Sunday, 6 December 2015

A Tale of two Window 10s

Rhodes University donated a very old PC to a local NGO and I set it up for the NGO. Though my preference is the free software route the practical reality is that I am not an NGO supporting NGOs so the easiest thing is to install what they are used to and that enables them to share documents with others, and that means Windows and MS Office.

The machine came with XP and that is a concern because it is not being actively maintained and there is a possibility that new software may not run on it. I was surprised at the modest hardware requirements of Windows 10, probably because Microsoft went the route of converging their desktop and mobile OS. While this effort has flopped in the mobile market, being able to run the latest OS on a machine that old is a plus. So how easy was it?

The hardest part was preparing the system and installation media.

First, I needed to put the installation media onto a USB flash stick, since the machine has no optical drive. A nice person in out tech support department helped with that.

Then, the Rhodes computing service set a password on BIOS to prevent changing the boot order, which I needed to do to start off the USB flash stick. Since it was heading for a weekend, I had to try to work out the BIOS thing. I found a web site that proposed popping out the CMOS battery and leaving it out for long enough to the capacitors to drain. That worked so well that the machine refused to start until the next day when I intimidated it by approaching it with a voltmeter – it started instantly but the BIOS password was still set. Another try: I found that it has an Intel logic board and there is a trick involving a jumper to put the BIOS into maintenance mode. I took out the password and then discovered that the BIOS would not let me set the boot order to include a removable device unless the removable device was actually attached at boot time.

Finally, I was able to start off the USB flash drive (after 2 restarts – perhaps it was slowly warming to the idea) and Windows 10 installed without any dramas. It took quite a long time, subtly disguised by appearing to finish fast, then needing a reboot. I was then able to install Office off another flash stick and do some minor configuration stuff, including persuading it I wanted to log in as a local user rather than via a Microsoft identity. This latter bit was not too hard for me to work out, but could have confused someone without tech knowledge.

On to machine number 2. A pensioner recently bought a notebook from a local dealer (upgraded by the dealer to Windows 10) and was having difficulty reading email attachments. The attachments are Excel documents, and I found him a free reader via Microsoft’s app store. When I launched it, it had some weird requirement for installing a license that made no sense to me, suggesting something had not been installed right in the base system. I gave up on that and found an older version of Microsoft’s free Excel reader, which installed just fine, but the system refused to find it when I tried to set it up as the default for opening Excel files.

When I installed everything from scratch, things were reasonably straightforward. Though I have extensive computing background, I am not a Windows user, so it is pleasing that it should be relatively easy to set up from scratch without too many bad surprises (the BIOS password thing would not be something the average home user would run into).

I wonder what the dealer did that made the other one more of an ugly beast to install software.

On the whole, though the first install I did went well enough, I am not tempted to shift from Mac OS. Though Apple has lost a lot of their edge in usability (not so much because Microsoft has improved but because they have stopped bothering with evidence-based usability and focus instead on making their systems look good), Apple still has one huge advantage for my purposes: UNIX-style development.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Muddle East

Some have responded to the recent Paris atrocities by saying, “So what? The People of the Middle East are suffering far worse at the hands of the West.”

You can feel bad for the people of Paris and still point out the hypocrisy of allowing Syria to be torn apart without a whimper of public protest, or 300 African schoolgirls disappearing with only moderate protest, or so many other appalling events around the world that do not excite Western news media.

Once we start down the road of justifying the unjustifiable because something even worse happened somewhere else where do we stop?

And when we start taking sides, we become blind to the fact that it is not just one side fueling the flames. Russia, the US (and allies), and local Islamic states all to varying degrees are fueling the conflict, providing weapons and money to back their very narrowly-defined very short-term interests. What is the role of Iran or Saudi Arabia in stoking up conflict? What is Turkey doing? Would the Syrian crisis have ended peacefully long ago if the Assad regime had not been guaranteed outside support?

The US and other Western countries blundering into this whole sorry mess is just one part of the equation. That on its own can’t explain all the instability. You think the Russians would have learnt from the horrible mess they got themselves into in Afghanistan, but no.

In the current Middle East conflict, it is very difficult to make sense of anything if you support any side as all sides have made terrible decisions.

Trace through the sequence of events in Egypt, as just one example:
  • Arab Spring protests – huge crowds in the streets, soldiers who refused to take orders to mow them down
  • a democratic election returning a Muslim Brotherhood government
  • follow-on protests as the government failed to meet expectations
  • a military coup

Some of this you can put down to Western interference. The Arab Spring protests were genuine as far as I can tell, as were the protests against the newly elected government. Where Western interference kicked in was the fact that the military coup was tolerated where such a takeover in most other parts of the world would be condemned. So it is a mistake to explain all problems in the Middle East through a lens of Western imperialism. It is a factor, but not the only one.

Looking more widely, putting everything down simply to Western malevolence does not explain the deep animosities between the different strands of Islam who are doing each other far more damage than they are doing to foreigners. Nor does it explain the roles of Russia and other regional powers like Iran and Turkey.

Beware the logic fail of “enemy of my enemy is my friend”. The biggest enemy in this conflict is lack of moral clarity arising from taking a side and sticking with it.

Yale: It’s About Racism

I am on a short visit to the University of Michigan during my sabbatical and all hell is breaking loose at university campuses including Yale, where there have been angry protests.

Back home, campuses have been in turmoil over protests against institutional racism. I hardly expected US universities to emulate this to make me feel at home, yet here we are.

I read the original Yale email and the Erika Christakis response. It was the latter that apparently triggered the anger. Taken out of context, that email was not that big a deal (decide for yourself; read it here). Why did it elicit such an angry response?

Let’s see what the original email said – this is the most relevant part:

However, Halloween is also unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most Yale students can sometimes be forgotten and some poor decisions can be made including wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface. These same issues and examples of cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation are increasingly surfacing with representations of Asians and Latinos.
 Yale is a community that values free expression as well as inclusivity. And while students, undergraduate and graduate, definitely have a right to express themselves, we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.
 The culturally unaware or insensitive choices made by some members of our community in the past, have not just been directed toward a cultural group, but have impacted religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous people, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc. In many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend, but their actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact…
The original email is an insipid mealy-mouthed attempt at labeling offensive racism as cultural insensitivity. The Christakis email attacks this as taking choices away from students.

Imagine for a moment it was the Halloween custom to dress up as Nazi concentration camp guards. Would labeling that as cultural insensitivity, with a mild attempt at discouraging it, be the appropriate institutional response? Would slapping down that mild admonition as impinging on freedom of speech be taken lightly by those targeted by Antisemitism?

In South Africa, a recurrent response from those who don’t get that racism is still a problem is that black people should just move on – apartheid is over. In the US, I detect a similar attitude – that race is an issue of the past. Unfortunately it is not, because people of color and minorities in general still suffer abuse on a daily basis. Politicians exploit prejudice; why is Trump for example able to lead the GOP field with openly xenophobic attitudes?

Racism in all forms is repulsive. It’s time everyone accepted that. Then possibly the victims can move on.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

DHL – not again

I’ve been in the US for almost a month and had fun ordering things off the Internet – and even had some pleasant surprises when I found I could get cameras I was interested in cheaper in South Africa. What makes this specially surprising and pleasing is camera manufacturers do not honour warranties outside the country of sale on most models – a recipe for price gouging. Maybe they do overcharge for expensive models but entry-level Nikon DSLR cameras pretty sharply priced in South Africa (particularly with a few bundled lenses), as are some lightweight digitals (Canon in this case, I found to be well priced).

Mostly the experience has been good – things I ordered arrived promptly and were as advertised. Only one small glitch post-delivery so far: I ordered a book at a great price (through AbeBooks, not Amazon – I get to Amazon soon). It was advertised as an “international edition” and “NOT from Asia”. It turned out to be a cheap Indian edition, not for sale outside that region, and the packing wasn’t great either: it arrived with a split on the spine.

Otherwise, things went pretty well – good pricing, prompt delivery. I even managed to buy a Mac at a lower price than education discount.

Back in 2013, I had a whinge about how DHL was incompetent at delivering books to me from the US. I had tried to order books in time for a university-wide launch of books published that year, and I wanted copies to sell in case there was demand. Since there was limited time, I paid extra for priority delivery. To cut a long story short, I ended up with 3 boxes of books and the supplier refunded the cost.

Why? DHL’s idea of international priority shipping was to get the books to Europe then dump them into the mail system as “Surface Air Lift”, a non-priority service with no tracking.

Let me be clear here: I a talking about DHL as a contractor for bulk budget shipping; when they do courier service at full price, they seem to do a whole lot better.

On this visit to the US, I have bought a number of things mostly from Amazon. Amazon has a network of delivery providers around the country and their less expensive services usually drop the package into the postal system at the last step. So far most things have arrived either at the earlier stage of the delivery window or before. Now I am drawing towards the close of my visit, I have one more item that is not going via one of Amazon’s priority services, with a delivery window of 17 November–3 December. This is a tad concerning as I am out of here 20 November. I only really started to worry though when I saw DHL was handling it.

Look what they’ve done so far.
Example of DHL US routing. Left: the DHL tracking site; each map panel illustrates a step of the routing.
The item originated in Jefferson City, TN. The destination is Ann Arbor, MI, near the top of the map (close to Detroit).

Look at the first step: it goes the wrong way, to Forest Park, GA – 2 days after it enters the system. Maybe this would make sense if this was the nearest airport but the delays between departures and arrivals are more typical of road transport. Then, a day later, it finds its way to Hebron, KY. Now, at least, it is going the right way. Then what do they do? Give it to the United States Postal Service. It has taken them the better part of 4 days after it left home base to shift it from the zone where USPS first class mail would take 3 days to deliver to where it would take USPS first class mail 2 days to deliver it.

An investment of 4 days to save 1 day is not actually a win.

The last map panel shows the stage of journey that USPS will handle – not all that close to the destination. It makes you wonder what the benefit is for Amazon in using DHL at all. True, the shipping cost is less than first class mail, but other Amazon providers I used up to now at least got the item to the same state before handing it to USPS or even delivered it the whole way.

So what if it gets here after I leave? It was fortunately not an expensive item – a second hand book. I am still a little hopeful as USPS since I started writing this has updated status and it is in Ann Arbor already, been sorted and sent to the final post office, a whole lot quicker than DHL has handled it.

I have to wonder about what DHL is up to. Delivering stuff is what they do. Why can’t they do it more efficiently than this? If even the much-maligned USPS is more efficient than them, shouldn’t they work out what their problem is?


The package arrived a day earlier than Amazon’s original estimate. I still wonder how DHL manages to be less efficient than the US Postal Service and stay in business. All’s well that ends well, I suppose. Here’s USPS’s final update:

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Why Student Protest Matters

Now police have rioted outside parliament, attacking protesters in a style that could wake PW Botha from the dead, we have to understand why all this matters. And indeed, the government apparently does think it matters, hence the panicked offer to fund next year’s zero fee increase without thinking through how to pay for it.

So why should the rest of us care?

Students, after all, are in a position of relative privilege. Even those who struggle to make it through their degree and battle to fund themselves are better off than the rural poor who have nothing – no prospect of a job, ever.

Why this matters is that revolutionary change comes from frustrated hope, not from hopelessness. The French Revolution occurred not because France was the worst-off country in Europe but because it was one of the first to emerge from feudalism. It was frustration at the pace of change that caused the revolution. A feudal society on the other hand is very stable. The peasants are stuck in a state of hopelessness. The aristocracy are far too strong to challenge and what little the peasants have can easily be taken away, leaving them to starve.

South Africa today is the most unequal society on the planet. The rural poor and the urban unemployed have very little hope of things getting better. The ANC, like feudal aristocrats, hands down just enough largesse by way of social grants and free but inadequate schooling to prevent total hopelessness. The section of the population that has most reason to be upset about the broken promise of “a better life for all” continues to vote ANC loyally. In the same way, feudal peasants would have willingly given their life for their lord, despite the manifest unfairness of a tiny minority growing wealthy without offering a glimmer of hope to those left out. Why? Because in a state of hopelessness, the hand that gives out inadequate mercies is all you have.

Students are in a different position. They do have hope. Once they graduate, a range of better jobs becomes open to them. But that hope is frustrated because of the high cost of higher education, inadequate financial aid for the poor and a sluggish economy that doesn’t guarantee work even for those who do qualify. An unemployed graduate who has no debt is a potential entrepreneur. Ask Mark Shuttleworth. The NSFAS scheme is not a great substitute for full funding – even if it were adequately funded – because it limits the option of entrepreneurship for unemployed graduates.

Are demands like no fees or no increase ridiculous? No, in the light of the benefit to society. But universities have to cover their costs. Government has created the problem by encouraging universities to increase numbers without covering the costs adequately. Something has to change.

Ideally, government should fund students fully so there is no class or wealth difference at universities. To do so would cost about 10% of tax revenues. You could argue that is a good investment because students who are successful will add significantly to the tax base. However, this ANC government is not about working for the common good, but is about lining the pockets of its cronies, so that is not going to happen. The best we can really hope for is full funding for those who really can’t afford fees.

What student protest can do is to wake up the rest of the excluded population to the fact that this government is not interested in anything but themselves. The big worry is that this turns into another Arab Spring movement that forces change but has no clear agenda of what that change should be. In Egypt, a military dictator was ousted, followed by an elected government that had protestors back out in the street. Next thing Egypt had yet another military dictator. Forcing change is not enough: we need to know what we are demanding. For this reason, we need to start talking seriously about what is really wrong in our society – what the deep entrenched causes of inequality are and how to address them.

United: Fly the F-U Skies

I am in the US as part of a sabbatical, for about a month. My wife accompanied me as far as Washington Dulles Airport, then we split – I am in Michigan, she went for a couple of weeks to Peru. South African Airways failed to load our suitcases in Johannesburg, which we only discovered after parting at Washington.

In the US, United Airlines handles SAA’s baggage and that’s where the problem really began.

In South Africa, we are used to whingeing about poor service. In the US, you expect better. Everyone is trained up in being nice and putting the customer first – or at least it seems so. United at first seemed fine – when I arrived in Detroit, they gave me a file reference number and told me when to expect my suitcase to arrive. Much as I expected, it was rerouted to the same flights a day later.

My wife’s situation was a little different. At Washington, her original ticket ended and she switched to an American Airlines flight. To complicate things, she arrived in the midst of a big strike that affected airports. But that cleared in a day or two. What I think really broke things is that United decided to keep things in house and used one of their own flights from Washington to Peru, and the routing I had from them was via Houston and Lima. No doubt that saved them money – they would be charging SAA for handling this for them and they would do better if they didn’t have to pay another airline to take the luggage.

For the last few days leading up to the fifth day, at the end of which the airline would have to pay compensation, United kept stringing me along. Then it turns out they have no record of her suitcase past Lima and – wait for it – don’t want to hear about a compensation claim. The suitcase now has an SAA file reference number on a different tracking system.

Up to that point United had been very happy to handle this – they could perform a service for SAA and profit from the fee. Her suitcase made it as far as Lima on a United flight and now has gone missing. It had one more stop after that: Cusco. Suddenly at the exact point when they (since it is their fault; SAA did not lose the suitcase in Lima) would have to pay compensation, they give me an SAA file reference number and tell me to F off (not quite in those words but their meaning is clear).

If SAA pays compensation, good. I will give them that option (they are so far being cooperative – so I will give them benefit of the doubt). If not, we have the mess of trying to claim from insurance for something that should not be an insurable loss. I will somehow have to get a letter from at least one of the airlines explaining why they are not paying for the loss.

Are they just being horrible to me? No – United has a poor track record on service that the new CEO ought to be prioritizing.

Not too soon as far as I am concerned. I had a flight from hell with United in the 1980s. I had just arrived from South Africa into New York and boarded a flight to Chicago en route to Minneapolis. After we boarded and the doors were closed, we were told there was a delay for bad weather and sat next to the terminal for 3 hours. Once we reached Chicago all outgoing flights had left and instead of putting us up for the night (it was their choice to leave us stranded at around midnight), we were offered a list of discounted hotel rooms. The discounted rooms had all sold out, and I ended up trying to sleep in the airport, not with much success.

This is the first time in 30 years that I’ve flown United, and I didn’t allow enough time for them to improve.

So United, your “Fly the friendly skies” slogan is a tad misleading. I suggest “Fly the F-U skies”. Whether you take that as your attitude to service or my attitude to you is your choice. Both fit.


My wife finally found her suitcase. Someone staying at the same place was returning via the same route and asked after it at the United baggage desk in Lima. They said it had gone to Cusco. My wife had to go to the Cusco airport to drop someone off (not really but shared the taxi) and picked it up. United meanwhile offered to send me a $75 Travel Certificate (which needless to say hasn’t show up yet). How this compensates to 9 days of borrowed clothing and wasting time I don’t know. I certainly can’t use it because I am not resident of the US or anywhere else United operates, and would be embarrassed to give it to someone else after this.

What really beggars the imagination is that a total stranger with the details of the suitcase could walk up to the United baggage desk in Lima and be told where the suitcase was yet United’s internal systems could not track it down. Part of the problem is they don’t answer their phones; I was put on hold 3 times by the United central baggage tracing service and not once were they able to reach their own baggage desk in Lima. I tried calling the SAA baggage desk at Dulles and not only didn’t get a reply but messages left were not returned. Since United handles SAA baggage in the US I would not be surprised if it was in fact United staff who were not taking calls.


SAA paid compensation. So we got a new suitcase and some clothes out of this exercise. I still fly SAA. United? Second bad experience on my second flight with them after a break of 30 years. I will give it another 30 years.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Education Crisis: An Alternative

Several universities around South Africa are in the throes of protests about lack of transformation – UCT, Stellenbosch, Rhodes, to name a few.

While these are important debates, the biggest single cause for concern about education in South Africa is the very slow progress in making university accessible at all. The university-qualifying matric exam has a hugely skewed results distribution. About 10% of schools are fee-paying, including government schools that charge a fee and private schools. These schools mostly achieve acceptable results, with anyone with academic potential studying there almost certain to get a university-entry pass. Of the remaining 90%, one in nine achieves acceptable results; the remaining 80% of schools have poor pass rates and produce few university-ready students.

Even learning a trade that requires significant intellectual skills, such as becoming an electrician, is problematic with poor school results.


It is the lack of access to tertiary education and training that is not only causing South Africa to become one of the most unequal societies on Earth, but also inhibits economic development. A few years back it was reported that there was a shortage of over 800,000 skilled people in the job market. Programs like rapid roll-out of renewable energy are likely to be hampered by this skills shortage.

Get this right, and we will no longer have to wonder how black economic empowerment breaks out of a narrow definition of a small group who enrich themselves while the majority stay poor.

While it is true that fee-free schools have massive resource constraints (class sizes around 50, compared with half that number of less at fee-paying schools; under-qualified teachers, no budget for maintenance, inadequate or non-existent libraries and labs, etc.), that is not the only problem. If one in nine of these schools can do well, the rest could too. The problem is political, not technical – the government is not willing to take realistic steps to solve the problem.

A starting point

So what can the rest of us do?

In the past there have been tutoring schemes run by outsiders such as universities, but these have limited value. The real deep issue is that school kids in dysfunctional schools are being told day in and day out not to have high expectations. Many of the townships where they live look like trash heaps. Teachers discourage initiative, and employment opportunities for those who exit school are very limited.

An important part of education theory is self efficacy, your belief in your own ability to complete a task. If everything in your life tells you that all you can expect is failure, that is a major dampener on self efficacy. Self efficacy is important because a major component of learning is pushing through hard problems and learning from mistakes. If you have no self-belief, you give up when things get hard, and take mistakes as failure.

Add to this that many families in poorer communities have no history of education, and the very concept of education is mystified.

Outside interventions are ineffective if they serve to heighten the sense of lack of self-worth and perpetuate the mystification of education. Education is something handed down by the “other”, rather than something to be internalized and built on.

How can we change this?

A new approach

One approach in education that has been very effective if done right is peer tutoring. Tutors from the same class as the student demystify education because they show the learners that someone from their own group can master the material. The tutors also gain a benefit because teaching others is a great way to learn.

I propose then that those who have the interest and motivation to run tutoring schemes change the approach. Instead of going to depressed communities to tutor, they should train members of the target classes in tutoring the week’s material then send them back to the community to run tutoring sessions in small groups. This approach has a number of benefits:
  • demystifying education – if tutoring is mastered by members of your own class, education is no longer something that can only occur if strangers are present handing it down
  • building leaders – the tutors self-efficacy is further enhanced by their tutoring role, which naturally puts them in a leadership role
  • scalability – community members with subject knowledge can train up tutors who then take their knowledge to the class, which means far fewer subject experts are needed
If this approach works, we will have many more university-ready students, which will lead us to another problem: how to fund them. Let’s worry about that one after we have fixed the problem of extremely unequal tertiary education-preparedness.

Some detail

Teaching to a large class
Should it work? Look at the first picture, the traditional education model, in a large class. The teacher is apart from the class, handing information down from a height. It would take a very brave teacher in this scenario to encourage critical thinking in the class. Add to this the problem that many teachers are not well qualified in their subject and that schools in many cases are poorly led, and the surprise is not that most fail but rather that most succeed.

Outsiders tutoring
Now, let us look at the traditional style of intervention, the tutoring scheme. We have learners in smaller groups, imparting subject knowledge in smaller groups. That is an improvement as some interaction is theoretically possible. However for a class with no experience of interacting with teachers, there is a cultural barrier that is hard to break, and the reliance on outsiders does not demystify education. Schemes like this usually work to the extent that while the intervention exists, results improve – but the improvement is often not sustained when the intervention ends.

Outsiders training tutors
My proposed scheme requires two pictures. The first picture illustrates tutor training. Now the groups are much smaller, and it is easier to provoke interaction. The tutors are learning to tutor, so they have to learn to engage with the material. Because they are in a much smaller group when they work with the subject specialists, barriers can be broken down. This culture change is essential for their later success, and a critical part of the success of peer tutoring is that fact that they can go back to their community as non-outsiders and break the barrier to interaction within their own peer group.

Peer tutoring – tutors from the class being tutored
The final picture illustrates the second half of my scheme – the tutors are back in their community, with enough of them to work in small groups. The interactiveness they have learnt in their tutor training should be possible to continue in this setting, since their classmates should not have any barrier to talking.

Will all this work?

What we have been doing so far has not worked. So it is worth trying. Education theory supports the idea; like any idea the test is in the results. It is doable and since all else has failed or produced limited results, it is worth trying something new.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Call me prejudiced

Call me prejudiced: I hate bigots.

Stellenbosch University is the subject of a 35-minute video titled “Luister” disclosing racial problems around town and issues with coping with Afrikaans as a teaching language.

I don’t have enough context to know how big the problem really is, so let’s look at why black students should want to go to an Afrikaans university, given that English is a much more useful language in terms of tapping into international expertise. If you look at options available to students, 2 out of the 5 top-tier universities – University of Cape Town, University of the Witwatersrand, University of Pretoria, Rhodes University and Stellenbosch University – are Afrikaans-language universities. Allowing that Rhodes is pretty small and Pretoria is pretty large, that means about half the places in the country’s top universities are at historically Afrikaans institutions.

Black students of course could choose to go exclusively to the English-language universities, but do the Afrikaans universities want that? Officially not, of course, and their numbers depend on being open to all races because that’s the reality of the society we live in now. Even if they completely privatised, they would still be under pressure to deracialize.

So what are the difficulties?

Most students who have not grown up with Afrikaans do high school in English. This means that lessons in Afrikaans – even if only some of the materials handed out are in Afrikaans – can be a challenge. That can be addressed by a sympathetic environment, by making it socially conducive for black students to mix with native Afrikaans speakers, by encouraging students to help each other with translation in informal study groups and so on.

The problem really starts on the social side. If students are not made to feel welcome and not offered the opportunity for an immersive Afrikaans experience, that heightens the language difficulty.

How bad a problem is it really? As I say I don’t know any more than is in the video, which may leave out a lot of context. What I do know is that the discussion over at YouTube shows there are plenty of people out there with strongly pro-apartheid sentiments. One Johannes S for example spouts all the racist arguments about inherent intellectual inferiority the darker the skin, how segregation is natural and everything else is leftist social engineering, and so on.

Those posting racist comments fail to spot the obvious irony that their commentary validates the point of those demanding transformation.

That takes me to the real deep problem. It is not just about transforming the odd university. It is about transforming our society as a whole. Is the rainbow nation a myth? I think not – there is a lot of good will on all sides. But there is this unpleasant sore that won’t go away. And I do not think it is up to the government to heal it. There is just so much legislation can do, and politicians are not on the whole all that competent.

So let us listen to those from communities that differ from ourselves, understand where they are coming from and engage in a respectful way. Only by making the Johannes S style of discourse so socially unacceptable that it crawls back under the rock from which it emerged will we make the rainbow nation a reality. And that is just the start – we also need to address the practical problems that make South Africa such an unequal society.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Africans and the International Criminal Court

Sudan president Omar al-Bashir apparently sneaked out of South Africa on 15 June 2015 as a a court was ordering his arrest on an international arrest warrant issued under auspices of the International Criminal Court.

His plane took off from the same Waterkloof military airfield as that which the Gupta family used as a private airstrip in 2013. Are we to understand from South African government disclaimers that they knew northing about his departure that Waterkloof remains a private airstrip, available to any who can afford to pay up?

It is interesting how so many are taking this as standing up to the West. True, ICC has yet to prosecute anyone outside Africa. True, the major powers, US, Russia and China, have neither not signed up for or refuse to ratify the Statute of Rome.

Africa is the one continent where countries with a serious history of human rights abuse have signed up. Most of South America and a large fraction of Asia today no longer has a major human rights problem; same for much of Eastern Europe.

The first map, showing worldwide risk of human rights violation, looks reasonably accurate. Compare it with the second map of parties to the Statute of Rome. Red on the first map (poor human rights) mostly overlaps red on the second map (non-signatories of the Statute of Rome). The biggest exception is in Africa, where a lot of countries with a high risk of human rights transgression are signatories (green on the second map).
World Human Rights (source: Maplecroft)

Signatories (or not: red; yellow=signed, not ratified) to Statute of Rome (source:WikiPedia )
So this explains why Africa has apparently been the main target of the ICC.

In the rest of the world countries with a poor record did not sign up. Why? I strongly suspect it is because aid has been linked to signing up for the ICC.

If Africans do not like this, they have to ask themselves: why are we so dependent on aid? Why do we have so many corrupt, abusive regimes on our continent? Why do we consistently place the “rights” of political leaders above those of ordinary people?

A lot of this arises from a misplaced attempt at recovering lost dignity from the colonial era. Because colonial powers could act with impunity and no regard for justice, our leaders should be able to do so too. That is a terrible reaction to colonialism: it excuses all manner of corrupt and abusive behaviour that would no be tolerable if Africa had never been colonized. How can that liberate us from colonialism? It cannot. And it will not.

What can we as Africans do about it? The answer up to now has been to whinge when outsiders do something. This is our home. About bloody time we fixed it ourselves.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Not Hitler Again

According to Godwin’s Law, if an Internet discussion goes on long enough, someone will eventually mention Hitler. And, at that point, the discussion is closed, because no one has anything interesting to contribute.

Ousted University of the Witwatersrand SRC president Mcebo Dlamini apparently has attempted to go one better, by mentioning Hitler before discussion reached the Internet. Apparently this happened only after he was threatened with discipline action for other unspecified misconduct. So possibly the “H” word was mentioned so he could turn the issue into attacking the Zionist conspiracy that runs the university in the form of Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib (that is apparently now a Jewish name?).

For anyone who thinks there is something theoretical about what Hitler would have done to black people this is not true. Read this.

Also, aside from the holocaust, Hitler triggered a world war that killed nearly 50-million people (80% on sides opposing him and his fellow dictators in Italy and Japan). In addition to Jews, gays, Gypsies, the disabled and Soviet prisoners of war to name a few categories of victims were brutally put to death. Anyone who sees Hitler as some sort of role model is either deeply ignorant or mentally ill.

Hitler’s “ability to organise a nation and get the people to rally behind him” that Dlamini admires was also greatly admired by the apartheid regime. Next thing he will eulogize the apartheid regime for its positive qualities. More reading here.

None of this of course justifies misbehaviour by anyone else. But let us argue on the basis of the facts, and not reinvent history to suit the argument. We can argue separately whether Zionism has a case to answer, and whether South African society – more specifically, education as a sector – has adequately transformed.

But what this is not is an instance of racist power being wielded on a defenseless victim.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Sad Panda

Spot the difference.

Sad PandaTlouamma

Only Agang aficionados will get it.

If you do, sign the no confidence and recall petition.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Banking Liberation Movement

Back in the 1970s, when a high-end supercomputer had about the performance of today’s entry-level cell phones and networks were expensive proprietary technology, ATM transactions were … wait for it … free.

And you earned interest on a cheque account.

Banks made almost all their money on the difference between the deposit and lending interest rates.

Core computer technology, based on Moore’s Law, is about on billionth of the cost it was 45 years ago (price per transistor roughly halves every 1.5 years).

Never in all the fields of human endeavour has such a massive improvement in efficiency been so extraordinarily wasted.

So what made everything so expensive? Not having higher paid more skilled staff in the branches – that has also gone backwards. The mind only boggles at how banks have destroyed such a massive opportunity. With careful design the cost per transaction could be almost zero, and saved costs shifted to quality customer relations.

If companies like Google and Facebook can offer free services on a massive scale, only making money on a tiny fraction of total transactions, how hard can it be?

Banks have fallen into the trap many enterprises fall into of trying to maintain outdated systems on the basis that it is too expensive to re-engineer them from scratch, with the result that their software accretes more and more layers of cruft and becomes harder and harder to maintain.

If banks cut their services back to what they had on offer in 1975, carefully coded to maximum efficiency and small total software size so it was manageable, then put a web front end around what you could do back in 1975, you would have most of what you can do today and it would cost a tiny fraction of what they spend today on software. The biggest cost would be ensuring you had the best possibly security (and some banks don’t even have that…).

So why don’t they do that?

Each major bank has accumulated an army of software developers dedicated to maintaining the complexity of the existing systems to maintain the need for an army of software developers. And if they all do it, they can pass the costs on to the customer.

Nice work if you can get it.

So what can we do?

How about this for a radical idea? Free banking software. The free software movement has delivered some of the best operating systems in use today, web browsers, sophisticated database engines and the most robust network stacks available today. Why not the back-end of a banking system?

It could be done in 1975 with one-billionth of the computing power available today. How hard can it be?

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Queensland Greens and Open Tickets

Queensland election update – less than a week before polling day.

Just Vote All?
Let’s examine the reasons for Campbell Newman’s Just Vote 1 strategy. Queensland state elections have optional preferential voting: you can number 1 or more candidates.

When it has suited the major parties, usually the one in the lead, they have adopted a Just Vote 1 strategy.

This makes it possible to win on a minority of the popular vote, and takes smaller parties out of the equation.

The ostensible reason for this strategy is it prevents a hung parliament. The UK has a first past the post system (essentially the same as Just Vote 1) and their last election delivered a hung parliament and the latest polls show that as the most likely outcome next time. So that is not a really plausible reason and in any case, up to Peter Beattie’s time, Just Vote 1 was the Labor strategy. Back then, the Libs and Nats were at each others’ throats. Times change and so, apparently, do principles when they no longer suit you.

Why does it suit the LNP now? After all, conservative minor parties and independents add up to a bit more than the Greens – depending which polls you believe. It’s a matter of marginals. The LNP will have done polling that shows they gain more from stifling preference flows from Greens to ALP than they lose from stifling preference flows to them from minor parties and independents on the right. I can’t find stats for past Queensland elections, but most other minor parties in the 2013 federal election had a roughly even split of preference flows to Labor – even if they were nominally on the right (possibly an indication of where Labor is positioned?).

So overall, Labor, who derive significant benefit from Greens preferences, loses out more than the LNP from Just Vote 1.

Labor is in a poor position to complain: optional preferential voting was introduced by the Goss Labor government and it worked for them when they could exploit the divide between the Liberals and Nationals.

Open Tickets: So What?
Meanwhile Labor is attacking Greens for issuing “open tickets”, i.e., How to Vote cards that tell the voter to make up their own minds. This is nothing new, and if we look at past elections, the effect has been pretty much that the ALP gets 80% of Greens preferences once they drop out irrespective of what is on the HTV.

Even in the 2012 election where ALP most certainly did not advocate Just Vote 1, nearly 70% of Labor voters (vs. nearly 80% of LNP voters) only marked 1 on their ballot. In doing so, they created the risk that if the Greens candidate came second, there would be insufficient ALP preferences to beat the LNP candidate.

50% of Greens voters also went for Just Vote 1 despite the fact that the Greens have never advocated this position. 80% of Greens preferences go to Labor.

What Labor should really do is to think about what it takes to be attractive to Greens voters, and focus on countering Just Vote 1.

They will win a lot more votes that way than going negative. Do the math: 50% of 80% is 40% of the total Greens vote (3-4% of the total vote) that is up for grabs as ALP #2 if they attack the Just Vote 1 strategy. For LNP, the extra votes they win if every Greens voter fills in every box is a quarter of Labor’s gain so no wonder they do not want everyone to fill in the entire ballot (stats from Anthony Green’s blog).

There is therefore absolutely no basis for the ALP complaint that Greens “open tickets” risk handing the election to LNP. The stats actually indicate that Labor voters are far more likely to behave in a way that is perverse to their interests.

The 20% of Greens voters who put LNP ahead of Labor are probably converts from LNP on enviro or other issues where Greens are ahead of Labor and aren’t going to put ALP ahead of LNP no matter what. What would Labor prefer? That these people stay with the LNP?

Labor meanwhile is issuing a call to “put LNP last” which implies filling in all the squares, and is getting huffy about anyone who suggests variants. No doubt they are worrying about confusing the message. If they had not invested so much in confusing voters before (like Peter Beattie’s Just Vote 1 campaign) they would have an easier time now. Their attempts at portraying the Greens as spoilers are not matched by the historical stats.