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.