference between each gas based on these pictures, because each data point is averaged over 50cm-1 and therefore represents a range (hence graphing five curves for each, representing the minimum, 25th percentile, median, 75th percentile and maximum absorption coefficients for the interval graphed at each point). Nonetheless, it’s clear that at the peak near 600cm-1, CO2 is a much stronger absorber than H2O. Wavenumbers in “cm-1” are common in spectroscopy, and are simply 1/wavelength in cm.

You may be wondering why methane has no peak significantly higher than the other gases if it’s so much stronger a greenhouse gas. The reason lies in the sharp drop in effectiveness of absorbing as all molecules capable of absorbing a photon near a peak in the graph have absorbed a photon, meaning any more such photons can pass straight through. Because of methane’s relatively low concentration, it is still absorbing near a peak. If all else were equal, methane would actually absorb less per increase in concentration than CO2 because its peak is not as close to the peak of outgoing infrared (which is close for a planet of the Earth’s average temperature to the 600cm-1 peak in the  CO2 curve). Notice how the scale on the vertical axis is logarithmic. The approximately straight edges of the decline from the peaks in all the graphs are the reason that increases in greenhouse gas concentrations have a logarithmic relationship to temperature increase.

There’s a lot more to it than that. The graphs I illustrate here are for 10% of the Earth’s atmospheric pressure, because they are the only ones I could find on comparable axes. However, full atmospheric pressure does not change the shape of the curves in a big way. Also, if you remember your high school physics, you may wonder why we have relatively continuous graphs, since quantum physics says a molecule can only occupy specific energy states, implying that the graph should be disjoint data points. When a photon encounters a molecule at the same time as that molecule exchanges potential energy with another molecule, the difference in energy between the photon and an allowed state of the molecule can be made up (or reduced) by an exchange of kinetic energy. This is called collision or pressure broadening.

The overall factors that go into determining the greenhouse effect and in general the overall climate of a planet are very complex; you really need to read a book like Principles of Planetary Climate. But be warned: it’s heavy going if you aren’t comfortable with calculus.

Further Reading

If a text book is too much for you, here are some lecture notes on The Climate System from Columbia University. The syllabus link provides pointers to content.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Should the UK adopt the Australian Voting System?

The UK referendum on a new voting system has generated heated debate. But it’s not as if the idea hasn’t been tried before. Australian has used a preferential system since 1918, and it has generally worked out pretty well.

On 5 May, UK voters will be faced with the referendum question:
'At present, the UK uses the 'first past the post' system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the 'alternative vote' system be used instead?
Naturally a simple question like this masks many complex issues so let’s cut to the chase. The core issue is whether you can vote for someone who’s not likely to win without throwing away your vote. Without that assurance, it’s almost impossible for new parties to arise outside of truly exceptional circumstances. Take the last UK election, where polls leading up to the election were showing an unprecedented vote for the Liberal Democrats. As election day loomed, voters defected two the two major parties. Why? Because they feared that voting for a candidate who had a faint chance of winning would result in someone they really did not want taking out their constituency.

Since the UK is currently facing this issue, I’ll use the UK term for electoral district: constituency. In Australia, we call the same thing an electorate.

I’ve lived in Australia for the best part of 9 years and run as a candidate in two elections, as well as managing two other candidates’ campaigns. I’ve also lived in South Africa and the US, which gives me a bit of international perspective. In Australia, we have a bewildering array of variants on “alternative voting” systems. Here are a few:
  • compulsory preferential (used in federal lower house elections) – you must number every candidate for your vote to count
  • optional preferential (used in some state elections, like Queensland) – you may number 1 or more candidates (if only one, any mark will do)
  • above the line voting (used in the federal senate election) – instead of numbering individual candidates, you select one party ticket, and rely on the party to have negotiated a sensible flow of preferences
  • single winner (the most common model in lower house elections including the federal lower house) – after distributing preferences, you elect exactly one person
  • multi-member constituency (used in smaller states and territories) – each constituency elects several members
We can easily get lost in the details of these variations and indeed that is one of the hazards of a complex counting system: party machines can manipulate the poor understanding the less politically engaged have of how the system works. However, that hazard is relatively minor compared with blocking the rise of a new, fresh political movement because voters go for one of the bigger parties for fear of “wasting” their vote.

Let’s consider an example where four completely fictitious parties, Reds, Blues, Greens and Yellows, are contesting a seat. Polling shows that either the Reds or Blues will win in a first past the post system, with the Greens an outside chance, and the Yellows very little chance. 90% of supporters of the Greens vote Yellows, absent a Greens candidate, and vice-versa. The Reds and Blues supporters dislike each other’s policies so much, they would split their votes between Greens and Yellows if their own candidates dropped out. If everyone voted according to their first preference, the vote would be (in this fictitious example):
  • Reds – 28%
  • Blues – 27%
  • Greens – 25%
  • Yellows – 20%
In a first past the post system, as you have today in the UK and in the US House of Representatives, the Reds would win with less than a third of the vote. The Blues supporters would be very unhappy, as would a large fraction of Greens and Yellows supporters. In a real election, with this sort of expectation, potential Greens and Yellows voters would split their support over Reds and Blues, hoping their least worst choice would win, making it that much harder for their actual preferred party to win.

Now, let’s consider a vote on the basis of an Australian-style transferable preferential voting system. To keep it simple, we will assume compulsory preferential, so every ballot has to have every candidate numbered. With the above results, the Yellows would drop out after the first count because their vote is the lowest. 90% of the Yellows vote goes to the Greens, and the rest is split evenly between the other two parties:

  • Reds – 28%+1%=29%
  • Blues – 27%+1%=28%
  • Greens – 25%+18%=43%
  • Yellows – 20%-20% = 0 (dropped out)
At this point no one has passed 50%, so the lowest drops out, this time the Blues. Any second preferences of Blues voters to Yellows are ignored since they are out of the race, and in that case, the third preference gets counted instead. Thus all the Blues votes flow to the Greens (remember they hate the Reds’ policies and put them last), so the counts now become:

  • Reds – 29%
  • Blues – 28%-28%=0 (dropped out)
  • Greens – 43%+28%=71%
To keep things simple, I didn't take into account that Yellows voters who put Blues ahead of Reds could have either put Reds of Greens next. Not only is this a very different outcome to the first past the post election, but voters are much more comfortable with giving the smaller parties a look because they know their first choice vote is not wasted if that party is too small to win. While the Greens were not the party with the biggest support on the first count (the “primary vote” in Australian terminology), they were the party that was disliked the least. Had the Reds candidate won, not only the Blues supporters but also a substantial fraction of the Yellows and Greens supporters would have been unhappy.

The major downside of the system in practice is that parties can manipulate public perceptions about the system to sow confusion. In Australia, except in a few jurisdictions where the practice is banned, parties hand out “how to vote” instructions outside polling booths. These instructions are no more than a suggestion, but many voters in my experience think that you have to follow the instructions once you’ve chosen which party to support. Consequently, there is a lot of horse-trading before elections between parties on how to order each other on their how to votes, in exchange for favours. This is however an easy problem to solve: better regulation of the  type of information that may be handed out on polling day can eliminate confusion, as can a more pro-active advertising program by the election agency.

Australia very seldom has hung parliaments; we are in an unusual situation currently with both the federal lower house and the Tasmanian state parliament with minority governments. This has happened because the major parties are uninspiring, rather than because of the electoral system. We have on the other hand a vigorous history of voting in independents and small parties, who have, in the words of the late great founder leader of the Australian Democrats Don Chipp, kept the bastards honest. Well, to a degree. There’s just so much you can do with the raw material.

As UK voters ponder which way to vote on the referendum, remember this. You can get exactly the same outcome as in the current system if you don’t like any of the smaller parties or independents running. Just number Labour and Tories ahead of them, and, if this is the general sentiment, they won’t stand a chance of winning. On the other hand, if you are really fed up with the major parties, you open up a new alternative of giving someone else a chance – without wasting your vote if they don’t make it.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Sad Truth About Australia

When I moved to Australia from South Africa in 2002, I too had been conned by the Australian marketing machine. Of course there's the genuine stuff: the Anzac legend, Gallipoli, exploits in the world wars, and so on. But there’s also the latter-day myth: the bronzed Aussie crocodile wrestler, the nation that can take on any sporting code you can imagine and many you can’t and win, the nation that punches above its weight in wars. It’s that later bit that turns out just to be so much marketing spin.

The harsh reality is that the modern Australia is a nation of crybaby wieners.

Let’s take a couple of examples.

Australia is pretty low on the list of refugee destinations. Countries that really do it tough host millions of refugees (some of the worst as a consequence of bungled wars Australia took part in: Iraq, Afghanistan), and tens of thousands of boat people arrive on the Mediterranean shores of Europe every year. A few thousand people arrive by leaky boat at most in a bad year, and politicians of all stripes are falling over themselves to score points by thinking up new ways of being cruel to people who’ve lost everything. Never mind that seeking asylum is not illegal and Australia is a signatory to a convention that makes it explicitly illegal to punish asylum seekers.

The biggest wiener of all is leader of the federal parliamentary opposition, Tony Abbot, who portrays himself as tough, but he is constantly whining. Tony, here's a hint. Looking buff in a speedo doesn't make you tough. Taking on hard issues fearlessly does.

That takes me to another of Abbott’s can’t do issues, climate change.

Aussie politicians are constantly pushing the line that no problem is too easy, that we can’t rush out and be the first, that we can only punch below our weight. What was that again? Weren’t we supposed to punch above our weight? And in any case, this is all bolstered by a campaign of cowardly lies. The claim that Australia would be a world leader in carbon taxes for example is at least 20 years out of date, and about 15 countries have already put such a tax in place or have plans to do so by the end of 2011.

If it was only Tony Abbott, it wouldn’t be a problem, but the rest of his “Liberal” Party is just about as bad, except a small minority who are largely ignored by the media. And the ruling Labor Party is even more terrified of these issues: they bend to the wind whenever it emanates from Abbott’s rear end.

And far from the physicality portrayed in the movies and on TV, Australia a few years back reportedly overtook the US as the most obese country in the world (to be fair, WHO stats show that neither country is really the fattest in the world, but the numbers are scary nonetheless ... a newspaper got the facts wrong: who would have guessed?).

So there you have it. Australia today is not a nation of all-conquering warlike athletic crocodile hunters. It’s a nation of obese slugs who use their cars to move from the food court to the adjacent supermarket, that punches below its weight and is terrified of taking on hard issues.

I’m moving back to South Africa where the problems are tough but so are the people.

A bit strong?

I wrote this on the back of several days of back to back whining on talkback radio about asylum seekers, and letters in The Australian invoking the Anzac legend as a reason to be cruel to people who are desperate because they’ve fled danger only to be treated worse than criminals (who are entitled to an expeditious trial, not indefinite detention). The Australia of the Anzac legend, the real one, not the version of the whiners, is still there. I saw it in the Brisbane floods when so many people pitched in to help without prompting. There are genuine politicians here who have principles. It’s the constructed national psyche of the Hanson-Howard era that I find objectionable. There are plenty of real people who don’t share that view of Australianness. I just wish the mass media would give them the air time they give the whiners.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Moving back to South Africa

I take up a position as associate professor of Computer Science at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa on 1 April; I’m putting this article up in advance because stories with a 1 April dateline have a certain connotation.

This one’s for real.

After several years at the School of IT and Electrical Engineering at the University of Queensland, St Lucia and slightly fewer years at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the same campus, why am I heading back to South Africa?

Several reasons.
  • a place I can contribute more – while it’s great being in a large well funded institution for many reasons, it’s a lot harder to feel you are making a difference. And Australia’s economy isn’t going to grow a whole lot on the back of what I can do; South Africa on the other hand has many opportunities that I and my graduates can open up with the right skills
  • small institution bureaucracy – or lack thereof: a university with 6,000 students has to be a lot less unwieldy to navigate on a day to day basis
  • a place where Computer Science has respect – in more than one university where I’ve done time, I’ve been left with a feeling that computer science is seen as a second-class subject, without the venerable history of physics. The fact that it has led the fastest advance of any era of human technological history apparently doesn’t mean much. Rhodes computer science is a relatively big department in a small university, and its professors have been deans and deputy vice-chancellors.
And finally:
  • going home – Rhodes is in a part of the country that I haven’t lived in but despite the many attractions of the land of Oz, it isn’t really home
I will still be in Australia for a while because I need to take care of a few details like selling a house. I will miss the possums that sleep on my top balcony, the great open spaces, the Great Barrier Reef, walks in the mountains and the appealingly weird wildlife. I won’t miss the dishonest media and the short-term self-serving politics. Not that South Africa is that brilliant on the latter score.

A Greens Party in South Africa, perhaps as a side project?

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Campbell Newman Running without a Seat

When The Australian described Campbell Newman resigning his mayoral position to lead the LNP’s parliamentary team from outside parliament as “Campbell Newman running without a seat” I waited for the professional cartoonists to take up the idea. They didn’t so here’s my attempt.

Strange things happen in Queensland politics but none stranger than this.

Campbell Newman needs a substantially bigger swing to take Ashgrove from Labor than his party needs to take the state. That means it is conceivable that he could fail to win a seat with the LNP winning. The LNP needs to clarify what this scenario means. Will Jeff Seeney become the state premier by default, as the “interim” leader? Will the party room hold an election for a new leader right after winning? Or will Campbell Newman continue to call the shots from outside parliament?

Only in Queensland.

And these clowns expect us to vote for them.

If only they would get their act together. Labor deserves to lose, but not to this bunch. The best option is a hung parliament with the Greens in the balance of power. That seems to be working reasonably well in Tasmania and in the federal parliament.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

How to make Meringues

Making crispy meringues is not too hard. I’ve reported this before but it’s worth repeating in an article of its own.

You need to observe a few basics:
  • eggs do not beat well from cold; bring them to room temperature
  • separate the egg whites you will be using cleanly; any yolk is no good
  • do not over-whisk at first
  • use a copper mixing bowl, otherwise you may need to add extra ingredients to get the best effect
Here’s how to make enough meringues to fit a baking tray:
  • 3 eggs
  • 125g finely granulated sugar or caster sugar
Whip the egg whites until they are foamy, then gradually add the sugar while continuing to whip. You want to aim for a mixture that holds its own shape:

Note I use a balloon whisk; this is saves me spending time in a gym. Use a reasonably large one. Once you have the mix stiff enough, shape it into meringues on a nonstick baking sheet:
I shape mine with a spoon as you can see from the shape variants.

Bake in a 90°C oven (190°F for the troglodytes) for 2-3 hours, depending how crunchy you like them. For a drier effect leave them in the oven overnight, to dry out further as the oven cools.

Monday, 14 March 2011

The Mean not so Clean Domain Naming Business

A while back for a specific campaign, I had a self-hosted WordPress blog. I decided that for the future, it would be simpler to maintain on Blogger. The problem is I bought the domain name from, who do not have any obvious way to detach the domain name from them and for absolute simplest future maintenance, I wanted to buy the domain via Blogger.

After repeated emails and online service requests, with gormless responses that always started with
Dear valued customer,

Your email has been received by the Domain Services Team. One of our domain services representatives will review and respond to your request.

I gave up at the point where they said they would park the domain name for 90 days, then charge me a penalty if I wanted it back. This seemed to me rather the contrary to being a “dear valued customer” but I didn’t think it would matter too much between campaigns if the domain registration lapsed for a few months. A little more than 3 months later, I tried to buy the domain name for the blogger site, and found had sold it to a Japanese domain parking company.


A low-budget non-profit campaign is not the thing to be wringing the last dollar out of (hint: there was  reason I used a “.org” domain name). They can keep their domain name. And their service.

The warning for next time? If you buy a domain name, make sure it’s yours to keep and you can easily transfer it away from whoever registered it on your behalf.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

A New Modernity

Japan has done it. South Korea has done it. China may yet do it. A society with a long cultural tradition that has become stuck in old ways or that has become corrupted and lost its internal drive can only escape by defining its own modernity. Yes, there are major flaws in each of those I've cited: Japan went the extremely bad path of adventurous militarism in the first half the the twentieth century, and even today has an excessively strong work ethic to the detriment of quality of life. China is still far from a modern society in truly embracing the universal values of freedom of speech, freedom of association and accountable government.

In much of Africa, defining modernity remains elusive because much of Africa is still caught up in a victim psychosis, something South African activist Steve Biko identified in the 1970s as a critical problem. In his Black Consciousness movement, a critical element of their politics was building self esteem, including excluding White liberals from decision-making. The theory was not racially based, but rather aimed to liberate disadvantaged Black South Africans from the thinking that their plight was out of their control.

Today in the Middle East and North Africa, a transformation is under way that looks like defining a new modernity for the region. As I was formulating the thoughts that went into this article, I was pleased to encounter this TED talk by Wadah Khanfar, director-general of Al Jazeera. Much of what he says exactly echoes my thoughts on the subject.

What has made all this possible? Very much as in the 1976 Soweto uprising, young people who have not had the experience of their elders of being cowed by a police state have taken to the streets to demand their freedom. Sadly, in 1976, the Biko spirit was stilled before his organization had grown to critical mass. Biko himself was murdered by the apartheid regime in 1977, and many of his supporters gravitated to the ANC, as the only major organization in exile with any capacity to fight back – limited though that was. In the process, many of his core ideas were lost, not least the need to break free from the past. Today, much of the problem South Africa has in growing as a society arises from failures to transcend the apartheid past. Many Black people justifiably still feel they are victims but that feeling is not an empowering feeling, rather it is one that easily gives way to despair and disillusionment when facing intractable problems.

So where next for the Arab revolution? A key thing that is different this time around is that a tool for mass mobilisation exists that didn't exist in apartheid South Africa: social networks. The nearest analog I can think of for what is happening now is the early stages of the rejection of Robert Mugabe, when text messages were used to spread the word that he wasn't as popular as most people thought. The upshot of this was that he lost a referendum on a new constitution in February 2000, which would have entitled him to redistribute land without compensation. This did not amount to regime change, and gave Mugabe the space to organize against opposition before the next election, which he nonetheless only won by extensive fraud.

Where the Arab revolution differs is that it has effected regime change in sufficient countries to make a difference, and the tools of mass mobilisation will not be closed down easily in those countries. Already in Egypt, the prime minister appointed after the military takeover has been forced to step down. Libya is possibly the most difficult case, with plenty of evidence that the Gaddafi regime will kill as many people as it takes to cling to power.

The exact form the Arab modernity will take is yet to be determined. I would like to bet it will not include slavish copying of external cultures, nor will it include a regressive interpretation of Islam. Universal values are at the core of the change that is now sweeping the Arab world, and those universal values are being interpreted by ordinary people – not being imposed from outside. That is important, because democracy is not a piece of paper. No matter how good a constitution you have if the population as a whole is unwilling to or afraid of demanding their rights, it is only a piece of paper.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Libya and the Media = Fail

Gaddafi on Al Jazeera, a reality check we aren’t getting from any other media here in Australia:

I sent off a letter to The Australian yesterday. it didn’t appear long with the others on Libya today:
I’ve been watching the increasingly horrifying situation in Linya unfold over the last few days via twitter, the Al Jazeera web site and whatever informal sources I could find. The reporting of this revolution has been appalling in the mainstream media, including your own report, “Muammar Gaddafi’s rule teeters on brink” (22/2), which reports it as a side story in the context of the other Middle East uprisings. This one is of a whole different character. A crazy government has declared war on its own people who, largely unarmed, are taking on tanks, heavy weapons, fighter aircraft, bombs and mercenary snipers. The real story of Libya is the incredible bravery of the Libyan people, acting with almost no outside support against a regime that values its own survival over all else. The other big story about Libya is how world leaders have stood by making mealy-mouthed statements about the need for peaceful dialogue while a bloodthirsty megalomaniac is letting all hell loose. As I write, at least 9 Libyan ambassadors have defected, indicating how isolated Gadaffi is from his own people. While much of the information out of Libya is unverified, you could report it as such. All you have to do is watch twitter and Al Jazeera, and summarise the general picture. Largely ignoring what is happening should not be an option.

As a computer science academic I am proud of the way technology my field developed has made it possible for the Libyan story to be heard, and for the protesters to organise against overwhelming force. Are you proud of the way you have allowed this story to unfold while largely ignoring the detail?

I’m not holding my breath for the follow-up I sent today to appear:
Muammar Gaddafi has the remarkable distinction of uniting old-time lefties and short-sighted western powers into mealy-mouthed platitudes about a situation that demands instant action. This revolution is all the more remarkable for the way an initially unarmed civilian population has fought back against extreme violence. But what is really remarkable is how the story is getting out despite the abject inattention of mainstream media. How many of your readers, I wonder, know what the February 17 movement is? How many know that people in Libya have resourcefully found ways of getting their story out, including gruesome pictures of bodies blown apart by artillery, amateur video footage and eyewitness reports, despite the best efforts of a police state to lock everything down tight?

Rupert Murdoch is attempting to storm into the Internet age by selling an iPad newspaper. How pathetic. This is one of the biggest stories of our time and you are reporting it as if nothing is happening unless you can get a reporter there.
 Here are some places where you can find out what’s really happening:
Many people are still arguing this on the old cold war divides. The instant Gaddafi ordered soldiers (and worse, foreign mercenaries) to start shooting at his people with heavy-calibre weapons, he put himself beyond the norms of reactions to crises. That some of what has happened is not being widely reported in the media doesn't reduce the horror of it. Al Jazeera is doing a good job of reporting with limited sources, and you can find out a lot of you know where to look on twitter (try #feb17 and #Libya as well as the links above).

In short people in Libya and the rest of the Arab world are not in revolt over imperialism, capitalism Islamism or any other ideology. They are just sick of others telling them what they should think and how to live their lives. Many of them are so sure of their cause that they are taking on tanks and artillery with their bare hands. And -- remarkable, winning. no thanks to mad mullahs, no thanks to the west, no thanks to leftist anti-imperialists.

There is a big lesson in this and we should stop prattling on with the old rhetoric and platitudes, and absorb the lessons.

For those who rely on the mainstream media, this is what is really happening:

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Easter Island Earth

Examine this picture closely. It is the scariest picture you will see in a long time. It is from the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2010. The IEA is the energy policy research agency of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which represents the interests of the major developed market economies. Apparently.

So what’s so scary about this picture? The growing light blue wedge representing “Crude oil: fields yet to be found” is real cause for concern. Eliminate that growing wedge, and we do not have much more than five years before overall supply starts to decline.

The IEA argues that this is not a problem because any shortfall in supply will crank up prices, making it feasible to spend more on extraction – in effect squeezing more out of depleted fields. The problem with this prediction is that over the last three years while oil prices have hit new records and subsequently stayed well above the long-term historical inflation-corrected average of about US$30 per barrel, the IEA has downgraded their estimates of future supply with every annual Outlook. Another argument is that “unconventional” oil like tar sands will fill the gap but there again, the IEA’s forward estimates do not cover the shortfall.

How big a deal is that growing blue wedge? Oil fields have historically taken over 30 years to move from discovery to production and while this can theoretically be sped up significantly, the light grey wedge in the graph representing known oil fields that are not yet in production represents a massive investment in opening up new capacity. Even if the IEA’s phantom “yet to be discovered” oil fields actually exist explaining exactly how these will be brought on line almost instantaneously over a period of such massive activity in bringing known new oil fields on-line requires an extremely active imagination.

The factor missing so far from the picture is growth in demand, which has stalled over the last two years because of a worldwide economic crisis. Add in a return to growth and we will very soon hit the point were supply cannot keep up with demand. The market for oil largely exhibits inelastic demand – price changes have a limited effect on demand, because many uses either have no alternative, or require a change to a new technology to switch to an alternative. We can cut luxuries like overseas holidays and an unnecessary drive on the weekend, but farmers can’t switch to harvesting by hand on a large farm, nor can those who live in areas without public transport leave the car at home and take the bus or train to work.

In the long run, if prices remain high, the market will start to favour alternatives like public transport and renewable energy. The big risk with waiting for that market signal is worldwide economic collapse if the supply crisis happens rapidly, for the same reason that the demand is inelastic: we cannot switch instantly to alternatives that do not exist, even if the price signal favours them. Did the rapid rise of the oil price to $147 in July 2008 instantly convert every petrol engined car to electric, with all the problems of batteries solved? Clearly not, but that rapid price spike – terminated by a global financial crisis – is an indicator of what to expect.

How could we have allowed such a threat to develop? Did we have any basis to predict such a problem? Did we learn anything from 2008?

Incredibly, we have known that we would run into exactly this scenario since Shell Oil geophysicist M. King Hubbert in 1956 predicted the peak in USA and worldwide oil output as occurring respectively in 1970 and 2000. Historical records of US oil production show that his prediction for the USA was astonishingly accurate; that should have set off alarm bells in corridors of power around the world. Instead, a growing number of industry insiders have split with the official industry and government line, creating a worldwide network of peak oil researchers, and “official” organisations like the IEA have vigorously denied there’s a problem.

Why would anyone deny such a problem? The motive of the industry is clear, and is the same as their reason for undermining the political consensus on climate change. The rational response – call it Plan A – to both peak oil and climate change is a gradual transition over decades from fossil fuels. Such a slow transition would result in a gradual diminution of fossil fuels sales and profits. On the other hand an abrupt transition arising from depletion of fossil fuels results in a massive profits windfall for the industry, when shortage of supply runs into inelastic demand. As the industry well knows, a massive price increase can stimulate development of alternatives, as happened in the 1970s, but those alternatives take time to develop, and the industry has worked hard at avoiding massive price rises for this reason. As former Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Yamani put it in 1973: “The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” The fact that the industry has not tried to pull prices back from current high levels by increasing supply is a further warning sign that we are fast approaching a major crisis of supply.

What is not clear is why a research arm of the OECD should deny the problem. They are supposed to be working for governments who ultimately represent us. One claim I have heard is that governments fear spiking panic in the markets; Plan A, begun a decade or two back, would not be a recipe for panic. The Plan B we are rapidly heading for, a war-like economy of rationing and massive government interventions to prevent chaos – certainly does have the potential to cause panic. The only explanations I can see for the failure of governments to act are corruption by fossil fuel interests, and a fear of moving out of the political comfort zone of addressing the electoral cycle, and nothing longer-term than that.

Haven’t we heard this sort of prediction of doom before, going back to Malthus’s rather obvious observation in 1798 that exponential growth in demand has to hit limits of finite supply? The biggest factor in putting off a Malthusian day of reckoning is the mechanisation of agriculture, which relies heavily on oil. Take oil out of the picture, and I am awaiting a rational explanation as to how we could feed a human population of nearly 7-billion, set to peak at over 9-billion in 2050.

On a slightly different subject, the first European explorers to arrive at Easter Island were astonished to find large stone statues and no trace of a civilisation that could have made them and no trace of the large trees necessary to build infrastructure to create and move such statues. One theory of what happened is that the islanders harvested all their trees, leaving them incapable of not only building more statues, but building ocean-going craft that would have allowed them to escape their fate, once their unsustainable consumption caused their food supply to collapse. Consequently population of the island plummeted, amid a decline into cannibalism.

What relevance does Easter Island have to peak oil? Building renewable energy infrastructure takes energy. Until such time as renewables have reached critical mass, we will need fossil fuels to build that new technology. Wait too long, and we will not have the energy reserves to accomplish this task. The IEA’s 2010 projection suggests we do not have much time.

Will peak oil save us from climate change? The growing wedge of “unconventional” oil is a big worry: converting fuels like tar sands into oil-equivalent fuels is highly energy-intensive and if this sector has to grow faster than the IEA projects, we will hasten rather than slow the onset of serious climactic effects. There is also plenty of coal which, again, can be converted to liquid fuels at a high cost in added emissions. Leaving conversion to renewable energies so late increases the pressures to maximise use of these extremely dirty forms of energy.

To those climate change deniers who take comfort in the fact that they will only be proved wrong after their lifetimes and who hate their grandchildren: this one will happen soon. A planet-wide Easter Island collapse will not be a great time to be alive, and we are fast running out of time to avert just such a catastrophe. A Plan B world will include not only the risk of massive agricultural and industrial collapse but the marginalization into suburban slums of everyone who cannot afford to live near public transport or urban centres.

We have very little time left to act; the closer we can get to pulling back from a Plan B scenario to a Plan A scenario the better.

This article has also appeared at Online Opinion; there are comments there that may also be of interest.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Day it Rained Forever

I'm working on a new novel with the working title, The Day it Rained Forever. Here in Queensland, it is starting to feel a bit like that.

While the floods here are not causing the devastation the recent Pakistan floods caused, because the population is lower and we have good early warning systems, you nonetheless have to start wondering why one in hundred year events are happening so often.

While it’s wrong to label one event as evidence of climate change because climate is a long-term average of weather, one of the predictions of climate theory is that as the energy in the system increases (what is happening now), the hydrological cycle intensifies. That means bigger swings between drought and deluge, and more intense droughts and floods.

If you look at the history of flooding where I live in Brisbane, it looks as if things have actually improved since the big flood of 1893:
However, we need to take into account the completion of the Wivenhoe Dam in 1984, which has had a significant effect in mitigating flooding. We should have had a major flood in 1999, as you can see from the fact that Wivenhoe peaked at about 135%; the sudden drop-off arises from the excess being let out. The way a flood mitigation dam works is 100% is the normal water storage capacity and anything over 100% is the excess that would have gone into a flood. As soon as the possibility of flooding reduces, this excess has to be released. In a tidal river like the Brisbane, water can be released to coincide with low tide. Obviously there is a limit to this: if the dam approaches its true 100% (possibly 200%), there is no option but to release water even if the timing is not ideal.
Here is the overall history of the dam as far back as the official SEQ Water web site goes:
Note the peak in 1999, when the dam first performed its flood mitigation duties. The current peak doesn’t look too dramatic but let’s take a closer look:
Observe the spikes to the right of the curve, all over the 100% line. These are all occasions when the sluices were opened. Let’s see exactly how many spikes there have been to date:
Four so far, and no end to the rains in sight. Contrast that with only one occasion in the past when the dam sluices had to be opened since it was constructed. The latest peak is nearly 150%, much higher than the 1999 peak of 135%, illustrating that you need to look at the numbers rather than eyeball a graph.

Going back to 1893, the pattern then was a series of floods, with one big one that dominated the rest. We won’t see that pattern again in Brisbane because of the role of Wivenhoe, but without the dam, the current flood would be at least as bad as that of 1974, possibly at the 1893 level. Clearly, these “once in a century” events are happening more often than that.

None of this of course is evidence of climate change. It is however a warning. The level of climate change we have seen so far has added about 0.8°C to the pre-industrial global average. James Hansen, in Storms of My Grandchildren, predicts things become hairy with more than another 1°C of warming. He bases this number mainly on the threat of rapid disintegration of ice sheets. However, we should not expect that level of warming to occur without further intensification of the hydrological cycle. Flooding on this scale should happen more often. Exactly how much more often, and how much the variation between wet and dry will intensify, are open questions. Do we do the experiment? People with water above their roofs or even lapping at their floorboards may well say no. I certainly do.

Update: 10:30 am, 11 January 2011

I’ve just heard on ABC local radio, Wivenhoe is at 173% of capacity, despite all the major releases. Further releases that won’t cause flooding are no longer an option.

Update: 8:40 am, 16 January 2011

Since my last update, Wivenhoe was heading to 200%. The dam spills over the top of the wall at 225%, and is not designed to withstand that kind of spillage, so the gates had to be opened to the extent of flooding significant parts of the city. The peak level was 191% on the night of Tuesday 11 January 2011 (though this does not show up on the official dam web site because of the time of day at which the measurement is taken).

Now the flood waters have receded, the flood level was a bit below that of 1974, despite twice the rainfall in Wivenhoe’s catchment, so the dam has had some useful effect. I don’t know how the rainfall over the city itself differed, but that carried on for a long time if not very intensively. At very least that would have contributed to the flood by saturating the ground.

My own home was above the flood level, but homes only a few blocks away were inundated, despite being quite far from the river. Despite being several metres above flood level, the ground was so saturated that a little water seeped up through cracks in my garage floor (the garage is cut into the ground). This is a trivial problem compared with what others have endured, but illustrates how saturated the ground was when the Wivenhoe gates were opened fully.

To help

  • If you would like to contribute financially to helping out with flood victims, I recommend doing so via the state government web site.
  • If you are in Brisbane and want to help, the best thing to do is to walk to your nearest flood site (with waterproof boots, strong gloves and any equipment you can carry).
  • The city council is bussing volunteers around, but their strategy of mustering volunteers at sites far from the rail network means you may be stuck in traffic for a long time getting in, going to your work site, and getting home again. If you aren’t in a location where you can help, look into the council volunteer scheme.
  • Volunteering Qld is also helping out but are currently overwhelmed with offers, so feel free to register with them to help out in the longer term but don’t expect to be used immediately.