The Bloody Miracle

I’ve just come back from watching the premiere of “The Bloody Miracle”, a documentary on the leadup to the 1994 elections. Directed by Meg Rickards and Bert Haitsma, and produced by Paul Egan, it looks at the pivotal year from Chris Hani’s assasination in April 1993 to the elections in April 1994. It’s a very human look at some of the people and events from that momentous year.

The name could equally describe the miracle of the documentary’s very existence, as the path everyone involved had to journey for the last three years to see its birth was by no means easy.

All I can say is that the documentary is superb, so watch it if you can. It’s appearing on eNCA (DStv 403) on the 16th of April at 19h30, and on e.tv on 27 April (the first of two episodes of the 90 minute film).



Autumnal spring cleaning

This weekend I did some unseasonal spring cleaning. I closed down my chess website, my rugby website, the Wikipedia template translation tool, the free and open source feeds list, and some now rather dated software that I hosted.

So, if you’ve been redirected here looking for any of those, sorry to disappoint you! It’s time to simplify and none of the projects were particularly active or interesting anymore, so it was time to so some tidying.



Valentine’s Surprise

It was Valentines day, late Friday afternoon heading towards evening. I was sitting working at home, behind on the week, when I got a call from Anique. Did she have a Valentine’s surprise in store?

Did she ever. She’d run out of petrol on the N2, the notorious stretch inbound just past the airport. I raced to my car with a decision to make. Either I could go get petrol first and then go fetch her, and we’d be done more quickly. Or, first go fetch her. With the reputation of that notorious stretch of the N2, and with Anique alone in the car with her laptop and other items, it wasn’t much of a choice.

I raced along the N2, at least as much as was possible in post-wind-down rush-hour traffic. Took the turnoff, and came back on the inbound lane. No sign of her. All the way back to Mowbray, and nothing. I called her, and she was still waiting – I’d got the wrong turnoff directions.

Back along the N2. All the way to the airport to make sure I didn’t miss her again, and then back inbound. There she was, still in one piece.

We packed my car and rushed off to get petrol. Handy 10 litre Ethical Co-op water bottle and a cut off old milk bottle as a funnel. Raced back to her car. As we took the outbound turnoff, ready to swing around inbound, she couldn’t see her car. Panic. It’s been taken already. Ah, there it is, relief. Across the bridge, down the onramp, there’s her car.

Busy being stripped, bonnet open, door ajar. Someone hacking away at the battery with a knife. Berserker Ian took over again and I ran screaming towards him, sadly giving him way too much warning, and he fled, down the N2, and when he saw I was still chasing, even after falling down the embankment, he raced away across the busy N2 to the other side. Luckily I had enough sense not to follow him across the N2 in my frenzy.

Back to the car.

Another good Samaritan saw the chase and stopped to help, and together we tried to get things going. The locks were broken, the petrol cap wouldn’t open, and the battery was cut. We managed to get petrol in the car, but getting the car jump-started with the shredded cables was beyond us, so we had to call for a tow-truck.

By this time it was getting dark, and I was considering leaving the car, not being keen to sit waiting on the N2 without being able to see. Fortunately, a police vehicle pulled up, and they waited with us until the tow-truck arrived. I was a little surprised that we weren’t inundated with tow-trucks ready to offer their services, but perhaps this stretch of the N2 is a bit too notorious even for them.

Anique spotted a private security vehicle parked strangely nearby, which suspiciously reversed back up the onramp and away when I pulled up, probably in on the job too.

Although I did get a knife and a peak cap as a memento of the chase, next time I’d prefer aftershave, or something a little less exciting for my Valentine’s surprise.

It’s sad that for so many others, even aftershave was out of the question, and the best they could expect on Valentines Day is a few stripped parts from a broken-down car.

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2014 World Press Freedom Index – small improvement for South Africa amidst a general worldwide decline

The latest World Press Freedom Index is out.

While the news worldwide is generally negative, with all regions except for Asia showing a deterioration, South Africa improved markedly from its place in 2013, jumping 11 positions from 52nd to 42nd. Before you hammer me on my maths, this counts as 11 due to the inclusion this year for the first time of Belize, in 29th spot, without which South Africa would have improved to 41st position.

A large part of the improvement is due to Jacob Zuma’s refusal to sign the draconian Protection of State Information Bill, although its still on the agenda in a revised form.

There are four African countries with greater press freedom than South Africa. These include Namibia, in 22nd place, Cape Verde in 24th, Ghana in 27th and Botswana in 41st.

However, much of the worsening situation is due to social breakdown and war, with the Central African Republic, after the complete disbanding of the media network due to the conflict, dropping all of 43 places to 109th. Eritrea retains its position as the worst country in the world for press freedom, with 28 journalists currently detained, no independent media, and news of the Arab Spring strictly forbidden.

A number of other African countries also saw worsening situations, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo dropping 8 places to 151st, Burundi 9 to 142nd and, Chad 17 to 139th.

Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Luxembourg head the charts, with other Scandinavian and northern European countries close behind. The first country from outside the region is New Zealand, in 9th place.

The United Kingdom has dropped to 33rd, while, gaining most of the press attention, the United States has plummeted 13 positions down the charts, and is once again behind South Africa, in 46th. Barack Obama’s two terms have seen an increased crackdown on whistleblowers, with the continuing pursuit of Edward Snowden, who exposed much of the military surveillance, and freelance journalist Barrett Brown being threatened with a 105 year sentence.

In South America, regional powerhouse Brazil continues to disappoint, languishing in 111th place, while its left to Costa Rica and Uruguay, in 21st and 26th position respectively, to set an example. Some of the biggest improvers were from the region though, with Ecuador, Bolivia and Panama all seeing substantial improvements, albeit from low bases.

In Asia, regional powers India and China have little to no press freedom, while Japan, only two years ago a leading light in Asia, falls again to 59th position, with its continued censorship of the nuclear situation.

See the full index at the Reporters Without Borders website.

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A bit (gasp) of running

I came home today after fetching Dorje from school to find my driveway gate forced open, and a guy inside the yard, going through my outside cupboard.

His attempts to claim he was looking for work in my cupboard didn’t last long in the face of berserker Ian, and he made a dash for it.

I chased him over Station Road, and into Ossian Road, where he dropped his bag with my paint and filler that he was obviously planning to use on my wall. I picked it up and carried on chasing him, as he turned into the narrow Bellstart Lane. A woman in her car saw what was happening and kept up with him while I huffed and puffed after.

He turned into Bristol Road and hopped into a garden to hide, but he’d been spotted, and there we apprehended him.

A few others had gathered, and while they kept an eye on him, I raced back to fetch Dorje, who I’d left in the car at my house, grabbed my sword in case the berserker returned and went back. Luckily he didn’t resist after being caught, so no need for the berserker to re-emerge, and besides, after all the running I was exhausted.

ObsID arrived about three minutes later, and the police after a further 15 minutes.

I enjoy living in Observatory, people are friendly and helpful, and today was no exception. A man stopped to see if Dorje was OK while I was away chasing. The women in the car who followed him while I was lagging. The man who helped me apprehend him. Everyone who kept an eye on him while I went back to get Dorje.

My past experience with the police hasn’t always been great, but today they answered the 10111 call quickly, were efficient and professional in their help, and sent me the case number a few hours later.

With all the adrenaline, I didn’t get anyone’s names, but thanks to everyone who helped on the day.

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Female participation in chess around the world

I came across a post today by Fanou Lefebvrea, a young French woman writing and drawing about her experiences of sexism and abuse as a female chess player. She addressed the post to Magnus Carlsen, the newly crowned Norwegian chess world champion.

It’s a sad story, and as I was reading it, I began questioning how universal her experiences were in the chess world. Norway is ranked in the top few countries ranked according to gender equality (see the Gender Equality Index), so I wondered how the situation was in Norway, and how it was elsewhere in the world.

I have no way to measure abuse or sexism, so I took the closest proxy I could find and looked at the rating lists according to FIDE, the international chess body, to see how the ratio of male to female chess players stands for each country.

The topic of female chess strength comes up frequently, and, in most cases, the question is asked why men are stronger. There has never been a female world champion, and the top female players are far weaker than the top male players.

However, the discrepancy is almost entirely explained by participation rates, as this study indicates. Essentially, the ratio of male to female chess players at the top level matches the ratio of male to female players at all levels, so that there’s no significant difference in strength, simply a difference in participation.

So, let’s take a look at the levels of participation of some of the top chess countries, as well as a few others thrown in for geographical curiosity:

Country Male Female M/F Ratio
Armenia 411 84 4.89
Australia 877 87 10.08
Azerbaijan 430 131 3.28
Canada 1959 125 15.67
China 387 160 2.42
Cuba 1175 222 5.29
Czech Republic 4577 248 18.46
Denmark 2022 34 59.47
England 1844 116 15.90
Finland 666 20 33.30
France 11372 896 12.69
Georgia 420 196 2.14
Germany 16481 923 17.86
Hungary 370 56 6.60
India 10574 1237 8.55
Iran 2279 281 8.11
Israel 959 77 12.45
Italy 5395 210 25.69
Japan 104 11 9.45
Mongolia 104 60 1.73
Netherlands 2378 135 17.61
Norway 946 56 16.89
Pakistan 37 2 18.5
Poland 5533 902 6.13
Russia 14276 2316 6.16
Scotland 277 23 12.04
South Africa 221 54 4.09
Spain 13659 629 21.71
Ukraine 2377 338 7.03
United States 3089 178 17.35
Uzbekistan 286 58 4.93
Vietnam 225 140 1.61

The ratios listed above are likely to over-represent females. Since FIDE competitions are divided by gender, the existence of weaker female-only competitions and the need to fill teams, and therefore the higher likelihood of a female appearing on the list than an equivalently rated male, probably means that a higher proportion of females are rated by FIDE than are actually present in the overall chess-playing population. I know in South Africa, at the lower level, the ratio is certainly higher than 4 to 1. But for comparative purposes at least, the figures probably hold.

The first thing to note is that Norway fares very badly by this measure. There are almost 17 male Norwegian chess players rated by FIDE for each 1 Norwegian female. Other Scandinavian countries are even worse, with Denmark propping up the table at 59 to 1, while Finland is 33 to 1. There seems to be no correlation between gender equality in society in general, and an equivalent chess ratio.

Western European countries on the whole fare poorly. England is 16 to 1, Spain 21 to 1, France 13 to 1, Germany 18 to 1, Italy 25 to 1. Scotland, albeit with smaller sample, leads western Europe with a ratio of 12 to 1.

The situation in the United States is similar, 17 to 1, and Australia 10 to 1.

In eastern Europe, traditionally chess powerhouses and still dominant when it comes to the top players, both male and female, the situation is somewhat different. Armenia (where chess is compulsory in schools) has a ratio of 5 to 1, Ukraine 7 to 1, Uzbekistan 5 to 1, Poland 6 to 1, Hungary 7 to 1, Russia 6 to 1, Azerbaijan 3 to 1 and Georgia 2 to 1.

Further east, the ratio improves even more. China, Vietnam and Mongolia all have ratios of 2 to 1, with Vietnam’s 1.61 the best of any country in the sample. India and Japan don’t fare quite as well, both at 9 to 1, but still better than Western Europe. Looking at a few other areas in the world, South Africa has a ratio of 4 to 1, Cuba 5 to 1 and Iran 8 to 1, all substantially ahead of the Western European norm.

So, it seems there’s very little correlation between gender equality and chess equality, but there is a strong correlation with geographic location. Western countries have the worst ratios, and China and neighbouring countries the best.

It’s possible to do more with the data, and consider changes over time, growth rates. What are the differences between countries relatively new to chess, or experiencing strong growth rates, and those with a long, established chess culture.

I can only speculate on the reasons, but it’s clear that the west has a lot of work to do towards making chess a more inclusive pastime.

If any chess players, especially female chess players, do come across this post, I’d be interested in hearing about experiences in your part of the world in the comments below.



In memory of my mother

It was my mom’s funeral yesterday. It was a good day, and I enjoyed meeting some of her friends I hadn’t seen for years, especially from her days before I was born, and learning a little more about her.

Here’s a written adaptation of what I said, especially for those who couldn’t be there.

When someone dies, they take an entire universe with them. Everyone at the funeral, and even those reading this have in some way interacted with that universe, so these are some memories of the forty-one years I was lucky enough to interact with hers.

When I was born, she stopped working to take care of me. It was a sacrifice for her, and she looked back nostalgically at times to her days in the band – she played in Max Adler’s accordion band, which is where she met my dad – and to her time in the United Party youth, where I think she once won secretary of the year.


My dad’s 83rd birthday in 2011

With me at school and needing to get around for sports and the like, she learned to drive. She was in her early fifties by then, and even though the roads of Pinelands were much quieter then, it must have been tough to do, but soon she had my grandfather’s old silver Anglia and could take me around.

I played soccer at school, and, which is probably a surprise to those who knew her in later life, she was always the most vocal and expressive fan, the loudest supporter cheering and shouting from the touchlines. Luckily I was too young to be embarassed, and I always appreciated the support.

I remember scoring a goal once – I was a defender, and it didn’t happen often! I was the complete opposite of her, not at all expressive, so I didn’t do a Ronaldo, whipping my shirt off and sliding across the turf on my knees. Instead, I just turned around and casually walked back to my position while she went crazy on the sideline.

My mom loved research. Some of you may remember the Sunday Times competition from a few years ago where each week clues would be printed, and to find the answer you’d need to go and research in the library. She loved it, and used to spend hours looking up details. My cousin Jenni told me yesterday that she got the final answer right – but not the million rand prize!

But she didn’t only like researching for herself, she did for me as well. I was extremely lazy at school, and would realise the night before that a project was due the next day. However, she’d have everything ready, and would have written the entire project out. All I had to do was write it in my own writing to receive an instant A. Although I can’t remember much about Julius Caesar or Alexander Graham Bell from those projects. But she had a lot more fun doing them than I would have.

I never got any hidings at home, but did come close one day. She had told me I mustn’t run around in the lounge. One day she was out, and, of course, I ran around, and knocked over a glass rooster. It’s still in the lounge today with its patched up tail feathers. When she got back, she was extremely angry, and I remember it vividly, because I never ever saw her that angry. She chased me round the room with a stokie, but never managed to catch me. I’d never thought until a few days ago to ask what significance it had, but Jenni told me today that it probably came from her parents, and this would have been shortly after my grandmother died, so would have had strong sentimental value.

She had a friend, Lorna who lived across the road, and used to come visit most days after work. I used to eavesdrop on their conversations, which were especially interesting when my dad was away – he used to work night shift. Lorna was a strong, loud woman and even when she was whispering I could easily hear from my room. Lorna and my mom are probably responsible for me learning Afrikaans, because whenever they were really trying to keep something from me, they would switch to Afrikaans, but I quickly figured out what they were saying.

When I told Lorna’s son Craig about my mom, he wrote back saying that he remembered her generosity and how she always used to treat him as if he was one of her own. It’s not easy to realise at the time, but his words made me understand how widely her generosity spread – not just to me, or family – many of whom she helped look after, and in turn looked after their children, but to everyone she came into contact with. Even now, people regularly come to the door and she always gave food to anyone who asked.

Her dad, my grandfather, came to stay with us for a while, and he passed away at the house. He was in a lot of pain when he died, and I remember not getting much sleep for a quite a few nights. The night he died I was awake, and heard him die, and my only thought was “thank goodness, now I can go back to sleep”. The next morning my mom came in to tell me that he’d died, which I already knew, and also, trying to comfort me, said that he was in heaven now. I started crying. My mom thought I was crying because he’d died, but I used to have some strange beliefs about heaven and hell and I remember thinking that “no, he wasn’t the kind of person who goes to heaven” and I was crying about that.

A few days ago someone was remembering my mom’s kindness, and jokingly said that she was definitely in heaven. Even my judgemental twelve-year old self would have agreed!

She always supported me unconditionally, even when she didn’t agree with what I was doing. I remember when I wanted to study again – I’d studied IT, and then I wanted to go study English and Philosophy. My father was very against it, and thought I should go out and get a job, and I’m sure she did too, but she supported me. The Gilfillan’s are famously stubborn, but the Dawes’ (my mother’s maiden name) stubborness is even greater. She eventually got her way and I went to UCT to study again.

When I came back from overseas, I proudly brought back a coat. It was a bright, multi-coloured coat/poncho that I loved, and everybody else hated. I remember wanting to go somewhere with my cousin Janet, and she refused to be seen with me in the coat, insisting I leave it at home. Jenni told me recently how much my mother hated it, but she never said as much to me. She did however start to give me clothes vouchers for birthdays and Christmases. She was always good at getting her way in a non-confrontational, indirect way.

She hardly ever drank alcohol, but Christmas’s were an exception, and I remember one Christmas at the house, John and Lindsay suggested Fuzzy Duck as a game. If you don’t know the game, it involves saying “Fuzzy Duck” and “Ducky Fuzz” around in a circle, and changing direction unexpectedly. The main point of the game is that it’s easy to mix up the beginnings and the ends of the words, instead of saying f-u-z-z, you would say f-u-c-k, for example, and one time my mother got it wrong. I think she was the first to do so, so didn’t realise the point of the game, but she burst out laughing hysterically at her uncharacteristic language. I remember being happy that she was enjoying herself so much.


My mom’s 80th birthday in 2011

Everybody always comes back to her kindness. In my rebellious teenage years I remember having the thought once that if I ever had a child I would never let my mother look after them, but, when her grandson Dorje was born, I was very happy to have her helping look after him. They both loved their time together, and it was only a short while before she died that she cancelled his weekly visit. It must have been extremely hard for her to do, and then I think everybody realised how serious it was.

It’s only as I’ve got older have I understood what a rare blessing it is to have had a mother and been close to one so loving, so supportive, and so kind. She’s left me, and so many others, with a host of wonderful gifts for which I can never express enough gratitude.

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Trust and asking

When I was young, I would find it very difficult to ask anyone for help. I remember many stalemates with my father, where I would stubbornly not ask, and he would stubbornly not offer.

A university job cold soliciting advertising for the student newspaper helped immensely!

Not asking for help is a meanness of spirit, as most people are only to happy to have a chance to help. The giver receives a precious opportunity, often worth so much more than what was given.

Here are two inspiring examples of people asking for help, and placing trust in others.

The Ubuntu Girl left home in 2009 with a backpack, a camera, a phone and R100 and walked and hitchhiked for the next year through South Africa. Without a tent or sleeping bag, 150 families took her, a complete stranger, into their homes and provided her with food, shelter and welcome.

She’s crowdfunding a book based on her adventure, so you can help contribute if you wish.

Amanda Palmer is a successful musician. But her first job was as the eight foot bride, and taught her about the human need for connection. Here’s her TED talk on the Art of Asking, couchsurfing and crowdsurfing:

And to round it off, The Bed Song.

“If you’d only asked me, I would have told you.”



South Africa’s first electric car

Nissan Leaf
I keep telling my son that by the time he can drive, cars won’t be the destructive beasts farting all over our planet they are now, but will run on clean electricity, and you’ll be able to stand behind one breathing clean air.

The first part of the puzzle is being put in place with the arrival of the first fully electric car in South Africa later this year, the Nissan Leaf.

I hear lots of arguments against electric cars. “They’re more harmful to the environment because they displace the energy production from the car to the coal power station.” This argument is simply nonsense, because, even in South Africa, where, sadly, almost all the electricity produced is with coal, the energy efficiency gains in producing power centrally in a power station far outstrip those of the highly inefficient internal combustion engine. And of course, as the energy production swings to renewable, the gains are dramatic.

More convincing is “the pricing is a ripoff and you’ll never make back in fuel savings the extra you pay upfront.” This is true in many cases, particularly for the early hybrids. But when it comes to pure electric cars, how do things stack up?

Edmunds.com have done extensive calculations on payback periods in the US of various hybrid and electric cars against their conventional equivalents.

Remember that calculations like these are based on quite rigid assumptions. The exchange rate will fluctuate, petrol prices will change, electricity prices will change, car prices will change. So extrapolating them over a long period of time is interesting, but will come nowhere near predicting the actuality.

However, at present rates, the payback period for the electric Nissan Leaf against the equivalent conventional, Nissan Versa, priced at $10,000 less, is 9 years if petrol is $3 a gallon, and 5 years if petrol is $5 a gallon.

That’s based on the US rates for petrol (ranging from $3 to $5 a gallon in the comparisons) and electricity ($0.12 a kWh), and an average usage of 15,000 miles a year. The sales prices are unknown, as are any possible government incentives, but assuming the same hefty R100,000 price difference, how does this compare in South Africa?

Petrol here is more expensive than in the US, a $4.69 per gallon according to my calculations at current rates, and certain to increase quite substantially in July. Electricity prices vary according to the city and other factors, but are generally slightly cheaper here. That means that the payback period is already at the better end of the scale (5 years), and only likely to improve.

So an electric car, or the Nissan Leaf at least, seems to make both environmental and financial sense in South Africa.

The only argument against it is the limited range, quoted as “up to 200km” by Nissan. For the vast majority of most people’s trips, it’ll do just fine, but it will require a change in habits for longer trips, especially for the early adopters, when the fast-charge infrastructure won’t be widespread.

My son’s still got quite a few years to go before he needs to worry about driving, but I’m positive that by the time he starts thinking about it, the cars and cities of his time will be much cleaner than today’s.

And perhaps his first car will be a 10-year old Nissan Leaf.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)



Hei Hei Hei

It’s been a while since my last “I’m learning” post.

Let’s see. There’s been:

So what’s the latest language I can add to the “learned and have forgotten everything” list? Buryat? Karelian? Maybe even Mi’kmaq?

The most important factor in learning a language is motivation, so while I’m sure those three languages are great fun to learn, I’m not going to be using them to speak to anyone in the forseeable future. If I was going to learn a totally useless languages, it would have to match Toki Pona’s 120-root word vocabulary, and the to-the-pointedness of lesson two’s “mi wile unpa e ona”.

I’m off to Finland later this year. The Finn’s mostly speak great English, but, in spite of the fact that after my two months of Finnish, I’ll be saying “hei hei hei” (hei is hello) and smiling maniacally, and anyone who hangs around will immediately switch to English, learning Finnish still sounds fun.

The Defense Language Institute has four levels of language difficulty for English-speakers. Category one, the easiest to learn, consists of other European languages with a shared vocabulary, such as French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, as well as linguistically simple languages such as Swahili. Category two includes languages such as German, Hindi and Urdu. Finnish is in level three, up there with Russian, Vietnamese and Amharic. So, not easy. Category four is the shortest list, containing the most challenging languages for English speakers, such as Japanese, Mandarin and Arabic.

So how am I learning Finnish?

The most well-known language sites online, such as Busuu, Babbel and Duolingo don’t list Finnish. LiveMocha does, but it’s friendly “We don’t work in Linux” web app doesn’t inspire much hope.

So, my strategy so far has been:

1) Surface Languages – the standard sort of course, ranging from “hello” to, er, whatever comes next

2) Memrise – a learning tool I think has great potential, but which I’ve never had reason to try until now. Memrise was founded by Ed Cooke, a Grand Master of Memory, and Greg Detre, a Princeton neuroscientist specializing in the science of memory and forgetting. A “Grand Master of Memory” is an award given to people who have achieved three feats. Memorise 1000 random digits in an hour. Memorise the order of 10 decks of cards in an hour. Memorise the order of one deck of cards in under two minutes. There are 196 million grand masters of memory in the world at the moment. No. No there’re not. There are 131 in the world as of the end of 2012, including two South Africans.

Memrise uses memory association in quite an innovative way, and spaced repetition, so seems to make great sense as a tool.

3) Finally, most fun of all, Youtube. I don’t mean people at their webcam counting to 1 million. So far I’ve watched Joki, a very good film, and An Unfinished Movie. This is probably the equivalent of watching Trainspotting to learn English, but I’m having fun.

Ask me in September how it went.

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