Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Last Hero

One of the great myths of politics is the value of heroic leaders.

Everyone does it. Police states build up the Great Leader (various variants on fascism and the like each had their own label: Der Füher, El Caudillo, Il Duce). Liberation movements have their icons – Che Guevara and the like, larger than life figures who take on impossible odds.

Now one of the greatest of them is gone – our own Nelson Mandela, Madiba (his clan name), Tata (father – a common Xhosa name for any older male).

Here in South Africa, many wonder how, despite such a great leader to take us into democracy, so much has gone wrong.

A true hero like Mandela was needed to take South Africa out of racial confrontation. A lesser person might have done it, but not with the same finesse and panache. Things like donning a Springbok rugby jersey, when many black South Africans saw rugby as the sport of the enemy, and the Springbok emblem as the logo of exclusion, or treating his former jailers with polite civility do not come naturally to someone who feels entitled to feel a victim.

Mandela’s great achievements mask the fact that in ordinary politics, ordinary people should be able to perform acceptably. The fact that things are breaking in his absence does not mean we need to wait for another hero to arise. In truth, a Mandela is not something we can expect to see again in many lifetimes. He was able strengthen when faced with extreme odds – and very few people can do that.

If our system today is not working, we need to look to the system, not to the character of the leaders. A working system will limit corruption and incompetence. Our system today does not. So we need to think why.

There are two key problems we need to face up to:

  • civic responsibility – our people need to understand that the government is not everything. Ordinary citizens can do a lot without involving government, and can work collectively to improve government
  • political accountability – our electoral system puts too much power in the hands of the party machine, and does not create a clear line of accountability between electoral office and the voter. A pure proportional representation system is good for two reasons: it accurately reflects the relative strengths of the parties, and it makes it easier for small parties to get a foothold. But the fact that the party machine decides where candidates go on the party list creates a big temptation to create a system of patronage within a ruling party – buying influence to raise your position on the party list is a lot easier than corrupting the local party machine to become a local candidate, and further fooling the voters into supporting you once you are revealed to be corrupt
Let’s look at each of these issues in more detail.

Civic Responsibility

Many areas where delivery is failing could be improved by local action. For example, where a school is inadequately maintained, community volunteers with relevant skills could pitch in. In the case of corruption or incompetence, if a particular government service isn’t working as it should, if everyone complained, it would become easier to just do the job than to deal with all the complaints.

Civic responsibility is failing because the majority of our population were strongly discouraged from complaining. During the apartheid years, anyone who complained was treated as a troublemaker, and subject to extreme punishment. In rural areas, banishment was a cruel weapon, involving forced relocation to a distant part of the country with minimal resources. Others were detained without trial for extended periods, killed in cruel ways, or simply disappeared. While leaders continued to fight, and many went into exile, the ordinary person had the culture of resistance beaten out of them.

Add to that one more thing: the civil service the post-apartheid South Africa inherited was not schooled in democratic practice, and a wholesale reskilling exercise didn’t happen. In some parts of the country, unreconstructed homeland administrations were absorbed into provincial governments. Where I live, the Eastern Cape, the provincial government is an untidy mix of the old Cape Province administration and the Ciskei and Transkei, both tin-pot dictatorships, and cadre deployments.

Cadre deployment is one of the ANC’s biggest mistakes – placing its people into public service ahead of competence. Naturally, their unreconstructed police state companions were only too happy to support this new influx that took off pressure from them to actually do useful work.

Fixing the civil service is obviously a worthy project – but waiting for that would require extreme patience. We can do a lot now, and we should not be patient, because those suffering the most are those who have the greatest need.

Political Accountability

The problem with a first-past-the-post system as in the old South Africa, the US and the UK is that it can produce very unfair results. The National Party did not win a majority (of the minority who could vote) for about 20 years after taking power in 1948. It is also very difficult for new parties to break through in that kind of system, because “splitting the vote” becomes an issue. For example, in the US, in the election that Al Gore lost to George W. Bush, some blame the Green candidate, Ralph Nader, whose votes might otherwise have gone to Gore, particularly in Florida where the result was tight. Whether that is true or not, that kind of logic tends to lock a political system into limited choices. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats battle to win for similar reasons.

But in South Africa’s system, though it’s fair, there’s no direct accountability. If a member of parliament is revealed to be corrupt but their party does nothing, you have no direct connection to that member. If you vote against their party, someone else lower on the party list may lose their seat. That is a very indirect path for voters to exercise accountability.

I have suggested previously an option for another way of voting;  there are others. The key requirement is that we maintain as much of the fairness of the current system as possible, as well as the possibility of small parties breaking through, while adding in the missing accountability link to the voter.

Whatever method we choose, it’s about time we started talking about it.

Why now?

With Mandela gone, many people will be more open to change. I am sure he would be open to these ideas too – the existing order has been hiding in his shadow to justify carrying on as before, long after he ceased to have influence.

The ideals he lived for are being lost, and will not return if we wait for another hero. We need to think now about building a system that will work even if politicians and civil servants are not heros, and where the average person does not need to be a hero just to live from day to day – a system that works for a government of ordinary people, for ordinary people.

And finally … 

Hamba kahle, tata. We miss you.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Are computers throw-away appliances?

With each new design, Apple moves closer to a view that computers should not be repaired or upgraded. Take the latest-generation MacBook Pro Retina: RAM is soldered to the logic board, and removing the battery is even harder than the last non-Retina generation, which required a special screwdriver. While this is no worse (mostly) than the last Retina model, Apple now has no high-end notebook, other than the 13" that allows memory upgrades and relatively easy access to internal parts.

Some argue this is no problem – you should think of a computer as an appliance, and letting an untrained person (you) fiddle with the insides is asking for trouble. Do you insist on fixing your own broken fridge or car, they ask?

Apple has been claiming since the original Mac in 1984 that computers are appliances with no user-serviceable parts inside. The original Mac was held together with then-uncommon torx screws, and popping the case was a non-obvious operation. And the RAM was soldered onto the logic board. Fixing the RAM at 128KB, then later at 512KB, turned out to be rather unpopular, because RAM prices dropped rapidly and a computer short on RAM is very limiting – no less so today, when you have VM, and a shortage of RAM means swapping to disk. I had a 512K Mac that I later upgraded to 1MB with significant complications to make the upgrade work.

For a computer a few years old, the cheapest and most effective upgrade is an increase in RAM. Why? Because CPU speed does not improve nearly as fast as RAM prices drop, and an old model with enough RAM for current workloads can still run pretty well. And also, RAM speed does not improve fast, so the relative speed gain of a faster CPU is not as great as you would expect just looking at clock speed or count of cores – RAM is the biggest speed bottleneck for a bigger range of speed updates than most expect.

For the last 30 years, then, a RAM upgrade has been a great way of extending the life of a 3–4 year-old computer by another few years. And there is no change in industry trends that suggests this will be overturned any time soon. By taking away this option, Apple is losing one of the Mac’s great selling points – you can keep running a Mac several years longer than a typical Windows machine because they last longer, and Apple has less of a problem supporting legacy hardware than competition whose OS must run on anything anyone can screw together.

So what about the argument that you shouldn’t want to crack open the case for fear of breaking something? How does this compare with things like cars?

It’s certainly true that 30 years ago there was a lot more reason to fix your own car. Cars today are more reliable, have much longer service intervals, and rely increasingly on computer-controlled electronics that you can’t set without a bit of research. But that doesn’t mean they should be inherently harder to repair when repairs are needed. Just because you have long-life spark plugs that may only need to be replaced a few times in the life of a car doesn’t mean they should be welded into the cylinder head, or that the plug for connecting computerised diagnostics has to be glued closed so you can only open it at risk of breaking something.

If these examples seem ridiculous, it’s because I could only think up ridiculous examples to compare with some of Apple’s recent designs – glued-in batteries, soldered-in RAM, components that are really hard to take apart without breaking something. These design choices imply you should toss your computer when something breaks, or give up on it when you discover it needs an upgrade.

Even if you buy the argument that only trained technicians should open your Mac, why design it so it’s almost impossible to repair without damaging something?

Case in point: I replaced the hard drive in my white 17" iMac. This machine had previously had its screen replaced under warrantee. When I opened it, I found the radiation shielding torn in parts, and 2 of the highly inaccessible screws holding the whole thing together were missing.

Apple today designs computers the way the Italians used to design cars: look great, great to use, terrible to repair. The only real difference is Macs are relatively reliable. Great design does not preclude design for repairability. Apple can do better.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Where next, Microsoft?

Apple is a retail aggregator. They own client details of customers of thousands of retailers including over 500-million active credit card numbers. Google sells highly targeted advertising, and gives away stuff in the cause of crowdsourcing their target database. Amazon sells scalable infrastructure, prototyped by building an unprofitable web bookstore.

Microsoft sells software. and is trying to figure out what Apple got right in 1977, forgetting that’s not actually what made them successful. Buying Nokia doesn’t fix that.

Apple, Google and Amazon have a lot in common – highly scalable infrastructure, a market that relies on massive net outreach, and a rapidly evolving product line. But they are not really in the same business.

Microsoft needs to stop thinking of itself as a desktop software supplier, and find a new niche that works for the post-PC world. Owning Nokia’s handset business may be a step in that direction, but they need to change their thinking radically to get there.

Apple had it easy in a way: their computer business was never going to take off in a way that would make them a market leader, so inventing new niches that attacked the economics of their old market was not a show-stopper. Microsoft, on the other hand, has to worry about such things as what a $10 version of Microsoft Office on the Surface (or Android or iOS) does for the credibility of their desktop pricing. That doesn’t mean Microsoft has no options – but an option that looks like Windows on a phone isn’t a good one.

There’s a huge wide open world of opportunity out there for anyone who can operate at scale and can connect with the mass market. That’s their challenge: to find such a connection.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Black Economic Empowerment: What Went Wrong?

I’m all for black economic empowerment. What’s the alternative? A society where most are miserable and have neither prospects nor hope is not a friendly place to live. The haves live in cages. The have-nots rattle the cages, when they are not too hopeless to do anything. So why has BEE not delivered?

A huge part of the problem is the ANC’s top-down approach, strangely similar to Reagan’s trickle-down economics. Like Reaganomics, top-down BEE doesn’t work. In the US, the already rich became richer. Here, equality ended when we equalized the number of billionaires.

In a stark example of what’s wrong with BEE, I recently read an application for a gambling license for a small Eastern Cape town. The application in effect said, “This town lacks the economic base to sustain entertainment businesses, so we are filling the gap by offering the community drinking and gambling.” If you sit back and think about this, the notion is pretty obnoxious. A town that lacks the base of disposable income to support entertainment would, you’d think, not be able to support the proposed business – unless its clientele spend money on drink and gambling that’s not disposable income. In other words, they go home broke and the family doesn’t eat that week.

That though is not my main point about this proposal. One of the “key persons” listed is a car factory production line employee who is interested in getting into the gambling business.

Why would someone with no relevant experience be a “key person”? Because of a BEE requirement for earning a license. So why is this bad?

A black person who already has a job and therefore is a lot better off than the average in a poor province stands to get rich. Many other black people, should the application and similar ones for other poor towns be granted, stand to move from poor to destitute. How is that black economic empowerment?

But it gets worse. Why has the gambling company nominated someone with no relevant experience? Because their new business partner is going to sit in the background spending his new wealth and not interfere with the white baas. How can he interfere when all he knows is car parts?

Zoom out from this one example to the big picture. The faustian deal the ANC made when taking power nearly twenty years ago was that its favoured people would become instantly wealthy, and the needs of the poor would be parked indefinitely. BEE is the “fix” that hides this sorry fact. BEE that takes the form of deliberate promotion of black incompetents to prevent real transfer of control is directly related to lack of delivery. Both in government appointments and in choice of government contractors, this same game is being played. It suits both sides. The ANC can cement its base by patronage, and the old baasskap players can carry on much as before with a little camouflage.

The sad thing is this is not really in anyone’s interest. While it’s true that some people have become obscenely rich in a relatively short time, that wealth cannot really be enjoyed if you have to live in a cage. The white population, the newly empowered black population and those who have managed to rise above poverty without suckling on the BEE teat are living on borrowed time. Sooner or later, the excluded masses will demand their share. In the meantime, our cages are rattled harder and harder.

So what’s to be done?

The ANC is so steeped in the politics of patronage that it’s hard to see it changing, which is sad given the party’s history. Past the 20th anniversary of ANC rule, I expect an increasing fraction of voters who did not grow up with apartheid to be open to other options. The DA doesn’t have a narrative with mass appeal. The smaller parties show no signs of rapid growth. What of the newer players? Malema’s notion of economic freedom ends when he’s liberated wealth in his direction. Agang still needs to hit its stride. I don’t know what it stands for aside from “ANC bad”. A party that promises to do roughly what the ANC stands for but do it right could be in with a chance. On the other hand, Mamphela Ramphele was a senior executive at the World Bank, and I have not heard her repudiating its disastrous structural adjustment jihad. Agang is holding a policy workshop this weekend, so let’s see how that foes. I’d rather judge on results than history, since the ANC has amply demonstrated that history has little influence on how you behave now.

My fear is that all this will lead to another Arab Spring movement – a mass uprising driven by youth with cell phones, with a clear idea of grievance but no clear sense of what to do about it. What South Africa desperately needs now is a clear lead on what to do post-ANC. And that time is fast approaching.

Monday, 19 August 2013

WikiLeaks: Strange Bedfellows

Julian Assange’s Australian WikiLeaks Party has some strange ideas about how to pursue freedom.

In a recent story published in the US, he extolls the US Right interpretation of libertarianism as the “only hope” and representing non-violence. Reading the whole article is interesting, and worth taking the time to do so, especially if you are an Australian voter.

Where does he get that the hardcore antigovernment right is about nonviolence (including as regards abortion)? They are happy to endorse murder when it suits their agenda. To me libertarianism starts with maximising freedom of choice for the individual. The American right version of libertarianism goes off the rails when it aligns itself with extremist religion (which opposes free choice) and big business (which can undermine the individual as much as or even more than government). Ask Russians concerned about oligarchs if excessive concentration of power in big business is a problem.

Meanwhile, in Australia, parties contesting the Senate election need to rank all candidates so any votes that don’t go to elect them are reassigned according to the order the party specifies. The purpose of this exercise to create a group voting ticket is so voters who don’t want to number every candidate can just tick one box, and the order preset by the party they select is used to fill in the ballot. The WikiLeaks Party has preferenced minor parties with views in line with the US right ahead of the Greens, their ally in anti-war and transparency causes. Even more bizarrely, they have put the Nationals ahead of the Greens in Western Australia, reducing the chances of reelection for Greens senator Scott Ludlum, one of the most consistent campaigners for freedom of information. The Nationals are not libertarians by any stretch of the imagination The WikiLeaks Party claims this happened as result of an “administrative error”.

The Australian Electoral Commission’s web site right now is in meltdown so I can’t check the details, but there is enough reporting of this stuff that it seems unlikely to be wrong.

You can read more about similar strange deals here. If parties were doing this the way you’d expect a voter to, they would number candidates in the order of nearest to their position to furthest. Instead, many take the approach of numbering the candidate closest to them last to try to eliminate their most obvious competition. Just to make things more interesting, the big parties tend to use the opposite tactic, favouring each other over smaller parties who offer a real alternative. This way, the two-party duopoly is maintained. This is nothing new. In the past, the Greens were criticized for dodgy deals, and don’t do that anymore. Everyone else still does, apparently. One more reason to support the Greens.

As a consequence of this weirdness, anyone wanting to express support for WikiLeaks has to either accept that they are undermining the chances of the Greens to be elected, or number all the candidates themselves. With about 100 in NSW, that takes some commitment.

In the interests of transparency, the WikiLeaks Party should publish a full and complete record of how they arrived at their preferences for the Senate vote in New South Wales.

What was it that WikiLeaks stands for?


The WikiLeaks Party has imploded spectacularly, with one of Julian Assange’s oldest associates Daniel Mathews quitting, and providing explicit detail of how the preferences fiasco happened. In summary, “administrative error”, my arse. What is particularly disappointing about this is how Assange appears to see his voters as cattle who can be herded to the slaughter, without concern about how and where they are being led. The very notion that you can negotiate a dodgy preferences deal on the basis that no one cares about that sort of detail is contrary to the core principles of a whistleblower organization. The details do matter, and everyone is not only entitled to know, but ought to check.

Here are some articles from WLP (GVT means group voting ticket, a specification of preference flows if a voter votes only for that party’s ticket rather than number all candidates):
Possibly. But we don’t know what their preference negotiators told the Greens during negotiations, and the inconsistency between the two statements does not add to their credibility.

Much of the Assange story revolves around his personality, which is unfortunate. The ideal of real governmental transparency is a great one. If you really care about this, vote for the Greens because they not only are on the right side of this issue, but are a principled party that doesn’t revolve around personalities.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Australia and Xenophobia

In Australia, whenever a new leaky boat full of desperate asylum seekers shows up, it’s treated with hysteria in the media. If the government of the day doesn’t react with cruelty, it’s considered to be weak on border security. And every time the approach to dealing with asylum seekers wanders further from humanitarian norms, it’s lauded as a solution to he problem.

Well, is it? As former prime minister Malcolm Fraser put it:
no democratic Australia could ever impose penalties or hardships on refugees which could match the terror from which most of them flee
So even if deterrence could work, should Australia attempt that?

And, anyway, is the view that numbers spike when the policy softens and go down when it gets harsher valid?

Correlation isn’t causation. You have to look at the push factors as well, and those definitely are causation. More refugees at source = more arriving at destination. Nothing could be simpler.

Even with the latest increases the numbers are not that high by world standards. If you look at UNHCR stats, 2012 had the highest number of new refugees since 1999. Australian stats for boat arrivals peak in 1999-2000 when numbers at source previously peaked, and they shoot up again over the last year when the number of new refugees shot up.

Some refugee stats here show that Australia does not have a serious problem, and treating a relatively small number of arrivals as a huge crisis for national security is not warranted.

Why is it impossible for any party besides the Greens to be rational on this? Could it be because anything but xenophobic hysteria results in a media beat-up?

Here in South Africa, genuine illegal immigrants (mostly economic migrants from Zimbabwe) amount to 10% of the population, yet all sides of politics condemn xenophobia when it flares up. Australia only leads the world in one respect as far as refugees go: mainstreaming of xenophobia.

Anyway numbers don’t lie so let’s check them. The graph here shows the difference for each year between reported numbers for that year and the year before of refugees (I use the UNHCR’s refugee count, excluding categories like internally displaced persons and Palestinians who are less likely to arrive in a distant country) and boat arrivals in Australia. The UN numbers are for a calendar year, while the Australian reporting period is a financial year (1 July–30 June). This is not a bad thing however as a 6-month delay takes into account the time between a push factor and a boat arrival.

The graph illustrates that upticks in numbers arriving correspond closely to upticks in the number of refugees over the previous year. The green line is the difference between boat arrivals in Australia and the number the previous year, and the blue line is the difference between UNHCR reported numbers of refugees versus the previous year. The lines mostly correspond pretty well, with just the major uptick in refugees in 2006 failing to result in major change in boat arrivals. The 2006 increase may however have arisen from a reporting anomaly (see UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2006, Chapter 2, p  pp 25–26) rather than a major change in real refugee numbers.

Eyeballing data is risky: we should really do the stats. So let’s look at whether the data correlates. The correlation coefficient is statistically significant: r=0.56, and if we do a t-test for significance, the p-value is 0.006. So yes, this is a real correlation that explains the data well. And we can assign a cause to it, so we are not guilty of assigning causality to a coincidence.

So couldn’t the John Howard “Pacific Solution” actually be the cause of the decline in boat arrivals? That started in 2001 when the number of boat people hit a peak. So let’s mark that on the graph. The red arrow points to the 2001 data point where we can see that the push factors were already declining. And the number of boat arrivals also declined. Given that the correlation is also also strong before 2001 (0.60, though we don’t have enough data points for statistical significance, p=0.057), it is unlikely that being tough on asylum seekers actually had a significant chilling effect on boat arrivals. The only data point that lends comfort to xenophobia is the apparent 2006 increase in refugees but as we have seen that is not a real increase (mostly Iraqi refugees of the 2003 war in Syria and Jordan who had not previously been counted).

Anyway I present the data for you to make up your own mind. To me it looks pretty clear that being harsh on asylum seekers is nothing more than bad politics, dragging the political discourse down to the gutter. Mainstream politics, it seems is presented with no alternative but to go this route for fear of vilification by the commercial media. The Greens are the only party of significance that has resisted the politics of fear and xenophobia. Good on them. I hope they do well this election.

Further Reading

The Guardian has some useful stats on refugees here.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

When is a coup not a coup?

When is a coup not a coup? Answer: when it aligns with US interests – at least as perceived by the government of the day.

Why is the Egyptian coup almost never referred to as such? A democratically elected leader has been ousted by the military. What else does the word coup (as in military coup, or coup d’état) refer to? The fact that he was becoming increasingly unpopular doesn’t enter into the definition. There have been massive anti-government protests in some developed countries, but no one would say that justifies a military take-over.

If this happened in sub-Saharan Africa, you can bet it would be widely condemned, with talk of bringing the conspirators before the International Criminal Court.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. Try putting these words into a search:
Yeltsin Russia Coup
What you get is reports of the 1991 attempt at overturning Gorbachev’s perestroika, which was thwarted by Yeltsin, who heroically confronted the tanks and in effect ended the era of the Soviet police state.

What this search doesn’t pick up is the events of 1993 when Yeltsin was president and the Russian parliament refused to accept his nominee as prime minister, Yegor Gaidar. While it’s true that this parliament was the last elected under the Soviet system, it’s not clear that it was in fact trying to force a return the the old ways but rather trying to ward off “shock therapy” – which subsequently turned out to mean handing substantial parts of the state-owned economy to oligarchs for next to nothing.

Try these search words:
Yeltsin Russia tanks white house
This does bring up the 1993 coup – the one that doesn’t exist according to mainstream media.

If you want to argue that Morsi was a failing president in Egypt, or that the ex-Soviet legislature was not moving with the post-Soviet times, then you can argue for coups in many countries around the world where the government is corrupt, incompetent or broadly suppressing open political debate.

So why are coups bad sometimes, not so bad other times, or don’t exist other times?

Perceived US interests. And I say perceived, because making the rest of the world hate you really is not in your interests.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Microsoft’s Future?

Windows 8 is battling to get traction. And it’s not surprising. Microsoft is a bit behind the curve of Blackberry’s catastrophic decline, but the underlying causes are the same.

I remain unconvinced of touch screens for the desktop. On a recent plane trip, I tried a game on the entertainment system that used touch, and reaching the distance comfortable for viewing the screen was uncomfortable after a while, and touching the screen obscures your vision of the detail in a way that using a touch pad or mouse doesn’t.

Just because tablets are outselling desktops it doesn’t mean desktops should work like tablets. In some parts of the world bicycles outsell cars: should we replace the steering wheel by handlebars?

Microsoft is in an unenviable position. When you hold 95% of a market and it tips away from you, what do you do? Try to tip it back, or go the new direction and lose your status as a leader? Think US auto makers when the Japanese first started to make inroads. They’ve never recovered.
British-style interior
US-style interior
British-style exterior
US-style exterior
At the time, I wondered why the US car manufacturers did not simply adopt their own European designs, some of which were quite good, to US conditions – with minimal changes. For example, putting them through additional ruggedness testing for higher distances and worse roads typical of US driving would really have been enough. To the extent that they tried this, they made the wrong changes. Instead of focussing on reliability, they changed the exteriors to look more American (fatter) and interiors so they looked like folded cardboard, in keeping with domestic designs. The Japanese, meanwhile, forged ahead, keeping their designs consistent across all markets and working on reliability – useful in all markets.

Source: WikiPedia (retrieved 5 July 2013: RIM=Blackberry)
So what is Microsoft to do? Their position is inenviable. Almost anything they do is going to be wrong. If they break away from Windows compatibility in mobile devices, they have no edge to grab attention from the dominant players, Android and iOS. Ask Blackberry how well it works to be late in a market that you used to dominate, then let others redefine the user experience before you end up playing catch up. If they stick with Windows as their starting point, no one wants their devices – except hard-core fans. I tried playing with Microsoft’s Surface range on a recent overseas trip, where I finally found some set up for demo in a shop. They keyboard covers are not brilliant to type on, and one I tried was unreliable in its connection to the device. Putting them on a counter-top to demo illustrates exactly the point I’ve made earlier, that it’s a portable device that you can only use comfortably in a fixed environment – a laptop you can’t use on your lap. If an iPad or Android tablet is set up for demo, you naturally pick it up – the way you would usually use it. I saw no one pick up a Surface and if you did, the keyboard cover and kickstand arrangement would make it awkward to hold.

Apple had it relatively easy. At the time they launched the iPod, the start of their current trajectory, the Mac wasn’t doing particularly well, so launching into a whole new niche that had the potential to leave the Mac behind wasn’t a huge risk. The fact that the iPad ultimately has had the momentum to outsell the Mac by a huge margin wasn’t planned, but it also wasn’t hindered by a desire to bring along the Mac base. That indicates where Microsoft is going wrong: they are obsessed with bringing their base along with any major new platform. As long as Windows dominates the desktop, you can see why. But the desktop is fast shrinking to a minority market – even if it remains large in absolute terms.

The real paradigm shift that could eventually be the killer blow is the shift from corporate-defined equipment purchase to consumer-defined choice. Apple failed in the business market not because the IBM PC was superior, but because business buyers wanted to buy from a trusted source. IBM remains one of the most trusted players because they look after their customers – no one ever got fired for buying IBM, as the saying goes. Microsoft rode in on IBM’s coattails. The problem is, in the consumer space, that sort of preference doesn’t apply, and now that devices have become so cheap that anyone (on a salary) can afford one, they have the same purchase status as buying a pen of a watch. With that paradigm shift, Blackberry and Microsoft, to survive, have to appeal directly to the consumer not to the corporate buyer.

Microsoft has demonstrated that capability to some extent with Xbox, and Blackberry with selling to consumers in lower-income countries on the basis of providing cheap Internet access – but both have yet to show that they can leverage those successes in the broader consumer space. As long as they primarily see themselves as owning the corporate space in their respective segments, they will have a block against shifting to the consumer space. And the fear of losing their major advantage over outsiders in the corporate space further exacerbates that block.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

DHL is also incompetent

Back in February, I posted a long whinge on the incompetence of the US Postal Service (update: the item was finally delivered after nearly 5 months, mostly lost either somewhere in New York or Illinois; the tracking record has a huge gap).

DHL’s litany of shame. Click for an enlarged view.
Now it seems DHL has joined the campaign to make the South African Post Office seem competent.

I ordered 20 copies of my new book, The Day It Rained Forever, from the printer, CreateSpace. For once, I paid for priority delivery, which turned out to be DHL, because I wanted some soon to give to friends who proof read, and in the hope that it would turn up during my university’s environmental week (now past). Since I didn’t know it was being sent by courier, I used a PO Box. As soon as I had tracking information from the supplier, I contacted DHL to change delivery to my street address. Acknowledgement of that arrived yesterday (29 April). Just as well the original estimated delivery date 26 April has slipped a tad. Here’s how.

First, DHL attempted to email be an invoice for customs charges, but misspelt my email address. I had a call on my cell phone in which I corrected the error, and also gave them my ID number, needed for personal customs clearance (since I was not doing this as a company). After I didn’t receive an invoice, I phoned, then the invoice appeared in my mail, and the person I was talking to explained that I couldn’t pay the customs charges by credit card but by electronic transfer to one of three banks. Since I dealt with none of their banks, I would incur a delay of 48 hours unless I found a way to pay directly to one of their accounts. Their suggestion: go to a branch and pay over the counter. This is idiotic for two reasons: banks aren’t open all that long, and they made this suggestion a couple of minutes to 3:30pm, when the branches close. And the bank charges they would incur from a cash deposit are far higher than the charges they would incur from a credit card transaction. So I just did a transfer from my bank and sent them the proof of transaction. They acknowledged payment as follows:
25 April 2013
Dear Philip Machanick,
AWB: ###########
Thank you for your payment on the above-referenced shipment.
Please be advised that the clearance will be submitted to Customs for further review and we expect their response within 8-12 working hours from date and time of receipt of this message.
You may track the clearance and delivery progress of this clearance on our website at
Should you have any further questions or enquiries, please feel free to contact our Customer Service desk at 0860 345 000.
Thanking you,
DHL International Express
So I thought: great, they have the money and things will proceed. Well, no. That was Thursday. On Monday 29 April, I receive a call on my office phone from DHL telling me Customs are rejecting my ID number (South African IDs have a check digit so if you get one wrong, the chances are it will be rejected). As I was talking to this person, who denied they had my cell phone number on record, my cell phone rang and it was someone else from DHL, with the same issue. They duly sorted out my ID number, and I am hopeful that the package will eventually arrive.

Now what I wonder is: why did I pay $60 extra for priority delivery? I’m not convinced the South African Post Office would have taken as long, and they certainly could not have been more frustrating to deal with.

And my local Post Office is actually able to process a credit card transaction.


It has finally cleared Customs.
I await further developments. Meanwhile I love the irony of the text at the top of the tracking page:
Note that “speeds” so far has meant it has sat in the same place for almost a week.


On 1 May, I contacted DHL once more to point out that this thing was taking a ridiculously long time. After again being fed incorrect information (the fact that I had redirected from my PO Box hadn’t made it to the summary visible to the DHL rep), I think I conveyed a sense of urgency, because it actually left Johannesburg the same day (a public holiday).

Finally, it arrived: I had a phone call from a subcontracted local courier at 12:50 on Thursday 2 May. I told them I could be home within 15 minutes, and I spotted them a few blocks off from home, heading to another delivery (with the intent of getting back to me) and managed by hand signals to attract their attention, and they went back so I didn’t have to wait. Someone, at least, was efficient – not DHL, a small local courier.
I contacted CreateSpace, my supplier and pointed out that they are DHL’s customer and if DHL wouldn’t pay attention to me, they might pay attention to their paying customer, with this response:
I researched your order #40187287 and notice you pay a considerable amount of shipping for an order that did not arrive as soon as expected. Because of this, I processed a refund in the amount of $139.99 for the shipping cost. You should see the refund credited to your card ending in #### within approximately one to two weeks.
We always want to guarantee success on our deliveries and I'm sorry to hear DHL failed to accomplish this. We will escalate this further with them and assure you we will do our best to make sure this doesn't happen again.
DHL didn’t make me happy but CreateSpace did. Thanks. 

Yet Another Update

October 2013. I needed 20 books by 24 October, so I again ordered using priority shipping. CreateSpace has fixed the problem of DHL tracking showing something is stuck in the system. They now use a DHL service that consolidates packages into a bigger shipment, with no tracking information. Unbelievably, they have dispatched the shipment to me 3 times now, and not one instance of it has arrived, and no one has a clue where they have ended up. I appreciate that this mode of shipping costs a lot less than sending packages individually, but even the much-maligned South African Post Office can track ordinary parcels with no special features, not express or registered.

CreateSpace has again refunded the shipping. I am contemplating options of sending it again to a different address, or asking for a refund for the books as well.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Rumour: Business Magazines to Fire Clueless Reporters

All kinds of rumours are floating around about Apple ahead of their latest quarterly report, due today, after a precipitate drop in their share price. The picture here (from Google Finance) exaggerates the effect because the graph scale isn’t zero-based, but the drop from the peak of $702 on 19 September 2012 nonetheless is spectacular.

One claim is that Tim Cook is about to be dumped as CEO.

Another story doing the rounds is that Apple has run out of innovations in the absence of Jobs, since nothing new has appeared for the past 6 months. A possible concern – except that Apple had a huge launch season late 2012, and seldom refreshes a line in less than a year. This creates stability in the market, and avoids customers feeling they wasted their money buying a product that’s instantly obsolete. The iPad mini was launched in November 2012, and the latest iteration on the iMac a little later. True, these models are not major new blockbuster sector definers: the iPad mini extends the reach of an existing line, and the new iMacs are a refresh if with significant detail changes. And the iPhone 5, announced latish 2012 (September) is also an incremental change, rather than a major new sector definer.

So is the big worry instead that Apple is not “innovating” in the sense of defining whole new industries any more? But how often does a company need to introduce really big new changes? If we consider this sort of repackaging to be insignificant, what are Apple’s major new products and how often are they launched (starting from Jobs’s return to Apple in 1996)?

  • iMac 1998
  • iPod 2001
  • Power Mac G5 (and successor Mac Pro) 2003
  • iPhone 2007
  • iPad 2010

That’s an average of one major new product line every 3 years or so. Which is pretty impressive. You could argue that Apple is due for another major breakthrough. Of the above, the Pro line is the only one that wasn’t much of a game changer, so you could adjust your expectations down to Apple “only” averages a game-changer design about once every 4 years. Either way, the absence of some major new design is not a reason to dump the stock.

To inject some reality: here are the latest mobile device operating system stats from Netmarketshare. Not only does iOS dominate but, after a period of slight decline, iOS share is on the up again (March 2013: 61.41% vs. 24.85% for Android, the next biggest competitor). That may be a short-term effect but is hardly indicative of a massive drop in popularity or loss of market share. These figures rely on Netmarketshare’s methodology and I have no measure of how accurate that is in absolute terms, though the trend their number indicates is unlikely to be biased relative to the broader market.

So is Apple in trouble and should Tim Cook go?

Not on any evidence I can find.

The source of much of this speculation appears to be a rumour mill in some cases fuelled by players in the market who are shorting the stock – or possibly planning on buying it when it sinks low enough. Those who actually work the numbers claim that far from an unstainable bubble, Apple’s rapid rise in value is justified based on traditional calculations like PE ratio and variants, and the stock is now extremely inexpensive.

So unless Apple has some truly horrible surprise in their quarterly report due out later today, I will be very, very surprised if Tim Cook is going anywhere soon, or Apple’s stock is going anywhere but up, once the current hysteria has subsided.

What baffles me about all this is that stock manipulation in the US is illegal. Shouldn’t the SEC be investigating the more obvious instances? For that matter, couldn’t a large group of stockholders identify the more significant rumour mongers and hit them with a class action suit? Possibly not, since the actual numbers will reset the stock price.

Back to the title of the article: I wish it were true. It’s not only in this field. Climate scientists have renamed the Wall Street Journal the Wall Street Urinal because their science reporting is so absurd.

Monday, 1 April 2013

iPhone shuffle

This rather interesting press release found its way to me. Could this be the long-rumoured iWatch? Enjoy.
CUPERTINO, California―April 1, 2013―Apple® today announced the launch of a unique new product, iPhone® shuffle®.
“Many have said that Apple has lost its creative spark,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services. “This product proves them wrong: it defines a whole new category of user experience. Just as the iPod shuffle meets the needs of busy people on the move who lack the time to fiddle with even our intuitive iPod interface to select a song or play list, many people today lack the time to choose the person to whom they wish to speak, or even whether to make a phone call or listen to a voice message. iPhone shuffle meets that need.”
iPhone shuffle is a new product that randomly makes phone calls and performs other phone functions such as listening to voice mail or deleting voice messages. It can even generate and send random text messages. In the form factor of a wrist watch, it uses a Bluetooth wireless headset, ensuring complete freedom of movement. In keeping with its iPod shuffle heritage, it has no user interface. Merely strapping it to your wrist turns it on.
iPhone shuffle is available with immediate effect through the Apple Store and Apple dealers worldwide.
Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.
Update: I’ve been trying to get in touch with the authors of the MIT random paper generator to find out if the underlying Apple patents on this technology impinge on their prior art.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Lying with the truth: the state of Australian Labor

What on earth is Labor doing to itself? I thought the idea of a long lead time to the next federal election was to give Tony Abbott, whose approval ratings and preferred prime minister score remain a real obstacle to electoral success, lots of rope. And here they are tearing themselves apart with this bizarre attempt by former leader Simon Crean to unseat the prime minister in favour of former unseated prime minister Kevin Rudd.

Then again, is it purely Labor pushing in this direction?

Don’t you love the Murdoch media spin on this where they routinely do not report the bit where Rudd says he would not contest the leadership unless it’s vacant and focus on the bit where he says he will only contest it with overwhelming support, making him look cowardly rather than principled? Of course it’s not terribly hard when their competition supports their spin.

And there’s the routine Newspoll (also a Murdoch company) strategy of asking Labor supporters for preferred prime minister options including Rudd, whereas for the Liberals, they only ask about Abbott, no matter how low his positives.

Lying with the truth. Why didn’t us academics think of this? Imagine how many more papers we could write.

I don’t much like the Labor Party. What they stand for is not too bad, but they have become a party of expediency rather than principle. The opposing Coalition has this in a big way too: both will do whatever it takes to win, which is why I generally support the Greens when I get involved in Australian politics. But what I really dislike is dishonest news media that play the game rather than report it and deliberately misinform the public.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Usability horror: where will it end?

Windows 8 has lost the start menu.

I’m rather disappointed to lose this newbie instruction:
in order to shut down a windows machine, click on the start menu
I’m curious how eliminating a single global menu to find everything that is replaced by a bunch of cryptic keyboard shortcuts is an advance. The Ubuntu Unity interface and trends in the Mac OS interface represent a similar design sin:
pretty is not simple, if it obscures basic ability to get stuff done
Apple started moving that way since Jobs returned to Apple and fired the human interface team, who used evidence-based research to drive design choices. As the usability leader, sadly, others have followed when they started going wrong.

The notion that a desktop interface should look like a tablet interface because tablets are popular is like arguing in a market where bicycle sales exceed car sales that we should throw out the steering wheel and adopt handlebars in cars.

If I search on Windows 8 interface, almost all articles on the first google page are negative, or “fixes” to make it the way it was. A similar search on the latest Mac OS (Mac OS X Lion interface) produces similar results. As does a search on the Ubuntu Unity interface.

Am I missing something obvious, or are the Dutch about to produce a car with handlebars?

Sunday, 3 March 2013

A Case for Male Consciousness?

South African Minister of Women, Children, and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, got herself into deep trouble by fingering Afrikaans males as tending towards family violence because of their Calvinist upbringing that makes them see women and children as property.

She made two serious errors: painting all Afrikaners with the same brush, and assuming that the error is specific to Afrikaans males.

Many Afrikaners have transcended this sort of pseudo-conservative upbringing and behave like modern humans. But it is also true that this sort of attitude persists, not only among those with an Afrikaans Calvinist upbringing. Extraordinary levels of violence against women and children in South Africa and many other parts of the world testify to a broadly sick society.

Here in the Eastern Cape, I’ve encountered the following attitudes:

  • Xhosa culture requires that a woman satisfy her husband; if she cannot, he’s entitled to seek an additional wife (this from an AIDS counsellor delivering a workshop to public health department staff)
  • a mother of a disabled child, concerned that she cannot look after that child adequately, decides not to have any more and is told she’s selfish
  • a mother battling to cope with her children’s needs as well as look after the house has an unemployed husband, who sees no obligation to help out in the home
Add to this the attitude of our shower-head president, and we have a broad picture of one of the biggest failures of post-apartheid South Africa: the failure of feminism. No one has failed in this field more shamefully than the ANC Women’s League, an organisation with a proud history. When Jacob Zuma was revealed in his rape trial to have attitudes that, while not sufficient to convict him, indicated anything but a modern attitude to women, the silence was deafening. Outrage at comments by another party’s leaders falls a bit flat against this backdrop.

The worrying thing for me in all this is not only that we have dropped the ball on women’s rights, but that the role of males in society is demeaned by the notion that they have no obligation in the family, and they only make demands of women, and give nothing back.

Claiming this is all “traditional culture” and therefore not open to question is BS of the highest order. Western society also used to have attitudes we no longer accept in modern society, including racism, slavery and  – yes – relegating women and children to a role little above chattels. I am also not convinced that the attitudes encountered today are really traditions, but rather evidence of the breakdown of traditions. But in any case, we have the option, with a world-class human rights-based constitution, to do better.

So what can we do better?

First, I would like to see a revitalised women’s movement. Whether the ANC Women’s League is up to the task I don’t know, but if they aren’t, someone else should pick up the baton.

Second, while it is possible for males to be feminists, I would like to see a movement to emphasise the positive role of males in society – a complement to feminism, with the obvious name of masculism. Unfortunately that term already exists as a label that carries some connotations that don’t quite fit the philosophy I advocate, including opposition to feminism, so I propose instead a movement called male consciousness. As with feminism, the emphasis would be on equal rights, with a focus on how to reform the male role in society and individual power relations. We should acknowledge the real differences between male and female roles that are physiologically defined – who carries the baby, who is likely to be physically stronger – while striving for political and social equality. By contrast with some interpretations of masculism, there is no requirement to oppose feminism: the idea is to arrive at a new social contract that accepts feminism, and redefines the male role in a way compatible with women’s rights. More positively, male consciousness defines a male role that includes full membership of and responsibility for family, and recognition that the male role in society should be the same as the female role wherever practically possible, and complementary where not.

Feminism is a reaction to male domination. Male supporters of feminism need a positive philosophy to work with, and we need a positive philosophy to replace “traditional” values that are out of place in a human rights-based society. What I have here is a starting point for defining such a philosophy – let us take it forward from here and fill in the details.

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.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Limoncello almond poppyseed cake

Here’s another of my occasional culinary forays, my adaptation of this recipe for a wheat-free cake:
  • 4 eggs, 3 of which separated
  • 2 tablespoons limoncello* (limoncino) or zest of 3 lemons
  • 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
  • 100g brown sugar, split into halves
  • 170g almond flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • icing sugar (powdered, for Americans) to decorate
Whisk the 3 egg yolks with one whole egg and half the sugar until smooth and light. The trick here is to keep one egg whole so the mix is less likely to collapse compared with whisking all 4 egg whites separately.

Thoroughly mix the baking powder and almond flour. Add the limoncello (or lemon zest), poppy seeds and sweetened egg yolks, and mix thoroughly until smooth. Aside from adding flavour and texture, distribution of the poppy seeds is a good indicator of whether everything is thoroughly combined. For the alcohol intolerant: the alcohol should all cook out.

Whisk the 3 egg whites until very frothy, then gradually add the rest of the sugar, while continually whisking. Stop at the soft peak stage (the mix just holds its shape when you lift the whisk). Some tricks of the trade: use an unlined copper bowl, and whisk the egg whites at room temperature. Egg white is hard to aerate from cold, and a copper bowl makes whisking much more effective and more stable without additives like vinegar or salt.

Incorporate the egg white into the almond mix slowly at first, until you’ve added about half the egg white, then gently fold in the rest so you don't flatten out all the air.

Put a disk of non-stick baking paper in the bottom of a spring-form cake tin, and butter the sides. Slide the mix in and bake in a 175°C oven for 30 to 35 minutes (checking at the end that a skewer comes out clean).

Cool the cake on a rack, baking paper down.

When the cake is cool, ease off the baking paper and decorate with a little icing sugar (put about half a teaspoon in a strainer and smack the side lightly to spread it evenly; this is best done just before serving as the cake is quite moist and will absorb the sugar).

*Edit: I used 4 on my first try but it came out a little too lemony.