Saturday, 28 December 2013

Homeward bound

Dubai International Airport is big. So big, that I'm not sure how they fit it all inside Dubai. After landing, there's what feels like a 45 minute bus trip because the plane parked so far away from the terminal. Then there's what helpful signboards call an "estimated 10 minute walk" to Gate A. The ten minute walk ends at an inside station for a high-speed train. The train's sole purpose in life is to travel back and forth between Gate A and Gate B of Dubai Airport (and some people think that a human life is monotonous!) The train takes several minutes to arrive, and after a another several minute journey, I'm getting close. Gate A24, here we come. Signs and shops, and signs, and more signs, and more shops. People going to the other A gates are directed down separate passageways, until it's just me following signs towards an ever decreasing range of numbers. Eventually A24 has its very own sign, another passage, some more shops, more signs, and I've found my gate. The plane landed before 11 PM and midnight came and left again a while ago. It's taken me almost an hour and half to get from one part of the airport to another. I could have landed in PE and driven to Grahamstown in the same time, except now I'm not only just still in the same city, but I'm still in the airport of the same city.

The five-and-a-bit hour flight from Vienna to Dubai was less painful than I was expecting (see, pessimism does pay off), apart from the fact that my usual luck of getting two seats for long flights failed me, and my neighbour exuded terrible karma and worse breath. Sitting at the emergency exit and having a bit of leg room makes a huge difference. I'm not looking forward to the eight-plus hour flight coming up after a few hours' wait, but here's to using up some optimism and hoping that they have the same movie selection so that I can finish off the Bourne films.

My S3 died several weeks ago, hence the general lack of updates and photos, in case anyone missed them. You'll have to catch up with me in person some time if you want to hear about the parts of my trip which were meant to be covered below, but somehow never made it past the mental drawing-board.

If you're in Grahamstown, or are going to be, then see you soon!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Boring Essays and Interesting Adjectives

Deadlines are approaching again, and procrastination methods grow thin; and so I turn yet again to my trusty blog for distraction.

My other primary source of procrastination at the moment is Mark Forsyth's new book "The Elements of Eloquence". It's brilliant. My favourite part so far has been about Tolkien's "Green Great Dragon", which featured in one of his earliest stories, written while he was a child. His mother corrected him and said it had to be a "Great Green Dragon", which discouraged Tolkien so much that we are lucky that The Lord of the Rings exists. Forsyth explains why one doesn't speak of Green Great Dragons:
"The reason for Tolkien's mistake, since you ask, is that adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you'll sound like a maniac. It's an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can't exist."
And at the moment that seems far more interesting than whether social sciences and theoretical sciences can all fit under some deductive nominological covering laws, or whether rational and theoretical explanations are fundamentally different, or whether the word cause has three unrelated meanings (I think some of those things are relevant to my essay).

I'm also wondering whether there exist any Philosophers who don't make complete fools of themselves when trying to talk about Mathematics and Science; and if they are out there somewhere, whether their numbers are smaller than the Mathematicians and Scientists who can talk about Philosophy without making a fool of themselves. If one more Philosopher uses the word 'quantum physics' in serious argument, I may give up all hope. Hearing someone from the Royal Institute of Philosophy try to talk about Turing machines earlier this month almost left me in need of psychological help.

In case you were hoping news about General Life, with optional comma splices: It's getting cold, I saw hail and snow, I'm getting tired of my very creepy flat mates watching me intently while I prepare food without speaking even when spoken to, the old milk in the communal fridge has come alive and is about to declare war on humanity, but no-one is brave enough to claim responsibility for leaving it there or to remove it, someone finally got tired of the mound of unwashed dishes and threw them all away, leaving lots of people a bit upset, I went to Hanley today to try get my phone fixed, and came to the conclusion that this part of England is dead (the shops were closed, the bars were closed, the restaurants were empty, and the conclusion we made about the one open nightclub was that the only thing more undesirable than standing in the queue to get in would be the possibility of going in), my sleep cycle is now almost completely reversed, which makes even 11 A.M. lectures unpleasant, luckily I have Wednesdays and Thursdays completely free, not to mention coffee, to recover, time is flying faster and faster (leaving in a month? didn't I just arrive?), it turns out that there are some English people at Keele too (sometimes it seems like they're the minority here), I think that's enough for now, maybe more soon, otherwise see Twitter and Facebook.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Anonymous Marking

A few days ago I handed in my first essay to Keele University. It's quite a long process. I had to find the Humanities office, then wait in the queue of students (as obviously we'd all left the process to a few minutes before the deadline), fill in a long complicated form that asked difficult questions like "Fill in your Student Number", (Keele issues students with two 'student numbers', and it's always difficult to tell which one to use), "Fill in your tutor's name" (I didn't think 'No idea' was what they were looking for, but luckily one of my classmates in the queue helped me out with that one), and "Fill in the module number of your course" (luckily that one was written on my timetable).

Also included was the plagiarism declaration, which is what all of it is actually about. Once I'd filled out all the fields in this form (using up almost all my ink in the process, and trying not to mutter too loudly about how this was all pointless and redundant and we were required to submit electronically through turn-it-in as well), I gave the essay and form to the secretary, who carefully perused both to make sure all was in order. She tut-tutted at spotting my name on the title page, and neatly and carefully scratched it out, making very sure to do a thorough job, so that it would be quite impossible for anyone to read it. She told me proudly that Keele used anonymous marking, as if this was the most forward and admirable thing in the world.

As it was just a first year English essay, and I done all the reading and written the 1000 words in a couple of hours, and as I knew that the lecturer had not the faintest idea who I was, I couldn't have cared less. As long as I never had to read the damn thing again. But on Wednesday I will be submitting my 3000 word Philosophy essay on Hume (Of the Standard of Taste), and considering that I have put a good deal more work into this essay, that I will actually be reading the lecturer's feedback with interest, and that the lecturer knows who I am, the idea of anonymous marking has come to bother me far more than it did previously. While it may protect students from lecturer bias, this protection will create more harm than good: For one, the lecturers will not be able to give personalised, constructive feedback. They have no way of knowing (making the shaky supposition that nameless essays are truly anonymous) if students are benefiting from feedback, and are unable to adapt their feedback accordingly. Surely a lecturer will never be able to give useful feedback if they do not know who they are talking to? And secondly, bias may sometimes be necessary. If a student's first language is not English, but it is nonetheless obvious that sufficient effort has been put in to compensate for this, some bias is needed, as the penalization for language and grammar should be reduced. While this may not be as relevant at Keele as at Rhodes, with Keele having over one third of its student body made of international students, it is certainly a factor.

Luckily, as with nearly every other idea I've ever had, a quick Google proves that I am not alone in this (if you feel clever, witty, original, etc in this modern world then you don't spend enough time Googling stuff). Look, it's all already done for me:
Now I'm just wondering if I should sneakily include my name at the end of my essay, in which case it'll be read by the lecturer first, and she won't be able to unread it.

Maybe I just have an ego problem.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Important Academic Work!

Lectures have started! For English, I'm going to be reading a novel every two weeks; for one of my Philosophy modules we're covering Heidegger's Being and Time and Collingwood's An Essay on Metaphysics. Then there's still another module of Philosophy and some History floating around somewhere, neither of which has graced me with lecture time yet. Then there are secondary readings, but the list of secondary readings has now become a reading on its own.

So obviously I'm getting my teeth stuck in early. I wouldn't sit around procrastinating or anything. That wouldn't be like me at all.

Ummm. Well, there was this Grocott's article which I read at 1 AM, while trying and failing to put my sleep pattern back to something which the rest of the world finds convenient.

Some terminology for foreigners - (Puts on condescending teacher voice): Grahamstown is the town where I live; Makana is our municipality - they're very good at figuring out how to spend their entire budget on luxury hotel lunches, but pretty hopeless at everything else, including walking and chewing gum at the same time; Grocott's is our local paper, which was South Africa's oldest independent newspaper, but now is neither independent (debatable) nor a newspaper (debatable).

So this post is actually located here: (I tried putting the image directly into my blog, but the Twitter feed got in the way, and then the feed and the article started fighting with each other, so I thought it best to separate them).

Saturday, 5 October 2013


I got to the till at Morrison's supermarket, and started the by now well-practiced speech. "No, it doesn't have a chip. You swipe it. See, a magnetic strip, like a cassette tape. Yes, you know, before CDs? (Oh my God, is she younger than I am?) Yes, it is a normal debit card. Yes, your card machine does have a slot to swipe cards. Yes, I know you've never used it before -- but look, it's quite simple. Yes, we also get chip cards in South Africa, but this one isn't one of them. Yes, I know my card isn't signed. Yes, you may see my driver's licence. No, I can't actually sign my name the way I did when I got my driver's licence. Yes, I also agree that that squiggle is close enough. Thank you, have a nice day."

Except this time I was only just getting going, when I was rudely interrupted. "Shhhh," I said. "If I stop in the middle I have to start again. You know, rote learning. Muscle memory."

"We can't accept cards like that."

"I've used this card in this shop three times. I know the drill. Swipe it, look for the signature, complain, look at my driver's and I leave. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about."

"Let me just call someone to check."

"No, no. No need for that. I'm telling you, I know how this works. I've been here before. I've done this before. Look, I have the T-Shirt."

"Let me just check."

The manager arrived, while the people behind me the queue started waiting in a more obvious manner. They stopped looking at the DVDs on sale, and started not watching me instead, where "not watching" is closer to the opposite than to the absence of watching.

"We can't accept it unless it's signed."

Sigh. I started the speech again. Again it had no result. "I've used this card in this shop three times. This is the fourth time. Fourth."


A slightly prolonged silence, where the manager thought: Hmmm, I could let it go. But it's been a boring day, and a bad week. And he talks like he's not from here. Is that an Australian accent? Bad week, boring day. Let's go.

"Well then, I obviously need to retrain all my tellers."

Haha. Joke, right? Right? Ahhh. Not a joke.

"So, give me a pen, and I'll sign it. It is signed -- it's just faded and rubbed off a bit. Look, here's my licence. I've used this card all over Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, Ireland, and England. I've used it in three different Morrisons, and three times in this Morrisons."

"Sorry, I can't let you do that. I still don't know you haven't stolen it."

OK, so now you're not only the world's least pleasant person, but you're also guilty of libel.

The not watching behind me grew a bit more intense. I decided to be nice.

"Fine. Fine. Let me go draw cash. I'm so happy that I can deal with humans in this shop. You know -- humans? Spirit of the law, not the letter. That kind of thing. I'd hate to receive unpleasant, unfriendly service. That wouldn't be nice -- might give me a bad impression of your whole country, you know? Thank you. Now if you just keep these over here for me, I'll go draw cash with my unsigned card. I'm sure I can convince the ATM to look past a faded signature -- humans, you know. I'd hate our world to be run by machines."

"Have you got any refrigerables in there?"

Say what? Is that even a word?

"Because if you do, I'm not allowed to keep them aside for longer than 20 minutes. I'll. Have. To. Put. Them. BACK. Mwaaahahahahaha."

May you and your family live lives of agony for a hundred generations, and then may they die in even more agony.

"Twenty minutes. I'll do my best, but you know I have to press three buttons on the ATM before it'll do its job and give me what I need. Three. That could easily take longer than 20 minutes. But I'll be back. Just leave my shopping there, OK. I'll be back now."

The friendly ATM said hello to me. "Please would you do me the honour of inserting your card? If it's not too much mission. Isn't it a nice day today. Would you like a receipt? No receipt? Cash? Unusual card you have there. Is that a magnetic strip? No problem, I can help you in German, French, Spanish, or even English if you want? English? Ah, you must be South African. Lovely place. Cool, well here we go. I got this. Going as fast as I can. 50 pounds. No problem. Shall I charge you a fixed exchange rate, or would you like to leave that up to your bank? Your bank? Are you sure -- the fees could be higher. Oh, you know that. OK, just being helpful and efficient. It's my job, you know. What I don't get paid for. Please take your card. Here's your cash. Thank you so much for letting me serve you. Have a good day.

Twenty seconds later, and I was back in the shop.

It was enough time for the manager to have taken her scheme further, and hidden my shopping. A long time later, I found it. She was standing there in a corner, waiting and gloating. She looked at her watch, and her face flooded with disappointment. "Nineteen minutes, fifty-five seconds. Huuurumph."

"Now," I said. "Let's be friends. No hard feelings, right? We have our differences, but let's resolve them. Be nice to each other. You've heard of that? I've got this deal, right? How it works, see, is you don't send me to the back of a queue."

"The items have been wiped off the system. Please go to the back of the queue."

Saturday, 28 September 2013

The English and Their Rules

I love this place and the people here. You should probably read the previous sentence again after you've read what follows...

It started with the pre-enrollment online induction. We were sent a link by Keele University and asked to complete this as soon as possible, and preferably before we arrived. I open the Web page from my phone, signed into my Keele account, and pressed "begin pre-enrollment online induction". It sounded awfully important - how could I possibly enroll at Keele if I hadn't pre-enrolled, after all, and how could I be properly inducted if I hadn't been inducted online first?

Please complete the 24 stage process now.

24 stages? 24? I was travelling the world, seeing wonderful people and places. I didn't have time or inclination to complete 24 stages! It would have to wait. I closed the Keele page and promptly forgot all about it.

Until I arrived at Keele.

"Do you have your accommodation pass?" I was asked. It turned out that after completing online pre-enrollment you were given the option to print an accommodation pass. I had all my bags with me, and was exhausted after travelling all day - but I wasn't allowed a room until I'd completed my 24 stages... I grat my teeth, and began.

I was instantly relieved. Each stage was a page of information about safety, regulations, etc. I thought briefly of Jeremy Clarkson having a go at British Health and Safety, and then went into Installing New Software On Microsoft Windows auto-pilot mode. NextNextNextNextNextNextNextNext. Leaping through the stages at an incredible speed, reading nothing at all. I only hit a slight snag on stage 22, a 10 minute long video where the "next" button refused to appear until the video had been watched. Luckily the fast forward functionality hadn't been disabled, and I put it to good use.

Thank you for completing the final stage. Please answer the questions below to proceed.
1) What is the 2nd digit of the number you should contact in the event of a Fire?
2) What was the 5th adjective used in the 7th paragraph of the 8th stage.

There were 10 of these questions. And I was not allowed to visit specific previous pages. It was answer the questions, or start again.

Luckily it was all multiple choice, so I picked likely looking answers at random, and got all of them right, printed off my pass, and collected my key.

This is post one of at least three. Check back soon for the restrictions on Meal Vouchers and Buffets.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Sitting in Swansea

It's 4 AM and I'm sitting in the waiting room of the Swansea station. A train to Bristol has just pulled out of the station, gloating at me. I'm going to Bristol too, but only at 6.30 AM. My ticket to go to Bristol is for the 6.28 AM train, not the 03.50 one. Why? Because the 6.28 ticket was cheaper. It seemed logical at the time – a few hours of my life for a few pounds was a good exchange. But I didn't reckon with the fact that the train would gloat. Putting up with that gloating made me wish that I'd just forked out the couple of quid extra.

The waiting room is deserted. I find it strange that no one is sitting here. Is the waiting room of Swansea not the 'place to be' at 4 AM on a Wednesday morning? No? I wonder where people are, and what they're doing. I even had a look outside, and saw no-one. The shops and cafés were closed; the houses were dark; and there weren't even officials at the station. You'd think that everyone was sleeping, or something.

Luckily I have my luggage and technology to keep me company. And a power point (no, not that piece of Micro$oft software that allows one to create instruments of torture, now outlawed by the Geneva convention – I mean a plug socket). And a heater. But no WiFi – it's amazing how much of the warmth I'd sacrifice for WiFi: perhaps we really do need to reconstruct Maslow's hierarchy of needs, putting WiFi at the bottom, below food and shelter.

I wonder if anyone will ever notice that I came into UK territory without having my visa or even my passport checked. I thought Irish passport control was relaxed: the official on the way in asked me how long I was staying and when I was leaving, and then wrote that date plus a generous several days into my passport with a ballpoint pen. But the UK police desks at the ferry port were empty – one uniformed person showed us where to find our luggage, and then we simply walked through, onto the station, and into Wales. I almost feel cheated, considering how much time, effort, and money went into acquiring a UK visa.

Oh dear. They make long announcements here in Welsh. Now I know why everyone else is avoiding it. Does every word in Welsh begin with a strange “sSshhch” sound that brings Sid the Sloth from Ice Age to mind?

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Europe! An overview.

Vienna, Hausach, Basel, Berlin, Paris, Nantes, Dublin. My travel route up to now. Almost all of them have been wonderful, but I don't think I'll be going back to France.

A week in Vienna was great, and at first confirmed my impressions of 2010 that it was the place I'd like to live. Preferably in Schönbrunn palace, but somewhere near to it as a respectable plan B if my billionaire ambitions don't pay off. The culture, public transport, food markets, and coffee shops, with the opportunities of cycling tours along the beautiful Danube and through the Austrian vineyards, stealing the occasional bunch of sweet black grapes made me wonder why so many people complained about the place. Could it be better? It didn't seem so last week, but let's keep an open mind and give the European capitals which I am still to see a chance. So far, one has already overtaken Vienna. Guess which one.

Hausach was fun and relaxed. It was good seeing the Auels again, and to properly practice my German. The Schwarzwald accent made it difficult to do things like find the post office, as the locals there don't understand "Post" (German for post office) unless it is pronounced "pOshhht". I thought it was my bad German until I related the story to the family I was staying with, and they said they had had exactly the same experience, also looking for the post office, when they first moved there! But I eventually found it and posted the post cards to those who said they would never speak to me again unless I sent them one.

The trip to Basel was great, though I was only there for half a day. The Swiss are definitely even more precise than the Germans. Of course stereotypes are all baseless damaging things, which should be done away with ASAP, though it was fun setting my watch by the time the train pulled into stations on the way home. 

At Berlin, after I had managed to get on board the correct bus, and worked out how to buy a ticket for it, I found my way to the Wertlens house, and I was greeted by the most elegant elevator I have ever seen. It was built pre-war, and with its surrounding safety cage and pressure censored floor, I almost expected a "lift man" to come an operate it for me. I was not disappointed, as the Wertlens sent their young son to come and organize it for me. It slowly chugged up to the fourth floor, and then I dragged my luggage up the last set of stairs, as the lift doesn't go all the way to the top. 

It took a few minutes for me to realise that Vienna had just conceded to Berlin. It briefly put up a fight and made me think of the Schönbrunn again, but then worked out that it was hopeless. Berlin had taken the top spot, and I had no idea why. It just felt good being there. After a week there, I now know why - for one, the German spoken is actually easy to understand. Although there is a "Berliner" dialect, it is much closer to Hoch Deutsch than Schwarzwald Deutsch or Viennese. And I'm not even going to mention Basel, as Germans get very offended if you consider what they speak there as related to German. 

But mainly the reason is that it is cheap. Very cheap. Even with the Rand dropping through the floor, everything was affordable. And this lets Berlin win for more than just practical reasons - the whole atmosphere is different, as there are all sorts of people drinking coffee in cafes, beer in pubs, and eating food in restaurants, instead of just people who have money to spare, as was the case in Vienna and definitely Basel. And then, practically, being able to buy 300g of Milka Chocolate for about R14 was a draw-card all on its own. Berlin 2015, here I come.

The overnight train from Berlin to Paris was slightly uncomfortable, as I booked a seat in a cabin for six people. Luckily only two other people were in the cabin, so there was slightly more room to try sleep. Both were French students, who had been visiting Germany, and it was great talking to them. The rest of the night is remembered only as a series of snap-shots as I woke up a couple of times every hour, and looked for a less uncomfortable way to sleep, and opened my eyes briefly enough to note the similarly failed attempts of the other two. 

I was glad to get off the train in Paris. Then **** * *** ** * * *** ** * *** Nantes * ** ** ***** ** *** * Roscoff ***** * * *** ** ****** ** and finally Ireland and on to Dublin. France is unfortunately censored, as I could complain about it for another three days, and then this will never get published.

I'm in Dublin now, where the Guinness is actually nice. I was expecting to be disappointed again after trying it in Grahamstown and at the Ferry Port in France and on the Irish Ferry, all of which were disappointing. Maybe it's my imagination, or placebo, or the fact that I had got through a bit of 12-year-old Jameson's before trying it in Dublin, but I highly recommend trying Guinness in Ireland. I am ready to defend it as the most enjoyable Beer I've had. Also, the city is beautiful, with a very large pedestrian zone, lots of free WiFi, and unbelievable broadband speeds. Unfortunately the cost of rent, food, and beer is closer to Basel than Berlin. Otherwise it may well have provided worthy competition for that top spot which Vienna held so surely only a couple of weeks ago.

And today I'll see the air-show (see which the whole city is talking about. Yes, that's right. They're going to fly an A-380 airbus 300 metres over Dublin. Look up!

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Standard Bank IT Challenge

A couple of months back, I persuaded some of my classmates from last year to enter the Standard Bank IT Challenge. I was part of the regional winning team from Rhodes last year, and had fond memories of the trip to Joburg for the finals. We won the regionals again by the skin of our teeth.

Our full team met for the first time at the Heats. We met for the second time when travelling to the finals. We were slightly underprepared. Just a little bit.

We flew to Joburg, and got a good tour of some of its less pleasant bits when our driver got lost taking us to the hotel. But we found it eventually, and I started bonding with my cheap Chinese suitcase, which lost all its wheels down the first corridor and demanded all my attention thereafter. As we were staying two nights, most people had brought tiny suitcases, and I had to explain at least a dozen times that I needed the orange monstrosity as I was smuggling in a midget.

We also had fun telling the other teams how much we enjoyed the fact that water came out of the taps (some reses in Grahamstown had not had water for two weeks, and we had made national news). This was even better when it turned out that the 2nd question of the competition involved matching "requests for water" efficiently by choosing how much water to put in a limited number of bottles. On the last day, we used the winning team's algorithm to take water back to Grahamstown for those who wanted.

UCT won again, this time only narrowly beating Stellenbosch. We came 5th as far as I know, but as the scoreboards were frozen in the last hour and only the prizewinners were announced I'll have to wait to see the final complete rankings. Where Rhodes lacked preparation and dedication, we made up in luck, with two of the four lucky-draw prizewinners being my teammates!

It may be the last SBITC that I attend, though I hope to enter again next year. Who knows, we may even find time to prepare...

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Things Fall Together, and FNB

When I booked my Schengan Visa appointment with VFS yesterday, I didn't put much thought into the appointment time. Given the choice, I skipped over everything before 9 AM in the online booking form (I'm still a skeptic, and am not convinced that times earlier than this actually exist), and chose 9.30. Had I thought more about it, I'd have chosen 3 PM to keep things properly civilized. Had I thought more about it, I would probably be going back for attempt two tomorrow, instead of managing to finalise it today.

I hadn't been able to find a convenient check list for a Schengan Visa. I had a general idea of what I needed from when I did this in 2010. Unsurprisingly, with hindsight, I was missing some ever-oh-so-important documents. These missing documents included air tickets, travel insurance, and original bank statements (Seems kind of obvious now, doesn't it?). Somehow I thought that if the UK consulate was happy with my documents (and they'd already indicated that they were by stamping a delightful visa into my worthless Green Mamba passport), that the Austrians would be too. I mean, they're not even Austrians anymore -- both visas were done through VFS Global, and all the staff I interacted with were all South African -- so I thought I wouldn't have to worry about any stereotypical Austrian order.

But no. Copies of bank statements are not good enough. Copies could be, well, copied? Perhaps someone at the Pretoria Consul has a fetish for sniffing original bank stamps. Maybe it's just another obstacle to weed out a few more of us nauseating tourists. Only let the determined ones in. Jawohl.

Luckily my terrific Dad managed to organize travel insurance in a time comparable to a Usain Bolt hundred meters. He also phoned the premier FNB banking service, and had someone call me to arrange to collect the bank statements (with the scented stamp) at a Cape Town branch. Unluckily, the better half of me was still absent, as my Samsung S3 was in for repairs. This meant that I had to find things the old fashioned way (in my case, wandering round in circles until after several passes things begin to look familiar and then moving on to new territory). I eventually found and entered an internet cafe, booked some provisional flights out of Schengen territory, downloaded the insurance docs, printed everything off, and left.

Tried to leave, that is. My fingers were stuck to the revolting keyboard, and one of the many crapware toolbars had come alive and try to bite me, while Windows XP just sat back and cheered it on. Eventually I got out, making a mental note to change my Gmail password ASAP. That seemingly helpful guy from Premier hadn't phoned me back yet to confirm which branch I should go to, but I'd already got Google Maps to do that for me, so I started meandering FNBwards.

I got to FNB and still no phone call, so I went in to look for someone willing to make my problems their problems. The daemons that be picked on a certain Merlane and the poor woman came to ask me how she could help. Having heard my story, and being unable to trace my consultant friend from Premier, we decided to start over, and Merlane did not bat an eyelid as a complicated string of phone calls took place. Outdated numbers, forgotten security protocols, even an entanglement with the Dwyer Home Phone, and she finally managed to get hold of Dr Dwyer Himself, on a number which I had produced from thin air. Even though it obviously crossed her mind more than once that this could all be part of some elaborate plot for me to get my nose on some of that fragrant FNB ink, Merlane acted the perfect host, making idle small-talk while waiting for ringing phones to be answered. She mentioned with a laugh that normally they would not be able to hand bank statements to anyone but the account holder, but that obviously in this case she would make a plan. Within 20 minutes of walking into FNB, I left with stamped statements. I told Merlane that FNB had just won a loyal customer for life, and walked down the street handing out FNB flyers and telling all and sundry that they should change to FNB now (in spite of their new online banking site).

The new documents were accepted, and I left with a debit card noticeably lighter after they'd deducted various visa fees, processing fees, courier fees, and stamp sniffing fees.

I got back, and remembered to acknowledge FNB's service a complimentary tweet. I started reading the day's emails (Email once a day is still something very strange to me. Luckily my phone should come back in under 48 hours), and was surprised to find the following from FNB

Good day, Mr Gareth Dwyer 

The statements needed for your applciation for VISA, Cape Town branch are unable to grand statements as your father is needed at the branch with you.
You being in seperate towns, it is still not viable to get the statements without your father as he is the account holder and you the dependant.

Mpumelelo Bohali

This email had arrived at 3 PM, and didn't fully explain why I hadn't got the phone call from Premier.  By the time they'd sent this, my bank statements were probably en route to Pretoria. In presentation, punctuality and punctuation this provided such a stark contrast to the experience I'd just had with Merlane that I had to quickly unplug the router and take my Gran shopping, as my fingers were already halfway through typing out a reply full of nasty language and insults. In the evening, once I'd eaten supper and finished scraping paint violently off Gran's front step, I composed something less emotional.

Dear Mpumelelo,

I do not bank with FNB to receive emails such as this one. I do not bank with FNB to be told that my requests are not viable. I do not bank with FNB to be labeled "a dependent", especially when this is irrelevant to my request.

If I wanted service like this, I would bank with Standard Bank, or ABSA, where bad service is considered normal.

Luckily, my request was handled by the Adderley Branch pleasantly and efficiently, exactly as I would expect from a bank with the reputation of FNB, and I received the bank statements I needed before you sent the email saying this is "not viable".

Your email was the only blemish in my otherwise very positive experience with FNB today. 

I am disappointed by your attitude.

Yours faithfully,
Gareth Dwyer

We'll see if he deigns to reply. I almost hope that he tries to defend himself, like Imaginet did after they overcharged me for my domain and then emailed me with a similar attitude. I had a lot of fun then, but that was in January. A renewal is needed. And yes, there is indeed a direct correlation between number_of_snotty_letters_I_write and number_of_days_since_my_vacation_began. Well spotted.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Four weeks at Korbitec

Today was my last day of work for my internship at Korbitec. "Was" because today they asked me to stay on. So I sold my soul and agreed to carry on working at a desk job, partly because of the good pay,  and partly because I'm enjoying it.

While waiting for databases and ideas to load, I've discovered some great stuff around the interwebz. Top of this list is definitely joelonsoftware. I've read most of Joel's website now and I think I agree with nearly everything he says. Something which hasn't happened since I watched the three Ken Robinson TED talks on education and creativity.

You're back? Actually I assume you never left - if you'd visited the four URLs provided in the previous paragraph, you'd probably still be link-hopping. Well, not hinting or anything, but I found this Ubuntu Bug well worth a look: Open Office would not print on Tuesdays. And in case you're still around, take a look at this RFC for a hyper text coffee pot control protocol.

Apart from procrastinating, I have also been writing the if (statements) and while (loops) which Korbitec want. I even had a code review to prove it - an experience which gives a similar adrenaline kick to playing a practical music exam. Several developers nit-picked their way through the code I presented to them, arguing over best practice and style.

Outside work, I've been playing Ingress, which is a great game and good way to meet people in a new town. As long as you like meeting the sort of person who plays Ingress. I've also had my first (half) Gatsby (pic from Google Images, but it gives a good idea) and entered into the Marcel's vs Wakaberry debate. I could almost believe that I'm in a foreign place sometimes.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Getting a simple Flask app running on Amazon EC2

For my first internship, with, I wrote a simple Flask webapp to keep two databases synced. This app was hosted on an EC2 instance, and I found the tutorial below one of the most helpful ones in setting up Flask and Apache2 on an EC2 ubuntu instance. After creating another EC2 instance today, I looked for the article and found that the site it was hosted on,, was no more. Luckily there was still a copy of the article in a GitHub repo (, but here it is again.

Get Your Flask Apps Up And Running Fast on EC2

Lately there have been a spate of articles detailing how to deploy Flask applications on Amazon Web Server's EC2 instances. However, when I followed these guides to deploy this very website, I often ran into errors, omissions, and edge cases that were not covered by the article. Hours of yak-shaving ensued. The application I wanted to host was not a massive project - it was a simple blog! It didn't really make much sense to me that hosting it should be such an endeavor, especially considering how swift Python development usually is for me.
Essentially this article exists as a quick antidote to such pains. I am going to show how you, dear reader and aspiring Python webdev, can get your Flask app running on the net.


  • You have an AWS account with an EC2 instance running Ubuntu
  • Python and Flask are installed on this system
  • Your Flask source is stored in a git repo
  • You have not gone blind by the time you reach the end of this sentence.


Log in to your EC2 instance (Usually done through an SSH connection) and type the following command:
sudo apt-get install apache2 libapache2-mod-wsgi
This installs our webserver, Apache2, as well as a Python WSGI module. Don't worry if you do not know what a "WSGI module" is right now; you can learn about it here. Essentially what it does is hand over Python's built-in webserver duties to Apache.
If you point yourself to your EC2 domain (either the DNS address you used to connect to your server via SSH or a URL you have pointed towards it), you will see a welcoming message from our good, if homely friend, the Apache webserver. Lets get your Python app on there.
Type the following:
sudo mkdir /var/www
cd /var/www
sudo git clone url://to.your.git.repo
cd yourgitrepo
sudo nano yourflaskapp.wsgi
The .wsgi file should match the name of the Python file containing the "yourflaskapp = Flask(__name__)" line. Make sure that in this file (the main python file, not your newly-created .wsgi file), you have any calls contained within the "if __name__ == '__main__':" clause. Otherwise, your app will be starting a local WSGI server instead of forwarding it through mod_wsgi and Apache.
The yourflaskapp.wsgi file is simple and should look like the following:
import sys
sys.path.insert(0, '/var/www/yourgitrepo')

from yourflaskapp import yourflaskapp as application
Note that 'application' is NOT a placeholder name. If you do not import it as that, mod_wsgi will spit up on you.
Now, type the following commands:
cd /etc/apache2/sites-available/
sudo nano
where is whatever you want your site to be called. The contents of this file should look like this:
<VirtualHost *:80>
         WSGIDaemonProcess yourflaskapp
     WSGIScriptAlias / /var/www/yourflaskapp/yourflaskapp.wsgi

     <Directory /var/www/yourflaskapp>
            WSGIProcessGroup yourflaskapp
        WSGIApplicationGroup %{GLOBAL}
        Order deny,allow
        Allow from all
Then all that is left do is disable the Apache default page and enable your Flask app:
sudo a2dissite default
sudo a2ensite
sudo /etc/init.d/apache2 restart
Now if you navigate to your page, you should see your Flask app up and running. Congrats. That took about 10 minutes, I hope. Of course, this just barely scratches the surface of the power and flexibility of apache2 and mod_wsgi, but those are topics you and I will be exploring more as we go on to build bigger web apps.
The beauty of this approach is not only that it is fast and relatively painless (I could write a shell script that would make this a 10 second process...hmmm), but it is also quite modular. Simply rinse and repeat these steps for individual apps and you can switch between them using a2dissite and a2ensite. If you have more than one URL redirecting to the EC2 instance, you can configure Apache2 to serve each one by way of creating unique configs as done above.
If you have any questions, be sure to email me at me.anzuoni at gmail dot com or hit me up on my Twitter, @SexyUlysses.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Nietzsche on independence

I was reading Nietzsche the other day, and I came across this passage about independence. I've read it a few times since, and I now consider it to be amongst his finest:

"Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it even with the best right but without inner constraint proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring to the point of recklessness. He enters into a labyrinth, he multiplies a thousandfold the dangers which life brings with it in any case, not the least of which is that no one can see how and where he loses his way, becomes lonely, and is torn piecemeal by some minotaur of conscience. Supposing one like that comes to grief, this happens so far from the comprehension of men that they neither feel it nor sympathize. And he cannot go back any longer. Nor can he go back to the pity of men.—" - Nietzsche

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The epistemology of blogging

It amuses me that philosophers whose arguments are normally watertight fall apart when it comes to the epistemology of blogging. "Blogs *can't* be accurate," they claim, "No one would have the time! Fact checking, writing, no payment!"

Their argument is flawed only by their lack of experience with the Internet. It is not humanly possible to imagine the immense amount of collective time found through global connection until one has seen it. Descartes noted that we can't really imagine large numbers, and this is why very clever people manage to go so wrong. They have never seen sites like Reddit, never explored the forum section of imdb, do not, bless them, really understand twitter. They do not know how many bored people there are on this planet.

And yet they argue vehemently about whether blogging is -- from an Epistemic viewpoint -- good or bad. And they are wrong. Maybe they have belief, and possibly truth, but their arguments are necessarily lacking in justification, and therefore by definition they cannot have knowledge.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Maths and Philosophy

Mathematics and Philosophy seem to me to be the last of the true Academic subjects. One does not read Philosophy to "get a job", as is the case with all Commerce subjects, and a majority of Science and Humanities as well. Maths (at least pure maths) is similarly abstract and unpractical. Study maths in order to teach it one day, maybe.

Of the two, Maths is probably seen as more practical. Even banks employ Mathematicians, and you don't get much less academic than FNB. Whereas the Philosophy Factory never made past a surprisingly popular meme.

But studying for a Philosophy exam tomorrow and a Maths exam the day after (yes, that's why I'm currently writing this), Philosophy seems so much more practical than maths. Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals has practically changed the way I think about and live life. The fact that the derivative of sin(x) is cos(x), and the fact that I can write out a geometric proof for this has done no such thing. Nor do I think it ever will.

Sorry, maths.

Friday, 17 May 2013

I generally like thought experiments. Nozick's Experience Machine is great, Rawl's Veil of Ignorance is useful at times, but why does Nozick give attention to Newcomb's Paradox?

You are at a game show:

  • There are two boxes, A and B.
  • You have two choices -- take box B, or take both boxes.
  • Box A contains R 1 000
  • Box B contains either R 1 000 000 or nothing. 
The host has made a prediction about your choice before the start of the game: If he predicted that you would choose both boxes, he put nothing in box B; if he predicted that you would choose just box B, he put the R 1 000 000 in box B. Apparently he is "almost certainly" right. 

The interesting part is that people disagree about the correct strategy. Should we choose just B, because we are "almost certain" to get our mil', or should we choose both boxes, knowing that our current actions can't influence past events? 

I don't see the problem as a paradox at all. People who argue for choosing only box B would probably agree with The Doctor: "People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey, stuff." Those who argue for choosing both boxes probably wouldn't. And it's as simple as that. Ironically, the only Paradox (to use the word in its vulgar, common, sense) is that so much thought has been put into this "thought" experiment.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Studying computer science, one never doubts the fact that the world is moving towards new heights at a great rate. Technology is constantly better, faster, smaller. I read SlashDot, PCWorld, and ACM News on a daily basis, and the fact that they never run out of interesting news to report shows how fast technology is moving.

But my impressions from other fields of study are very different. The genius found in musicians and philosophers from long ago is not often seen today. After reading Descartes and Sartre last year, and Nietzsche last term, we are now looking at Social Epistemology. Yes, even Philosophy is now contaminated by the word "Social": how far are we from becoming a branch of sociology or psychology? Reading papers by contemporary Philosophers, I see none of the genius which is so readily evident in Descartes, Sartre, and Nietzsche. Attending the ECPO Beethoven concert a couple of weeks ago led to a similar impression - can modern music be compared to the Emperor? I doubt it.

Perhaps art, literature, philosophy, and music will simply become irrelevant as our world becomes increasingly virtual, and that the advances in technology are therefore all that is needed.

But maybe not...

Tuesday, 5 February 2013