Apr 29, 2011

Nuclear ice

A practical joke fad has been sweeping through Peace Corps South Africa. It's called 'icing.' One finds a Smirnof Ice and presents it to the target of one's choice, who is obligated to drink the entire thing in one go. Here we can see, though, there is a bottle twice the size of average. I therefore propose the term 'nuclear ice' to describe such an attack.

Apr 28, 2011

Baby steps

In an encouraging sign, my school's new library is still being used, and a couple weeks back they tracked down another mess of used books from somewhere. What's more, all of it has been done without any help from me.

Apr 25, 2011


Speaking of multitasking, Kevin Drum has a question:
After writing a couple of posts about multitasking, I'm curious about something: how good are you at multitasking? Which is to say, how good do you think you are at multitasking? And what kinds of things to you multitask at?

...But I can't multitask at all. For example, I can't listen to music and write at the same time. It's too distracting. I don't comment on TV news much because I don't watch TV news. Partly that's because TV news rots your brain, but mostly it's because I can't write while the TV is on in the background. Too distracting. And when I write long form pieces for the magazine, I work on them almost exclusively on weekends. I just can't task switch effectively between blogging and article writing during the day.

Of course, this is only true for cognitive tasks. Like anyone, I can work out and watch TV at the same time, or carry on a conversation while I'm cooking dinner. That's multitasking, I guess, but it's not really cognitive multitasking.
I find it hard to know what counts as multitasking. On first blush, I thought I must be fairly bad at it. I often run, walk, or wash my clothes while listening to a recorded book, but as Kevin says, that doesn't really count. I can't read and talk at the same time, and I find TV of any kind to be really distracting.  Any sort of handheld device renders me helpless; I try to never take calls if I'm driving.

There is one exception: I almost always have music of some kind going in the background, whether I'm writing, reading, or cooking.  I remember when I was taking my multivariable calculus tests sophomore year in college—beastly take-home papers that were for me about the most difficult single things I did in college—I would sit in my room all night with the hardest Opeth albums (a kind of progressive death metal) blasting full volume.  To me that says the music was occupying a part of my brain that would otherwise have distracted me, because I don't think I ever concentrated that hard on anything before or since.

What I am very good at (or bad, depending on your perspective) is ignoring things when I'm reading.  During my recent vacation, I was reading A Feast For Crows on my Kindle while some friends were playing a card game about 10 feet away.  They wanted to ask me a question, and it took several minutes of progressively more ridiculous shouting to get me to look up.  Apparently it was quite hilarious. So I'd say I'm fairly bad at multitasking, but reasonably good at the opposite, focusing on one thing in a distracting environment.

Apr 23, 2011

Washing machines and dryers

Once upon a time there were no washing machines so washing clothes by hand is what people did and since it’s a huge pain in the ass, getting paid by someone else to do their laundry by hand was a job you could have.
Handwashing jobs are still common here in rural South Africa. Being that unemployment is often 50-90% in villages, it makes a lot of sense. Personally, I do it myself because I'm cheap, though I get an offer from an old lady about once a week to do my washing. I've gotten fairly used to it, but Yglesias is right, it's a huge pain in the ass. Going back to the old washing machine is one thing I'm really looking forward to back home.

However, I don't think I'll ever use a clothes dryer again. (Maybe that's too strong; using them to fluff pillows and so forth is pretty convenient. In any case, that's why God made laundromats.) Hanging my clothes up outside is easy, convenient, and saves a lot of time. At my site, I hang them in the direct sun, but given how UV has eaten my clothes, at home I'd build a shelter out of some black ground cloth or something to improve their lifespan. When I was in New York, I hardly ever used a dryer; an indoor clothes rack seemed to work just fine even in winter (though sometimes it would take a day or two).

What's more, looking at this chart, at an average power of 5000 watts, a clothes dryer is about the most energy-intensive appliance you can buy (outside of a hot tub). Scrapping the dryer saves money, energy, and the environment! I look forward to the day when our wise and forward-thinking Congress implements a massive carbon tax, making these sorts of choices a lot more beneficial for the average family.

Apr 21, 2011

Petitionary prayer

My mp3 player batteries gave about about two-thirds of the way through my bus trip back to Kuruman and so I was unfortunately forced to listen to a lot of Christian propaganda. What's more, they had a lame Christian movie going with the volume so loud that, though I used earplugs, I couldn't help following the plot. The Christianity-drenched part didn't bother me so much as the utterly atrocious production values and acting, but it did spark some questions in my mind.

Namely, what kind of God is implied by Intercape-style prayer? By the "Intercape" qualifier I mean to rule out the kind of prayer that characterizes a lot of Eastern or intellectual religious practice; examples might be straight up worship, where one is just paying mental tribute to the greatness of God, or meditation, where one achieves wisdom through the contemplation of God's diverse qualities. (Obviously, that's not an exhaustive list.)

Instead I'm talking about petitionary prayer, where one is actively asking God for something; be it a recovery from sickness, some kind of personal benefit, changes in the weather, or what have you. In the case of Intercape, they start each voyage by asking God for his protection and guidance. Seems reasonable enough, no one wants to die in agony by the side of the road.

But what does it say about God if this kind of prayer is actually effective? It seems to assume that God is watching things unfold, things he set in motion, and if the right quantity of prayer is delivered unto the divine postbox, he'll cure the illness, or prevent the disaster he would have otherwise unleashed, or give you the new job. Assuming the circumstances are right of course, and God doesn't have some larger purpose in killing your baby sister with leukemia. In that case, we say "Thy will be done." "God works in mysterious ways."

How cruel does this make God? What about all the people who are too sick to pray for themselves (or happened to be born into the wrong religion), and have no one to pray for them? Doesn't it to restrict his area of operation a little bit? Is he saying, "Well, I was going to help this child, but just one prayer short, guess she's got to die." Wouldn't he know and take the right course of action regardless of what people are asking for, at least when it comes to "acts of God?" If God is all-knowing, omnibenevolent, and perfect, it makes little sense to actually ask him for something expecting he will alter the course of events with a bit of magic.

The more reflective theologians get this, and make petitionary prayer just a way of psychologically preparing yourself:
The best example of such prayer is given by Jesus himself. Although he knew he would have to undergo suffering and death, and although he had already accepted this sacrifice, his human nature made him spontaneously pray: "Father, let this chalice pass me by". By praying in this way to his Father, Jesus disposed his human nature to receive the strength it needed for the passion.
Now as it happens I don't subscribe to this kind of prayer either, but at least it's considered here. But like Richard Dawkins often says, hardly anyone believes like a sophisticated theologian. The vast majority of Christians, as a quick perusal of Google News will show, pray like this all the time.

PS: The fact that I came up with this post in a matter of minutes certainly places it in the category of "amateur half-assed philosophizing that someone much smarter already considered much more thoroughly 2000+ years ago."  I'm not claiming originality here (nor a stupendous intellect), just drawing attention to the fact that a huge part of mainstream Christian practice has been considered preposterous by serious theologians for hundreds of years.

Apr 19, 2011

It gets worse

Sorry to keep banging on about lousy construction, but upon further inspection I noticed even more shoddy details in that concrete slab. Walking across it, I noticed it's about as flat as the Hindu Kush. Clearly they made no effort to level across the forms and just eyeballed it as they were pouring. Worse, they didn't even strip the forms (the wooden bits that define the shape of the slab) before laying brick on the side, as you can see in the picture. That wood will eventually rot, leaving a gap between the slab and the brick, destabilizing both and leaving a perfect habitat for termites and other pests. However, it's probably a safe bet that the slab itself will have crumbled to smithereens by that time anyway.

I say this all to reinforce the fact that it is not lack of money that is holding back South African education. And because I've poured a lot of concrete in my day and it bugs me when people screw it up this badly.

Apr 18, 2011

Quote for the day

"Coal-fired electricity is cheap for roughly the same reason that pulling a dine and dash at a fancy restaurant is a cheap way to get a nice dinner." --Yglesias

Apr 16, 2011

RSA vs. US cell phone service

In the context of AT&T's bid to acquire T-Mobile and further consolidate the already seriously monopolized US cell phone market, Horace Dediu explains why it is that American cell phone service sucks so bad:
The trouble is that US consumers have never had much choice and the US wireless marketplace has been a minefield of incompatibilities and obstacles to market forces.

To begin with, US carriers maintain multiple incompatible network standards. Phones which work on one network do not work on any other. A Sprint phone won’t work on AT&T or on Verizon. In fact, some Sprint phones won’t work on all of Sprint’s network as it still uses the iDen standard legacy from the Nextel acquisition. Even the iPhone which is designed for the AT&T network does not handle T-Mobile’s version of 3G. So a consumer cannot make a decision on devices independent of a decision on carrier. This is a phenomenon unique to the US[1].
When I got to South Africa I was fairly amazed that one could just swap out a SIM card to change a phone from one network to another. Of course, as Dediu makes clear, this is the standard throughout the world. It should also be noted that the South African cell phone market is also fairly consolidated; the two largest carriers of Vodacom and MTN make for an effective duopoly in much of the country. My guess is that those carriers are worldwide operators (Vodacom is a subsidary of English Vodafone if I'm not mistaken), so the compatibility has been already established. He continues:
Secondly, in the US carriers charge for incoming minutes and have shunned pre-paid customers. There was a time when SMS messages were not compatible between networks, which led to the emergence of RIM as the only wireless messaging solution available, though initially not to the average teenager.
This is again different than RSA. Here, incoming calls are always free and prepaid customers make up the vast bulk of all cell phone users. Yet more:
Thirdly, because of the multiple incompatible standards, network coverage in the US is still abysmal. Each carrier has had to build out parallel (incompatible) networks at great expense using non-standard equipment over a vast landmass. The result is not only a very expensive network whose capex demands high service fees, but a very poor quality network which is always both spotty and capacity constrained. Operators are therefore keen to lock customers in to post-paid plans to ensure cash flows that drive capital allocations. This is essentially an upmarket flight which does not encourage low end innovation.

These idiosyncrasies are rooted in historical regulatory rulings that led operators to create a uniquely American wireless market. The key regulation was that the US shall have no single wireless standard. In the spirit of laissez-faire this may make sense. But the result has been failure of the common good. This is sharply contrasted with other developed countries which (with notable exceptions) deliver superior service with high efficiency.
Though South African cell service is quite a bit more expensive than in the US, the coverage and options are unequivocally superior. South Africa is a poor- to middle-income country, but even out in my tiny rural village, nearly 100 km from the nearest small town, I have both Vodacom and MTN. Many places I've lived back home there is effectively only one option.

Dediu makes one final point:
It’s therefore perhaps stunning that the platforms that are currently winning in mobile computing are American: iOS and Android[2]. Note further that none of these winners came from the world of wireless or telecom. These new points of profit condensation in the industry entered from a different industry: computing. But are they now pursuing telecom-compliant strategies? Arguably no. I choose to call them mobile computing and not phone platforms specifically because they will tolerate the cellular regimes as long as they need to, and no longer. Once they will reach the perch of power, the industry will conform to them, not vice versa.
It's clearly not a lack of innovation or technical expertise that's holding back the US. Rather it's our wonky and irrational regulatory regime, coupled with the fact that large companies have almost completely captured government oversight (and not just in the telecom area, to be sure). It's hard and getting harder to have a decent country with the Senate standing in the way.

Apr 15, 2011

Public works

Ever since the Frankfurt International people built my school a classroom for Grade R last year, we had enough rooms for each teacher. At the beginning of this year, grades 7 and 8 were combined due to numbers and so one classroom stood empty. Now you can see the concrete pad the department has finished for another unnecessary classroom, this time mobile. God knows why they're still going ahead with it.

On a side note, you can also see the generally lower quality of construction that prevails here, especially when it comes to concrete. This slab was mixed on site and finished over a week or so, so there are several cold joints across the whole thing. There is no steel reinforcement, and you can notice the puddles from no thought to drainage.

Apr 12, 2011

Bus travel

Here's a picture from my recent trip back home. Buses are a lot more common here than in the US and the quality is quite a bit higher. For this trip I was on the front seat of the top deck of an Intercape bus. It's a decent company save their unfortunate practice of incessant Christian propaganda during the ride.

Apr 9, 2011

Apr 7, 2011

Picture of the day

This is from Plettenburg Bay, where we stopped for lunch yesterday.

Apr 6, 2011

Bunji repeat!

I'm in Cape Town for a bit on vacation. Today we drove a ways up the coast to Storm's River. Here's my certificate from doing the world's highest bunji jump there. More pictures to follow soon.

Apr 5, 2011

Quick update

I've been away from the computer for a bit. More to come later.