Author Archives: alistair

Himalayan Tahrs on Table Mountain again

Himalayan Tahr on Table Mountain
During the 1930s some Himalayan Tahrs escaped from the Groote Schuur zoo near UCT. They bolted onto the mountain and lived happily up there for the next 70 years.

In 2004 SANParks controversially decided to cull them because they are an alien species and were causing damage to the indigenous species. I agreed with that decision.

But, I can tell you for a fact that they didn’t get all of them.

Yesterday afternoon I saw three tahrs grazing right next to the path on Platteklip Gorge. They were right above the site where I saw someone jump to his death exactly 2 weeks ago.

I was able to walk really close to them and they just looked at me. They’ve obviously forgotten about the culling almost 6 years ago!
Himalayan Tahr on Table Mountain

Hitler hates the Apple iPad

I’m no Apple fanboy, but even I was looking forward to seeing what the Apple tablet was going to look like. It was announced last night and since then it seems the whole internet has been making fun of it.

With good reason.

This image basically sums it up:

Someone has also put together this parody video of Hitler reacting to the news. Hilarious.

Congratulations on the box office record

It seems that for decades the world’s most successful directors have been taking out full-page ads to congratulate each other on records.

When Star Wars beat Jaws for the box office record Spielberg took out this ad congratulating George Lucas.

The tradition is explained in this Reddit comment:

“Later, after ET retook the record, Lucas ran an ad with R2D2 putting a crown on ET’s head.

Then in 1997 when the Star Wars Special Edition regained top-grossing spot, Spielberg’s congratulatory ad showed a long line of movie characters with R2D2 zipping past to the front of the line.

This ad of ET returning the crown to R2D2 fits in there somehow as well. I hadn’t heard of this one before toefer dug it up.

I guess it’s time for Jim Cameron to run an ad congratulating himself for beating his own record.”

This is my favorite version – the congratulations sent from Lucas to Cameron when Titanic took over the record.

The Psychology of Power and Corruption

The old anecdote says that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Economist has a fascinating article describing experiments into this effect.

These experiments show that there is in fact a causal link between power and corruption. Even more interestingly, they may point to the reason for this link.

How the experiments work

The researchers used “priming” techniques to make test subjects feel either powerful or powerless.

Once primed, both high-power and low power subjects were asked to rate the morality of various situations. For example the researchers asked subjects to rate the morality of cheating on taxes or of taking an abandoned bicycle.

The results

The experiments showed a significant difference in the judgments of high-power and low power subjects:

  • High-power = Judge others more harshly than yourself
  • Low-power = Judge others more leniently and yourself more harshly

Power does indeed seem to cause people to judge themselves more leniently than others – they are moral hypocrites.

The entitlement hint

It seems that powerful people not only abuse the system, they also feel entitled to abuse it. This proved to be an important hint and the researchers did more experiments to explore this entitlement.

In these experiments the subjects were primed again, but this time entitlement was split from power:

  • High-power subjects who felt they deserved to be powerful
  • High-power subjects who felt they did not deserve the power
  • Low-power who deserved to be powerless
  • Low-power who did not deserve to be powerless

These subjects were also asked to rate moral actions of themselves and others.

Again the powerless judged others leniently and themselves harshly. This was true whether they legitimately powerless or not.

As expected, those who felt entitled to their power judged others very harshly and themselves very leniently.

The interesting result is for those who were powerful but felt the high-power position was undeserved. These subjects were lenient on others but very harsh on themselves.

This was the exact opposite of the normal result for high-power test subjects.

The reasons why

Why would undeserving powerful people be harsher on themselves than others? That is the opposite of the usual reaction to having power.

The answer to that question provides an elegant explanation for the whole set of results.

Humans evolved living in smallish groups with dominance hierarchies. In such hierarchies all of the experimental results make sense.

Powerful (dominant) members of the band can get away with bending the rules (judging themselves more leniently). They should also deal harshly with anyone lower in the hierarchy taking a chance (judging others more harshly).

Powerless group members should be submissive – they should judge others (normally more dominant) leniently and themselves harshly.

When people from low in the hierarchy find themselves temporarily in powerful positions they are in danger of attracting punishment from the true dominants.

So they act extra-submissively by judging themselves extra harshly and being extra lenient on others.

It all makes sense!

Marie Claire extra-naked issue

Marie Claire SA just love what they call “The Naked Issue”. They get South African celebrities to pose naked in order to “raise awareness” for various charities.

I’m sure that it doesn’t hurt sales either.

My wife took one look at this image in the latest edition and said in a sympathetic voice “Oh no”. I thought the picture looked great so I asked her what could possibly be wrong.

Jules is a graphic designer and a perfectionist, so she noticed immediately that some poor designer had cut off Jeannie’s tummy. She pointed out that something looked funny about the stomach.

Even I could see (once shown) that the designer who cut off the tummy took things a little too far and chopped off some thigh at the same time.

It’s embarrassing for Jeannie D, but I strongly suspect that Jules was feeling sorry for the designer. And the editor that signed off the image.

This kind of mistake is Julie’s nightmare!

We all know that these images are retouched. But something like this just puts it right in your face. For instance, now I looked more closely and I strongly suspect that some of her bum has also been removed.

It all seems a little silly in the edition that is supposed to be natural.

Economist on South Africa’s education results

The Economist has an article on education in South Africa. Some of the facts from the article:

  • South Africa spends about 5% of GDP on education – more than any other country in Africa
  • About 50% of students drop out before achieving a Matric
  • Only 15% of Matrics get marks good enough to enter university
  • The Matric pass rate has fallen from 73% in 2003 to 61% in 2009

The results are drastically different for white and black students. For example, matric mathematics results are enormously different between the two races.

Graph comparing South African educational results for white vs. black students

The article goes on to speculate about the causes of these dismal results. Obviously the historical impact of Apartheid policies on black education is mentioned. The OBE initiative also cops some blame.

But why would results be getting worse even 15 years after Apartheid and despite affirmative action programs?

The Economist speculates that the appalling quality of teachers is also to blame. The article notes that teachers’ unions prevent teachers from being evaluated – a sure recipe for bad teachers. If someone isn’t evaluated on performance, then they aren’t going to perform.

Teachers really should be evaluated on their performance – just like the rest of us.

I witnessed a suicide on Table Mountain

Yesterday evening I was near the top of Platteklip Gorge on Table Mountain when I saw someone fall to his death.

It was an insane moment. I almost literally didn’t believe what I had seen.

It was a little after 5PM and I was about 10 minutes from the top when I heard what sounded like rocks falling above me. I looked up and saw a person tumbling through the air and landing with a very load crack about 100m up the slope from me.

A few more rocks fell, some birds went nuts, and then there was just silence.

Where he jumped on Platteklip Gorge

There was another hiker just down the slope from me and we looked at each other for a second.

He said: “Did you see that?”

I said “What the fuck! Holy shit!” and then we both started walking upwards.

The body landed about 3m from the path but I missed it the first time (luckily it wasn’t easily visible). The result was that the other guy (Michael, a British tourist) and I arrived at the body simultaneously.

It was a surreal moment.

I knew what I was seeing. It did sink in. I’d just seen someone fall to his death and the injuries were truly horrific.

But we were both very calm. No freaking out, no puking or feeling sick. No shakes, or stuttering. Just calm.

I pulled out my phone to call mountain rescue but had no signal so another hiker who had just arrived called from his phone.

Then we just sat down to wait.

I became worried that he was still alive and we weren’t helping, so I went back to check his pulse. I didn’t need to check. His injuries were very extensive and he was very obviously already dead.

A while later two people leaned over the top of the cliff and started shouting down to us. They said that they had found a backpack and a suicide note. That actually made me feel a lot better.

A little later the mountain rescue chopper flew up into the gorge and winched down a medic. I went to help him with his kit and showed him where the body was.

“Victim is blue. Repeat, victim is blue.”

Without going into details, the mountain rescue guy (also named Mike) was extremely professional and took over the scene. He radioed in for more assistance and offered us trauma counselling before sending us all down the mountain.

All of the emergency services guys were very professional and seemed very organised. It’s great having pro’s like that around.

The only exception was that nobody could find a body bag. It was already quite dark and the evening wind had started pumping down Platteklip so the chopper couldn’t go back in there. Consequently they weren’t able to bring him down until morning.

I’ve chatted to the cops this morning and it seems that this was a desperately unhappy old man who was determined to end his life.

Power Balance is rubbish

I’ve been coming across Power Balance bracelets more and more often.

Power Balance Wrist Band

These bracelets use a special hologram (or sometimes quantum effects) to “restore your body’s electrical balance, promoting a free exchange of positive and negative ions and align your body’s energy pathways.”

They instantly provide: “Faster synaptic response (brain function), enhanced muscle response (in both fast and slow twitch tissues), increased stamina (better oxygen uptake and recovery), more flexibility (faster recovery) and vastly improved gravitational balance.”

All for only R495!

Sound to good to be true. It is.

The thing is that the salesmen have some really cool “tests” that illustrate the effects of the bracelet. The tests are well done and when administered by an enthusiastic salesman they are quite tempting.

Power Balance test

Double Blinds

Since hearing about this miracle product I have wanted to see the results of a double blind test.

In a double blind neither the tester nor the subject knows if the real product is used or some other fake is used. If the product really works then there should still be benefits even when the testers and subjects don’t know the product is being used.


Over the xmas holidays I was lucky enough to come across someone with the product. I immediately made myself seem geeky by enthusiastically explaining double blind tests and then conducting them.

The results were pretty predictable. You can also watch a video showing similar tests debunking the bracelets.

No effect whatsoever.

Power Balance is just an expensive placebo. Just believing that something has an effect often causes the effect! Amazing actually.

In fact, I’ve previously blogged that more expensive placebos are more effective! These are very expensive, so they must work! Right?

Breaking the spell

Now for the really interesting part. Even if it was just a placebo effect, the guy who I was testing this with really believed that there was an effect.

By illustrating that it was a fake I broke the placebo effect. So I broke his Power Balance…