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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!

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


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.

7 Oct 2008

Language trouble

Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 3:17 pm

One of the words that I had to learn to pronounce differently in the States was my name — endlessly being asked to spell “Paul”, or receiving orders for “Boll” or some other nonsense, got old quickly.

Apparently I did the job too well. I had to spell “Paul” to a hairdresser’s receptionist today.

Damn. So where is my accent from now? Or my identity, really!

On the topic, I saw a play tonight that really did require South African experience to appreciate. It was Coupé, at the Market Theatre. Of the three main characters, one spoke only English, the second only Afrikaans, and the third only French. The first two communicated fine with each other (well, verbally, though not really beyond that), but not the third. Taking place entirely in a small train cabin, the characters were really well portrayed, as well as being really, really funny.

And the Market Theatre precinct (and actually much of the Johannesburg city centre) is looking really awesome now — the urban renewal people are really doing a great job. One of the restaurants at the Market Theatre will definitely be appearing in the soon-t0-be-launched Wednesday Night Dinner list.

5 Oct 2008


Filed under: Personal,Technology and science — paulcook @ 3:04 pm

Next week is going to be full of talking about doing, rather than doing, because I’ll be attending two conferences.

The first, on the weekend of 11-12 October, is a Johannesburg BarCamp. BarCamps are one of these new class of “unconferences”, where the idea is to get a group of people together, and have them give talks to each other about anything interesting. This one, I suspect, will be like most others and have a strong leaning towards the internet startup space. But I’m excited about the chance to meet some other local people working in this environment, and make some connections.

Then on 13-15 October is MobileActive08. This is a big, proper conference, where “proper” means that it has a topic: “Unlocking the Potential of Mobile Technology for Social Impact”. The agenda is full of really interesting presentations from people around the world using mobile (cellphone) technology to revolutionise business and social development. It’s especially relevant in South Africa, which is such a huge mobile technology market — I keep seeing new and fascinating applications being developed (like the incredibly successful MXit, now with somewhere on the order of 10 million users).

Talking of which, I’m going to these conferences with some mobile ideas of our own in mind — one relating (surprise, surprise) to the health sector. So this week will see a lot of work on getting out marketing paperwork sorted out.

Lastly: it looks like I can get some guests in for social functions for MobileActive. Any friends in Joburg interested? Drop me an email.

Tags: #barcampjozi #mobileactive08

9 Sep 2008


Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 2:51 pm

Life is busy! Here are some random extracts:

I gave a physics talk today at Wits University. It was largely an adaptation of my thesis defence. Turns out that the author of one of the really useful review papers in my field has been visiting here for the last few months, and he and my old advisor, Robert, had printed out and were reading my thesis! Sweet mercy, someone is actually reading it! Anyway, it seemed only right to give a talk about it. The talk went well and seemed to have been well received. But now there are some new developments recently I’m finding myself tempted to read up about…

People have crazy plans! My brother and roommate are planning to spend 20 days walking around a really big mountain in Nepal, in March. The same March that another friend (Claire) and company are buying some Land Rovers and heading up East Africa. They’re being beaten to it by another friend who’s planning a similar trip in December, sans Land Rovers. But in December my brother will be in Mozambique, which is rapidly becoming an awesome tourist destination (helps when there is no longer a civil war involving land mines). We of course went skiing in early August, but the same people are off ski-diving soon, marking time with sailing this weekend and hiking in the Drakensberg mountains next weekend. I’d love to go, but we (the family) are off to Hogsback, the family place in another set of mountains. Our place is so old it doesn’t have electricity, so it’ll be back to cellphone tethering for Internet.

I have about three plans for new projects at the moment, between the Thornhill work, and my aunt in parliament is hooking me up with all sorts of awesome people to maybe make some of them happen. Pity that leaves no time to, well, find somewhere to live. More details if and when the plans come together.

And to round off the craziness, I stopped at a petrol station recently, and the attendant was obviously having an unusual day. Apparently that morning a lady had offered him R50 000 (almost $10 000) to kill her (ie., assist in suicide) while she was sleeping. He took the money, but went to the police, found the lady’s family, gave them the money back and took them to her. There was, of course, much ensuing drama.

Oh, and the petrol was expensive.

12 Aug 2008

You know you’re back in Africa when…

Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 2:13 pm

Ah yes, back in Africa: I recently heard a commercial for a particular four wheel drive car (SUV) which was based around how good it is at getting away from a charging elephant. Which, actually, is a pretty good argument.

In between seeing all the friends again, I’ve been sorting out the little paperwork details of life, like bank accounts, expired drivers licenses, and so on. And working quite hard — there’s a bit of a rush right now. Next will come finding a place to stay. Which raises some interesting questions:

  1. Should I look to share, or get a place of my own? Doesn’t look like any close friends are looking to share at the moment, so it’d be with someone else
  2. Should I rent or buy? Prices are fairly good to buy at the moment, but of course it’s a whole raft of additional work, now and if I later wanted to sell or rent out.
  3. What sort of place do I even want?
  4. And where? Made more difficult by the related question of where do I want to work (set up an office)?

So yeah, any wise suggestions welcome.

And for something completely different: to “celebrate the small but potent part the snowball has played in Johannesburg history” (ie., because it’s snowed a few times in the last century), there is to be an official snowball fight this coming weekend, downtown. All completely absurd, of course. More here and a good write-up half way down here.

7 Aug 2008

Update: for non-Caltech friends

Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 1:10 pm

As you may have noticed, the blog has been very quiet for the last few months. This is largely due to my thesis, and the crunch of finishing it sooner than I had been expecting, say, a year ago. But I have indeed finished my thesis, and am now a Doctor of Philosophy in the field of Theoretical Physics (String Theory). It is fun saying this. I intend to continue doing so.

The last few months, or even years, of the thesis have been tough going — in retrospect, the topic was not really an ideal fit to me. My work was ultimately very mathematical, and light on physical visualisation, which is probably the opposite of what would have suited me. Anyway, it’s done now!

As a result, however, I’ve decided to take at least a break from physics, and not immediately start a new postdoc. I’m going to be working full time on an internet startup that does online administration of highly customised leadership development instruments (questionnaires, PDF reports, etc.), called Thornhill Associates. We’ll see whether I enjoy it, and where it goes. But it will be nice to still have the flexibility of working hours that I’m used to!

I’ve just moved back to Johannesburg. It’s been tough to leave the friends and places of the last five years, but also great to catch up with friends here.

And now I’m degenerating rapidly into generic platitudes, so that’s enough for now. You want to know more, you’ll have to contact me!