Thursday, 25 August 2011

Consilience #24: Featuring Me!!!

I'm audible! The Consilientists asked me to be a guest host on their podcast, and I think it went pretty damn well for my first time trying anything like this. I struggle to even get skype working, but they have some really nice new equipment, which made it hard for me to screw up too badly. Even so, somehow (I reject the "I pulled the cable out" hypothesis, on the basis of shut up!), the last few minutes of my voice went missing. This included that week's skeptical scifi quote, which I'd volunteered from Doctor Who (putting down vitalism: "What's life? Life's easy. A quirk of matter. Nature's way of keeping meat fresh."), and my plug of this blog, so nothing big. Oh well.

I'm really pleased with the rest of it, though, and Angela, Mike and Owen were a lot of fun to record with. I was a little uncertain near the start, and it didn't help that we'd only just found that Lake Nyos story, so I didn't know as much about it as I'd have liked, but once we started on the stories I was more familiar with, I think my voice clearly gets more confident and the facts I made up on the spot seem more believable.

You can find the file and the show notes here:

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

My Foundation

I'm uncertain where my interest in science fiction started. It probably grew slowly and in bits. For example, I know the first few Lego sets I got were spacecraft, which I soon adapted into mecha when I saw some early anime with space cowboys, and I was a big fan of cardboard box ships (with special attention paid to drawing on the most complex - yet surprisingly standardized - control panels I could). Something quite early in my childhood must have set me down that path, but bugger me if I can remember what. I know I really liked TNG when it first came on TV here, but I know I liked TMNT more. Thundercats, Galaxy Rangers, Bravestar... The seed of scifi was clearly in a lot of the stuff I watched, and yet you'd struggle to find any solid science in any of those. Hell, the Wild West theme, still lingering from previous generations, was more blatant in most of those.

I do know when I made the transition to completely serious, grown-up scifi. Aged 13, we made our usual weekly visit to the Boskruin public library. I'd pretty much used up anything even vaguely mature in the kids' section (I had annihilated their whole collection of Asterix and Tintin books in under 3 weeks a couple years earlier), and so started tentatively exploring the grown-up books. Eventually I'd settle around the non-fiction shelves, with books about planes and shit, but I was still a fiction reader back then. I don't know where I got the name Isaac Asimov. Perhaps I grabbed a book at random, perhaps I'd heard a friend mention him, perhaps my mom (not a scifi fan at all) or a librarian had suggested it. But I remember being vaguely intrigued by the blurb on the back, and then seriously intrigued by the time I was a few pages in. And it was all thanks to Air Power.

(See, now it's all convoluted and I lost my build up of narrative, as I digress to explain some unexpected side wossname. Perhaps if I pretend it's intentional, readers will do the hard work for me and keep the bit about Asimov in the back of their minds, while I explain the Air Power connection.)

Air Power was my introduction to politics. As a flight sim fan, I was originally excited by its carrier airships (which are still fucking awesome!), but the game's campaign of conquest soon had me even more immersed. You could opt for a straight military conquest of the whole fictional country of Karanthia, but there were other, subtler methods too. You could use diplomacy to convince individual towns to join your side, and different towns wanted different things from you. If you picked on one religious town, other religious towns would be hostile towards you. Taking out a bandit headquarters would earn you lots of new friends, but would also alienate those secretly in league with them. Secretly in league!

I had just lived through the end of the Cold War, and when I lived in newly-reunited Germany from 1991 to 1993, my first teacher had just been reunited with her family in the East. And then I'd lived through the end of Apartheid; by a funny coincidence, I accompanied my parents when they went to vote in the '94 election at the very same Boskruin library, and spent hours and hours outside making myself sick on the roundabout, while a queue of hundreds or thousands marched slowly past me. But I didn't see the excitement in any of this until Air Power gave me my first taste of what it was like to shape these events myself. Before that, social change was just a thing grown-ups did in the background, but in the game it was suddenly something I could accomplish, and without having to resort to violence every step of the way. After that, I had very little understanding of real politics, but I was keen to learn more.

(Now let's hope they remember the Asimov connection...)

I believe this was the cover art of the version I read, but
frankly, all scifi cover art looks the same, so who knows.
I doubt I would have enjoyed Asimov's Foundation without that seed of an interest in politics that Air Power gave me. If you haven't read it, you're bad, go away until you have, but the Foundation series is built around psychohistory, the idea that social flux can not only be measured, but predicted and even manipulated, in the same way that physical changes can be predicted by physics, chemistry, etc., and manipulated by engineers. I had no clear opinions on these matters at the time, but it was definitely more than enough to get me thinking in an interesting new direction.

The following year, my friend Davie's older brother, John, started varsity and I heard reports of him studying politics (along with philosophy, I believe, which was a mysterious, serious affair in my young mind). That was the first I'd heard of that being a real thing-you-could-study. And it sounded really cool; not something I'd consider studying myself (mostly because I didn't consider studying anything til right near the end of high school), but still a cool wossname.

And then it fell out of my mind for a long while. I stopped thinking about the rest of the world and turned inwards, worrying about girls and failing maths and having religion and abandoning religion and whatever else it was that concerned Teenage Sham.

When I dropped out of aeronautical engineering (which I'd rushed into without much thought), I took advantage of the university's career counselling service, and while that was fucking useless (thanks, Myers-Briggs!), I did happen to spot a flyer for the politics department among all the business management crap the counsellor was pushing on me, and it re-sparked some interesting thoughts in me. And so, a few months later, I was enrolled in a BA Politics at the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg, or Udge). And it was all wrong. I had a timetable crammed with social sciences (politics, development studies, sociology and anthropology), and 3 out of 4 were telling me, "You can't change things. You can't even predict them. So just observe and comment after the fact. (And in the case of the very post-modern Anthro courses, you shouldn't even want to change things, you evil colonialist!)"

Only development studies suggested something very different: Not only could we change society, but we have a responsibility to. In hindsight, it was just about inevitable that I'd go on to do my honours in dev studies, the subject I knew almost nothing about when I signed up for it, because I left that registration to the last minute, just like the engineering before it, and hated for the first year. And now I'm sort of, kind of, vaguely doing my master's in it too. But this is the first time I've sat down and worked out just what led me here. Hopefully that'll help me get this damn thing moving again.

And there you have it: I'm trying to replicate Asimov's psychohistory, so I can win at Air Power, and as a side effect of this, I may make some genuine progress in some real social development. Won't that be nice?

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Road Botherer

So, I finally went and did the big road trip to Pietermaritzburg that I mentioned in the earliest posts of this blag. I had fun at my destination, but I thought I'd just throw out some thoughts about the drive itself, while they're still relatively fresh in my mind. That was the longest single drive I've yet undertaken (near as damn to exactly 1,000km in total, when I seldom do more than 50km is one sitting) and it was quite different to my usual driving experiences. If you do much long-distance driving yourself, then most of this may seem a little tame to you; if you haven't done this, try to learn from my mistakes, lest ye be kill'd on thy own first attempt, should ye happen to encounter similar conditions.

The first thing I noticed was how incredibly fucking long the trip was; this was an illusion, because I'd only covered my first 100km when I had that thought, and really had no sense at all of how much I still had left to go. The next 200-300km are all a bit of a blur, filled mostly with memories of making up silly songs and singing them in silly voices ("O! I once was a very young lad... At a point in time chronologically prior to now," etc.), before running seriously out of steam and carrying on driving much longer than I should have. I kept thinking, "Right, time for a break," only to miss all the convenient stopping points along the way. They don't give you too much warning.

It also doesn't help that you find yourself stuck in a very limited mental pattern after a while, where the whole universe is one of 4 steps:
1. Constant velocity in the left lane.
2. Acceleration to pass a truck that's starting to slow down at the bottom of a rise. If truck is already near the top, probably don't bother. (I was still passing trucks in my sleep that night, so repetitive was the action.)
3. Check distance travelled so far, do a bunch of mental arithmetic around that number and distances predicted on signs.
4. Swear at some asshole in an expensive car who thinks common courtesy and/or the law doesn't apply to those who've wasted more than a certain amount on buying a fancy car.

Noticing other things outside of those 4 takes a real effort after a while. The few things that routinely got through my skull after that pattern settled in were mostly sudden shock wossnames, like roadkill. I saw a dismembered goat leg pass under my car at one point, I think near Bergville. I also took in general changes in landscape and flora, but not closely enough to predict good places for rest stops.

Van Reenen's Pass was interesting, being probably the only interesting-driving section of the whole route (apart from the N12 in Joburg, which I know well and enjoy). On the way down there, the pass was lovely and bright and sunny, and more experienced drivers got annoyed with me for not rushing through at illegal speeds. Which was a damn shame, as I'd much rather have taken my time and enjoyed some lovely views.

And then on the return trip, Van Reenen's Pass was solidly misted up; I couldn't see more than 20m ahead of me a lot of the time, and so people were mostly less keen to drive up my arse, except for one: A police car came screaming up behind me, with no indication that it was an emergency (no ligths nor sirens), while I was already a bit over the speed limit, and sat right on my tail for about a minute, before veering sharply into the left lane (marked as a truck lane), clearly intending to overtake me. Just as he did so, a truck came into sight in that left lane ahead of us, no more than 20m ahead and moving far slower than us. Stupid cop couldn't possibly have seen it when he pulled away, but even when he must have seen it, he showed no sign of wanting to slow down. If I hadn't hit the breaks and made a space for him to pull in front of me, he would have had a choice between ploughing into me, ploughing through the trees and ramming right into the back of the truck. It later turned out that there was a police station about 500m further up the road, and that's apparently what he was in such a crazy, non-official rush to get to.

The last time I did that route was probably November 2001, my matric holiday, when I went down by bus with some friends. But I don't remember that at all (In the Army Now was the en route movie) because a nasty virus made me sleep and vomit through the whole holiday, and I have only about 23 minutes of memory from the whole week or so we spent down there (Summary: playing AD&D, going to the cinema to watch the first Harry Potter movie without actually being aware of the movie, buying cheap Black Sabbath CD, playing Tekken 2 at the local arcade, burying friend at the beach and giving him sand boobs. Not bad memories, just very few of them).

Before that, there were several family holidays down to the coast, and it's funny how many landmarks along the route have stuck in my brain since 1980-something. There's the knobbly hill (looks like erosion has turned it into a cone with a pillar sticking out the top, with a dome on top of the pillar), the little flat-topped hill I always thought was Table Mountain (Durban and Cape Town were the same place to me until I was about 5 or 6, but this hill is also waaaaay inland, I think just across the Gauteng-Mpumalanga border), the approach to Harrismith from the North, and the pines around Pietermaritzburg. The only bit missing from this particular trip was the bit where you get to shout, "I see the sea!" as you mistake some hazy, distant hill between nearer hills for water, and then the actual first sighting of the Indian Ocean. But I was ok with skipping out that step on this particular voyage.

I'm glad I did this trip for many reasons, but I'm specifically glad I drove myself down there, as it was a great experience. I've learned a lot about how this long-distance stuff is done (take more breaks, and then even more than that) and it's always nice to push your personal limits and get out of old comfort zones. But where shall I go next?

Monday, 8 August 2011

Sham Science

This post serves as a sort of introduction to a longer piece I have planned for later on. I feel that I should make my credentials as a science educator clear, because they're a teensy bit complicated. Let me start by saying that I have no formal education qualifications at all; my degrees are in the social sciences. I do have some experience as a real, full-time high school teacher, which I recorded at the time in my first attempt at a blog, and while that was a horrible experience in many ways, I learned so much from it. I've joked in the past that it was my own, real Kobayashi Maru; looking back at that Sham Science blog, I get flooded with emotion, like some sort of war survivor. I feel a bit panicky, just thinking about it.

(To be fair, it wasn't all bad: I really enjoyed working with some of the more engaging students, and there's little more fun than having a whole chem lab to play with, completely unsupervised [my first ever batch of thermite melted a hole in my office floor], and how many people can say they've repaired a van de Graaff generator?)

A lot of real, decent teachers have sympathised with me, although I don't think most really understand just how bad Landulwazi Comprehensive School is. It's the worst school I've ever been to, and even the nearest neighbouring schools (it's a densely packed area, so there are several within a very small area) were all far better in most respects. There were problematic teachers who shouldn't have been working there, but from what I could see, the real problem was mismanagement by the school's authorities, by the education department's district office, and by the government more broadly, none of whom ever asked the buck to stop anywhere near them. I felt bad for the colleagues I left behind there, especially my friend Eric, who got in there the same way I did, but who didn't have an "easy" escape like I did, and so stuck out the whole 2 years of his contract. But I feel even worse for the kids who went there. I'm still in touch with several of them, and they're really very bright, friendly, good people, who just happen to have been robbed of a decent education. I hope they'll at least make the most of their tertiary education opportunities.

That said, I wouldn't want to suggest that teachers at other schools don't have a hard time. Anyone who tells you that teaching is an easy job, or that it's essentially just a part-time job, really doesn't know what they're talking about, and I might even be tempted to break my pacifism to slap them really hard. Compared with a typical white-collar job, teaching is nightmarishly difficult and never ending. I can't look at anything these days without reflexively trying to build a lesson plan around it, and it used to be worse; I used to mentally rehearse whole lessons for hours in my head, going over every possible question that could be raised, no matter how unlikely, and how I'd respond to it. It's not the sort of work you can easily switch off and forget after business hours end. And compared with any normal office job, teachers make peanuts. Even private school teachers, the cream of the crop (usually), don't have it much better than a typical mid-level desk jockey. So I have nothing but respect for those who take their teaching work seriously, and nothing but sympathy for striking teachers, who know full well that they're going to have an even harder job when they go back to work, catching up on lost hours, and yet who feel forced to push for higher pay anyway. But I'll cover my general pro-labour position another day.

After I quit teaching, education was still the biggest blob of experience on my CV, and so I've found it hard to escape. I've been working for the last year as an after-school tutor, mostly for rich kids (unsurprisingly), and it's so much more fun for me. Obviously teaching small groups of 1d3 kids is going to be easier and more sociable than a whole class of 50-4d10 (attendance is a big problem). The language barrier is also hardly ever an issue anymore and I almost never have to wake up before noon (I'm not a morning person). The biggest problem I have now is that there's no way I can make an independent living off tutoring alone. The pay per hour is good, by teachers' standards, but there just aren't enough hours in the day, since we're filling the after-school gap, and many kids chop and change their hours on whims, so I get work cancelled at random all the time.

But that's how things am. I would hardly call myself an expert teacher, nor an expert on education systems, but I can at least claim that I'm familiar with the reality of teaching in this country, and I know what the biggest obstacles are. I may not be a real teacher, but it's still a job I take very seriously.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Obituary for a Stranger

The guy I wrote about previously has apparently died. I bring it up because it seems he was a decent enough guy, from the very little I've gleaned about him, and I want to make it clear that my thoughts on how other people should have reacted to his calamity is separate from my ability to appreciate the importance of his life, even as a stranger.

What do I know about this John? I know the woman he dated, which doesn't reflect (in my head, at least) that well on him. But then I only knew her a long time ago, when she was young and foolish, so I'm prepared to give them both the benefit of the doubt and say that she's probably matured and he was not so silly to get involved with her. I also know he ran a very interesting-looking organisation, dedicated to the narrow but important issue of keeping cops from driving like cowboys. That's good, but what really impresses me is the emphasis they seem to put on empirical evidence - clearly someone at least partially after my own heart. And that's the complete sum of what I know about John.

I say any death is a loss; I'm generally against people dying, and this case is no exception. Donne's little poem sums this thought up nicely, but I realise none of this carries the same strong emotions I'd have if it were someone close to me. That, I think, is normal and unsurprising. I don't think false emotion would be appropriate, just as much as complete indifference would be wrong.

What I certainly won't do is recant my earlier claim; my friend should not have publicly invoked every random crazy superstition in John's name, especially now that I know he was quite keen on the empirical approach himself. It seems almost disrespectful (and this specific claim is just my own interpretation, possibly missing many key facts) to besmirch his legacy of rationality with a big, blotty stain of other people's stupid at the end; fear and blind panic - however understandable - are not the way to save innocent lives from wreckless police driving, and they're not the way to save someone in hospital either. But even if he would have done the same foolish thing for someone else, I still stand by my claim that it was the wrong thing to do. We should be better than that.