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On Tribes

I recently became a contributor to the 20fourlabs blog, and wrote this article as my introductory piece. You can read the original here.

In 2008, Seth Godin published a book called "Tribes". In it, he describes the way he thinks people will change the world from now on: by creating and leading Tribes. Finding and connecting a group of like-minded people, and showing them a path to where they want to go, will make them want to follow you. By building a Tribe like this, you'll be able to wield enough influence to make change that matters.

At its core, a Tribe is a group of people with a common interest or goal, who connect and form a community around that idea, or who enable each other to move towards that goal. There are uncountably large numbers of such Tribes on the Internet today, of all sizes, and since everybody can produce content (whether it's updating your Facebook status or writing a regular column on the Mail and Guardian website), everybody has the chance to build up a following of people who are interested in the ideas behind that content. Webcomics build up Tribes of people interested in their strips, maybe because these people identify with the banality of office life, or maybe just because they love the quirky, funny tone behind the strip. Cape Town Daily Photo also has a community, drawn together by the love of a city and the pleasure taken in viewing little slices of life from that city every day. Then there's Seth Godin himself, who has a huge Tribe of people who are fascinated by the way he views marketing and business; they are drawn together by a common interest in online communities and the way that ideas spread through these communities. This Tribe is slightly different in that, while they are definitely interested in what Seth has to say, many of them will be interested merely because of who is saying it. This is a Tribe of the Personality.

Most blogs and other mediums of online content distribution build up a following because people are interested in the theme, or the type of content being produced. Occasionally, however, as with Seth, Neil Gaiman, and Shaquille O'Neal, the common theme that ties the Tribe together is interest in the author, the Tribe leader, the person behind the content. This leader can say whatever he wants, and it will be avidly consumed, not because it is inherently interesting, but because it is what he has to say. There is nothing wrong with this sort of Tribe - it may be harder to be famous enough to warrant that sort of interest, but it's just another common interest that binds people together.

I have a personal blog, which I've run in its current form since 2004. The posts on this blog range from links that I've found interesting, to updates on my life, to thoughts I've had, to lyrics I've enjoyed, to things that have amused me. In fact, the only common theme that runs through all the posts is that they were written by me. I've written about ideas, quantum physics and the Large Hadron Collider and Democracy, amongst other things. Now, although there might be some interesting posts, nobody would actually subscribe to my blog because they enjoy the content - the feed as a whole is incredibly varied, and basically consists of whatever currently interests me. The small group of people who might be interested in that are my friends: they would subscribe precisely because they're my friends and not because the content interests them per se. In other words, without a specific content theme around which my readership could build a Tribe, the only sort of community that might arise is a Tribe of the Personality, and since I'm not a Hollywood movie star, it's not going to be very big.

As I hinted at when I mentioned Shaquille O'Neal, twitter streams are another way of building up a Tribe. In fact, twitter makes the process very, very easy: the moment you follow somebody, you're in their Tribe, reading what they have to say, already being influenced. Finding other members of their Tribe is as trivial as viewing their follower list, and user- and tweet-searches make refining the whole process a cinch. However, it may have become a little too easy, to the extent that a lot of people think that twitter is solely about what Tribes you're in. They worry more about the number of followers they have, and who is following whom, than about what people are actually saying. This is "follower ratio" - how many people follow you, in comparison to how many people you are following - and it is deemed to be a metric for how "good" you are at twitter. In a way, of course, it is - if you're very interesting or amusing, you will gain a large following. However, it seems that it has become something of a cargo cult: people mistake the symptom (having a good follower ratio) for the cause (being "good", or interesting). They start using disgusting tricks to spam people and try to win followers, instead of simply being creative, funny, or simply a great character, and letting the followers come because they want to be a part of the Tribe.

The weird thing about this attitude is that people get upset if they follow somebody, and that person does not follow them back, to the extent that they will often actually unfollow them again, even though they previously deemed their stream worth reading. I find this crazy - it's like refusing to read a blog or website if the author doesn't read yours. What these people are effectively doing is demanding that anybody whose Tribe they join, joins their Tribe. However, they don't actually provide any idea, goal or common interest to bind their Tribe together. Most of their tweets are (you will find) re-tweets of other people, idle banter, and reports on what they've had for breakfast. From "Short and Tweet" at the Washington Post:

The masses of people who "blurt-tweet" and unthinkingly brain-dump into their account, [...] will never achieve anything more meaningful than a public diary.
Like the Tribe around my personal blog, the only thing the members of this person's Tribe can have in common is an interest in the person himself; it is a Tribe of the Personality. To demand that another person join your Tribe when you follow them is pure arrogance: if you've never met them, and the only thing you're offering is your personality, then it's absurdly vain to expect them unconditionally to reciprocate your interest.

This is my first post on the new 20fourlabs blog. Being invited to contribute to this blog is basically being given a ready-made Tribe: you're presented to an audience as somebody who has something interesting to say, and entrusted with the task of holding their attention and growing the Tribe. Hopefully, I - and the other bloggers - will live up to these expectations by providing consistently good content, rather than arrogantly expecting people to remain members of the Tribe no matter what. I'm looking forward to seeing how it works out.

Five thoughts from five people

Over the last year, I have encountered five people who have said (or written) things that really stuck in my head, and made me think, or think differently, or simply struck me as an excellent way of seeing things. I've tried to put them together into one narrative, and I presented it at the November GeekDinner.


Robynn Burls Robynn Burls was one of the people asked to give an Elevator pitch for her business at a party hosted by Vinny Lingham (my boss, who reappears below). Robynn and her partner, Scott, run Encyclomedia, which provides "targeted and verified media contact lists to companies wanting to gain publicity". In other words, it lets people easily find journalists who actually want to know or hear news about their products, and who can actually write about them, based on the scope of their jobs. In addition, all the details are verified, so they're up-to-date and accurate.

Robynn began her elevator pitch by describing how one often encounters things that are being done in the same old way they've been done for decades, with little or no true innovation. Nobody has thought to update the methods, or re-think how things ought to be done, so they just carry on using the same ancient methods - this leaves a huge space for somebody to come in and create a totally new system based on new ideas and new ways of looking at the problems that are being solved.

This is what Robynn and Scott did with Encyclomedia. The "old way" was to subscribe, for a fee, to a provider, who would post you a book containing a list of journalists and media personnel. This list wasn't "targeted" in any way, it was just... media people. There was no way of knowing if anybody on that list was actually interested in your area or product, so you ran the risk of spamming half of the journalist population of your town. Robynn and Scott saw that there was an excellent opportunity to step into this gap, and created an online, searchable database, to which one can subscribe, which allows you to get exactly the information you need, verified and up-to-date.

This idea is not new, but people rarely seem to use it. To hear Robynn state it outright like that made me realise that it is a perspective that we need to have, but rarely do. Henry Ford famously said:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

I'm not using this to imply that true innovation will be divorced from the customers, or that users don't know what they really want, but rather to point out that a really new way of doing things is not just "more of the same" (harder, better, faster, stronger!), but a complete re-think of the problem, a process which begins with re-asking the questions, not just trying to find new answers.

It's interesting to find examples of people that have applied this concept: PushPlay redefined what "renting a DVD" was, for example - you give them a list of what you want to watch, and they post a couple of your top choices to you at home every time you return the old ones.

So, for everything I've said before about ideas, this is how you can get them if you're stuck - if you can identify an area where people are trudging along an old path without realising it, cut them a shortcut through the undergrowth, and they'll come stampeding.

Thinking Globally

Vinny Lingham Vinny Lingham started SynthaSite, now called Yola - the company for which I work - a year and a half ago (or more, depending on how you measure), with the mantra "Free Websites For Everyone". It was a small startup based in Cape Town, with only about three employees at first, but it raised $5million in venture capital funding last year, and has opened offices in San Francisco, and there are now over thirty employees.

In one of his many pep-talks to us as his employees, he talked about his strategy for the company, from the beginning, and one thing that really stuck with me was what he said about "going global". Basically, he said, whatever your product, whatever your idea, don't constrain yourself to a local market. You may start small, and you may only serve a small market at first, but keep your eyes on the horizon - there is a huge global market waiting to be tapped, and with internet access rapidly spreading, it is now possible to reach out to it.

Vinny was not saying that you should try and throw yourself into competition on an international scale, but you should bear in mind that you will get there eventually. It is, in fact, wise to start small(ish) and consolidate on your home ground before moving out, but don't allow yourself to get trapped in a local-only mindset. There are a number of ways that this might manifest: an unwillingness to branch out too far from your safe area, or even some assumptions underlying your project that you don't even realise are symptoms of a local-only mindset.

An example of this latter problem can be found in one of my favourite websites. I used it as an example of a good idea well executed previously, but there is a problem with DoStuffCT: there is nothing Cape Town-specific about the concept or the implementation of the site, but the idea that it is "for Cape Town" is embedded throughout the site. Apart from the obvious "CT" in the domain, the description of the site agrees:

Do Things in Cape Town is all about finding and sharing stuff to do in Cape Town [...] I realised that a site where users can easily contribute to a collection of activities in Cape Town would be perfect. A Wikipedia of things to do in Cape Town.

The site is well implemented, easy to use, and contains a bunch of great content, and there really isn't anything stopping somebody from Joburg (or Bahrain) from adding an activity to the site for their area - the interface is flexible enough to allow this - but there is always this core assumption showing up: "This site is for Cape Town". I spoke to Al, and he realises this, and actually did it intentionally: it suits his purposes, and was never meant to be a global phenomenon. However, it is a good example of how your original aims or premises may affect your implementation in ways which may not be desirable if you're planning to expand or diversify later.

Attracting Users

Seth Godin Seth Godin should not need any introduction - he is something of an icon among marketers, but his novel idea was that you should get permission from people before marketing your product to them. I wish more marketers actually used his idea. Anyway, he has an excellent blog, on which he writes about a post a day, each one making an interesting point, or discussing a different way of looking at things.

In one of these posts, Seth talks about Firefox's knee-jerk reaction to the idea that it might lose traction to Google Chrome: they quickly added new features to improve their users' browsing experience. While making your product better than any other one is a good way to attract and keep users, it's not the best one. Marketers talk about the Golden Grail of "going viral" - that state where your users start spreading your product for you, and usage rises exponentially, because each user brings in five of his friends. This phenomenon is virtually impossible to control, but Seth talks about how you can at least make it more likely to happen.

If you make your product better for a user, he might recommend it to his friends (if they ask). But if you make your product better for a user if lots of other people use it, they will do their damnedest to make sure that lots of other people use it, simply to improve their own experience. Consider Facebook as an obvious example: if none of your friends use it, you can sign up and look at your own pictures, and read your own status updates, but it's frankly useless. Facebook's usefulness increases every time one of your friends starts to use it, and so, naturally, you try and get all your friends to use it, so that you can communicate with them, and send them party invitations (and add apps that throw sheep at them). This is the most obvious form of "going viral": an application that is only useful if you get all your friends to use it.

Since that example only really works in the realm of social networks, consider another example. Google Reader has a "share" button unobtrusively placed at the bottom of each post you read. If you like something, or think it's interesting, you click the button and carry on reading. All of your Google contacts who use Google Reader will see the post you found interesting showing up under your name in the "Shared Items" folder. It's an excellent replacement for the usual "hey have you seen this cool article?" messages one often sends, and I have found it a very useful source of reading material (and a way to discover new feeds to read). Since I want to know about interesting stuff my friends find, I encourage them to use it. This encouragement may not be as strong as "going viral" requires, but it is stronger than it would be if I were suggesting Google Reader simply because it's a good product.

I've only used websites (and web software) in my examples, but the principle holds firm in other areas. You can see a vestigial attempt at this sort of thing when a service offers you a discount if you refer five other people to them, but I think that misunderstands the spirit of the concept. There is a lot more to be said about this Network Effect, but I think I've made my point:

The amount of money people spend on marketing and public-relations seems like such a waste when you realise that with a few slight tweaks, you can actually get your user-base to start marketing for you - just make it nicer for them if there is widespread adoption.

Testing your assumptions

Phil Barrett Phil Barrett is a director of Flow Interactive - a user-experience consultancy based in the UK, and he presented a talk at a 27Dinner last year that I thought was quite insightful. He was talking about the order in which people generally perform the steps involved in creating a new product. After having the idea for their product, they design and implement the features they need, then they fix any bugs they can find, and then they do some testing to see how the product fares in the wild. Phil's primary interest is, of course, user experience, so he was specifically referring to user experience testing: giving the product to a bunch of people and seeing how they interact with it, and where the weak points are.

The problem with this, he said, was that one often finds that the users can't handle a certain part of the interface, or that there are big problems with the way people are forced to interact with the product. What are you going to do when this happens? The product release is scheduled soon, and you need to fix this problem as quick as you can, so you patch over it and hack some sort of solution into the interface, which is just not ideal. Phil's point was that you need to move user testing back in the product cycle: start as soon as you can, and test constantly so that you will see when users start to struggle straight away, and you can work on the problem properly, during your development cycle.

To illustrate this, imagine an app that allows users to find entries in a directory of some sort. It's a brilliant idea, captures a niche, and the directory is populated with lots of good information, so the product should be a hit. The developers create a very detailed search interface that lets users specify pretty much exactly what they are looking for, with all sorts of details and choices available, which means that the results will always be relevant to the users, and the product will be useful.

So, this app gets designed, implemented, bug-tested, and everything, and then they give it to some users. And it turns out that users don't have the faintest idea how to handle this amazing search interface: there's just too much. It scares them, and they don't know what to do. So the developers quickly hack on a simple text-box which people can type a phrase into (a la Google), so that at least they can use the product. But now, of course, the search results are less relevant - you're coming up with nineteen results, only two of which are vaguely what you were looking for, because the app is trying to work out what you wanted from a few words in a textbox, instead of a nice fine-tuned search interface. The app is going to flop.

Phil obviously talks from a user-interface point of view: the search form should have been presented for user testing in the early stages, so that something could have been done about it. But the essential principle applies to any assumption you make when developing an app, designing a service, or even starting a company. In this case, the developers assumed that their users would be able to work out how to use the search form, but people make all sorts of other assumptions which often turn out to be false. An obvious one would be the assumption that people want your product (not everybody is as obsessed about Japanese Bear Cartoons as you - maybe there isn't a market?), or that your database schema is going to scale when your product goes mainstream.

It's such a simple idea, but one that I think people should constantly remind themselves about - take a good look at what you're about to do, work out what unquestioned assumptions you are making, and question them. It's difficult to do, because they are, by definition, the things you thought were obviously true, but it may turn out to be what saves your product.

Finding your niche

Chris Anderson Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, and is probably most well-known for popularizing the idea of the Long Tail. I have been familiar with the idea for a long time, but it is only this year that I began to see how the idea can be used effectively to inform how one chooses a userbase to target.

The idea of the Long Tail, as summarised in Tim O'Reilly's seminal article "What is Web 2.0?", is as follows:

Small sites make up the bulk of the internet's content; narrow niches make up the bulk of internet's the possible applications. *Therefore: Leverage customer-self service and algorithmic data management to reach out to the entire web, to the edges and not just the center, to the long tail and not just the head.

The example I often use of how important the Long Tail is, number-wise, is that of facebook apps: you have a few excellent apps that everybody uses (photos, or maybe ScrabulousLexulous, because who doesn't like a good game of Scrabble?), and then you have an enormous amount of ridiculous apps ("You have been bitten by a werewolf/vampire/rabid sheep", "Your friend has thrown an apple at you") which get three or four saps to add them, and that's it. However, if 5000 people use Lexulous, and four people each use the 2000 other apps, that's still an exposure of 3000 more people for the small ones. This is not the best example to use as a business model, but it does give a good indication of how "niche markets" (in this case, small groups of people turned on by utterly inane apps) collectively outweigh the "mainstream market".

Amazon are the seminal example of a company who used the Long Tail to push themselves forward - they sell very small quantities of a very large number of things, thus easily making up large sales totals by appealing to diverse tastes. In the Olden Days, it was difficult to distribute your product, or to find the esoteric tastes on the edge of the market, so you had to make a product which would appeal immediately to the tastes of the easily-accessible masses, and sell lots to them. With the Internet, it is no longer hard to find a bunch of people who are interested in your unicorn-Star Trek-crossover-fiction, and this market is a lot easier to appeal to (you know what they want).

The Long Tail has a lot more to it, of course, but this core idea is important when you are a business or product that uses the internet to reach its consumers. I wrote about this before, in the context of Android apps appealing to a long tail of users that the centralised Apple appstore couldn't reach, and I think that anybody who is trying to sell anything, or appeal to a set of people, should investigate this and apply the principles.


None of these five ideas are that new, and I know that (for example) Vinny was not the first person to say "think global". As Stefano said, this is stuff that everybody should know. It is just surprising that a lot of people don't, and often waste their effort or money as a result. Having internalised these ideas has made me look at a lot of projects and services differently, and I think it's a useful exercise to rehash them every so often.

Thoughts From America 3: National Identity

This is the third post in a series, discussing ideas and thoughts that arose from my recent trip to California. The first two are here and here.

National Identity

Over three years ago, I wrote this entry, which contained a piece by Martin Amis about America, and how she was going insane, and yesterday I wrote about how the American Dream has led to a culture that celebrates mediocrity. However, I don't think that America is a nation that has gone mad, or bad. I think that she is a deeply conflicted nation that no longer knows where she is, and what she is supposed to be doing in the world.

One look at the electoral map makes it perfectly clear that America fights a constant internal battle between two distinct personalities, but recently, she seems to have become even more confused and unsure where the line that separates them lies.

If you'll pardon a quick switch in the gender of the anthropomorphized nation, these Sinfest comics excellently illustrate the problems the nation (Uncle Sam, with his sweetheart Lady Liberty) is having:

Remember When

Uncle Sam Not Depressed

Drunk Uncle Sam

Identity Crisis

This internal conflict is manifesting itself in the strangest of ways. We have Rednecks for Obama, Gays for McCain, and Feminists for Obama, and even white supremacists supporting Obama. The electorate just doesn't seem to know how to identify itself or which side to fall on. The campaigns are behaving even more strangely. Arnold Schwarzenegger broke the political mould by using the brave "he has scrawny arms" attack on Obama. There's been recent news claiming that Obama has been using hypnosis and mind-control to get people to vote for him. Senator Elizabeth Dole brands her opponent as godless (what is "godless money"?).

Watching how the actual candidates handle this is interesting - specifically John McCain. Watching him mock himself on Saturday Night Live really reminds you that he is a decent man - one who has had a very noble career, and has repeatedly taken stands against the Republican Party when he believes in something (immigration reform, free trade, and climate change are all things he has taken unpopular positions on). But this campaign has forced him to do and say things that I think he really dislikes, and sometimes you can actually see a look on his face that just says "what have we become?". I think the most notable instance of this was in Denver, when he was booed by his own supporters, when he took a stand against the racist bile that they were shouting about Obama. He had to quieten them and say "he is a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that is what this campaign is about". The look on his face when he takes the microphone away from a woman who has just called Obama an "arab" is almost piteous as he corrects her.

While that incident does show that McCain is fundamentally a decent person, it also highlights the schizophrenia of the American people, who find themselves booing John McCain, because he is defending Barack Obama, whom they hate (hate!?) because he is running against... John McCain.

Tonight is the eve of the elections in America (which is, of course, why I am writing this entry). As I've said above, I think John McCain is a great man who would not make a bad president all in all. However, and this will come as no surprise to anybody who has spoken to me recently, I think that Barack Obama is an amazing man, with excellent policies, and a firm moral grounding that will, if all goes well, drive him through to an excellent term in office. For two really excellent comparisons of the two candidates, and the way they diverge from each other, I recommend this newsweek article, and The Economist's endorsement of Barack Obama.

Update: I forgot to add that the world seems to agree with me, according to this page, and the Economists global electoral college.

One unbelievably sad piece of news that has just come in is that Obama's grandmother has passed away, on the eve of what could be the greatest victory of her grandson's life. I present that without comment, but with great regret.

So, as her citizens go to the polls tomorrow, I'm holding thumbs that America will let her rational, sensible, unbigoted personality shine through. They have a lot of hope for themselves, and I've said before that I have a lot of hope for them. I'll leave you with some quotes from a few of them:

A really moving tweet by the delightful nictate (who was just as moved when I thanked her for saying it):

We owe it to the world to vote Obama. It's a gift, an apology and a promise in one gesture.

The always amusing J. Adam Moore tweeted a confirmation of the internal battle America is fighting:

Is it just me, or does this election feel like a pass/fail national IQ test?

And finally, something that has been doing the rounds quite a bit:

"Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Obama could run. Obama is running so our children can fly"

Watch the results and the commentary!

Thoughts From America 2: The American Dream

This is the second post in a series of musings I had during, or on my return from, my recent trip to America. The first one is here and the third one is here.

The American Dream

The American Dream has always been held up as a kind of generic golden ideal of hope for the common man: "Whatever your mind can conceive and believe it will achieve". However, what the American Dream actually is seems to be somewhat ambiguous, and has changed somewhat over the history of the nation. The original concept comes from the actual Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

In other words, where you were born, what race you are, and what your immediate circumstances are, should not affect the opportunities you have to strive for greater things. Everybody should have the same freedoms to pursue their goals without prejudice or bigotry. This is a noble ideal, and one that I think any rational human should agree with.

Devolution of the dream

However, the American Dream seems to have evolved somewhat, recently. The form it now takes in a large part of the national consciousness seems to be more along the lines of "there is the possibility for anybody to become rich and powerful, regardless of their circumstances", with a definite emphasis on material wealth. This, again, is not a bad thing, if you retain the implication (taken from the declaration of independence) that your success should rely on your innate abilities, hard work and determination, instead of on your class, race or gender. However, I think that this implication is increasingly disappearing from the Dream that pervades the subconscious of the American people. Now, there is a simple belief that anybody can become rich and powerful, if... What? They deserve it? They believe it hard enough? They try hard enough? I don't think that there is even a condition attached any more.

Celebration of Mediocrity

This has become especially apparent in the recent presidential campaigns: Obama has been accused of "elitism", and Sarah Palin has been joyfully accepted by "Joe Sixpack" as "one of us". In many of the adverts I saw on TV while I was there, there was a constant undertone that whatever product was being sold was one that suited the common man, the everyday person on the street, the masses. It seems that being intelligent or qualified or educated is starting to become socially frowned upon, because it is "elitist" and "snobbish".

It is my opinion that the reason for this celebration of mediocrity is this latest evolution of the American Dream. Or rather, the reason being excellent is unfashionable is because it goes against this latest evolution of the American Dream. Being intelligent, or otherwise well qualified for something, is not something that just anybody can achieve, no matter how much they want to, or believe they can: seeing somebody who is actually really great is an uncomfortable reminder that you can't be good at some things, no matter how much you want to be. I don't think that this is an explicit thought in people's heads, but the reason they prefer a pathetically mediocre candidate like Sarah Palin, because they "can relate to her", and "are comfortable with her", is that she doesn't scare them or break the comfortable notion that they can achieve anything.

As this newsweek article puts it:

Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?


Another aspect of this is a phrase that has also always been associated with America: "rugged individualism":

The USA is usually thought of as being at the individualistic (its detractors would say "atomistic") end of the spectrum (the term "Rugged Individualism" is a cultural imprint of being the essence of Americanism), whereas European societies are more inclined to believe in "public-spiritedness"

This "I got mine" attitude also dominates the American sub-conscious. "I worked to get where I am, and I deserve it, and I will fight you if you try to take it away from me". Obama has been vilified as a "socialist" because his tax program will slightly increase taxes on the richest 5% of America, so that he can give tax cuts to the other 95%. In his now famous talk with Joe the Plumber, he used the unfortunate phrase "spread the wealth around" - meaning that everybody would be a bit more prosperous if we just slightly penalised the richest 5% of America. That phrase, to your American Rugged Individualist, means that he is going to take what you worked hard for, and give it to somebody else who clearly didn't work nearly as hard, because they are not as rich as you.

Get what is yours

The whole time I was in California, there were adverts offering people a way to get hold of the money that was "locked up in pension plans". "This money is yours, you have the right to do whatever you want with it!" they crowed - as if saving it for your old age wasn't fulfilling one's potential. Then there were the lawsuits: "Have you been in an accident recently? You deserve to be compensated! Phone us and we will sue for you!" One advert I saw actually spoke about personal income in terms of "pension plans, trust funds, or lawsuit payments" - as if being litigious was a valid career option.

The whole atmosphere was one of "it's yours by rights, and nobody else's, and you must have it now". I was frankly flabbergasted that I was seeing adverts offering pension cash-ins and easy loans in a country that had recently been crippled by an economic crises brought about by bad lending, but it fits with the idea that an Individual can do What He Wants, and if he tries hard enough, he will achieve Great Things.

A bad dream

Like I said at the beginning, the American Dream is a noble ideal when applied right, but to remove the rationale behind it (that one should not be unfairly prejudiced by irrelevant things like race and gender), and add to it an individualistic attitude that makes you fight for what is yours, even if it's to the detriment of others, seems to me to have had a very bad effect on American society.

South-Africans, Awake

What about us, here in South Africa?

We have our own version of this problem, you know:

Thabo vs Zuma

If you haven't read Thabo's excellent letter to Jacob Zuma, do so now. In it, he warns strongly about people developing a cult of the personality, based around just this "common-man appeal". I've always liked Thabo Mbeki, the pipe-smoking, Yeats-reading, eloquent intellectual, who failed to survive against the sharks of politics, but who went out with a quiet dignity that I really admire. Yet the same accusations of "elitism" have started to be thrown about on the South African political scene. Suddenly, being intelligent and speaking in a certain way, reading certain books, using certain words, and so on, qualifies you to be labelled "elitist".

When it gets hard to tell whether this article is satire or not, the warning bells should start ringing. South Africa has a high enough education rate that we should be able to see past populist rhetoric and party lines and start choosing based on the actual issues. Democracy is meaningless if the vote that we all so proudly have gets given to the guy who can toyitoyi the fastest.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying you should always pick the intellectual. Don't forget that in Zimbabwe, Mugabe is the intellectual with seven university degrees and fourteen honorary degrees, and Morgan Tsvangirai is the populist union leader who struggles with public speaking. Being biased against somebody because they never had the chance to get an education is almost as bad as being biased against somebody because they did.

I think there's a good chance for this country, as a relatively young democracy which is still very much finding its feet and struggling with working out how it should be doing things, to define its own national consciousness and make its own South African Dream, rewarding those who deserve it, but not punishing those who didn't manage to achieve their goals.

Remember, we have our own founding fathers, and they also had a vision. I leave you with the words of Nelson Mandela:

We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

Update: Bizarrely, Ze Frank posted a blog entry about the American Dream at almost the exact same time as I did.

Thoughts From America 1: Necessity and Invention

Apart from a broken rib and an iPod touch, I brought a few other things back from my visit to California. This is the first post in a series of thoughts and ideas I had during my trip to San Francisco.

Update: (The second one is here, the third is here.)

Old Ma Necessity

We've all heard the old chestnut about necessity being the mother of invention. It really hit home when I got to San Francisco, and one of the first emails I received from the office manager included Google Maps directions to the office. I know, we've all seen these before, and academically, I knew they worked, but it was still a surprise to see Google give real life directions that were actually useful to me. In South Africa, we become accustomed to things not even being meant to work for us - they're for the posh people in the first world, you know? (Although, now I think about it, most of the times I've ever encountered these maps it was because people were going "LOL GOOGLE SAYS DRIVE INTO THE SEA" and so on, so even then I didn't have much of a good impression of them.) The Google Maps for Cape Town barely have the highways fully drawn in.

Having underlined our necessity, where's our invention? Look again at the above-linked Google map of Cape Town, and then compare it with the OpenStreetMap equivalent.

Now, I know a lot of the drive behind OpenStreetMap is a desire to have open/free maps, rather than the necessity to fill the gap left by the inadequate Google Maps, but the two do go hand in hand. When you're in America, and everything works, you don't even realise that there's a niche in which to innovate. If you'd like another example, consider bandwidth. I won't lie to you, American bandwidth is FAST. I watched the presidential debates streaming live off the internet, in fairly high definition. When you've got that bandwidth, you don't even try to save it. But here in South Africa, the need to save bandwidth has led to some very clever solutions.

I attended BarCamp Africa at Google HQ in Mountain View, and one of the overriding themes was that Things Are Different In Africa, and that there is some amazing innovation happening here, simply because there's no other way the problems we encounter in our unique situation will ever be solved. One of the discussions underlined this for me: we were discussing Android and the iPhone, and I realised that there will be an enormous market for phone applications that are so specific that they're useful for only like thirty people in a tiny village in Kenya. Like I've said, things are different in Africa. There are places in Africa that desperately need a solution for a problem that no other place can even understand. There is a lot of necessity. And as a result, there is a lot of potential for a lot of invention. Of course, to return to phones (although phone apps obviously, aren't exactly the solution to many of Africa's problems, they suffice as an example), Apple just doesn't have the resources to create (or approve) apps to touch a fraction of this necessity, and that's where Android can swoop in and fill the void. An African entrepreneur can take advantage of the Long Tail to produce a large number of apps that are only used by a few people, but whose total uptake is enormous.

A final example before I leave the subject, just to illustrate how different Africa is. In Ghana, apparently, you just don't get street addresses. If you want to know where somebody lives, you'll get told "Akua lives two compounds behind Kwabena". Addresses are relative, and that's the way it's always worked. If you read this article, you'll see somebody trying to pull Ghana into a western ("modern" !?) way of thinking, but what they should really be doing is coming up with a Ghanaian solution to this Ghanaian problem.

The western world's maps (and things) already work, and so they don't even realise that we face these problems in Africa. This is where we can step in and start providing African solutions to our uniquely African problems.


Brain Crack

About a month ago, the excellent Avery Edison linked to an episode of the show by Ze Frank, which had quite a large impact on me:

I have transcribed the relevant bit below for your reading pleasure:

I run out of ideas every day. Each day I live in mortal fear that I've used up the last idea that'll ever come to me. If you don't want to run out of ideas, the best thing to do is not to execute them. You can tell yourself that you don’t have the time or resources to do 'em right. Then they stay around in your head like brain crack. No matter how bad things get, at least you have those good ideas - that you'll get to later. Some people get addicted to that brain crack, and the longer they wait, the more they convince themselves of how perfectly that idea should be executed, and they imagine it on a beautiful platter with glitter and rose petals, and everyone's clapping - for them! But the bummer is, most ideas kinda suck when you do 'em, and no matter how much you plan, you still have to do something for the first time, and you're almost guaranteed the first time you do something, it'll blow. But somebody who does something bad three times still has three times the experience of that other person, who's still dreaming of all the applause. When I get an idea, even a bad one, I try to get it out into the world as fast as possible, because I certainly don't want to be addicted to brain crack.

Dividing people up

The thing is, there are two factors involved - knowing how to do stuff, and doing stuff - and there are four combinations of these two factors. We can all agree that people that neither know how to do anything, nor actually do anything, are not especially useful. Additionally, we can agree that people that have both the knowledge/skill to do stuff, and actually go out and do it, are especially useful. However, the contention comes in when you look at the other two categories of people: people who have the knowledge/skill but don't use it, and people who aren't especially talented or clued up, but still try and do things (badly or not as the case may be).

I think that most people, whether they realise it or not, would consider the talented/intelligent individuals to be "better" (or "more useful"?) than the people that try (possibly unsuccessfully) to do things without having the actual talent to back it up - even though the talented ones don't actually really use their talent for anything "extra", other than getting a job and that sort of thing. I'm finding it difficult to explain this without sounding insulting or condescending, but it's fairly common to hear some very snide remarks about a website that somebody has tried to put together amateurishly, or an implementation of some service which just doesn't work too well. There seems to be a natural bias towards the talented, without regard to what is actually getting done.

Well, I disagree.

It seems like an obvious thing to say, but I don't think people have internalised the full implications: doing something, whether you're good at it, or successful at it, or not, is better than knowing how to do it and never bothering.

Using ideas

Perhaps geeks tend not to implement their ideas because once they work out how to solve a problem, it's not interesting any more. This is understandable, if regrettable. Whether or not this is the case, though, I think that a much more common reason for never implementing an idea is that you think it won't work, or won't work properly, or isn't worth trying. This sort of thing has been said so often that it's almost a cliche, but people still don't seem to believe it: just do something, and it may work.

A lovely example of a good idea that you'd never believe would work is the zipper machine:

zipper machine

As the article says:

I have to imagine the person that first proposed creating this device was thought to be crazy. I suppose they had to fight their way through nay-sayers in their company until someone believed them. However, now that the machine exists it just seems like a natural thing to do.
Every time I see this machine I think it makes a great analogy for IT projects. The more audacious an IT project is, the more crazy it looks. After it is complete and people are benefitting from it everyone thinks it is obvious.

What about closer to home? As Alastair Pott says in the about page of DoStuffCT:

While hiking on Table Mountain I found myself wishing that I knew more of the many available hikes. I realised that a site where users can easily contribute to a collection of activities in Cape Town would be perfect. A Wikipedia of things to do in Cape Town.
I hacked together a quick prototype and the whole idea has developed into something of a hobby for me. I knew that I was onto something useful when I found myself using the site from my mobile phone to get restaurant details. It is my hope that others will discover the site, and that together we can create a useful and complete resource for those looking to enjoy our wonderful city.

This is exactly what I am talking about. Al thought "hmm, that could be cool", and he did it, and now it's one of my favourite sites. A slightly less successful example is Jonathan Endersby's new site, HalfPriceTuesdays. It died in its first incarnation, but he revived it, and it's in private alpha now, so hopefully we'll see it taking off like DoStuffCT.

The ideas behind these two sites are not unique. There are tons of ideas out there, and I bet that you had one just the other day. Just in the course of discussing what I'm saying in this post with some friends, two new ideas got brought up simply as examples to back up the discussion:

  • - you're in Vredehoek, you need a maid who can work on Friday mornings and is good with children. It's a known problem, and it can be solved. The implementation may need tweaking to be a viable solution (problem: maids don't have broadband, madams do), but it's there.
  • - When I say I'm going to do something (implement an idea, write a blog post, fix my car), you can put it on this site, I'll confirm it, and if I don't do it by the deadline, I'm named and shamed. I'd use this.

They may not be great ideas, they may not work, but they are ideas.

And here's the nub:

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.
--Linus Pauling

Ratios of success

My boss, Vinny Lingham is involved in the venture capital landscape, and he recently gave a talk on investing in startups (which are essentially "people implementing ideas"). As confirmed by the maths here, Vinny said that in order to be successful, a venture capitalist needs about a third of his ventures to succeed, and a third to break even (i.e. make their money back). That's not impossible, but it's a risk that a VC has to take.

However, I am not talking about VCs. I'm talking about you. You don't have that one-third burden on your ideas. Because, no matter how many ideas you implement, you only need one to succeed. If you try six things, and one becomes a success, you've won. If you try twenty things, and only one becomes a success, you've still won. And, of course, the more things you try, the more likely it is that some, or any, of them will succeed. There's, like, no excuse not to!

While you were sleeping

Another thing Vinny went over in his talk was his big idea of "making money while you sleep". This brings us back to the distinction I made earlier between the knowers and the doers. If you're very knowledgeable or skillful, you can make a lot of money by selling your knowledge or skill. You can freelance, or contract yourself out, or even get a permanent position, and the harder you work, the more money you'll get, because you've got the skill and the knowledge to make it happen. But to be really successful, you've got to work really hard. There's a direct correlation between the time you spend and the amount you get back. And that's all well and good, but there's only so much time you have. It's much more efficient (and pleasant) to make money while you sleep. If you implement an idea, and it works, and becomes successful, then you can sit back and let it work for you, and bring in the money for you. Or, better, you can start on another idea, and hope that that one works, too. If, instead of just "being good", you actually produce something that is out there and tangible, separate from yourself, the correlation between your time/energy and the amount you get back no longer exists.

My friend Dom makes an important point about this: if you are only making money from your job, you start to rely on your job. You get tied down, and start accepting more downsides and problems, because you worry that if you don't, you'll lose your job, and have no income. You need to be earning things on the side in order to be free enough to put your foot down when your job becomes intolerable. You may be lucky enough or skilled enough to walk straight into another job, but... you know... you may not.

And now, to my final point.

Cape Town

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor's research findings over the past five years show that the percentage of people between the ages of 18 and 64 in Cape Town who pursue new business are 190% above the national average.
In Johannesburg, it is only 60% above the national average.
But only 5% of new entrepreneurs in Cape Town and only 6% in Johannesburg make use of the latest technology in their businesses.
Only 15% of new entrepreneurs in Cape Town expect to have more than ten employees in five years' time.

We are in the most entrepreneurial city in the country. It has been referred to as the next Silicon Valley. Not only that, but we, as geeks, are also capable of making use of "the latest technology". We're perfectly positioned to take our ideas and make them work (if we have the confidence to "expect to have more than ten employees in five years' time"). I know that a lot of the people reading this have already been nagged by me: this post has been burning a hole in my brain for a month (I'm only publishing it now because I'm presenting this exact material at the GeekDinner tonight). But even if I have already said it to you, it's time to actually do something about it.


So, from now on, some rules:

  • Don't say "I will [ later ]"
  • Don't say you don't have enough time: you're lying
  • Don't expect it to be perfect (or even to work) at first
  • Don't over design

I know I'm the worst of the lot, and let this blog post hold me accountable if I haven't started doing things in six months.

The Political Compass

The political discussions of the last century or so have mostly been dominated by the terms "right wing" and "left wing", both of which have all sorts of connotations attached to them. These terms, however, are rather limited. For example, both Stalin and Ghandi were "left wing", but their politics were worlds apart. There is clearly another dimension to their ideals that needs to be taken into account.

The political compass is a way of orienting somebody's political views that looks beyond the simple left-or-right of their economics, also grading the social aspect of their opinions, ranging from authoritarian (at the "top") to libertarian (at the "bottom"). To give you an idea of how this works, have a look at where some major historical figures stood:

political compass of major historical figures

There is an online test that gives you 62 statements on various issues, and requires you to agree or disagree, strongly or weakly, with each one, using your answers to position you on the compass, and show you where you stand in relation to others. Recently, a bunch of my (mostly CLUG) friends took the test, and Michael hacked together a nifty script that automatically generated a graph which plotted our positions against each other:

political compass for CLUGgers

As you can see, we all kinda cluster in the lower left corner, with the exception of a few fascists and capitalist pigs. This is probably to be expected from a bunch of freedom-loving open-source geeks, but the wide spread of our opinions got me thinking. We're all rational, intelligent people (well, almost all), and I've always had the (possibly rather naive) opinion that if people could just talk about stuff, and see each other's points of view, they'd agree. Or, disagree less. Bearing that in mind, and bearing my current campaign (which will become increasingly obvious) to raise the signal-to-noise ratio of our local internets, I balked at the simple "this is my score" posts that some of us were doing. Accordingly, I asked my friends to actually write up their test results, instead of just giving their scores - that is, to go through the test question by question, and actually explain their reasoning, so that we could see why our scores were different. So far, my call has been heeded by Stefano and Jeremy, bless their pasty white skins.

You will notice from the above graph that Jeremy (labelled as jerith) falls on the bourgeois-money-grubbing-lapdog-of-the-imperialist (that is to say "right") side of the economic spectrum, while I am fairly far left (vhata at about -5,-5), and I used this to perform an experiment when drawing up my analysis. First, I did the test as normal, and wrote down my answers. Then, I read through Jeremy's rationalisations (or "reasoning", if you must), and re-did the test, but bearing his thoughts in mind the second time. While nothing he said actually changed my mind (except for one question which I had misunderstood, and which was clarified by his answer), it did have some effect in strengthening or weakening my convictions.

This is exactly what I had hoped would happen (and I promise I didn't do it on purpose): getting an insight into the mind of another person whom I respect made me empathise with his opinions more, and drew me slightly towards his world-view. It turns out that my results after redoing the test pushed me just over two full points to the right, towards Jeremy's position. It also strengthens my belief that if we could just engage in proper dialogue, instead of always falling back on over-defensive rationalisation and emotional attacks, there would be a lot less conflict in the world.

Before I give the analysis of my answers, I want to quickly discuss the political compass of a few other people. The people at have put together charts for all of the European Union countries, and for all of the people running in the US presidential elections. They give some nice discussion, especially of the elections, so I won't duplicate that here. What I will say is that it is no surprise that almost all of the nodes are in the top-right corner: being below the x-axis means you don't like the government meddling with you, and it's not surprising that governments and politicians aren't in favour of that. What is pleasing is (a) how close to the centre point a lot of Europe is, and (b) where Barack Obama stands. Walton Pantland at Red Star Coven puts it really well, so once again, I won't re-say it here.

On to my analysis!

Propositions concerning the country and the world

  • If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations.
    Strongly Agree - trans-national corporations are an economic/political construct. To suggest that something should serve their interests instead of the interests of the human race which created them is simply frightening.

  • I'd always support my country, whether it was right or wrong.
    Strongly Disagree - again, to suggest that you would support something that you know is wrong, simply because it's "your" country is terrifying.

  • No one chooses his or her country of birth, so it's foolish to be proud of it.
    Disagree - you can be proud of the fine achievements of the country you were born into, just as you can be proud of your own natural talents (which you were born with, and did not earn). It's when you take that pride to levels of nationalism, and attack others because they're not your people that it gets bad.

  • Our race has many superior qualities, compared with other races.
    Disagree - I firmly believe that all humans are created equal: no race is inherently superior to another race. The reason this isn't a strong disagreement is that there are quantifiable physiological advantages that some races have in certain areas (Kenyans can run, French people can pronounce things nobody else can, Polynesian pearl divers can hold their breath for ages), but this is no reason to claim "superiority".

  • The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
    Disagree - the relationship is not black-and-white: both being against one thing does not mean we are both for the same things. Any teenager at highschool should know this.

  • Military action that defies international law is sometimes justified.
    Agree - very, very rarely, a military force might conceivably have to breach international law to achieve some greater good.

  • There is now a worrying fusion of information and entertainment.
    Disagree - I didn't understand this question until Jeremy pointed out that this fusion meant that we could no longer tell the difference between fact/reality, and fiction/entertainment, and this made me realise that this fusion can lead to wars and governments being treated like viewer-run reality shows. I changed my opinion to Agree after that.

The Economy

  • People are ultimately divided more by class than by nationality.
    Agree - In this era of globalisation, I don't feel that cross-border differences are anywhere near as important to our world-views as the differences of income and class.

  • Controlling inflation is more important than controlling unemployment.
    Disagree - if everybody has jobs, they will have money to spend and circulate, and inflation will decrease. I don't think the reverse will happen as readily.

  • Because corporations cannot be trusted to voluntarily protect the environment, they require regulation.
    Agree - They cannot be trusted, being primary money-creating machines, and the environment does need protection, so some form of regulation is required. It's not a strong agreement because I think my views that they can be (self?) regulated by consumer opinion and pressure to be ethical doesn't fall under the spirit of the question.

  • "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is a fundamentally good idea.
    Strongly Agree - it may not be implementable in our current situation, but it makes perfect sense that everybody does what they can, and gets what they need - it's just plain old efficient.

  • It's a sad reflection on our society that something as basic as drinking water is now a bottled, branded consumer product.
    Agree - I don't judge people for wanting luxuries of this sort, but I do think it's unfortunate that society makes people seek happiness in this form.

  • Land shouldn't be a commodity to be bought and sold.
    Disagree - land should be treated like other means of production. This isn't a strong disagreement because I acknowledge that it is still a more important means of production than most others, and maybe still deserves some slight special-casing.

  • It is regrettable that many personal fortunes are made by people who simply manipulate money and contribute nothing to their society.
    Agree - big-ups to them, but I would much prefer a world where you had to actually give back to society in order to be successful.

  • Protectionism is sometimes necessary in trade.
    Agree - occasionally, factors are such that greater harm will come from allowing a big corporation (or similar) to manipulate the market forces to destroy a small local economy (for example), than would come from putting restrictions on the free market.

  • The only social responsibility of a company should be to deliver a profit to its shareholders.
    Strongly Disagree - this leads directly to destroying the environment and having trade union leaders murdered in order to stop costs and wages going up. Companies should have a strong social responsibility to improve the community, etc. (Whether they ever will or not is not the subject of this question.)

  • The rich are too highly taxed.
    Strongly Disagree - They're not going to get any sympathy from me by whining that their huge salaries aren't as huge as they could have been, because some of it is being used for public good.

  • Those with the ability to pay should have the right to higher standards of medical care.
    Agree - excellent medical care is expensive and scarce - not everybody can obtain it, so let those who can pay for it do so, and make sure that everybody else gets medical care that is good enough.

  • Governments should penalise businesses that mislead the public.
    Strongly Agree - lying to the public to improve profits is just plain evil

  • A genuine free market requires restrictions on the ability of predator multinationals to create monopolies.
    Agree - to really let the free market forces work, you need to stop people with undue influence (be it the government, with the power to legislate, or corporations, with the economic power to crush competition) from creating artificial forces.

  • The freer the market, the freer the people.
    Strongly Agree - I don't think this contradicts the previous point, or the earlier one about protectionism - the most powerful voice people have nowadays is their consumerism, and they need to be free to wield it.

Personal Social Values

  • Abortion, when the woman's life is not threatened, should always be illegal.
    Strongly Disagree - that's intervening in somebody's life on dubious moral grounds to force them to take on a massive burden unwillingly.

  • All authority should be questioned.
    Strongly Agree - there is no authority that is above having to prove itself worthy of being an authority.

  • An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
    Strongly Disagree - perpetuating attacks and counter-attacks is just going to end up with everybody hurt. Forgive.

  • Taxpayers should not be expected to prop up any theatres or museums that cannot survive on a commercial basis.
    Strongly Disagree - Art and Culture should not have to be commercially successful to continue existing - the benefits we get from them supercedes this.

  • Schools should not make classroom attendance compulsory.
    Disagree - Children below a certain age aren't capable of making the decision as to whether or not they will benefit from something they simply see as unpleasant. I know I refused piano lessons when I was small, because I thought they were a drudge, and I regret it now.

  • All people have their rights, but it is better for all of us that different sorts of people should keep to their own kind.
    Disagree - the differences in other people are how we learn and grow. The need for genetic diversity in a healthy animal population is a simple example of why this is wrong. It's not a strong disagreement because I acknowledge that certain groups simply can't co-exist peacefully with each other (people from Fishoek, and normal people, for example).

  • Good parents sometimes have to spank their children.
    Strongly Agree - this is the first time children experience that their actions may have negative outcomes, a vital lesson in becoming morally mature.

  • It's natural for children to keep some secrets from their parents.
    Agree - everybody has a private inner life.

  • Possessing marijuana for personal use should not be a criminal offence.
    Agree - the (debatable) negative effects of marijuana are far outweighed by the very clear negative effects that criminalizing it has.

  • The prime function of schooling should be to equip the future generation to find jobs.
    Strongly Disagree - Education is to teach us how to live productively in society, and covers far more than simply "being hirable".

  • People with serious inheritable disabilities should not be allowed to reproduce.
    Strongly Disagree - to deprive somebody of a fundamental right (some would say, a biological imperative) for reasons of "genetic purity" is completely unjustified.

  • The most important thing for children to learn is to accept discipline.
    Strongly Disagree - Education is not to teach people to buckle under and accept authority. Children must be taught to question authority for themselves, to discipline themselves, and, in the end, must be given an appropriate moral understanding to realise for themselves when discipline is warranted.

  • There are no savage and civilised peoples; there are only different cultures.
    Agree - there are certainly savage people, but this is an aspect of their personalities, not of their cultures.

  • Those who are able to work, and refuse the opportunity, should not expect society's support.
    Agree - refusing to be productive in no way entitles you to the benefits of somebody else's productivity.

  • When you are troubled, it's better not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things.
    Disagree - Sometimes, if there is nothing you can do about it, taking your mind off something is the only thing to do. However, more often than not, burying your head in the sand won't do anything to help solve your problems.

  • First-generation immigrants can never be fully integrated within their new country.
    Disagree - There is nothing inherently alien about first-generation immigrants that mean they are less able to integrate than their children will be. This isn't a strong disagreement because it is clear that actually growing up in the new country will give their children a bigger advantage.

  • What's good for the most successful corporations is always, ultimately, good for all of us.
    Strongly Disagree - I can literally see no correlation between what stuffs the coffers of a big corporation, and what is good for humanity.

  • No broadcasting institution, however independent its content, should receive public funding.
    Disagree - I can easily conceive of an independent broadcasting institution that benefits the whole public, and is deserving of public funding.

Wider Society

  • Our civil liberties are being excessively curbed in the name of counter-terrorism.
    Strongly Agree - it's happening all over the world. Try and disagree with this next time you are forced to throw away your new can of after-shave before you get on the plane.

  • A significant advantage of a one-party state is that it avoids all the arguments that delay progress in a democratic political system.
    Agree - It also has significant disadvantages, but that's not under debate in this question.

  • Although the electronic age makes official surveillance easier, only wrongdoers need to be worried.
    Strongly Disagree - The statement has the underlying (false) assumption that the "officials" doing the surveillance have a purely noble agenda.

  • The death penalty should be an option for the most serious crimes.
    Agree - Sometimes, rehabilitation really is impossible, and you need this option.

  • In a civilised society, one must always have people above to be obeyed and people below to be commanded.
    Disagree - While people tend to naturally organise themselves into heirarchies of this nature, it is by no means a pre-requisite for civilised societies.

  • Abstract art that doesn't represent anything shouldn't be considered art at all.
    Strongly Disagree - Art doesn't have to be "of" something in order to make a statement, or simply be pleasant and appreciable.

  • In criminal justice, punishment should be more important than rehabilitation.
    Strongly Disagree - We are not dogs that have to be repeatedly beaten to enforce behaviour patterns, nor is the legal system a tool for taking revenge on people for the harm they've done. If we can "fix" a criminal, then we almost have a duty to do so.

  • It is a waste of time to try to rehabilitate some criminals.
    Disagree - At least try. I will allow that some criminals may turn out be beyond help, but that is not what this statement is saying. A human life is worth the effort.

  • The businessperson and the manufacturer are more important than the writer and the artist.
    Strongly Disagree - I can't put it better than Jeremy did: "The former allow us to survive. The latter allow us to live."

  • Mothers may have careers, but their first duty is to be homemakers.
    Disagree - Having a child means you have a duty to ensure that that child is brought up properly, it does not mean you have a duty to "be a homemaker". (For example, the father could take that responsibility.)

  • Multinational companies are unethically exploiting the plant genetic resources of developing countries.
    Strongly Agree - Once again, bringing their large economic forces to bear means that they can exploit what they shouldn't.

  • Making peace with the establishment is an important aspect of maturity.
    Disagree - It is important for your personal growth to come to terms with what you cannot change, but as people like Martin Luther King have shown, sometimes you have to refuse to back down and fight for change you know is necessary.


  • Astrology accurately explains many things.
    Strongly Disagree - My personality and fortunes are not governed by huge balls of flaming gas many light years away.

  • You cannot be moral without being religious.
    Strongly Disagree - There are several fundamentally excellent moral systems that are not based on the fiat-ethics that religion often imposes.

  • Charity is better than social security as a means of helping the genuinely disadvantaged.
    Agree - Charity is a distributed, grass-roots system that uses individual case-based judgements to decide how best to help others, and easily trumps social security's klunky centralised attempt at redistributing wealth.

  • Some people are naturally unlucky.
    Strongly Disagree - Randomness is random, and random events do not happen in a certain fashion because somebody has some ephemeral attribute called 'luck'.

  • It is important that my child's school instills religious values.
    Strongly Disagree - It is important that my child's school instills an enquiring attitude, a desire to strive for the truth, and an appreciation for the spiritual in life, so that my child can find (or not find) her own religious values.


  • Sex outside marriage is usually immoral.
    Strongly Disagree - Most sensible moral codes would accept a large portion of relationships nowadays as valid morally, even though they haven't got the official seal of marriage on them.

  • A same sex couple in a stable, loving relationship, should not be excluded from the possibility of child adoption.
    Strongly Agree - I think a child has a better chance of a good upbringing in such a household than in many households these days.

  • Pornography, depicting consenting adults, should be legal for the adult population.
    Agree - Censorship never achieved anything other than driving its target underground.

  • What goes on in a private bedroom between consenting adults is no business of the state.
    Strongly Agree - The state is in no position to prescribe what people can and cannot do, any more than it can make moral calls or restrict freedom in other ways.

  • No one can feel naturally homosexual.
    Strongly Disagree - There are too many gay teenagers who are desperately trying (and failing) to deny their homosexuality to themselves, for me to agree that it's "just a choice".

  • These days openness about sex has gone too far.
    Disagree - Making something a taboo, or creating an aura of mystique about it, is probably more harmful than overexposing it.


So there we have it. Those are my opinions. Every time I take the test my score seems to wobble a bit, although it's almost always somewhere in the vicinity of the -5,-5 mark. My official score from last week is:

Economic Left/Right: -5.38
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.03

I don't expect too many other people to go to the effort of transcribing their reasons (although it is quite an eye-opener, self-awareness-wise, when you do it, and I do recommend it), but I do want to restate that I firmly believe that if this sort of discussion happened more around ALL issues, there would be much less strife than there is in the world today.

The Large Hadron Collider

There's been a lot of talk recently about the Large Hadron Collider. Most of it, unfortunately, has been the press going "there's this big Science thing that could kill us all!" and not having a clue about what is actually going on up there. Unfortunately, journalists are not very good at Science. This hype has been blown so out of proportion that somebody committed suicide. XKCD, our favourite comic, did a comic about it which you should read.

Anyway, I thought I'd clear a few things up. I only did first-year Physics at university, but I've done some reading, and I'm going to try to explain exactly what is going on in Switzerland, in words that even a journalist will be able to understand. I'm leaving out the maths, and oversimplifying some things, but I hope I can at least give some idea of what is going on. (Everything below is as physicists currently see it, but of course might change as we discover new stuff.)

The Collider

First of all, the bit that everybody pretty much knows: the Large Hadron Collider consists of a very large circular tunnel underneath parts of France and Switzerland, 27km around, and 8.5km across, through which two beams of protons (a specific type of "hadron", explained below) are going to be fired at exceedingly fast speeds. To give you an idea of the geography and dimensions of the LHC, you can look here on OpenStreetMap, where it is clearly marked. The protons are going to be travelling at 99.999999% of the speed of light, which is 299,792,455 m/s (or 1,079,252,840 km/h, or 1,802,617,480,000 furlongs per fortnight). It's fast.

They will be firing two beams through the tube, very close to each other, and then at the right moment, they will shift one slightly so that it collides with the other one. The massive speeds at which they are travelling will mean that when they collide with each other, huge amounts of energy will be released, which will result in lots of bits of matter being created temporarily (you know, e=mc2), and in effect, we will have recreated conditions similar to the universe just after the Big Bang. Don't be alarmed that they are recreating the big bang - they are simply creating a very small area that will contain the sort of particle chaos that would have been around shortly after it, so that they can examine the particles while they're busy rushing around, before they have a chance to settle down and become too well-behaved to observe again.
(An interesting side-note: The proton beams are actually made of lots of clumps of protons, set a small distance apart, so that there will be repeated collisions, each about 2.5 nanoseconds (0.000000025 seconds) apart.)
The idea is that in all this chaos, we will be able to observe a large number of effects that we don't normally get to witness, and that this will shed light on a lot of ideas and theories that we have, and hopefully help us to explain things a bit better than we can now. The data we gather (and we're being quite careful about what we do and do not record) will be recorded and streamed off to datacentres all around the world (including one here in Cape Town), where it will provide physicists with material to study for years to come.

The Universe

So, that's what the LHC is, and what will happen during the experiments. Now for some background information on the Universe:

The stuff we see every day is all made up of atoms. And atoms are made up of varying numbers of protons, neutrons and electrons. And protons and neutrons are made up of three quarks each.
There are six types of quarks, classified according to strange things like "spin", "charge", "flavour", and "generation", and the most common types are called "up" quarks, and "down" quarks. Two "up" quarks and one "down" quark make a proton; two "down" quarks and one "up" quark make a neutron. ("Down" quarks have 1/3rd negative charge, and "up" quarks have 2/3rds positive charge, so if you add those charges together, you can see why protons have +1 positive charge, and neutrons have a neutral charge.) When a bunch of quarks are bound together to form a particle like this, it is called a hadron - protons and neutrons are the most common types of hadrons. The beams of the LHC are going to consist of a bunch of these protons flying through the tubes, which is why it's called the "hadron collider".
These "up" and "down" quarks are the only ones we really get in the matter we encounter in our day-to-day lives: the others are very unstable, and decay almost instantly after being created.
Apart from the "up" and "down" quarks, the other varieties are called "top" quarks, "bottom" quarks, "strange" quarks, and "charm" quarks. I will now pause for a second while you go and re-read this xkcd comic, especially the final frame.

Get it? Good. I shall continue.

Now that we know what stuff is made of, we can discuss how it interacts with other stuff. There are four (known) forces, or interactions, which can occur between things:

  • Gravitational force - we're all aware of this, because the earth sucks
  • Electromagnetic force - magnets, electricity, electromagnetism
  • Weak nuclear force - responsible for certain interactions between protons and neutrons within atoms
  • Strong nuclear force - responsible for keeping protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of atoms
When something exerts one of these forces on another thing, the force is "carried" to the other thing by a "boson" - a very small particle which transmits the energy from the one thing to the other. The different forces are carried by different bosons:
  • Gravitational force - supposedly carried by bosons called gravitons, although there is no evidence of gravitons as yet.
  • Electromagnetic force - carried by photons - bosons which weigh nothing and travel at the speed of light (since they are light)
  • Weak nuclear force - the bosons for this force were postulated in 1968, and named the W boson (named after the weak force), and the Z boson (named semi-humorously because they thought it would be the last boson to need discovery)
  • Strong nuclear force - carried by bosons called gluons (named because they glue the protons and neutrons together).
So, when the sun emits light, it is carried to us by photons, and when the earth pulls us towards it by gravity, that force is carried to us by gravitons, and so on.

Because physicists like to think that the universe is actually a very simple place, they believe (or hope) that these four forces are actually just different aspects of some Grand Unified force, simply behaving in four different ways. In fact, they have already managed to combine the Electromagnetic force and the Weak nuclear force into one new force, which they call the Electroweak force, which is responsible for both electromagnetic reactions and the weak nuclear interactions. This unification, while it was a great advance, did lead to a problem:

One of the fundamental differences between the W and Z bosons, and the other bosons, is that they are "massive", in the sense that they have a lot of mass. They are much heavier than other particles, and infinitely heavier than photons, which don't weigh anything at all. This was a bit of a problem for the physicists trying to unify the Weak and Electromagnetic forces, because they couldn't work out where the mass came from - why were photons massless, and the W and Z bosons massive, if the two were aspects of the same force? This is where Peter Higgs came in.

The Higgs Mechanism

Mr Higgs proposed something called the Higgs field, which covers all of space, and sort of "sticks" to some (but not all) of the particles moving through it (or, mathematically - decreases their momentum as they pass through it), giving them mass. This is called the "Higgs Mechanism", and the UCT physics department has a very good explanation of how it works:

Imagine a cocktail party of political party workers who are uniformly distributed across the floor, all talking to their nearest neighbours. The ex-Prime Minister enters and crosses the room. All of the workers in her neighbourhood are strongly attracted to her and cluster round her. As she moves she attracts the people she comes close to, while the ones she has left return to their even spacing. Because of the knot of people always clustered around her she acquires a greater mass than normal, that is she has more momentum for the same speed of movement across the room. Once moving she is hard to stop, and once stopped she is harder to get moving again because the clustering process has to be restarted.

The equations that describe the Higgs mechanism also indicate that there is an extra type of particle, which is also heavy, but had not been detected before. When Higgs originally submitted his paper describing this field, it was rejected, because it "did not predict any new detectable effects". So, he added a sentence at the end, mentioning that the equations seemed to imply the existence of this extra particle, and the paper was accepted. This extra particle is the Higgs boson, which passes its mass on to just about everything else, and would thus be the reason why things have any substance at all (earning it the nickname "God Particle").

To a non-scientist, the above description might set off some warning bells: "He just invented a new boson? Can you just do that?" Higgs didn't just invent the boson, though: he derived some formulae which explained how things interact with the Higgs field, and saw that if the formulae were correct, then it would also mean that the Higgs boson existed. And that's where the LHC comes in.

We've never seen a Higgs boson, and we don't have any actual proof that it exists, but the evidence of the equations, and the way the other particles act and react suggest that it might. This is how Science works: evidence suggests that something might be the case, so we set up some tests to see if the actual practice agrees. If something happens that disagrees with our original idea, we fix it up, or come up with a new one. The results of the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider are going to be examined very carefully, to see whether or not they agree with what Higgs's theories said. This is why we hope to see Higgs bosons flying out of the proton streams: that would positively confirm the theories and equations that he described, which would make our understanding of the universe that much more concrete. Whether or not it happens is debatable, but that's why we're doing the experiments.

The Dangers

Why are people so worried about the Large Hadron Collider? What do they think is going to happen? On the one hand, it's easy to dismiss them as being "Scared Of Big Science" - they heard that the LHC is going to recreate conditions similar to shortly after the Big Bang, and they just don't want that stuff happening anywhere near them. However, there are a few specific worries that people have voiced, which I'll go over quickly now.


Remember a few paragraphs back, I explained that most "everyday" (nuclear) matter is made of protons, neutrons and electrons, which essentially consist of "up" quarks and "down" quarks. Well, if you add "strange" quarks to the mix, you get what is called "strange matter". This can be thought of as a liquid substance totally unlike the nuclear matter that we see around us. The LHC produces a lot of strange matter, but this itself isn't dangerous, because it is very unstable, and decays almost instantly. However, there may also be things called strangelets - tiny, very stable configurations of strange matter. We have never encountered strangelets, but they are theoretically possible. Because they are so stable, they would not decay, and if they came into contact with nuclear matter (which is less stable), they might start converting it into strange mass by adding strange quarks to the up/down mix. The more this happens, the more strangelets there would be, and this would set off a long chain reaction that could turn the whole earth into a huge stable strangelet (known as a "quark star").

The worry, of course, is that the LHC experiments will produce strangelets, but this is highly unlikely: production of strangelets becomes less and less probable at higher energies, and the LHC is very high energy indeed - higher than previous experiments, which failed to create strangelets or destroy the world.

Miniature Black Holes

Another popular bugbear that people fear will come out of the LHC is "miniature black holes". A black hole is simply a piece of very, very dense matter. The denser something is (that is, the more stuff that is packed into less space), the more gravity it has, and so the more it pulls other stuff towards itself. A black hole has such high gravity that nothing can break free from it - not even light, hence the black part. Because everything gets sucked into it, its mass increases, and it gets more dense, and the gravity increases even more. You can see why you wouldn't want one of these anywhere near our planet.

Here, the worry is that the LHC experiments will produce enough energy to create micro black holes, which would start sucking the whole planet into them, as depicted on the popular LHC webcams that everybody linked to recently. As a matter of fact, the LHC energies are far too low to create these black holes, and even if they did, they would not be dangerous. Once again, the world is saved by my main man, Stephen Hawking: he predicted a thing called Hawking Radiation, which is a sort of heat that black holes emit. Micro black holes are so small that emitting energy by Hawking Radiation would decrease their mass (remember, energy = mass, e = mc2) fast enough that they would lose their "black hole" status before they had time to suck everything in.


As you may have heard, a helium leak means that the LHC experiments will be delayed two months, but hopefully things will be back on track after that. This is the greatest physics experiment man has yet attempted, and the amazing things we could find out should not take second place to superstitious fears that Science Will Destroy Us All.

I hope that this has been enlightening, and that I haven't been too misleading in my attempts to explain the physics in man-on-the-street language. Let me know if there is anything else I should explain, or any area that is unclear.


Ian Gilfillan has an excellent post on McDonalds as a corporation, and how we view it. He actually sums up my thoughts and experiences fairly well - the cognitive dissonance involved when you try to tell people how bad McDonalds is is unbelievable. I have spoken to people so many times who say "Man, I had McDonalds for lunch, and now I feel absolutely awful". And I've heard them say it so many times! But try to point out that that's completely unsurprising, and that McDonalds really, really is absolutely awful for you, and they just say "Yeah, but it tastes nice", and refuse to engage further.

People are a bit stupid, I think.

The Female of the Species

Firstly, let me post a link to an open letter by Melissa Draper to the Open Source community, complaining about discriminatory behaviour towards women, which discourages them to participate in the community, which is the reason why, according to polls, only 1.5% of the community are female.

Next up, an impassioned message from writer-producer-director-god Joss Whedon, concerning a male-dominated world, the society that propagates it, and the reasons why he thinks it happens. He has some good points.

Finally, an article from kuro5hin about the whole Kathy Sierra fiasco. (If you don't know, Kathy Sierra received some insulting comments on her blog and rather tasteless pictures (involving nooses, etc) were posted about her, which she felt amounted to death threats, and panicked, and cancelled her appearance at a conference.) I know that the article's title is "I Want to Stab You to Death and Play with Your Blood". Please try to read it anyway. It makes some more good points.

One more link. You don't have to read them all. (You don't have to read any of them.) This post is from Violent Acres, and the salient bits are probably:

If I’m somehow making you feel bad, it’s because you are letting me. You are giving me that power. The only way I could make you feel bad is if you placed more importance on my opinion than you do your own.
Why should my self esteem be so fragile [...]?
It shouldn’t. But if it does, perhaps you need to look inwardly to find what is lacking as opposed to playing the part of the victim being bullied by the big, bad Internet. The Internet hurts you only when you let it.

One more quote from somebody else. One of the commenters on Melissa's open letter said:

One of the things about geek culture is that there tends to be a certain self-deprecating humour throughout. We make jokes about *everyone*. We make jokes about people we like, we make jokes of people we dislike, and we even make jokes about ourselves.

If you don’t want people to make jokes about you, that’s fine - but bear in mind that what you are saying is “Treat me differently, because I want to be treated like everyone else”. It’s not really fair, is it?

We’ll stop making jokes about women being terrible drivers when women stop making jokes about men being terrible at cooking, terrible at cleaning, being insensitive, or any of the other stereotypes that women make fun of men for.

In the meantime, learn to give as good as you get. It will get you a lot further.

So, we've pretty much gone the gamut. What do I have to say? Not an awful lot, really. I'm a white male upper-middle class guy with a British passport. What the hell do I know about persecution and discrimination? I get called soutie by Stellenbosch people, but I think that's about as extreme as it gets. I can have no understanding of what it's like for Melissa or Kathy. I do have a gut feeling that one can be over-sensitive when people needle you, which makes you a more pleasing target to a certain more vicious type of troll, and invites more needling. I do have a sense that one can only be offended by people if one lets them offend you. But at the same time, I haven't been on the receiving end of a lifetime of glass ceilings and persecution. If I had been, maybe I wouldn't say "just ignore them, they'll go away" as if it was that easy. Just because I put Joss Whedon's article early on in this post doesn't mean I don't agree with it more than any of the others.

I think my point is, think about it. Whichever end you're on.

Update: Moving from the general topic of discrimination to the more specific topic of Melissa's grievance against the open source community... I think maybe the best response was just given to me by a friend of mine:

Melissa, your take on it is wrong.
The "open source community" is not insensitive to women.
It's insensitive, period.
Wise up.
Good luck.

Update: I didn't realise that one of the most vociferous commenters on Melissa's original open letter was actually one of our very own Capetonians! Jane has written a long post about Melissa's letter...


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