Blog » Noteworthy news

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:

25 Sep 2008

A new president and cabinet!

Filed under: Africa, Noteworthy news — paulcook @ 2:36 pm

South Africa has a new (interim) president and cabinet! I’m quite excited, because it looks by-and-large like a good team. But mostly, I’m really excited because the new Minister of Health is my aunt!

I’ve had some people ask me about the situation recently, so here’s a very brief summary (what follows is of course entirely my opinion). The ruling party (the ANC) has been badly divided recently, between supporters of the outgoing national president Thabo Mbeki, and current ANC president and former national vice-president, Jacob Zuma. The issue is a drawn-out corruption trial against Zuma, arising from an arms deal quite a few years ago. Supporters of Zuma have been alleging interference from Mbeki in the various decisions to continue the prosecution, by the National Prosecution Authority. Supporters of Mbeki, and others, have been keen for the case to be heard — especially as at least some evidence seems fairly strong. Regardless, it’s been interesting to see marches and speeches on BOTH sides, all in defence of the independent judiciary and the constitution.

The most recent turn was a reference to possible interference from Mbeki and government, in a recent ruling in one of the High Courts. This, along with rapid collapse of support in the ANC for Mbeki, was enough to persuade the ANC’s National Executive Committee to recall Mbeki from his deployment as national president (as per the appropriate lingo). He duly resigned on Sunday, active today (the transition process has been managed very carefully and smoothly). Since South Africa is a parliamentary system, the new president is elected by parliament from amongst its members, and is Kgalema Motlanthe.

My thoughts are similar to those I’ve read elsewhere (eg. the Sunday Times): Mbeki was not doing a good job, and so it’s good that he has resigned; though the motives of the Zuma supporters are suspect. In my opinion, Mbeki has been a great statesman in many respects, especially in foreign policy. On the other hand, he’s had a few key weaknesses, notably HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe. More fundamentally, he has been very controlling, even paranoid, and has sometimes appointed key officials more for loyalty then competence or suitability — notably the outgoing health minister. This has led to far too much corruption and mismanagement, and the subversion of many of the ideals of the struggle. It’s good to see the pendulum finally swing against this leadership style, but the lasting damage is there — even those working most vocally against Mbeki have been using some of the same underhanded and paranoid approaches that he has. This is a huge shame, and it’s not at all clear that Zuma will re-introduce the missing moral high-ground.

As interim president (until the elections due in April or May), however, Kgalema Motlanthe sounds great. From all accounts, he more than almost any senior figure caught up in the divisions has kept a sense of the correct way of handling issues. He has a lot of respect from people across the board, and has been willing to call out some of the more … outspoken Zuma supporters when they have been out of line. So I was quite happy with his election.

And then at 5pm today, the new cabinet was announced, and my aunt is the Minister of Health! Health is of course a huge post in any government, but especially in South Africa, due to HIV/AIDS and related tuberculosis outbreaks, and the poor state of nursing in many of the state hospitals (there are parallel public and private health systems, with healthcare available to all through the public system, but often with poor nursing). The outgoing minister of health was really not at all great at the position, and was an endless source of crazy quotations on mostly AIDS issues. Taking the lead from Mbeki, she has not rolled out the AIDS treatment programme nearly as fast as it could have been — which of course has cost many, many lives and additional infections.

My aunt has more of a financial background, but in recent years has been very interested in the HIV/AIDS crisis, and has worked closely with the Treatment Action Campaign (the group that fought so successfully for the introduction of AIDS drugs). Personally, I think she’s awesome, has a great sense for what needs to be done, and works very hard and with great dedication to ensure that it is achieved. So I really hope she’ll have enough time in office to make profound changes to the healthcare system, and really solve the AIDS problem.

I’m also excited about what her appointment suggests about the new government. In Motlanthe’s first speech, he emphasised the continuity of government policy, but with a focus on successful implementation, and a healing of the divisions in the ANC. The fact that my aunt has been appointed suggests he really means it, since she has stayed out of the fight, and certainly is not one to pander to those in power. So yes, it’s not an entrenching of a power base or payback for a political favour, which is very welcome indeed!

So yeah, I certainly think we have a great team in government now! I haven’t heard from my aunt yet, but since she can’t have been approached about this any more than three days ago, I imagine she’s very, VERY busy right now. And probably a little scared too! The only bad news is that she’s been helping my parents oversee some renovations in Cape Town recently. I imagine she won’t be doing that as much now.

20 Sep 2008

Living through interesting times

Filed under: Africa, Economics, Noteworthy news — paulcook @ 5:12 am

What a week! It really has been full of momentous events, in two very different areas.

First, of course, came the complete reworking of the financial industry in the US (and elsewhere, to a lesser extent). Assuming, of course, that the worst is over — here’s hoping. No doubt there will be endless books and such written about this week in years to come. But right now three things come to mind: firstly, I find it interesting how rapidly “conventional wisdom” changes. I remember just months ago that learned figures were saying that the days of multi-functional financial firms were numbered, as their different divisions couldn’t realise benefits from working together — since a broker, for example, cannot preferentially sell his/her own company’s products to a client. Now, just a short time later, everyone is talking about the end of the narrowly-defined investment bank or other focused entity, as a concept, as it’s too hard to guarantee funding in a downturn. Secondly, there’s been the wholesale nationalisation of a large chunk of the financial sector in the US — which, if performed in another country, would probably have been labelled as completely against market principles. It has probably been wise, but still easy to label as hypocritical. Thirdly, it’s still sad to see how excesses amongst a few people drag so many more down with them. Poor regulation and dangerous practices in certain sectors of the US economy have now ruined markets elsewhere in the US, and around the world, despite that fact that many of those countries have very solid credit markets.

The other big news just broke: the National Executive Committee of the ANC (the ruling party in South Africa) has just decided after a marathon meeting to recall the deployment of Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa. Now starts the constitutional process, but it seems that soon SA will have a new (acting) president. This is but the latest in a long sequence of events. But the hope now is that we can remove the poison of the accusations of political interference in the decision to continue the corruption prosecution of Jacob Zuma. By this stage, regardless of the truth, it seems hard to see how any legal events can be accepted without controversy, especially after the most recent judgment referred explicitly to possible political interference in the National Prosecuting Authority (not, I should stress, in the judicial system). Whether the legal process will continue (that is, whether there will be further appeals in the Jacob Zuma case) remains to be seen. But it at least seems that the ANC is trying to deal with its internal divisions, and are recalling Mbeki in a way that will not lead to unnecessary uncertainty and instability.

Of course, for all of the above, only time will tell. But it’s really interesting, in a morbid way, to be living through events that you know will be seen as momentous in retrospect.

28 Feb 2008

A prison state

Filed under: Noteworthy news, Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 7:35 pm

Nice to get some hard facts to back up what I’ve heard: the USA really does have a huge proportion of its population in prison. It’s the world leader in prison population measured by BOTH total number OR percentage. Yes, that’s a larger total than even China or India (despite their much larger total population), and a higher percentage than (insert nasty country’s name here). The figure is that now 1 in 100 adults are in prison, and for example 1 in 9 African Americans aged between 20 and 34.

1 in 9?!? No wonder one sees persistent income differences between groups in America — not to mention differences in proportions of single-parent households. Of course, it’s hard to tell how much is intrinsic legal system bias versus other factors, and for other factors whether they are cause or effect. It does also illustrate an anecdote my friend Jeff (a US citizen) was telling from his recent jury callup, where he noted that the African American potential jurors had a universally very negative opinion of the police and legal system. Which in turn, of course, makes fighting crime in African American areas all that much harder — something South Africa has to deal with too, due to the association of the police with the old Apartheid regime.

But taking a step back: apparently some of the reason for the overall high rates are very strict sentencing guidelines for judges — such as “three strikes” rules requiring prison time after three offences. In any event, the US is not particularly safer than comparable countries with much lower prison rates — partially, one would imagine, because sending a petty thief to prison is great for producing a not-as-petty thief, via gang membership and the negative effect that a prison record has on gaining any other source of income. Not to mention that an overcrowded system isn’t likely to do a great job at rehabilitation.

25 Jul 2007

Ethical democracy: An exercise for the reader

Filed under: Africa, Noteworthy news, Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 3:05 pm

With a title like the above, there are so many things this post could be about — the last few days and weeks have been excellent for providing examples of less-than-ethical democracy. But this post is in fact about none of them — it’s about a tricky personal conundrum I faced today, in exercising ethical democracy.

The thing is, I’m not a US voter, or citizen. But I am a US taxpayer and legal resident at the moment. Tomorrow the US Congress will be voting on a bill (of which more later) on an issue very dear to my heart — because it represents probably the largest ongoing damage that the US does, every day, to the poorest of the poor in the developing world and especially Africa (of which I am a citizen). So the question for the reader is: should I phone my representative in Congress and ask them to vote the way I’d like on the bill?

The bill in question is the huge farm bill, and more especially the Fairness Amendment component thereof. US (and to be fair, European) farm subsidies are a mess: they cost the taxpayer huge sums, benefit predominantly the largest agribusiness concerns instead of small farmers, offer only marginal assistance to hungry people within the US and EU, and make it impossible for developing world (especially African) farmers to compete on the global market. For instance, farming cotton in Texas costs about three times the raw price it does in Mali, on the southern edge of the Sahara. But after subsidies Malian farmers can’t compete — and so huge areas of Africa aren’t even being farmed. Cotton is Mali’s main commercial export, despite this huge disadvantage — so one can only imagine the huge difference even a small tweak to the subsidies would make to the 10 million inhabitants of this desperately poor country. And as in cotton, so too elsewhere — US and EU farm subsidies are together larger than the total GDP of sub-Saharan Africa. But enough rant — contact me if you’d like more!

Anyway, the Fairness Amendment is a step in the right direction. The vote is tomorrow. In the end I went ahead and phoned my Congressional rep — using this really convenient and easy service.

Now the more suspicious amongst you might think that what this post is really about is getting those of you who can phone US representatives without suffering any complicated ethical choices, to indeed go ahead and phone. In fact, you might even be right. But I am also interested in what people think about whether it’s ethical for me to make such a phone call.

And yes, it’s been a while since my last blog post. I have a few stacked up awaiting typing, but this one came first thanks to the obvious deadline. Thanks for your patience!

7 Nov 2006

Oh, to be a fly on the wall…

Filed under: Noteworthy news, Stuff — paulcook @ 6:58 pm

A line from an article about US election irregularities:

In Kentucky, a poll worker was arrested for trying to throttle a voter.

What?!? Throttling a voter?? Sounds like there might very well be a very, very interesting story behind this one. Any suggestions on the last thing this particular voter might have said, just before being throttled?

Here’s one to start things off: “So I just pushed this thing here, and now I’ve got this blue screen saying something about an illegal operation…”

11 Oct 2006

New estimate on Iraqi war deaths - one in forty

Filed under: Noteworthy news — paulcook @ 11:36 am

Just released (see, for example, this Reuters article) is a new study, which aimed to estimate the number of Iraqis who have died as a result of the US invasion in 2003. The methodology involved interviewing randomly sampled families, rather than more passive studies involving, for example, morgue reports. The conclusion is that the death rate since the invasion has been about two and a half times higher than that before the invasion, as a result of all causes — including violence, breakdown in medical services, etc. This translates into 655 000 additional deaths, or one in forty Iraqis.

It is studies of this sort which once again show that invading a stable country, even one ruled by a brutal regime, does NOT improve the lives of the people within the country. And it certainly can’t improve the world’s image of the invading country. I just hope that one day soon American society will start really asking itself how this tragedy could have been allowed to happen, and how the US world view needs to change to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

14 Sep 2006

Arctic ice shrinks 14% in a year

Filed under: Noteworthy news, Technology and science — paulcook @ 7:17 pm

New studies from NASA (JPL) and elsewhere show a 14% reduction in perennial (ie. survives the summer) Arctic ice in just one year, from 2004 to 2005. Supercomputer models had suggested that the ice (and, incidentally, polar bears as a species) would all be gone by 2070, but this is far faster even than those predictions.

This might be a good time to turn off a light, or take your bike to work tomorrow. Just a thought.

5 Sep 2006

Co2 levels in ice cores

Filed under: Noteworthy news, Technology and science — paulcook @ 10:52 am

In the news today: new studies of gas bubbles trapped in Antarctic show that current CO2 levels are higher than those for the last 800 000 years — and that the growth in CO2 levels over the last 17 years is so fast that it would normally require over 1000 years of natural variation to produce the same change.

The past 800 000 years includes many ice ages, and interglacial warming periods between the ice ages. The CO2 level fluctuates in step with global average temperature. So we’re looking at a change that in the last 17 years has been larger than that associated with a mere ice age (though luckily other changes are also associated with ice ages). But our CO2 emission rate is still increasing.

28 Dec 2005

Same-sex marriage in South Africa

Filed under: Africa, Noteworthy news — paulcook @ 11:57 am

As you may have heard in the news, on 1 December the South African Constitutional ruled that the wording of South Africa’s Marriage Act discriminates in an unconstitutional way against the rights of homosexual couples. The government now has to rewrite the legislation to allow same-sex marriage. The judgment is of course exciting and a triumph of South Africa’s ambitious constitution. But the text of the judgment raises some interesting questions relating to whether individual marriage officers with contrary religious beliefs should be required to marry same-sex couples.