Suggestions for the parents

My parents are going to be coming to my graduation in a few months’ time, and I want to show them something of the US of A. Neither of them has been to the US before, so just about everything will be new to both of them. Still, in the two weeks that they are here, I want to see awesome stuff with them. I haven’t done nearly enough traveling in the US myself to know what they have to see while they are here.

But I have officially (and happily) been designated their guide, so I need to get an itinerary together for them…

So do you have any suggestions for me? Please…? I’ll need to filter the suggestions, of course, because my parents are who they are, and they will only be in the country for two weeks in total. But such is life.

I would prefer to know about really interesting things to do in the northeast/New England, but suggestions from further afield would be wonderful too. (As an example, I would love to see Colorado with my parents…) But please do give me some idea of things they should see/do/eat and places they should go.

So let the ideas roll…

PS Feel free to break the fairly commentless atmosphere on the blog. Your comments are always going to be much appreciated.

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Statehood and Violence

The question of statehood and arbitrary boundaries has really been bothering me of late. In particular, the violence that continues to exist as a result of state boundaries arbitrarily drawn by countries in the West really makes me wonder about the sensibility of retaining many states in their current form. There are some very obvious areas where tensions remain high as a direct result of arbitrarily drawn state lines, like those of Palestine/Israel, India/Pakistan, and Ethiopia/Eritrea, for example. The histories of these areas is more widely known to most people in the West: most people (I would hope) understand the importance of state lines in the continued problems associated with these areas. In these cases, the West’s decision to separate (or join) various disparate and/or arbitrarily defined groups of people has led to incredible violence that has lasted for decades. At this stage, Palestine and Israel look almost as far from a peace agreement as ever. Well, almost.

Still, the historical factors behind other hotbeds of unrest are rarely mentioned or made public. Reporters may be taking it as a given that their readers are aware of the background to their stories, but I get the feeling that they gloss over the historical causes of the violence and/or unrest. The news coverage I read of places like Somalia and Nigeria really highlights this. In Somalia, the historical relationship between Ethiopia and Somalia makes it much easier to understand why the country mistrusts the current transitional government (which is backed by Ethiopian forces). Not many reports refer to the fact that Somalia went to war with Ethiopia in the 70’s in order to annex the Ogaden so as to unite all Somalis. Even fewer refer to the terrible losses that Somalia suffered in social and military contexts.

Historical issues also underly many of the problems faced by foreign oil companies in the Niger Delta. Over the last few weeks I’ve read of dozens of foreigners being kidnapped in and around the Niger delta, where Nigeria’s oil reserves are concentrated. (According to one report I read, 55 foreigners have been kidnapped this year already.) What this report and many others neglect to mention is the serious poverty faced not only by all Nigerians, but by especially those in the area around Port Harcourt. It might seem odd for me to mention this region, in particular, but the history of the area directly impacts its poverty: in the late sixties, the region was the secessionist state known as Biafra. The Biafran War, like all civil wars, was crippling and left the region devastated. While that was more than thirty years ago, the effects of civil war can’t be ignored.

But before I digress into a lengthy description of similar areas that are or have been cause for wars or tension, I want to look at the reasoning behind statehood. I don’t propose to offer anything more than questions, but it bothers me that so many governments are incredibly unwilling to alter completely artificial boundaries. In some cases, where access to minerals or the like are in question (a la Biafra), I can see why a state would prevent the redrawing of boundaries. In others, however, it strikes me as odd that areas like the Ogaden (Ethiopia/Somalia) and Kashmir (Pakistan/India) remain subject to conflict and violence. Furthermore, it is hard to see why certain states continue to exist as separate entities. I understand national pride, but I don’t necessarily see the need for certain states to exist. And now will come some controversial examples, because I won’t deny my ignorance of the issues that may have driven separatism. My first two examples are Lesotho and Swaziland, which are both monarchies quite close to home. I understand the existence of their monarchies, but they are both very closely allied to South Africa: their currencies are pegged to the Rand and both Sesotho and siSwati are widely spoken in South Africa. Furthermore, both countries are economically dependent on South Africa. They both exist as independent entities because they were British protectorates separate from what later became the Union of South Africa. And nothing has changed since.

Perhaps someone else can provide arguments for why so many arbitrarily defined states remain bounded as they are, because I really can’t understand why they do. (As witnessed by this long and unfocused post that doesn’t quite lead anywhere…)

An Extrapolation of Thoughts from Paul Graham: (Un)Happiness

If you haven’t noticed the link on my blog to Paul Graham’s website, you should do so now. It’s there for a reason. (Imagine that?!) In all seriousness, though, it really is worth having a look at his site, especially his essays. He’s a well-known essayist who writes about intriguing topics in an engaging and thought-provoking manner. (Has that moniker reached the status of cliche yet? I would hope not, because it does describe his writing.) Most importantly, though, he has very original ideas and the essays are really worth reading. Some might not appeal to you due to their specificity, but there are a lot have a wider purview.

The essay that got me to writing this post was one that he released recently. The essay is entitled “Is It Worth Being Wise?” and deals with the difference between wisdom and intelligence and the role each plays in the modern world. More importantly, though, Graham raises the issue of whether happiness and/or contentedness are truly possible for intelligent people. As he puts it,

To me it was a relief just to realize it might be ok to be discontented. The idea that a successful person should be happy has thousands of years of momentum behind it. If I was any good, why didn’t I have the easy confidence winners are supposed to have? But that, I now believe, is like a runner asking “If I’m such a good athlete, why do I feel so tired?” Good runners still get tired; they just get tired at higher speeds.

People whose work is to invent or discover things are in the same position as the runner. There’s no way for them to do the best they can, because there’s no limit to what they could do. The closest you can come is to compare yourself to other people. But the better you do, the less this matters. An undergrad who gets something published feels like a star. But for someone at the top of the field, what’s the test of doing well? Runners can at least compare themselves to others doing exactly the same thing; if you win an Olympic gold medal, you can be fairly content, even if you think you could have run a bit faster. But what is a novelist to do?

It’s tough to isolate a quote in Graham’s essay that encapsulates his thoughts regarding contentedness, but I think the one I’ve chosen comes close. I think it’s really interesting to consider the question of happiness or contentedness in contexts other than those of intelligence alone. The one that I’ve been grappling with recently (and not only on my own account) is that of privilege. In a similar fashion to the inventor that Graham names above, I have the ability to make significant changes to the world and more specifically to South Africa. How should (or can) I reconcile myself to my current lifestyle whereby I am nowhere near South Africa and not close to making a difference any time soon? Should my lack of activity be cause for serious unhappiness on my part?

The moral implications of one’s actions (or lack thereof) are closely tied to one’s own morality. In my case, I am not unhappy in my current situation. For the time being, I am of the opinion that I won’t be able to make a serious difference at home at present. I am also still working out quite how my skills can be put to work in the real world, so that at a later point I may use them efficiently in some beneficial endeavour. But now comes the most interesting part of my thinking: I don’t think or feel that it is my responsibility to bring about change. I suppose that is where some of my existentialist leanings come into play, but that is how I think about the world: I would like to do good, but I don’t feel driven to it. I am still working out how I should feel about the unused potential that I possess…

I am currently happy, but given the above thoughts, should I not be? How do you feel about your happiness (or lack thereof)? Some comments would be interesting.

Oh, and does the fact that I am currently happy imply that I am not intelligent, but only wise…?

Some Thoughts on the State of the Nation

Before you start jumping up and down, I am referring to South Africa and more specifically to Thabo Mbeki’s State of the Nation Address from almost ten days ago. As with many such addresses, it skirts a number of issues, but on the whole it does address the state of South Africa as a whole and the progress made by the country over the last few years. Most importantly, Mbeki admits to a number of problems that the country still faces. (He also brings up many of the government’s successes, which isn’t surprising either.) But the real impetus behind this post is not a desire to critique Mbeki or the speech he made. Rather I want to look at some of the points he brought up in the speech and how much those points in and of themselves say about the country.

One of the things that really struck home for me was how far the country still needs to go before Apartheid is truly overcome. The spectre of poverty is one of the most accurate reflections of the lingering effects of Apartheid. Despite the number of people who have been provided with running water, “8 million people are still without potable water.” In other words, close to one in five South Africans doesn’t have access to water-related infrastructure. And much as the government may try to rectify the situation, it won’t be able to in the near future. Access to electricity is an even bigger problem. As Mbeki points out, more people lack access to electricity than they do to water. On top of this, however, South Africa has been having problems with demand for electricity as a result of improved access. There have been fairly serious black-outs and the like over the last few months due to Eskom, the state-owned electricity provider, not having the capacity to provide enough power to the country. (That is a topic on its own, wherein it would seem the government is partly to blame for preventing Eskom from expanding its infrastructure five years ago. See SA electricity supply ‘uncertain’ for more.)

Other areas that are truly worrying are the fact that municipal management is in disarray. Statements like

[I]n September last year, 27% of municipalities did not have municipal managers; in the Northwest Province, the vacancy rate at senior management level was over 50%

don’t inspire confidence in the government’s ability to meet the targets it has been setting itself in terms of basic service delivery (i.e. water, sanitation, electricity and housing). The above statistics don’t include municipalities that are mismanaged, which makes things even more worrying. There are simply not enough people on the ground making a difference on a local level for the government’s large-scale policies to have much purchase. I wish it were otherwise, and I really don’t know how things are going to change in the short term. One of the main problems, of course, is that non-whites in general, but blacks in particular, are the primary victims of governmental problems on a local level. Apartheid’s legacy is that people living in ex-homelands and in rural areas are those without water infrastructure and/or electricity. And they are the people who really do need services and infrastructure.

Arg. I get frustrated and think myself into circles. So I will stop that train there. I will, however, say that Mbeki does bring up two very interesting points. The first is that “South Africa is one of the few countries that spend less on military budgets than on water and sanitation.” The problem, of course, is that much of the money budgeted for these things doesn’t necessarily find its way to the right places. The other point that Mbeki raised was the fact that 11 million people receive social grants from the state (which is about 1 in 4), a serious statistic. I will have more to say on these grants at a later stage, but not quite yet. Also forthcoming are some thoughts that come out of response to Mbeki’s comments on land restitution and black ownership and management of companies. So stay tuned – I’ll keep the posts coming a bit more regularly than they have been.

Wow! Mobile Music Startup

Omnifone, a UK firm that I’ve never heard of, launched a really interesting product a few hours ago. There isn’t much up about it in the US (yet), but it seems like the company has come out of nowhere to announce a HUGE deal with many of, if not all, the music companies. Basically, their MusicStation software allows users to access music via their cellphone using a subscription service. According to a Reuters report I saw in the Mail and Guardian, “The catalogue is localised per country and averages 1,2-million available tracks.” That is a fair-sized catalogue of music and may make the service fly.

What interests me, however, is the fact that the service will be debuting in South Africa and Norway. I can understand Norway, given the strength of cellular/mobile technology in Scandinavia, but it will be very interesting to see how the service flies in the South African market. According to the company’s press release, it will have access to 690 million handsets through its partners, with most of those handsets capable of running their software. Access won’t reach all of those users instantaneously, but it will be interesting to see how the company deals with the computational demands of running a service that large and complex, especially without a (public) background in the field.

It was very interesting to listen to the company’s demo using a Motorola Ming. And I say “listen” because the narrator’s voice sounds very South African. It’s not an accent I’ve heard in foreign marketing, mainly because it’s not that easy to place (at least in the US). It might also reflect the mainly European market’s recognition of the accent, but I really have no clue.

My last comment on the service is that it looks a LOT like the interface of the Apple iPod. The software is being touted on a number of blogs as a “rival” to Apple’s iTunes/iPod/iPhone offerings. One thing it has in its favour is the similarity of the interface. If it looks anything like the demo on the website, your average user isn’t going to know the difference for the most part. That will be a big help in getting people to use the service: it will be straightforward and simple. And that is huge when you are selling something that has to work on a cell phone.

It’s a pity that it won’t be available in the US in the immediate future either. It looks like it’s going to beat the iPhone to the European market, but it won’t be getting a foothold in the US quite as early. Still, they do seem to have a large audience in the bag already, an audience that wants to play music on their cell phone. (And not quite the audience that wants to organise their lives using an iPhone.)

Affirmative Action (Continued)

Thanks once again to ggw, one of my comments became a post. As I was going to point out in my response to his comment, long essays are necessary because the topic is so nebulous and wide-ranging.

In South Africa issues of race are NOT going to disappear in the near future. The question of whether affirmative action is effective in South Africa is a really interesting one that alters a number of the premises governing affirmative action in general. By that, I mean that there are serious differences between the South African situation and most affirmative action case studies. First and foremost of these is the fact that the policies benefit the vast majority of South Africans, and not a minority, as one would see with case studies on affirmative action. Technically speaking, affirmative action policies apply to previously disadvantaged individuals, and not only blacks. And that really complicates any assessment or comparison of policies’ effects.

The main issue is because it benefits far more people than it denies. The numbers involved make it hard to draw relations between case studies and the South African situation: 90% of people have been unfairly denied access to employment. It means that it’s difficult to relate it to gender-based discrimination, and it’s even harder to gauge the benefits people receive as a result. ggw mentions two examples in his comment, those of Aborigines in Australia and female orchestra players in western Europe. The issue of gender is tough, mainly because so many cultures have discriminated against women for so long that the social roles expected of women (by both men and women) make it harder for all women to even reach the point where glass ceilings or discrimination come into play. Race in South Africa is quite different, in that the vast majority of people believe non-whites are just as capable as whites and the social roadblocks are less substantial. The example does apply in some arenas, however, especially sports, where a number of hugely talented individuals don’t need any help to make a name for themselves. (Think Makhaya Ntini, Herschelle Gibbs, Ashwell Prince, Chiliboy Ramaphele, Breyton Paulse, Bryan Habana, …)

The example of the Aborigines, on the other hand, brings up interesting questions, though. ggw points out that Aborigines didn’t really benefit from affirmative action. The first of these is that of whether affirmative action benefits its recipients. In South Africa, you would be hard pressed to argue that affirmative action hasn’t been a boon to millions South Africans. The civil service and government, which used to be bastions of white employment, have changed radically. Because of the skills issues I highlighted before, business and sports et al have been slower to change, but they have changed – one can’t doubt that at all. One now reads of an emergent black middle class in newspapers and business communications, something that would never have been factored into business plans until recently. There have undoubtedly been tangible benefits, though there are some side effects that few foresaw, like serious demand for credit and low savings rates, but those are issues for another day. The end result is that South Africa now has millions of black, India, coloured and white people in a position to demand credit, services and goods. It would have taken much longer without affirmative action.

On the flip side of the coin, however, is the other question that ggw raises. Does affirmative action increase racial divides? In a South African context, that really does represent the flip side because a single racial group is effectively being discriminated against. If you think about it that way, it does constitute reverse racism. And that is where things start to resemble an ethical minefield. I don’t think I am philosophically qualified to tackle the problem of whether the current flavour of affirmative action practised in South Africa is ethical, but I do want to look into the results of this reverse racism. Because it definitely has had an effect: a lot of white South Africans have left the country after the end of apartheid for this reason, amongst others. It is harder to find a job, especially if you are a young, white male with an Afrikaans surname. I am at the bottom of the pile when it comes to the affirmative action crapshoot. And a lot of qualified/skilled whites left the country in order to protect their children from that. And I say their children, because in many cases their positions weren’t under pressure, though many might have believed they were. And the effect is serious: I’ve heard rumours that Perth has a Dutch Reformed Church, for example. [Note: the traditionally dominant white Afrikaans church.] I don’t know how many South Africans have left the country in the last few years, but I am sure it’s an extraordinary number.

And to return to ggw’s original comment about sport, it’s even leaked in there. A number of young, white sportsmen have left the country because of affirmative action policies, and have gone on to make a name for themselves playing for other countries. Kevin Pietersen, who plays cricket for England (and was the Aussies’ only obstacle in the Ashes), and Clyde Rathbone, who plays rugby for Australia are two such examples. Both played their sports in South Africa for a year or two before moving abroad to pursue their careers. Rathbone actually captained the South African U21 rugby team to the 2002 U21 World Cup before leaving South Africa to play for the ACT Brumbies in Australia.

And that was unnecessary paragraph. But the more you know… the more you know. That is more than enough for now.

Weekend = WeekEND

I am incredibly glad that this weekend has arrived. This week was dominated by my maths comprehensive exam on Friday afternoon. I spent all week working towards it and was really glad to get it over and done with on Friday evening. Also, don’t lose your debit/credit card. It’s a pain not having one: you can’t pay for things and you can’t withdraw money whenever you want to. Just don’t do it – it’s much easier that way.

My card hasn’t arrived yet, but the weekend was made better by the fact that my job offer with the firm in Boston was confirmed on Thursday. So I now don’t need to worry too much about finding a job.

The weekend was made sublime, however, by late night sledding on Friday. That was the cherry on top.

Also, more thoughtful posts will be coming soon. But for the time being, I don’t know whether I am capable of too many thoughts at the moment. So don’t hold your breath.