- Zulu, for fire or flame
- My second name
More about me


Blog in semi-hibernation

This blog is in semi-hibernation. My job at McK, while hugely interesting, unfortunately often requires me to keep everything I'm doing confidential. So, my post frequency is likely to be low!

How this blog is organised

Some categories of posts:

Personal News about me and my life
African growth Africa's accelerating growth and the opportunities this creates
Stuff Anything cool or funny that I happen to see, mostly online. Short and ideal for wasting time
Politics and philosophy Thoughts about the way the world works, or should work. These are typically longer, serious posts
Technology and science Technology and computers, and physics. Some of these posts are quite technical

The list of posts below are from all categories; click one of the above links to stay within a category that you find interesting.

19 Sep 2012

Micrologistics and the need for transport in Africa

Filed under: Africa — paulcook @ 9:21 am

‘Micrologistics’ is my name for a new approach to transport of goods in small loads, using mobile phones to provide the trust and tracking required to create an effective transport network out of existing vehicles. Below some thoughts on why I think small-scale logistics is a real problem in Africa, what the underlying challenge is, and a possible solution. I think Africa is ready for a new model of small-scale, bottom-of-the-pyramid logistics – for a ‘micrologistics’ revolution.

11 Sep 2012

“Africa at work” report finally published

Filed under: Africa, Economics, Personal — paulcook @ 4:19 pm

The report I’ve spent quite a few months working on has been published — Africa at work: Job creation and inclusive growth. We look at the state of employment in Africa, and what needs to be done to create more wage-paying jobs. It’s awesome to see it getting lots of media attention, but also just good to get it out — it was a lot of work!

In other news, Claire and I are back in Johannesburg after a great year in London and a month of travel in Europe. I’m on a leave of absence for another month or so, still enjoying a more relaxed life!

20 Jul 2009

Bureaucracy: some good and bad

Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 7:52 pm

I’ve had some excellent examples of how completely differently bureaucracy can be managed by different organisations. Be warned: rants below. And raves.

Cellphones 1: Vodacom
I wanted to change my Vodacom account from a contract “Top-up 315s” package (which costs R315 a month (around $38), but rolls-over whatever you don’t use in airtime), to a prepaid account, which costs nothing a month, but has slightly higher call costs. I’m doing this because I’m not spending anywhere near the R315 a month, and will spend less now I have a company phone, so it was a waste.

So I called, with not much hope — I mean, I was asking for a contract to be cancelled, but to keep my number AND my chunk of unused airtime. But within minutes it was all done, and I received confirmation SMSs from the system while I was still talking to the representative. Congrats Vodacom!

Cellphones 2: Verizon
Got another Verizon bill today. This is from the 11 days or so of cellphone service I used from them back in June. Every bill I get tells a completely different story, that bears little relation to reality or the previous bill. This one was no exception: a bill for $174ish (or around $16 a day of use), due largely to an early termination fee. Now, I cancelled within 30 days, so there should be no termination fee — but more importantly, I didn’t even sign up for a contract that had a term that could be early terminated!! Fools!! Oh joy, another night on Skype to look forward to, fighting with their “customer service” reps.

Tax 1: South African Revenue Service
Unbelievable. The new filing system is fantastic. A simple website, where most of your return is already completed based on the data they have from employer, and you just have to confirm or add in any additional deductions (I’ve been paying my own health insurance). Not only that, from clicking the “submit” button, my refund was in my bank account within two days. Nice one, SARS!

Tax 2: Internal Revenue Service (USA) and Fulbright/Grantax
After spending the customary full day of finding forms, filling them in, attaching copies, etc., and finally posting them (snail mail), since that’s for some bizarre reason cheaper than e-filing, I’ve just been informed that my return was wrong. Yes, despite not receiving any income from Fulbright for years now, apparently an airplane ticket they bought me last year, to return to South Africa, should have counted as income, and so my return should have been routed through Fulbright’s tax services (Grantax). Nevermind that the cost of the ticket never went through me, or indeed that I didn’t ever know how much it even cost. This also means that I’m supposed to pay tax on a supposedly “free” ticket. And, of course, deduce these facts through the power of mind-reading.

This all arose because the IRS sent my refund check to Grantax instead of into my bank account, like my return requested. I haven’t used Grantax in years, and spent literally DAYS last year trying to find out from IRS how to somehow remove the Grantax power of attorney from my tax account. Wasted days, as I was never able to find a single human from IRS anywhere to talk to — or anything relevant online.

Bonus rant: Telkom
I had DSL Internet from Telkom for two days, on and off, as they kept cancelling it for reasons known best (if at all) to them. Still trying to sort out ludicrous billing. Top tip for Telkom: speak to Vodacom or SARS.

Phew! I feel better after that rant. Back to work — starting the new job at the end of the week, and there’s lots to get done before then. But I’m off to Austria for some training on Saturday, which should be great!

25 Mar 2009

Economic imperialism in Lusaka

Filed under: Africa — paulcook @ 10:52 am

We’re in Lusaka at the moment, stayed here overnight. Chris and I flew in yesterday morning, and we had a lot of time to wander around, as the Land Cruiser on the way from Livingstone had a little wheel bearing problem. All sorted out now!

My first impression of Lusaka was that it felt like China — meeting the plane were a row of fully uniformed Chinese policemen/army officers, and it looked like there were Chinese military jets in the airport. Many of those on the plane were Chinese.

My second impression was that it felt like South Africa — most of the billboards and almost all the products in local shops (not to mention that local shops themselves) are South African. Lots of billboards, for example, are for the cellphone company MTN, and they all have the 2010 World Cup logo on them — even though the cup is going to be held just in South Africa.

After some chatting to the locals, we’re gathering that lots of infrastructure construction is being undertaken by the Chinese government — though often using Chinese labour, and sometimes of poor quality. They’re interested in building ties because of the resource wealth of Zambia. South African involvement, on the other hand, seems little driven by government, and much more by export of consumer products and groceries.

Which, on reflection, makes sense: China has a huge domestic market but few resources, so is engaged in government-driven development of resource sources. South Africa has all the resources it needs, but a small domestic market, so South African companies are building markets north of the border. So what might initially have seemed to be a clash of interests might well be more of a complementary involvement.

Of course, the real question is where this leaves the Zambians. I’m still trying to work that one out.

20 Mar 2009


Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 6:21 pm

Since it’s been more than a week since my last post, I think it’s time for an update.

I’m leaving on Tuesday for three weeks travelling through Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. I’ll be joining a few other people in a beast of an old-school Land Cruiser, and meandering through the game reserves and mountains, then along the coast of Lake Malawi [does linking to Wikipedia even count as a link anymore?], and finally along the Indian Ocean in Mozambique, with side trips to places like Bazaruto Island. It’ll be my first trip to most of these places, and it’s looking awesome! What with camping, it’ll also be my longest separation from the Interwebs in many a year.

While on travel, I’ll be in Los Angeles, and briefly San Fransisco, arriving in LA on 5 June and leaving 17 June. I’m expecting big parties, so yeah, people over there, get organising. You know, between thesis writing. (And seriously, best wishes to all those in the write-up stage).

I’m staying in a really cool apartment in Killarney, which is fantastically central to almost anything in Johannesburg. Buying furniture from scratch has been a mission, but I’ve got most stuff covered now. Pictures are … uh … coming. Actually, I finally bought a camera recently, so when that arrives pictures will actually follow.

Wednesday Night Dinner has worked out really well, with as many as 17 people for some weeks, and a restaurant roster that’s included some really interesting places, and lots of new people to meet.

Going even further back, some highlights were Christmas holidays in the Western Cape winelands and at the coast — there’s nothing like hitting the beach and ocean to make it really feel like Christmas. A few days before that, I went to a Christmas party at a surprise venue, organised by a friend of a friend. We loaded into two buses, and were driven to an empty floor of a building in Braamfontein (somewhat analogous to areas around downtown LA). There we found a bar and small stage and sound system that had been set up, so we partied! Pitching up at a random place and having a party appeals to me, it turns out.

Looking forward, the big news is that I’m going to be changing jobs in July. The company I’m working on at the moment is doing well, and it’s interesting, but I’m getting tired of working by myself with just a computer screen. So it’s time to meet new people and work on new problems. As a result, I’ve taken a position at a large international management consultancy we’ll refer to as “M”. It is going to be a substantial change to my daily routine, but I’m very excited about the range of interesting problems that the Johannesburg office is involved in solving, around Southern Africa, including a lot of big public sector engagements. It does, however, leave me with a lot of programming to do before July.

And that’s the bulk of the news! Or at least the news that is going to land up online.

4 Dec 2008

Contradictions in the countryside

Filed under: Africa — paulcook @ 10:56 am

This last weekend I attended the wedding of (as of the weekend) Rebecca and Danson Joseph, at the Cathedral Peak hotel in the Drakensberg. It was a beautiful wedding, and a good party — many of us camped near the hotel, in a big shared campsite. My congratulations and best wishes to Danson and Rebecca!

The last 40km or so of the trip to the hotel passes through a part of what was the “self governing homeland” of Kwazulu, under the Apartheid system. It’s been a long time since I was in this part of the country, and it’s just such a reminder of the bizarre results of Apartheid, and of the difficulty of overcoming its legacy.


Filed under: Noteworthy news, Personal — paulcook @ 10:00 am

I’m very excited about a project running at the moment, as summarised below. Full disclosure: It’s funded by my company, Thornhill, so I may be biased!

The idea is a modern alternative to initiation - a way in which school leavers could be introduced to the attitudes, ethic and life skills required to be an effective employee and citizen. The programme, for thirty school leavers, began this Friday with a weekend away in the Magaliesberg, and then runs for two weeks at GIBS (a business school).

The first few days have gone very well, with the participants committed, excited and learning lots. I particularly enjoyed hearing about some excellent spontaneous poetry in response to the weekend away.

A huge congratulations to Sarah Tinsley, Lanier Covington and Jonathan Cook for the concept and for making it all happen. This is also unlikely to be the last time the project runs, so I’m excited about it having a very useful impact on the lives of many high school leavers. Obviously, there’ll be a need for more volunteers to scale it all up, so anyone interested please drop Sarah a line — see contact details below.

Some further information:

21 Oct 2008

My first art commission

Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 2:59 pm

Just got two oil paintings completed! (EDIT: By which I mean, the people who paint these have finished painting them for me, the buyer). Turns out there are people in Vietnam (where my father recently visited), who will paint big oil paintings like these (the larger one is more than a metre across) from photos, for an excellent price.

Paintings from Vietnam

On the left right is our family place in Hogsback, in the forests and mountains of the Eastern Cape. On the right left are some candles as arranged at my parents’ place. Now need to get them framed.

17 Oct 2008

Size of the derivatives market

Filed under: Economics — paulcook @ 8:07 am

Fascinating analysis of the numbers involved in the murky, model-driven world of the derivatives markets:
The Size of Derivatives Bubble = $190K Per Person on Planet .

Thanks to @RubyGold for the link.

15 Oct 2008

MobileActive08: Project Diaspora

Filed under: MobileActive08 — paulcook @ 5:34 am

Project Diaspora
TMS Ruge

(A personal note: it’s been great meeting Teddy, who’s behind this project — five days of conferences makes for good friends quickly!)

We started with the reminder that the African diaspora is a highly educated and useful group of people!

As a starting point, looking at mobile banking. Many African banks may not accept the huge volumes that the Africa diaspora transfers. Solving the remittance problem is obviously a huge ICT issue. But regulator is even a bigger problem — 54 countries! Suggestion that some banks (mostly South African) are starting to gain footprint across the continent. Perhaps a better system is partnering with an existing provider — using volume to build incentive for providers to offer lower-cost providers. Finally, donating to NGOs rather than person-to-person reduce costs.

Big problem with NGOs: people don’t know what other people are doing — get lots of duplication of effort. This is a known but unsolved problem. Should Project Diaspora attempt to solve this problem? Shouldn’t duplicate effort towards preventing the duplication of effort. Suggestion: define a microformat, to allow aggregation of databases.

This led to discussion of whether diaspora should create new projects, or support existing projects. It’s hard to set up and manage something from another country! There are also already groups that manage relations between donors and NGOs, including accountability.

Challenges to diaspora using the existing organisations: too many projects to search through; and desire to be involved especially as being a diaspora member, rather than just another citizen of your host country. What about project information from government? Problem: a lot of people distrust the government.

Project Diaspora as a social network. www.mykenyanspace.net is an existing one for the Kenyan diaspora. A further comment on these — being part of an existing organisation is better for raising funds and being sustainability. One challenge is getting recent news from people actually IN the country concerned. nabble.com: provides opportunity for volunteers in projects, and has people on the ground — citizen media type activity. Focus HAS to be on providing value to the people in the social network — some ways are letting people from the same country get in touch where they are, and also provide sources of information from their original countries.

Difference with “normal” social networking is perhaps the need for “community co-ordinators” who extract key information and memory out of the forums, and organise the database and summary pages.

A very different suggestion: work on existing open source Java applications for chatting (eg. Praekelt foundation has one) / SMS replacement on phones, and make it available through Project Diaspora — this makes international SMS essentially free! Huge draw to the site too.