Thursday, 4 September 2008

A New Dawn

The Day has come! Kristen has finally arrived in Cape Town! This is very exciting!

For those who don't know, Kristen is my New Yorker girlfriend. We've been dating long-distance for the past year, which has obviously been difficult, but it has also been a huge help to me while I've been away. But she's decided (or rather, we decided together) to quit her job in New York and move out to Cape Town with me. She's going to be doing volunteer work with a group called Help2Read (guess what they do). Of course, her MAIN occupation will be taking care of ME and keeping me in the lap of luxury.

But anyway, she's finally here, and our tiny apartment is now littered with luggage, clothes, and girly things. And books... LOTS of books... and considering I only have a tiny two shelf bookshelf which was already twice overflowing, this is going to be a problem... Anyway, she has her work cut out for her to make this place from a kickin' bachelor pad into a livable home. But the fact of her being here is going a long way towards that...

Monday, 28 July 2008

Photos from New York

As stated previously, I am finally putting up pictures from my trip. Here are some snapshots from New York City.

Me with Kristen ad her mom. Aren't they adorable?

Me with Kristen's dad and grandpa. They were the sweetest hardcore Bronx-y dudes I ever met.

This is the movie under the Brooklyn Bridge. What a gorgeous scene!

Me and my mom at Coney Island. Coney is the bomb!

Picnic in the park. Don't forget the wine!

South Africa's most dangerous threat

In a nice cap to my week (for other adventures, see the preceding post), my friend set his brother's face on fire.

Yes, he is ok, and no, it was not meant as a brotherly prank. I don't think. Or if it was, the guy really did a great job of feigning a guilty look afterwards.

After having a drink at the local Obs pub (Obs is Observatory, which is a hip/crime-ridden neighborhood) we were going to have a braai at my friend's house (he will remain mostly nameless, although probably anyone who knows him could figure it out - let's call them Bob and his brother James). So Bob and James go off to start the fire, and me and Julien stay to finish our drinks at the pub. Ten minutes later, we pitch up to Bob's place and are received with a frantic, "Alex, is your car nearby? We need to rush James to the hospital!"

"Holy Shit," says I, and race off to get my rental car, which I had luckily acquired that day. Thank God! Apparently what had happened was that Bob and James were lighting the braai and decided the fire needed a little help - in the form of methanol. Who could possibly predicted that such an innocuous idea could end with and explosion and a face caught on fire? Luckily, Bob has a fish pond in his back yard, and James leapt in and dunked his face. According to him later, he didn't even know what he was doing, just acted on instinct. Score one for instinct - otherwise he would have most definitely been seriously wounded. As it was, he had only 1st degree burns all over his face, which should heal without scarring. But holy crap, it was a scary drive to two different hospitals (the second one, of which no one knew the location, had a useless burns unit).

Probably the most inconveniencing thing was that James was leaving two days afterwards to travel back home, and his faced was wrapped up like King Tut. Would security give him a hard time? I haven't heard yet, but I'm going to place that one firmly in the "probably" category.

History repeats itself

And you thought YOU had car issues...

The safest place I could park my car... let's see... the UCT parking lot you say? Well, I would beg to differ. Because that's precisely where my car was STOLEN! You heard/read me correctly - my car which was a replacement for a stolen car was STOLEN.

I don't know what else to say. I was speechless at the time. Twice my car was ripped off in one year. This seems to be somewhat of an achievement, even here in SA - everyone is really shocked. Well... let me rephrase that. It's not so much that they are shocked because it's hard to believe that could happen... such things are not irregular here. It was more that they had extreme sympathy. Which was nice, but didn't really help to get my car back.

And neither did the security workers at UCT. You'd think that they would be somewhat concerned that this shit is going down on campus (in fact, when I reported it to them, I got sympathy along with a "Damn, not another one," so I guess they're used to it). They even have cameras set up on all the exits for just such an occaision (one would think). However, the special investigator that they put on my case spent one day on it before sending me the following message by email

Dear Mr Hamilton

With regards to the incident of “Theft of motor vehicle”, which was reported on 23/07/2008, I wish to inform you that the investigation was concluded.

The investigation revealed:

  • Case was reported to the Rondebosch Police, the case was filed as undetected and the vehicle circulated on their network.
  • Our surveillance camera footage could not be viewed due to a technical error occurring during the upgrade of CCTV.
  • No leads and no suspects were obtained.
The docket would be reopened if the vehicle is recovered.

That's great - so helpful. Glad you guys really put the effort in on this one. The whole thing seems very suspicious to me - either she is straight out lying (either due to complicity in the crime, or more likely laziness) or it's a pretty incredible coincidence that the thief managed to steal my car EXACTLY when the CCTV camera was being upgraded.

All in all, I'm really not looking forward to buying ANOTHER freaking car...

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Photos from Amsterdam

So I figured I should finally put up some of the pictures we took on my trip through Europe. Here are a few which document my time in Amsterdam with Kristen.

This picture probably doesn't really do justice to the sheer number of bikes that crowd the streets of Amsterdam. Let me just say that absolutely EVERY surface was covered with at least as many parked bikes, plus a constant stream of bike traffic. There are really a SHITLOAD of bikes in Amsterdam.

Here I am in my cool new hat I bought there drinking a beer on the streets. Don't I look super European?

Just one picture of the beautiful canals that are all throughout the city. Probably the most impressive thing about Amsterdam.

The requisite picture of drug culture. I just got a kick out of the fact that it's called Rick's Cafe (cause I love Casablanca).

Me and Kristen - we had a blast!


The final leg of my month-long trip is now coming to an end. I'm sitting in Kennedy airport (a.k.a. JFK) in New York, about to leave for Amsterdam (and then onwards to Cape Town). I've been here for a week and half, and it's been extremely enjoyable, although pretty hectically busy. The first half of the week included arriving on the Fourth of July and hearing the fireworks going from the cab ride back to Kristen's, meeting her dad and grandfather (he is an ADORABLE 80 year-old New York Italian dude with a strong accent and marbles in his mouth), met up with some of my NY friends, seeing her mom (whom I adore), and going to see Stand By Me being projected on the Brooklyn Bridge from a gorgeous new park on the East River.

Then, on the next Friday, my mom came to visit with us for the weekend, which was fantastic. She stayed with me and Kristen in her little Brooklyn apartment and put up with her allergies to share the space with KB's sweet kitty, Squee. We went for a phenomenal dinner at what is by far the best restaurant in Park Slope (and probably the best deal I've eaten at in all of NYC), Al Di La - an Italian restaurant with a long wait that's totally worth it. Then we spent Saturday afternoon at Coney Island! It was a classic New York treat! Especially considering it's the last summer Astroland (the amusement park at Coney) will be open, I think it was a great experience to have. We finally finished up with a concert in Prospect Park of Beth Orton, which we couldn't really see/hear, but we had a great picnic in the park. It was all really fun, and it was really nice to see my mom, as well as to have Kristen interact with her (they get along like gangbusters).

All-in-all, it was really nice to be in New York and see friends and family. It really reminded me, however, how much I miss New York. Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying living in Cape Town, but being back in New York really got me reminiscent of how ALIVE the city is, and how cool it is to be in the middle of it. More and more, I see myself returning to NYC when my time in Africa is over. The only thing that spoiled the rosy image was the outrageous humidity which is pretty much non-existent in Cape Town. Oh, it was SO disgusting, it was unbearable to be out of the air conditioning for more than an hour.

Finally, I'm sad to be leaving the city, but I have to say I'm definitely glad to be finally returning home to Cape Town. After traveling for over a month, I'm pretty sick of living out of a suitcase, and I'm looking forward to being back in my own bed. But here's to traveling and seeing the world!

Monday, 7 July 2008


Next stop on the string theory journey - Amsterdam. I've just (almost finished) my week and a half here in the Netherlands, and I'm sitting in Schiphol airport. I had a really nice time, but it's about time to be done with EuroStrings (a.k.a. Strings@Amsterdam). Not because it wasn't fun, but just because it was pretty tiring - sitting through 34 talks in one week will do that, I guess.

My Amsterdam adventure started last Wednesday with my arrival in the evening, excitement at how fun Amsterdam looked from the airport shuttle, and subsequent crushing disappointment that the hotel I had booked (based on conference recommendations) was not immediately in the city centre (note my Eurocentric spelling of center - how authentic!). In the end it turned out to be fine - it was quite close by tram/bus to the centre, and even not that bad by walking. Still, it would have been nice to be closer and not be forced to commute to the fun.

Anyway, Kristen arrived the next morning to meet me for some Amsterfun. I won't describe everything we ended up doing, but I'll list the highlights. The Van Gogh museum was awesome - really an ideal size for someone who burns out relatively quickly at art museums (should that be museei? for some reason that sounds better to me). Plus I love van Gogh. The city itself was just really beautiful - there are canals (gracht) everywhere, and it's just so appealing. Venice of the north, kind-of-thing. Most of the time we spent walking around just soaking up the city. There's also a great improv show called Boom Chicago, which was reasonably priced, and absolutely hilarious. I was rolling on the ground laughing, and I ended up giving myself a headache from the hilarity. One of the unintentional funny moments, though, was that there was a group of dutch people sitting right in front of us, and from the start it was clear that the humor was lost on them. They were dead silent and not laughing while the rest of the audience was cracking up. I don't know whether they were just really prudish, or whether the dutch sense of humor isn't up to standard (although there were a lot of other dutch people in the audience who were loving it), but they were just not enjoying the show. To the point where they just got up and left during the intermission. They left their ticket (which had their names on it) on the table, and I picked that up for a souvenir - a reminder of the dangers of taking yourself too seriously. I'm not sure exactly what danger I'm talking about, but I'm sure it's there.

Probably the most noticeable part of the Amsterdamian landscape (aside from the canals) were the bikes. They were absolutely EVERYWHERE. I thought I'd seen people riding bikes in NYC, or in Cambridge, or anywhere, but these guys REALLY take it seriously. The bike paths along the street were hardcore - there was almost nowhere that didn't have very explicit bike paths, as well as special stop lights specifically for bicyclists. These lights were actually somewhat difficult to get the hang of because they were set up differently than normal stop lights for cars (also because I'm incompetent I think - KB had no trouble understanding them). Apparently, with 750,000 people living in Amsterdam, there are over 1 million bikes - like I said, they take it very seriously. So in order to have a legitimate Amsterdam experience, Kristen and I HAD to rent bikes and tool around the city. And I have to say, it was totally worth it. It's so convenient that I never felt at odds with the vehicular traffic (as opposed to my brief attempts to bike in NYC, which included multiple life-flashing episodes). And we were able to see much more of the surrounding area than we would have otherwise. I heartily approve of the abundance of bicycles here.

After Kristen left on Monday, the strings meeting began. It was quite an enjoyable conference, with lots of interesting speakers, lots of nice people, and some very good talks. I would say my only complaint was that there were perhaps too many talks - with a few exceptions, each talk could only be half an hour, which for those of you who are not scientists, is really not enough time to give a decent amount of background for non-expert members of the audience (by non-expert I mean people who don't work on a specific topic within string theory - of course a certain amount of background must always be assumed, but there's so many topics in the field, and so varied and complicated, that unless you're working directly on some topic, you can't be an expert). So many of the talks that were not in my area of expertise were lost on me. But overall it was all very interesting.

I also managed to meet many nice and interesting people, which is really the point of these conferences, I think. It's all about networking, I think - which I generally hate. But it was made much easier with the addition of a little but of alcohol at the reception and dinner - social lubrication had it's intended effect. Perhaps the coolest moment for me was when I was talking at the final banquet to Vijay Balasubramanian (a leader in my field, who is a professor at U Penn, and ALSO happens to have a full professorship there in neuroscience - smart, busy guy). He was a speaker at the meeting (probably the best one) and of course I knew who he was anyway because he's so famous. But when I introduced myself as Alex Hamilton from University of Cape Town, he made two comments - one, he knows Jeff, so he made small talk about that and said to say hi, and two (which totally blew my mind) he knew who I was from work I'd done with my advisor, Dan Kabat. Wow - I mean, of course he would know Dan, who's relatively well known in the field. And I'm not even shocked that he knew about our work - people read papers that relate to their work, especially if they know the author (i.e., Dan). But I have no idea how he would not only pick up my name from that, let alone REMEMBER who I was and be able to place me from a random introduction. I was both extremely impressed with his memory and very honored that he would remember. It was a big moment in my academic career.

Anyway, that's enough about the conference. But let me just end with a comment on my general experience with Europe. DAMN, but it's expensive here. Of course, everyone knows that England, and especially London, is outrageous. But I found Amsterdam to also be unreasonable - even more expensive to go out in than NYC. All this time I have been under the impression that New York ranked somewhere high up on the list of expensive places. But this is apparently only true in the States. It appears to me that Europe in general is just over the top. Perhaps it is just because the Euro is so strong right now that it makes the dollar and the rand unspendable. But even the Europeans I met there seemed to think that Europe was becoming crazy, so who knows. All I know is that this trip is starting to break my bank. At least I can get the bulk of it reimbursed since it has been business traveling. But it's an important lesson to learn - Americans beware: your money is no longer good here.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008


I am currently working my way through my worldwide string theory tour. Sitting in London, Heathrow airport, sunburnt and coughing, and ready to party.

Let me explain. I'm doing a bit of a whirlwind tour of the world, including
1) Visiting Cambridge for a week
2) Visiting Queen Mary, University of London for about a day
3) Meeting KB for a brief vacation in Amsterdam over a long weekend before
4) Attending a string theory conference in Amsterdam for a week
5) Finally, visiting NYC

and then back to Cape Town. It would seem to be a brilliant experience, and it's fine; I just don't really like traveling. Or being forced to talk to physicists. This may cast a shadow on my career.

Anyway, the trip to Cambridge went (mostly) very well. Unfortunately, due to a last minute talk she had to give in Germany, Amanda couldn't be there for most of the time, but she more than graciously allowed me to stay in her flat. And anyway, I suppose there could be a few other people worth talking to at the home of Stephen Hawking. So, indeed, I hung out and had drinks with Hawking's wheelchair engineer, Sam. I also talked a bit of physics with a few of the people there (mostly about how much I hate the Landscape of string theory - if you don't know what I mean, perhaps I'll discuss it at a later date, but probably not). The best parts were going out to the pubs and drinking English Ales. Damn it was good to drink decent beer again (SA beer is crap, due to the complete dominance of South African Breweries - South Africa's answer to Bud, and the second largest beer company in the world).

The worst part, however, was that I got sick. About halfway through the visit, I discovered that I must have caught something off of the plane on the way over, and I was put out of commission for about three days (my other theory was inspired by Robert Mugabe - the colonialist English bastards purposely infected me because I'm from Africa). It was most annoying.

I finally began to recover the day before I left, and my new friends at DAMPT took me out to a nearby town called Grantchester, which was gorgeous. We had tea at The Orchard - a famous tea house, previously patronized by such minds as Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, Maynard Keynes, Crick and Watson, Alan Turing, and so on. I felt smarter immediately. We also spent about 8 hours sitting out at the local pub having lunch, dinner, and a number of beers. That day had been particularly beautiful, and we had been sitting in the sun the whole time. A few hours in, I started to worry that I might get burned, but the other two were possibly even whiter than me, and I figured that living in Africa for a year ought to count for something, so I ignored it. Rookie error - you hate to see it. Hence my current toastiness.

Anyway, after leaving Cambridge, I took the train down to London to visit Queen Mary's. I would say that part of the trip was a bit of a write off, as almost everyone happened to be out of town so there weren't many people to meet. Regardless, they were extremely friendly and gave me a desk in the visitors' room. But I also continued to feel unwell (not helped by the sunburn, I think) and so I didn't really get to take advantage of being in London. Which is probably for the best, because my strongest impression of England was this: it is BLOODY expensive! Even in Cambridge, going out to eat at a crappy chinese restaurant cost me nearly US $50. It's incredibly deceptive, because it's all written in foreign currency (pounds), but it still hurts. I actually don't think that London was much more expensive than Cambridge, though - the explanation to me was that it's because a lot of people live there and commute to London. So might as well charge them the same amount. But DAMN. I could not afford to live there. Puts New York City completely to shame (or redeems it, however you want to say it).

Anyway, so that's the current state of the system - I'm sitting in Heathrow now, waiting for my plane to Amsterdam. I'm very excited, never having been there, and I can't wait to see all the city has to offer. Hopefully I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Torture in Zim

This NYTimes article on the torture of Zimbabweans was really telling, I thought. Quite graphic, but it really makes it clear that the run-off election coming up is a COMPLETE farce. Of course, this really isn't any different from Mugabe's historical inhumanities, but one could have hoped that this one would be different...

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Greg `How'd he do that?' Siegman

You know how some people somehow seem to meet absolutely everyone, without even trying? These same people tend to have coincidence after coincidence occur to them, leaving you scratching your head, thinking, "How could that possibly have happened?" Well, you've never met Greg Forbes Siegman, and that seems to be this guys' ENTIRE life.

Last week, I got an email from a good friend of mine back home (Abby), saying "You're going to be hearing from a guy named Greg Forbes Seigman who is from Chicago, who I know kind of through work." She said that she only knows him in passing, but that he seemed like a nice enough guy, and that he was going to be in Cape Town doing some kind of speaking tour this week. Maybe I'd like to get together with him or something, 'cause he's interested in meeting new people. This is what we like to call foreshadowing, because it is effectively the understatement of the year.

Ok, so I end up meeting up with this guy for dinner on Thursday night, with the idea to invite some friends since he likes to meet nice people. In the end I didn't end up bringing anyone, slightly worried that this might be a problem - maybe Greg wanted this to be lots of people, and I was depriving the evening of physicists (crucial for any serious get-together). It was not a problem. I showed up on time, and there were about 5 people there, so I thought, "Oh, ok, that should be enough people, I'm glad Greg brought some friends." Introductions were made, they all seemed nice, and I assumed they were all somehow associated with Greg's tour here. I was wrong on all counts (except them being nice).

All of the people at dinner were completely random. There was one couple who were finance business people. There was a community organizer. There was a woman from Kingwilliamstown (a town in the eastern cape) who worked as the popcorn lady at the cinema to support her three kids back home. There was the waiter from the townships that happened to serve Greg breakfast. There were several complete strangers he just started talking to on the street. And notably, there was no racial bias - there were just about as many black/coloured people as whites. In the end, there were probably 25-30 people who showed up for dinner, and no one knew anyone else (including Greg - he'd met them all within the past 3 days).

Finally, we headed off to dinner, took up 5 tables at the local Spur (something like a South African version of Applebeys), and everyone got to talking. The only rule was that you weren't allowed to sit next to anyone you already knew (a few people had come with friends). It was a great deal of fun, everyone was really nice, everyone was very respectful and kind. The amazing thing was the unity and comfortableness that people felt. Some people would say that such a thing would never work here. That maybe he could get together such different people so easily in the States, but South Africa just wasn't ready for it (which, to me, just shows ignorance of the level of segregation in the US - it feels to me like it's MORE integrated here, but that could just be because the percentage of black people is so much higher). But, in fact, it worked perfectly well - black people, white people, coloured people sat together and talked; rich, poor, and middle class were at the same table without feeling particularly uncomfortable. It really was pretty neat.

Anyway, the dinner was very enjoyable and interesting. After a while it broke up, and people started off home. I ended up walking back towards my car with Greg, and we decided to go get a drink (or rather, I got a drink and he had a sprite or something) - and this is where the coincidence stuff really kicked in. So we drove off to Long Street (the hip street downtown with all the bars) to find somewhere interesting. The first place we stopped in was a trendy lounge-type place. Greg immediately made friends with the bartender, and it turned out that this kid had gone to the high school whose principal was a friend of Greg's, and at whose house Greg was supposed to go to dinner. That was a funny enough coincidence. But we quickly left the lounge, cause it was kind of a cheesy atmosphere. We then went to a seedier-looking bar called Stones, which was sort of a pool bar. We stepped out onto the balcony, immediately made friends with the group that was sitting out there, and struck up a conversation (in that order - by the time Greg is actually talking to people, they already seem to be his best friend. I've never seen anything like it). The greatest thing was that those people had just been to dinner at the exactly same restaurant where we'd had our big extravaganza. And of course they remembered the big section of crazy people laughing and shouting and taking pictures (which was us, in case you couldn't figure it out). These people were also really nice, and we chatted and played pool with them for a few hours, before it was time for me to head home and go to bed (considering I was working the next day).

The list goes on. Suffice to say, Greg was an extremely interesting guy, and very unique in his approach to social interactions. He's got a huge heart, and I think is doing some great things for bringing people together. However, it all seems so chaotic, I still haven't managed to figure out exactly what those things are...

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Blast from the Past

Last week, in a fit of boredom, I was flipping through Facebook to see if I could glean any interesting information out of it.

Let me first of all say, that though I have nothing in particular against this particular networking site (or whatever you'd call it), in general I find it pretty useless. People generally put almost no relevant information on their profile (except their favorite books, movies, etc., which doesn't blow my mind anymore) so I can't learn what anyone is up to, and if I'm going to send an email, I'd rather send an email than write some nonsense on someone's Facebook page. I guess I shouldn't be too judgmental, seeing as it was really created for college kids to post their drunken photos on, and for that it seems to work quite well.

But whatever, this was not meant to be a diatribe against a college website. The point was that I actually DID manage to find something useful - somehow I stumbled upon a relatively large number of people from high school, with whom I've had no contact in 12 years. So I ended up becoming "friends" with them, as well as posting the URL to this blog. There were a number of subsequent visitors linking from Facebook, so I assume some people from Shaker now know what I'm up to. To those people, I greet you.

Anyway, the whole thing has made me very contemplative about how long it's been since graduating high school. And I wondered how much any of us have changed. Looking at the photographs on Facebook, most people looked virtually the same as I remembered them. I imagine I must look somewhat different, as I haven't had long hair since Sophomore year of University [(Un)fortunately, I have no pictures of that handy, so I can't post any on here, but needless to say, it doesn't seem as cool now as it must have then]. But more importantly, how much have people changed personality-wise? I feel like I have changed pretty significantly - I was extremely introverted in high school, but during my college years I gradually came out of my shell. I'd say I'm still fairly shy on the inside, but have learned to temper that by making an effort to be outgoing and friendly. It's definitely gotten easier over the years, too, to the point where people I know now are sometimes a little surprised that I say I used to be really shy. I guess it's not so surprising, either - with age comes maturity and a certain amount of growth of self-confidence.

But I'm also still much the same, I think. Still pretty nerdy, clearly still into academics, still have the same basic personality traits... so it'd be interesting to see how other people have changed and how they've stayed the same. How much of personality is developed early on, and how much does subsequent experience affect you? Maybe I'll just let the philosophers decide.

But anyone out there who I once knew, welcome to reading about my life...

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Strangers in a Strange Land

As many have no doubt become aware, there is a new crisis in South Africa which begun about two weeks ago. Seemingly (to me) out of nowhere, poor South Africans in Alexandra (a town near Joburg) started brutally attacking "foreigners" living there. The violence (which involved some truly inhuman attacks) quickly spread to townships in Johannesburg, to Durban, and most recently even to Cape Town (which is some 800 miles away). What seemed initially to be an isolated outburst of poverty-inspired anger has spread into a massive (inter)national crisis.

Let me be clear - I am in no (more than usual) danger. These attacks are focused upon poor Africans, mainly from Zimbabwe and Mozambique. They are being perpetrated by poor South Africans in the poverty-stricken townships on the outskirts of cities. They seem to be lashing out in anger because of the high (30%) unemployment rate and horrific crime. Of course, from what I can tell, these victims are just scapegoats - I've heard that only 1% of crime is caused by foreigners, and many of these people are taking semi-skilled jobs (in mines, vineyards, factories, etc.) which the majority of South Africans are unqualified for, or setting up their own businesses.

But these attacks are no joke. More than 40 people have died (some burned alive) and thousands upon thousands of people have been displaced. UCT is organizing relief efforts for people who have had to leave their homes here in Cape Town for fear of being attacked. A Kenyan friend of mine at the university was helping to organize people to stay in the basketball courts on campus. Another friend of mine who works in an educational institution in the townships says that one of the children in her school has had to leave because her family's shack was looted and burnt to the ground. And the violence continues.

And what is the South African government doing about all of this? Not much. Despite my lack of pre-knowledge on the issue, it seems that there was plenty of evidence that bad vibes were brewing. According to the BBC

There have been simmering tensions between South Africans and foreign nationals for some time, most notably in Cape Town where members of the local Somali community have been victimised over the past couple of years.

There has also been a continuing influx of tens of thousands of Zimbabweans, fleeing the political and economic crisis in their home country.

And speaking of Zimbabweans, many people are blaming much of the problem on President Mbeki, who refuses to allow refugee status to the more than 3 million Zimbabweans here (compared to 40 million total South Africans) who are fleeing the violence and repression of leader Robert Mugabe in their own country. Allowing them such status, even though it would let them put these people in refugee camps where they could have access to relief efforts and such, would imply that there is a problem in Zim. But of course, Mbeki and Mugabe are old buds, and he has continually refused to make any negative statements about the horrible repression of Mugabe. Which leads to even more negative attitude of the general South African population against people who would crowd into their country when there is nothing for them to be afraid of back home.

All in all, this is a most fucked-up situation.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Cosmology du vin

Last week I took part in cosmology workshop organized jointly between some South African and Cambridge cosmologists, and I'd say it was quite successful. Of course, the fun was in no way hampered by the fact that it was held at this seriously posh new research institute in Stellenbosch - the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study (STIAS). In case you're unaware of Stellenbosch, it is the center of wine country surrounding Cape Town. There's something like 145 vineyards in Stellenbosch, and then multiple other areas surrounding it with other suitable wineries. So while the mornings of the conference were taken up with learning about cosmology (which is not my particular subject, but was interesting anyway cause they had good speakers), the afternoons were taken up with wine tastings. It was all made even better because one of the visiting Cambridgians is Malcolm Perry, a quite well known string theory dude. And being as Amanda is a postdoc with him, and he happens to be both wine steward for Trinity College AND a seriously cool guy, we had a blast going around trying different wines. He's one of those guys who knows a shitload about wine but is so completely unpretentious about it that you can ask him anything and you learn a great deal about wine. A good time was had by all.

In fact, we enjoyed it so much (and by we I mean Jeff) that we're now planning on having our OWN conference there in December, on string theory. Actually, we were planning on having this conference soon anyway, but trying to decide on a cool place to do it, and this STIAS conference center is just perfect. Totally lush, nice area, friendly people (sort of, although when someone mildly criticized the lunch they served, one of the servers got all up in their face). So it's on! Anyone out there who wants to fly on over to Cape Town for a good ol' fashioned String Theory conference, just let me know and I'll set it up. Of course, we're not paying for your damn ticket, so you'll have to pay for the $2000 flight, but... Oh, and also, it's just on AdS/CFT, so String Landscape researchers need not apply...

Friday, 16 May 2008

As farm subsidies increase, hell freezes over...

This just in - I am in agreement with President George W. Bush. This is unheard of.

It has to do with US farm subsidies. Congress apparently just overwhelmingly voted for a $307 billion bill which is mainly meant to subsidize American farmers when prices for food is at an all time high. One might claim that this could drive down food prices, but in fact, this is exactly the problem. A major problem in Africa (as I learned from reading my excellent African history book, The State of Africa) is that African farming has been consistently underpriced by American farmers because of such subsidies, and has subsequently badly increased the level of poverty. As Martin Meredith says in my book,

Western surpluses produced at a fraction of their real cost are... dumped on African markets, undermining domestic producers. Simultaneously, African products face tariff barriers imposed by industrialized countries, effectively shutting them out of Western markets...

According to Oxfam, the trade losses associated with US farm subsidies that West Africa's eight main cotton exporters suffered outweighed the benefits they received from US aid.

I do think that the West needs to be playing an active role in helping developing countries. But I think it must be in a role that treats them as equal partners and helps them to become self-sufficient. Actively destroying their livelihoods in order to protect poor ol' American mega-farmers is NOT needed, even though it's been going on for years.

I'm particularly shocked by the whole thing because the bill is massively supported by both democrats and republicans, such that it is veto proof, even though Bush has threatened to veto it. Those who claim to stand for the underprivileged are screwing them, while Bush seems to be on the moral, but losing side...

My mind is blown.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Internet Commercialism Gone Wrong

I found this blog entry from a physics website I sometimes read, called Musings. I admit to being somewhat confused.

I guess pubic lice is the next Britney's corn dog.


Monday, 28 April 2008

Freedom in Africa

This week has the most public holidays I've ever seen. Today (Monday) is "Freedom Day" to celebrate the end of apartheid. Then Thursday, May 1st, is Labour Day, which is apparently such an important holiday here that Friday is a continuation, another public holiday. Kinda weird, but who am I to complain? (Don't worry, though, Jeff - I'm working from home!)

But speaking of Freedom Day (and not to beat a dead horse, but...) here's an article I saw on the New York Times this morning. Not going into too much detail, the article is about the rising amount of violence being reported in Zimbabwe against those (mainly peasants) who supported the opposition party. There are roving gangs of government-supported youth thugs, as well as soldiers and police, beating and destroying the homes of people who were known to have been supporters of the MDC. Apparently, it's all part of "Operation Where-Did-You-Put-Your-X?" - a terror campaign to scare people away from voting in the probable upcoming run-off presidential election.

While South Africa is obviously not DIRECTLY to blame for this, it's leaders (specifically now President Mbeki) have completely refused to say a single negative word about Mugabe in public. While Mbeki claims to be using "quiet diplomacy" to try and help the situation, we can see how well that is working. There's just something the slightest bit hypocritical about proudly celebrating your own freedom while helping to prop up a neighbor's violent dictatorship (and no, the analogy with US foreign policy is not lost on me).

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Faith in Zim-anity?

Perhaps cynicism need not always win.

I had mentioned in a previous post that the election in Zimbabwe seemed to be on its way towards more dictatorship. They had had both presidential and parliamentary elections a month ago, and while the results from the presidential election had not (and still has not) been released, the parliamentary ones HAD been - and the results were in favor of the opposition party - the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) - for the first time since independence in 1980. This seemed like great news, and possibly the beginning of the end for Mugabe's Zanu-PF ruling party. However, lo-and-behold, the government controlled Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) decided that 23 ridings needed a recount, most of those being seats lost to the MDC. As Zanu needed only 9 turnovers to retake parliament, and as the (corrupt) government had had the ballots in their custody for some time, the natural assuption (at least for both me and the MDC) was that Mugabe would have the ballot boxes stuffed, and rig the election.

However, the ZEC has been slowly releasing the recounts over the course of this past week, and it now seems that enough have been recounted to confirm the MDC parliamentary victory! Somehow, democracy has won the day, despite the repressive and corrupt government that's been in power for 30 years. Perhaps my faith in humanity can be restored...

Relatedly, there has recently been quite a bruhaha about a shipment of arms from China to Zimbabwe (where it has been claimed that the weapons would be used in suppressing Zim's own people during potential run-off elections), but through the protests of upstanding African citizens, its delivery to the oppressive Mugabean regime has at least been delayed, if not stopped altogether. Since Zim is a landlocked country, the Chinese ship, the An Yue Jiang, has to dock in another close-by African country and transport the arms overland. It was due to dock in South Africa, in Durban, but thanks to the conscientious organization of unionized dock workers who refused to unload them, and protests by human rights organizations and ordinary people, they were unsuccessful in transporting through South Africa. This specifically after the South African government had no response to the shipment - "government spokesman Themba Maseko said they could do nothing to stop a perfectly legal and properly documented transaction between two sovereign states." Not an unreasonable statement until you remember that the shipment had to be transported through your country. I'm no legal expert, but it seems pretty obvious to me that that puts you right in the middle of the transaction, with obvious ability to do something about it. A comment I found particularly interesting was made by the Secretary General of the Council of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Zwelinzima Vavi

Mr Vavi said much of the problem was rooted in the challenge that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) presented to the older political leaders who view themselves as standard-bearers of the liberation movements.

"It’s because of the fear that the MDC is led and supported by trade unions and civil society. They worry that initiative may just go on from one country to the next," he said.

"There’s paranoia and fear that suddenly the liberation movements are going to be coming under lots of pressure from these formations. That’s why there is this unwillingness to openly condemn what is wrong in Zimbabwe."

This doesn't seem like a crazy statement here - particularly, Thabo Mbeki, the president of SA, has been, and continues to be, seemingly unreasonably supporting Mugabe's regime, and the only reason I can suss out for this is because of revolutionary loyalty, since Zimbabwe under Mugabe played a very important role for the revolutionary ANC during apartheid in the 80s. He (and much of the ANC) doesn't seem to want to condemn an obviously horrific regime because they see them as old-school heroes, and don't want to give up the mantle of revolution.

In any case, country after country here has refused the Chinese ship access to their waters, and so it has been unable to dock and send in the weapons. It was seeming like a great success of popular righteousness, until the ship was finally allowed to dock in Angola. The Angolan government has said that they will not allow the unloading of weapons, only allowing transport of goods intended for Angola. However, Angola is a close ally of Mugabe, and it is not clear that they'll stick to their word.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Not the brightest bulb in the robot

One thing that I've found particularly stupid/annoying about the constant "load shedding" power cuts (which have started up again full swing, after a brief period of full electricity) is the traffic. Absolutely no effort is made to keep the traffic lights active when a particular area gets shed, or indeed to make any acknowledgment of traffic difficulties at all. While slightly annoying, this is not really a problem at small intersections - of course you just treat a burned out light as a stop sign. Where it becomes an issue is at MAJOR intersections, with multiple entry points, in an already poorly designed set of roads. And by major, I mean the actual HIGHWAY right next to my house. It's an intersection of one huge traffic artery and a minor traffic artery, and when the power goes out, that's it. I've been remarkably impressed with the restraint that people show, but it backs traffic up something awful (especially at rush hour, which is when they have decided to shed the load in that area). Not to mention, I'm very curious about how much traffic accidents have increased due to this.

The thing that really boggles my mind is just that it's not like this is just a traffic light being burnt out - loading shedding is constantly happening all over the country, so for example, in Cape Town, at any particular time, there is one area where the lights are all out for two hours at a time. The whole thing is just crazy to me.

By the way, for those Americans who don't understand the title of this post, "robot" is how they say "traffic light" here. Too bad they aren't as cool as the Jetsons...

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Will this help me get a job?

All I can say is... wow. One of the more gruesome things I've heard of recently. Apparently there has been a significant increase in "ritual killings" in the country of Gabon, in Western Africa, preceding local elections. It is explained that

"These politicians drink the blood and eat the bodies of their victims. They do this as a ritual to keep themselves in power."

Now that is seriously twisted.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Rumble in Zimbabwe

One thing I'm becoming more and more interested in as I stay here in Africa, is African politics, especially in Southern Africa (for obvious reasons). I've been trying to get a handle on the history of post-colonial Africa, more-or-less exclusively by reading this book "The State of Africa," by Martin Meredith. It's a great book, though it covers such an enormous subject that it's bound to be a little shallow. But considering I had zero knowledge before I started reading this, it's exactly what I needed. It covers the major events/coups/governments of pretty much every country in Africa since the 1950s, when Europe began to give up their games of colonialism and allow independence. Overall, I'd have to say it's pretty damned depressing. It pretty much reads as one psychotic, greedy, evil dictator after another. Some are less psychotic/greedy/evil than others, but suffice it to say that it is a relief to read about the countries which merely fail due to benevolent socialist intentions, rather than intentional massacres and looting.

Anyway, the upshot is that whatever the politics of the continent of Africa may be, they are certainly not boring. There's pretty much always some kind of crisis or tragedy going on somewhere, and it continues to be true in my tenure here. Aside from the constant war-torn tragedies of Darfur, DR Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, etc., in the 9 months I've been here there have already been several specific difficulties. In December - now, there was a massive crisis in Kenya (one of the most stable and strongest economies on the continent), which has subsequently settled down (at least for the present - everyone is hoping that the new shared government will be able to stave off more violence). South Africa has unveiled a large scale electricity crisis, a dire prophecy regarding the 2010 FIFA world cup here. And the current exciting piece of political turmoil is the election in Zimbabwe.

Ever since I've been here, I've been learning more and more about how shit has hit the fan in Zim over the past few years. The President/dictator for the past 28 years (since independence) is Robert Mugabe, who was a great revolutionary hero (and is still considered to be so in much of Africa). Apparently, he began his rule with much world optimism, and I think he was a not unreasonable leader for the first ten years or so. From what I can tell, problems began around the early 90s, when he became more and more disillusioned with the state of land reform in his country - much of the farm land, etc., continued to stay in the hands of the white, British farmers, or at least was not transferring quickly enough for Bob's taste. So he nationalized everything, took the land from the white farmers and gave it mainly to his political cronies, family, revolutionary buddies, etc. Subsequently, the food production, economy, public welfare, etc. plummeted. And rather than question the validity of his policies, he blamed (and continues to blame) the economic woes of Zimbabwe on a global, Western conspiracy. Of course, in addition to all of this, corruption became endemic, political freedoms are smashed (for the good of the country, of course), there was a continued attack on free business and industry, and life continued to get shittier and shittier.

When I arrived here in South Africa, it was immediately clear from talking to people and watching the news that there was a massive problem. There is enormous illegal immigration from Zim to SA, people trying to achieve refugee status with extremely low rate of acceptance by the government here. People were fleeing Zim like crazy to try to find work and send money back to their families. I remember soon after arriving here, I saw a sign down at the touristy waterfront for a boat trip, listed as costing US$30, ZAR 200 (south african rand), and one BILLION Zimbabwean dollars. That's how bad the inflation was/is - I think it is the highest level of inflation in the world now (this after being one of the best economies in Africa, earlier in Mugabe's rule).

Anyway, about 3 weeks ago, there was an election in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe (now 84 years old) was of course running, along with really only one opposition candidate - Morgan Tsvangirai. Elections are of course not even close to free and fair there - independent media is completely disallowed, constant threats are levied against the opposition, a history of political violence and intimidation stares any of Mugabe's political opponents directly in the face. Despite all of this, people are obviously EXTREMELY unhappy there, and as something like 1/3 of Zimbabwe's population lives outside of the country, often in some communication with those back home, people are able to get some reasonable outside information. So when the election resulted in

a) the first time an opposition party took majority in parliament (official) and
b) a clear majority vote in favor of Tsvangirai (unofficial, due to exit polls and posted results at individual polling stations)

there has been much hope aroused. However, true to form, Mugabe has refused to release official results for the Presidential race in over three weeks, and subsequently decided that there were "irregularities" at polling stations, calling for a "recount" of the parliamentary polls. Of course, his government has taken possession of the votes long ago, and it's pretty clear he plans to stuff the ballot boxes in his favor. Together with government-sponsored violence in opposition-held areas, over 400 arrests and a number of murders of MDC members (Movement for Democratic Change - Tsvangirai's party), and the fact that Tsvangirai himself has been forced to flee the country, this has resulted in the current highly interesting political situation here in Southern Africa.

The other crazy thing is the South African governmental response. There is huge public outcry against Mugabe's shennanigans from the SA public. However, President Mbeki is old revolutionary friends with Bob, going way back. Throughout Mugabe's reign of terror over the past years, Mbeki has been conducting what he calls "quiet diplomacy." What exactly this entails, I'm unclear on, but what it clearly does NOT entail is any public denunciation of Mugabe whatsoever, or any real results involving political freedoms. Into this election situation, amidst international outrage at Mugabe, Mbeki has continued his "quiet diplomacy," leading to his recent famous statement that "there is no crisis in Zimbabwe." This has created a media furor here, increasing both the hilarity of the situation, and its sadness.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Multiple Stab Wounds

PG-13 Warning: The following blog entry contains scenes of graphic violence, and parental guidance is suggested.

So, my friend Lisa was here in SA for several weeks, traveling around, seeing the sights, helping ease the dental pain of rural Natalians. She justifiedly decided to take a little sightseeing break and head down to the beachside town of Muizenberg (pronounced with a "mu" as in the greek letter) which is about half an hour from Cape Town. She got more of the South African experience than she bargained for...

After checking into her cutesy B&B with the very nice surfers/owners, she took a walk around town, checked out the beach, etc. etc., and was heading back to home base around 6pm (still light out). Climbing up the alley stairs to her apartment, she heard a beggar ask for money. After traveling for 3 months in Southeast Asia, she was relatively used to people asking for change, and wasn't particularly phased. She told the guy she didn't have any, at which point he pulled out a knife and threatened her. As world-traveled as Lisa is, I guess the little girl from rural Alberta wasn't used to such intimidation methods, and promptly screamed for help, partially without thinking, and partially with the idea that he would run when he realized people would start to come running. Not so. He attacked.

And by attacked, I mean he didn't hold back. He was serious with the stabbing, giving her three separate (and vicious-looking) stab-wounds in the arms - one in the upper left bicep, and two in the right forearm. That it WAS in the arms I think is testament to Lisa's a) ass/groin-kicking abilities and b) great luck - the arm wounds came from blocking the INTENDED neck/head wounds which would undoubtedly have been a hell of a lot more medically serious. After inflicting these wounds (and several other bruises from glancing blows) he ran off when her B&B owner came running out yelling that he'd called the police (more on the usefulness of that call later). Obviously, she was, at this point, rushed to the hospital, bleeding extremely profusely. Apparently this kind of thing is not incredibly common in this posh area of Muizenberg, because the hospital staff were all horrified, and she was immediately sent to the head of the queue. Stitched up and pain-killed, she was sent back to the B&B, where the owners were very sweet in trying to make her feel comfortable.

What Lisa described as one of the more frustrating aspects of the whole situation was the absolute incompetence of the SA police force. Multiple calls to the station down the road garnered no results the night of the assault, and they eventually had to wait until the next day to get the cops to come (they said they couldn't find the flat, despite exact directions and an address). When they finally did arrive (after much yelling over the phone at the unreasonably defensive officer in charge), the cops were totally useless. They made no effort to get the story (Lisa had to offer it to them independently), they took no notes (even as to the location of the attack, description of the attacker, etc.), and after the whole interview was concluded, the statement they asked her to sign was along the lines of

Lisa M. [they didn't even bother to include her surname] was attacked on Sunday, April 13th. We explained to her the forms she has to fill out to file a report.

If the whole thing weren't so appalling, it clearly would have been hilarious...

Anyway, the long and the short of the situation is that she came out of it alright. The most worrying thing was that she didn't have full range of motion with her right thumb (leading to multiple jokes about the usefulness of opposable thumbs), but otherwise she was pretty ok, even a surprising lack of frazzledness. She came back to Cape Town to stay with me for another few days, and left for Australia on Thursday. She made attempts to seem as pathetic as possible to the airline check-in crew to try to get bumped to business-class, but apparently with no success. I guess these kind of attacks are old hat for South Africans...

Monday, 14 April 2008

Crazy Town

It's been quite a while since I've put up any posts, and my excuse is that it's been pretty crazytown here for the past month or so. I'm gonna try and give a broad outline of the things that have been going on to keep me so busy, but I get bored easily, so it might get abbreviated.

A friend of mine (Janius Tsang) from McGill came to Cape Town about a month ago for a conference in anesthesiology (sp? never mind, spell checkers rock). I only got to hang out with her once, but it was really nice to catch up, as I hadn't seen her in probably at least five years. We went down to Camps Bay and had sundowners (cocktails as you watch the sun go down over the ocean - not bad). Funny how people you haven't seen in years can still be your friends. Well, I guess it's not that funny, just pretty cool.

Then Kristen came to visit for a week and a half in mid-March. That was just fantastic. We had a really nice time exploring and relaxing and everything. The time obviously seemed to go by way too quickly, but it just made me more anxious for her to move here in the winter... I mean summer... errrr... late July. Anyway, for those of you who don't know yet, she's moving here around then, hopefully on a volunteer visa. As she has been working virtually non-stop for the past 7 years, sometimes two jobs, she is definitely getting a little tired of doing what she's doing (online advertising management). So she's saving up money, ditching the ol' rat race, and moving to Cape Town to do some volunteer teaching in the townships (Khayalitcha) and spend time writing. And good for her! But damn, I probably should have taken more advantage of
her big bucks job while I could...

Very soon after she left events occurred that were of a much less pleasant nature. Sheina Weltman, the mother of a very close friend of mine in Cape Town, Amanda (my boss Jeff's fiancee), had a sudden and completely unexpected heart attack. After five days of stabilization in the hospital, she passed away with her family at her side. They have all been extremely sweet and kind to me since I've come to SA, and I've felt just terrible for them for the past few weeks. They sat shiva for her for a week, and I tried to come to the mourning prayers most nights, to show my support for them and to do whatever I could. Obviously there isn't much that anyone can do in such a situation, but at least I was able to take Jeff's classes for the week so he could take care of her. They are all still suffering, and I just wish I could do more to help/distract/comfort/whatever them.

During that time, ANOTHER friend of mine from university, Lisa, came to visit. She has been traveling the world (well, Southeast Asia) for the past 2-3 months with her friend, Muffy, and finally split up with her to come to SA. She met her mom in Jo-burg and then went to KZN (KwaZulu-Natal, a province of SA where the city of Durban is) to do some volunteer dentistry. Even though neither she nor her mom are dentists. Whatever. But they did that in some rural town for a week, which sounded pretty interesting. Then they both flew down to Cape Town, and met up with me for some wild times. We first went to the Cape Wine Country over last weekend - to Franschoek. It was really cool (and by cool I mean totally sweet). We drove out there in the Midge, went to three different wine farms (each of which were delicious and fun, with mostly wacky owners, especially Hildegard), ate dinner at a really phenomenal restaurant (le Bon Vivant) where we got a five-course meal with matching wines for a pretty unreasonably cheap price (especially for pretty much the most ritsy/touristy area of Cape Town), and ended up randomly staying at this great B&B/villa overlooking the mountains. Fantastic.

After that, Lisa and her mom continued to potter around Cape Town together for a few days before Linda (Lisa's mom) headed back to Alberta, at which point Lisa came to crash on the kick-ass leopard-print couch of my apartment. We did a bunch of cool shit over the next few evenings and then went to the town of Langebaan, about 150 km north of Cape Town. There they have a cool lagoon with crazy wind and a crazy restaurant that serves ten courses of fish on the beach, listening to a (hammered) guitarist sing songs and harass the clientèle. Such harassed people included me and Lisa, which was particularly funny as he
a) insisted on speaking Afrikaans to me, even after I told him I speak none
b) singing intently at our table while staring intensely into my eyes
c) convincing a larger and larger cross-section of the clientèle that we were Afrikaans, until seemingly no one believed us (including the owner, who had previously been speaking to us in English)
d) finally settled on hitting on the quintuple of 20-something blond Dutch chicks, whom he regaled with a stunning rendition of "Barbie Girl."
Fun was had by all.

In Loving Memory of Sheina Weltman

Very recently, the mother of one of my closest friends, Amanda, passed away completely unexpectedly from a massive heart attack. Sheina lived in Cape Town, and she was one of the sweetest people I've met. She was instantly extraordinarily welcoming and friendly to me when I arrived in SA, and really treated me as part of her large and friendly family. She was very intelligent, and it was always a pleasure to have any conversation with her, on any number of topics. Not to mention that she was extremely open minded, and would listen to whatever you had to say.

It's totally unbelievable that this could have happened so quickly out of the blue, and I feel just terrible for my friend and her poor family. My heart goes out to all of them, and my best wishes to them on getting through this incredibly difficult time. Sheina was a wonderful woman, and she lives on in the hearts and minds of everyone who ever met her.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

End of Days

As most of you are probably aware, the world should be ending any day now. How can I be sure? Well, it's been a long time since I went to Sunday School, but I'm sure there was a rhyme something like, "The world is ending, this I know; cause the bible tells me so..." Clearly all you have to do is look in the bible, and it will tell you (the technical term is "prophesize") how and when it's going to happen. But just because it doesn't always happen that way is no reason not to believe us...

In any event, in case you were not aware of all the signs of the coming apocalypse, here are a few to digest. Clearly not for the faint of heart...

Global travel: Apparently, Daniel 12:4 tells us that "many shall run to and fro." This is a clear reference to the fact that there are lots of airplanes and train travel all over the world. Get out your crucifixes, cause like the great prophets, the Monkees said, "Take the last train to Clarksville..." (emphasis added)

Traffic Accidents: Not unrelated - Nahum clearly stated that the dominance of car accidents will lead directly to a Satanic uprising. This would be far more disturbing than the current anti-drunk driving ads would lead you to believe.

Knowledge will be increased: This should surprise no one - the fact that there is more and more knowledge being had by scientists and lay people alike CANNOT be good for ANY good Christian.

Debit card of the Beast; or PIN code 666: I have to say, this is my personal favorite (ahem, I mean most dire warning). In the most holy of texts (Revelation 13:15-18) it is clearly laid out that the coming of the end will be heralded by a cashless society. So it is CLEARLY no coincidence that right NOW, of all times, debit cards are becoming more and more prevalent. The buying and selling of souls has never been easier for the Devil, and they'll just take the money straight out of his account. And here is a direct quote from the website I've been referencing, in case you've been too lazy/sane to link to them:
"That may seem like pretty stiff punishment for simply accepting a Mark that allows you to buy groceries. However, this prophecy indicates that receiving the "Mark of the Beast" is not merely an economic decision, but also implies acceptance and worship of the Satan-possessed Anti-Christ, and a pledge of allegiance to his anti-God global regime."
You HAVE been warned...

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Kofi goes to Africa

Welcome to Kenya, and the world, Kofi Annan:

Monday, 11 February 2008


Man, I'm full of news this week. But no time for that! I'm busy playing [N]. Damn this game is addictive... very reminiscent of Jardinians... damn, I mean Jardinains. Damn! There's a Jardinains2!

Sobering thoughts

I went out with some friends on Friday night, including two dudes from Kenya - one that has been at UCT for a while, and one that has just arrived (though he has lived in SA for seven years). Anyway, we had a really great time, but this post is not about that (despite its beginnings).

Specifically, this is just to comment on the fact that what you read is true - Kenya is really fucked up. My friend, Bob, was just there for a little over a month, trying to get his wife and children out of there. Specifically because he and his wife are of different ethnicities, though, it was dangerous for them to be together, I think - the ethnic fighting is horrendous. The two dudes who we were drinking with on Friday were also from different tribes, and they said if they were living there, they would be fighting right now.

I don't know, it's just that news from across the world feels so detached from reality, and I sometimes wonder how widespread is the violence that gets reported. For example, a recent graduate student here is from Sudan, but from the capital - Khartoum - as opposed to Darfur, which is what you constantly hear about in the news. And according to him, though the situation is indeed dire in Darfur, Khartoum is really not particularly bad, which I was surprised to hear. This I contrast with information from my Kenya - Bob is from the capital, Nairobi, and he says that Nairobi is also significantly screwed, as in it was dangerous for him to go out. Although it does sound like outside of the cities are even worse - he told me that you just can't drive between cities right now, because chances are almost 100% that you will be stopped by wandering rioters (who will naturally be of a rival ethnic group) who will drag you out of your car and kill you. Full stop. That is fucked up. This is the country which was completely unique in Eastern Africa (and fairly unique in all Africa) in being amazingly stable for the past 40 years - with one of the best and most stable economies in all of Africa.

So this is dedicated to my best wishes for Bob's family, that they will be able to move here quickly and safely. Not to mention just the hope that the violence subsides quickly and peace soon restored.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Healthy body, Clean car

I just recently started really making an effort to get into shape. I joined a gym, I'm going almost every day, and I'm really working on eating healthily. It's been about two weeks since I joined the gym, and I'm already feeling tons better - waking up easier and happier in the morning, and my muscles are beefing while my gut is shrinking. It's great! I'm a total convert. Hopefully I can keep it up, though... my track record is less than spectacular...

Anyway, it's so funny, outside the gym there are always a ton of guys wanting to wash your car. As soon as you drive along the road, they're waving you over, brandishing buckets and soap. The guard in the parking lot is even in on it, I think - there's always one dude who's washing cars IN the parking lot, and the guard helps him to get customers. Finally, my car was filthy, so I got it washed the other day, and it looks sparkling now. But it was never dirty before I joined the gym, and I can't help but think that these washing dudes wait until no one is looking and throw dirt on your car so that next time you'll want it washed...

Friday, 8 February 2008

National Traffic Day

Christ, what normally is a five minute drive, today took me an hour. The traffic was absolutely unbelievable. I think it may have something to do with the opening of Parliament or something - they completely blocked off the Towards-the-city-center highway, and it led to traffic being blocked up all the way to my driveway - I literally pulled out and had to stop in traffic while the tail end of my car was still in the driveway. Really goes to show how much we rely on public infrastructure. Sheesh, what a fragile world...

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Rollerblades, Basketball... I'm lovin' it

We had a speaker come and give a talk yesterday - Patrick Dorey, from University of Durham - and the talk was extremely interesting; it was actually on a subject upon which I "work", namely integrable systems. However, incidentally, in the course of his talk, he mentioned how the subject related to a famous problem in mathematics called "the McNugget Problem."

McDonald's (used to) serve McNuggets (R) in only three sizes - 6, 9, and 20. The question then naturally arises as to whether you can order ANY number of nuggets (quickly answered in the negative - try to order 3 McNuggets) and if not, precisely which numbers are disallowed?

It turns out that, because the three numbers are relatively prime (i.e., the only number by which you can divide all three numbers is 1), if you want a large enough number of McNuggets, you will eventually be accommodated. Turns out, the largest "McNugget number" is 43 - you will unfortunately be unable to order 43 McNuggets, but ANY number higher than that, and you're golden (arches). The other McNugget numbers are:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 22, 23, 25, 28, 31, 34, and 37.

Of course, McDonald's (partially) realized the error of their weighs, and have expanded the options. McNuggets now come in 4,6, and 10 piece boxes, and if you include the Chicken Selects (R) Premium Breast Strips (offered in 3 and 5 piece sets) you can now get any number of chicken pieces other than 1 and 2. But dang-it, I only WANT 2!

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Mathematical absurdities

So right now I'm thinking about the summation of divergent sums. What do I mean by that? Well, say I wanted to add up some numbers:


That should give me some answer, right? e.g., if N=4 then I'd have


Not so bad, right? In fact, it's not hard to show (if you are good at math) that you can find the general answer


Which works for the above example because 4*(4+1)/2=10.

Obviously, the higher you count, the bigger the answer is going to be, right? But what if I wanted to never stop... in other words, what if I wanted to count all the way to infinity. "Ha ha!" you say! Such an idea is absurd! But No! You can do it! And the answer is... -1/12. That's right - I said negative one-twelfth. I know! It sounds dumb. But mathematicians and physicists have a way of doing it so that that's what you get. It's called analytic continuation of the Riemann Zeta Function. (by the way, Wikipedia is my best friend) And they use it in all seriousness! It's a majorly important part of string theory. And before you let this turn you off of string theory, it is also the method by which one calculates a completely standard, uncontroversial, physically tested (and true) phenomenon called the Casimir Effect. And this Riemann guy was a seriously important, revered mathematician of the 19th century, and his function is apparently one of the most important objects in pure mathematics.

Anyway, this is just what I've been thinking about lately. Now you know. And knowing...

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Kudu sausage looks like turds

The Powers that Be

It's interesting when things happen here to remind me that I am actually living in a (first world city in a) fairly third world country.

Due to foreseen (but somehow incompetently overlooked by the government) increases in the economy of South Africa since '94, the demand for electricity has skyrocketed. So much so, in fact, that the supply created by the electricity company, Eskom, is really no longer sufficient. So we've been having daily "load shedding" at random points during the day. Suddenly, the electricity will just go off for two hours at a time, and they are basically cycling this effect across the city. What's worse is that they're hilariously inconsistent in telling the public when it's going to happen. I've heard rumors that this is not supposed to last - that by next week they should stop the load shedding, but I have a hard time seeing how that's possible. I guess they're using this stoppage time to store up more electricity... but the problem is only going to get worse as time goes on.

Obviously people are pissed off, most vociferously, businesses - I've heard reports of millions to billions of dollars already having been lost. The stupidest thing is that, like I said before, Eskom knew this was going to happen for the past 15 years, and they apparently kept telling the government about it, but really to no avail. So they didn't do anything until 10 freaking years later, when they finally told Eskom in 2004 to go ahead and build another power station. But that obviously takes years to do, and it sounds like it'll be at LEAST five years until it's completed, during which time demand will continue to grow, and the whole deal will just get more screwed up.

The one thing it has taught me, though, over the past week - having a laptop is a major advantage over a desktop, since the battery will keep the power cuts from destroying my system...

Saturday, 19 January 2008

USA, I'm ok!

Well, I'm back from vacation in Cleveland and NYC. Had a great time, but it is also nice to be back. Here are some pictures of Christmas 2007.

Here's Alex and Kristen's stockings before (and after) Xmas

Kristen and Squee, in front of the Krismas tree

Laurence the anime character

My African present to Scott and Dad. I thought it was cool

Friday, 18 January 2008

If I owned a business

These would be my motivational posters