26 October 2011

The Jacarandas are blooming

It's that magical time of year again when Pretoria dresses in purple.  Legend has it that if one of these blooms drops on your head while you are on your way to a year-end examination, you will perform well in the examination.  To the students then: May you all be showered by blooms this year!

08 October 2011

Cat eyes

Blanc de Noir - one of our cats.  'Nough said.

07 September 2011

Graduation - September 2011

Three of my students completed their PhD degrees over the last couple of months and were awarded the degrees yesterday.  Unfortunately Wesley Brandi could not make it from the US to receive his degree in person, but Neil Croft and Wynand van Staden were present.

Neil, I and Wynand
Ah, there is something nice about these academic ceremonies that hark back to their roots in centuries past - a rare constant in a world where everything else is ephemeral.

And yes, congratulations to the three of them for persevering!

08 August 2011

I ate lunch in Rosebank today

The lunch itself was nothing spectacular - a simple dish at the Wimpy in Rosebank. But the fact that the Wimpy was not able to serve me a Coca Cola because they were out of stock (or their fountain was dry?) was a sign that this was part of something bigger. Gautrain affliction is taking on epidemic proportions and I too fell victim to it.

Let's start with the basics for the uninitiated. The Gautrain is a new high-speed (160km/h) train connecting Johannesburg and Pretoria (and the OR Tambo Airport). It therefore connects the two primary cities of the Gauteng province with one another and both with the province's (and South Africa's) primary airport. The name Gauteng is the seSotho word for place of gold, and the Gautrain is set to become the core of the province's transport infrastructure. Its gold livery was therefore an obvious choice.

The Gautrain on Rosebank station
The train has been operating on the Sandton-airport line since last year's Soccer World Cup - and everyone who has had the chance has gone for a joyride.  But we were really waiting for the Johannesburg-Pretoria line to open.  However, some unforeseen drainage problems (or rather, potential problems) delayed opening this line.  Eventually it was decided to open it, but only let it run to Rosebank in the South - one station shy of its eventual terminus at Johannesburg's Park station.  The line was opened last Tuesday - so, to ride it in its first week one had to get on it by today.  On the one hand it worked out quite well because this weekend is, for all practical purposes, a long weekend: tomorrow is Women's day and schools are closed today.

So, I decided to use my opportunity today.  Unfortunately, so did millions of others.
Waiting to board at Hatfield station
Actually the crowd control at Hatfield station was quite impressive - the sort of crowd control that would have done Disney proud.  The crowd was split into groups and groups were allowed to proceed to the next waiting area as other groups moved forward - all very smooth and disciplined.  Since Hatfield is the northern terminus of the line they even ensured that the train was not filled to capacity here, so that others could board at the following station.  The fact was that the majority of passengers were going to Sandton (for lunch), so nobody was getting off to make space for others.  I heard some mumbling and grumbling in the crowd, but this was one of the best examples of crowd control that I have yet seen in South Africa.

A train passing mine in the opposite direction at Midrand station
Not only the trains are impressive - the entire infrastructure looks good (and clean!).
Rosebank station
There was one sour note.  The bus drivers (driving the feeder buses) started striking today.  Apparently so did the spellcheckers.
What defines a bus passenger if there are no busses [sic]?
One sight that is now common, but will soon hopefully disappear is trains going to Rosebank.  One of these days they will go to Johannedburg!
Destination Rosebank
While I was not able to ride the train last Tuesday, I was able to walk over to the University of Pretoria fence to take the picture below.  Being so close, the Gautrain is bound to impact on how we do things.
Gautrain (Johannesburg-Pretoria) on its inaugural day - 2 August 2011 
Oh yes.  I forgot to take a picture of my lunch...

06 August 2011

Vacanze a Roma - Landmarks

We recently had the opportunity to visit Rome - Mariëtte for work and I tagged along.  It is impossible to give a brief description of the experience in a single blog post.  I have therefore decided to spend a couple of blog posts  on it.  This post just contains pictures ('postcards') of some of the well known landmarks.

The Colosseum

The Pantheon

Trevi Fountain

St Peter's Cathedral

St Peter's Cathedral

Circus Maximus

Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II

The Tiber

Pyramid of Cestius Caius

Piazza Navona

04 July 2011

Madeleine wins a fellowship

It is always nice when one's students' work is recognised.  Last Thursday it was announced that Madeleine Bihina Bella was one of the ten winners of a 2011 L’Oréal-UNESCO Regional Fellowship for Women in Science in Sub-Saharan Africa.  This means prestige, extra duties and money (for her).

 Madeleine, who hails from Cameroon, completed her Honours project in our ICSA lab.  She then completed her MSc with Prof Jan Eloff as supervisor and me as co-supervisor.  She recently embarked on her PhD - this time with me as supervisor and Prof Jan Eloff (who moved to SAP) as co-supervisor.

Below we party in South African, Cameroonian style. For some reason we were the last guests to leave...

29 June 2011

The SA Post Office's site does work!

There are many complaints on the Internet claiming that the SA Post Office Web site does not work properly.  This post will attempt to set the record straight.  After entering the URL the site loaded at a steady rate of 24KBps over my ADSL line.  For those who haven't recently seen it, this is what it looks like.

One of the interesting features of the site is a links link near the top.

Clicking on the links link takes one to a list of government departments.

One of the links in the links list is the SAS Secret Service.

Clicking on SAS Secret Service leads to a 404 Not Found.
This is perfect behaviour, is it not?


The SA Post Office yesterday locked my private PO box for the second time this year from the inside as they do for those who have not paid their annual rental.  I paid well in advance and showed them proof of payment to get my PO box unlocked the previous time they locked it this year.  I guess I have to go and show them proof of payment yet again.  I so wish they can get their systems to work...

19 June 2011

Loftus! A non-report of a rugby match

Anyone who knows me, knows that I do not have much of an interest in rugby.  In fact, rugby reminds me of a less pleasant part of my life.  At the secondary school I attended, rugby was the holy grail, and academics and culture played obvious second fiddle to it.  Of course, whenever the school played a rugby game everybody had to attend to support the team.  And, of course, I never attended.  There was one exception: I did attend the last game in matric and found it quite enjoyable...

Then, for more that two decades I did not attend another live rugby match.  Until last night.  And again I had fun...

Of course my camera went along.  It is amazing what one can do with the high ISO capabilities of modern cameras.  All the pictures below were taken at ISO 1600 - most of them with a consumer quality 100-300mm zoom at relatively small apertures from the rear of the pavilion.  All were hand held, and most were taken using only the floodlights of Loftus Versfeld - the venue of the match.

Here Morné Steyn succeeds with a penalty.
(I had to look up his name on the Web after the match.  My knowledge of 99% of players' names and faces is nonexistent.)

The problem with the picture above, as everybody who knows anything about photography will immediately notice, is the extension of Morné's (yes, we are on first name terms now) into another player's foot.  That is simply unacceptable.  Here is the solution.
Editing reportage photos is another taboo, but given my lack of knowledge of rugby the picture cannot be viewed as reportage - and hence editing has to be ethical.  So, the reader is encouraged to stop reading and just find some pleasure in the pictures.

And then the ball is on its way!
(Given the removal of the foot in the previous picture, removal of two players in the background of this picture was so much easier this time.  Oh what a tangled [world-wide] web we weave...  No image tampering from here onwards.)

I'm not sure what is happening in the next picture.  A penalty has just been awarded.  If only I could hear what Sharks captain Stefan Terblanche and referee Jonathan Kaplan are saying (and gesturing) to one another.  (Click for a bigger picture.)
The picture shows an innovation since my previous attendance of a rugby match: now a radio controlled buggy brings something onto the field used to place the ball to kick.  At my previous game a young boy with a bucket of sand ran unto the field.

Another innovation since my previous encounter with the game is the addition of the Blue Bulls Babes.  Is it just me or is there some irony in the picture below?  (Again, click on the picture to get a larger version; look at the expresseions on the players' faces.)
The Babes do seem to add some colour and movement to the event...

Loftus is the home ground of the Bulls and most spectators seemed to be Bulls supporters.  However, Sharks supporters were certainly present and overjoyed whenever the Sharks scored (and eventually won the match).
The capacity crowd clearly enjoyed the game.  Interesting how disciplined they were.  (Note to self: Get rid of those prejudices...  Sport does not equate to barbarism.)

And Loftus is a beautiful place at night!

Oh yes, before I forget: The Sharks won 26-23.  My matric rugby match was a draw.  Nerve wrecking stuff...


I recently met Stephen Finn and decided to read his book Soliloquy.  Recommended.

Those magnificent (wo)men and their flying machines

Many years ago the Central Flying School of the South African Air Force (SAAF) was based in Dunnottar - a town not far from the town in which I grew up.  The SAAF used Harvards to train its new pilots.  On most days one would see (and hear) them flying from early till late.  Closer to the base one could see them flying in circles - landing and immediately taking off for another cycle.  For some reason they were locally referred to as coffins with wings, but I do not recall any incident from my childhood in which a Harvard was involved.

Above are three Harvards flying in formation at the recent air show at Swartkops Air Force Base in Pretoria - incidentally the oldest aerodrome in the world in current use.

Another childhood memory from the sky was the Silver Falcons - the SAAF's air acrobatic team.  Back in the day they were flying Impala fighter jets.  It therefore came as a bit of sad news when I heard that they were going to henceforth use turboprops.  Not having seen them for many years, I was pleasantly surprised to recently see exactly how they play with their new Pilatus planes.  Their arrival in formation with an SAA 737-400 was a great start, but insignificant to their display that would follow later.

The Boeing on its own was also a magnificent sight.  I did not know a big plane could bank that much - during some flypasts one got the rare chance of seeing it "from the top"

As part of the show the Boeing performed a touchdown and gave spectators a sight that one would hopefully only see at an airshow: A 373 taking off with a Russian T1 tank apparently aiming at it.  The tank was parked next to the runway for a combat display that was to follow later that day.

The combat display involved armoured vehicles, ground troops and, of course, planes and choppers.  One of the memorable sights was a Hercules dropping supplies.

Here are two additional pictures that show the Silver Falcons in action.
(or solarised, to be more dramatic...)

One of the interesting facets of this airshow was the fact that the announces was in direct radio contact with the pilots and talked to them - typically during the final fly-past of each.  In the case of the Silver Falcons it was nice to hear the voice of the first female Silver Falcon from one of the Pilatus's cocpits.

Here is a Pilatus used the the Silver Falcons from a little closer.

As the point I left the Vampire was in the air.  I do not recall seeing them fly as a child, put some of them might have passed overhead.  The were introduced shortly after World War II and still used operationally when I was young.  For some reason the word zippy comes to mind seeing one of them fly for the first time.

01 June 2011

Mr Monk's worst nightmare

In almost every discussion about TV detective Mr Monk that I have participated in someone confessed that they did not consider Mr Monk's behaviour that odd - and that they certainly did some of the things that made Mr Monk such a funny being.  I am one of those who often make such a claim.

At our graduation ceremonies (at the University of Pretoria) various people are involved in getting degrees awarded.  If one ignores those who (do the real) work behind the scenes, there are four primary tasks: the dean introduces the candidate to the chancellor, vice-chancellor or vice-principal.  This person awards the degree by tapping the new graduate on the head with a cap.  Next, the hood is placed on the graduate and finally someone shakes the graduate's hand to congratulate him or her with the achievement.  At our most recent ceremony the dubious honour of performing this latter task fell on me.  As I looked at the audience that included 300 odd graduands I considered my options.  Wearing a glove seemed inappropriate.  Wiping one's hands after each handshake seemed both inappropriate and impractical.  The only solution was to grin and bear it.

A slightly more important question was the one about the reason for including a 'handshaker' in the chain of events.  Everything else has ceremonial significance.  Shaking hands seems so ordinary after introduction, capping and hooding.  It took me less than five handshakes to figure out what the real purpose of the handshaker is.  The graduands are expressly told about the four acts on stage, but many clearly only register the first three important steps.  So they get introduced, capped and hooded - and then realise that they are on a stage and do not know what to do next.  It is the handshaker's duty to hold a hand out to them, say something that sounds like "congratulations" and then literally pull them to the edge of the stage so that they can leave and make space for the next graduate who is already approaching.  I am sure that this true duty of the handshaker is not described in any formal manual on academic protocol - and hence I decided to disclose the truth on my blog.

Finding purpose in my duty actually made the task fun.  And the graduates did deserve the congratulations.

The very first degree awarded at the ceremony was an honorary doctorate awarded to Dr Fred Cohen - he is the one in the picture on above in the red gown.  For him my task was slightly different: Since he was seated on stage I had to direct him back towards his spot on the stage (and ensure that he did not leave the stage because he still had to give his acceptance speech).  I also got to hand him his degree certificate (which is normally an administrative event once the graduate has left the stage).  In the picture on the left I am about to hand him his degree certificate.  I am dressed in the regalia of the Head of the Department of Computer Science - a role that I played in an acting capacity for a few days at the time of the graduation ceremony.  It was this 'acting' role that got me into the position as handshaker for the day as well...