South Africa – A second time for First Thoughts

It’s not my first time in Cape Town and I doubt I’ll have anything particularly new or insightful to say. After all, there are innumerable Saffas knocking around the UKand Europe and they are going to be far more on the button than I.

It’s a world of contrasts though, that’s my first thought. It’s not just the obvious ones. At lunchtime on Wednesday I was in a meeting in the City of London. Nothing particularly highpowered, but I was minutes away from the old lady of Threadneedle Street, within a short stone’s throw of dozens of heavy hitting financial players – institutions that could make or break global markets in a multitude of commodities, equities and ever more diverse exotics.

Within 24 hours I was sat on a yacht, drifting out of Cape Town’s Table Bay Harbour for a short afternoon’s jaunt to Clifton where we moored up and enjoyed a brai, swimming to the shore and generally feeling that Europe is a million (rather than just 6000) miles away.

Cape Town is European. Make no bones about it. From its international airport with mobile phone adverts and wireless LAN in its arrivals lounge; to its transport infrastructure, 3 lane highways full of Japanese and European cars, it’s a sunny outpost of Britain.

You don’t have to look too deeply to find the inequalities – from the buying power of the British visitors, two and a half years ago it was 16 rand to the pound, now it is under 12 but it is still a bargain. For ease of comparison we’re assuming 10 to the pound and it still feels cheap. But there’s an inequality amongst the residents, while it might be 10 years since Apartheid loosened its grip on this Rainbow Nation, there are still some obvious signs of its legacy.

Walk in the bright and shiny V&A Waterfront amongst the restaurants and bars. While the white population is only about 10% they dominate the faces you see. Expensive bars, white faces. In our hotel, the non-white faces are among the staff, the white faces the management and the guests.

Every property you pass – from the palatial villas near our hotel in Constantia, to the waterfront apartments of Clifton, through the City Bowl urbanites and even out towards the cape in Scarborough and Kommetjie; they all share a nervousness. They are all hidden in their secure compounds, their armed response guard companies and 6 foot walls topped with razor wire.

The people you meet couldn’t be friendlier – but it’s the people we’re not meeting that make you really think. The last time I was here my car was broken in to when parked on the street. I don’t conspicuously show off my relative wealth, and on the face of it I am not necessarily a tourist (although the Lonely Planet under your arm and the camera in your pocket are giveaway signs). It’s not like parts of the far east where just the colour of your face tell you apart. But I do feel nervous here – nervous of not doing bad just by trying to spread a little wealth. I can afford to be magnanimous purely because I’m spending pounds. It’s a strange thing to be considered wealthy – I’m not used to it and I’m not entirely comfortable with it.

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The Unnecessarily Wireless World

So I was heading into town to meet a friend for lunch. In the old days you’d arrange a time and a place and you’d be there (or not). If you didn’t make it, you’d both move on and you’d telephone later. Admittedly I’m talking 10-15 years ago here, but the constant flow of information that we’re being submerged under isn’t just 24 hour rolling news and live sport from the other side of the globe. It’s personal
information, too. SMS, email, mobiles, wireless LANs …

It’s hard to imagine that one day in the not so distant past there was a time of only wires. Of the local loop and comms via copper wiring.

Not today. A few emails (picked up on my laptop via Wireless LAN from my kitchen table, naturally) to confirm the general location and a general time. (We’re heading to the centre from opposite directions.) Then, when I’m on the train rolling into the terminus, a quick text to confirm I’m really en route. Of course, it’s not just a text. The phone is snug in my pocket, but because I’m working on some notes on the laptop, I call on a new best friend BluePhoneElite – it is simply marvellous. Text from the keyboard, the phone is barely involved.

Of course I can on one side convince myself I’m being secure – as the adverts say, don’t advertise your mobile phone. Of course I am advertising my shiny 12″ G4 PowerBook, but these things can’t be helped. Alain de Botton has written recently on Status Anxiety. Ya boo sux to that.

Meanwhile I’ve written some notes that I’ll want to read on the plane tonight. A quick addition to the AcroReader for the Palm and – boof – a quick bluetooth sync later and they are there on the Palm in my other pocket.

Look ma, no cables.

As I roll into Waterloo the dialog box pops up with the new SMS confirming the RV – a Starbucks near Liverpool Street. I’ll not bore you with the details as to which, there are enough and you need to retain some mystery.

So a coffee and a few bites in Starbucks – of course we’re discussing some bits and bobs and need some information. Wireless LAN to the rescue again. A credit card payment later and I’m hooked up again, mainlining data. It’s a more addictive drug than the caffeine in the cup.

But in 9 hours I shall be in the air on a trans-continental flight, aloft for about 10 hours. Out of contact, blissfully bereft of that feed. A time to read. To think.

No connections – wirelessly out of contact. It’s the only joy of being herded like cattle through the skies.

4 little digits

So. Just how secure can a PIN be?

Just about everything surrounding the Chip and PIN system seems to be designed to irk and mislead. From using the phrase PIN, with a huge minority insisting on calling it a PIN Number, to the banks trying to insist it’s a good thing for the consumer.

It’s not.

How can using the same 4 digits be secure? When the banks have spent years trying to educate us to be careful with ATMs and to make sure that they haven’t been tampered with, suddenly we’re expected to use the same PIN code on a 1001 different types of epos terminals. Madness, I tell you, madness.

But the banks insist it is secure – and worse. This insistence means that if you are unfortunate enough to have your account plundered with mis-use of a valid PIN it must have been your fault!

Fortunately the public has a secret weapon. Step forward those nice people from Cambridge with their Chip and Spin. Read it, fear it and wonder just what life means with so much control being exerted by unelected entities which you need to be involved with. Life in the modern world without a bank would be virtually impossible. Life with only cash? Just how realistic is that going to be?

I’m a technology professional, I’m as big a gadget fetishist as the next house-trained geek, but when you’re not given a choice and the options left to you so utterly inequitous, you sometimes wonder how things can change in favour of the little man.

Killing through kindness?

Last night the popular rowing gossip site, The Slug published the slightly doom laden news that the Leo Blockley story is just about the enter a new chapter.

The short version is that at a training camp in Amposta, Spain at the end of 2000, a crew from the Oxford University lightweight men’s group was swamped in a flash storm, in the ensuing panic one of the crew, Leo Blockley, attempted to swim for the shore and never made it. (The story is more complex than that and many more details are available on the memorial campaign’s website.)

Burying a child must be the saddest duty a parent can ever do and, since then, as a memorial to their lost son, Leo Blockley’s parents have, admirably, conducted a campaign over the issue of buoyancy in rowing shells. You see while all racing rowing boats – from the small singles to the large eights – have to almost by definition float, there remains a grey area around the issue of their handling in inclement and unusual conditions. In the majority of outings undertaken on inshore water in the UK and around the world, the worst that might happen are a few small waves (perhaps from passing launches) and maybe a bit of rain.

The issue raised is how much these shells need to be able to remain buoyant when they have undergone extreme shock – be it overwhelming swamping or through losing structural integrity. How much should a shell be obligated to be able to still float when totally swamped (as was the case in Amposta).

It has been proven that the marginal cost of providing sufficient buoyancy to new shells is minimal and most boat manufacturers now offer this as standard, but certainly as a free/cheap option. But how much should this be obligated – and going further, how responsible are the UK governing body, the ARA, or the international body, FISA, for not having in their rules stipulations regarding safe supported weights.

The re-opening of the inquest, which had originally returned a verdict of accidental death, leads to a distressing inevitable conclusion – that criminal investigations and possible criminal charges are in the offing. The obvious conclusion is that someone considers someone (be it an individual or the sport’s powers that be) potentially criminally liable. Such a conclusion has almost inevitable repercussions.

The demise of rowing in the UK. That would be a lasting legacy to build on the earlier tragic drowning of Leo Blockley.

Killing through kindness?