When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

It seems a little random, but I thought I’d put up quick reviews when I finish interesting books. We’ll see it if lasts.

I just finished reading Peter Godwin’s latest book. His previous book about growing up in Rhodesia, Mukiwa, was really superb – try to get hold of it if you haven’t read it yet.

Mukiwa had a strong focus on what it was like growing up in Rhodesia, so I expected this book to be about what it’s like being in Zim as it falls apart now. There is quite a lot of that, but the book actually has two themes:

  1. It’s mostly the story of the aging and eventual death of Peter’s father who was still living in Zimbabwe. I didn’t expect that, but it is written well and actually fairly powerful.
  2. The decay and collapse of Zimbabwe from the late 90’s to now. I knew all this was happening but it was still interesting to get a well written personal account. Frightening too, considering I live just next door.

Overall a good book. Not nearly as good as Mukiwa but worth while.

Cogito ergo sum – not quite René

Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am.

Basically, that is the popular answer to the question: can we really ever know something. Can we ever know that something is true without any doubt?

You might say that you know your name is Frank. But in fact you don’t really know that – you just think your name is Frank. You might in fact be completely insane.

There is no absolute proof of that truth without making some serious assumptions. If you are making assumptions, then you don’t know that you are right. Your assumptions might be wrong.

So what can you really know without making assumptions? René Descartes came up with the answer above. He reckons that he knows that he is thinking, therefore he knows that he exists.

Thing is, that he has made the assumption that if he thinks then he exists. I reckon that’s, not quite right. All you can really know is that there are thoughts. You think that they are your thoughts, but you don’t even know that. Everything else could be an illusion – including the fact that in order to have thoughts something must exist.

This blog could be an illusion.

Africa is “the dark continent”

The Economist has this article about Africa’s electricity shortages.

Basically, Africa can’t produce enough electricity to keep up with good growth and increasing urbanisation.

From the article:

  • With nearly 1 billion people, Africa accounts for almost a sixth of the world’s population, but generates only 4% of global electricity.
  • By some counts, only 17 of Nigeria’s 79 power stations are still working.
  • Kenya’s power utility estimates that it adds 12,000 households a month to the national grid.

Chinese rip-offs

This article is about the Chinese rip-off industry – very interesting.

The article is basically discussing how far counterfeit goods have come in China. From poor quality t-shirts, now cars and serious electronics are also being copied. For instance when LG recently launched a new phone in China it didn’t sell because everyone already had a fake which worked just as well.

Maybe the real companies should push up volumes and make a little more money?

From the article:

  • Nearly every type of product can be—and is—cloned in China, sometimes so well that the ripped-off manufacturers inadvertently service the fakes when warranty claims come in.
  • In the south, one cloning operation didn’t just copy a technology company’s product line—it duplicated the entire company, creating a shadow enterprise with corporate headquarters, factories, and sales and support staff.
  • In the mid-’90s, developers began to build shadow factories—identical plants, often constructed from the same blueprints legitimate manufacturers used to launch their ventures. Sometimes the plans were sold by managers at the genuine facilities. Other times, local officials and organized crime conspired to create a second set of blueprints.
  • The cloners hire a team of between 20 and 40 engineers to begin decoding the circuit boards. At the same time, coders start to develop an operating system for the phone with a similar feature set. (The typical cloner either uses off-the-shelf code, writes something entirely new, or modifies a publicly available Linux-based system.) Both processes take about a month. By then, ancillary items—plastic casings, accessories, manuals and packaging—are ready as well.
  • When Samsung busted some of these cloners they were “impressed by the efficiency of the cloners, so much so that the company offered them jobs. The cloners said no. Earning about $1.25 per phone, the cloners said, they found it easier and more profitable to make fakes.”

Article on airlines in South Africa

The Financial Mail has this article on the airlines operating in South Africa.

This is a market share breakdown:

Interesting points from the article:

  • Kulula (Comair) has brought down costs by “by acquiring newer aircraft, which are cheaper to maintain and use less fuel.”
  • In flight meals actually do make a difference: “a standard meal costs around R50/passenger. Instead, 1time sells food and makes R4m/year profit from this service.”

Orwell on being shot in the throat

Boing Boing linked to an interesting account by George Orwell on what it was like being shot in the throat. He was involved in the Spanish civil when he got nailed by a sniper.

The whole essay makes for interesting reading.

He describes the feeling of being hit:

Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the center of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all around me, and I felt a tremendous shock – no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing. The sandbags in front of me receded into immense distance. I fancy you would feel much the same if you were struck by lightning. I knew immediately that I was hit, but because of the seeming bang and flash I thought it was a rifle nearby that had gone off accidentally and shot me. All this happened in a space of time much less than a second. The next moment my knees crumpled up and I was falling, my head hitting the ground with a violent bang which, to my relief, did not hurt. I had a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense.

Orwell was conscious through the whole thing and at one point he was convinced that he was dying:

There must have been about two minutes during which I assumed I was killed. And that too was interesting — I mean it is interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time. My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well. I had time to feel this very vividly. The stupid mischance infuriated me. The meaninglessness of it!

Who is editing Wikipedia

Wikipedia is great – I really love it. Obviously the power behind Wikipedia is that it is constantly evolving through the edits of the internet community.

A guy named Virgil Griffith has developed Wiki Scanner which allows you to partially trace ‘anonymous’ Wikipedia edits. For those who care, this works by doing a whois on the IP of the editing user.

Anyway, some interesting edits have been revealed using this tool.

Some examples from Wired:

  • “Voting-machine company Diebold provides a good example, with someone at the company’s IP address apparently deleting long paragraphs detailing the security industry’s concerns over the integrity of their voting machines, and information about the company’s CEO’s fund-raising for President Bush.”
  • Wal-Mart was more subtle, for example: “changing a line that its wages are less than other retail stores to a note that it pays nearly double the minimum wage”

There are lots of other examples – the whole thing is generating a lot of interest.

How long would you last in space without a suit?

Here is an article discussing how long a person could survive in space without a protective suit on.

The short answer is – not long: about 15 seconds.

There are several ways that you could die in these circumstances:

  • If you try to hold your breath in the vacuum of space your lungs will rupture and you’ll get a mean case of the bends.
  • If you don’t hold your breath (breathe out as much as you can), you’re not going to last too long either.
  • Because of the very low pressure moisture would start to boil. For instance:

    “One NASA test subject who survived a 1965 accident in which he was exposed to near-vacuum conditions felt the saliva on his tongue begin to boil before he lost consciousness after 14 seconds.”

  • There are also some pretty extreme temperatures in space: -130 C to 90 C. However, in a vacuum the body loses heat very slowly so this is unlikely to kill you too quickly.
  • Finally, the article mentions a “spake hickey”:

    “Caused from the swelling and bursting of the skin’s small blood vessels”

Armed robots to be deployed in Iraq

The Americans actually have a surprisingly high number of robots in service in Iraq. They have been heavily utilizing robots bomb disposal robots to good effect.

Wired has an article saying that the first armed robots are now to be deployed. There are already 3 of these deployed in Iraq and they haven’t yet fired the attached M249 machine guns.

Pretty scary that we are already at this point.

The Russians appear to be masters of the Arctic

The Economist has an article on how the Russians are doing a bit of a symbolic ‘land/ocean grab’ in the Arctic. In a symbolic act, a Russian flag was planted on the seabed at the North Pole.

There are plenty of resources in the Arctic and:

Global warming is making them look more accessible. They may include 10 billion tonnes of oil and gas deposits, tin, manganese, gold, nickel, lead, platinum and diamonds, plus fish and perhaps even lucrative freight routes.

More from the article:

The latest Russian expedition is not just collecting geological samples; on Thursday August 2nd it placed the Russian flag (in titanium) on the yellow gravel 4,200 metres below the surface at the site of the North Pole.

Even more startling, though, was Russia’s rhetoric. “The Arctic is ours and we should manifest our presence,” said Mr Chilingarov, a charismatic figure whom President Vladimir Putin has named as “presidential envoy” to the Arctic.

This was the first manned mission there [the seabed of the North Pole], mounted by a polar flotilla that no other country could match. For outsiders used to stories of Russian bungling and backwardness, that was a salutary reminder of the world-class technical clout and human genius the Kremlin can still command.