What’s this? What’s this? Baaaaad dog!

There was an unwritten law[1] that all fluffy canines adhered to. We can even go so far as to say that it was unspoken.
The law was that the bed was sacred. The Dog-Deities had deigned that the fluffs may join them from time to time upon the sacred pastures known as “bed” but that the place was as a holy place, not to be defiled or desecrated. It was to be treated with great respect, especially when fluffy hounds were permitted to sleep with the deities they worshipped.

All this has changed. A baaaaaad dog did urinate upon the holy sheets and mattress of the promised bed, and in so doing ushered in a new, hound-human-fellowship-barren era.
Dark dog days indeed. Dark, lonely days.

[1] It may have been unwritten because dogs, as far as I know, cannot read. Even if they could, it was unlikely that the law would have been inscribed anywhere.

On death and social networking

I’ve often wondered about what happens to a person’s internet profiles and presences once the person stops living.
Let’s say Jimbo the Internet User dies. He has a Yahoo! for email, several accounts for on-line forums, accounts for AOL and MSN messenger, and accounts for the social networking site MySpace.

Yahoo! likely have a policy regarding dormant accounts. If the user fails to log in for a certain period of time, the account is tagged as ‘dormant.’ After a reasonable period of time,email in the dormant account is deleted. Perhaps Jimbo’s username is still kept in Yahoo!’s database, but for all intents and purposes Jimbo’s Yahoo! email account is as dead as he is.
Jimbo, being dead, stops posting comments on the Peculiarly Shaped Pieces of Dried Skin Forum. Nobody really notices since people’s true identities are not usually divulged in that kind of environment. If anyone does notice, they just conclude that Jimbo is no longer interested in strangely-shaped, dehydrated dermis (which is true in any case). The same is true for Jimbo’s other fora.
Jimbo stops logging on to AOL and MSN. Most of the people he interacted with here had met him in person, and hadn’t just got to know him through the internet. In all likelihood, these people know he’s dead, have attended his funeral, and are not surprised by his missing buddy-icon.
Jimbo stops logging on to MySpace, and stops adding stuff to his profile or his friends pages. This is where it all goes a bit weird.

Like the instant messaging technologies, people who knew Jimbo in the physical world interacted with him via social networking sites. These people went to his funeral and are saddened by his passing.
Unlike the instant messaging technologies, Jimbo’s MySpace profile is persistent (at least initially, since Jimbo was a very active user on the site). He doesn’t have to log into it for it to still be accessible by his friends and people who knew him. The friends still access his profile, and post public comments to him. They address the comments to him, and some talk to him as if he is still alive.

I hadn’t come across profiles of dead people before now. I’ve speculated about the stuff regarding email, forum, and instant messaging accounts. Thanks to an article in the Mail & Guardian, I am no longer speculating about MySpace accounts. A site exists which commemorates the deaths of MySpace users, and links to their MySpace profiles. It contains obituaries, which are mostly written quite tastefully.
Following links to the deceased person’s MySpace profile is where the oddness ensues. I found people wishing their dead friends a happy birthday, or happy Easter, a year and a half after the person’s death.
I suppose it is a way to express emotions and to be able to “talk” to a dead loved one, even though there will be no response. It feels like there might be, because interacting via MySpace (or Facebook) never required both participants to be present at the same time. Since the messages are visible to the public, it makes it feel like maybe the message will also get to the dead person. It’s unlikely that people would keep sending email to a dead person’s email account because no-one else will see that, and so how could you be certain that the communication ever took place at all. If there is no evidence of the communication, then the grieving party will have to accept more readily that their loved one is physically gone.
The presence of a dead person’s profile just seems to prolong the act of grieving. The profile is still there, just like it was when the deceased was alive. This is similar to the situation of a grieving parent keeping a dead child’s room just the way it was when the child died. Except, in the case of MySpace, the page is dynamic while the child’s bedroom is not. People keep posting to the page, keeping it alive, supporting the illusion that if the page is still alive, so is the person. The bedroom doesn’t do that. The bedroom is trapped in the past, and still a symbol of denial, but it’s quite clear that the living person is missing.
The MySpace profile of a dead person doesn’t show that. Although the dead person never responds, they didn’t respond when they were away on holiday either. Perhaps they’ve just taken a long holiday?

It took a while going through the various MySpace profiles linked to from MyDeathSpace before I found an error message, informing me that the profile did not exist or had been removed.
The profile was gone, in the same way the person was gone. This seemed much healthier to me.

Apartheid Museum

Embarrassingly, it takes an American to get me to visit places in South Africa that I would immediately seek out were I not living in South Africa.

Amanda is in South Africa gathering data for her masters dissertation which, to the best of my understanding, involves interviewing people who have undergone traumatic experiences. I don’t envy her, but I do admire the work she does in studying human trafficking. She is only here for eight weeks, and then back to the States with her information and notes to write up the thesis.

Given this context, it is understandable that Amanda didn’t want to waste time visiting the Silly Buggers Museum (which is unfortunate because I hear that it is very nice). She wanted to visit the memorial to that political system that no-one in South Africa ever agreed with. Funny how a system like that could come into being with absolutely no support. I suppose everyone who thought it was a good idea must have died or emigrated (or both).

If you haven’t been to the Apartheid Museum, and you live in South Africa, I hope your excuse is that you live in Hotazel and have never been to Johannesburg (and only have a vague understanding of the concept of city).
I suppose that’s a little hypocritical of me, considering I visited it for the first time on Sunday and live in Johannesburg. I’ll revise the statement slightly.
After reading this post, I hope you will be making your way to the Apartheid Museum within the next month, provided you live in South Africa and are not holed up in some god-forsaken dorpie in a desert somewhere.

The Apartheid Museum is a beautiful place. Using simple, minimalist architecture it conveys a sense of serenity and peace. Yet there is also an undercurrent of something heavy waiting within. Something these plain concrete walls and tranquil water-features conceal furtively.
As I bought my ticket and entered the museum, a cold foreboding passed over me.

If the architecture of the place doesn’t have an impact on you, then the entrance can’t possibly fail to.
Each person who pays for entrance is given a ticket labelled “White” or “Non-white.” The tickets are handed to you arbitrarily, regardless of your actual genetic heritage. There are two entrances to the museum, and you don’t get to choose which one to enter via. The ticket you have chooses for you. Random. Arbitrary. Ridiculous.
The statement is very powerful, as the first part of the museum keep the “whites” and “non-whites” separated. I wondered whether the museum would be entirely separated like this, and whether I’d be reunited with my wife before leaving.
This initial impact is a lasting one, and the intensity of the place persists throughout.

I found the museum to be brutally honest about South Africa’s turbulent history and, more remarkable, brutally honest about the current state of the nation. Although apartheid has been dismantled, not everyone has been emancipated.
The display on the part women played during the struggle movingly illustrates to what extent women went in fighting against the social ills of the time. I was impressed that the display ended by highlighting the inequities that many women in South Africa still suffer, despite the change in government. The crimes against women that are rife in this country were listed. These things are realities in our country, and the curators of the museum were not afraid of pointing them out. The apartheid museum is not propaganda vehicle of the New South Africa, shouting out “Rah! Rah! Apartheid is vanquished! Look how perfect everything is now.”
This wasn’t the only place where the museum gave a balanced representation of the political events which had occurred. For this I am grateful, and inordinately impressed. It kicked any cynicism I might have felt about South Africa squarely in the buttocks.

We were at the museum for roughly three hours, and I didn’t even look at everything. I was, however, quite emotionally drained by the time I left. Of particular poignancy to me was the short twenty minute film on the 80’s, shown in the auditorium
The film depicted the civil unrest of the time, and the events leading up to and during the declared state of emergency. It depicted a very violent, sadistic time. People rioting, and fighting. Police cracking down on them, generally using gratuitous force. It was distinctly unpleasant to watch, yet completely compelling. I couldn’t get up and walk away, despite the senseless acts.
It was poignant to me because I a child living in South Africa during this time, and knew nothing of these events.
I had a vague idea of this “state of emergency” thing. I vaguely understood that black people were treated differently to me, and other people with fair skin. At the time I had no idea that white people were doing those things to black people. Obviously, the state controlled media was doing a good job in those days.
I was appalled by and ashamed of my ignorance. Certainly as a child, I could have done nothing to alter these events but I still felt mortified about my past as I watched the film.

The Apartheid Museum was an emotional rollercoaster. It brought me to the verge of tears but, annoyingly, my male socialised conditioning blockaded the tear-ducts. It made me laugh out loud at the absurd pontifications of the apartheid government officials and politicians (those natives must carry passbooks, which provide a handy folder to store all of their documents, which they are liable to otherwise lose — being a careless bunch of barbarians and all). It made me feel very sombre. It made me feel very positive about South Africa.

We’ve come a long way. We’ve got a long way to go. At least we’re being honest about it.

Later, Angie and I discussed our feelings about the museum and we reckon that every politician currently in office should spend three hours at the Apartheid Museum. It’ll help them remember why they are in office in the first place, and what they should be trying to achieve there.

Thank you for the frogs

It was my birthday yesterday, and I received many frogs.
Thanks to everyone who sent me a message-carrying frog.

As most people won’t understand what the hell I’m talking about, I should probably attempt to explain myself
A tiny frog lives inside my cellular telephone. Whenever someone sends me an SMS, it croaks. I call this “receiving a frog.”* This isn’t an accurate term for what occurs as I do not receive additional frogs when people send me messages. Regardless of this, the frog does croak and it is as if I have received another frog since I cannot believe the frog is still alive in the phone after all this time (with no source of food or water).

Other methods of communication were also used in conveying happy, well-wishing greetings to me. Amazing, ground-breaking technologies such as Electronic Mail and Telephony were utilised.
Others used an inexplicable phenomenon known as the Face of the Intertubebookwubwubs, you young whippersnappers!
Some used Spoken Word Propagated through Gaseous Medium Interface (SWPtGMI, pronounced SwiptaGimmee)

Thank you all for your kind words and well-wishings. Quite a few people like me quite a lot. It never ceases to amaze me because I’m quite a grumpy bugger.

* Actually, Angie called it this but I immediately adopted the term.

Acid Rock Drainage and other Doomsday Tales

During the last two weeks I’ve attended a course at the University of Witwatersrand on Environmental Engineering Topics.
It was run by the School of Mining Engineering (Wits have “schools,” not departments, in what I imagine is an attempt to emphasise teaching over bureaucracy) and so focussed on environmental issues with respect to mines. A very useful course which covered all aspects of mining, and how mines tend to break the pristine conditions of the world’s environments and generally annoy the people who live in them.
There were recurring themes of road blockades, pipeline sabotage, and civil unrest. A wonderful recipe for edge-of-your-seat learning.

Then, towards the end of the second week, an external presenter spoke to us about Acid Rock Drainage (ARD). Shortly afterwards I was overcome by a deep sense of the futility of my actions in attempting to get mines to manage the environmental impacts they create, or have the potential to create.

Acid Rock Drainage
This is in the United States, but some South African rivers look equally bad.

Acid Rock Drainage (or Acid Mine Drainage) is a nasty bastard. The people over at Save the Wild UP appear to share my general horror at the situation, and are trying to make a noise about it.
They also have something more than horror. They have pictures like the one above.

Simplistically, material that is sulphide-rich (typically pyrite) gets exposed to water and oxygen when it gets pulled up from underground. This tends to happen on gold mine rock dumps (on the Witwatersrand which is a pyritic ore-body) and with coal mines (since there is plenty of sulphur associated with coal).
The water and oxygen causes oxidation, liberating hydrogen and iron ions and ultimately leading to the generation of acid. Secondary reactions keep it ticking along in a cheerful, self-sustaining manner. The reaction never reaches equilibrium and will continue until all sulphide-rich material has been oxidised. The time this will take is best measured on the geological scale.
The good news is that the reaction can be stopped. Take away the oxygen or the water.
If you have lived on Earth, you should easily see why that won’t work. To isolate huge mines or rock dumps from things as ubiquitous as water and oxygen isn’t going to be practical.

The real issue isn’t the acid. The real issue is that metals are very fond of dissolving in acid. Once they dissolve, they are very happy to travel along with water into rivers and reservoirs.  Water is fairly important, so chances are that living beings are going to consume it, even if it is laced with all manner of dissolved metals.
If the living creature cannot process the metal biologically, it leads to bioaccumulation of the metal (or some slightly processed, but not entirely metabolised compound of the metal).
Animals eat other animals, which further concentrates the bioaccumulated metal compounds. It should be obvious that eventually, people will fit into this food-chain at some point. I mention people fitting into this, not because I think people are more important than animals, but because most people think they are. So when I say bioaccumulation ultimately leads to the onset of cancer those people, who don’t really think it significant if animals get cancer, will perk up and listen.

Global Warming. Bah! ARD is what we should really be concerned about.