Categories
General

Sugar, the SAIRR and conflicts of interest

The South African Institute for Race Relations (IRR) identifies itself as a liberal think-tank, focusing on research and ideas that might conduce to investment and economic growth.

As you’d know, the term “liberal” means many different things to different people. On my terms, the IRR has often been empathy-light, in that its idealistic vision of what the data tells us we should do can sometimes appear blind to important social and political contexts.

Categories
General Politics

What does Trump say about us?

On June 16 of 2015, a friend and I found ourselves in a New York hotel, feeling somewhat compromised after a late night and much revelry. Thanks to our throbbing heads, the spectacle of Donald Trump’s glass elevator arrival – in order to give the first of many bombastic and often fact-free speeches in support of his Presidential ambitions – invoked many sighs and “oh my god”‘s, but not much discussion.

When we did talk of it later, and in conversations that took place in subsequent months with him and others, it was oftentimes with a tone of incredulity, in that the chances of a Trump victory – or even nomination – seemed vanishingly small, and his attempt to seek the nomination therefore a simple manifestation of an ego the size of a planet (hello Marvin!).

We all know better now, of course. By which I don’t mean that the ego stuff is false – he certainly has it, and is flaunting it like only a narcissist can. But when I arrive back in NYC on June 16 this year, Trump will have been the confirmed Republican nominee for nearly two months already, with Hillary Clinton the only remaining potential “loser” for him to defeat (once Bernie Sanders gets out of the way, that is).

And one year on, the thing I want to briefly touch on is the narrative that Trump’s ascendancy has provoked in some quarters, whereby voters are being described as “irrational” or “stupid”. Some surely are either or both of these things, but there’s no reason to think – and no plausible mechanism whereby – voters suddenly become more irrational and/or stupid, en masse, in the period since the last election, or even over a generation or two.

Describing your opponents or “enemies” via abusive terms helps us to keep “our” tribe together, and helps “them” to do the same, but it involves no attempt to explain why people might make ostensibly irrational choices, nor to help us figure out how to minimise the chances of their doing so in the future.

One part of this Trump campaign (including the behaviour of his supporters at rallies) that needs explanation is not only how you can get away with talking nonsense so much of the time, but more crucially how it can be that you can get away with blatant racism and sexism while campaigning as a Presidential candidate.

And on that aspect of things, I’d encourage you to read this piece by Thomas B. Edsall, about which a friend remarked:

Edsall here gives what I think is a crucial part of the diagnosis of Trump’s success. Decades of shaming racists, nativists, sexists, and homophobes into concealment, instead of arguing with them, has been unwise but strongly institutionalized politics and now the bill has arrived.

It’s been said before, but “call-out culture” and mob shaming on the Internet might satisfy our tribal lusts, but if you’re looking to change thinking and behaviour, you might want to consider a different tactic.

Categories
General Politics

South African news media: hopefully not dead, just resting

Fridays are the day when – if I happen to walk into a store that sells newspapers – I’ll often cast a wistful gaze at the stack of Mail & Guardian papers delivered that morning, noting that my primary impulse would sooner be to straighten the stack rather than to buy a copy.

This isn’t because if you wait until Monday, the content becomes free to read online. It’s because I’ve lost my confidence in the odds of reading something worthwhile, that was so strong in the late 80’s (for its predecessor, the Weekly Mail), and continued for much of the time since then.

Categories
General Religion Secularism

Religious freedom in the firing line

Gateway News, the ‘South African Christian News Portal’, is always a good place to find over-reaction, misrepresentation, and unfounded panic, for example this account of ‘militant atheist groups‘ that are (shock, horror!) trying to stop Joshua Generation Church from endorsing corporal punishment.

A recent Gateway News post by Adv Nadene Badenhorst, legal counsel of FOR SA, catalogues some of the ways in which religion will find itself “in the firing line” during 2016. But a cursory look at the cases cited reveals the opposite, in that it’s religious privilege that she’s concerned about, rather than religious freedom.

Categories
General

On Mcebo Dlamini’s free speech, and his “love” for Hitler

Mcebo Dlamini is the current SRC President at Wits University, and also the current focus of much Twitter outrage, and even some conversation. Both the outrage and the conversation are due to this, from Facebook:

Responding to a commenter who wrote [about Israel] “Hitler new [sic] they were up to no good”, Dlamini replied “I love Adolf HITLER”.

Mcebo-2-339x600In the same comment thread, he claimed that all whites have a “bit of Hitler” in them. From what I’ve seen, the Facebook thread offered no context or explanation for these comments, the first of which is obviously offensive, in that it follows from a comment endorsing Hitler’s attitude towards “modern Israel”, and by extension Jews. In that context, Dlamini seems to be endorsing the Holocaust (even though I don’t believe he was in fact doing so).

When asked to explain these comments, he said

What I love about Hitler is his charisma and his capabilities to organise people. We need more leaders of such calibre. I love Adolf Hitler.

He also responded to the news that his Facebook comment had been reported with “am not removing it…..truth hurts…face it murderers”. So, he respects certain attributes of Hitler, and summarises this in saying that he “loves” Hitler, and furthermore calls out supporters of modern-day Israel for inconsistency in that they (on his version) are “murderers” themselves.

There is no doubt in my mind that these comments are anti-Semitic, as the South African Union of Jewish Students noted. I think they were so in two ways: first, because of all the villians in history, Hitler occupies a unique position. There are still hundreds of thousands of people alive that he harmed fairly directly, in arranging for the killing of relatives and friends.

The vast majority of these folk are united in being Jewish, and it is that same fact about their relatives and friends that led to their deaths. Other villians like Genghis Khan, Pol Pot and Stalin are either not as fresh in the memory, or killed more randomly. My point is that there is no need to engage in any comparison regarding who was the most evil to recognise that Hitler’s evil is uniquely powerful in the visceral response it generates even today.

The second way in which they are anti-Semitic is that they draw an equivalence between modern-day Israel and the Holocaust. As much as I disapprove of much of Israel’s behaviour in Palestine and towards Palestinians, to describe it as being intended to result in Palestinian extermination seems an unfair comparison (even though quotes to that effect can be found, I don’t think them representative).

Having noted all the above, Dlamini should nevertheless be allowed to say these offensive and stupid things. He does not “love Hitler” for having killed millions of Jews, he simply loves controversy and headlines. Dlamini appreciates certain aspects of Hitler’s personality or certain skills (while perhaps being wrong or right about those same personality attributes and skills), and expressed this hyperbolically to get attention.

That’s fine. It’s is, in fact, good. Because now the Wits students know that they have a hothead anti-Semite as their SRC President, and they can remove him from office. They should remove him from office, as if they don’t, they are endorsing his views. But that’s as far as it should go – I don’t believe Dlamini did anything illegal, and I don’t believe that the university should pursue charges against him.

(I need to highlight one additional distinction with regard to charges, though: while I don’t think that the university should charge him in open court, it might well be possible that he contravened internal university rules. In fact, I think it’s almost certain that he did so, in that Wits would no doubt have rules about offensive speech and the like.

So even if Dlamini did not engage in hate speech as per the Bill of Rights, he should be charged with breaking an internal rule if he did so, or the rule should be changed. And this does not mean the internal rule is the right rule, or that I’m endorsing it. You either apply the rule, or you change it – but you don’t ignore it.)

That’s the first over-arching point I want to make: what he said was offensive and stupid, he should not be SRC President, but he should be allowed to say it. Then:

The second point I want to make is an extension of the Tweet above, and relates to sentiments of the sort expressed by T.O. Molefe in a Tweet calling out Max du Preez for inconsistent treatment of the RhodesMustFall situation and the one currently under discussion. The claim made was that du Preez is wrong in seeing Hitler as absolutely evil, while recognising both good and bad in Rhodes.

I think that’s a serious misreading of du Preez, in that I doubt he’d deny the fact of the matter if Hitler were, for example, often to be seen helping out at the old-age home. What I mean is that noting someone’s – anyone’s – positive virtues has no necessary bearing on one’s overall attitude towards them. Du Preez’ columns on Rhodes made their distaste for Rhodes clear upfront, before noting any virtues.

Even if you think it’s wrong to even note a single virtue of someone like Rhodes (or Hitler), there is nevertheless a clear difference between saying “that was an evil person, with one or two redeeming qualities” and saying “I love this person, even though he’s universally reviled for being a mass murderer of Jews”, and leaving it at that until being asked to clarify your sentiment.

Expressing your admiration or love for a person endorses them. Expressing the sentiment that they had certain virtues does not, or at least does so far more tentatively and ambiguously. The difference is clear, and we cannot make excuses for Dlamini as a result of how some responded to Rhodes, if the issue is restricted to this one alone, namely the “I love him” followed by a belated “but…” versus “he was a bad man, albeit with a few virtues”.

(As another aside, because I know how misreadings abound, I don’t think comparisons between Rhodes and Hitler are either useful or justified. My point is merely to make the case that there is no necessary equivalence between a sentiment about the one and a sentiment about the other. Both the words and the context of their utterance matters.)

Consider saying “I hate Hitler, but…” or saying “I love Hitler, although…” – both of those will be regarded as offensive by many, but hopefully you can see that they are less so than saying “I love Hitler” and then waiting for someone to ask what you mean. If you say “I love Hitler” without qualification, you’re saying something about your character, and loudly enough that the Wits students will probably hear it.

Lastly, I’d also encourage you to read this piece about Dlamini’s history, including his extended deception of peers where he claimed to be the love-child of Zwelakhe Sisulu and a Swazi princess, as well as a student in a secret nuclear physics degree at the University of Pretoria. He’s now admitted to lying about these things, but the story told there suggests to me that taking him too seriously would be a mistake, and also that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a sympathetic ear might be more useful than shouting at him.

He expressed himself badly, yes, but that’s not always the same thing as being a bad person. Distinctions can, and should, be made.

Categories
General

Euthanasia and a “culture of death”

Last Thursday was the first “Openly Secular Day“, a new initiative from the Richard Dawkins Foundation (RDFS) and other secular and atheist organisations. Perhaps because of the RDFS’s involvement, I find the day to be a slightly wasted opportunity, in that it emphasises the atheism bit too much for my liking, thus impeding the important bit – secularism – unnecessarily.

Secularism is the important bit because it allows for atheist and theist folks to work together towards a common goal, which is the establishment of laws and policy that is neutral with respect to whatever your beliefs regarding supernatural entities and mystical agents might be. It’s obvious why atheists should care about this, and theists should care because they’d also not like religious laws, if those laws happened to derive from the utterances of a god other than theirs.

Categories
Culture General

Blast from the past

calvinia1File this one under “random weirdness”. A few weeks ago, the editor of an anthology of poems, intended for South African high school students, asked for me to renew permission for them to include this poem of mine.

I’d forgotten that I was in this anthology – in fact, I’d pretty much forgotten that I used to write poetry. Anyway – for the interest of very few of you, here’s a free verse something about the death of my grandfather, from (I’d guess) 1993 or so.

Calvinia, 1976

Kicking pebbles along cracked pavements,
my brother and I strolled through this Karoo town.
Past pale houses, dusky streets, past the Saamstaan store
where we could always find a spinning top, stop
to listen for the sound of windmills, or watch
the trucks pass by with their smell of sheep;
their cargo destined for a place alongside potatoes
and an occasional vegetable on blue china plates.

In Calvinia, I slept in my Oupa’s bed, both of us tired
from mending farm fences, or from circling this small town
in the hours between the day’s labour, evening’s quiet.
We would wake at dawn, when he led me to the kitchen
to pour five spoons of sugar into my enamel coffee mug.
Strangely, the thermos was always full and waiting –
waiting to be emptied, along with the small jars of lard
that lined one pantry shelf; lard to spread on our toast,
or to fry the bacon and eggs of a Sunday feast.

My brother and I found a chest of drawers
in Oupa’s room one day – inside lay his store of treats:
Wilson’s toffees, the peppermint creams he placed
in our palms after dinner, or presented in small plastic bags
when he came to visit us in Cape Town. As he grew older,
and I grew older, I began to realise the purpose of these trips
to the Cape – not the gift of sweets, but a hospital bed,
transfusions, chemotherapy.

He began to visit once a week, but only to sit, drink tea,
smile weakly at my brother, me. Before long
he no longer visited, but became a regular shadow
on the living-room wall. It wasn’t too long
before the hospital became his home, and the hospital
was not his home for long.

Categories
General Politics

On Kasrils, and spoiling your ballot

It’s perfectly reasonable to be dissatisfied with the electoral process. We might struggle to find a voter in any jurisdiction who can’t present a case for how things could be better, whether the improvement were to come from revisions to party funding legislation or the accountability of elected officials to those of us who elect them.

And, grumbling is what we do – all the more since the Internet and social media allowed for vastly increased numbers of people to join in the grumbling. But for all the grumbling, it’s perhaps worth thinking about – or revisiting – what the point of electoral systems in democracies is.

On the surface, of course the point is to show us what the will of the people is, and to allow for us to elect people to represent us in Parliament, or on city councils. (In South Africa, we don’t elect people but instead vote for parties, who choose the people – which is but another thing you could grumble about it you wish.)

But the dissatisfaction leads some to say we should simply opt out, either through not voting at all, or through measures such as spoiling your ballot. Recently, Ronnie Kasrils has been reported as recommending spoiling your ballot as a way to indicate that you believe our current ANC government has let us down (though, more nuanced accounts of his statements to the media indicate that he’s recommending a vote for a minority party first, and only spoiling your ballot if none of those parties are palatable to you).

To make one thing clear: spoiling your ballot is a legitimate choice in a democracy. But it’s the wrong choice, because it misunderstands the point of voting, in that it begins with fealty to a chosen party, where that fealty allows you to either endorse the way that they are doing things, or instead, to simply withhold your support from them.

The right choice is to understand your vote as purely a tactical gambit, deployed in the manner that might best achieve the outcome you hope to achieve. Signalling disappointment with a political party isn’t effectively signalled through spoiling a ballot, in that the signal is far too noisy – in brief, there is no way of telling whether you spoilt your ballot because you’re incompetent, or because you were protesting the electoral system rather than the party you ostensibly didn’t vote for.

A vote for an opposition party shifts the balance of power, however minutely. Voting for nobody, by contrast, indirectly rewards the incumbent through denying an opposition a chance to govern – especially when dealing with a significant majority such as the one the ANC enjoys in South Africa. A spoilt ballot might well decrease the majority party’s proportion of votes cast, but a vote for an opposition party will decrease it further, and alert them to the fact that they cannot take your vote for granted in a far more transparent way.

The tactical element of each person’s vote is of course a matter that can only be clarified by the individuals themselves. For a middle class liberal type like myself, living in the Western Cape, a vote for the ANC in the provincial ballot might play a part in alerting the governing party (the Democratic Alliance, or DA) that their steadily increasing social conservatism is diametrically opposed to liberal ideas.

It doesn’t necessarily matter that the ANC is illiberal – the vote signals that the party that is supposed to be liberal seems to instead be more focused on attracting votes through playing on fears of social decay than on defending its ideological turf. (It’s a separate issue whether the turf is the correct one, or whether the short-term gaining of votes is sensible strategy on their part – I’m simply addressing the voters’ choices and how they might be made.)

On a national level, a vote for the DA might well be the best signal of disaffection with the ANC – but then again, a vote for someone like the EFF might be more effective in the long run, because both the ANC and the DA are roughly centre to centre-right in economic terms, and the voice that’s missing in a poverty-stricken country like ours is the leftist one. Having a strong EFF presence in Parliament might be just what’s needed to shake the incumbent from their dogmatic slumbers, to paraphrase Hume.

And then, next election, you get to make the same choices again. The key thing to remember is that they are choices, and that you owe nobody your loyalty. If it’s the long-term future of the country that you care about, then you should vote in the manner that you think best supports a prosperous future for the country – not in a manner that best supports a prosperous future for any particular party.

Categories
General

FameLab and the sexification of science

famelab-square-31I have no objection to trying to make science cool, so long as that doesn’t come at the cost of making it simple. By which I mean, for every Cosmos – rightly praised for its engaging treatment of cosmology, evolution and more (the first episode needed nachos to cope with all the cheese, but the second episode – on evolution – was superb) – there are a dozen painfully obscure, but no less important, attempts to convey the results of research in one field or another.

Or, attempts to convey the fact that research didn’t achieve any results, but that it was nevertheless worthwhile, even though it cost truckloads of money. My point is that much of science involves a slow, long slog, and is conducted by people outside of the limelight, often not even seeking the limelight because they are geeks/obsessives of some sort rather than wannabe celebrities.

This is why the advertorial insert on FameLab in Friday’s Mail&Guardian newspaper became the subject of a little rant between a friend and I over the weekend. The FameLab website carries the following quote from Dr Alice Roberts – “You are making something entertaining but not dumbing it down and I think that is absolutely what FameLab is about.” But take a look at the presentation from one of the finalists from last year:

In summary, the argument is that obsessive dieting can lead to women messing up their metabolisms, and can also impact on the health of their children. A British Medical Journal that Google found for me says:

Mother’s diet in pregnancy has little effect on the baby’s size at birth, but nevertheless programmes the baby. The fetus adapts to undernutrition by changing its metabolism, altering its production of hormones and the sensitivity of tissues to them, redistributing its blood flow, and slowing its growth rate.

Fine – if the challenge is to take some area of science and quickly summarise its findings in a compelling fashion, then FameLab could be described as a success (in general, rather than with reference to the talk above). But the science is of course being dumbed down, in that very few scientific hypotheses or theories can be explained without dumbing them down in 3 minutes (the length of a FameLab presentation) – and many can hardly be explained at all to non-specialists.

And that’s fine. It’s as it should be – because the difficulty inherent in some fields is exactly what motivates us to work so hard to find the answers to questions posed in those fields. If it was easy, anyone would be able to do it – and perpetuating the misconception that science is frequently about “fame”, and can be explained in a 3 minute performance, detracts from the reality of most science and scientists.

Here’s what the insert reported about Raven Motsewabangwe, South African’s winner of the 2014 round who will now go to the international finals in the UK:

Raven Motsewabangwe (North West University) compared viral infections to an attack by aliens and conveyed information to the audience about medical responses through vaccines and antivirals.

The clip isn’t available online, but the analogy is not new, and the rest sounds like science journalism of indeterminable quality. Quite the contrast to what the advertorial insert tells us about FameLab’s purpose:

Forget what you think you know about scientists. Do yourself a favour and meet the new generation. They’re fired up and they’re out to change the world.

[Insert deity of choice] help us, if that’s all there is to the new generation of scientists. We’ve got a difficult enough time of it as it is in the universities, simply asking students to read a few pages of text before coming to class, or expecting a modicum of attention for 45 minutes. It’s the Pop Idols approach to science that allows Nature News, Diet Doctor, Dr. Oz and all the other hyperbolic peddlers of oversimplification to capture audiences and sell books. Should we be encouraging that?

What we need at present are more reminders about the dangers of thinking science is about a persuasive presentation or a three minute summary. We need reminders that there are experts, and that the work they do is difficult, and important. We need reminders that the truth is often not demotic, and thinking that it is can contribute to things like near-record numbers of measles cases in the USA in 2013, as conspiracies and quackery take the place of scientific authority.

In the closing piece of the same insert, titled “Pop Idols for scientists”, we’re told a little more about our winner:

It was a 25 year-old microbiologist from Mafikeng in the North West Province – Raven Motsewabangwe – who emerged the judges’ favourite. His casual pop-star looks, engaging smile and the ease with which he explained the concept of viral infections using little more than two coloured balloons also won the hearts of many of the female audience; and when his name was announced as the winner, they rushed onto the stage to pose with their hero – South Africa’s Pop Idol of science.

In short, science is about looking sharp, and using short sentences (and props). Get it right, and the babes (if that’s what you’re after) will flock to you. Sounds about right, right?

Categories
General

[Geek alert] On metadata, MP3’s and Bliss

In a departure from my usual themes here on Synapses, I’d like to tell those of you who are obsessed concerned about their music library organisation about a program I recently discovered, called Bliss. (A spot of disclosure is in order right from the start: the developer of Bliss, Dan Gravell, was kind enough to give me a free license for testing purposes).

What Bliss claims to do is to organise your music library, album art and metadata, downloading the missing bits where necessary. Those of you who have your music in the cloud will know how annoying it is to have two albums by the same artist listed, with half the tracks in each,  because of some minor difference in the metadata. My library isn’t necessarily huge (12 000 or so songs), but contained enough of those sorts of issues to merit some attention.

Yes, there are other tools out there that do this (or a similar) job, and I’ve tried many of them. What makes Bliss different is that it runs as a background process, and once you’ve defined the rules you’d like to apply to your music, it will scan and correct any new music you add to the specified folder, as well as populate the relevant fields for existing music.

The rules themselves can be defined with a great deal of specificity, perfect for anoraks like myself. Do you want to enforce a minimum of two digits for track numbers, so track 1 becomes 01? What dimension and file-size album art is the minimum you’ll accept – and what should be regarded as too large? Bliss will automatically convert where necessary, and give you options if more than one image fits the album.

If tracks are not tagged at all, it generates an acoustic fingerprint, which is then used to find and offer suggestions for tracks and albums that that match the fingerprint. The walkthrough on tagging on the Bliss website gives you a good overview of how powerful the basic functionality is, but if you wanted to really get stuck in, or clean up tags that other software has inserted (iTunes is often a culprit here), there’s no end to the level of detail available.

Bliss tagging options

So, how well did it work? After running overnight, around 300 albums had successfully been edited to meet the standards I stipulated, without any human intervention whatsoever. This variously included downloading missing artwork, renaming files and directories, and find (or correcting) metadata. And, of all those albums now listed as “compliant”, I’ve only spotted one mistake, where a collectors edition of an album had ended being re-tagged as the standard studio album.

Another 100 or so were highlighted as needing attention, but as you can see in the screenshot below, the attention required often added up to little more than clicking a button to accept a recommendation.

Screen Shot 2014-02-08 at 08.12.02

How much human intervention is required will largely depend on the parameters you define, so think carefully about how important something like “genre” is to you, before letting Bliss get started. Many of my albums were identified as non-compliant, simply because I had thought it a good idea to specify that all albums needed to be tagged as one of X defined genres. But because the existing library had so many more, idiosyncratic genres, this resulted in many prompts for attention. Re-running Bliss with the instruction to not care about genres decreased the human input required significantly.

A negative so far is that if you’ve got a significant library, the program takes quite a few minutes to launch (this will obviously vary not only based on library size, but system capabilities). So, it’s more suited to running in the background on a media server, where you don’t need to reboot and launch the program very often.

Then, I have still ended up with quite a few – probably around 50 – albums where I had to resort to using MP3Tag – a very good piece of free software – to fill in blanks that Bliss hadn’t (and, to correct the mistake mentioned above, where the album had been incorrectly tagged). But all in all, I suspect that Bliss has saved me many hours of effort in manually checking and correcting tags, and especially downloading artwork (seeing as my tags were already in fairly good shape).

If you want to check it out, Bliss is available for all major operating systems (Linux, OS X, Windows), and it allows 100 ‘fixes’ before asking you to pay anything. I’d suggest making a copy of a couple of albums, pointing Bliss at that directory, and seeing what it does in that controlled environment. If your experience is like mine, you’ll want to fine-tune your instructions to the program before letting it loose on your full library.

Then, if you like what you see – and I suspect you will, assuming you don’t already have a system in place – you can either purchase 1000 fixes for 10GBP, or unlimited fixes (including support for future versions of Bliss) for 30GBP.