Category Archives: Fire (Social)

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? 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)

South Africa slumps in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index.

The 2013 World Press Freedom Index came out recently, and sadly, South Africa has slid alarmingly since I last blogged about it in 2007, and even more so when compared with its peak rating in 2003. Note that a lower score is better.

Year Score Ranking
2013 24.56 (-12.56) 52 (-10)
2012 12 (0) 42 (-4)
2010 12 (-3.5) 38 (-5)
2009 8.5 (-0.5) 33 (+3)
2008 8 (+5) 36 (+7)
2007 13 (-1.75) 43 (+1)
2006 11.25 (-4.75) 44 (-13)
2005 6.5 (-1.5) 31 (-5)
2004 5 (-1.66) 26 (-5)
2003 3.33 21 (+5)

Although the country still has a robust and critical press, it’s mainly the threat of the “Protection of State Information Bill” that sees South Africa slump well away from “good” to deep into the “satisfactory” category.

Sadly, things are even worse for the other BRICS countries, with Brazil (108th, -9) falling after a number of journalists were killed, India (140th, -9) also seeing increasing violence against journalists and increasing censorship, China still oppressively imprisoning many journalists (173rd, +1) and Russia (148th, -6) down too after an increase in repression.

Finland remains top for the fourth consecutive year, with a number of other Nordic and European countries filling out the “good” category, along with New Zealand and Jamaica.

Among African countries, Namibia and Cape Verde top the charts and are rated “good”, with Ghana, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso and the Comoros all ahead of South Africa with satisfactory ratings.

A number of other African countries saw big gains, including Malawi up 71 and the Ivory Coast up 63. In the Western Hemisphere, the United States, recovering from its crackdown on the Occupy Movement, gained 15 positions up to 32nd in the world, while Canada lost ground after its obstruction of journalists during the “Maple Spring” student movement, and increasingly oppressive legislation, leaving Jamaica as the freest country in the hemisphere.

The gains are offset by a number of countries seeing worsening situations. Mali, after the coup and insurgency there, fell 74 positions, and Tanzania 36 positions after the murder of two journalists. The other big faller was Japan, down 31 positions after restricting all access to information about the Fukushima disaster.

Here’s hoping that, wherever you are in the world, 2013 will see you a little freer to have your say.

Read the full report on the Reporters Without Borders site.

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US election news you may not have heard about

Listening to the US presidential candidates talking about who is more supportive of coal, or who will be tougher on foreign affairs, it can be easy to believe nothing will change, or that voting makes little difference. But there were real choices on offer, and 2012 saw many firsts. Here’s my summary of some of the more interesting results you may not have heard about.

It’s not all about the presidential elections, and the president is in many ways quite constrained. Hopefully many of these positive changes in the lower levels of US government will bring positive changes throughout the whole system,

April 2012 African language Wikipedia update

It’s been about five months since I last looked in detail at the South African language Wikipedias, and there’s been significant progress in three of the languages.

South African Language Wikipedias

Language 1/10/2007 30/5/2010 19/11/2011 13/4/2012
Afrikaans 8374 15260 20042 22115
Northern Sotho** 0 540* 557 566
Tswana 40 103 240 490
Zulu 107 195 256 483
Swati 56 173 359 361
Tsonga 10 174 192 193
Venda 43 162 193 190
Sotho 43 69 132 145
Xhosa 66 115 125 136

Afrikaans remains by far the largest official South African language Wikipedia and continues to develop. It’s a healthy, thriving project with many good articles. Northern Sotho has been fairly stagnant since becoming an official project, but the good news comes in the next two on the list. Tswana has more than doubled in size to pass both Swati and Zulu, the primary reason being the Google Setswana challenge. Google offered prizes for participants, including a trip to attend the Wikimedia Foundation’s annual conference in Washington DC, USA, as well as netbooks, android phones and so on. It’s encouraging that although the contest is now over, there is still fairly heavy development going on, and hopefully this will be sustained.

Zulu has also seen good progress, adding 227 articles since the last update. There’s no Google to thank this time – the progress has mostly been due to a single highly active editor, a native English speaker and Zulu, French and Afrikaans translator, testament to the difference just one dedicated contributor can make.

The other languages have seen almost no progress. Particularly disappointing has been Xhosa. I know of at least three Xhosa Wikipedia workshops that have taken place, at the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and with the provincial government, and yet it still remains as the smallest of the official South African language Wikipedias.

Moving on to Africa in general, which I haven’t looked at in detail for about a year, there’s been much positive progress.

African Language Wikipedias

Language 1/1/2007 30/5/2010 11/2/2011 13/4/2012
Malagasy   2450 3806 36767
Yoruba 517 8858 12174 29894
Swahili 2980 17998 21244 23481
Afrikaans 6149 15259 17002 22115
Amharic 742 3810 6738 11572
Egyptian Arabic       8433
Somali     1639 2354
Lingala 292 1255 1394 1816
Kinyarwanda     1501 1807
Wolof   1068 1096 1116

Swahili, which has been the largest African language Wikipedia for so long, has been dramatically surpassed in size by both Malagasy and Yoruba.

The Malagasy Wikipedia, with its unique characteristics, is beloved by linguists and I believe many of the contributors are non-native speakers. Most of the contributors work in Malagasy or French, and I haven’t been able to understand the reasons for its particularly rapid rise.

Yoruba too has seen a dramatic increase. but surprisingly Swahili, which seemed to be in good shape a few months ago, has slowed noticeably, and even Afrikaans is starting to catch up in size.

I’d previously overlooked the Egyptian Arabic Wikipedia, and have added it to the comparison. It was launched in 2008 (being announced at the Alexandra Wikimania conference), so taking into account its late start, as well as some initial opposition to its existence as a separate project to standard Arabic, it’s growing well, at the third fastest rate behind Malagasy and Yoruba.

Progress in the other languages is steady, and it’s great to see the development of these projects towards an actual usable resource.

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SOPA and moving from GoDaddy

Late last year I moved most of my domains that I was hosting with GoDaddy to a new registrar, and the rest will follow closer to expiry.

For those who don’t know, in October, Lamar Smith, a US congressman, introduced a bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The bill is a hideous monstrosity allowing the US government to, in essence, break the internet. While the bill only has jurisdiction in the US, and its consequences will be severe there, so much of the internet as we know it is based in the US, and this puts things at risk worldwide. I’m not going to discuss more about SOPA now, but here are some SOPA resources if you want to read more.

SOPA Resources:

So SOPA’s a bad idea, and almost everyone in the online world has come out strongly against it. However, the world’s largest domain registrar, GoDaddy, initially released a statement strongly supportive of the bill. GoDaddy have been in the news before. In early 2011 their CEO, Bob Parsons, videod himself shooting an elephant in Zimbabwe, leading to a boycott led by PETA.

But with their support of SOPA, they very quickly ran into much more widespread opposition. It began with a thread on popular news site reddit (which could not host in the US if SOPA was passed), and was given further publicity when Jimmy Wales announced that Wikipedia would be moving its domains.

There are many companies that support SOPA, but the main reason GoDaddy have been successfully targeted is that it is so easy to move domains. After a domain is registered, you normally forget about it, and it simply generates ongoing income for the registrar each year. However, moving is painless, a once-off process, you can again forget about it, safe in the knowledge that your money won’t be supporting GoDaddy each year.

Since I started moving, late last year, GoDaddy backtracked, and SOPA has faced increasing opposition and almost certainly won’t be passed in its current form, as even Barack Obama has come out against it.

Who did I choose as an alternative? There are a large number of top-level registrars accredited by ICANN, the non-profit group that effectively administers the internet (and which took over from the US government in 1998). As far as I know, the only South African company accredited (for .biz, .com, .net and .org only) is Internet Solutions – everyone else will be a reseller.

Moving gave me an opportunity to decide who I wished to support, and I eventually settled on They’re a well-respected registrar based in France, and in 2010 they were the 27th largest worldwide. They will also donate $1 from every transfer to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and besides opportunistically taking advantage of the publicity, they consistently provide real support to a number of other worthy institutions, such as Creative Commons, Debian, the WWF and Spamhaus.

Investigating prices, their annual fee of $15 was $3 more than GoDaddy, but after deciding to move I was surprised to see they were only charging $8. I had the option to pay in Euros, but when I chose this, the rate went up to 9 Euro, or about $11.65. I went back to pay in dollars!

I wrote most of this post last year, and it appears since that the boycott and widespread opposition have been successful. Even the US president has now come out against SOPA in its current form. Still, removing some of the more insidious clauses doesn’t make for a good bill, but the spotlight is clearly shining, it’ll be difficult to sneak anything through, and companies will be resistant to publicly supporting something like this after the GoDaddy debacle.

Although there are always some that are immune to any criticism

Orgasmic Meditation

This week Nicole Daedone gave a talk at TEDx San Francisco on orgasmic meditation (embedded below). Orgasmic Meditation existed on the fringes of San Francisco society until 2009, when an article in the New York Times shone the spotlight on her retreat centre.

It received further widespread attention through Tim Ferris’s book, The 4-Hour Body. Tim Ferris, formerly (but probably no longer) best-known for The 4-Hour Work Week, published his most recent book this year. Featuring sections on weight loss, adding muscle, perfecting sleep and reversing injuries, I suspect the most-widely read chapter is the one entitled Improving Sex, which begins with a description of the 15-minute female orgasm as taught by Nicole Daedone at her OneTaste retreat centres.

Orgasm is a word that comes with so much negative baggage, but Nicole describes it simply as rooting the fundamental capacity for connection. Her first experience of the particular practice began as do most sexual experiences – in her head. How did she look, was her stomach was too fat, was she doing it right?

Until, all of sudden, as she describes it, the traffic jam that was my mind broke open and she moved from thought to feeling. Meditation through orgasm, where instead of using breath or sound as a meditative focus, she’d used sensation, and had broken through.

I enjoyed her talk – I’d only read Tim Ferris’s account, very much from (and for) a male perspective, as have been all the related readings on Taoist sexuality I’ve come across, so it was interesting to hear her perspective.

I’ve tried the practice once without much happening besides a sore wrist for me and bored indifference from the partner.

Like all meditation, the danger of talking about experience is that it creates expectation when the process itself is goalless. With expectation, each time we meditate, if instead of experiencing the blissful ecstasy of a world beyond thought, we experience nothing more than a stiff back, we’ll view it as a failure when it’s anything but that.

Tim was lucky enough to hone his technique with some personal clitoral training at the OneTaste retreat centre. I’ll just have to make do with more practice.

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Inside Job, ideology and regulatory contradictions

I’ve just finished watching Inside Job, the award-winning documentary showing at the Encounters Film Festival.

It’s a good documentary, part-comedy as well the way some of the interviews with the bank executives and consultants have been edited. It got a round of applause at the end, and is worth seeing.

I want to note two things that struck me.

First, the phrase “trapped by ideology”. At one point, a commentator was discussing one of the deregulation proponents – I forget which one. He mentioned how, eventually, this person became convinced of the impending crisis, of the scale of the catastrophe, but could still not accept the need for more regulation. He was trapped by his ideology – the holy cow of deregulation that had been blindly followed by the US government since the Reagan revolution in 1980, and that’s had such a disastrous effect on everything from the financial system to the food industry.

It made me think of a column by Ivo Vegter, a Daily Maverick columnist I almost never agree with, but enjoy reading. In the column, Vegter makes the claim that quite often larger companies practise higher standards than small companies, while complaining that his ideological opposites, the “eco-minded progressive classes” of “the left” are constantly and unfairly targeting bigger companies, logos. Shell as opposed to Bundu gas, in his example (of the opposition to fracking in the Karoo).

He’s right. Quite often larger companies do have higher standards. If I was going to eat a hamburger, there are countless corner stores that can provide me with older grease, more dodgy ingredients and that treat their staff worse than favourite corporate baddie McDonalds. There are also many that live up to higher standards, providing healthier food and with better working conditions.

Being large or being small has little to do with behaviour. His point that it’s usually larger corporations that are targetted is correct, and quite understandable. The impact of one large corporate is huge, and they are more visible and easier to monitor. It’s easier to raise opposition to misbehaviour from a large brand that most people know about than against a small one that most people aren’t familiar with.

But as the column goes further, it descends into his usual ideology, with attacks on greenies, leftists and cherry-picked examples of corporate responsibility and government incompetence.

The other thing that struck me was the apparent contradiction between my seeing it as self-evident that certain things should be better-regulated, and my belief that less regulation often works better, as in something like Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a prime deregulation success story. Instead of having teams of fact-checkers approve every change before it’s committed (as was tried with the failed Nupedia and again with Citizendium), Wikipedia opened the doors, putting no barriers in the way. And people responded by rapidly writing a massive, high-quality encyclopedia in multiple languages.

So what’s the difference between Wikipedia and Wall Street?

Motivation and alignment of interests.

The motivation for contributing to Wikipedia is mostly a sense of scholarship, of contributing to the global body of knowledge and having fun while doing so. Learning and sharing knowledge is enjoyable. With that as the primary motivation, putting obstacles in the way makes little sense. That’s changing to some degree now, as Wikipedia, in English at least, is much more complete and much more influential, the motivation for pharmaceutical companies, politicians etc. to subvert it becomes greater, at the same time as the kind of contribution that people can make becomes less. It’s not so easy to add much to an article when it’s already pages long, pretty complete, well-sourced and broken down into further detailed sub-articles. The Wikimedia Foundation is doing extensive research into why contributions are (relatively) falling in the English Wikipedia, and I’d suspect that it’s mainly because it’s no longer a pioneering project. Now contributions involve much more fending off commercial and vested interests rather than adding a quick fact to a revolutionary body of knowledge.

What’s the motivation for getting a job on Wall Street? Almost always, greed. Very few consider any kind of social consequence to their actions – it’s about making as much money as possible. And making as much money is personal – there’s no loyalty to a company. If someone working at Lehmann Brothers was offered a more lucrative position at …, they’d almost certainly take it.

And, the structure of their job facilitates this.

So, the crisis was in part caused by people deciding to sell more profitable product X rather than less profitable product Y. It wasn’t their job to look into the systemic issues caused by the packaging of subprime mortgage loans, and even for those who did see, acting on the observation was difficult. Action would impact on the revenue of your friends and colleagues, and in a case like that it’s easy to find justifications, to disbelieve the evidence, to use the excuse that everyone else was doing it.

Why does a soldier, by all accounts a pleasant person at home, become a torturer? In part because the system has created a role for them where it’s very difficult to do otherwise. When all your colleagues are participating in torture, when placed in a strict hierarchical system designed to stamp out any questioning of orders from a “superior”, it’s rare to find someone brave enough to stand up, someone like a Bradley Manning, someone who sees the atrocities and does something about it, knowing he’s putting his or her personal situation in jeopardy.

Claiming that “regulation is always bad” or “regulation is always good” is simply naive extremism, a case of being trapped by one’s ideology. It’s a case of the right kind of regulation, aligning with the motivations. Political leaders are at risk of being corrupted by corporate interests, so strict regulation is needed. We need to make sure politicians are transparent about their funding. Similarly, in a system where banks can loan money and have no concern about whether it’ll be paid back or not, as they’re passing on the risk to another entity, there’s a need for intervention and simply “leaving it to the market” is naive in the extreme.

Reality is a lot more nuanced than ideology!

African language Wiktionary Update

Wikipedia never ceases to amaze me. I remember meeting a teenage Alaskan editing on the Malagasy Wikipedia. Thanks perhaps to those long wintery nights, he was learning languages like some collect stamps, and Malagasy, being an interesting language, had attracted his attention.

Updating sports results as quickly as possible seems to be as popular as writing “fitrs psot” in most forums (and a lot more useful). I visited the FA Cup article immediately after watching the FA Cup final, and already the page had been updated with the results, as well as updated total wins and other statistics.

Perhaps its understandable that a hugely popular global sports event would be popular. But what about, say, an obscure Afrikaans poet? The English Wikipedia covers South African literature very poorly, and it’s probably the area I’m most interested in improving on the English Wikipedia, and one of the few remaining areas that it’s still easy to create new articles and make a notable contribution.

In my recent wanderings I created an article on A.G. Visser, the early 20th century Afrikaans poet, translating it from the Afrikaans. It sat for a week, not attracting any further edits until today I saw a language link. Someone has created an article for A.G. Visser in Belorusian!

How wonderful to think of someone translating away into Belorusian, creating an article on something that seems so obscure, just a week after the English article appeared – it appears to be a translation from the English, judging by the formatting. Why? Is A.G.Visser big in Belorussia? Is he studied in all the schools? Are the opening lines of Wit en Swart (Black and White) used to reduce school truancy?:

Die klein kinder-engeltjies
Moet almal skool-toe gaan

which translates as

The little angel-children
All have to go to school

Or is it just someone, like me last week, having fun one evening? Wikipedia is truly the long-tail of interests.

I recently took a look at African-language Wikipedias, but didn’t have time to look at Wiktionaries. So how are the African-language Wiktionaries doing?

African Language Wiktionaries

Language 3/8/2009 30/5/2010 15/5/2011
Malagasy 142 4253 1 193 977
Afrikaans 14128 14669 14731
Swahili 12956 13000 13027
Wolof 2675 2689 2693
Sotho 1387 1389 1398
Zulu 127 131 510
Swati 31 371 377
Amharic 311 319 377
Tsonga 358 359 363
Rwandi 306 306 306
Oromo 186 218 264

Right, some action on the Malagasy Wiktionary then. Having gone from four thousand to over a million (what’s a hundred thousand here or there) it’s clear the Malagasy have been extremely excited by the arrival of the EASSy submarine cable and have been typing away furiously.

Or maybe not.

A closer look indicates that of the 1.1 million articles, all of 3196 are Malagasy words. Remember that Wiktionary aims to be a dictionary of every word in every language, in that particular language. So the English Wiktionary aims to have every English word defined, as an ordinary dictionary, but also an English translation and defintion of every other word in every other language.

You would expect a Wiktionary to be best represented in its own language, but what’s happened in the Malagasy Wiktionary is that some intrepid followers of Volapük, the constructed language, have used bots to create hundreds of thousands of entries on Volapük words. Over 800 000 actually, which is more than any single language even in the English Wiktionary.

A raw count is a poor metric of measuring quality, and I can’t comment on whether these hundreds of thousands of entries have any value although, with Wiktionary, it’s easier for a bot to actually add value and create valid and useful entries. So, in the constant battle for bragging rights between the constructed languages, Volapük takes pride of place, and then some, in this instance.

So, with first place well and truly sewn up, what about the rest? While the Swahili Wikipedia has soared past Afrikaans, there’s been almost no activity on the Swahili Wiktionary in the last two years, and it remains behind Afrikaans, which has shown an equivalent lack of activity recently.

There’s almost no activity in any of the other languages, with the exception of Zulu.

And the South African languages specifically?

Language 9/12/2007 3/8/2009 30/5/2010 15/5/2011
Afrikaans 9312 14128 14669 14731
Sotho 1381 1387 1389 1398
Zulu 102 127 131 510
Swati 31 46 371 377
Tsonga 166 358 359 363
Tswana 0 22 23 33
Xhosa 11 Closed Closed Closed (38)*

*The Xhosa Wiktionary was closed and moved to the Incubator, where it’s gained a few entries but is nowhere near making a return as an active project.

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The Ethical Bank

South African banking is dominated by the big four, Absa, First National Bank, Nedbank and Standard Bank, with little Capitec trailing in very distant fifth place. If you’re looking at opening a savings account, Capitec are the only one where the account has even a chance of living up to the name, with the others eating into your “savings” with huge monthly fees.

Generally, recommending a bank goes along the lines of “they’re less bad than the others”, and if asked to associate a word with “bank”, for most people it’d probably be a negative word such as “slimy”, or “greedy”.

Certainly not “ethical”.

There’s a difference between being ethical, and simply running a few worthy projects. Much like gangsters who sell tik and carry out hits on neighbouring gangs wouldn’t be considered ethical by most, in spite of frequently providing much-needed social services to their community, supporting an arts festival while funding a coal power station, or supporting a wetland rehabilitation project while funding an arms company would disqualify a bank by most measurements.

Banks that claim to be ethical do exist internationally. In essence, this means they consider the social and environmental impacts of their investments and loans, and apply various criteria. The Co-operative Bank in the UK refuses to invest in companies involved in the arms trade, climate change, genetic engineering, animal testing or sweatshop labour. GLS Gemeinschaftsbank in Germany focuses on cultural, social and ecological projects, lending to organic farms, health food stores, kindergartens, nursing homes and the like, and is completely transparent about all its investments.

Nothing similar yet exists in South Africa.

However, there is a move underfoot change this, and form an ethical bank. It began in July 2010 from a group involved in the Stellenbosch Waldorf School community, and a board was elected with the eventual intention of developing an ethical co-operative bank.

It’s not a quick process. The first stage is to register as a stokvel, recently formalised as a savings vehicle. To achieve this, they are looking for 30 to 50 paid-up members and a total of R20 000 savings.

After this, the goal is to become a Financial Services Co-operative, and finally a Co-operative bank.

It’s an exciting project, and one I hope succeeds – if you’re interested in becoming involved at this early stage, send a mail to Craig Tilsley at

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Bearing Soul

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to Bearing Soul, billed as “An enviro-mental Exploration through Song, Music, Story and Heart”. This wasn’t the usual entertainment, a show at a theatre, a film. It was a friend, Dan Tree, doing just what he claimed. Flashing us a glimpse of his essence, his heart through music, song and words.

He was nervous at first, perhaps more nervous than a public appearance. A show can be just an act, a mask we put on to entertain, shock, educate. But Dan was trying something more – to share on a deeper level. As Dan said, “I wanna know all there is to know and how to share it with you”.

I don’t think he can know what he shared – beyond the supper, his friends, a glimpse inside, everyone’s unique responses remain unknown. Two associations of my own were Ginsberg at the Six Gallery reading, and another dear friend, now far away.

Perhaps Dan feels a slight anti-climax after the performance. Expectations can lead to disappointment. Maybe he was expecting more interaction, more feedback at the time. But after the honour of being allowed in, all I could do was nod, acknowledge, and for a minute say Yes to the world.

Thanks Dan.