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Phantom Planet - California

I'm going to California in two days time, for a week. My bosses and I are going to the ISP Convention.

I will attempt to blog about it all I can. I have a whole stack of song titles to use as blog-entry titles.

The song in the title is the theme tune of the show the OC. The show makes California look idyllic, and the lyrics of the song are:

We've been on the run
Driving in the sun
Looking out for #1
California here we come
Right back where we started from


Here we come!

On the stereo
Listen as we go
Nothing's gonna stop me now
California here we come
Right back where we started from
Pedal to the floor
Thinkin' of the roar
Gotta get us to the show
California here we come
Right back where we started from

Here we come
California seems to be pretty much a dream destination. However, the funny bit is, I'm not especially excited. I'm keen to go and all, although I'm more looking forward to seeing Tim and the Family Girls, to be frank.

Getting an American Visa was actually quite easy - we filled in the forms, and went down to the American Embassy in Cape Town early on Tuesday morning. We had to go through metal detectors to get into the building, and then up to the seventh floor where the embassy was. They wouldn't let us in, however, we had to queue down the stairs while they took people in one at a time. These people were then searched and metal-detectored before being allowed in properly.

Now, I take my satchel with me everywhere, and it's got all sorts of things in it, that I might need. For example, it's got a toothbrush and toothpaste, a hat, a book, some strepsils, some deodorant, a can of liqui fruit, some oatbran, and so on. It's just stuff I have in my bag, I don't think about it. However, when we got to the embassy, they made me unpack the whole thing. I also have a pocket of the bag where I chuck the after-dinner mints I get when I go out to eat. So, there are about 70 after-dinner mints in there now. They unpacked every single one of them and scanned them all. Meanwhile, the queue behind me is huffing and puffing and I'm highly embarrassed.

They wouldn't let me take the liqui-fruit into the embassy (you know how dangerous fruit juice is), and they made me eat some of my toothpaste, in front of them, to prove that it wasn't anthrax, or something. I had to spray some of my deodorant on my arm, to show it wasn't Saren Gas, or something.

Anyway, I got the Visa, and I'm going to America. The Visa doesn't guarantee entry to the country, of course. It just means they won't definitely refuse you access. They can still turn you away when you get to the port of entry.

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.

The Blair Toilet

To my surprise, not many people outside of Zimbabwe know about the Blair Toilet. This revolutionary design for a long-drop toilet was developed at the Blair Research Institute for mass deployment in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, where diseases such as cholera and typhoid were rife. The toilet is easy to construct, but its design makes it very clean, hygienic, and free of flies. It is described here as "[using] little or no flush system, [being] odorless, free of insects, and [doubling] as a bathroom." There is a description of the mechanism here, but the basic idea is that the pit underneath the toilet has a chimney or vent - warm air rises out of this chimney, taking the smells and flies with it. There is also a sort of valve system created by the doorway and the positioning of the vent which means that flies always attempt to fly the wrong way, trapping themselves further.

The pure genius of the system inspired a doctor friend of mine to write the following:

Ode to the Blair Toilet (or: Privy Paean)

By Charl Oettle, 1982

You may sit upon this privy
Looking neat and clean and spivvy
And may wonder where the flies and odours went
Yes, the whole place smells of jasmine
And each fly is now a has-been
They've been flummoxed by the privy with the vent.

In the old days every toilet
(Though one tried so hard to foil it)
Smelled and reeked and ponged enough to make one faint,
And the flies bred out in dozens
With their uncles, aunts and cousins
And to use such privies one need be a saint.

Any other lesser mortal
As he staggered through the portal
Would break out in language loud and short and strong,
And to atavistic howls
He'd evacuate his bowels
Swatting flies and holding noses in the pong.

But these troubles now are ended
As the privy has been vented
And it's looking rather good and clean and fresh (tra la la);
In the sun the vent gets hotter,
And it sucks out quite a lotter
Smells and flies that bump their heads against the mesh.

Having flown so quick and nimbly
Up the hot and foetid chimbly
Now their brains and hopes are dashed and will is spent,
And they die, now ten, now twenty,
In their cesspit horn of plenty -
Vindication for the privy with the vent!

A Saffie-to-be...

As mentioned last year, I applied for determination of South African citizenship, but the application took a lot longer than expected and then stalled. I ended up actually being the go-between for three different Home Affairs departments, one in Grahamstown, one in Paarl, and one in Pretoria. I literally phoned them, took messages, and passed those messages on to the other departments. My determination finally came through in about May, and it said that I was not eligible. Then the next day, apparently, it said I was. I'm not sure how it works, but all I know is that I can apply for citizenship. My grandparents are citizens, so I have to actually apply on my father's behalf, and then apply on my own behalf, through my father. Anyway, I have finally scraped all the paperwork together, and sent it in, and they said it'll come through in six months. That's February next year. Bated breath is with what I wait. Soon I can be PSA?

The Sloth

An excerpt from Life of Pi by Yann Martel:

After one year of high school, I attended the University of Toronto and took a double-major Bachelor's degree. My majors were religious studies and zoology. My fourth-year thesis for religious studies concerned certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed. My zoology thesis was a functional analysis of the thyroid gland of the three-toed sloth. I chose the sloth because its demeanour--calm, quiet and introspective--did something to soothe my shattered self.

There are two-toed sloths and there are three-toed sloths, the case being determined by the forepaws of the animals, since all sloths have three claws on their hind paws. I had the great luck one summer of studying the three-toed sloth in situ in the equatorial jungles of Brazil. It is a highly intriguing creature. Its only real habit is indolence. It sleeps or rests on average twenty hours a day. Our team tested the sleep habits of five wild three-toed sloths by placing on their heads, in the early evening after they had fallen asleep, bright red plastic dishes filled with water. We found them still in place late the next morning, the water of the dishes swarming with insects. The sloth is at its busiest at sunset, using the word busy here in the most relaxed sense. It moves along the bough of a tree in its characteristic upside-down position at the speed of roughly 400 metres an hour. On the ground, it crawls to its next tree at the rate of 250 metres an hour, when motivated, which is 440 times slower than a motivated cheetah. Unmotivated, it covers four to five metres in an hour.

The three-toed sloth is not well informed about the outside world. On a scale of 2 to 10, where 2 represents unusual dullness and 10 extreme acuity, Beebe (1926) gave the sloth's senses of taste, touch, and its sense of smell a rating of 3. If you come upon a sleeping three-toed sloth in the wild, two or three nudges should suffice to awaken it; it will then look sleepily in every direction but yours. Why it should look about is uncertain since the sloth sees everything in a Magoo-like blur. Beebe reported that firing guns next to sleeping or feeding sloths elicited little reaction. And the sloth's slightly better sense of smell should not be overestimated. They are said to be able to sniff and avoid decayed branches, but Bullock (1968) reported that sloths fall to the ground clinging to decayed branches "often".

How does it survive, you might ask?

Precisely by being so slow. Sleepiness and slothfulness keep it out of harm's way, away from the notice of jaguars, ocelots, harpy eagles and anacondas. A sloth's hairs shelter an algae that is brown during the dry season and green during the wet season, so the animal blends in with the surrounding moss and foliage and looks like a nest of white ants or of squirrels, or like nothing at all but part of a tree.

The three-toed sloth lives a peaceful, vegetarian life in perfect harmony with its environment. "A good-natured smile is forever on its own lips," reported Tirler (1966). I have seen that smile with my own eyes. I am not one given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals, but many a time during that month in Brazil, up at sloths in repose, I felt I was in the presence of upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer, wise beings whose intense imaginative lives were beyond the reach of my scientific probing.

Women's Day

Yesterday, August 9th, was Women's Day, which is a public holiday in South Africa. I didn't do much at all, basically just sat around in my underwear all day.

I did get thrown out of a couple of places, though.


As anybody who has studied English literature can tell you, drama is created by conflict. Without conflict, there is no drama. You can't tell a story about everybody getting along just fine. Whether the conflict is external (between Romeo's family and Juliet's family in an endless feud) or internal (between Hamlet and himself, undecided over what the best course of action is), there must be conflict before anything meaningful can happen.

This is true everywhere, however, not just in literature. You need conflict in your life - the "battle" gives you a goal, something that defines your life. How do you know whether you are achieving anything? You examine your conflict, and see how close you are to winning. Without this conflict, every day is the same. A man who has no conflict is, to be frank, boring - nothing happens in his life, it's empty. You can't talk to him about anything.

Having thought about it, I think there are two types of people in this area. There are those that consider the conflict in their lives to be a free-for-all battle against the rest of the world: they are on one side, with their allies, and everybody else is on the other side. The other type consider the conflict to be between those in the right, and those in the wrong, good-vs-bad. This latter type sounds a little dangerous - very fundamentalist. Everybody always accuses the Americans of being of this sort: they think that they are in the right, and that their enemies are in the wrong, and they use this as a justification for their actions. However, I think that the Americans are more of the free-for-all type: they think that the other side is wrong because it's the other side. They will denounce you as being unprincipled and terrorist if you criticize them, because you criticized them. They see it in terms of us and them, and then apply their principles to the situation afterwards, in order to justify it. By contrast, the good-vs-bad type will identify the principles they believe in, and will then defend those principles. I personally identify more with this latter type - I think it is a good thing to formalise what you think is good, then to do your best to be on that side.

I'd like to apply this dichotomy in the way people view conflict to two areas: software, and personal relationships.

Open Source advocates, I think, tend to be in the good-vs-bad camp. While some simply see Open Source as more practical than the proprietary way, a lot of advocates will fervently believe that not only is it more practical, but it is somehow right. Software wants to be free! It's wrong to withhold your code! I am definitely in this camp - I unfortunately get quite rabid about some of these issues. But one thing I've noticed is that many Open Source advocates are also activists in many other areas. The Rhodes/RUCUS geeks are all fervent Open Source advocates, and many of them are working on projects to bring computers, technology and education to underprivileged schools. The TuxLab phenomenon is well known: people give up a day of their time to go out and install computers in rural schools. They do this because they feel that it is the right thing to do. They are more often than not activists in other areas, too: most commonly politically.

On the other hand, Microsoft supporters (supporters, mind, not just people who are just using their software) tend to see the world as an us-vs-them battle. They license their software because they want to make money. More often than not, they will see no problem with charging exorbitant prices, if people are willing to pay them. They write software for personal gain, not because it needs doing. I know I am generalising badly here, but there is a definite trend in that direction, even if it is not always the case.

In personal relationships, this idea of conflict also applies. There are those who think that Liebe ist Krieg - love is war. You have to play your cards right to get what you want. Don't tell the other person how you feel too much, or too early - you have to keep your cards hidden, so you can play trump cards later. I've often noticed a strange phenomenon: two people who seem very loving and caring one week, once they break up, are venomously hateful to each other the next week. Their friends badmouth the other person, they are catty and mean. How can you go out with somebody for so long, and then do a complete 180 degree turn? The fact is, they are treating it as an us-vs-them conflict. If the person is not on your side, then they're the enemy. This is why you play mind-games during the relationship: it's a battle.

On the other hand, some people see it as a good-vs-bad battle. You're trying to do the right thing. You're open and honest. You lay your cards on the table, and so on. You consider that the relationship is a good relationship, and that the two of you are good for each other. Thus, you do your best to make it work.

Normally, people that do this get absolutely shredded by everybody else.

Being an us-vs-them fighter is often better for one personally. You're fighting for yourself, with whoever happens to be allied with you. If they don't ally with you, they become the enemy, and you can fight them tooth and nail as well. Since the only real principle is alliance, you can use any means to fight, be it dirty or not. On the other hand, a good-vs-bad fighter does not choose his opponents, he chooses his principles. Anybody aligned with his principles is his ally, whether he likes it or not. He cannot choose his methods, either - he must fight for the principles without betraying them. This is probably why he gets screwed so badly half the time.

Having said all this, I can't really think why you'd want to be a good-vs-bad fighter any more. Except that I think it's the right thing to do. However, somebody who was only interested in what was going to be best for himself (possibly an us-vs-them fighter?) would not choose that way, since it's bound to lose. He'd say, screw which way is the best to choose, I'm going with the way that's a winner. In other words, whichever way you see conflict, you're not going to change, because of the way you see conflict.

I'm not sure if that's bad or good.

Monkey business

Guy (Taylor, not Halse) has already nabbed the Beatles lyric about monkeys, so I had to think up some other pun for the title of this entry. I haven't excelled myself, but it'll do.

On #crypt on the SILC server, we're having our own version of celebrity deathmatch, as an indirect result of a challenge thrown at me to prove that one person was objectively more stupid than another (although my well known theory ("People Are Dof") has much supporting evidence) . Certain individuals on the channel have been chosen as monkeys, and Guy, Peter and I are their handlers, to see how they do. Think of it as a social experiment. Guy has posted the rules of the contest. Personally, I think my monkey, Patrick from XSInet, has it in the bag.

Why I Hate The Corporation

I don't drink Coca Cola, or eat McDonalds, and all that pinko-liberal leftie hippie longhair tree-hugging stuff. But it's not just because I think it's cool to strut around in tie-dye, and have nothing else to protest about. This post is an attempt to explain what the Corporation is, and why I think it is a Bad Thing.

The Corporation was actually illegal in England between 1720 and 1825 - the Bubble Act made them illegal, because they were just horribly prone to abuse. However, the Act was repealed in 1825, because the Corporation had become necessary during the Industrial Revolution. When people started on a business venture, they normally formed partnerships: two or three people put their money together to finance the new venture. However, it just wasn't possible for these people to raise the sort of capital needed to lay railway track right across a continent, or build huge factories. This is where the Corporation comes in. The idea of a corporation is that people buy shares: an effective way of getting a large number of people to put in their money. In this way, you can raise a much larger amount of money, and finance much bigger ventures. However, the new structure has some clear flaws. On the one hand, you have the managers of the company, who run it, but who have not actually put any money into it. On the other hand, you have the investors, who have put the money in, but do not take part in actually running the company. An important point is to note that the investors have limited liability: this means that they can't lose more than they put in - nobody will sell their house to get the company out of any debt it lands itself in. So, we have two parties: the managers who don't care because it's not their money, and the investors, who don't care because they are not liable if things do go down the creek.

Another problem comes in when mergers and acquisitions are allowed (they were not, at first - they're a terrible idea, and used to be illegal). Now, instead of having lots of smallish corporations, which can be watched and governed, you have an enormous monolithic corporation with hundreds of thousands of people involved. There is no way you can mobilise so many shareholders to try to influence the management of the company. With only twenty shareholders, you can threaten to cut off the money, and force the management to make decisions. With the company sizes we now have, this is just unfeasible - corporations buy each other out, and get larger and larger. To illustrate: there were 1800 corporations in America in 1898. Six years later, in 1904, they had been consolidated into 157. "In less than a decade, the U.S. economy had been transformed from one in which individually owned enterprises competed freely among themselves into one dominated by a relatively few huge corporations, each owned by many shareholders" (Joel Bakan).

The next step happened towards the end of the nineteenth century: the Corporation was reclassified as a legal entity. This means that, to all intents and purposes, according to the law, the Corporation was an actual person. This person could own property, sue people, be sued, and so on. To illustrate - the Supreme Court in America invoked the Fourteenth Amendment in 1886, to say that the Corporation had rights to "due process of law" and "equal protection of the laws". The Fourteenth Amendment was originally entrenched in the Constititution to protect newly freed slaves...

So, we have a legal entity that exists in perpetuity (Disney Corporation is still Disney Corporation even though none of the original employees or shareholders are still alive - the Corporation goes on, people come and go. It owns property, both material and intellectual, and it will continue to own it, long beyond a normal lifetime), which is made up of a bunch of people who really aren't responsible in any sense for what the corporation does.

This is where we get a bit philosophical. You may have read "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. His basic argument is animals are driven by their DNA, and everything they do is essentially aimed at passing their genes on. In this way, an animal will appear to be acting irrationally when it starves itself to provide food for its offspring, or when it kills itself to defend them. However, these actions are perfectly rational when you consider that the goal is not self-preservation, but gene-preservation.
We have seen that a Corporation is an entity. I want to argue that it is more similar to DNA-based entities (such as humans) than is at first obvious. It clearly has no DNA driving it to reproduce - that is not what Corporations do. The "DNA" of a Corporation is money: its sole purpose is to make more money. That is what it is for, and every action it does will have the ultimate goal of making more money.

This is going to happen regardless of whether people want it to or not. I'm not saying that people are going to purposefully commit crimes to make money for the corporation. It will just happen. Think about it: if somebody in division A says to himself: "I had better not implement that policy, as it is ethically wrong, even though we'll lose money", his division will not do as well as it could have. At the end of the month, somewhere up the ladder, somebody is going to review the results, and notice that division A has not been doing as well as division B (with an unscrupulous manager). Just because of the numbers, division A will get dropped, and division B will get moved up. It's just a matter of economics. Corporations that sacrifice profits for principles will not do as well as other corporations.

Before I get accused of being overly negative: this Do-Everything-For-Profit thing is actually entrenched in the laws of America. In 1916, Henry Ford decided to cancel the dividend, and funnel the money back to the customers, and the product - he wanted to produce a better car, for a cheaper price. The Dodge brothers (two partners) took him to court, and won. Dodge vs Ford stands as precedent to this day: managers and directors have a legal duty to put shareholder's interests above all others, and no legal authority to serve any other interests. This is the "Best Interests of the Corporation" principle: everything should be done for the best interests of the corporation, and nothing else.

An even scarier legal case: on Christmas morning, in 1993, Patricia Andersen's car was rammed by a drunken driver, and exploded, severely burning her and her children. The findings later were that General Motors had intentionally moved the fuel tank closer to the axle, to cut costs. They realised that this could cause accidents, but they did a little sum: they estimated that there would be about 500 fatalities as a result of this change, and that each fatality would cost them about $200,000 in legal damages. They divided this by the 41 million GM vehicles in operation, and discovered that it would cost them $2.40 per car. However, the cost of ensuring that the fuel tank wasn't a risk was $8.59 per car. Therefore, in the full knowledge that deaths would result, they moved the fuel tank, because it was cost effective.
These sorts of actions are the direct results of an entity whose sole purpose is to make money. And since these entities are now so powerful that they control the government (Corporations are the only things rich enough to fund political campaigns), there is no way of getting rid of them.

Possibly more on this at another time.

Joburg: Innovation Fund, Linuxworld

Apologies for a seriously late post. Joburg was great, we didn't win, we didn't expect to, much fun was had by all.

LinuxWorld was great fun. I got to work at the Go:Opensource stand, doing my bit for Linux Advocacy, and earning myself a free geek t-shirt and a geek mug, and stuff. I also met Jon "Maddog" Hall, who was quite a character, as one would expect. One thing that did surprise me was the puppy-dog awe with which several of the other geeks (Rhodes ones specifically) treated him. I wouldn't say that I am a disrespectful person. I just give everybody the same amount of respect (where "everybody", of course, means "everybody, except children and women and foreigners and poor people and cripples and stupid people and the insane and black people and Jews and lawyers and gay people and criminals and people who like Westlife and the Dutch"). Maybe there's not enough to go round or something. I just didn't feel that anybody, no matter how famous, should be treated with such awe and trembling. He's just this guy, you know? A really nice guy, with some great stories, and a lot of experience and wisdom under his belt. But just a guy.

One upshot of going to Joburg is that I have been offered a job at OpenVoice. Which makes my life substantially more complicated.

To Joburg

I am heading up to Joburg tomorrow, for the prizegiving of the National Finals of the Innovation Fund. Together with Jason Penton and a chap from Fort Hare, I was on the team that won the regional competition last year, in Grahamstown. This qualified us to go up for the finals, which should be good. I get a free plane ticket there and back, and lodging in the City Lodge in Bryanston. I will also see all the RUCUS Linuxworld Geeks (who are, as I type this, out having beer with Jon "Maddog" Hall, no less), and I will get to spend the weekend with Tim and all the Family girls! Hurrah!

Back on Sunday afternoon.


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