Apr 30, 2010

Power outage

The power's out again. This time it was a conductor on one of the lines that was fried by lightning last night. The power goes out all the time but this time the fault is in the village. Half of us are without power now. There was a guy from Eskom here today, but it could be a long time before it's restored, as they have to send someone from Vryburg to fix it.

Hopefully I'll be back up and running before too long, but if not you know why.

Apr 29, 2010


 From this evening.
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Why is HIV/AIDS so bad in Southern Africa?

AIDS is bad throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but it's much worse in Southern Africa, particularly in Botswana, South Africa, and Swaziland. I've been trying to figure out why this is. It's a challenging question. I've been doing a bit of research and it seems there isn't a single reason (or set of reasons) that everyone agrees upon. Dr. Kevin De Cock (no, really) says there's a variety of reasons, but there's no conclusive evidence:
"It is the question we are asked most often – why is the situation so bad in sub-Saharan Africa? It is a combination of factors – more commercial sex workers, more ulcerative sexually transmitted diseases, a young population and concurrent sexual partnerships."

"Sexual behaviour is obviously important but it doesn't seem to explain [all] the differences between populations. Even if the total number of sexual partners [in sub-Saharan Africa] is no greater than in the UK, there seems to be a higher frequency of overlapping sexual partnerships creating sexual networks that, from an epidemiological point of view, are more efficient at spreading infection."

Low rates of circumcision, which is protective, and high rates of genital herpes, which causes ulcers on the genitals through which the virus can enter the body, also contributed to Africa's heterosexual epidemic.

But the factors driving HIV were still not fully understood, he said.

"The impact of HIV is so heterogeneous. In the US , the rate of infection among men in Washington DC is well over 100 times higher than in North Dakota, the region with the lowest rate. That is in one country. How do you explain such differences?"
Inaction by African leaders has to be added to the list of reasons. Most infamously, Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa from 1999-2008, denied that AIDS was caused by HIV for years. His health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said that AIDS should be treated with beetroot and garlic. Harvard estimated Mbeki's inaction caused 330,000 deaths and 35,000 infant HIV infections.

Strangely, this ties into a German vitamin salesman named Matthias Rath who was associated with Tshabalala-Msimang. He promoted the idea (among many other atrocities) that vitamins would prevent or cure AIDS while ARVs (anti-retroviral drugs) would make it worse, and tended to sue anyone who pointed out the obvious falsehoods. If you've got a strong stomach, I highly recommend this free chapter of a Ben Goldacre (who was also sued) book about Rath. It's horrifying stuff.

For further information check this article. It's a bit more comprehensive but has some good information. The author points out several different issues that contributed to the AIDS crisis.
-Comparison to successful countries like Senegal shows where Southern Africa went wrong. Senegal took action early, confronted cultural taboos, promoted condom use heavily, and provided universal access to ARVs. I think the quick action part is particularly important. Pandemics grow exponentially, and lost years from idiot politicians and sociopathic "natural remedy" peddlers cost lives, but determined action can work even in poor countries.

-Global financial aid specifically for health care works. Most AIDS treatment is expensive, and health care is among the first things to be cut in a cash-strapped country.

-Nobody in the West pays much attention to Africa. Once it was clear there would be no heterosexual epidemic in rich countries, attention to AIDS in the media plummeted.

-Pharmaceutical companies are trying to profit from the epidemic and so (somewhat) restricting access of drugs to those who can pay.

-Africa is poor. Poverty is correlated with many different things that increase the spread of AIDS.
This isn't meant to be comprehensive, but I'm getting a picture of Southern Africa as HIV taking advantage of a perfect storm of ignorance, delay, poverty, and dangerous sexual behavior. What makes Southern Africa worse than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa seems to be Mbeki's foot-dragging and Rath's anti-activism. South Africa is the biggest player in the area (indeed, in the whole continent), with gigantic commerce with all neighboring countries, and it's easy to imagine their epidemic spilling over.

Image credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Apr 28, 2010

Link dump

I always knew PowerPoint sucks.

Matt Taibbi on Goldman and Ayn Rand.

Volcano + magnetosphere = awesome.

Arizona is going nuts.

No, really.

Harry Potter y el Peace Corps Voluntario

Recientemente he terminado los tres primeros libros en la serie de Harry Potter en Español. Por eso me gustaría decir unas pocas palabras sobre estos libros.

Primero lo siento mucho que mi español es tan malo. Estoy tratando. De todos modos, pensé que era muy interestante leer un libro en Español que ue yo conocía muy bien en Inglés. (No es que yo sé, pero pensé que la traducción era buena.) En particular, me di cuenta de que Rowling utiliza adverbios demasiados--tal vez yo no lo sé, pero suenan peor adverbios en español. Sin embargo, los tres primeros libros son bastante buenos, mucho mas mejor que los últimos tres.

Es interesante para ver qué tan bien me acuerdo de los libros. Es muy bueno para practicar la idioma. El proyecto que viene: leer los primeros quatros libros en Afrikaans!

(Done with the help of some online dictionaries. Feel free to point out mistakes, by the way.)

Some simple statistics

Steven Strogatz, who has made a magnificent series on chaos theory, has an interesting series on mathematics going in the NYT. This week's article is about statistics, and it's worth checking out.

Apr 27, 2010

South Africa takes the offensive against AIDS

Here's some welcome news on the public health front. South Africa has started a new program to combat the AIDS epidemic:
South Africa, trying to overcome years of denial and delay in confronting its monumental AIDS crisis, is now in the midst of a feverish buildup of testing, treatment and prevention that United Nations officials say is the largest and fastest expansion of AIDS services ever attempted by any nation.

The undertaking will be expensive and difficult to pull off, but in the past month alone the government has enabled 519 hospitals and clinics to dispense AIDS medicines, more than it had in all the years combined since South Africa began providing antiretroviral drugs to its people in 2004, South African health officials said.


For now, though, there is optimism among the scientists and advocates who had despaired as the nation dithered on AIDS under its former president, Thabo Mbeki.

“I’ve never known such a gathering of momentum around H.I.V. as in the last month or so,” said Mark Heywood, who directs the AIDS Law Project based in Johannesburg.

Mr. Mbeki had questioned whether H.I.V. caused AIDS and suggested that anti-retroviral drugs were harmful. Harvard researchers estimated that the government could have prevented the premature deaths of 365,000 people during the last decade if it had provided the drugs to AIDS patients and medicines that help stop pregnant women from infecting their babies.
This is some good news. It's nice to no longer have an AIDS denier in office, no matter his other flaws.

Image credit: Ntswe Mokoena/Government Press Office, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The last of summer

If you remember my picture of the riverbed from my favorite vantage point here last summer, it was significantly drier and browner. Here's a vision of the change from the summer rains before we fade back into winter.

Apr 25, 2010

Article of the week

The Ashcroft Justice Department destroys the life of an innocent man. "The FBI raided Hatfill’s rented storage locker in Ocala, Florida, where his father owned a thoroughbred horse farm; the agency also searched a townhouse in Washington, D.C., owned by his longtime girlfriend, a slim, elegant accountant whom Hatfill calls “Boo.” (To guard her privacy, he asked that her real name not be used.) Agents rifled through Boo’s closets and drawers, breaking cherished keepsakes. “They told me, ‘Your boyfriend murdered five people,’” she said to me recently, unable to talk about it without tears.

Hatfill was fired from SAIC. The official explanation given was that he had failed to maintain a necessary security clearance; the real reason, he believes, was that the government wanted him fired. He immediately landed the associate directorship of a fledgling Louisiana State University program designed to train firefighters and other emergency personnel to respond to terrorist acts and natural disasters, a job that would have matched the $150,000 annual salary he’d been getting at SAIC. But after Justice Department officials learned of Hatfill’s employment, they told LSU to “immediately cease and desist” from using Hatfill on any federally funded program. He was let go before his first day. Other prospective employment fell through. No one would return his calls. One job vanished after Hatfill emerged from a meeting with prospective employers to find FBI agents videotaping them. His savings dwindling, he moved in with Boo.

By this time, the FBI and the Justice Department were so confident Hatfill was guilty that on August 6, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly declared him a “person of interest”—the only time the nation’s top law-enforcement official has ever so identified the subject of an active criminal investigation. Agents grilled Hatfill’s friends, tapped his phone, installed surveillance cameras outside Boo’s condo, and for more than two years, shadowed him day and night, looking for any grounds on which to arrest him.

Many of Hatfill’s friends, worried for their own reputations, abandoned him as the FBI gave chase. Certain of Hatfill’s innocence, his former colleague Jim Cline was among the few who stood by him, afraid that his increasingly socially isolated friend would kill himself to escape his torment. “When you have the world against you,” Cline says, “and only a few people are willing to look you in the eye and tell you, ‘I believe you’—I mean, to this day, I really don’t know how the guy survived.”"

Go read.

Apr 23, 2010

Quick break

We've got a long weekend here, so I might be away from my computer around the village. Fear not, I'll be back soon.


 This from yesterday. The clouds looked oddly substantial for cirrus, or whatever you call them (altostratus?). They reminded me of a windshield after the year's first hard freeze, or perhaps bright patches of lichen on a flat stone. Purty!
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Apr 22, 2010

Fahrenheit 451: why I will never be fluent in Setswana

 I swear I didn't mean to do this. Luckily I found a spare copy.

UPDATE: Argh! Spelling mistakes are haunting my life. Just today a fellow volunteer threatened grievous bodily injury for spelling her name wrong. Keeping these two variations straight is a challenge for someone with my shortcomings. Blame my wild youth.
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Geology in action

 The riverbed has been substantially excavated with all the rain over the past few months. I estimate it has cut into its channel by 6-12 inches in most places. Maybe in 15 million years there will be a sweet canyon down here. I'll keep everyone posted.
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Apr 21, 2010

Interview of the week

A guy from the Sunday Times picks apart the mayor of Joburg about the upcoming World Cup and the state of Joburg. I didn't know about the selection process for the mayorship.

Warm fuzzies

 The latest storm might have beat hell out of my broken-down shack, but it did make a pretty nice flash flood. Not all bad.

Apr 20, 2010

Why is Africa poor?

Nicholas Kristof poses a question in the NYT:
Why is Africa poor?

Is it a legacy of colonial exploitation? Tropical diseases and parasites? Or is it that local mammals, like the zebra and the African elephant, were difficult to domesticate and harness in agriculture?

There’s truth in each of these explanations. But a visit to Zimbabwe highlights perhaps the main reason: bad governance. The tyrannical, incompetent and corrupt rule of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, has turned one of Africa’s most advanced countries into a shambles.
Later he details the trials of a parentless family doing the best they can, it's really quite moving. Click through and see here for a slideshow. It's a reminder of how nice I have it here in South Africa.

But I'd like to address his main point, which he goes into in more detail at his blog:
Clearly colonialism — and the disastrous colonial borders left behind — have been a problem. Some people think colonialism is the central problem, and it’s certainly true that the lack of investment in human capital, the way roads and railways were just built from the interior to the coasts, the way certain ethnic groups were favored — all these left huge problems behind. But then again look at those countries that were not colonized. Thailand wasn’t colonized, and it’s no better off than Malaysia or Singapore next door. Liberia wasn’t formally colonized, although the immigration of former American slaves and the Firestone plantations were reminiscent of colonialism, and it’s no better off than Ivory Coast or Sierra Leone next door. Ethiopia was only lightly colonized, and it didn’t obviously benefit either from the limited colonial imprint. More broadly, Portugal barely touched areas like the interior of Mozambique, and yet they are no better off than French colonies that underwent a huge French imprint. Indeed, French colonies arguably benefited from the strong legacy of a unifying French language and the ties among Francophone Africa, not least the CFA franc.

Another theory that I allude to is Jared Diamond’s belief that Africa (and Australia) were harmed by the lack of large mammals that could be domesticated and then harnessed in agriculture. It certainly was a huge advantage for Asia and Europe that a livestock culture arose there (along with immunity to disease). But I think Diamond may overdo the intractability of African mammals. Years ago when I read his book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” I was impressed by his arguments about how zebras were untrainable — and then a few days later took my son to the circus, where zebras performed amazing tricks in the center ring. I’ve been skeptical ever since. And while Asian elephants probably are more docile than African elephants, on this trip I spoke to Zimbabwean elephant trainers who insisted that it is easier to train African elephants than Indian elephants.

In any case, it is clear that African countries can register enormous economic growth when they are well-governed. Botswana is a great example of that. Sure, Botswana is helped by its diamonds, but diamonds haven’t done anything for Congo. The difference is that Botswana since independence has had a series of wise, honest rulers, and partly as a result no conflict. What distinguishes the fastest-growing economies in Africa, also including Rwanda, is simply their good governance. And what distinguishes the worst-performing countries tends to be a combination of bad governance and (often related) incessant conflict.
I think Kristof is right in that what distinguishes a decently-run country like Botswana from a basketcase like Zimbabwe is the quality of governance. But the real question is why does Botswana have a well-functioning government while Zimbabwe does not?

Quick aside: Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel seems to answer a different question. My impression from reading the book (which could be wrong as I don't have a copy to consult here) is that Diamond basically took for granted that colonialism is at the root of most of Africa's problems, and he was addressing the question of why Europeans were able to trample all over Africans (and everyone else). Kristof's point about zebras and elephants is also wide of the mark--Diamond was talking about domestication, which is very different from training, and Diamond's thesis covers much more than mammals in any case.

It's true that there are a lot of countries that were never colonies that are also in ruins. But there are a lot of ways to foul up a country (see here for example). A better metric would be to look at ex-colonies that are doing well. (Let's count relatively recent colonies, as practically everywhere was a colony at some point.) The only ones I can think that are first-rank powers are Canada and Australia, and perhaps South Korea. It's telling that there is practically no native population left in Canada or Australia. In any case, I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of recent ex-colonies are in sad shape.

It's true that the post-colonial borders throughout Africa and elsewhere are basically insane, and the ethnic tensions left behind from the colonial favoritism often had horrific results. But the big one that Kristof is missing is institutions. Colonial powers set up an administration to run a colony, and when they were inevitably driven out they carved out most of that governing apparatus with them. New countries were left with shaky institutions associated with the old regime, few career civil servants and bureaucrats, and fewer politicians with governing experience. What's more, the general population had usually been denied access to even basic education and training. Is it any wonder that most of them collapsed in graft and military coups? We can see from the experience of Zimbabwe that once a terrible regime is ensconced, a country can far very fall indeed, and its climb back to decent shape will probably be long and hard (though Rwanda is doing remarkably well).

I'm no expert on Botswana, but as far as I can tell they just got lucky with their first President Seretse Khama. He was one of those rare leaders (like the even more adroit King Hussein) with a natural sense for small-power diplomacy and resource management (between 1966 and 1980 Botswana had the highest growth rate in the world). Now institutions are firmly in place that give Botswana a solid footing, even for dealing with their immense AIDS problem.

Reading Daniel Larison gives me more respect for the paleoconservative position in international affairs. He linked to this article in World Affairs Journal the other day:
On the contrary, if the history of the past century showed anything, it was that clear legal norms, and the securing of international stability more generally, also serve the cause of human welfare. Let alone the fact that it is much easier to destroy institutions than to build them. Liberalism’s characteristic indifference to institutions, both domestic and international, has thus been called into question. In short, the ending of the era of humanitarian interventionism may come to be seen as a sign of the waning of Western power, and mourned as consigning more of the world’s peoples to the mercies of the tyrants who rule them. But it is possible to view it more positively, as the belated emergence of a new maturity in international relations.
Now I'm not going to say that international intervention to prevent something like the Rwandan Genocide is wrong. But that article does cut a bit close to the bone. Institutions are hard to build and easy to destroy, and a relatively short war or dictatorship can break a country down in ways that take perhaps hundreds of years to undo.

Apr 19, 2010

I get smote by Thor

I'm on Skype when the call comes from outside: "Thabo! Pula e tla!" (The rain is coming--Thabo is my Setswana name.) I take a quick break and get my clothes down off the line. Two hours previously the sky had been completely clear, but now there are some moderately threatening clouds rolling in. I go back inside, close my screen door, and unplug my electronics.

At this point I feel sand blowing on my skin, and I realize the wind has come up. It's blowing so hard I can barely get the door closed, and I hear heavy things smashing around outside. During the five seconds the door was open about a half-inch of dirt has collected in my bucket bath. I worry my roof is about to blow off, but then the rain comes, as hard as I have ever felt it. The rain is pouring in unbroken streams to the floor in about six places. I distribute some buckets and pans around to catch some of the mess.

Then: the hail. It is utterly deafening under the tin roof. The hail is bouncing through the hundreds of gaps between the sheets, but at first all I can do is hold my hands over my ears. I notice a new stream of water has started right directly over my computer's keyboard. As I had unplugged it but not shut it down, I jerk the battery and throw it on my bed, about the only place that isn't getting drenched.

Here you can see a barrel that blew against my door and bits of my host family's house.  
The storm probably lasted twenty minutes at most, but it did more damage than any other thus far. My roof was damaged (again), and several were outright torn off throughout the village. Several of the pit toilets at my school were also torn apart:

Not as much privacy as originally advertised.
Luckily, I let my computer dry overnight and today and it seems to be working fine. I'm not sure what to do about this damn roof, but for now I'm going at it with some more caulk.

Vampire fiction

It's hard to believe I'm recommending this multi-book review, given that I haven't read any of the books mentioned. But as a wave of Twilight ("2000+ pages of treacly teenage melodrama") obsession swept through the female ranks of our Peace Corps group recently, I'm going to link it anyway. The books by Harris look worth checking out, though, and I reckon someone here's got "True Blood" on their hard drive.

Apr 18, 2010

Wake! to a rusty pot full of blood

I was having my morning serving of Morvite (my new favorite South African food--it's a decent blend of nutrients, not horribly disgusting, requires no preparation whatsover, plus it staves off all kinds of vitamin deficiencies) when I heard a strangled choking death rattle coming from outside my door. Turns out it was my family slaughtering a goat for Sunday brunch.
If it's Sunday and the sun is up, the beer is out at my house.

My host brother is back (the one I thought was dying), and the family wanted to make him some good food to help him get stronger. He looks like death warmed over--rail skinny with a giant potbelly. He's got AIDS and tuberculosis, and the belly is apparently from the tuberculosis meds. They tear hell out of your liver, which makes you retain fluids. But according to my host sister, he's much better than he was a couple weeks ago, when he couldn't walk or talk and they had to use diapers on him.

Color opinion bleg

What color is this eye? I can never get a straight answer out of people.I'd go with gray myself.

Apr 17, 2010

Vacation pictures outsourcing

My friend Noah who went on the backpacking trip with us has his own set of pictures over at his place. Since his camera lasted longer than mine, he's got more coverage. Check it out!

Apr 16, 2010

Iceland eruption

I totally missed the first round, but it seems a rather random volcano under the Eyjafjalla glacier in Iceland has erupted for the second time in a month. People throughout Europe are stuck as the ash plume is made of tiny silicate particles that would shred a plane's engines:
By Friday morning, most of Europe’s major airports — crucial hubs for international travelers — were closed. Thousands of flights had been canceled since the disruption began on Thursday, stranding or delaying millions of passengers from North America to Asia.
Stuff like this reminds us how tenuous our existence is here, and how rather common events (on the geologic scale) are staggeringly violent by our standards. This is a relatively minor inconvenience compared to the devastation that would ensue from an asteroid impact--events that are not as uncommon as once thought.

I'm reminded of Carl Sagan:
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
-- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

It's a rough universe out there. But at least we can enjoy the show! See here for some quality pictures.

Quote of the week

"The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the worth of that which is put at hazard. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up the game, player and all.

Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be? This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god."

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian.

Apr 15, 2010

Guest post: What's It Like To Be a Peace Corps Sibling (PCS)? and Cultural Belonging

[Front matter: My sister also gave me this piece about being the sibling of a volunteer. (Or PCS, as she hilariously puts it.) Some great thoughts from the other side of the ocean. We PCVs tend to be pretty self-absorbed (me worst of all), and it's nice to get some fresh perspective.]

Allow me to preface this by saying that my brother and I have always been very close. When you grow up in an extremely small town (<200 people), you have to play with any kids there are, even if it's your little sister. Also, I am no where near the writer that my brother is. [Baloney.]

I was going to make this two essays about PCS and culture but the deeper I got into the subject, I realized much of my experience as a PCS was due to specific cultures. I am sure that many siblings of people in the peace corps have very different experiences for many reasons, but there are are some common factor. Since it is impossible to know what other PCS experience, I will stick to what I know, but I'm sure much of this applies to all family of PCVs.

First, and most important to me, Ryan is located in a country where cell phone and thus internet coverage is extensive. So extensive that often he is more informed of the news in the U.S. than I am. Our friends check his blog before the major news outlets to find the most relevant news stories. This means that I can talk to him almost anytime I want. It's not as easy to just pick up the phone and call as when he lived in the states, but it is better than many PCV communication lines. It does cost extra money, and it's not always easy to get through. Sometimes the connection is bad or his phone has succumbed to the harsh South African environment, again. But for the most part, I can call him whenever I need his worldly advice (or scientific logical perspective on whatever emotional problem I am having). We can have a casual chat about running, or politics, or school, or life just about every week.

Secondly, there is the second hand exposure to a whole new culture. Something we have often discussed is the need to examine different cultures in order to be aware of prejudices and accepting of other people. South Africa is very different from the U.S. in many ways. The diversity of languages is amazing; in the U.S, one quarter to one fifth of people can hold a conversation in a second language. In most places in South Africa, you have to be able to speak at least two languages just to get by in daily life. Also, I have often wondered what it would be like to live in a culture where everyone knows and participates in certain songs, dances, or rituals. The differences in life-style and accommodations is stark. I often find when talking to Ryan that something I take for granted everyday is something most people don't have; for example, constant electricity.

The culture of child rearing is also very different. I worked with troubled children (infant to 13) for four years and I never had the difficulties that my brother is experiencing. Admittedly I never had a whole class, but I have no advice for him because everything that worked for me here, either doesn't work or isn't an option. It's difficult to make children listen to you by whispering up close if you don't speak their language very well.

There is also the struggle of having your sibling half a world away needing or wanting something. There are certain things here in the states that are difficult or more expensive to get overseas, such as electronics. School supplies are a hot commodity and pens/pencils are generally appreciated. Also, gifts and present requests change dramatically. Ryan generally wants books, and ones in Spanish at that (sheesh!). Things such as shirts or spices are prized (I'm willing to bet he's still figuring out how to use the last spices sent to him in his daily meals of rice and beans). But one has to plan in advance, because it'll take at least a few weeks to reach him.

Probably the hardest part of having your only sibling join the peace corps is that he isn't around for the family gatherings or big events. Christmas and river trips are especially difficult as they were the one time since he went to college that we have all been in the same place at the same time every year. While our vacation this year was fun, something was always missing and strange; maybe it was the missing bad puns or the longevity of the beer supply. I will say that having only four people in our dad's Tundra was rather nice--I got nearly the whole back seat (much like I did when it was just the four of our nuclear family and no girl/boyfriends :D). In all seriousness though, it was weird and we missed Ryan. He will also miss my graduation from college (in 25 days!). That sucks.

One thing that I am especially grateful for during this time. is the culture in which Ryan and I were raised. I have heard from people in the U.S. that, unlike the culture of many other places, there is only the connection of the nuclear family. The community culture is lacking, and as opposed to a large integrated support system, we have our siblings and parents. That was not our upbringing. As Ryan has posted about a recent flood,
"[S]standing on that bridge, watching the thick, dirty, chocolate milk water feeding waves off half-submerged acacia bushes, I knew where I come from. River folk."
He may have been "almost giddy" while watching the flood, but I assure you that the river people were even more giddy reading about it. We were raised in a subculture of american society that revolves around water; specifically, flowing water. Although, in the winter when it is cold, ocean currents will do just fine. This is an extremely tight knit community that we were fortunate enough to be born into. It is a web of support for us based around a common love and woven from unbreakable friendships. I am especially grateful that despite the half a world between Ryan and I, we will always have the connection of water, and we will always have a place to go back to and be accepted for exactly who we are.

I miss my big brother hugs, bad jokes, and that special way he has of making me laugh no matter what is happening. You're an inspiration.

Apr 14, 2010

A decent day teaching

 Today I didn't do terribly in school, which is almost a first. Of course, it wasn't with the intermediate phase, which is always a trial. Today I taught Grade 8 English, using some copied textbooks the Kalahari Experience folks had left here during their stay (good on them for doing that, it's huge help). The story was a pretty simple one about whale-watching--how a whale is different from a fish, how whales have been protected by international treaty, etc. Most of the kids didn't quite get it at first, but as we went through some of the vocabulary and concepts, they got curious.

Of course, none of them had seen a whale before, so I had to do a quick improvised lesson on the difference between whales and fish, how gills work, and how a whale can breathe when its mouth is underwater. They got downright incredulous when I told them about how big a whale is:

ME: See, in paragraph seven, it says this whale is fifty tonnes. Do you know what a tonne is?
ME: A tonne is 1000 kilograms. So how many kilograms is the whale?
PALESA: So...[I can see the gears turning in her head]...fifty, fifty thousand kilograms. Eish!
GOMOLEMO: This whale is fifty thousand kgs? How can he be so big?
ME: The whale eats a lot.
GOMOLEMO: Ee, monna! [general expression of incredulity or surprise]
PALESA: How long is this whale?
ME: At least as long as this school building.

I really enjoyed the lesson. It felt like I was getting something across, and the kids were paying decent attention. Of course, it's probably because there are only twelve students in Grade 8. But still, small victories should be celebrated.
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TNC on Confederacy worship

"What undergirds all of this alleged honoring of the Confederacy, is a kind of ancestor-worship that isn't. The Lost Cause is necromancy--it summons the dead and enslaves them to the need of their vainglorious, self-styled descendants. Its greatest crime is how it denies, even in death, the humanity of the very people it claims to venerate. This isn't about "honoring" the past--it's about an inability to cope with the present."

Check it out. He was giving me goosebumps.

Apr 13, 2010

Absurdism > Hate

I can't believe I missed this. It might be the sweetest thing I've ever seen. First, a little background. The Westboro Baptist Church is a truly creepy cult (really, just a couple families) that goes around protesting things like dead soldiers' funerals with signs that say things like "God hates Obama," (and much worse). Real lunatics. However, a protest at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco was totally deflated by a bunch of wacky creative types that stole their thunder. I'm reminded strongly of Reed College.

Awesome. Made my day. Check the link for some more photos, including a unicorn!

UPDATE: Bonus prank by a police officer on her own sergeant here.

Guest post: Why Not To Loan Your Car to Geologists

[Front matter: my sister gave me this awesome story about a recent company trip for your reading enjoyment. I think you'll like it. I sure did!]

There are many professionals to whom I would not lend my car. Lawyers, doctors...but most of all, geologists. My chosen profession is geology and while most of my accomplices are wonderful, brilliant people, I wouldn't trust them with a pen. Recently, I endured a particularly harsh field work trip that cemented my beliefs.

While much of science has turned to computer modeling, geology still relies heavily on basic field work. I spent a week in March mapping areas in and around Death Valley with nineteen other geologists in four brand-new rental Suburbans. One had six miles on the odometer. As you might have expected, we were rather hard on the cars and bodies.

We spent the first few days on paved roads, hiking to field areas, mapping, drinking, and being generally good rental car customers. One of the interesting things about rental vehicles is that even if you rent a vehicle made to drive off-road, actually driving it on anything other than pavement voids all insurance. By the third day, we headed off-road into sharp limestone rocks. Now, geologists are notorious for not growing up, so it's no surprise that the moment we reach a harsh four-wheel drive road, the Captain and Lieutenant of the trip floor it. The two other vehicles--despite fishtailing around even the slightest curves--can't even stay within sight. It's not long before something breaks.

The car ahead of the one I'm riding in begins to slow, then stops. The young woman driving, let's call her Bonnie, jumps out looking highly concerned and runs to us to say the tire light is on, front left. The front left isn't flat, but the rear left is toast. It takes 45 minutes to figure out how to change a tire on a steep slope and a new vehicle. Off we go again with only a little loss of knuckle skin.

Our destination is the Racetrack Playa, a dry lake bed over which rocks of all sizes slide, leaving tracks in the dirt. For years, how these rocks moved was a huge geological mystery, solved thanks to YouTube. Other than the grumpy research partner who hates camping (why would you go on a camping trip if you hate camping?) and insists on staying with the cars, it is spectacular. We return to the SUVs and the grump. He walks towards us with an expression as if someone had just killed his dog--turns out the vehicle I was riding in had a flat rear right tire. Well shoot, two in one day. Fifteen minutes to change.

Our group splits into two crews, each with one spare for two cars. My group is behind. We make it within a mile of the paved road and once again the tire light (left rear) comes on; luckily the Captain is behind the car I'm patiently riding in with a fresh spare. And a head lamp. The International Space Station makes a fly over, I'm sure to check on us. Captain says we need to take it easy until we get back to camp, not much over 55 mph and he'll lead; yeah, right, I think as the speedometer climbs to 80.

Back at camp the other two cars have a story of their own. The Lieutenant got a flat, too. Blew it on the highway at 65 mph. Loud pop but no loss of control. We now have 4 cars and no spares. It's time to drive the 100+ miles to the nearest large town. Besides, we're out of beer.

Now, what do you do when you blow four tires on dirt roads in rental cars? Well, the Captain decides, you try to hide it from the rental company and hope the wrath of our sponsors is less than that of the rental companies. It's only an extra $1000 and a wasted day, right? They already paid for our plane tickets, materials, and cars; this is hardly a drop in the bucket. The new tires go on the spare rims, the spares go on the original rims and the new tires go under the vehicles, where, hopefully, no one will look and see that they are different tires.

Back to the field area...almost. We make it to within five minutes of the next camp, going down a mountain pass. The vehicle I'm in is bringing up the rear, I'm asleep in the back. I wake up when we begin to slow down and the driver and other passengers begin to curse. The tire light is on, left front this time. This is not necessarily a problem, we have a new spare under the SUV and we're experts by now; except that we're not really slowing down all that quickly. "Hey driver, we should probably stop...hum, can't? Ok, use the emergency brake, we have to stop!" We jump out of the car and...it's on fire. There are flames shooting out of the wheel wells. Yes, that's right, the car's brakes are on fire. We are a bit baffled by this development. We have no fire extinguisher, not enough water, so we wait. It only take 11 minutes to change the tire once we can touch it. Three out of four, we're going for the clean sweep. By this time the other three vehicles have realized we're missing. As we finish up one of our other cars drives back up to check on us.

We reach the campground and it's time for a beer, or ten. The Captain is a little uptight and decides to drink with the minions. At one point the Captain can't decide if he is in need of a bathroom, coat, or drink first. The rest of us are sure that the bathroom is the important thing, but, "since you're headed to the beer, we need one too." We head off while the Captain goes for beer. I come out of the restroom to a guy whispering my name, adamant that I come out before the Captain. Apparently the Captain was insisting that this young gentleman go into the female restroom to bring the girls beer. I would tell you the rest of what happened but I made a solemn promise that what happened that night will never go down in writing. Let's just say that there is a waitress somewhere who will forever remember us.

The next morning we pack up and begin to leave the campground, but don't even make it to the highway before Bonnie stops ahead of us with a flat tire. This time it only takes nine minutes.

Those were the most interesting parts of the voyage, although it is important to say that despite six flat tires the Captain insisted we drive over sharp basalt flows the last day of the trip.

We didn't quite get the clean sweep, but we came close. Oh yeah, and we went through over 600 beers...

Ze Germans were here

The folks from the Kalahari Experience were here the last couple weeks. I just missed them as I got back the evening of they day they left. Apparently they spent their time doing intensive English and maths work with the Grade Rs and 7-9s. It's a shame as I was looking forward to meeting them and seeing how they worked with the kids.

Who knows if they or I are doing any good down here. Sometimes I think that South Africa is at a place in its development where it needs to start taking care of its own problems. But I'm sure that these KE guys at least helped a little bit at the margin. What more can you ask for, really? Perhaps I'll catch them next year.

Apr 12, 2010


Check out this graph courtesy of Ezra Klein:
Obviously the big surprise is that the US doesn't really consume much more food than other developed countries, even though our obesity rate is much, much higher. But check out South Africa! No wonder I've been losing weight.


"As a retired clinical psychologist, Clark Martin was well acquainted with traditional treatments for depression, but his own case seemed untreatable as he struggled through chemotherapy and other grueling regimens for kidney cancer. Counseling seemed futile to him. So did the antidepressant pills he tried.

Nothing had any lasting effect until, at the age of 65, he had his first psychedelic experience. He left his home in Vancouver, Wash., to take part in an experiment at Johns Hopkins medical school involving psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient found in certain mushrooms.

Scientists are taking a new look at hallucinogens, which became taboo among regulators after enthusiasts like Timothy Leary promoted them in the 1960s with the slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Now, using rigorous protocols and safeguards, scientists have won permission to study once again the drugs’ potential for treating mental problems and illuminating the nature of consciousness.

After taking the hallucinogen, Dr. Martin put on an eye mask and headphones, and lay on a couch listening to classical music as he contemplated the universe.

“All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating,” he recalled. “Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water’s gone. And then you’re gone.”

Today, more than a year later, Dr. Martin credits that six-hour experience with helping him overcome his depression and profoundly transforming his relationships with his daughter and friends. He ranks it among the most meaningful events of his life, which makes him a fairly typical member of a growing club of experimental subjects."

From the NYT. Not a recommendation or anything, just some food for thought.

Apr 11, 2010

Fiction: Dirt

It’s Sunday and he has invited me on a drive out to the coast and I go with him. I meet him in the parking lot near his place and he looks at me hard.

We get in his nice car and at first it is uncomfortable but I fill up the silence easily. Outside of town we get a flat tire. I stay in the car because it’s drizzling but soon I get anxious and follow him out. He pries the hubcap off with his pocketknife and works the jack. I chatter away because silence makes me uncomfortable though sometimes my talking just makes it worse but I can’t stop. I ask him questions about the tire, which brings out some conversation from him because he knows about cars, which never hurt someone on purpose.

He is done and points to a dirt road off the main road. “Let’s go exploring.”

“Why?” I can’t remember the last time I set foot on a dirt road.

“I’ll be right back then.” He slouches off.

“Wait.” I follow him down the road. I hate being alone. The dirt road is short. There is a fence and past that, some decaying old buildings.

“What is it?”

“An abandoned farm,” he says, stepping over an ancient cow corpse. I follow.

Now we are getting close to the largest building, a barn or something. I half-pretend to get scared and grab his arm. It is easy to press my breast against him and I feel him tense up but he does not push me away. As we come around the barn we see life, a building with wild chickens around it. They make noise at us and a big rooster comes from around the back, running at us like a train. I turn and run a ways back and when I look back the rooster is circling around him, flapping and squawking. He watches it peck him, drawing blood on his sandaled feet, then he gives it a deliberate hard kick and it flops against the barn to the ground.

“You killed it!” I run up and kneel next to the flopping body.

“Not yet.” I hear the click of his pocketknife behind me and turn to watch him drive the blade through the rooster’s neck into the ground. It shudders once more and is still and there is blood everywhere. I stand up silently.

He smiles at me and picks up the corpse by its ancient, scaly feet which have long black talons. “Waste not.” He starts back to the car.

I follow.

Copyright 2008, all rights reserved. No part of this writing can be reproduced, rewritten, broadcast, or published without the written consent of the author.

Chameleon blogging

 This was one of the more interesting discoveries on the trail. They really do change color, and their eyes really do point in different directions! This one had an unfortunate accident soon after this picture, though.
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Apr 10, 2010

The banksters

If you read that Matt Taibbi article I linked the other day, you won't be surprised that Goldman Sachs and their cronies also do that kind of thing to whole countries:
In early February, Der Spiegel (a German magazine) broke the story that Greece has been hiding the extent of its debt for years with the aid of U.S. investment banks. In 2001, Goldman was paid $300 million to structure a complex derivative deal that allowed Greece to borrow billions while hiding the true extent of its debt. Without this creative assist, Greece may not have been accepted into the common currency “Eurozone.”

Because the deal was structured as a currency swap (a type of derivative) and not as a loan, it was secret, bilateral and off-book. Goldman may have been the only party that knew about it, leading many to speculate how it may have profited from the knowledge.

Last week, the other shoe dropped. The New York Times reported that a company backed by Goldman, JP Morgan Chase and other big banks had set up an index in London that allows investors to gamble on the likelihood of a Greek default. As banks and other players rush into these trades, called credit default swaps, they make the cost of insuring Greek debt rise, making it harder for the country to borrow and bringing it closer to the brink.

Sound familiar? In 2002 the same firm created a similar index that allowed investors to bet on the likelihood of defaults in the subprime bond market. The “savvy” investors at Goldman made a fortune off the collapse of the market. It’s a sure bet that they will do so again if Greece goes down.
I think this sort of behavior should be taken as a given when devising some kind of regulatory framework. These chumps have no shame whatsoever.

Apr 9, 2010

Longtom marathon reax and Easter vacation

I'm not religious myself, but I appreciate school breaks. In the spirit of zombies and holidays obviously swiped from previous pagan celebrations, I present here my Easter tale.
Mmm, fertility rites.

The first order of business was the marathon, which I've already mentioned, but I'd like to go into it a little more thoroughly as it was my first time and I quite enjoyed the experience. First, a little background. The last competitive running I did was in 8th grade, when I ran track and did the 200m and 800m events. I forget my 800 time (it wasn't great), but my 200 was a respectable ~26 seconds (respectable for middle school, heh). In short, I've never been a distance runner and always had antipathy for the whole business. That changed in the last few months, as I've spent hours training for this marathon and grew to like being out there on the road by myself. It seems that by pushing myself past the brutal misery stage I actually grew to like running.
The marathon course.

The course runs through the gorgeous mountains around Sabie and Lydenburg. The half-marathon course (21.1 km) is pretty easy as it's mostly downhill--so long as your knees can take the punishment. The ultra course, on the other hand (56 km) is astonishingly brutal--the first 37 km is 1150m (3773 feet) of uphill. The ultra started at 6 AM, while the half participants got bused to their starting point 35 km along.

It was cool and foggy at our 7 AM start, and stayed that way for most of the race. We stood around stamping our feet and listening to the serious runners at the starting line sing "Shosholoza." At the start, I was with a pack of about four other Peace Corps runners, but after the first twenty minutes or so, I lost them in the mist and was alone for the rest of the race. I didn't even realize it at the time--I thought they were still behind me until I looked back and I was alone. Perhaps because I was pacing myself well with my watch (trying to keep less than 5 minute splits on the kilometers), I was passing people for the whole race and was only passed a couple times. I was shooting for a sub-2 hour time, so my time of 1:46:43 was enormously satisfying. According to the race results, that puts me in 143rd place! There might be another half-marathon in Kimberly in May, and if so I plan on running that one. I think 1:30 is a good goal for next time.

After the marathon we bought some food in Sabie and took a five-day hike on the Fanie Botha trail. It's a beautiful hike that runs along little patches of virgin forest amidst a gigantic tree plantation.
This chump kept following us around. Behind you can see where the plantation trees start.

After a reasonable hike each day they've got huts with showers, cooking pits, and flush toilets (well, one hut only has pit toilets and no shower). The second day was the toughest and the most beautiful, as you follow this steep drainage up and around several magnificent waterfalls.
This one is called Cathedral Falls.

This one is called Chockstone Falls. I can't figure out why for the life of me.

Once we climbed out of the forest, we got into clear-cut zone where you could really see the extent of the plantation, and only in one direction--it's enormous. Must be dozens of square miles.
Later that same day we saw either some gemsbok or sable antelope and a troop of monkeys, though unfortunately I didn't get any good pictures. The next day the battery on my camera died, so that's about it for the pictures. The next few days were not quite so spectacular, but still beautiful. There were five of us in our group, and we got along pretty well. All in all, a great trip and a much-needed break from those rotten kids.

Picture of the week

The Orion Nebula. View the nebulosity.

Link dump

Don't miss Paul Krugman on the economics of climate change.

New hominid discovered right here in South Africa.

South Africa is also fighting with Obama about the huge new coal-fired power plant planned here.

Nicholas Kristof has a depressing take on a recent trip to Zimbabwe.

HP says they have developed some nanoscale technology that could replace both transistors and flash memory.

Apr 8, 2010

Article of the week

The latest from Matt Taibbi:
As public services in and around Birmingham were stripped to the bone, Pack struggled to support her family on a weekly unemployment check of $260. Nearly a fourth of that went to pay for her health insurance, which the county no longer covered. She also fielded calls from laid-off co-workers who had it even tougher. "I'd be on the phone sometimes until two in the morning," she says. "I had to talk more than one person out of suicide. For some of the men supporting families, it was so hard — foreclosure, bankruptcy. I'd go to bed at night, and I'd be in tears."

Homes stood empty, businesses were boarded up, and parts of already-blighted Birmingham began to take on the feel of a ghost town. There were also a few bills that were unique to the area — like the $64 sewer bill that Pack and her family paid each month. "Yeah, it went up about 400 percent just over the past few years," she says.

The sewer bill, in fact, is what cost Pack and her co-workers their jobs. In 1996, the average monthly sewer bill for a family of four in Birmingham was only $14.71 — but that was before the county decided to build an elaborate new sewer system with the help of out-of-state financial wizards with names like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase. The result was a monstrous pile of borrowed money that the county used to build, in essence, the world's grandest toilet — "the Taj Mahal of sewer-treatment plants" is how one county worker put it. What happened here in Jefferson County would turn out to be the perfect metaphor for the peculiar alchemy of modern oligarchical capitalism: A mob of corrupt local officials and morally absent financiers got together to build a giant device that converted human shit into billions of dollars of profit for Wall Street — and misery for people like Lisa Pack.
Go read.

A glimmer of good news

Well, well. By some demonic incantations and a seven-year lease on my soul from Nokia, I managed to massage my internet phone back to life. I'll be up with some more updates tomorrow, but right now I'm going to kick back, tie off, and shoot some news. Stay tuned.

PS: It was a bit unsettling how happy I was when I coaxed this dadgum thing back to life. I'm sure I could quit anytime, though.

Quote of the week

"Some observers, including both liberals and conservatives, have sometimes referred to Rubio as the “Republican Obama,” but Lewis goes beyond this and essentially argues that Rubio should run for President fresh off of a Senate election victory he has not yet won because this is what Obama did after he was elected to the Senate. By promoting Rubio as a desirable presidential candidate this early, Lewis would evidently like to see an even less experienced state legislator seek his party’s presidential nomination. Obama causes a very strange reaction in Republicans. On the one hand, they want to regard him as a joke and an incompetent, but they also desperately want to find someone who can imitate his appeal and success, and so it is almost as if they go out of their way to anoint whatever young politician they come across as their new hero and then disregard all of the person’s liabilities by saying, “Well, he’s no more inexperienced than Obama was” or “She’s still better than Obama!” It is an odd mix of contempt for Obama mixed with admiration for Obama’s success and an even stranger need to outdo him in the categories that originally caused them to view Obama so poorly. So Rubio is touted because he is even more inexperienced, Palin is held up because she knows even less about policy, and so on."

-Daniel Larison, Eunomia

Apr 7, 2010

Eugene TerreBlanche murdered

Last Saturday, Eugene TerreBlanche, one of the pivotal figures of the end of apartheid, was murdered at his home outside of Ventersdorp in Northwest province, apparently over a wage dispute. This comes in the midst of a racial controversy over a song sung by the ANC youth leader Julius Malema which included the lyrics "kill the Boer." (Boer is Afrikaans for farmer, and has become a rather offensive phrase for whites in South Africa.) ANC president Jacob Zuma and other ANC leaders are distancing themselves from Malema, but he has yet to be formally punished.

Terreblanche was a sinister yet somewhat goofy figure during the end of apartheid. His organization, the AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging--Afrikaner Resistance Movement), used faintly disguised Nazi paraphernalia (like a three-pointed swastika) and brandished all kinds of weapons. They stormed the World Trade Centre during the CODESA negotiations. Later they showed the last gasp of white supremacist resistance when they invaded Boputhatswana and were humiliatingly defeated. He was imprisoned in 1997 for assaulting a black petrol station worker.

Despite TerreBlanche's obvious lunacy, this is a real blow for South Africa. The last thing we need here 10 weeks before the World Cup is this kind of racial tension. It's good to see Zuma and others being a calming influence. It would be nice to not hear any more violent songs, especially as many of us volunteers are right in that neighborhood (I just drove right through Ventersdorp on the taxi ride home). As former president FW de Klerk said, "It remains to be seen whether the Shoot the Boer song played a role in Mr Terre'Blanche's murder. However, at the very least it may have contributed to an atmosphere in which impressionable young black farm workers might have felt that their actions were somehow justified."

Apr 6, 2010


Well my internet phone is still hosed, but I'm working with my mugging companion to get his computers fixed up so I've got some access today. This is a new foray for me; I've never done any computer networking at all, and the goal here is to make a tightly controlled computer lab with a central server and all the fixings. At the moment it's just a bunch of unconnected computers, and anyone that has worked with kids and computers knows their natural curiosity can cause some serious problems. So hopefully we can all the computers properly cloned with good programs and antivirus, and perhaps even get Deep Freeze installed for maximum protection.

It's difficult stuff, but a bit easier than I thought it would be. There's a guy here helping us that figured out all this stuff himself for his own school's computer lab, so that's a big help. I figure this kind of thing will be valuable in the states when I return.

Apr 4, 2010

The hills are alive with the sound of violent cursing

My internet phone is kaput again, the same way as last time. The power button is broken and the battery went dead so I'm SOL. I'm here in Pretoria today to fill out some forms and hopefully get a flu shot, so maybe I can get it fixed today. But Nokia is not my friend now.