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


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

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


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