Sunday, November 20, 2011

My personal blog has moved!

Hi there. I am not really updating The Good Ship Venus anymore, though I do check in to keep abreast of Blogger functionality.

Feel free to visit my updated personal blog

Check out my Gravatar profile for more places to find me

All the best

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Penguin Rescue: an update on Ms 349

Big shout out to the big-hearted people at SANCCOB!

I'm thrilled to let you know that Venessa Strauss, CEO of SANCCOB just wrote to me to tell me that our little penguin heroine, 'Ms 349', is still fighting.(See my article Penguin Rescue dated 18 August for pics and full story).

According to Venessa, Ms 349, as she has become affectionately known to my colleagues at Cambridge University Press, is still quite weak, but her chest infection has cleared up a bit.

She may be ready to move from what appears to be an intensive medical care ward for penguins, to a general ward, so to speak, within a week or so. I will write a further update then. The adoption papers and photo will be sent once she's ready for release back into the wild!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Penguin rescue

The dry dock outside our offices received a rare surprise visitor yesterday – a female African Penguin (also known as a Jackass Penguin, due to its braying call). The conservation status of these engaging birds is ‘vulnerable’ or ‘threatened’.

It is very unusual for such a social species of bird to be seen on land alone and so far from their normal colonies such as the one located at Simonstown. It was obvious that the bird was in distress and weakened – even struggling to stand upright in the shallowest of swells. She also appeared to be badly wounded.

I immediately contacted the nearby Two Oceans Aquarium, who kindly collected the penguin and drove her to SANCCOB (The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) who are the leading local experts in the rehabilitation of coastal birds. According to recent research by the Avian Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town, the African Penguin population is 19% higher today than it would have been in the absence of SANCCOB’s efforts in rehabilitation.

I contacted SANCCOB this morning to see if I could get an update on the penguin, and was referred to Cheryl, who is caring for ‘Number 349’ – the name given to our damsel in distress. Despite sounding like she has a bad cold, Cheryl kindly gave me an update on 349’s condition – the poor bird has a hip injury, is badly oiled and suffering from pneumonia. On arrival at the centre, she was immediately placed on a drip and her condition has now stabilised. According to Cheryl, 349’s chances of recovery are quite good.

I have also spoken to Megan at SANCCOB and will ‘adopt’ 349 on behalf of the Cape Town office, which will help to fund some of the costs of her treatment. If you would like to find out more information about the great work that SANCCOB do, visit their website

Other notable creatures that I have sighted within our little dock area include our resident seal with her newborn pup, a rare Sun Fish, several baby sharks doing their best to look menacing despite being ruler-length, an octopus and a very large, furtive crayfish, scuttling perilously close to the nearby sea food restaurants.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Making connections

Perhaps I should explain my garbled Friday post.

My 40th birthday is coming up at the end of this month, and with this milestone in mind, many of my thoughts have invariably been reflective – the ‘taking stock of my life’ variety.

I’ve harboured this idea of jumping out a plane on or near to my 40th. In fact, I casually mentioned this idea to my work colleagues at our regular Friday afternoon get-together after work, and now a growing number of them want to join me! Perhaps the stress of locating markets for titles like The Large Sieve and its Applications has something to do with the number of volunteers, but I digress...

So you may be thinking that seems a pretty predictable reaction to a major birthday – do things you’ve always wanted to do, celebrate your longevity by hurling yourself out of a plane a thousand metres above the ground, have a midlife crisis etc. But stick with me a while longer, I normally get to the point – eventually.

One of the other things I’ve been thinking about, is the matter of being thankful for where I presently find myself on my life-journey, which raises the issue of giving thanks, thanksgiving. As I have no specific religious orientation, that becomes pretty interesting.

I come from a nominally Christian background, and my wife’s family is Hindu. In both these, and many other faiths, there is a common thread related to giving thanks, counting our blessings, making offerings, gratitude.

I have also been feeling something else, a desire to give back some of what has been bestowed on me. Without an obvious religious anchor both concepts; thankfulness and reciprocity; are problematic – bestowed on me by whom/what? Thankful to whom/what? Give thanks to whom/what? In what form – prayer, offering, sacrifice, ritual?

Lastly, I’ve been thinking about interconnectedness, the way we are connected to others. I went through a long period of disconnectedness when life took a bad turn, ironically while the world was busy connecting at a fast and furious rate via the Net. Having come from a family that kept few close friends, seldom visited or had visitors, and eschewed socialising generally, being insular was an easy, even natural state for me to withdraw into.

My wife’s Indian upbringing made her quite different. Her childhood life had been filled with family and friends who lived next door to one another (many for their whole lives). People didn’t ask if they could visit, they just rocked up at the door, and that was fine – even during meals, when another few plates would be brought out and the food shared without question or gripe. Everyone in the area knew each other’s names – and personal affairs. The place I’m describing is Rylands, an apartheid-created community of people designated as Asian, one of many such places in South Africa.

As soon as she was old enough, she left Rylands to live in the city bowl area of Cape Town. I’m sure she felt a sense of freedom, of lebensraum, being in a place where she could choose to be anonymous or not, and she slowly lost quite a few ties to her old community. Even so, she ended up creating her own community in the city, one of her choosing. Eventually she even met and married me there.

When we were forced through circumstance to move to Rylands several years later, it was quite surprising how things turned out. For the first time in my life, I was awakened to the concept of connectedness on a larger scale than my immediate loved ones. I finally appreciated the meaning of the word ‘community'. During Eid, I saw Muslims knocking on the doors of their Hindu and Christian neighbours to bring them plates of cakes, and during Diwali, Hindus knocked on the doors of their Muslim and Christian neighbours to bring them plates of sweetmeats. Oppulent mansions nestled amicably with cement block semi-detached council houses in the same street. I suddenly had to start remembering the names of vast numbers of neighbours who would greet me by name in the street or at the local shops. We both healed in this place, I connected, and my wife reconnected.

So, finally to the point

You know when ubuntu is there, and it is obvious when it is absent. It has to do with what it means to be truly human, to know that you are bound up with others in the bundle of life. Desmond Tutu

The African concept of ubuntu is helping me to tie these three strands of thought (thankfulness, reciprocity and connectedness) together, and about how best I can mark my 40th, which will be to do something for others. My work colleagues and I have been helping out forty kids from rural schools with shoes and other basics, in addition to the books donated by the publisher we work for. The astounding gratitude they show for these simple things is humbling, and I think doing what I can for them would be a good fit - it may even turn out to be more fun than jumping out of a plane!

I'll let you know how this idea pans out soon.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Bad blogger

Being stricken by wicked flu I'm a poor blog-poster at present. I am researching some aspects of life: kindness/offerings/ubuntu/thanksgiving/, as I near my 40th birthday. I love the spirit of adventure, but there are other emotions looking for a toehold in my life journey.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hypnos and Thánatos

Sleep and his Half-brother Death: Musings on a cyber future...

On Saturday night my wife and I met up with an old friend in Cape Town, at a restaurant that we had frequented over the years. While we chatted and caught up on each other’s lives, we couldn’t help watching a group of early twenty-somethings with some bemused interest.

There were six of them sitting together, oozing trendiness from the tops of their spiky-gelled heads to their custom ‘kicks’ (sneakers or takkies). Though they were sociably huddled together on two leather couches, they were completely oblivious to one another.

With faces illuminated by ghostly pale LCD glows, they were largely immobile save for random convulsive hand twitches, being completely absorbed by the laptops in front of them. Each was involved in their own little cyberworld – one was downloading music, another tweeting on Twitter and so on. None of them even ordered a drink the entire time we were there, let alone spoke to one another.

We wondered why they even bothered to get dressed up and leave their homes in the first place? Perhaps some latent desire for actual human company compelled them, but, at the last, they were unable to part from their umbilical connections to the Net.

Being fascinated by long-term trends I wondered where this is heading. When I think of the massive technological leaps I have witnessed in computing, and my own long-standing love affair with computers, I’m certain it will be a stranger world than we can imagine, but with some vague similarities. To illustrate how far we’ve come in such a short space of time, a little trip down memory lane is required...

In the beginning...

About twenty five years ago, after saving money I earned working after school in a video store (one that stocked Beta, Philips and VHS video tapes) I bought my first computer. It was a marvel of personal computing - a sleek little black Sinclair ZX Spectrum, boasting all of 16K of RAM.

It plugged into an ordinary TV set, and you could program it in BASIC. You saved your data onto cassette tapes, which you played via a normal tape recorder. The original 1982 advertising boasted it’s ‘high speed load and save capability’ as being 16K in just 100 seconds, and ‘the ZX Spectrum comes in two versions – with 16K, or a really massive 48K, of RAM’. When you loaded the files, by pressing ‘play’ on the tape recorder it played sqauwks and beeps just like you used to hear on computer modems when connecting to the internet. It was an amazing sound to me then - the primal screech of the future being born.

The plucky little computer processed data using 3.5Mhz and had an 8 colour display with resolution of 256x192 pixels, and had a built in speaker and integrated keyboard. It weighed around 550g and was only 23cm by 14cm in size.

There were even a few computer magazines available, which came complete with pages and pages of BASIC code, which, if you painstakingly typed it in and recorded it on a cassette, you then got to play a full game in resplendent, clunky graphics and beepy sound effects. If you mistyped just one character, you could spend hours checking for the typo before you got to play your new game. Sometimes there was an error in the magazine itself, which would be really frustrating. On the other hand, you could fiddle with the code to make your games do some offbeat things – kind of a prehistoric cheat code or hack.

Friends would record copies of their games, as well as stuff they had made themselves and then get together to swop tapes and stories with each other. (I was really proud of the little program I made which produced randomized coloured circles that got increasingly larger on your screen, while it played a little tune.) These meetings all took place in the real world, as email and the internet were virtually unknown, and cell phones were something you saw on a Star Trek movie!

So where are we headed?

In the near future, neural interfaces will mean that we won’t just Twitter about what we’re doing, we’ll Thunker about what we’re thinking. That however is just to kick it off...

We will create virtual worlds that defy the laws of physics, providing us with godlike possibilities. These cyberworlds will be so entrancing, so powerful and vivid that the real world will seem to be a poor, primitive reflection. We will become ever-more reluctant to use our frail physical bodies in an environment that will be viewed as increasingly alien and hostile, with its frightening possibilities of illness, injury and death.

As machine intelligence develops, we could choose to create our own perfect artificial companions, and shun the unpredictable motivations, desires and needs of other human beings altogether. Many of these AI’s would reside entirely in cyberspace.

Apart from creating artificial sentient beings, we will also use this technology to divest ourselves from our physical bodies, achieving immortality in the process. Groups of us may choose to merge our collective consciousnesses to create super-beings – meta-organisms, dedicated to particular avenues of thought, interests and research. Periodically these might split via a sort of cyber-meiosis to create separate, but related beings, much like scientific disciplines form today. Hybrid human-AI beings will emerge with vastly alien characteristics.

Many of our biological survival requirements will become obsolete – air, water, nutrients, gravity, warmth. Energy will be the key factor, and vast amounts of it will probably be required to power our cyber worlds. The planet’s surface might be abandoned for deep, geologically-stable subterranean vaults powered by energy from the Earth’s core. Colonies may take to space itself, not necessarily in the traditional sense of exploring or colonising the universe, but for efficient energy and resource collection.


As we removed ourselves from the physical world, how would we treat the needs of other terrestrial life forms – for instance would we care about pollution, conservation, the environment?

Would we retain our emotional capacity, or would these be replaced by selective e-motions, eliminating the ‘deadly sins’ that shackle us but also make us human?

As completely different realities could be created limitlessly, would wars end? Would there be the need to fight wars over resources, ideologies, religions? If so, what would these wars look like – would they even take place in the physical world?

If we existed in cyberspace, would we continue to evolve? If so, and we created multiple realities, would we evolve into distinct species completely alien from one another?


Humankind’s long-standing preoccupation with transcendence - a theme found in even the most ancient of religions - could well be reaching a climax. As we stand at the threshold of making it a (virtual) reality, will we be able to retain our humanity?


Second Life
Wikipedia (Hypnos)
Science Horizons
Wikipedia (ZX Spectrum)
Wikipedia (meiosis)
Principia Cybernetica Project
1982 ZX Spectrum advertising flyer

Friday, May 29, 2009

The cure is the cause

Have you watched the heartburn remedy adverts on (South African) TV with the morphing firemen? There’s one version where a pregnant woman, who appears to be in some discomfort, is asking an equally pregnant pharmacist for something to relieve heartburn.

After expounding the merits of the featured remedy for some time to the suffering woman, including how safe it is to use during pregancy, the pharmacist finally produces a bottle of the stuff. The stoic customer, who seems on the verge of collapse at any second, then gratefully swallows a spoonful of it.

The scene cuts to somewhere inside of her, where a little white fireman is hard at it with his hose, spraying her innards with the miraculous white liquid, while his buddies stand by to assist...

Could neither of these women figure out that having little white guys ferretting around inside them with their hoses is probably what led to the whole damn mess in the first place?

The final, ‘seminal’ image in the ad is of the (presumably sated) fireman waving his oversized hose at a suggestive angle, as a large drop of white liquid exudes from it in a distinctly biological way – quite different from what one would expect from a high pressure firehose.

Having penned these weighty thoughts, I wondered if it was just me, or did anyone else read this ad the way I did. After Googling the name of the remedy together with the word ‘fireman’ I was relieved to find that I’m not alone – though disappointed not to be quite as ahead of the curve as I first imagined. Other ads featuring the lucky lads are the subject of these articles, but the gist remains the same.

Verdict – either the copywriter urgently needs to get laid before his/her next brief, or is a genius of Freudian proportions.