Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The New TED Stage

For me, one of the attractions of the TED 2014 conference was its location in Vancouver, on a stage specially constructed to optimize presentation of talks.   The designer David Rockwell gave an overview of the new stage on the Charlie Rose show here starting at 13:15.

One of (many) ways that Long Beach was less enjoyable than Monterey as the locale for TED was that the seats were uncomfortable.  You may think this is a frivolous criticism, but just try sitting from 8:30-6:30 for days on end.  I wasn't the only one who complained about the seating.

TED has always tried to encourage people to sit outside the main hall, watching the speakers on HD video while lounging on soft seating and a variety of other seating.  I for one never took advantage of that seating - there's an electricity in sitting in the main hall where speakers are live.  And it was a particular thrill when I sat in the onstage seating for one session.  It seems that the new design aims to combine a variety of seating right within the main hall.  I look forward to trying it out.  :-)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Taliban Cricket Club

The improbable plot of The Taliban Cricket Club is based on the Afghan government's decision to seek entrance into the international cricket community to demonstrate their liberalism.  They invite an international observer to a tournament to be held in a couple of weeks and advertise for people to form teams to compete.  The prize is an all-expenses-paid trip to Pakistan for professional coaching.

Rukhsana, a courageous journalist who played university cricket ends up coaching a team.  They are desperate to win because they want out of the country and they see that trip to Pakistan as their ticket.

What makes the book enjoyable despite the thin plot is the portrayal of life inside Afghanistan in the year 2000 under Taliban rule.  The book's epigraph quotes from the laws of cricket:
"There is no place for any act of violence on the field of play."
Preamble No. 6 in the Laws of Cricket
So we have the juxtaposition of a savagely repressive society rife with brutality and violence in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the ideal of a violence-free game.  It's a society where families build secret rooms to view banned movies, where women cannot walk with streets without their male mahram escort, where they cannot speak to men and where they must be covered head to foot with a burka.

Rukhsana rebels against these strictures, even to the point of risking her life.  The arrival of cricket in Afghanistan reignites her love of the game that "promotes individual excellence and depends on the actions and the confidence of each player":
"Cricket is theater, it's dance, it's an opera.  It's dramatic.  It's about individual conflict that takes place on a huge stage. But the two warriors also represent the ten other players; it's a relationship between the one and the many.  The individual and the social, the leader and the follower, the individual and the universal."
Cricket epitomizes the individual struggle against the regime.  The regime is trying to control not only behaviour, but everyone's very thoughts.  Rukhsana recalls the sense of freedom out on the cricket field, a "huge space with only the sky watching us", a place where your thoughts can roam free.  A curious choice for the Taliban's only approved sport.

Timeri Murari, the author, is a male Indian and his depiction of the life of a woman under the Taliban is based on extensive research, yet it rings very true.  His depiction of cricket is based on personal experience and he clearly loves the game.

Shoe Stores and Irrationality

When I see something that doesn't make sense, there's a compulsion in me to point it out and discuss what could be done to rectify it.  You can imagine the chagrin of my husband, children, friends, or anyone with me feels when I launch one of these 'teaching moments'.

Again and again, I've had a conversation with someone in a shoe store that goes something like this.

"Do you have this shoe in my size?"

"Nope, we're all sold out.  We only have that in sizes smaller than 6 or larger than 9.  Yours is the most common size and it always goes first. "

"You know the distribution of purchases from years of experience. So why don't you order lots more in the common sizes?"

"Oh, we do, but we never order enough.  There's only room for so many pairs in our inventory and we have to order one of each shoe in each size at a minimum."

"Why?  You know you have to sell off those other sizes at deep discount at the end of the season.  In the meantime, you've lost sales of the popular sizes because of unavailability.  Why don't you just keep bumping up the number of pairs in the common sizes and have some gaps in your availability of the less popular sizes. "

"Well, we have to be able to serve customers with availability of shoes in their sizes, so we couldn't not order a full supply of those big and small sizes."



Argh.  I've never actually shouted the way the all-caps suggests, but I've certainly felt like it.  I will continue my one-woman campaign to bring logic to shoe store inventory planning.

What's your favourite example of irrational behaviour out there?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Cape Town - Walk to Freedom

"Here's the cell where Mandela was imprisoned for  18 years", said our guide on Robben Island.
Then he quickly pushed us along after less than a minute to view the cell.  I had really wanted to stand there and contemplate the small cell but it was not to be.  (And very frustrating given that we were hustled away only to spend almost an hour waiting for the ferry back to the mainland.)  When we were there, it was not expected that Mandela would recover and there were several banners in Cape Town wishing him well.  It was a particularly poignant time to be visiting Robben Island.

Our guide had been incarcerated on Robben Island for almost a decade, but he was rather disappointing as a tour guide, not managing to bring a personal perspective on what it was like there, or the dimensions of the struggle that brought him there.  I guess it's the luck of the draw which guide you get, because my daughter had visited years ago and found it one of the most moving experiences of her life.

The trip to Robben Island was part of the Cape Town Walk to Freedom tour, focusing on the history of non-whites in SA.  Our tour guide was himself a very interesting guy, describing himself as 'coloured' which he considers not to be denigrating but simple statement of fact.  His German grandfather had fathered children with a black woman who worked in the house.  He eventually left his wife and married her - a highly scandalous action in those days.  His family varied in skin colour, and some were able to register as whites, which entailed them breaking all contact with their darker skinned relatives.  A family split, with our guide growing up in a coloured township and paler relatives growing up in Cape Town with the whites.  His personal history brought home the impact of apartheid in a very meaningful way.

District Six in Cape Town was a melting pot of all different races, including former slaves, and many Malay immigrants brought to South Africa by the Dutch East Indies Company.  The District Six museum brought to life a vision of that quarter before it was razed by the apartheid government in the 70s to make room for more development for whites only.  About 60,000 people moved to outer townships for blacks and coloureds.  However, a public outcry prevented the area from being developed and it was mostly covered in grasses.  There were a few homes there and some development being planned and offered to people who can provide proof they were evicted.

Visiting Langa Township was an eye-opening experience.  Many of the people evicted from District Six ended up in Langa Township.

 Our guide talked about seeing a different Big Five here (the traditional Big Five being lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo), namely in the range of housing.  The range of housing was much broader than I had expected and consisted of
  • Older townhouses.  These looked in 'pretty good nick' as they say in South Africa.  It was only once we went inside that we understood that the number of people squeezed in made them pretty awful.  We visited an apartment where 15 families lived, sharing a communal kitchen with primitive facilities, and the small room where 8 people lived, shown below.
  • Modern new townhouses, which stood empty.  Intended for people to upgrade to, they were simply too expensive for township residents.  You can see some of these in the corner of the next picture.  These little girls walked up to our granddaughter and walked along with her for a while, speaking very good English, before skipping away to play somewhere else.

  • Containers being used as houses.  Ironically, I've read of discarded containers being recycled as pop-up stores in urban areas after being fitted out with electricity and water.  I bet these containers were not so well equipped.  And I'm guessing they'd be murderously hot in the summer.

  • Shacks put together with odd materials, and open cooking fires.  To be honest, I had envisioned the whole township would be like this.  Here was the beginning of putting something together with 'found' materials.

  • So-called Beverly Hills:  a street of modest but attractive bungalows in warm red brick that would not be out of place in any suburb.  Apparently the people living here could afford to live elsewhere but chose to live where they had close cultural and family ties.

It was hard to tell from our curtailed tour what proportion of the people lived in each of these categories, although clearly Beverly Hills was the minority.  

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Cape Peninsula Tour

The winds almost blew me down on the Cape of Good Hope.  I had to really brace myself to stand erect.  I couldn't help thinking what it must have been like for those early sailors on wooden sailing ships trying to round this rough cape.  They didn't have a nice warm van they could retreat to in order to escape the wind.  And they weren't sure what was around the corner either!

There were incredible vistas around every corner on this tour, with water of every hue.

As well as visiting the Cape of Good Hope, we drove down to the most southwesterly tip of Africa, and Jamie stood triumphant at the top of the point:

Some interesting animals also featured on this tour.  We saw a new species of antelope - the bontebok.

And we had a very close-up view of wild ostriches:

The highlight was a view of penguins.  There was a well-marked path to a cove where there were about 2,000 penguins scattered across the beach and mostly among the low-lying shrubs along the shore.  A great little sign pointed the way and soon we were walking through a veritable sand storm down to the shore.

Penguins are fascinating to watch.  Mother penguins were sitting on their chicks keeping them warm, but the chicks were almost as big as the mothers!  They waddle clumsily (is that why a group of penguins is called a waddle?), tip over as they walk, get knocked over by waves rolling into shore, and all in all provide a delightfully comic spectacle.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Cape Town

Our amazing trip to Africa was capped with three days in beautiful Cape Town.  

The Red Line CIty Bus Tour gave us a good sense of the overall city on the first day.  Brisk wind on the top of that double decker, but well worth it for the fantastic views of lovely beaches and thundering waves like in the picture above.  We spent time at the Victoria and Alfred Wharf visiting little craft stores/stalls and having lunch in the sun.  Most pleasant. People are invariably friendly and jovial in the markets; this is the lady I bought some placemats from:

 Cable car to top of Table Mountain closed due to wind, but we had good view from high on the mountain just below the cable car.  In fact, the cable car has been closed for three days, opening for the first time this morning, when we are leaving and too pressed for time to fit in a visit.

Here's a picture of Table Mountain from corner of the street where our guest house Welgelgen was located:

Wind has been a theme during our time here.  The south-easterlies are mainly seen in summer, but we've had a hefty dose of them while here.  Winds that rattle the single-pane windows of the room and make you feel the windows might simply break apart.  Winds that create great swells on the bay.  Winds that make it worthwhile to shoot a video of clouds moving past Table Mountain!  Of course, while we were bundled up in fleecies and windproof jackets, the South Africans were wandering around in shorts and T-shirts.  They are much more adaptable to a range of weather than we are!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Close Encounters

Our Behind the Scenes tour with Marlice included lots of visits to animals.

First we saw the resident tame jackal walk across the yard

We watched the big baboons for a while, as they were being fed.  One staff member was watching over two females, to protect them from bullying during feeding time.  Then, Jamie entered the enclosure with the baby baboons.  Cute, tame but naughty.  Sheila pulled off Jamie's glasses and peed on her pants!

Meerkats and Mongooses were next


Of course Wayne and Jamie had to jump into the enclosure with the porcupine!

What a cutie.  It wound around people's legs like a cat.

Then, on to the

Wart hogs

Marlice warned Jamie that getting in with the wart hogs would be a dirty business, but she was undeterred. Three wart hogs full of mud clambered over Jamie and nibbled at her clothes.  It wasn't dirty; it was filthy!   It took three washes to get those clothes clean!!!  But it was certainly worth it to see Jamie's continuous giggling.


I earlier described the three cheetahs we visited as 'hand-raised'.  We visited them again with Marlice and learned that she got them when they were 3 days old and fit in her hand.  I asked if they were raised right in her house, as we'd been told.  She said "actually, right in my bed!", with her boisterous, infectious laugh.  Jamie just loved revisiting these cheetahs we had met before: Kiki, Aisha, and Iku.  Aisha came and lay down right beside her, to get tickled under her chin and stayed there for perhaps 10 minutes.  Marlice said that Aisha was usually very standoffish with people, so it was unusual to see her gravitating to Jamie like that.

Thus endeth our close encounters with animals so I leave with a last selection of photos.

Jamie with Aisha and Iku:

Jamie with Aisha, the allegedly aloof one:

Monday, July 1, 2013

Conservation through Innovation

Marlice van Vuuren, the dynamo behind N/a'ankuse was our guide today for "Behind the Scenes with Marlice".  Daughter of parents who moved from standard farming to wildlife conservation, she and her husband bought a huge tract of land outside Windhoek in Namibia, to run as a wildlife sanctuary.  As a well-known conservationist in Namibia, Marlice is often sought out when animals are wounded or abandoned.  

She and the rest of the team interact a lot with the farmers, who complain that these wild carnivores are a menace to their livestock.  We often hear of the dilemma of poor black farmers in Africa torn between conservation of these wild animals and the need to feed their families on their farms. However, Marlice points out that the problem is not with the poor black farmers, but with the rich white famers, of German extraction since this is Namibia.  The black farmers don't have problems, because they round up their herds at night and protect them inside thornbush-circled kraals that the predators can't penetrate. Moreover they don't dehorn cows at an early age and thus the mother cows can protect their calves.

Marlice and her team work hard to persuade the white farmers to adopt these practices.  But slaughterhouses deduct 15 cents a pound for cattle with horns (they can gore other cattle in tight quarters) and, with their fast jeeps and their guns, rich white farmers consider it easier to just chase and shoot the predators.  However, they've had many successes and have honed their approaches to win acceptance.

N/a'ankuse also has experimented with various tracking devices for animals in the wild, and particularly for those they have released.  Cheaper VHF transmitters require you to be within 8 Kim's, but the much better GPS trackers cost about 4,000 USD apiece.   Like so many other areas of technology, batteries are the problem; it's their weight that makes the trackers cumbersome for the animals.  

As another innovative approach to tracking, they have developed a software program into which you can feed a photograph of a footprint and have it identified.  They have also experimented with different ways of releasing animals they've saved back into the wild.  They have 100% success with q
'Hot release' of leopards.  Drive to the translocation place, push them out of the truck and out they go and survive.  Marlice says they are like cats, self-reliant, liking humans but not needing them.  Cheetahs need a different approach of slow release. They take them to the target release area and acclimatize them for up to 3 months in a wide range, getting the, ready to go.  They are really sweet, but very dumb, says Marlice, and much more like dogs in their dependence on humans.

It's experimentation like this that leads to their slogan of Conservation through Innovation.

N/a'an ku se is also distinguished by its treatment of workers.  In most camps we visited, workers stay for months at a time, followed by brief visits home to their families.  N/a'an ku se has a much more humane approach of families living there.  They have started a pre-school and kindergarten called Clever Cubs to prepare the Bushmen kids for school.  Their culture has made it difficult for them to flourish in white schools.  Not only do they get thrown into a foreign language, but things we consider important like counting have no equivalent in Bushman - there are no number words past 5.  

We enjoyed visiting the school and meeting kids of the staff we had got to know.  their teacher had them sing a song for us.

N/a'an ku se also supports a bus to take kids to school in Windhoek.  Marlice has a great appreciation and understanding of Bushman culture, and is one of a handful of white people fluent in the language.  I had read about the clicking sound that is part of the language and it was fascinating to hear her speak it.

The cute little school and playground were built by the Jolie-Pitt Foundation after their visit a few years ago.  Jolie and Marlice had met when Marlice was an animal consultant on a movie and she had to breed flies, and then place them carefully on Jolie's face.  Marlice herself is easily beautiful enough to be a movie star herself, and full of exuberance and expressiveness that makes her a completely energizing to be around. 

As we arrived a new batch of volunteers (up to 60 at any given time) had just arrived and were being given their intros to the place.  Some were heading out to check the kms of fencing to ensure the wire was still electrified and bearing shovels to fill in any holes beneath the fence.  Three joined us for a treat when we walked a caracal for about two hours.  I really like caracals.  Unbelievable that you could just walk along with these animals and then all return in the jeep.

Any animals who are in smaller enclosures are taken out daily for long walks, including 3 hour walks for the 52 baboons.

Marlice is on speaking terms with all the animals, calling out with high pitch and high spirits.  She grabs the baby baboons and swings them around in the air, just the way she had swung her own son earlier at the pre-school.  It's such a cliche, but she really is a force of nature.  And multi-faceted.  When I asked who was behind the design of the Lodge and guest villas, she said she was.  They are quite lovely.   Here's the dining room

And here are pics of a guest villa

Very unusual, natural and modern.

And, oh, the interactions with the animals.  I think that merits another post. . .  Coming soon.

Morning Visitors

"Come quickly, Jamie", shouted Wayne.  She arrived to see two visitors in our small backyard and terrace: a donkey and a zebra.  She immediately went outside to see them, and they came up to her and nuzzled her, especially the donkey whom she quickly named Oscar.  Animals just seem to gravitate naturally to Jamie and she to them.  She is equally happy petting them, or tickling them under the chin, or firmly commanding them to back off if they get too aggressive in nuzzlilng her clothes.  Amazing to watch.  Zebras are one of my favourite animals, so I was entranced, but Jamie preferred Oscar because he was friendlier.  I quickly named the Zebra Felix, but Jamie thought he should be Mayer!

These animals stayed on the terrace for about an hour, as we oohed and aahed.

We later heard the back story from Marlice.  Both the donkey and the zebra had been brought to N/a'ankuse after being orphaned. After being looked after they were released into the wild, but remain totally tame with humans, and best friends with each other.  Another benefit of being out in this house about 7 minutes from the lodge, as they never visit the main lodge or villa area.  The duiker who visited us the previous day had a similar story.  It's an odd combination of wild animals - they're out on their own fending for themselves on the veldt - and tame - they were raised by humans and totally comfortable with them.