Monday, December 17, 2012

Yesterday's mistakes and mystery words

guerre is a war. I should have inferred this from the capitalization of the phrase « Seconde Guerre mondiale ».

lors de la guerre then becomes "lors de la war", or "during the war" - a compound "transitive" preposition. (TIL about the idea of transitive and intransitive prepositions.)

fut is some past tense thing; seems to be the simple past of être (to be).

se déroula is like de-rolling - unrolling, in this use more abstractly as in "to unfold, to proceed", or, as Google translates it, "took place". I can't quite figure out the se part.

d'août is just the month of August!

était is the imperfect past tense, again of être.

près de is what you get when you press things together: they end up close to each other. Specifically, près de 40 000 militaires are nearly 40,000 soldiers.

il s'agit frustrates my attempt to find its idiomatic role. It's clearly the "it is about" meaning of the verb agir - to act, but I can't coax Google to translate "it is" back to s'agit without adding an explicit "about" which clearly doesn't belong in the context of "it is the largest deployment".

depuis is just "since".

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Learning a new language

I feel like I want to learn a new language, but I can't quite decide which one. Since sometime in my teenage years, when I happened upon my sister's copy of Basic Italian (ISBN-10 4833700301), I've wanted to learn Italian, and for a short time in 2004 I could get by with a few Italian words and a lot of handwaving.

But Italian is relevant to pretty much only one country: Italy itself. So I've been on a search for another language to learn. Ideally one with some chance of economic benefit. I'd considered Spanish (which would open not just Spain, but several South American countries), Chinese (likely to become the dominant economy in the world, but just so damn foreign, and that writing system!), French (some use in parts of Africa, France itself has a decent economy) and Lithuanian (a linguistic interest sparked by a former Venusian interest). For now I'm leaning towards French, so I've bookmarked a few pages and now I think I should read a French Wikipedia article (or at least its introduction) every day.

Today's article is Operation Athena:

L'opération Athéna est la contribution des Forces canadiennes à la Force internationale d'assistance et de sécurité (FIAS) lors de la guerre d'Afghanistan. L'opération fut divisée en deux phases : la première se déroula de juillet 2003 à juillet 2005 dans la région de Kaboul et la seconde d'août 2005 à décembre 2011 dans la région de Kandahar. L'objectif global de l'opération était d'améliorer la sécurité et la gouvernance de l'Afghanistan. L'opération Athéna à Kandahar a constitué la plus longue mission de combat de l'histoire des Forces canadiennes. Avec près de 40 000 militaires canadiens engagés, il s'agit du plus grand déploiement des Forces canadiennes depuis la Seconde Guerre mondiale.
I'll document my progress learning the language by translating what (I think) I understand. Obviously this technique relies quite heavily on the French language's influence on English, and Latin's too. Here goes:

Operation Athena is the Canadian Forces' contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) deployment to Afghanistan. The operation was divided into two phases: the first, from July 2003 to July 2005, to Kabul and surroundings, and the second, from the end of 2005 to December 2011, to Kandahar and its surroundings. The objective for the global operation was to assist with security and government of Afghanistan. Operation Athena at Kandahar was the longest combat mission in the history of the Canadian Forces. With about 40,000 Canadian troops engages, it was also the largest global deployment of the Canadian Forces' Second Army.

Mystery words:
lors (de la) guerre
il s'agit

Friday, November 9, 2012

Rolling Jubilee

It's heart-warming to read about people apparently hacking the system to do good. In this case, to make the world a better place by forgiving distressed debt - the people's bailout.

Then again, I can't help but wonder what effects this campaign will have, if it goes beyond a bit of hipster activism. It's like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle - you can't participate in a market without affecting it. The interesting questions here are, how big a player in the debt market is OWS likely to be, and what is the price elasticity of demand for debt?

Also, while at 5 cents to the dollar it doesn't seem worth getting worked up about it, I'm never quite comfortable with do-gooders taking on a burden that isn't theirs. And yes, that means I don't believe in charity - or at least most of it. Of course there are narrow-interest causes that are appropriate to fund by charitable donations, but others, like this problem of almost ubiquitous quasi-odious [1] debt, are broad social problems. Broad social problems should be addressed by broad social mandates - exactly the sort of thing governments are intended to do. If everybody bears the consequences of a social problem, then I think everybody should also contribute to its solution. By means of, say, income tax. And then you can segue into another interesting topic - how the burden of income tax should be distributed.

And that's the irony here: OWS is all about contrasting the burdens of the 99% with the privileges of the 1%. Like the phenomenon that many wealthy people are able to structure their income such that they pay a far lower effective rate of tax [2] than not-so-wealthy people do. And then OWS go ahead and voluntarily tax themselves with the cost of forgiving debt.

It still seems like a morally positive thing to do, and I still hope they shake things up.

[1] Nobody held a gun to anybody's head and made them take a $100,000 student loan for a liberal arts major. Other examples may seem more legitimately odious.

[2] Tax in general, not specifically income tax. Which is part of how they do it - by structuring their income such that more of it appears as capital appreciation, which attracts the far lighter capital gains tax.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

I got mugged, then got (most of) my stuff back

Today I experienced my first mugging - in fact, my first violent-violent crime (to borrow from Whoopi Goldberg's "rape-rape"). I was walking my dog Vissie through the extended neighbourhood, hoping to take some more stereo train photos along the way. Here's the last train picture I got; unfortunately my muggers are not in the frame; it all happened so soon after the last pic I took that I must assume they are behind me in this image. Exif data says I took it at 17:41.

The purpose for all the train pictures I'm taking is to be able to construct a 3D model of these old 5M2A trainsets for an openBVE route I'm slowly working on - the route from Cape Town to Simons Town. It's surprisingly difficult to get a pair of photos of the same motor unit (I'm concentrating on these - the coaches are boring) with a reasonable angular separation. My camera (you hear that, mugger assholes? MINE!) "thinks" so long between pictures that by the time it's ready to take the second of a set, the train has usually moved a whole length or so. The name of the game then is to find open areas (to get the undercarriage unobscured by station platforms) where the trains tend to move slowly, due to having just left a station, or due to approaching the junction near Heathfield station.

Back to the topic. I was walking my dog. For the last year or so I've been maintaining a map of which routes I've covered. This is what the map looks like today:

The red line is today's route, followed by a blue trail to the police station after my foray into Parkwood. The red 'X' marks the spot. So these two out-of-frame guys grabbed my camera and dog-walking-stuff bag and, I guess, pushed me over. My memory of the details is fuzzy. But I must have realized what was happening just a split second before it went down, because I was able to hold on to one guys, then perhaps the other, grabbing his ankle to make him fall. I hope he tasted a mouthful of sand. I heard of of the guys say "Steek hom!" ("Stab him!"), and I recall thinking, "Shit just got real", looking out for where the knife is. I didn't see one, and in any case, my inner reptile had taken over and decided it was a good idea to pull ankle boy to the ground.

Unfortunately they got away. (Fortunately I didn't get stabbed in the process.) They weren't all that far ahead, and I was able to get up relatively quickly. Reptile decided to throw some conveniently nearby ballast at them, and if my aim had been better, I might have hit them. I just about had the distance. My aim was off though, and the second stone landed on somebody's garden shed's tin roof. (I feel like I should pay a visit and apologize, or at least explain. It feels dishonest to apologize for something I know I'd do again if I rewound the situation.)

I'm a bit bummed that Vissie doesn't really seem to be a hunting dog. She didn't respond to "Go get them!" (Not that I'd expect her to do that - she's quite territorial at home, but doesn't really bring that aggression along on walks.) In my fantasies I'd have a giant Dobermann like family friends' horse-like Spencer chasing them down like helpless prey and barely holding off from making mincemeat of my attackers.

So I had to do the pursuing myself anyway. I rounded the corner of houses, followed the muggers along the canal as they climbed down and out of it the other side (perhaps to pin me on the near side with my dog, but I quickly found an easy way over). Then over the M5 / Prince George Drive, still carrying significant traffic, luckily not having to wait too long to get my gap.

These assholes probably didn't expect a white guy to follow them into Parkwood, a pretty dodgy-looking area. I've given the cleaning lady at my ex work a ride home after year-end functions a few times, so I knew it was going to be "interesting" feeling like there's a target painted on my back going in there hoping to confront my muggers. I managed to follow them a few blocks before I finally lost sight of them, but not before launching another missile at them (which hit a shopkeeper's car instead, dammit).

So there I was, just me and my little dog sticking out like a sore thumb in a pretty depressed area. It's really no wonder that some of the people living in Parkwood engage in opportunistic crimes. Whingeing white people from leafy suburbs like mine, Plumstead, should really think hard about the effects of NIMBY anti-activism.

Feeling rather down, having moved past the momentary anger stage, I knew it was time to fess up. Today wasn't the shopkeeper's best day either. When I went back to that red car I hit, the guy working on it told me it was the shopkeeper's, and that he had just finished "fixing it". I'm not clear on the nature of this fixing - but clearly the man had just finished doing some work on the car for the shopkeeper, when my piece of rubble hit it. Like a bird pooping on freshly washed washing.

During this car-checking male bonding ritual, a little girl came over and said I should "go up there" and get my stuff. No ways, we all (the adults around) reckoned this would be a trap. So we continued talking car, as I was trying to get to a (reasonable) fee to make things right.

Lo and behold, that's when a young lady with a baby on the arm appeared and gave me (most of) my stuff back. She didn't want to give a name, saying only, "Die boere ken my, hulle ken my goed" ("The police know me - they know me well" [1]). I don't understand how that happens, but yes, somehow, someone, somewhere decided that I should get my stuff back, so I did. Whether it was the muggers' mom or some other "strong woman" type who made it happen, I don't know. I certainly don't think it was remorse that made my muggers capitulate on what, to me, was their unassailable position - they had my stuff, and I had lost sight of them. Courtesy of someone, I have two pictures I didn't take. Here's the first post-mugging shot. Exif says 17:52:

The LCD seems to be fine, as is the lens motor and, in gross, the camera exterior. As you could infer from the mugger-cam above, the lens cover is jammed though. There's sand in the crevices between the body panels, so I'm hoping that a teardown + clean can restore lens cover action. If not, I'll have to remove it entirely. I'm optimistic that the optics are still okay - a post-retrieval test showed a blurred but recognizeable scene, which isn't that surprising, given the jammed cover.


The shopkeeper eventually told me "it's okay", and reassured me that his car is insured. The damage is minor, having only chipped some paint off the trunk and rear bumper without denting any panels. It's one of those vexatious "benefits" of owning a car: occasional minor damage that costs the world, relatively, to fix. While I don't really regret throwing stones at my muggers while still at the railway tracks, I really misjudged this one. I'm a bad person and I should feel bad! (I do.) I don't recall having seen any people in the ballistic cone, so things could have been worse (hitting an innocent person), but I definitely should have reigned reptile brain in on this one. In a sense I'd like to make right with the shopkeeper. I'm not sure how. I'd feel a little unsafe going back into Parkwood with a wad of cash to give to him, but other than that I have no connection to him - no name, no phone number. And I don't want to get scammed out of an unreasonable amount in compensation. It's hard for me to trust people from such a different socio-economic background, which is why I didn't give the car fixing guy the R350 he thumbsucked (down from an initial R900 - see what I mean?) as a cost to fix. (I did, in fact, have a few hundred rand in my pocket - my muggerazi forgot to check there!) People can be a little skelm if they perceive you to be "rich", IME.

If I had been more fit, I could have caught up with my assailants sooner and re-confronted them more on my terms rather than on theirs - Parkwood with its "no I didn't see them" ethic. (Thanks to the kids who haven't yet been brainwashed by this shit and pointed me in the direction these guys had run.) If you're fit, you can tire your prey, and then take advantage of your greater metabolic capacity in a fight.

My physique isn't imposing - at all. If I turn sideways I disappear. Of course it's unwise to go around vigilante-style looking for trouble, but it's hard to imagine greater strength being a disadvantage. Being able to more effectively resist attackers might have let me avoid the unplanned road run I had.

Do I regret my choice to stay in South Africa, when I could live in Europe instead? I am a German (dual) citizen, so getting there (and staying, and being able to work) is not a problem. I don't know. I'm sure today's incident will affect my feelings, and make me doubt my wisdom in staying here. Time will tell.

Along the way

Getting out of Parkwood wasn't too hard - I was only a few blocks in. I didn't really feel welcome there, hearing a few "hey, whitey!" calls, but didn't feel particularly unsafe. Just... not exactly welcome. (I got the same vibe once before after dropping Wilma off at home there after some work function.)

In Southfield I encountered a Metro Police officer, and after asking for directions, had a little chat. It was remarkably reassuring, talking to this dad-like someone who was willing to just listen to my story. Perhaps it was partly also my first in-person reconnection post-mugging with the developed side Schrödinger's city, with authority.

Thanks to the lady who was watering her garden and let me drink from the hose. All the exertion had dehydrated me, so my throat was dry and it was rather unpleasant feeling like a piece of biltong.

Diep River SAPS let me lay a charge, this time without my having to squeeze blood out of a rock. I guess I cope with things by making jokes, as I kept poking fun at how I'm reporting "Amount (1) Description (Sock)" among the items stolen. (It was one of an expired pair, that I used to hold spare batteries for my camera.) Either my jokes aren't funny, or the police aren't allowed to laugh at jokes that complainants make.


I expect that I'll be dealing with some post-crime neurosis, like not wanting to walk the 'hood, as my internal risk heuristics recalibrate. I'll probably get over it and over revenge fantasies and other psychological fallout after a while, as it has in the past when crime has affected my life.

While I was getting over the initial shock of having just been relieved of my camera, the thought going through my head wasn't so much, "They stole R1000 worth of my stuff!", but rather, "There are photos on that memory card that I don't have at home!". Keep it in mind, folks, when you go out with your camera. Download photos to somewhere off-camera regularly. Back up your computer too, while you're at it, and store the backup media at a friend's home. And for goodness' sake, don't fall for the "store it in the cloud!" panacea-talk.

[1] "Boere" is a somewhat derogatory term for "police". It translates literally to "farmers", referring to the mostly Afrikaans-speaking "boerevolk" whom many saw as the protagonists of Apartheid. Back then, police officers were almost exclusively white, and stereotypically Afrikaans-speaking.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Giant Cape Gooseberry capes

Cape Gooseberries do well in my garden. They germinate readily, crop well, and yield almost 100% - pests try, but almost completely fail to get to the berries. Berries are good to eat even after falling to the ground and waiting there for a few days. That's when they're at their ripest, and sweetest!

Now that their fruit are ripening in the Southern Hemisphere spring, I'm checking each of my plants almost daily for sufficiently ripe fruit. One ice cream box is already full of caped berries; I'll have to process them into jam soon, or cart them off to my mother and get my share of the spoils: gooseberry cake! Here's how the ripening berries normally look while still on the mother plant:
The one resting on the base of my thumb will be ripe enough to eat in a few days to a week or so. Or to store in the fridge: another welcome trait of this plant - the berries keep well.

But this isn't all I found on this stand. (It's a few individual plants that are hard to tell apart.) Hiding in the foliage were these strangely giant capes:
They're about twice the normal size! The berries inside feel no bigger than normal though, so I'm not expecting a bounty of berries the size of a crab apple. Would be cool though! (And there's still time for these green fruit to develop. Maybe the berries will still fill out their calyx and surprise me.)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dark UX patterns from SARS

I have some idiosyncratic reasons for preferring the manual income tax return submission process over eFiling [1], and now I'm noticing some dark patterns. It isn't necessary for anyone to deliberately install such patterns in order for them to exist. Entropic forces are sufficient.

Already on the first page of my return I notice an error: apparently I'm married! If I didn't tell them I was married (I don't recall ever having done so), then who did? The SARS eFiling manual submission process sabotage robot? But not to worry, this is simple to fix: a cross in the correct box, in black ink.

The guide that arrived with the return warns, "If you have made a mistake in completing a field, do not correct it by completing the correct information outside the field, or making notes in the margin, as all this information will not be considered as valid and won't be taken into account in the calculation of the assessment, Refer to the section 1 above - Introduction, to obtain a new return" - and guess what? The clock keeps ticking! Back before SARS "simplified" the tax submission process, returns were not personalized (I didn't ask for you to do that SARS, I'm not bewildered by sections that don't apply to me) and they were all in the same format. This made the protocol for getting a new return simpler: one could get one at any SARS branch. Now, instead, we have at least one unnecessary turnaround (waiting for SARS to mail the personalized forms) to retard the process.

And hey, guess what? On page 2 already it's clear that SARS sent me an incorrectly personalized return! "You have stated that you do not have a local savings or cheue account at any bank in South Africa. If this statement is incorrect you may be liable for an administrative penalty of up to R16000." The whole page reads a bit like "Mark here with an 'X' if you have stopped beating your wife".

Page 3 brings another incomplete section. After all the raving about the wonders of personalized returns, there's no evidence of the IRP5 certificates my now former employer would have submitted. This is really a pain in the behind, as I can't read the IRP5 certificates that sit in my archives. I guess I'll have to reverse-engineer my gross  salary for the part of the 2012 tax year that I was en employee.

Or maybe just take a day out of my life and spend it at the local SARS office and have one of their agents do the eFiling for me. I'm sure I can find a book to keep me company.

[1] Until I checked now, I was under the impression that SARS eFiling was really operated by a private company, and not by SARS itself. I now doubt this, as the whois information indicates SARS as the domain registrant. Still, who operates the web server - SARS or Internet Solutions? whois suggests it may be the latter; the IP address for the server is in an address block allocated to IS.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mercury spill

I dropped a mercury thermometer a few hours ago. At first I felt glad as I thought it had survived, since I didn't hear glass breaking. But that was just an illusion: the glass surrounding the bulb is (no, was!) so thin that the breaking glass wasn't audible above the thump on the floor. It took me a few moments to realize that the bulb was no longer attached to the thermometer, and then it dawned on me that I would be spending the next hour or so cleaning up the many droplets that had dispersed over my floor.

Mercury droplets dispersed over poorly fitting tongue & groove wooden floor

After banning my dog to my bedroom, I set to work with a sheet of paper folded into a shovel (so the mercury wouldn't simply roll off the back end) and an artist's pain brush. It's surprisingly tricky to get small droplets of mercury to coalesce; I wonder if that is due to dirt getting picked up as they roll along. So it took me a while, maybe an hour or two. It really isn't comfortable kneeling on a hard floor for that long, crouched closely over the floor to see even the smaller droplets. (Small enough not to be visible in the photo above.)

After collecting the droplets, I swept the floor like I usually do (but far too rarely to be called a civilized person) when guests are coming to visit. Then a wiping with a damp cloth. I'm not sure the last two steps are very effective, but it didn't seem like an outright bad idea either. I forgot to apply the sand trick the poison info center lady told me a few years ago [1]. What would have been a bad idea is to have used the vacuum cleaner: that may have pulled the droplets from the floor, but subsequently they'd be atomized and/or heated by their proximity to the motor, thereby creating a fine mist of mercury droplets suspended in the air, and/or dangerous levels of mercury vapour.

Time for some numbers. Is the rest of the mercury, that part that I inevitably failed to remove, a realistic threat to my health? I think not. Here's why.

I'm pretty sure I got most of the mercury. Let's be conservative and estimate that 10% of the circa 1g spilled remains - 100mg. It's winter, so the indoors temperature is at most about 20°C. At that temperature, the vapour pressure of mercury is about 0.7Pa. If I make the house airtight, and wait long enough for the mercury vapour to saturate the air inside, I'll have at most 62mg/m3 in the air. That's clearly far too high to be safe. But I only have 100mg, and I have about 250m3 of air inside the house. A more appropriate number then is the concentration if all 100mg were to evaporate: 100mg/250m3 = 400µg/m3. That's still high if it were a chronic exposure, but my house isn't airtight. If it were, I'd suffocate.

I normally leave at least one door open the whole day. That way my dog can regularly report on what critters she successfully chased off our territory, and how far her tunnel to South America has progressed. So I'm probably getting somewhere around a complete air change every day, even on a windstill day, just from diffusion, convection, and eddies from my and my dog's movements. Mercury's evaporation rate at 20°C is 56µg/hr.cm2 (Another source has 7µg/hr.cm2. Let's use the higher rate.) To reach 10µg/m3 (above which the mercury vapour concentration is unsafe for occupational exposure [2]), 2500µg would have to evaporate every day. (And that would deplete the reservoir of mercury in 40 days, since I probably spilled no more than 100mg.) For that rate of evaporation to occur, there needs to be an exposed mercury surface area of 1.86cm2.

Now it gets difficult to estimate things. How finely is the remaining mercury dispersed? I probably cleared up everything with a diameter bigger than 0.5mm, smaller droplets rapidly becoming too small to see. Smaller is worse now, because a smaller droplet has a greater surface area proportional to its volume, than a larger one. But there's a limit to how finely the mercury could have dispersed, and I don't know what that limit is. Let's just guess, and assume that all the remaining mercury is in the form of droplets 0.1mm in diameter. Ouch, that leaves me with 4.6cm2. That's just enough to be worrying: it's about twice the "safe" exposed area of 1.86cm2, so after the daytime air change (during which I'll assume the equilibrium concentration is close to zero) when I close the doors for the night, the mercury vapour concentration will slowly ramp up to unsafe levels over the course of the night. Just as the concentration (at worst!) reaches unsafe levels, I'll be waking up anyway, only to open the door again, quickly clearing the house of any accumulated mercury vapour.

Overall, I conclude I'm not in any serious danger. I'm not the first to have broken a mercury thermometer, and I won't be the last. I've made what I think are conservative estimates, in one case even order-of-magnitude conservative. If that only just brings me to the threshold of danger [2], and then only for the short time that I'm pouring muesli into my breakfast bowl compared to a whole night of sub-unsafe levels, I'm not going to lose any sleep over this. I will make a few concessions to hydrargophobia: I'll leave a carpet over the spill site and likeliest area of lurking mercury, overnight (to slow the evaporation), and I'll be a bit more aggressive with air change rates.

[1] A few years ago when I was still living there, my mother dropped a mercury thermometer that had been in the fridge. Freaked out a little, I called the poison info center based at the Tygerberg hospital, and the kind lady reassured me that metallic mercury isn't all that bad, that it's only when in vapour form or as compounds with other substances that it gets horrifying. Her advice was to sweep it up like dust, adding some sand to make it easier to get the droplets of mercury onto the shovel.

[2] I'd have to have trouble holding down a job if 40 days is to be a typical duration. That said, I am not currently employed. Here, though, the population average matters, not my individual circumstances.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Owning a home is sometimes like owning a white elephant

If you're considering buying a house, don't let yourself get carried away by the romance of owning the roof above your head, of being regent in your own castle. Sure, that's all a nice position to be in, but it isn't free. You get to choose how to keep the forces of entropy at bay: pay someone to do it for you, or DIY. I choose DIY, as that's the only ideologically acceptable option for a stingy bastard like me.

This post may sound a bit whiny, and you may be tempted to roll your eyes and mutter, "First world problems!" This is true - I wouldn't seriously consider giving up living in a house even if the workload were doubled. In fact, I like the unkempt look and wouldn't be too troubled by conceding some battles to the forces of entropy. My reasons for doing yard work at all have more to do with enjoying the meandering workout that it gives me than with having a home magazine-worthy garden. Think of the whining here as hyperbole. I'm looking for things to complain about in this post.

A tangle of branches and stems cut from my Brazilian pepper tree. A season or two ago the Wisteria would have been the source of a tangled heap like this one.

I have at least three distinct compost heaps in my garden. This one is probably fastest, likely due to the fact that I feed it clippings from my shredder, and probably also due in part to my feeding it a dilute solution of urea at night. It's nice not to have to buy compost, but they do take up a fair amount of space.

I collect heaps of plant matter on my stoep until I have enough for a session with the shredder. The two far heaps will go on the compost heap pictured above, while the one next to my dog will require some alternative treatment. They're cuttings from my lavender bushes, and they smell quite strongly of camphor, which I suspects upsets the critters in the compost heap. (An earlier batch of lavender cuttings took forever to rot to an appreciable degree.)

The Brazilian pepper tree branches that are too thick to put through the shredder become firewood after a year or more. (It takes a while for the wood to become dry enough to burn without excessive smoke.) It's surprising how much firewood a few pruned branches can yield.

My driveway is covered with pebbles, but over the years (starting before I moved in, four years ago) the pebbles have become compacted into the soil below. It's likely that the principal cause of this is the lack of a plastic sheet below the pebbles. As a result, weeds (and other welcome, but unintended plants) grow in the middle where car tyres don't squish them.

The Brush Cherry on the left likes to scrape against my car, so I have to prune it back now and then.

The gate motor has been giving trouble since the start. Its favourite party trick is to open the gate, then to refuse to close it again for several minutes, and when it finally does, to give up halfway and claim that the battery is "faulty".

The wooden postbox swells in winter, so as to become difficult to open by pulling on the sliding bolt. The handle, of course, has broken off years ago when I had left the postbox door open to dry, and then absent-mindedly opened the gate, ramming the handle and bending the bolt holding it to the door. When I tried to bend the bolt straight, the handle broke right off.

My plum tree has suffered a sever split sometime in its lifetime. Judging by its stem it must be a rather old tree - certainly several decades old. One stem fell to the left in this picture, where it seems to have rooted and become essentially a second tree. The other leans quite precariously to the right, and it may be only a matter of time before it, too, falls.

I tend to get entangled in the plum tree's branches when I'm in the triangular area bordered by the low fence. So I don't go there often, and as a result weeds grow freely. This area is full of pebbles, so it isn't really suited for expanding my vegetable garden. To do so, I'd first want to sieve the pebbles out. But doing so requires being inside the plum tree triangle, and getting entangled... so I haven't (yet).

The wall in the background is new. The reason for its being new deserves a whole post of its own. The racist jerk builders (the neighbours picked them) who did the work left bits and pieces of rubble (pictured further below) in the area, which I collect as I find it.

A swimming pool is a pleasant luxury in the peak of summer, but I have strong doubts whether it's worthwhile having one. Maybe if one has kids (I don't).

A swimming pool eats chlorine. You get to choose in which form you feed it chlorine (okay, or maybe ozone), but unless you hulk out on a miniature wetland, you're going to have to keep it disinfected and clear of algae. I haven't optimized my pool, so it costs me about R400 per month in granular chlorine and electricity in the height of summer. (Far less - maybe half - in winter.)

Summer is also the season of almost daily topping up the unoptimized pool. On a hot windy day I can lose a centimeter or more.

The leaf skimmer has broken off the inlet port twice now, presumably when the aquabot bumped into it when the hose was long enough to let it reach. Pool parts are surprisingly expensive for what amounts to a small bit of PVC. I suspect there's just not enough competition in the local pool market to allow a significant consumer surplus.

Speaking of consumer surplus, the price of a new aquabot is more than I'm willing to pay. Mine broke: the lead ballast finally wore through the bottom part of the aquabot body, allowing the ballast to fall out, which left the aquabot as a whole buoyant. That caused it to float at the surface, doing its little chup-chup-chup dance with nothing but water and air to suck at.

Aside: does anyone know what aquabot body parts are made of? It seems too flexible to be PVC, but I don't know how to identify this plastic material reliably enough to know how to patch up the worn-through part.

With no aquabot in action, some leaves accumulate at the bottom. I sweep them around with the pool brush regularly, and eventually they find their way close enough to the weighed-down end of the pool hose that they get sucked into the weir basket. I'll have to fix the aquabot quite soon now, before summer, as this mitigatory practice will not suffice when the algae can photosynthesize with abandon.

One windy winter's night I heard a "swoosh" from outside. The following morning I discovered that that's the sound a bougainvillea makes when it falls over. I cut nearly all of it back, and I'm undecided whether I should keep it at all. The only reason I haven't yet removed it completely is that one stem still seems secure and healthy, and it's very pretty when it blossoms.

Unfortunately a bougainvillea has thorns, which makes it a nasty plant to work with. I simply left the cuttings where I dropped them, next to the deck, and simply burned them after a braai. That way I didn't have to fight the thorns to get the branches into the shredder - the opening to my fireplace is much, much larger (and hence more permissive) than the orifice leading to the shredder's blades.

Do you like ivy? Or Virginia creeper? I think they're pretty too, but my oh my are they aggressive plants. I decided rather to clear the back garden wall completely than to have to fight these plants season after season. They're tricky to get into the shredder though: the ivy because the bulk of the stems are so soft, and the creeper because it gets so entangled with itself.

When I moved in, the Virginia creeper had covered nearly the entire north wall of my house. It had attached itself to the eaves of the roof and from there had grown between the gutter and fascia boards, and even under the roof tiles into the roof space. Last year I decided to deracinate this creeper, so had to dig up the bed next to the wall and in places also had to lift paving blocks to get at the roots.

Now Nasturtiums have taken over where the creeper once was. If I'm ever in a fix for salad, I know where to go. The snails like it too, but Nasturtiums seem able to grow faster than snails can eat, so they're mostly whole.

Most wood doesn't do too well outdoors, and this arch is no exception. I'm guessing that it was untreated pine, simply painted. It has now rotted, and at some point the top of the arch broke, only to be held up by the then still present creeper stems. Now I counter the tension from the regular-looking washing line that hangs between the arch and the added-on bathroom, with a rope that doubles as replacement washing line. One of the formal lines, of course, broke, having been weakened by years of UV.

My advice? Live in an apartment if you don't crave a garden. It should be a craving, not just a vague desire for a manicured lawn and a few potted plants. Alternately, you could pave your garden, if that's your aesthetic. Or be wealthy, and hire gardeners.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Lament of a lifetime

As I watch one of the timelapse videos of the Venus transit, I find myself pondering my mortality, agonizing over lost opportunities, and other forms of crying over spilt milk. As much as I'm disappointed that I was unable to see the 2012 transit due to it having been night while Venus was transiting the Sun's disk, I can cope with that. I knew about it well in advance, and chose not to spend a whole whop of money getting to a place where I could have seen it. (Bearing in mind that my passport has expired, so I'm not sure where I might have gone.)

The spilt milk that really gets to me is the 2004 transit. That one was visible from South Africa. I definitely would have wanted to see it - I've had the astronomy-interest gene since I was little, perhaps as early as seeing (or imagining seeing, or reconstructing a memory of having seen) the first Space Shuttle mission flying over Cape Town in 1981.

But I only found out about the 2004 transit a few days after it happened.

And now, as I watch a video that can never compare to seeing it with my own eyes (with some extra optics), I realize:

I will never see it. I never have and I never will. The next one is in 2117, by which time I'll most likely be dead (or blind).

Let's hope medical technology improves enough to let me live (with sight!) to the ripe old age of 141.

(Or, I can just wait till 2016 and watch the Mercury transit and hope that that experience extinguishes the post-5-June-2012 angst.)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Political certainty or ethics?

SANRAL has failed to raise bonds at a bond auction. The Financial Mail attributes this to "uncertainty". Fair enough, to an investor, certainty is always better than uncertainty, all other things considered equal.

Isn't there a shortcut though? Act ethically - stop mining a captive audience for cash just because they have little option but to pay - and they won't cause political problems for your plans.

I have nothing against toll roads in principle, but I have a real problem with captive states handing over public assets to (quasi-)private interests along with de facto monopoly power. And despite my sometimes-libertarian leanings, I do not want to leave it to the market to decide how many roads should cross a countryside, for the same reason I don't think I would like the libertarian outcome of private nature conservation (I suspect there just wouldn't be enough of it).

But the way SANRAL seems to be exploiting its privileged position leaves a bad taste in the mouth. They are enclosing the commons that we have already paid for (and we continue to do so with the fuel levy we pay regardless of which road sections we use) simply by improving or even merely maintaining a stretch of road - perhaps adding a lane and probably also counting tolling facilities as "improvement". Then they have the gall to tell us that their tolls do not constitute double taxation [PDF]. It all looks, smells, and sounds like pigs feeding at the trough.

So to those of you who are fortunate to be investors, especially any of you who get to have a say in your investments' operations: try agitating for ethical behaviour, for treating customers with a little respect, leaving some money (read: value) on the table to make transactions worthwhile for those customers. (SA steel producers: yes, I'm also looking at you and your import parity pricing [PDF].) Perhaps these variables are ones you have a little more control over, unlike the notion of "political stability".

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The value of the last breath of air

A comment about price vs. cost vs. value triggered a lingering thought experiment:

Suppose the intergalactic bypass got built and Earth was destroyed to make room, and you were one of the few survivors of the demolition. Let's further suppose that you were one of two trillionaires (infinitaires even) bidding in an auction for a can containing the last breath of air, that only one of you can breathe. After that, you die; the only question here is whether to postpone your demise by half a minute. There are no heirs (they either are dead or soon will be too), no charitable causes (the poor are dead, so are charismatic megafauna), and no liabilities (the revenue service is no more, and the phone company is out of business).

What is that can of air (as likely to be "fresh" as it is to be a sample taken from a sewer) worth? You might want to say it has infinite value, but I'm not so sure. Life seems of infinite value only if you don't know how much of it you have. Somehow I can't see myself spending my entire personal worth for one last breath of air. OTOH, a cool trillion is pointless if you can't spend it.

So much for the last breath of air. What about the one you're taking this very moment? What is it worth?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Conversation with a spammer

I'm eating homemade pizza with one hand and entertaining myself with a spammer in Gtalk with the other:

 cuteyxtinaz3:  hey there
 Sent at 6:42 AM on Friday
 me:  hi
 cuteyxtinaz3:  well hello i've been sitting around sooo bored and figured i'd say helllo.... hope i didn't bother u
there is like no one online to talk to anymore... 22.f here how bout u??
 me:  no it's all turtles
 cuteyxtinaz3:  oh ok so whats up????
 me:  my dog says hi
 cuteyxtinaz3:  it's so lame on here now i can't stand it
 me:  what are you going to do?
 cuteyxtinaz3:  well l have an idea if u wanna have sum fun!!! i was gonna get on my cam and "relax" a lil u should cumm join
l joined this really great sitethat is just like fbook but w/o the annoying kids.. wanna see??
 me:  yeah sure no problem how much $$$ do you want
 cuteyxtinaz3:  lt only takes asec. to signup and it's 100% free 2!!! just click the ''Join FREE'' at the top of thepage
once u signup u'll be allgood and u can join my private chat and tell me what 2 do
 me:  why don't you take some of those skimmed credit cards and shove them
 cuteyxtinaz3:  yeah u do need a card of sum kind but they wiII not charge u a penny!!!!!!
 me:  you fail the turing test
 cuteyxtinaz3:  l can't wait this is going to be sooo much fun. wait till u see what i'm wearing right now lol i think u'll like it;)
 me:  yeah i bet it's a nice hypervisor
 cuteyxtinaz3:  are u in hun??? i'm going to go get some "toys" but ill brb and hopefully u'll be in when i get back hurry uppp
 me:  yeah sure just my card details to nigeria
they need it

It looks like this script just doesn't care at all what nonsense I write. Next time, I'll try typing gibberish.

UPDATE: They really don't care how you reply. Even ELIZA is smarter. This time it's in MSN:

(23:34:32) gabriella: hiiii i've been looking for u!
(23:34:50) of cousk qcuwy qsnakz di
(23:35:01) gabriella: Hey there, hope ya dont mind chatting with a spiteful horny girl, so how are u??
(23:35:21) nquq ydy ajaje fllw uw cyaabef
(23:35:31) gabriella: yeaa I know it's random, but my dbag EX cheated on ME so I'm on a MANhunt haha... I got ur username on a hotmail male directory, I'm gabby, you are? ;)
(23:35:56) d'q iivuw wv ojve uv uehv lsa
(23:36:09) gabriella: I see.. where do you live? I am bored in my apartment...and this usually gets me in trouble ;) esp since I'm single and sexually deprived :-(
(23:37:18) ia uch u veuhejs vjhdjvhdj Bakje ve kvjdv
(23:37:28) gabriella: R ya signed up to any online dating sites?? You seem cool. i just took sum naughty pics and put them on my comehookup page.. want to see? haha
(23:37:50) u ckeciej jcveruz ak sfakjk e!
(23:38:00) gabriella: k, here, lemme know what you think .. you might have to make a profile if u dont have one already. It takes seriously 1 minute and its completely free.

And almost simultaneously, another:

(23:39:19) Watcha doin??
(23:40:09) i't kjuq ksuucw kjvial kjakkei
(23:40:20) have we chatted before?? im 23/f u ?
(23:40:50) kiuw laus gujanbu we!
(23:41:00) i'm sorry ... i get to be forgetful at times!! how're you?
(23:41:12) sduwa!
(23:41:22) Just finished taking a bath..long day been kind of busy but i'm feeling a little naughty now! so what's up?? ... want to have some fun? ;)
(23:42:08) ei do markvo kajviw generatskbuye
(23:42:19) long day i was in the shower forever just playin around and it always gets me horny lolz .. gonna change my clothes want to see ? ;) lol
(23:42:33) laiud wiha
(23:42:44) I'm kinda horny lolz :x wanna play on cam ??
(23:43:20) nastidana wekali - ukrino navawu
(23:43:31) nice place..never been ..maybe one day ;P