US Motor Industry wants a hand out too

The US Motor industry want a piece of that financial aid the US government seems to be handing out to irresponsible bankers at the moment. The motor industry have already been given $25 billion to develop gas-not-guzzlers, but a cleaner environment isn’t really their focus at the moment. They’d rather use it to prevent bankruptcy.

But Congress, or the Senate, or whoever it is who makes the decisions in that loopy superpower country, isn’t really buying in to the story.

The day’s hearings, before the House Financial Services Committee, got off to a rousing start when panel chairperson Barney Frank asked how the government could justify a bailout for banks and insurers, but not the automakers.

“Frankly, there seems to me to be an inherent cultural bias,” Frank said. “Aid to blue-collar employees is being judged by a standard different than white-collar employees.”

But is the aid the motor industry asking for really going to help the blue-collar workers on the shop floor?

Gary Ackerman, Democrat from New York, noted the irony of the CEOs flying on private jets and “getting off with tin cups in their hands”.

“Couldn’t you have downgraded to first class or something, or jet-pooled … to get here?” he asked. “It’s almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in a high hat and tuxedo.”

The executives on Wednesday’s panel — GM CEO Rick Wagoner, Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli — all flew to the hearings on private jets.

The Onion couldn’t make this stuff up!

All excerpts from the Mail & Guardian

Hey Thabo!

Read this from AFP:

But experts in South Africa said the run-off election with Mugabe the sole candidate may already be in violation of the country’s laws.

“If we follow the Zimbabwe Electoral Act, legally, Morgan Tsvangirai is the winner, the regime having failed to organise a rerun within 21 days after the election result was released,” said Ross Herbert of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

“This Friday’s rerun is clearly outside the law and so, its outcome will be illegitimate,” the researcher at the Johannesburg-based institute told AFP.

Of course, Bob breaking his own country’s laws is probably not a problem for you, since you’ve just renewed Jackie Selebi’s contract as Commissioner of Police.

Both characters must be innocent until proven guilty.

Zuma implies he is some, as yet to be determined, fraction guilty

Jacob Zuma has declared that he’s not even half guilty of corruption charges levelled against him. Interesting that he doesn’t just say he’s innocent.

So how guilty are you JZ? A quarter? An eighth? Perhaps a third?

When the court finds one three sixteenths guilty, does one serve a pro rata sentence?

The gun is mightier than the pen

It appears that Mugabe has given up all pretenses of running a fair election, saying “We are not going to give up our country because of a mere X. How can a ballpoint pen fight with a gun?

I suppose he has a point. Perhaps it depends on the ballpoint pen to gun ratio?

After this announcement, I’ll be completely mortified if any dumbass South African politician asserts that the elections can still be free and fair (as if the intimidation and violence so far wasn’t enough).

Xenophobic Ads by Google

Sometimes ads by Google are unintentionally funny. This example is at the end of an article by Ndomiso Ngcobo, discussing the response to the recent xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg.

It seems Google Ads is suggesting that the refugees should have rather gone to the States, which is amusing on a number of levels considering the problems the States have with illegal immigration across their southern border.

Successful e-book readers: not going to happen

Don’t get the wrong impression about my enthusiasm for e-book reader technology from this post’s title. I’m very excited about it, I just don’t think it’s going to take off unless a lot of things change. I’ve had my eye on e-book readers for a while. Alas, they don’t seem to make it across those vast oceans down here to the southern tip of Africa.
This is probably because they struggle to make much of an impression on the markets into which they are introduced. Africa only gets things imported to it once they’ve been proven in developed markets.
I’ve mentioned Sony’s reader in the past, and I linked to this New York Times article on it.

For your convenience I’ll summarise the NYTimes article.

  1. In 2001 everyone thought that ebooks would revolutionise the printing industry, but by 2003 everyone realised that they actually sucked and stopped bothering.
  2. Sony didn’t agree, and brought out a new, exorbitantly expensive e-book reader that uses exciting new technology — E Ink.
  3. E Ink makes reading more pleasant than it would be on a computer monitor, and can be seen in direct sunlight.
  4. You can buy e-books for it, but they have dumbass Digital Restrictions Management which limit the number of copies you can make of the book and rob you of the right to resale the e-book you purchased.
  5. Fortunately, you can also read non-DRM crippled documents.
  6. The controls are counter-intuitive, but mostly the thing seems to work quite well
  7. Other companies are also disagree that e-books suck, and are trying to produce their own dedicated readers (here’s a list of the devices)

This brings us to why I’m writing about this topic again. Lately I’ve been giving Thought Leader a look, and the blogs there are interesting and insightful.
I noticed that Eve Dmochowska wants a Kindle for Christmas, and I decided to throw some of my thoughts into the fray. I could’ve just posted a comment on that blog, but I have a lot to say and didn’t want to chase her readers away with a tedious monologue. Waffle Group readers know to expect danger when that “rambling waffle” category is used — I doubt Thought Leader reader are properly equipped for the monotony.

Kindle is what Amazon.com have recently brought out to compete with Sony’s e-reader. As Eve says, Kindle has potential because Amazon.com already have the connections with book publishers to more easily distribute popular e-book titles. Even more sneaky is the fact that a PC is not required to use Kindle. It has a wireless modem and can connect to EVDO/CDMA networks (provided such network connectivity is available — something she admits would be problematic in South Africa at the moment), and thus can directly download e-books from Amazon.com .
That last sentence is where my optimism about this technology whithers, while Eve’s is nourished. Forget the connectivity issue. Let’s assume that’s all sorted out, as it probably will be in the market where the product is first introduced (the USA).
Eve waxes lyrical about the technology liberating writers from the publishing-house stranglehold. No need to get a publisher to print your novel, just self-publish digitally and you have a simple, cost-effective distribution channel with no overheads for your work.
I totally agree with Eve and the industry shake-up this has the potential to cause, except…

E-books can be downloaded from Amazon.com. Only Amazon.com. And they come in a proprietary format that other e-book readers cannot read. The books are also encumbered with brain-dead DRM.
Certainly Kindle supports some other formats, so one isn’t actually completely reliant on Amazon.com for reading material. Unfortunately some of those formats can only be read on the Kindle if they are converted to Amazon’s format, and to do that you need to email them the document and they’ll email it back in the proprietary format — for a price.
Here’s the problem with proprietary formats and DRM: if this e-book reader thing actually takes off, and Apple brings out an iReader, I might want to ditch the Kindle and go with their uber-cool design and user-interface instead. Sadly I won’t be able to read any of the books I bought in Amazon’s locked file format. That’s the proprietary format issue. Why do these companies use their own secret formats when there is an open standard available? I’m not answering that.

The DRM issue is even worse. Amazon allows authors to upload documents which will be delivered to the Kindle via their Whispernet service. The author chooses the selling price, and Amazon keeps 65% of it. Anyone can publish, and Rick Aristotle Munarriz has tested the scenario that Eve suggests will promulgate itself across the publishing world.
Glorious! I wonder if the Kindle and Whispernet support publishing work under a Creative Commons licence? I doubt it. DRM and CC tend to be an anathema to one another. If you think people don’t publish novels under a Creative Commons licence and make a commercial success of it, think again. Cory Doctorow is an excellent example. I doubt he’ll be distributing via this channel until the DRM stuff is ditched.

If the music industry is anything to go by, DRM just damages sales figures. People get pissed off when you don’t let them do what they want with something they purchased, and irrespective of copyright law, believe that they own.
People who are going to conduct copyright infringement will do it regardless of DRM, because there are always technical work-arounds to this kind of tomfoolery. People who would legitimately have bought the products won’t, because they don’t want the crap and would rather go without music than deal with the idiocy of big corporations.
Digital distribution of music still works though, because the peer-to-peer networks and associated copyright infringement by sharing digital music became firmly entrenched before the recording industry caught on and instituted the DRM foolishness. Now the portable music playing devices are affordable. They may have been expensive when they were first released, but MP3s could be played on a PC too. The compressed format was established and one needed to only wait for the early adopters to buy enough MP3-players to drive the prices down.
This isn’t going to work with books. The DRM is in place first. The e-book reader is too expensive, but unlike music, e-book formats for dedicated e-book readers are not suitable for PCs and laptops. The people who buy the e-books and the readers are going to get annoyed with the DRM thing and the vendor lock-in, and tell their other earlier-adopter friends not to bother. Thus the price doesn’t go down. Thus another e-book reader fails.

I hope I’m completely wrong, because those e-book readers are nifty. I’m not sure they’re “sexy” though (a term Eve favoured in her post).
Seriously, have you seen a picture of these things? Sexy has more curves. đŸ˜‰

Tale of Three Cities — Part 2

At the end of our trip to Budapest we travelled a little out of the city to visit Memento Park (also called Szorborpark or Statue Park. Not called South Park, but they sold T-Shirts reading Marx Park and I bought one).

The Hungarians were clearly not all that impressed with the communist iconography and promptly stripped their city of all traces of it.
They weren’t angry though because, unlike effigies of Saddam Hussein during the er… “liberation” of Iraq, they didn’t get broken down and destroyed. Instead, they were simply taken down and deposited in a park outside the city.

The first few days in Budapest had magnificent weather. The day we visited Szorborpark was suitably glum and overcast. We couldn’t have timed it better if we religiously checked the forecasts at hourly intervals.

Driving to work is stupid

Note: This post has been sitting around in draft form for longer than expected, thus references to dates are likely to have inadvertently been turned into lies.

I conducted an experiment. It’s an experiment I’ve been meaning to carry out for a while now, but it involves getting up a little earlier in the morning than I usually do. Getting up in the morning isn’t something I have a natural aptitude for, and so it is understandable that getting up even earlier than normal was something the core of me abhorred.

On Tuesday this week, I managed to drag my protesting body out of the bed in time to eat breakfast and leave for the office on foot.
I could’ve risen at the usual time and just left for work when I normally do without my car, but then I’d have arrived late. Arriving late means staying late, and since I’d have walked to work I’d be needing to walk back home.
Since I live in Johannesburg, I didn’t feel to comfortable walking home late at night.

I set out into the suburb by taking a short-cut past the dam that my property overlooks, instead of leaving home via the main entrance and walking a circular route to get back to the main road.
Walking on the grass next to the dam, feeling the wind on my face and hearing the birds chirping was something I missed out on while driving. The squeaky noises from the yapper-dogs, who disrupted the serenity with their barking, were less appreciated. The barking soon faded away behind me, and I paid it very little attention.
As I approached the road I noticed a great number of cars parked along-side it. That was my first impression, but I quickly realised that the reality of the matter was not that the cars were parked, but rather that they were stationary. Occupants resigned to their fate of slow, painful progress up the hill to the stop street. Slow, painful progress turning left into the next road, and then excruciatingly slow and painful progress of turning left on to the M5 and trundling along towards the turn-off to the highway. Most cars had only one occupant, and they all seemed so lonely and detached.
I walked passed them all.

Probably it is only fair that I point out how close I live to my place of work. Most people work a lot further from their homes than I do, and so walking to work is likely to impact dramatically on their commuting time.
I live about 3.5km from my office, yet I’ve been driving there every day. The walk took me roughly 40 minutes and, considering my life has lapsed into a somewhat more sedentary style, if I did it every day it would be an excellent substitute for dragging myself off to the gym. Remember that I’d be walking back at the end of the day too.
For those who try to make as much distance between their homes and their offices as possible (probably due to hating their jobs inordinately) the challenge of walking to work is much greater.
Most of those people probably haven’t explored the possibility of driving their vehicles to a certain point, and walking the rest of the distance. How practical that might be will vary from person to person.
Angie has tried it by leaving the car at a conveniently placed shopping centre (positioned where the traffic starts to get unpleasant) and walking the rest of the way to her office[1].

My walk to the office was invigorating. I was outside, in the world. Feeling and experiencing it more fully. I wasn’t enclosed in my personal confinement capsule, detached from other people. I wasn’t able to delude myself that those other people were not really people, but arseholes who conspire to ruin my drive to work by cutting me off.
I couldn’t do this because I walked passed people on the street, and if I wanted I could reach out and touch them (they might have been a bit alarmed by this though). I confirmed their existence as real, living people — not obstacles in my way to my destination. They were the ingredients that added to the richness of my journey.
I could interact with these people. If I said “hello” they greeted me back (sometimes with puzzled looks on their faces, other times with more enthusiasm). Not one of the people I greeted ignored me or showed me the contempt that other drivers showed me when I drove my car.
A white guy walking to work in South Africa is quite a rarity and because of this I had one guy whistle to me from across the road. Once I spotted him, he seemed abundantly happy and waved at me enthusiastically. I returned the gesture.

What a rosy picture I paint. There were a few drawbacks though. Something unavailable to the pedestrian is the driver’s isolation. I’ve just shown how isolation is a bad thing, but isolation also allows the occupants of the vehicle to keep exhaust fumes out of their lungs by closing those air-vents. I could wear a gas-mask with a filter of some sort, but I think people would be more inclined to cross the road to get away from me when I attempt to greet them.
Walking is exercise, and depending on the ambient temperature, perspiration ensues. I forget to apply deodorant at my peril (or possibly everyone-in-my-office’s peril).
Walking hurts the feet, but that’s just because I don’t do it every day. I’m upgrading this experiment to a habit, and so I think my feet will get used to it (although they do ache a little at the end of the day at the moment, and I have a blister).
Pavements and sidewalks are in short supply. Apparently municipalities don’t expect people to walk any where near a road. Roads are for cars, and everyone important has a car, right? There are some pavements scattered about, but the effort to lay pavements has been organised in a very decentralised manner. A little pavement here, and then long stretches of heavily eroded dusty footpaths.
I’d like to say that if more people walked, then more pavements would be laid, but that’s ridiculous since most people in South Africa walk to work, or walk to catch a taxi which takes them to a point where they must walk to work. Understandably, pavements might not be a top priority in South Africa, but maybe they could be nudged up the list a little. Expect more on this pavement issue in a future post.
Smokers stuck in the traffic get nervous and need a cigarette but find they have none left. They might ask you for a cigarette as you walk by. This isn’t really a drawback, but since I’m not a smoker I felt bad not being able to ease their pain just a little.

As with everything, there are positive and negative aspects. My contention is that the positives of walking to work easily trump the negatives. I’ll be walking from now on, unless I need the car to get to a meeting or something, because driving to work is stupid.
You should try it too. Probably walking to work (or taking public transport) will be too much for you to do every single day. That’s not a problem. Try it for one day.  If it works out ok, try it  another day. Set a goal to get to work by alternative means once a week, or once a month.
At the very least, even if you decide not to adopt the behaviour, you managed to experience something different.

[1] I lie. We’ve simulated this when I needed the car and dropped her off at the mentioned shopping centre. The end result is the same though.

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.