Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Just assassinate Gadaffi!

Just assassinate Gadaffi. It is possibly the most legal/ just/ humane thing that NATO could do.

Those of you who know me, or read my blog or continue reading this sentence would know that I am often not to be taken too seriously. I prefer writing more light hearted posts on popular culture or  to find the humour in some serious stories. Because the one thing the web does not need is another muslim blogger with half baked conspiracy theories challenging the status quo. I mean, we are talking Muammar Gadaffi here. You've seen his pictures. Heard the eccentric stories of him living in a tent outside Central Park whenever he visits the UN. Listened to snippets of him shout angrily in a foreign language. Who can or would want to defend him. Definitely not me!

However I think it's time I risk being unpopular to speak about an injustice regardless of whether I may be perceived as a Gadaffi symphatiser. The injustice I refer to is of course, the Nato War on Libya. Of course, people in the Obama administration are quick to label this, anything but a War, as there is a very heated legal debate currently underway in the US Congress regarding the legality of this war, or as the Obama administration prefer, ' A time-limited, scope-limited military action'. This 'military action ' involves the daily bombing of Libya, a strict naval blockade, the destruction of the Gadaffi family compound (wherein both his son and three grandchildren died) and the deployment of special forces in Libya. 

Before proceeding, I should clarify the title. Inspired by a weekend of sheer chaos by NATO wherein they admitted mistakenly bombing the rebels on Saturday, bombing (in error) a civilian target on Sunday that included children amongst the dead and on Monday not being able to confirm whteher the building they hit was a command centre or a private home but they could confirm that here too, children were amongst the casualties. I am not trying to naively gather sympathy for pro Gadaffi supporters because one accepts these kind of events as part and parcel of the ugly consequence of war, but therein lies the problem with this entire affair. Who sanctioned this War? Why has it been sanctioned? And what is it's ultimate aim? If the aim is to effect a regime change, then I propose that Muammer Gadaffi be assassinated. I believe this would be in the best interest of the Libyan People you are striving to protect. Less infrastructure to rebuild, fewer unnecessary loss of life and an assurance that the economic interests of the NATO nations will be taken care off.

The Case for War

Muammar Gadaffi is the perfect villain. He is arguably insane, eccentric, prances around in military costumes and prefers living in a tented compound even when visiting other countries. All the Western media would have to do is show demented images of the African leader coupled with tales of his war crimes and eccentricity and the public would support this military endeavor. Unfortunately Joe Soap is not so gullible anymore. One of the most notorious pieces of disinformation and propaganda, in recent history, that greatly helped to rally support for the 1990 - 1991 war to free Kuwaiti's and re-install the monarchy was the appearance of a 15 year old Kuwaiti girl who testified to a US congressional committee, how she witnessed Iraqi soldiers tip babies out of incubators and leave them to die on the floor. Her account of the incident created an outrage until some time later it was revealed that she was  in fact the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to Washington and had consequently never left the US during the Iraqi invasion.

After having done 'dying babies' and the 'search for WMD's', Muammar Gadaffi picked the next most vile thing to killing babies, ordering the mass rape of all woman who opposed him and going the 'extra mile' by acquiring viagra-like medicines to encourage them to do so. As stated earlier, Gadaffi could be insane so I am in no way going to stick my neck out in his defense. What is shocking however, is even after, what must have been a significant pharmaceutical bill, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both found no evidence of such government ordered mass rape despite extensive investigations. Ms Diana Eltahawy who is Amnesty International's Libya expert has been quoted as saying,

"We spoke to women, without anybody else there, all across Libya, including Misrata and on the Tunisia-Libya border. None of them knew of anybody who had been raped. We also spoke to many doctors and psychologists with the same result." 

Of course this does not stop  news channels from perpetuating uncollaborated stories about all the mayham and war crimes presently being perpetrated by the Libyan leader. Things that further frustrate me about the war on Libya are:

  • The Hypocrisy - In recent times both Syria and Bahrain have committed heinous crimes against unarmed civilians yet they are not rebuked or sanctioned for their actions.
  • Follow the money - On March 15th, Muammar Gadaffi stated publicly that he did not trust Western oil firms and that future oil contracts would be going to the Chinese, Russians and Indians. The bombing started a few days later.
  • Who are the rebels? Do they represent the people? Have the rag-tag National Transitional Council that has now been deemed, 'The legitimate representative' of the Libyan People ever stated any vision/ plans for democracy.
  • Is NATO adequately testing offers for a truce and supervised elections?
  • Libya did not attack the US or any embassy or any member of NATO for that matter. 
  • Who is going to get the contract to rebuild all the infrastructure that is being bombed daily?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

The latest trailer for the upcoming Harry Potter movie

Now that X-men has come and gone, this is the movie event that I am most looking forward to. The conclusion to an amzing cinematic experience that took us from a little boy still trying to find himself in a strange new world and concludes, as those of you who read the book know with... don't worry. No spoilers ahead. However (ha ha fooled those of you still reading), I think it should be borne in mind that most of the events in this final movie happen over a single day. That is the either the recipe for non-stop action or a pace too quick for proper appreciation. I am hoping for the former.

In my opinion, this movie, which I though was titled "The Battle of Hogwarts", will undoubtedly be compared by all geeks to the legendary Battle of Helms Deep (Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers). In my personal opinion, nothing would ever compare to that battle. I still get goose bumps when I see Gandalf lead the riders of Rohan down into battle, still laugh when Gimly asks Aragon not to tell the elf that he had to be tossed onto the bridge. Needless to say, I am biased. I am confident however that this movie will do justice to the battle ( I should henceforth be known as, "He whose expectations are easily raised" ). The movie comes out in July and I am thinking of watching them all again over the next couple of weeks. My favourite thus far has been "The Goblet of Fire". 

P.S. If you have never yet experience Harry Potter as an audiobook read by Stephen Fry then you are missing out on what I believe to be the best possible way of enjoying this tale. But then again, that may be my bias again :)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Google backs Renewables. Why don't we?

"If you had the choice to pay less for clean power than you currently pay for dirty power. Wouldn't you do it?"...

Unless you own major shares in a coal fired power station, you would probably answer, "Hell, yes!". If not, I fear you may have stumbled upon the wrong blog. If not for the obvious chance to combat climate change, the question is essentially asking would you be interested in paying less for the power you consume today! This is what Google are now offering to US citizens. Google has just invested $280 million to create a fund that will be used to finance solar installations. In partnership with SolarCity, a company that helps homeowners make the transition to solar energy by leasing the cost of the installation and maintenance of the solar system. What is more, is that SolarCity guarantees the maintenance, warranty and power output of the panels. This effectively removes two of the major issues for homeowners when deciding to make the transition to renewable energy, High initial start up cost and whether it will deliver as promised.  The concept and investment is best described in the video below.

I know that I am an Apple fanboy and all things Google should be considered  'Anti-Jobs', but I would expect nothing less from a company that has continued to push the boundary of innovtion especially in the environment of cloud computing . This investment brings the total investment made by Google in the renewable energy sector to $ 680 million. Google.org is the charitable sector of Google and they are in essence ensuring the success of their company by investing heavily to combat climate change thereby ensuring that they still have customers in the years to come. Whereas most corporations talk green, Google has already invested a further $168 million in a Mojave Desert solar energy plant and have recently purchased 20 years of wind power to power one of its data centres in Oklahoma. Their most innovative plan for the future has to be the patent they recently applied for, for floating data centres powered by wave power! This is what can be achieved when you foster a culture of innovation in your organisation. A book that talks about this culture in detail is 'The Google Story' by David A Vise and I would unwaveringly recommend it to both geeks and non geeks alike.

Lets put these figures in perspective, shall we. The cost for the Medupi Power station in South Africa is estimated to be in the region of R 125 Billion and Kusile will cost Eskom (i.e. the taxpayer) a further R 140 Billion. Assuming a very conservative exchange rate of R10/ $ that gives the total investment we as a country are making in the next 8 years for dirty power as $ 26,5 Billion. Of course this excludes and carbon tax that may be levied by the government in the future because although that will not increase the cost of the power stations, it will definitely increase the cost that you and I pay for power. Remember also that this does not include all associated projects that would be required i.e. strengthening of transmission infrastructure.

For as long as Eskom is left in control of our country's Demand Side Management Program, I cannot see us progressing in the right direction. The country insists that Eskom needs to be efficient and function as a business, making profits to fund future capital expansion and yet we ask them to convince people to use electrical power ( their only product) sparingly and less wastefully. Is the conflict apparent to you? I believe the time has come for us to start thinking out of the box. No. I am not asking for something that extreme. I am just saying isn't it time we at least start pursuing some of the proven technologies and funding models out there. Instead of continuing to chase short term solutions that would result in long term problems.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Lunar Eclipse 2011

On the 15th June 2011, there will be a total lunar eclipse visible from all of Africa, Central Asia and parts of South America. The show starts at 20:23 with the main event scheduled to start around 21:22 and lasting till around 11 pm. Other than total cloud cover, you have no excuse not to witness this event, unless of course, you are a werewolf and prefer not been caught out in mid howl, naked  and confused. Actually if you were planning a lunar party and the weather does not play it's part, you could always project the webcast of the event from http://www.skywatchersindia.com

My family and I are planning a little lunar party in our driveway (if there was no lunar eclipse we would have just been having a regular Ides of June party). Thankfully, Thursday is a public holiday so the kids can stay up late as well. I would prepare the little ones for the event though. I am telling Siddiqa that I will be performing a magic trick and making the moon disappear, just like Colombus did to the poor 'Indians' he found in Jamaica.

There are of course lots of superstition surrounding an eclipse and my mother told me a story today of how my grandfather banished her to her bedroom while she was expecting me. It is an Indian superstition that pregnant women should not hold a blade during an eclipse, otherwise they would have children born with a cleft lip or other deformities. My thinking around such superstition is, what harm could it do?, if your in laws insist that you effectively 'take a day off'.

So banish the X-Box, PS3  and Nintendo and enjoy this great spectacle that nature has to offer. Note that the iPhone was intentionally excluded from the list above!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Rationality of Pi

Disclaimer: To all my regular readers, I have a feeling that this blog may not appeal to you so I offer you the link below which I found to be extremely funny and proof yet again that the internet is extremely effective at destroying all our childhood memories.

I would urge you to continue reading however because what follows is a remarkable story that has at its core the most least understood, yet universally known, irrationality that exists. Pi .

Pi is a mathematical constant whose value is the ratio of any circle's circumference to its diameter and is often expressed as 3.14. The truth is, as most of us are aware is that pi is an irrational number that continues into infinity in it's approximation. What is amazing about this number is that most serious mathematicians would tell you that they know nothing about Pi, yet the definition of Pi is really simple, It is just the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle. Or, is it?

It is believed that Pi first entered our history in Ancient Egypt. It is there that the earliest know reference to pi occurs, written on a papyrus scroll in 1650 B.C by a scribe named Ahmes. Ahmes titled the scroll " The entrance into the knowledge of all existing things" ( I have to assume that Ahmes was not known for his modesty) and after some lengthy calculations he found the area of a circle using a cruder form of Pi. Thereafter, the great Greek philosopher Archimedes, who is now more commonly known in schools as 'that douche who has ruined my early childhood with all his damn theorems' found pi to be between 3 10/71 and 3 1/7. That is about 3.14 and you have to cut the Greeks some slack as they did not use decimals in 200 B.C. and this discovery was probably made using various circles and pieces of string. This approximation was more or less universally accepted until the German Mathematician Ludolph van Ceulen spent the greater part of his life approximating it to thirty five decimal places in the seventeenth century. This gave him such a sense of accomplishment that he had the digits engraved on his tombstone. The German's still call Pi 'the Ludophian number' but they are alone in this as they are with their obsession with David Hasselhoff music. The first person to use the greek letter Pi to represent this constant was the English mathematician William Jones and thus has it remained ever since.

There are many who believe that Pi holds within it a great mystery known to nature (and by inference God) similar to the uniqueness of Phi which Dan Brown explored to death in the 'Da Vinci Code'. With the advent of computers and mathematicians with nothing better to do, the race to determine the mystery of pi re-surfaced. Whilst we were watching the Olympic Games or Dallas, the nationalist battle to approximate Pi heated up. It began with George Reitweisner who derived Pi to 2037 decimal places. When the Japanese entered the battle things started getting silly quickly (Yasumasa Kanada and his team at Tokyo University used a NEC supercomputer to compute 2 million digits of pi, and found no signs of order). this continued in it's absurdity until the Chudnovsky Brothers announced to the world that they had obtained four hundred and eighty million digits of pi, a world record at the time. The record stood at one billion one hundred and thirty million one hundred and sixty thousand and sixty four decimal places in 1989 and was obtained by team Kanada. Surprisingly, to everyone but themselves, they still found no pattern!

Finally, this brings me to the main reason I wrote this blog ( I hope however you enjoyed the journey). It was the amazing story of the 'Chudnovsky brothers'. In short, these brothers were born in the Ukraine and eventually settled in America. They are brilliant mathematicians who one day concluded that it would be cheaper and more convenient to build a supercomputer in their apartment so that they could work with numbers to their hearts content. Gregory Chudnovsky suffers from a severe disease called myasthenia gravis which in his case has resulted in muscle weakness and difficulty in breathing. He is therefore confined to his apartment and used to do his research by dialing into a supercomputer and waiting many hours for a result. The result was often a message telling him that he had lost his connection! This therefore prompted these brothers to build their own supercomputer which they have  done using mail order parts with a combined cost of seventy thousand dollars. They thankfully have wives with conventional jobs and big hearts. This is in comparison to a Cray supercomputer which cost somewhere in the region of thirty million dollars.

I have recently read a significant amount regarding the lives and accomplishments of the Chudnovsky brothers but was most surprised (shocked) to learn that these great minds have no commercial backing or conventioanl academic jobs. Putting aside for the moment their genius mathematical ability, these guys built a working supercomputer in their apartment at a fraction of the cost! Nobody thinks that they warrant an investment? The thought of David Beckham being available for two months after the close of the US soccer season is unthinkable with European clubs trampling over each other to have the benefit of his services at remarkable costs. For some perspective, Beckham's deal with the LA Galaxy, those marauders of world club football, is $ 32,5 Million over 5 years.

Contrast this to Gregory Chudnovsky who was described by Herbert Robbins (emeritus professor of mathematical statistics at Columbia University) as the greatest mathematician since David Hilbert (don't feel stupid, I never heard of him either) and that he is the last of his breed. For years, the brothers were supported by their wives and modest grants from the National Science Foundation of America until eventually, after campaigning by a select few academics they were appointed as Distinguished Industry Professors at the polytechnic institute of NYU.

This is part of what is wrong with the world. Our priorities are all messed up. We pay millions for people to play sport or act (don't get me started on that topic!) yet we don't reward academic brilliance forcing most of the brilliant minds into the corporate world where their passion to explore and break new ground is crushed. Of course, I (as both a bad football player and self confessed geek) will see it that way and who cares about how many digits you can approximate pi to anyways. I think it is safe to assume that if you did not find a pattern in a billion, you are probably not going to find a pattern in the next billion. But behind the search lies an algorithm that could one day solve a much more pressing problem like "What is the Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything?" I assure you that David Beckham will not have a clue that the answer is 42!

P.S. I have added a reaction widget to the bottom of my blog posts and would love if you could give me feedback on what you thought. Comments would be great but if you don't have the time then perhaps just a tick in the appropriate box. Thanks.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Should SA follow Germany regarding Nuclear Power?

I had intended writing this blog on the recent decision by Germany to phase out Nuclear Power by 2022, it's impact and consequences but I have since decided to focus rather on how this decision should not be foolishly used to dictate the nuclear policy decisions in South Africa. Before proceeding any further, let me state that I am a great supporter of renewable energy and would love for it to form a much larger component of our national energy mix but I am not naive of the consequences that come with it. In an effort to reduce carbon emissions and improve our chances of sustaining life on earth, I would be prepared to pay more for electricity. I would accept that the sun does not shine everyday and the wind does not always blow and will therefore accept that there could be days that electricity supply would be interrupted. I am also fully aware that the majority of my fellow citizens would not be willing or able to make that sacrifice, mostly due to the massive levels of poverty already prevalent in our society.

The decision by Germany needs to be viewed in context and requires one to zoom out to understand it. Late last year, Germany announced that it intended increaseing the operating life of its nuclear power plants and this led to much protest from concerned citizens. The chaos that reigned at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan after the Tsunami therefore fed right into these protests and the leaders of the world's 4th largest economy were therefore forced to do a U-turn? Wheteher this proves to be a brave and radical gesture, or a blatantly populist move that defies all common sense remains to be seen. One thing is certain. This has all but secured a coalition for Angela Merkel with the popular Green Party after Germany's next election and may extend the reign of the Chancellor.

Enough on foreign politics (for now), which is what this is. There are some things that I would like my fellow citizens to consider before engaging in any discussion on this topic.
  1. Do not repeat the opinion of Gareth Cliff: There is a reason that this is number 1 and it is because you should not base your opinion on any topic by the half facts presented by a radio DJ whose primary concern is of popularity an ratings.  Those should be his priorities (It's his job) but do not therefore expect an unbiased, well though out argument from him because his priority is not education or even the dissemination of information but, entertainment. This is true for most radio DJ's but I mentioned Gareth Cliff, because although I find the show and playlist entertaining I am often appalled with his views on current affairs.
  2.  We are not Germany: If anybody has a chance of succeeding with this audacious plan, it would have to be the Germans. They have already achieved so much and it is primarily due to the role there government has played in the promotion of renewable energy. They have for years been charging consumers a small renewable energy tax which was used to subsidise the promotion of renewable energy in the country. Two years ago a similar tax was added to the cost of electricity in South Africa but that will be used to merely fill up the coffers as there has been no indication from Government on what this will be used for. The day after Germany announced its decision regarding nuclear power. NERSA (National Energy Regulator South Africa) announced a delay with the REFIT (Renewable Energy Feed in Tariff) which was launched to attract investors to build renewable power generating schemes in the country.
  3. Germany is not us: Government remains committed (in policy ayways) to the Universal Access Plan which is a plan to electrify all the citizens of our country and to supply the poorest among these with Free Basic Electricity. I remain committed to this goal. In recent years, the cost of energy in South Africa has soared and we, as a country, are not in a position to pass on the cost of such a shift in policy to the consumers. The cost of renewable energy is significantly higher than coal or even nuclear for that matter and we as South Africans are not ready for such a step change. We are still adjusting to paying the true cost of the cheap coal energy we generate so much off.
  4. Nuclear energy is presently the only viable alternative to provide base load power to the grid. Solar systems require the sun to shine, wind farms require wind to blow. These can therefore not be a reliable source of providing power 24 hours a day.
  5. We have no safety net: If Germany fails to meet his target by replacing its nuclear fleet with renewable energy in the next decade it will be forced to increase energy imports from either France (Grid is 70% Nuclear) or Russia (Considerable Gas reserves). We are the giant of energy generation in our region, so we are unable to depend too heavily on neighboring countries to assist should we have an energy shortfall.
If it appears from the above that I believe Nuclear is the solution for South Africa, let me clear up that misunderstanding, I don't. Not presently anyways. We have no policy on how to dispose of Nuclear waste in South Africa. This has been outstanding for many years and until it is completed, no additional nuclear plants should be constructed in our country. To put things in perspective, the low and intermediate radioactive waste used to be disposed off in Vaalputs (a near surface disposal site for radioactive waste) but this is currently being stored on site at Koeburg because the National Radioactive Waste Management Agency  has yet to appoint the new operator to manage the site! So presently not is Koeburg just a nuclear power sttaion on our coastline, but it is also our nuclear waste storage site. I hope we have an Tsunami early warning system but suspect that if we did have a "Tsunami early Warning Management Agency" that functioned under the Dept of Environmental Affairs, they would have just announced its decision to suspend operations at the system until a new operator is found and employed!

Presently our best option would be to reduce our electricity consumption. This would be advantageous to us the consumer in two ways in that it would save us money and would help reduce emissions. Paying lip service to the promulgation of renewable energy in our country will continue well into the foreseeable future but until there is a drastic shift in government policy, I fear nothing more will come of it.