13 November 2010

Melvin takes the plunge

My almost-Mallu-Indo-Zambian-Canadian buddy Melvin Durai just published his book. It's called Bala takes the plunge. I was pleasantly surprised to find an autographed copy in the snail-mail (Zikomo) and got fired up enough to restart blogging by writing a review.

If you like Melvin's article writing style then buy the book. He's kept it true to form with the witty puns and the humorous description of everyday events. It has a short article/blog feel about it and is a light and refreshing read. Of course, the serious issues of migration and loneliness, independence and coming-of-age, and finding a place to call home are just below the surface and come up for air occasionally.

Well I've kept it short, but here's shorter. I love the book. Hope Melvin's working on his second one.

29 May 2010

Rome and the internet

I picked up a book in Amsterdam about the Roman empire. It was a limited democracy (and then a dictatorship) that lasted hundreds of years. It held territories on three continents, its people had hot running water in their homes and enjoyed goods sourced from all over the world - well, India and China at least. After the fall of the Roman empire, it would be about 1600 years before life was as comfortable in Europe again.

The internet now is a lot like Rome was back then. It extends almost as far as people can reach, it's controlled by a small number of people who don't have many rules, and there's a degree of anonymity that allows you to say or do what you want without too many consequences.

Here are some examples:

Situation - Anger
Modern day (pre-internet) - Fume. Mutter under breath.
Rome, 2000 years ago - torture person who made you angry. Kill them. Dump body in drain.
Modern day (internet) - Release photo and phone number of person with caption - "Call for a good time. Free." (Also see 'Public Nudity')

Situation - Joy
Modern day (pre-internet) - Throw party, get smashed, fail drugs test at work next morning, get fired and beg on streets.
Rome, 2000 years ago - Throw party, get smashed, sleep it off and start again until the money runs out or the army needs you again.
Modern day (internet) - Post party information via facebook, twitter, SMS and blog. Get completely trashed. Wake up the next day whenever and work from home.

Situation -Public Nudity
Modern day (pre-internet) - Run naked onto a cricket pitch. Get arrested. If wearing Nike shoes, see advertisement starring your bum on TV for number of years and people sniggering any time you walk by.
Rome, 2000 years ago - Run naked through streets of town yelling "Eureka." Have major scientific discoveries named after you for rest of life. (ok this was ancient Greece, but I invoke comedic license)
Modern day (internet) - Females - get naked, take photos, post on websites. Get famous and be invited to act in a chat show / get on playboy etc. Males - get naked, go on chatroulette, and get infamous.

Situation - Seize political power
Modern day (pre-internet) - Get sanctions on your country, travel bans, have money abroad seized, and have various organisations plot your removal.
Rome, 2000 years ago - Your wish is everyone's command. Do whatever you want.
Modern day (internet) - Tamper with electronic voting machines and voter rolls. Get elected. Do whatever you want.

18 May 2010

Guess who's in the New York Times?


These are two kittens who alternated between our yard and the neighbours'. There is a third kitten, as well as their Mom, but they were likely sleeping somewhere. They were having a good time hanging out on the fence at 1700 hrs on May 2, right when the New York Times blog asked as many people as possible around the world to take a photo.

The kittens have been dropped off at the animal shelter, and their mother has been neutered. Their mother is a wild cat and the shelter didn't think that she could be adopted, but they have great hopes for the kittens. The mother will be released back into the wild as soon as she recovers from the surgery.

15 May 2010

The Phiri Deception III

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

...and for those too bored to read Parts I and II, here's a short summary:

A high-tech spy / assassin type movie is being shot in Zambia. The plot is that the government is using an assassin called Tembo to kill one of their former agents, M. Phiri. Phiri has been spotted at Milky Lane in Manda Hill and Tembo rushes there to locate him. Tembo misses him by minutes. Phiri is already on Great East Road in a borrowed car.

"Ona itaya kaya itaya kaya itaya... ati sure itaya kaya itaya kaya itaya," The phone rings loudly. "How old is that song?" Phiri thinks to himself, "and why do I still have it as my ringtone?", as he picks it up:
"Malcolm here."
"Malcolm, the time has come. Instructions will be sent to you by SMS." Click... "beeeeeeeep..."
"Errr..."
"beep-beep-beep beep beep beep. "
Crossroads shopping centre. 30 minutes.

"Ah well, better get to the bottom of this." After swerving wildly to avoid several stopped, and half-in, half-out of the road minibuses, as well as a few wannabe suiciders, Phiri reached the Bwinjimfumu intersection. He took a left and wound his way past the Post newspaper office. He stopped at the 4-way stop on Parirenyatwa. As usual, there was always one fool who got through out-of-turn by almost kissing the car in front. Phiri turned left, past a guy who made his living selling rabbits on the street, braked suddenly to avoid bicyclists who wanted to cross the road, and managed to get to the Fedex roundabout without incident. The temperature monitor showed 36, but it only felt like 32. "Wonder who calibrates that temperature meter," he thought.

Phiri proceeded to Leopards Hill Road via Longacres. At the intersection of Lake Road and Leopards Hill he took a left and pulled into Crossroads shopping centre. The familiar shouts of minibus conducters filled the air, "M'tendere ! M'tendere !" Phiri parked his car, checked to make sure the alarm was on, and walked to Buzz Cafe. He didn't know who he was supposed to meet, but figured they would find him. "Maybe I should have worn a rose in my buttonhole," he thought. He ordered a Mosi while waiting. It had been a long time since he participated in these shadow games, and he wondered what his former employers wanted from a civilian.

"Afternoon, mind if I sit here?" A thin man with grey hair and dark glasses asked. Phiri said, "Yes." Apparently it was a rhetorical question and the man proceeded to sit. He proffered a copy of the Times of Zambia. "Have you read the politics page today? It's a scandal." Since the only scandals in politics lately had been about polygamy and what the current heads said about their rivals, Phiri didn't think it would be very interesting. He opened to page 4 and found a photo, under which a number had been scrawled:
5000000
The thin man said, "The US dollar has been gaining against the Kwacha lately. I wish they would pay me in dollars." Phiri said, "But this is..." "The man interrupted, "Yes, or No." Phiri said, "Yes." The man said, "good." You will find a suitcase in your car. It contains all you need. It must be done within 48 hours. Goodbye.

Malcolm thought about it, "This cannot be the government. It would be too embarassing for them if it happened while he visits here. I wonder who wants this." He folded the paper and left it on the table for the next person. He asked for the bill, paid, and walked to his car. He got in, and turned on the radio. It chirped, "This is Radio 4. The main headlines. President Nyirenda  today said that the visit of President Mugabe from Zimbabwe would open the doors to prosperity for both nations. President Mugabe is here on a state visit for two days. He is expected to announce free trade and a fast clearance process at the borders."

...to be continued...

06 March 2010

The Generator, the Forklift, Big Mama, and the Drain.

There was this enigmatic tweet from me last week:

There's a forklift with a generator-as-big-as-a-house stuck in mud outside. I figure they should give me the generator if I can get it out.

I thought this deserved a more illustrated and detailed explanation, so I give you the saga of the generator, the forklift, the earth-moving machine and the drain.As I was walking to the chicken house (pre-fabricated all-purpose advanced green technology construction according to the corporation that installed it), I found the disaster below:




Mr 30-tonne forklift was carrying a 25-tonne generator (at least) and broke through our floor and smashed up the landscaping. Not to mention that only people who spend 6 hours in the gym daily and eat nothing but cucumbers and tomatoes could squeeze through into the chicken house. The forklift couldn't get out because two of its wheels had no purchase and were spinning uselessly in the depression they had created. The right side of the generator was balancing on a concrete block expropriated from our recently (4 months ago) demolished furnace. The left side of the generator was balancing on a wooden beam, origin unknown.

Upon further investigation, it turns out that the forklift operator went against the advice of our experts to knock down a boundary wall on the other side and come in through there and instead chose to drive over our drainage system with predictable consequences. The reason for not breaking down the boundary wall? A method to save a million (~250 USD) in rebuilding costs. Instead the decision will cost the forklift company 6 million (~1500 USD) in landscaping/drain repair costs.

So then the people tried various methods to get the forklift out... various jacks (yes, car jacks among them) to lift the forklift into a position where the wheels would find some traction. Pushing and shoving using manpower was also attempted in vain. So our friends hung around the rest of the day until some bright spark called in an even bigger vehicle than the forklift.



This is something that I describe as an earth-moving machine (aka Big Mama), but I'm sure it has some technical name as well. Anyway, the idea was to pull the forklift into a position where it could travel under its own power. Big Mama had some hairy moments getting to the forklift, it was centimetres from knocking down either our lab (my very own sequencing centre) or the adjacent clinic. The driver managed to avoid hitting anything by sheer skill... he's probably one of the few people who didn't buy their legal driving permit here.



A huge chain connected Big Mama to the forklift and the pulling was successful... thus freeing the forklift, but leaving a big generator stranded in a place not meant for big generators. As this was a Friday, the generator would stay till the following Monday, when by ingenious use of metal pipes it was rolled to the concrete pad ready for it. While I was still offering thanks to Big Mama's driver for not burying my sequencer under a pile of rubble, the generator was manoevred by some unknown means up a few stairs to its final resting position. Of course the manoeverers positioned the generator such that the fuel nozzle was about 30 centimetres from a wall. This resulted in the ingenious idea (mainly by myself - hence the glowing praise) of getting a refuelling helicopter to inject diesel into the nozzle... I believe the idea was vetoed for lack of funding but not technical feasibility. Anyways, so that was my Friday.