Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The writer and his teachers

From Mario Vargas Llosa's 2010 Nobel lecture (written and delivered in Spanish and beautifully translated by Edith Grossman):

Writing stories was not easy. When they were turned into words, projects withered on the paper and ideas and images failed. How to reanimate them? Fortunately, the masters were there, teachers to learn from and examples to follow. Flaubert taught me that talent is unyielding discipline and long patience. Faulkner, that form – writing and structure – elevates or impoverishes subjects. Martorell, Cervantes, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad, Thomas Mann, that scope and ambition are as important in a novel as stylistic dexterity and narrative strategy. Sartre, that words are acts, that a novel, a play, or an essay, engaged with the present moment and better options, can change the course of history. Camus and Orwell, that a literature stripped of morality is inhuman, and Malraux that heroism and the epic are as possible in the present as is the time of the Argonauts, the Odyssey, and the Iliad.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The civil service

A recent visit to a government department (an embassy) reminded me that frequently the civil service is neither civil nor much of a service.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Seeing further

Science sees further: A set of 12 short essays (and accompanying multimedia material) to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. The one on uncertainty is particularly interesting.

Friday, December 17, 2010

That Was The Week That Was

Last week was Nobel Week in Stockholm and Oslo.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fezziwig's Ball

This being the Christmas season, I'm reading A Christmas Carol to the boys at bedtime. What follows is a sample of Dickens's literary genius as exhibited in that small book. He's describing an impromptu Christmas Ball at the business premises of old Mr. Fezziwig where Scrooge had served an apprenticeship as a young man. Observe the master at work:

“Yo ho, my boys!” said Fezziwig. “No more work to-night. Christmas Eve, Dick. Christmas, Ebenezer! Let’s have the shutters up,” cried old Fezziwig, with a sharp clap of his hands, “before a man can say Jack Robinson!”

You wouldn’t believe how those two fellows went at it! They charged into the street with the shutters—one, two, three—had ’em up in their places—four, five, six—barred ’em and pinned ’em—seven, eight, nine—and came back before you could have got to twelve, panting like race-horses.

“Hilli-ho!” cried old Fezziwig, skipping down from the high desk, with wonderful agility. “Clear away, my lads, and let’s have lots of room here! Hilli-ho, Dick! Chirrup, Ebenezer!”

Clear away! There was nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away, or couldn’t have cleared away, with old Fezziwig looking on. It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.

In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches. In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them! When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, “Well done!” and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Education vs. Enlightenment

An alternative title for this post is: "The heart of darkness vs. The mind of light." If I succeed in explaining my point, you'll understand why by the end.

I was thinking about this in the context of the current crisis in the recent presidential elections in Ivory Coast. The incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to concede defeat to his rival, Alassane Ouattara. (For the record, it should be noted that by all objective accounts Ouattara was the rightful winner, but that fact is not central to my argument.) Both men have claimed victory. Both men have been sworn in as president. Both men have appointed cabinets. And both men have the support of battle-ready armies. The proverbial meeting of the irresistible force and the immovable object, you might say. It's still unclear as to how this particular instance of that paradox will be resolved. But here's my point:

How is it and why is it that highly educated people like Gbagbo (a former university professor) and his cohorts (apparently, his new prime minister is a university professor and the president of the Constitutional Council which declared him the "winner" is also well educated) come to be the main actors in such a sordid drama? Isn't "Education" supposed to be the key to Africa's development? Evidently not.

Consider the alternative of "Enlightenment." Enlightenment is to Education what fuel is to an engine. Or, what the culture of civilisation is to the structure of civilisation. Development requires a marriage of the heart and the mind. Darkness of the heart will soon dim any lightness of the mind.

This, it seems to me, is the crux of the problem. The outward forms of development have been adopted, embraced even, but not sufficiently assimilated. The moral dimension is missing. Ideally, we should pursue both Education and Englightenment. But if we have to choose one of them, it had better be Enlightenment. Current events vividly illustrate the disastrous consequences of the opposite choice.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why is Africa Poor?

Excellent article by Dr. Greg Mills, Director of the Brenthurst Foundation and author of a new book by the same title. Here's just one of the thoughts I liked:
Africa is not poor because its people do not work hard but because their productivity is too low.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Converse Figures

Shock! Horror! The U.S. unemployment rate edged up towards 10 percent in November 2010. Sometimes a little contrast helps to keep things in perspective. Consider this: In some countries, including one or two that I've lived in, the employment rate is about 10 percent (if that).

Friday, December 10, 2010

Gödel's Gulch

A recent discovery:
  • Richard Lipton's blog on the theory of computing from his personal perspective. A rare combination: a top-notch scientist and a top-notch writer.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

On superfluous words in the titles of scientific books and papers

The word "On" at the beginning of a title, for instance. I've never understood why authors use it and I've never found a single case where the "On" can't be omitted to good effect.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Association or Causation?

The classic paper The Environment and Disease: Association or Causation? (Proc. Royal Society of Medicine, May 1965, vol. 58, no. 5, pp. 295–300) deals with an ever present scientific problem: Having established or observed that two variables are associated, on what grounds can we reasonably infer that one causes the other? The author is Sir Austin Bradford Hill, co-author of the first paper to establish a link between smoking and lung cancer.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Presenting data and information

Is presenting data and information an art or a science? Properly done, it should be both. Edward Tufte explains.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Observation

"You can observe a lot by watching."

--Yogi Berra

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Un entrepreneur sans frontières

An African entrepreneur transcending all kinds of borders.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

TED talks

Suppose you were given 18 minutes to give the talk of your life. What theme would you choose? And how would you structure and present your talk to achieve the greatest impact? This is the basic challenge that faces a speaker at a TED conference. 2010 was a vintage year. I've only listened to two of the talks, but either one of them is proof enough:

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Puzzling Plural/Pluraling Puzzle

A stray thought:
  • Question: What is the correct plural of Attorney-General? Is it (a) Attorney-Generals? Or (b) Attorneys-General? Or even (c) Attorneys-Generals?
  • Answer: I genuinely don't know and haven't looked it up (not yet anyway). Option (a) sounds most right to me, but I've heard (b) used on occasion. I threw in (c) just for the heck of it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Three-Dimensional Space

The accomplishment of any task requires space in three dimensions: physical space, temporal space and psychological space. If any one of these dimensions is missing, or inadequate, the task cannot be possibly be accomplished at all or optimally.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Unfashionable Pursuits

It's about 30 years since Freeman Dyson sounded a warning about the problem of fashions in science. It is still relevant. He offered, as an alternative, the nurturing of Unfashionable Pursuits.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

You and Time

If you don't manage time, time will manage you.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Base-ic Solution

The "obvious" and wrong answer to yesterday's question is 80%. It's wrong because it ignores the base rate information that we have been given, namely that 85% of the city's cabs are Green and 15% are Blue. Again, Bayes' Theorem is the standard mathematical technique to unravel this problem. But here's a simple, common-sense solution:

Suppose the city has a total of 100 cabs. This means 85 are Green and 15 are Blue. The witness correctly identifies the colour of a cab 80% of the time and wrongly identifies the colour of a cab 20% of the time. In other words, of the 85 Green cabs, the witness would, on average, identify 68 of them (80% of 85) as Green and 17 of them (20% of 85) as "Blue". Likewise, of the 15 Blue cabs, the witness would, on average, identify 12 of them (80% of 15) as Blue and 3 of them (20% of 85) as "Green". So overall, out of these 100 cabs, the witness "sees" 29 of them as Blue (17 "false" Blues plus 12 true Blues). Therefore, the probability that the cab involved in the accident was Blue rather than Green is 12/29, or approximately 41%.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Back to Base-ics

Another base rate problem (from Chapter 10 of Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases - "Evidential impact of base rates" by Tversky and Kahneman):

A cab was involved in a hit and run accident at night. Two cab companies, the Green and the Blue, operate in the city. You are given the following data:

(a) 85% of the cabs in the city are Green and 15% are Blue.

(b) A witness identified the cab as Blue. The court tested the reliability of the witness under the same circumstances that existed on the night of the accident and concluded that the witness correctly identified each one of the two colours 80% of the time and failed 20% of the time.

What is the probability that the cab involved in the accident was Blue rather than Green?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Fooled by Positiveness

The following question comes to this blog from The New England Journal of Medicine (1978), via Randomness (1998) by Deborah J. Bennett, via Fooled by Randomness (2005, 2nd edition) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

If a test to detect a disease whose prevalence is one in a thousand has a false positive rate of 5 percent, what is the chance that a person found to have a positive result actually has the disease, assuming you know nothing about the person’s symptoms or signs?

Almost half of the respondents (consisting of "20 house officers, 20 fourth-year medical students and 20 attending physicians, selected in 67 consecutive hallway encounters at four Harvard Medical School teaching hospitals") answered 95%. Only 11 participants got the correct answer: approximately 2%.

This isn't a trick question, but it is a tricky question because most people fail to take into account the prevelance of the disease (i.e., it afflicts, on average, one in every thousand people). In more technical language, we are dealing with conditional probabilities and not just marginal (i.e., non-conditional or simple) probabilities. The standard mathematical technique to deal with such problems is Bayes' Theorem (named after its discoverer, the Reverend Thomas Bayes). But that requires a whole lesson, or series of lessons, on its own.

Here's a simple, common-sense approach to the problem:

To begin with, assume that the test yields no false negatives. Suppose we test a randomly selected group of 1000 people. Based on the given information, we would expect just one of these people to have the disease and therefore give a true positive test. We would expect 5% of the remaining 999, or roughly 1000, healthy people to also test positive, i.e., about 50 false positive tests. In other words, out of the 51 positive tests, only one would be a true positive. Therefore the chance that a person found to have a positive result actually has the disease is 1/51, or approximately 2%.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Opportunity

"The opportunity of a lifetime must be seized within the lifetime of the opportunity."
- Leonard Ravenhill

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Time

Some thoughts on the characteristics of Time as a resource:
  • Time can only be acquired and utilised in finite quantities.
  • Time is completely inelastic.
  • Time is free (but not cheap).
  • Time, in and of itself, is a neutral quantity; it only takes on certain characteristics based on how it is used.
  • Time is the only resource that everyone has exactly the same quantity of, no more, no less.
  • Time is the universal currency: everyone, everywhere, is spending it on something.
  • Time is the only resource that is essential for every undertaking.
  • Time has no intrinsic value - on its own it's worthless,
  • Time only becomes valuable when it is used or spent on something of value.
  • Time can never be created or destroyed.
  • Time can't be killed, only wasted on worthless activities.
  • Used, Time's potential value is limitless.
  • Unused, Time's actual value is worthless.
  • Time can't be stopped (or started).
  • Time can't be stored.
  • Time can't really be "saved".
  • Time can't be transferred.
  • Time can't be traded.
  • Once gone, Time can't be replaced.
  • Time can't be substituted.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ben's Blog

Ben Horowitz is probably the only management guru (I'm sure he'd hate to be called that) who uses rap lyrics as epigraphs. Certainly, he's the only tech management guru who does. And yet "guru", in the tech/geek sense, is precisely what he is: sharp, knowledgeable, the go-to guy of tech management. He and Marc Andreessen are co-founders of the new tech venture capital firm called (what else?) Andreessen Horowitz. The firm's domain name is A16z.com (get it?).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010

(Un)Known Unknowns

In his latest book The Bed of Procrustes (see excerpt), Nicholas Nassim Taleb continues to explore the theme of the limits of human knowledge and the consequences of misunderstanding those limits.

Towards the end of his extraordinarily long and productive life, Peter F. Drucker was asked whether, in retrospect, there was anything he wished he had done that he had not been able to do. "Yes," he replied, "quite a few things. There are many books I could have written that are better than the ones I actually wrote. My best book would have been one titled Managing Ignorance, and I'm very sorry I didn't write it."

Perhaps Taleb's new book provides yet another step towards the achievement of Drucker's unfulfilled objective.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mistaken monopolies

It was indeed a decade of budding African political thought although, seriously, not one could be called a political philosophy. There is no denying that the independence generation of leaders in Africa aspired [...] to establish themselves as philosopher kings or at least as men of thoughtful persuasion. After independence the major topic for rallies [i.e. anti-colonialism] was removed. A new rallying point was necessary and the personality of the leader himself was the obvious choice. In this process, it would appear, the leaders confused the monopoly of power with the monopoly of wisdom, and set about to create quotable dicta.
--From the essay "Zambian Humanism" in The Musakanya Papers.

Just one glimpse into the brilliant mind of the late Valentine Musakanya.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Freedom!

If the comments by some of the readers of The Economist's latest article on the trial(s and tribulations) of Mikhail Khodorkovsky are anything to go by, Mr. Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man (and now very possibly its poorest given some rather hefty alleged unpaid tax bills), suffers from acute spiritual schizophrenia. Opinion seems split roughly down the middle as to whether the man is the incarnation of one of the holy archangels or of the devil himself.

What is not in doubt, however, is the eloquence and power of the statement he made on the virtues of a free society.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Five Books

"Nobody reads any more these days."

The words of one of the owners of a second-hand bookshop I visit from time to time. The fact that this is being said as I am handing her some money in exchange for some books is lost in the ironical wash.

So. Is it true? Does nobody, apart from a few (fool)hardy individuals who are members of a bibliophilic species rapidly approaching extinction, read any more "these days"?

I think not.

The format and technology of reading has certainly changed, but the reading matter is still there. Think websites, blogs, Twitter, Kindles and iPads.

Speaking of these new formats and technologies, how's this for an idea to put old wine into new wineskins? Set up a website where experts, or enthusiasts (a much more agreeable description in my view), recommend the best five books (yes, books) on their subjects. And the quote-unquote business model? Small commissions on every resulting Amazon sale. Both ingenious and simple, is it not?

Behold: Five Books.

Here are Walter Isaacson's best five books on Einstein, for example. He modestly leaves out his own excellent biography.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

All change

On this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Supremacy of Theory

Einstein on the supremacy of (correct) theory:
Suddenly Einstein interrupted the reading and handed me a cable that he took from the window-sill with the words, "This may interest you." It was Eddington's cable with the results of the famous eclipse expedition. Full of enthusiasm, I exclaimed, "How wonderful! This is almost the value you calculated!" Quite unperturbed, he remarked, "I knew that the theory is correct. Did you doubt it?" I answered, "No, of course not. But what would you have said if there had been no confirmation like this?" He replied, "Da könnt' mir halt der liebe Gott leid tun. Die Theorie stimmt doch" ("I would have had to pity our dear God. The theory is correct all the same").
– Ilse Rosenthal-Schneider, Reality and scientific truth. Discussions with Einstein, von Laue and Planck (1980).

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Ghost of Fractals Past

There I was minding my own business, which in this particular case happened to be a classic paper by Peter Elias (P. Elias, "Coding for two noisy channels", Proc. Third London Symposium on Information Theory, The Royal Institution, London, September 12-17, 1955), when one B. Mandelbrot made an unexpected appearance. It was in the "Discussion" section appended to the end of the paper:
[...]

B. MANDELBROT: Some of Dr. Elias' results can be deduced by continuing the argument of Feinstein (cf. Mandelbrot, Ann. Telecomm., June 1955). I should like to ask Dr. Elias if he can say more about the relationship between Feinstein's work and random coding.

P. ELIAS in reply: [...] Dr. Mandelbrot's question is difficult to answer briefly, but in general Feinstein's work may be considered as random coding operating under constraints. These constraints do not reduce channel capacity, nor do they alter the exponent in the exponentially decreasing error probability, so far as the leading term for rates very near channel capacity is concerned. However, they do increase the error probability for somewhat lower transmission rates compared with what unconstrained random coding can do.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Orwell on Intellectuals

"One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool."

- George Orwell, "Notes on Nationalism" (1945)
Usually (mis)quoted as:
"There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them."

Friday, October 22, 2010

20 years of MMD

To some, MMD stands for Movement for Multiparty Democracy. To others, it stands for Mwadya Mweka Daddy (literally "You've eaten alone Daddy"). This retrospective by Jack Zimba goes some way to explaining why there are such contrasting views of the MMD.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A General Theory of Googling

Why some nouns become verbs.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Research in Africa

In April 2010, Thomson Reuters published an interesting report on research in Africa. The report cites a very thoughtful speech by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda on the role of science and technology in African development.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The power of simplicity


One of the most popular quotations attributed to Einstein is: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." Indeed, it's one of my own favourites.

Unfortunately, I have never been able to verify its authenticity as something Einstein ever wrote or said. The closest I've come is in some words contained in an address by Einstein entitled "On the Method of Theoretical Physics" in The Hebert Spencer Lecture delivered at Oxford on the 10th of June, 1933:

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.

[...]

Our experience up to date justifies us in feeling sure that in Nature is actualized the ideal of mathematical simplicity. It is my conviction that pure mathematical construction enables us to discover the concepts and the laws connecting them which give us the key to the understanding of the phenomena of Nature.

[...]

It is essential for our point of view that we can arrive at these constructions and the laws relating them one with another by adhering to the principle of searching for the mathematically simplest concepts and their connections. In the paucity of the mathematically existent simple field-types and of the relations between them, lies the justification for the theorist's hope that he may comprehend reality in its depths.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

2010 Ibrahim Index

The 201o Ibrahim Index was released this week.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

English Communication for Scientists

This guide is essential reading for all scientists since, as one (continental) European colleague remarked to me once, the international language of science is broken English.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Styles of doing science

Andre Geim and Konstantin "Kostya" Novoselov, who earlier today won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, practise a particularly innovative and playful style of doing science that Geim calls the "Lego Doctrine". (See also Novoselov's perspective.)

So far, so wrong

The Thomson Reuters 2010 Nobel predictions, that is.

They predicted this for medicine - this is how it actually turned out. And this for physics - and this is how it turned out.

Update (5 October 2010):

In response to my initial post (above), I received the following email from David Pendlebury of Thomson Reuters (published with his permission):
Subject: Re: Actually, Thomson Reuters picked Geim and Novoselov to win the Nobel in 2008

Hello,

I just wanted to point out that those scientists named in previous years as Citation Laureates are still considered contenders for the Nobel Prize. We do not really expect that our selections will win the Nobel Prize in the same year they are named. Here is our 2008 press release: http://science.thomsonreuters.com/press/2008/8481910/

Best wishes, David Pendlebury
To which I replied:
My remarks were, of course, somewhat tongue in cheek. The sheer number of worthy discoveries and discoverers (compared to available prizes), and the various factors and actors at play in the nomination and selection process, make any kind of year-to-year prediction of Nobel Prizes nigh on impossible (at least, in the sciences!). I daresay many of the contenders identified by your analyses over the years, worthy though they most certainly are, will never win the Nobel Prize. I recognise that this is through no fault of theirs or of Thomson Reuters.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Dinner Game

Le Dîner de cons (The Dinner Game) is worth seeing. Many times. Don't bother with the cheap Hollywood knock-off.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

59 Seconds

Reading:
59 Seconds: Think a little, Change a lot by the very aptly named Richard Wiseman.
The first self-help book based on solid scientific research.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Things come together

Achebe wins the US$300,000 2010 Gish Prize. Maybe, just maybe, a good omen for the big one this year.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An Officer and a Gentleman

There's a minor but memorable character in The Last King of Scotland: Idi Amin's health minister, Jonah Wasswa, played with subtlety and skill by the Ugandan actor Stephen Rwangyezi. Wasswa is an educated and decent man caught up in the maelstrom of Amin's madness. An intellectual dancing to the demented tune of a military man. This has been the usual fate of the gentleman in recent African history.

Can these two great archetypes, the officer and the gentleman, be perfectly blended in one man? (Or woman, I hasten to add.)

There's a major and very memorable character in Rwanda who provides a fascinating test case for this most ancient of questions: Paul Kagame.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

Stop all the clocks

In a new paper published in Science, NIST researchers show that, yet again, Einstein was dead right about time.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Darker Domain

Reading:
A Darker Domain by Val McDermid.
So far, so interesting.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Sprat to Catch a Mackerel

That's the title of the new book by Raymond Ackerman, the renowned South African entrepreneur, founder of Pick n Pay and champion of free markets.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Meet or work

Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.
- From Chapter 2 ("Know Thy Time") of The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Freedom of information and freedom of ideas

The temptation for governments to crush dissent on the alleged grounds of protecting national security is an ancient one. In 399 BC, Socrates was sentenced to death on charges of failing to pay due reverence to the gods of Athens and thereby corrupting the minds of Athenian youth. Socrates was condemned, in other words, for reasons of national security.

Unfortunately, not much has changed in the last 2,400 years. In Zambia, the ruling MMD has for a number of years now been pushing for statutory regulation of the media on the grounds of - you guessed it - national security. The Zambian media has, on the whole, displayed remarkable courage in strongly resisting such regulation. In South Africa, the ruling ANC is pushing for the establishment of a so-called Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) and the enactment of the Protection of Information (POI) bill. Both the MAT and the POI bill have attracted strong opposition from the media, intellectuals, the general public, and even from more unexpected quarters, such as elements within the ANC itself, as well as its Alliance partners.

Freedom of information and freedom of ideas are essential ingredients of a strong, sustainable human society. Their presence does not guarantee success, it only makes success a possibility. Their absence, however, guarantees ultimate failure, no matter how convincing temporary success may seem.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cool-Aid anyone?

According to The Right Honourable Tony Blair et al. in the Commission for Africa 2010 Report:
In that context, and in line with the recommendation of the 2005 report, the G20 should commit to increasing aid to Africa from 2010 onwards to a further $25 billion per annum by 2015.
Many Africans profoundly disagree. Just two examples:

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Twelve Caesars

Reading:

The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Classics edition), originally written (c. AD 121) by Suetonius, translated (1957) by Robert Graves, and updated and annotated (2007) by James B. Rives.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Sheer Khan

The Khan Academy demonstrates the power of individuals, ideas and innovation. Bill Gates likes it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Thursday, August 26, 2010

If the shoe fits...

...it won't slip off. (Something I heard from my five-year-old son the other day.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Not Forgotten

Seen recently:

An episode of Ian Hislop's documentary Not Forgotten. Among other things, it told the fascinating story of Walter Tull, the first person of African descent to become a commissioned officer in the British Army (it was in World War I, by the way).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dowden on Africa

Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, is one of the most readable and knowledgeable commentators on contemporary African affairs. He writes an interesting blog that's supposed to updated weekly (alas, it isn't).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Friday, August 06, 2010

Much ado about coding

Bruce Schneier on the impending encryption-related ban on BlackBerry in the UAE and other countries in the Persian Gulf.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Misused words and terms

My fellow netizens, we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier -- the frontier of misused words and terms...

The language is highfalutin but the concern, or more accurately the peeve, is plain enough: the continual (not continous, mind) misuse of simple words and terms in the English language.

And so we launch a new series on this blog: the inauspiciously titled Misused words and terms.

Take the word "obviously" which is derived from the adjective "obvious". "Obvious" means "easily discovered, seen or understood" or "plainly evident". Notice the qualifiers: "easily" and "evidently". Possible synonyms for the adverb "obviously" are "clearly" and "evidently". Now, think: When was the last time you heard someone using the word "obviously" correctly? I'm willing to bet that you can't remember (and I'm not a betting man except when the odds are one to nothing). The word "obviously" is almost always used to mean the exact opposite, i.e., to refer to something that is: (a) not easily discovered (if it can be discovered at all, that is) (b) not easily seen (if it's at all visible in the first place) (c) not easily understood (if at all, even by the speaker or the writer, never mind the hearer or the reader) (d) plainly non-evident.

Or take the term "taxpayers money" which is frequently used in public debate to vilify other, equally legitimate, or perhaps even more legitimate, taxpayers. Consider the attacks on private corporations that are so fashionable these days. These corporations are often accussed of, in one way or another, stealing or squandering "taxpayers money". The fact that private corporations are among the highest taxpayers, both directly and indirectly (through their employees), somehow gets lost in the wash.

Grrrrrrrr.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Smear campaign

HIV prevention breakthrough reported online in Science.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Vuvuzela on Newsnight

What do you get when you cross a Paxman, a Wallen and a vuvuzela?

This.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Kaunda's alternative


Kenneth Kaunda argues that he and his colleagues in the first independent Zambian government had little choice in the policies they adopted. But the policy choices made by Singapore, another small, poor, newly independent Commonwealth state at that time, contradict this view. (Zambia and Singapore became independent in 1964 and 1965, respectively.) Interestingly, Lee Kuan Yew mentions Kaunda and Zambia several times in his book to make precisely this point: policies have consequences. That was true in the 1960s and it is no less true today.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Kaunda reflects

In the latest edition of CNN's African Voices series, Kenneth Kaunda, who looks remarkably youthful for a man in his 87th year, reflects on a long political career. It was interesting to hear him defend some of the more disastrous policies he adopted whilst he was in power: nationalisation (any other approach would have taken too long to benefit the indigenous population); one-party rule (any other approach would have been exploited by racist regimes in the region); and so forth. You see, it seemed like a good idea at the time--and still does apparently. Kaunda's supporters would doubtless point at achievements in health care, education, infrastructure development and regional liberation. However, Kaunda's most notable and indisputable achievement came at the end of his rule when he agreed to re-institute multi-party politics, lost the ensuing election and quietly relinquished power to his political opponents.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Who worked with whom?

Stanislaw Ulam was once asked whether he worked with Edward Teller on the development of the hydrogen bomb. He replied: "Dr Teller worked with me."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kites over Kabul

Reading: The Kite Runner.

Great first line:

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Old wine in old wineskins

In the IEA 19th Annual Hayek Memorial Lecture, Prof. Gary Becker proposes a radical solution to the problem of immigration: sell visas to the highest bidders.

However, this "solution" is not really as radical as it sounds: it already exists in a variety of forms, legal and otherwise. For example, many countries have special fast-track visas for investors or high-net-worth individuals--a legal option. On the illegal side, many trafficking syndicates charge huge fees to move their clients across borders, fees that can be collected in a variety of permutations: cash, kind, in advance, in arrears, and so forth.

For Prof. Becker's idea to really work, nation states must completely secure their borders, something even the mightiest nations on earth seem incapable of doing.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Video Technology in Football

A number of crucial refereeing blunders in the ongoing World Cup have re-opened the debate on the use of video technology in football. As recently as March 2010, FIFA President Sepp Blatter was dead-set against it. Consummate politician that he is, though, Blatter will almost certainly respond to "events, dear boy, events". Hawk-Eye might be an interesting option.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Football (Not soccer)

In Vanity Fair, a delightful, little essay on the beautiful game by A. A. Gill:

Look, can we get this straight, right from the get-go, from the first whistle: It’s football, O.K.? Football. Not soccer. It’s never been soccer. Nobody but midwestern cougars calls it soccer...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Siphiwo Desmond Ntshebe (1974-2010)

Siphiwo Ntshebe was an exceptionally talented South African operatic tenor who died recently just as his career was really beginning to take off.

He performed Puccini's Nessun Dorma and several South African songs at the 2008 Ibrahim Prize Ceremony in Alexandria, Egypt, on 15 November 2008:

Siphiwo Ntshebe - 15 November 2008 (38.2 MB, .flv)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Governance in Africa

The Economist interviews Dr. Mo Ibrahim on why his foundation's African governance prize has not been awarded (yet again) this year.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Brazil v Côte d'Ivoire

I had the good fortune to attend last night's World Cup match between Brazil and Côte d'Ivoire at Soccer City. The game ended 3-1, a victory for Brazil. I took some pictures of the whole experience:

1/25 Got to the stadium nice and early, although kick-off is only at 20:30. I wasn't the only one.

2/25 Some Brazil fans in the parking area.

3/25 A vendor of South African football paraphernalia.

4/25 A view of the stadium from the parking area.

5/25 "When the fans go marching in."
6/25 A view of the stadium from the road.

7/25 Riding high...

8/25 And now for my next trick...
9/25 Outer security.

10/25 DMZ.

11/25 Inner security.

12/25 Inside the Calabash.

13/25 The theme of this story.

14/25 Stadium filling up steadily. Team Côte d'Ivoire are on the pitch.

15/25 Both teams warming up before the match. Stadium quite full.

16/25 84,455 expectant fans.


17/25 The officials do some last-minute checks.18/25 The snappers get ready for their prey.

19/25 Getting the formalities out of the way.

20/25 Just before kick-off. The calm before the storm.

21/25 And they're off! First half action.

22/25 Half-time.

23/25 Second half action. Brazil entrenched in enemy territory. General Julio Cesar surveys the battlefield from the rear.

24/25 Game over: Côte d'Ivoire put up a brave fight, but ultimately Brazil secure a comfortable 3-1 win.

25/25 The Calabash of Light.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Reading: The Veteran

Five self-contained stories. I've finished two of them so far and have just started on the third. As you'd expect from Frederick Forsyth: the plots are intricate, the research is meticulous, and the writing is compelling (For instance, the title story, The Veteran, starts: "It was the owner of the small convenience store on the corner who saw it all. At least, he said he did."). The common theme, so far at least, appears to be: Justice. The common effect on the reader: the uncontrollable urge to turn the page. So if you'll excuse me...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Inimitable Dylan Thomas

The great man reciting two of his finest poems (courtesy of NPR):

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Creator's Credo

Faulkner's 1950 Nobel speech reverberates across the decades and speaks powerfully, still, to, and of, all creators, artistic, scientific and otherwise:
I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work - a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Ignorance of Experts

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
- Richard P. Feynman
In context:
The world looks so different after learning science. For example, trees are made of air, primarily. When they are burned, they go back to air, and in the flaming heat is released the flaming heat of the sun which was bound in to convert the air into tree, and in the ash is the small remnant of the part which did not come from air that came from the solid earth, instead. These are beautiful things, and the content of science is wonderfully full of them. They are very inspiring, and they can be used to inspire others.

Another of the qualities of science is that it teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought; the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true. You must here distinguish--especially in teaching--the science from the forms or procedures that are sometimes used in developing science. It is easy to say, "We write, experiment, and observe, and do this or that." You can copy that form exactly. But great religions are dissipated by following form without remembering the direct content of the teaching of the great leaders. In the same way, it is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudo-science. In this way, we all suffer from the kind of tyranny we have today in the many institutions that have come under the influence of pseudoscientific advisers.

We have many studies in teaching, for example, in which people make observations, make lists, do statistics, and so on, but these do not thereby become established science, established knowledge. They are merely an imitative form of science analogous to the South Sea Islanders' airfields--radio towers, etc., made out of wood. The islanders expect a great airplane to arrive. They even build wooden airplanes of the same shape as they see in the foreigners' airfields around them, but strangely enough, their wood planes do not fly. The result of this pseudoscientific imitation is to produce experts, which many of you are. [But] you teachers, who are really teaching children at the bottom of the heap, can maybe doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

When someone says, "Science teaches such and such," he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn't teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, "Science has shown such and such," you might ask, "How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?"

It should not be "science has shown" but "this experiment, this effect, has shown." And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments--but be patient and listen to all the evidence--to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.

In a field which is so complicated [as education] that true science is not yet able to get anywhere, we have to rely on a kind of old-fashioned wisdom, a kind of definite straightforwardness. I am trying to inspire the teacher at the bottom to have some hope and some self-confidence in common sense and natural intelligence. The experts who are leading you may be wrong.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Literary Realism

Life imitating Art?


(Incidentally, the cover portrait is a 1928 Tamara de Lempicka.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Poetry of Commentary

Jimmy Magee's famous "different class" commentary on Maradona's 1986 wonder goal:



And for comparison, here's how other commentators described the goal:
  • First, my favourite, Byron Butler: "Maradona, turns like a little eel, he comes away from trouble, little squat man, comes inside Butcher, leaves him for dead, outside Fenwick, leaves him for dead, and puts the ball away...and that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the world! He buries the English defence..."
  • Martin Tyler: "But we haven't been able to control the play in midfield, the way Maradona has been able to do...And he's hurting England again here! It's a brilliant run! It's one of the World Cup great goals!"
  • Barry Davies: "Oh! You have to say that's magnificent! There is no debate about that goal. That was just pure football genius. And the crowd in the Azteca Stadium stand to him. Inside one, away from another, and the coolness under pressure to play the ball home with the side of his foot."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Blitzkrieg

Gary Lineker's definition of football comes to mind: "A simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win."

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Magic of Maradona



Yesterday afternoon, Argentina won their opening 2010 World Cup match against Nigeria by the slenderest of margins: one-nil. The goal came from a set-piece in only the sixth minute of the game, a corner swung in by Veron and met by a well-directed diving header by Heinze.

Messi was easily Argentina's best player. He displayed all the qualities football fans were hoping to see from him in this tournament: deft close control, explosive bursts of pace, mesmerising dribbles, visionary playmaking, and great shots on goal. It took several amazing saves from Enyeama, Nigeria's goalkeeper and the overall man of the match, to deny Messi the goals that would have crowned a memorable performance.

But the biggest star of the game was a short, paunchy, middle-aged man with a greying beard. He was dressed in a dark, finely-cut suit. He prowled the touchline throughout the game, frequently trotting over to retrieve balls that had gone out for a throw-in, before passing them into the outstretched hands of the thrower with a nonchalant flick of his shoe. His body was a living barometer of the match, capturing every twist and turn in its tissues; his face its display. In his playing days, the man had won universal acclaim as the greatest footballer of his generation. In the eyes of many, myself included, he is the greatest footballer of any generation. And yesterday we saw why: Maradona's passion for the game is undiminished; his presence on the field, even when he isn't playing, is undeniable; and his purpose, victory, is undaunted.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

You call that a pipe?

That's not a knife...THAT'S a knife.
-- Crocodile Dundee
In the true spirit of Crocodile Dundee, Hyundai South Africa and its ad agency have created the world's biggest vuvuzela. The full story is here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ayoba South Africa!

South Africa 1 - 1 Mexico

Overall, a good performance by South Africa. And what an awesome goal by Siphiwe Tshabalala--the first World Cup goal ever scored on African soil. To put the result into context: Mexico is 17th in the FIFA rankings, whilst South Africa is 83rd! However, you couldn't have guessed that from the game.

Carpe Diem

The day has finally arrived: South Africa vs. Mexico, the opening match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup at Soccer City.

32 teams,

32 dreams.

But only one

can be The One.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wavin' Flags

When I get older I will be stronger,
They'll call me freedom just like a wavin' flag
-K'naan

Ke Nako, the motto of this year's World Cup, is Sesotho for "It's time."

It's time for the flags to start wavin'.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Fever Pitch

South Africa is feverish, football feverish. This is what one of the largest shopping malls in the country looks like at the moment:

Click to enlarge and you can challenge yourself with a little game of Name the Flag.

It all kicks off on Friday.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Scholarly Virtues

"A man cannot be a successful scholar without acquiring certain virtues which are of value outside universities: He must train his memory; he must learn to distinguish good from bad arguments; he must discipline himself to work hard. He needs firmness of purpose and honesty of mind. He must learn to reason dispassionately, and dispassionate discussions lead to tolerance. All these are useful qualities, which are transferable to ordinary life."
--
David M. Balme

Canine and Feline

Something I heard recently:

Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The momentary and the eternal

"Politics are for the moment. Equations are for eternity."
--Albert Einstein

Sunday, June 06, 2010

What would happen if...

Something my youngest (three going on thirteen) asked me earlier today:
"What would happen if we exchanged brains?"
Talk about a googly. A most interesting conversation ensued, including a remembrance and discussion of movies past ("Big").

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Shooting the Messenger

About a year ago, Chansa Kabwela, news editor at the Post newspaper in Zambia, sent graphic photographs to the country's Vice-President and several other senior government officials. The pictures were of a Zambian woman giving birth, unaided by medical personnel, in a public space at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) in Lusaka, Zambia's largest medical facility. Ms. Kabwela's motive was to bring the dire state of medical services at UTH, particularly for expectant mothers, to the Zambian government's immediate and urgent attention. Her actions elicited a completely incongruous response: The Vice-President, who doubles as Zambia's Minister of Justice, was enraged by this "un-Zambian" behaviour, a sentiment, it later turned out, shared by the Zambian President. Ms. Kabwela soon found herself on trial for " distributing obscene materials." The judge later acquitted Ms. Kabwela.

And that, you would have have thought, was the end of that. Unfortunately, it wasn't. During the trial, the Post had published an article by Prof. Muna Ndulo, a distinguished academic at Cornell Law School, who also happens to be Zambian. The Post was then charged with contempt of court for publishing comments on a court case that was sub judice. The trial ended earlier this week: the Post was found guilty and Fred M'membe, its editor-in-chief, was sentenced to jail for four months with hard labour. Mr. M'membe, whatever his other qualities might be, is certainly a man of remarkable moral courage. As I write this, Mr. M'membe is already behind bars, although he is sure to appeal his sentence.

Sadly this entire episode is only part of a growing catalogue of the Zambian government's absurd and paranoid actions against its perceived enemies. A truly free society is impossible unless the members of that society are able to freely comment upon and discuss their government's performance. It is counter-productive for any government to deal with unpleasant messages by killing innocent messengers.

Updates (8 June 2010):

  1. Fred M'membe has been released on bail.
  2. Prof. Muna Ndulo has analysed the judge's decision.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Feeling of Power

One of the tests of good writing is this: It lives on. In the mind, in phrases, in behaviours. The better the writing, the greater its longevity. One of the fascinating things about literature is that there are innumerable ways for writing to be good: good style, good ideas, good timing, to name just three. Isaac Asimov, for instance, was a self-confessed style-o-phobe. Writing with style was not Asimov's thing. But writing with ideas was. Take the 1958 science fiction short story The Feeling of Power. It masterfully explores a deceptively simple idea: What will happen to man as he increasingly relies on computers to substitute or supplement his own mental powers?

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Einstein and Eddington

Einstein and Eddington is a made-for-TV movie that I saw recently. Movies about scientists and science are frequently unsatisfying: they have too little science for those who have a scientific turn of mind and too much for those who don't. An unsquareable circle, I'm sure you'll agree. But Einstein and Eddington does better than most at achieving this impossibility and is worth a watch. Three characters stood out for me: Arthur Eddington, who was played brilliantly by David Tennant; Einstein, of course, although Andy Serkis fared less well with his portrayal of the great man; and the austere figure of Max Planck, played with quantum menace by Donald Sumpter. Einstein had great admiration and affection for Planck as is quite evident from the speech he gave on the occasion of Planck's 60th birthday in 1918.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

SPJ @ ATD



Steve(n Paul) Jobs was interviewed at the D: All Things Digital conference yesterday and he was fascinating as always. There's a sort of transcript available. Here's my favourite part:
Kara: “What do you do all day?”

Jobs: “I have one of the best jobs in the world. I get to hang out with some of the most talented, committed people around and together we get to play in this sandbox and build these cool products….Apple is an incredibly collaborative company. You know how many committees we have at Apple? Zero. We’re structured like a start-up. We’re the biggest start-up on the planet. And we all meet once a week to discuss our business…and there’s tremendous teamwork at the top and that filters down to the other employees…and so what I do all day is meet with teams of people and work on ideas and new problems to come up with new products.” (Emphasis mine)

The vast majority of organisations haven't learnt this lesson yet (and perhaps never will): Bureaucracy stifles innovation.


Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Mysterious


The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.
--Albert Einstein, The World As I See It

Monday, May 31, 2010

Scientific Horizons

In this year's Reith Lectures on the theme "Scientific Horizons", Sir Martin Rees explores the challenges facing science in the 21st Century. The first of the four lectures is entitled The Scientific Citizen.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The ultimate ideal

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
--Nelson Mandela, Rivonia Trial, 1964
The University of the Witwatersrand's Rivonia Trial Collection has many of the original papers from one of the most famous trials in history. I learnt an interesting fact from "Mandela", an excellent 1996 documentary: Mandela's defence attorneys managed to convince him to insert three words into the peroration of his most famous speech: "if needs be". George Bizos, one of those attorneys, reckons that those three words just might have saved Mandela's life. And with them, one might add , the destiny of South Africa.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Creativity and psychopathology

A very interesting paper published recently in PLoS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed, open-access, online journal, investigates the link between creativity and psychopathology (mental illness). In particular, the paper looks at how the link between these two phenomena might work in terms of the density of D2 dopamine receptors in the thalamus.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Advice to a Young Mathematician

This selection of views by eminent mathematicians in The Princeton Companion to Mathematics (edited by Timothy Gowers et al.) may be of interest to others engaged in creative work in the scientific, technological and other disciplines:

Advice to a Young Mathematician (pdf, 245 KB)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Science, but not as we know it



DAILY CARTOON
click to enlarge

ANDERTOONS.COM SCIENCE CARTOONS




Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fragments of Poetry

As a child, I used to know quite a lot of poetry by heart. There's no better way to learn the beauty of language.

I can still remember fragments of some of these poems. And in certain cases, more than just fragments. For instance, I still know most of Jabberwocky and all of Tennyson's The Eagle from back then.

But one of these poems has always bothered me over the years. All I could remember was that it was about a man who was standing "amidst a bed of wild geranium" for some reason. The poem had a uniform rhyme, words ending in "-ium", like "geranium", and one other word that inexplicably stuck in my mind: "cranium". But that's all my memory could tell me. That, and how much I had loved that poem.

Until now: enter Google. It turns out the poem is called "Uriconium" and was written by James Reeves. (Uriconium, incidentally, was a large ancient Roman City near what is now Wroxeter in Shropshire, England.)

The poem is of the kind that's usually classified as "nonsense verse", but it the classification and not the poem that's nonsense.

This cannot be nonsense; this is sheer class:
Uriconium

There was a man of Uriconium
Who played a primitive harmonium,
Inventing, to relieve his tedium,
Melodies high, low, and medium,
And standing on his Roman cranium
Amidst a bed of wild geranium,
Better known as pelargonium,
Since with odium his harmonium
Was received in Uriconium.

- James Reeves