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Archive - 2006

Date

October 25th

In or Out?

My RSS feeds recently turned up the following two entries, which juxtapose each other interestingly:

Measure for measure. Tony Blair's quotation about how a good way to judge that America was still a good country was by comparing how many people wanted in with how many people wanted out.

Getting out: your guide to leaving America. Mark Ehrman's guide to leaving America.

Update: Ask Slashdot asks where Americans would go, if they left.

October 24th

Opel Xhosa

I feel obliged to blog about my new Opel Xhosa 1.6 Elegance, which I took posession of yesterday evening. Her name is Sally, short for "Sala kakuhle", which is Xhosa for "stay well", apparently.

sally

August 8th

July 27th

We'll see.

Maybe you and her can go to Mike's Kitchen together.
And have a themed birthday.
And have Bubblegum Milkshakes.
And get some clown to make you animal shapes from balloons.
And then you and her can promise to get married when you move out from your respective parents' homes.
And maybe become Blood Buddies.
Until she goes off to another school across town.
And meets up with a rugby player called Biff.
Who has a license.
And has a brother that's old enough to buy beer.
And then you'll be cross.
And you'll throw your bicycle down some stairs.
And drink so much Cherry Cola that you throw up.
All over yourself.
Then you'll see her and Biff and Biff's brother Chuck.
Driving down the main road.
Laughing the carefree laugh.
Of drunk people in love.
Then we'll see.

(With thanks to Shane Wentzel.)

July 26th

Democracy Followup

There were some rather nice comments to my post on voter apathy, but this rather good comment by James Reeler (last seen co-starring in another of my blog entries) deserves a post of its own:

The real reason for voter apathy is not just a sense of "my vote can't make a difference", but also the fact that there is often so little to choose between parties. Looking at Western governments such as the US, UK and Germany, the election frequently boils down to three or four key issues that determine which of the parties is best suited to running the country.

Things are not very different here in South Africa, although the issues are often more visceral - the topic of choice for the local elections was service delivery, in terms of providing housing, sewerage, electricity and water. Granted, the ANC has not done an overwhelmingly good job in the provision of these, and my personal inclination would be to vote them out on that basis. The point here, however, is that all the parties said exactly the same things in the election campaign. We have no reason to believe that any one party is better situated to make good on their election promises, and whilst the political will may vary, it requires a very astute judgment of character to ascertain which person is merely saying the words, and which believes it in a heartfelt manner. In the end, it often comes down to which individual you like better, without having ever met them (or in most cases, without actually hearing them debate).

Furthermore, despite all the political will in the world, the implementation of any scheme still goes through the same bureacracy, since civil service is integral to the process of governance but nominally independent of party politics. This naturally provides a certain level of inertia to any process of transformation. Furthermore, many of the international treaty agreements and trade legislation entered into by previous governments is binding. To a large extent, the international lobby and the lobby from large corporate concerns drive government policy, and a change in governance must still fall within this neo-liberal framework. This prohibits radical change in government policy, despite the political will of changing parties. The reason people say that their votes don't count is often because they do not - parties may be voted in on the back of popular assent, but after that are only marginally answerable to them.

And lastly, the process of democracy, whilst giving the illusion of involving people in the process of government, really limits their interaction to a very minimal level. Once you've voted, your participation is negligible, even in subsequent arising issues that impact on your life in a serious manner. For instance, I may in general agree with party A's policies regarding social welfare, agricultural subsidies and land redistribution, but they completely fail to mention their policy on the sale of arms to neighbouring countries. I am obliged to vote for them as the lesser of several evils, but must then live with the fact that I have condoned killing in neighbouring countries by proxy. Ann I am not able to address the issue, except by voting the party out of power in several years time.

In essence, what we have is a failing of democracy to meet its remit - that of allowing the people a voice in government. How to address that failing is a huge topic, but perhaps not one we should discuss at the moment. The point is that democracy will ONLY allow you to vote in another party, not to address the issues of what you see as the best option. Or, to put it in terms of Ingrid's example, you are never entitled to criticise your friends - just to ostracise them.

I agree with Jonathan and Dominic that attitudes are important, and that developing a culture of intelligent criticism is essential. However, I'm not certain that it is in the act of voting that it is most likely to be found. People need to think about the effects of poor governance on their lives more often than once every four years or so, and to raise issues when they need to be addressed.

And I'm happy to say that of the several nations that I have personally experienced, South Africa has one of the most questioning and politically active populaces. Granted, there is not a particularly high turnout at elections, but every day lobby groups and grassroots movements make their disapproval known on any number of issues. Not voting in South Africa does NOT mean that you necessarily approve of the government's policies - it merely means that you do not see a better alternative available. That does not prevent you from making your point regarding specific issues on which you differ with the goverment's stance, through public demonstration, lobbying, or even letter-writing. The assumption that a poor voter turnout reflects a society that is not politically active may be generally true, but it certainly does not hold for South Africa. People are prepared to stand up for what they believe in, but tend to address issues in which they have a particular interest.

May 9th

Dear World

Dear World,

Please stop using the word "nubile" until you know what it means.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

-Jonathan

May 5th

His Excellency, the President of Zimbabwe

Today, this happened to me:

Robert Mugabe wishes to add you to his MSN buddy list

I accepted, and the following conversation ensued:

Conversation with robertgabrielmugabe@hotmail.com at 2006-05-05 11:50:18 on vhata-msn@rucus.ru.ac.za (msn)
(11:50:09) Robert Mugabe: Aha. Hello, Mr Hitchcock.
(11:50:25) Jonathan: Hi there
(11:50:50) Robert Mugabe: How's the 'Bosch
(11:51:07) Jonathan: all good
(11:51:30) Jonathan: How's Zim?
(11:52:23) Robert Mugabe: It's beautiful. Many farms are being harvested, and my people are happy.
(11:53:02) Jonathan: delighted to hear it
(11:53:41) Robert Mugabe: I was hoping to get in touch with someone of your capabilities - we're having a hard time monitoring all the emails coming in to the country, and I thought perhaps you might have some interest in preventing subversion in our fine nation.
(11:53:53) Robert Mugabe: You will be suitably compensated, of course.
(11:54:13) Jonathan: in what currency?
(11:54:40) Robert Mugabe: Land, naturally. The only currency that matters. How does a sugar farm in Triangle sound to you?
(11:55:10) Jonathan: I'm diabetic
(11:55:37) Robert Mugabe: Ah. Tobacco?
(11:55:50) Jonathan: smoking aggravates diabetes
(11:56:01) Jonathan: so does caffeine, by the way, but I drink coffee anyway
(11:56:09) Jonathan: how's Chipinge?
(11:56:35) Robert Mugabe: I happen to know of a family that are planning to leave... imminently. You could perhaps take their bakkie back from the airport when you arrive.
(11:56:52) Robert Mugabe: So you'll do it?
(11:57:05) Jonathan: I didn't say that
(11:57:12) Robert Mugabe: Only one thing - you'll have to change your name. I don't trust people named Jonathan any more.
(11:57:42) Jonathan: I could change it to Morgan?
(11:58:41) Robert Mugabe: Yes. I like that. A person whos not afraid to speak his mind. Although I would have thought perhaps you would choose someone with a larger mental capacity, and less of a tendency for puppetry.
(12:01:41) Robert Mugabe: Of course, should you decide not to work for me, you must remember that your sister's safe-keeping is also in your hands
(12:01:50) Jonathan: why is that?
(12:02:50) Robert Mugabe: Some friends of mine are keeping an eye on her. You might say they're an integral part of her life. it would be so sad if they were to have to leave.
(12:03:05) Robert Mugabe: If you know what I mean
(12:03:16) Jonathan: I'm not sure I do
(12:03:21) Jonathan: to which sister do you refer?
(12:03:39) Robert Mugabe: Talitha.
(12:04:48) Robert Mugabe: I believe you haven't seen her since January?
(12:05:00) Jonathan: not since January *last* year
(12:07:00) Robert Mugabe: Shame. I haven't seen my sister for a while either. One can get used to their absence, but it's never good.
(12:07:18) Jonathan: I have a worry
(12:07:33) Jonathan: I heard Batman was taking an interest in Zimbabwe
(12:07:50) Robert Mugabe: I see. I what manner?
(12:07:57) Jonathan: planning to 'save' it
(12:08:40) Robert Mugabe: But I have already done that - no need for fictional characters' involvement.
(12:09:13) Jonathan: I merely say what I've heard
(12:10:58) Robert Mugabe: And you no doubt heard it from monitoring various strange "news groups" on the internet. As I said, a man of your capabilities is wasting his time in South Africa, and especially looking at such nonsense.
(12:11:15) Robert Mugabe: you could be a hero in Zimbabwe.
(12:11:56) Jonathan: I'd have to think about it
(12:12:54) Robert Mugabe: Of course. I gather you've had some appealing offers from various organisations around the world. Believe me, we can more than equal any offer you've been made.
(12:13:11) Jonathan: they offer portable property
(12:13:50) Robert Mugabe: Why bother? You can have everything you need in one place, and make a life fit for a king. (12:14:45) Jonathan: but that's so constricting
(12:16:31) Robert Mugabe: It's all a amatter of perspective. You can travel wherever you want in the world, but you have to accept some limitations. On the other hand, where can you have a better quality of life than here in Africa?

(Note: the Batman reference was because some friends of mine made a huge poster that they held up at the cricket in Zimbabwe that said "Only Batman can save Zimbabwe from Robert Mugabe now". It was a sort of pre-Chuck Chuck Norris joke.)

(It turned out to be James Reeler, a friend of mine from Zimbabwe who is now studying in Cape Town.)

March 23rd

Why the RIAA is wrong

DJ Green Lantern has released a mix-tape of Fort Minor's excellent album "The Rising Tied", called "We Major". Adrian recently downloaded it, legally (it was released purposely onto the internet as a promotional tool).

18:51 <Outsider> wow
18:51 <Outsider> We Major ++
18:51 <Outsider> just heard about 20 seconds
18:51 <Outsider> and I'm hooked!
18:51 <Vhata> Outsider: how's S.C.O.M ?
18:52 -+- Outsider tries it
18:52 <Outsider> WOW!
18:52 <Outsider> where can I buy this?

March 13th

Owning Everything

Owning Everything

by Leonard Cohen


For your sake I said I will praise the moon,
tell the colour of the river,
find new words for the agony
and ecstacy of gulls.

Because you are close,
everything that men make, observe
or plant is close, is mine:
the gulls slowly writhing, slowly singing
on the spears of wind;
the iron gate above the river;
the bridge holding between stone fingers
her cold bright necklace of pearls.

The branches of shore trees,
like trembling charts of rivers,
call the moon for an ally
to claim their sharp journeys
out of the dark sky,
but nothing in the sky responds.
The branches only give a sound
to miles of wind.

With your body and your speaking
you have spoken for everything,
robbed me of my strangerhood,
made me one
with the root and gull and stone,
and because I sleep so near to you
I cannot embrace
or have my private love with them.

You worry that I will leave you.
I will not leave you.
Only strangers travel.
Owning everything,
I have nowhere to go.

March 2nd

Democracy

Yesterday was a public holiday in South Africa, so that everybody could vote in the local elections. I recently got my South African citizenship and as much as I would have wanted to, it was too late for me to register to vote.

Ingrid has written a piece in which she denounces voter apathy. While I agree that voter apathy is not a good thing, I disagree with her reasons. The common reason given for not voting is, as Ingrid points out, "one vote means nothing". Ingrid's rebuttal is that voting means you did your part in creating the government, and that, therefore, if you didn't vote, you can't complain about the government.

Firstly, "doing one's part" is a bit of a hippie idea that doesn't mean anything. Nobody ever wins the elections by just one vote. Therefore, if you hadn't cast that extra vote, all else being the same, the outcome would not have changed. The spiel about doing one's part is more a personal motivation - it makes you feel warm and fuzzy that you were a part of it, but it really doesn't, on the surface, change the outcome of the election, and is therefore, in my opinion, and taken at its face value, not a good reason to vote.

Secondly, "if you didn't vote, you can't complain". This is absolutely untrue. It's on the same level as saying "if you can't do any better, you can't criticize". It's bollocks. I can read a book and say that it's crap, even if I can't do any better. I can listen to a song and say that it sucks, even if I have nary a musical bone in my body. The point is, the person made the song, wrote the book, put the painting on exhibition, or ran for government. In doing this, they basically announced to the world that they were worth something in that role. If I examine their performance and decide that they're not worth something in that role, I am perfectly within my rights to say so. I'm not claiming I can do better, I'm simply saying that they should not put themselves in a certain position, if they're too inept to fulfill their duties.

So, why should we vote? If it doesn't affect the outcome, and doesn't imbue me with any special rights or privileges, why should I do it? Before I explain why I think we should vote, I think I should pause to point out that there is actually no hard evidence that democracy works at all.

Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, proposes the following thought experiment: take the top 10% (or whatever) of intelligent (or wise, or most-qualified-to-make-decisions, or whatever) people in the world. Only allow them to vote. There are two possible outcomes: the results are radically different to a normal vote, or the results are just the same. If the results are radically different, then it's clear that democracy is simply rule-by-the-stupid, and is badly broken. If the results are the same, then it's clear that democracy doesn't have any effect on the decision process, and is badly broken. I'm not sure about his final conclusion, but I do know that if the results are the same if only a few people vote, then it indicates that democracy isn't all that its cracked up to be. Anyway, that's Scott Adams's view. Terry Pratchett has a similar view. He writes in one of his books that democracy seems fairly fine on paper, and in theory, until you realise that [insert utterly objectionable moron's name here] gets a say in the government, and in fact the same amount of say as yourself, and you realise the fundamental flaw in democracy.

I'm not in full agreement with either Scott Adams or Terry Pratchett, but I am pretty sure that there is no clear evidence that democracy actually works. It's never really been proven, if you know what I mean. Basically, it seems to be the worst of a bad set of options. Rather all the idiots get to rule than one complete prat.

This brings me to why I think we should vote. My reasoning rests on some very shaky premises, and is not at all set in stone, so I'm looking forward to rebuttals.

First of all, we need to introduce the concept of fractals. Fractals are a mathematical concept, which I will try to describe here very quickly. Without going into the details (although I will supply them on demand) of how it works, they are the graphical representation of a mathematical function. So, for example, we have the function:

t = t - t2 + k
This function gets iterated many times for every point in the area, and certain properties of the function contribute to the end colour that the point is given. Thus, after a while, every point is given a colour, and we get the pretty pictures that we're familiar with. The important thing to note is that every point in the image is generated by the same function. So, the entire image is created with the same sort of blueprint. Compare this to an organism, which is created of lots of tiny cells, each of which is constructed from the same DNA. The only difference in fractals are the coordinates of the point, and the only difference in an organism is ... actually, I have no idea what causes cells to differentiate. But there's some difference or other. Same starting point, though.

As the wikipedia article linked above says: "Fractals can be most simply defined as images that can be divided into parts, each of which is similar to the original object". Each part of the image is made from the same blueprint as the original, so no matter how far you zoom in to the image, you'll get similarities popping out. Trees are the same - a branch of a tree looks similar to the entire tree. A twig on the branch looks similar (or has similar properties) to the entire branch, and so on. Coastlines too - you can tell a lot about a coastline from simply looking at a small section of it.

Here we get to my point: society, too, is fractal. This much is clear: if an entire country is happy and prosperous, then individual cities will be happy and prosperous. Suburbs will have similar sociological characteristics to the cities they are suburbs of, and so on, down to personal level. Of course there are divergences - there will always be poor people in prosperous countries, but the point is that, on average, there are similarities at a low level to the high level picture.

Here's the logical leap. If I am apathetic, and I don't care about the government, or the municipality, and I don't care what happens, then the chances are that I live in an apathetic society. This has often been the case: we get reports of "voter apathy" from certain countries. Zimbabwe, for instance. The people just don't care enough to go and vote, because they don't think it's worth it. But in the 1994 elections in South Africa, people turned out in droves, because they really really gave a damn. A small sub-section of society is a good indication of what the larger society is thinking. For this reason, we should strive to care. We should strive to give a damn. We should strive to want things to change for the better. If we care, then a reverse-fractal effect occurs: that small portion of society around us starts caring. And that small portion affects a larger portion. It scales up as well as down.

This is why, even though one vote clearly does not count, one attitude does. I couldn't vote because I couldn't register on time. Mandy and Carla couldn't vote because they lost their IDs. Tim couldn't vote because he was in the wrong ward for the elections. But they would have voted if they could have. And therefore, they have "done their bit" already. They care enough to have wanted to vote, and that is what the country needs. It doesn't need their +1. It needs their give-a-damn.

(Incidentally, this is the same argument used to explain why my own personal activism works. I don't drink Coca Cola and the like, and it doesn't make the tiniest dent on their market - one person who doesn't buy their product doesn't affect them in the slightest. But I'm an activist, and I care, and people around me want to know why I boycott their product, and I explain. Eventually, it ripples out, and it has an effect. Activism works.)

Update: Colin has his own rant.

Update: My boss, Gideon, has his own thoughts:

The problem with Western society is that the rights and the importance of the individual is elevated above those of the group while the contribution and responsibilities of the individual is watered down. That is one reason why people like you and me are at odds with society a lot of the time. There is also this fairygodmotherism we suffer from that gives people the idea that somebody else needs to come and save them rather than they themselves.

(My 2c and not strictly in answer to your blog)

There is this thing on TV called "Home Makeover" or such. These guys take pity on you and show up to re-model your whole house. They usually go for people with some problem, like no parents or a physical disability (not mental, retards don't make cool TV). The actual work they do is really really great and I think it makes the lives of the people they select much better. But I can't watch it. It just pisses me off how they play FGM to people.

Update: I have made another post out of a comment by James Reeler.

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