Sunday, February 18, 2018

The worst website in the world?

When I started out in this computer game, I had to feed batches of punched cards into a mainframe. Fortunately there was a guide to the thing worked - it was an IBM manual. I used to hold out the manual as an example of how to write clearly, concisely and logically. Everything flowed naturally. The thoughts were beautifully expressed.

I used recipes as a counter example. "Take the peeled oranges" - huh? What peeled oranges? Oh yes, there were oranges in the list of ingredients, but you hadn't been asked to peel them, and at that point the recipe told you to watch the contents of the pot and keep stirring. Have you ever tried to peel an orange while stirring a pot full of frothing liquids which, you have been warned, is liable to boil over if you stop stirring for an instant?

There is a latter-day evil which has taken over from the recipe books. It is called a "website". Now there are websites which are things of great expertise. They work intuitively. You can find your way around them with never a glitch. You almost feel someone is holding your hand.

Then there are those for which I have an undying hatred. They lead you down the wrong path; they send you back to the start before you have really started; and they don't give you the information you need even when you get to where you thought you would be able to end.

I think the worst website in the world must be Ster Kinekor's. You would think that booking a cinema ticket would be the easiest thing in the world - they want you to buy something, and you want to buy it. But no! The first question you ask is "What's on?" and you get presented with a huge list. "Ahah! I'd like to see that!" you think, so you select it. You then try to choose your cinema. If you are fortunate, your chosen movie may be on at your chosen theatre - but it may not, and without further ado you are back at the "What's on?"

So you change your tactic. You choose a cinema first, and then ask "What's on?" You find a movie you want to see, and then try to find what time it is showing. Damn, it is only coming in two weeks. Back to the start.

Finally you find a movie you want to see, but the only time given is the time of its first showing. Surely there must be more than one time, you think. You flounder around and suddenly you are back at "What's on?" All the information you have given them is lost - you start again.

You want to know why the cinema nearest to you is closing? Look no further the the website.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Land in South Africa

The ANC has raised the spectre of land restitution without compensation. Zimbabwe, here we come, has been the general reaction. So when UCT's Summer School offered a course "The land question in South Africa", I felt I had to go.

The course was led by Prof Ntsebeza of UCT's African Studies department. It started with a description of the problems faced by rural folk, who have tenuous tenure of their land courtesy the local Chief. Many of the Chiefs are from families that were granted chiefly status by the apartheid regime, to administer Government policy in their "Bantustan". When democratic government arrived, they moved seamlessly to similar status in the tribal authority adminstering the land. Not surprisingly, there is a level of resentment among those so administered, particularly as the tribal authorities show some of the characteristics of apartheid apparatchiks.

In the Eastern Cape, the King appointed Headmen to villages. The hierarchy is King, each of whom has 20 or more Chiefs reporting to him; each Chief has about 10 Headmen; and each Headman looks after one or more communities. But some communities, years ago, had elected their Headmen, and felt very aggrieved at having outsiders thrust upon them.

A community under the KwaGcina Traditional Council was so miffed that it took the Council and King to court when they refused to allow an election. The community won. The National Government, King and Council appealed - and lost. A Headman was duly elected.

This precedent looks like changing the political structures in rural areas. No longer can the government of the day rely on voter fodder being herded towards them by compliant Headmen. Indeed, the change has already spread so far that an imposed Chief has been rejected.

One of the problems of the tribal structures is that they are are supposed to work closely with local government. There is even a Co-operative Governance Act defining the relationship between the two. However, it is the cause of a real turf war, with local government being frustrated in its efforts at every turn. The end result is inevitable - rural dwellers have no effective service delivery, no schools,no clinics or hospitals, no transport systems.

Government is doing what it can to resolve the impasse, which is really of their own making. Originally land was to be a local government responsibility, but under presure from the traditional leaders, the ANC gave way and allowed the tribal authorities to continue their administration. There are signs that they are working to rectify this. For instance, in KwaZulu Natal, Government is threatening to remove the Ingonyama Trust of some 28 000 square kilometers from the control of King Zwelethini.

I came away from the course with a very different view of land reform in South Africa. I no longer believe the Zimbabwe example has any relevance. Rather, I believe we are seeing a democratisation of South Africa which will give us a stronger future, with the associated disappearance of the tribalism which has proved so divisive to our people.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Good, pure food

When I was a graduate student, I was allowed into the chemistry staff Tea Room. In those days, my degree had only just changed from Applied and Industrial Chemistry to Chemical Engineering, and we still had strong ties to the Chemistry Department.

In the tea room, there was lots of scientific reading matter. There were bound copies of journals, some in German, and some going back into the 19th century. One which fascinated me was "The Analyst", dating back to 1878 and still published by the Royal Society for Chemistry today.

Much of the early work had to do with the adulteration of food. There were ways of measuring the amount of chalk added to milk, or pigfat added to butter, or glycerine to wine. It was pretty horrifying what the Victorians came up with to enrich the butcher or grocer without killing the customer. Sweeney Todd was no joke!

Fast forward to today. I do quite a lot of cooking for myself, and rather enjoy it. A recent recipe for sauerkraut from the Economist has proven a great success, even if I had to visit the local spice emporium to find fennel. But I soon found there was something funny about chicken. When I cooked it, it oozed a white, unappetising goo. Then my supermarket had a special on Brazilian chicken, and when I cooked that, it didn't ooze.

Curious, I did a bit of digging, and found that the local chicken had "brine" added to it. Now brine is a colloquial word for salt water, and salt water doesn't contain goo. A bit more digging, and I found I was buying not just chicken, but chicken fattened and moisturized with chicken blood plasma in brine. So that was why it oozed and shrank.

Then I observed the same phenomenon in bacon. The commercial stuff was limpid and ended up half the size when cooked - if you were lucky. The German butcher sold me the real thing at a small fortune per kg, but it was firm and didn't ooze and shrink when you cooked it.

Soon I was finding ooze everywhere. The kipper that barely fitted into the pan, but looked like a sardine once it was done. The gammon that looked big enough for ten hungry mouths, yet had to be sliced very thin to celebrate Christmas.

I'm cross, and so should you be. Why do we allow ourselves to be ripped off in this way? To be sold something that contains about 30% that isn't what it claims to be? I see the poultry producers are complaining about unfair competition from imports. If they would stop adulterating our food, perhaps we might be more sympathetic.

Friday, December 1, 2017

There is no debate!

Three weeks ago I received an invitation from the National Science and Technology Forum - 
Show us the evidence for climate change
17 November 2017, Kempton Park, Gauteng

The National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF
) is pleased to announce that Professors Bob and Mary Scholes will present on climate change. This is an interactive discussion on this critical matter.

I thought the opportunity to take part on an "interactive discussion" was too good to miss, so I registered for the event.

Then the programme came out, and I wrote to the NSTF:
"I see from the programme that only 20 minutes is set aside for discussion, which after 80 minutes of presentation seems rather unbalanced.Would it be possible to prebook five minutes of that time?  I have a very short presentation covering four of the issues that I believe the presenters will cover – and if they don’t cover one of them, I can easily drop that from my presentation."

There was a lot of scuttling around, and finally "Yes, we will make it possible" 

In the event, it turned out that the occasion was the Annual General Meeting of the NSTF, and Bob Scholes was effectively the guest speaker.  He gave what I would call the orthodox version of the climate change story. There were some very contentious bits - for instance, he believed the dendrothermometry behind the Hockey Stick, claiming that the author, Michael Mann, had been exonerated by eight separate hearings.  The fact that Steve McIntyre had shown conclusively that Mann's maths was wrong, and gave hockey sticks from random data, was ignored. Mann's "trick", of deleting the inconvenient data showing tree rings narrowing as the world warmed, was omitted. 

The lecture was about an hour long. Finally, then, there was to be discussion. There were a few questions, and when those slowed to naught, I was permitted to make my contribution. Scholes was allowed to respond and concentrated on the effect of 0.8 deg C warming - "The world was only 5 degrees colder at the depths of the Ice Age". - which surprised me. One ice core I know well, was several degrees warmer than today during the previous interglacial, and 10 deg C colder 20 000 years ago.

Over lunch, all the people at my table thanked me for my contribution. They felt it had been balanced, and showed that there was more to the orthodox view than they had been led to believe.

Two weeks went by, and there was a "Media Release":
and discussion can be found on the NSTF web site ( Please send information and comments to"

In hope I went to the website, and found Scholes' story there, and nothing else. Of my presentation, no sign.

I wrote to the NSTF - "I distinctly recall making a presentation, but I cannot find it on the website. When will it appear?" To date I have had no response. 

Clearly what I had to say must have been very subversive.  You can view it via:

I cannot help but think that the NSTF needs to wake up.  There are two sides to every debate. Presenting one and censoring the other isn't science.

About ten days after the above appeared, I had a very nice letter from the NSTF. Most apologetic that my presentation had been overlooked, but it was posted now. Perhaps all is not lost! 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Zeitz Mocaa

I am not an art freak.  Nevertheless, the transformation of a 1920's grain silo into a modern art gallery sounded sufficiently unusual to deserve at least a visit.  
I still had qualms. To my eyes, too much of what passes as "African Art" is naive at best, childish at worst.  Would this have any level of sophistication?
I should not have worried. I entered a very ordinary loading platform, complete with rails still on the floor. A metre or so inside, and I was in a cathedral of a space, with the old silos sliced in graceful curves.
                                                       Image courtesy Zeitz Mocaa
Overhead was a glass roof; some of the silo remnants were dangling threateningly; some housed spiral staircases, and others, lifts. I took a lift to the sixth floor, and stepped out into a sculpture garden. Stepping was gingerish at first, because I was walking on the glass roof, and very aware of six floors of drop beneath my feet.  My head told me it was perfectly safe; the pit of my stomach told me quite the reverse!
There followed three hours of visual stimulation. Round a circuit of cubical galleries, some containing no more than a small picture on each wall, then down a floor. There was a wonderful triptych involving a zebra, by Athi-Patra Ruga - a great example of the technique of using high-definition ink-jet printing. Kudzanai Chiurai was prolific;  his protest posters were a hoot, and his Lyeza film explored a sort of Last Supper theme very creatively. Nandipha Mntambo did magical things with cow hides - some of her creations could have graced grand balls. Mary Sibande's Opportunity was superbly sculpted, with a charging horse to end all charges.  It did not matter that a room full of hanging bricks (Kendall Geers) and another of hanging beer bottles (Lungiswa Gquanta) were trite, or that Penny Siopsis had a whole wall which would have been better covered by graffiti - there was enough creativity elsewhere to take away the bad taste.  Towards the end, William Kentridge's Dance was 12 minutes of sheer bliss - a vast panorama covering three walls, inviting total immersion and succeeding brilliantly.
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art is a fantastic addition to the list of Cape Town's attractions.  Don't miss it!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

How green WAS my valley!

We are all "green." We love nature. We will do all we can to save it from being ravaged by mankind. But there is a problem. As Einstein remarked Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber boshaft ist er nicht,” roughly translated as "The Good Lord may be subtle, but He is not malicious."
This should be a warning that you must at all costs avoid being what I call a "galloping green." There is no point in plunging ahead when you think you have spotted a problem. Just remember, there is always a simple, straightforward solution to virtually every problem, and that solution is invariably wrong. You have to think before you act. Gut feeling for nature could do damage, not solve the problem!
There is a wonderful example in the latest Nature journal, Down in Puglia, the heel of the boot which is Italy, some olive trees started dying.  The plant pathologists identified a foreign bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, as the culprit. They recommended uprooting the infected trees and everything within 100m of it.
But the local green movement was against this.  They "knew" all about diseases of olive trees, and were not going to allow 1 000 year old specimens to be uprooted. They chained themselves to the infected trees to prevent them being taken down; they went to court to stop the "massacre." They convinced the Puglian judge that the problem was fungal, not bacterial, and that they were expert in handling olive trees attacked by fungi.  The judge believed them.
And so the problem has spread through the whole of Puglia, some 200 000ha of olive groves, and is moving steadily north.  It has taken six months, but the judgement has been reversed - probably not too late to save the rest of Italy's crop. 
But Puglia is doomed, dead trees everywhere.  And the bacterium seems to have spread - to coastal Spain, across the Adriatic to Greece. All because the tree huggers thought they had the answer. Sometimes one thinks green is the colour beloved by the Devil himself!

The pseudo-disaster of dropping the Paris Accord

There has been an outcry over the American decision to renege on the Paris Accord.  Indeed, one professor went so far as to describe it as a “deeply immoral reprehensible act.”
Yet no-one who read President Trump’s speech can have been left in any doubt that there were sound economic reasons behind his decision. “Compliance with the terms of the Paris Accord and the onerous energy restrictions it has placed on the United States could cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025 according to the National Economic Research Associates.  This includes 440,000 fewer manufacturing jobs. . .”  “the Paris Accord … includes yet another scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States through the so-called Green Climate Fund — nice name — which calls for developed countries to send $100 billion to developing countries all on top of America’s existing and massive foreign aid payments.”
When you realize that  China is America’s greatest trading rival as well as being a ‘developing country’, you can understand the American reluctance to send it aid.  
The good Professor even suggested America could not “opt out of the laws of physics.” Again, it is clear that he is ignoring large sections of what President Trump actually said. “Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100.  Tiny, tiny amount.  In fact, 14 days of carbon emissions from China alone would wipe out the gains from … America's expected reductions in the year 2030, after we have had to spend billions and billions of dollars, lost jobs, closed factories, and suffered much higher energy costs for our businesses and for our homes.”
The people who are ignoring the laws of physics are those on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  They are interpreting the laws of physics in such a way as to attempt to convince us that climate catastrophe is just round the corner.  It clearly isn’t.
None of their longer-term predictions have come true. The Arctic ice didn’t disappear in 2010. The greenhouse gases have shot up in this millennium, but the thermometer has barely budged.  The actual records of rainfall show no significant global trends, and there is a statistically insignificant drop in the number and violence of cyclones.  Yes, it’s got warmer – which mean that fewer old people die in winter.  Yes, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so plant life is flourishing and the planet, seen from space, is measurably greener.
Our Professor claims “The effects of climate change will hit … poorer communities … more than the rich.”  What he overlooks is that the Paris Accord in effect asks nations to avoid fossil fuels, even though for many they are the cheapest and most effective primary sources of energy. China is building some 200GW of new coal-fired power stations; India is building nearly 600GW; Africa has 120GW planned; and Pakistan, which has long relied on hydropower, is building 60GW. Even Germany, practically the home of renewable energy, has recently built 10GW of coal-fired power. For comparison, South Africa’s total capacity is about 45GW.
Yes, renewable energy is now on a cost parity with many other sources of energy; but renewable energy makes up only a tiny fraction (<2%)of the world’s energy supply and is already proving more difficult to distribute than the dispatchable sources. So it is the Paris Accord that will impact poorer societies, not climate change – particularly as the Green Climate Fund appears a dead duck.