Halloween in Germany

I had the opportunity to spend two weeks teaching at the University of Konstanz in the state of Baden-Württemberg on the border with Switzerland. I decided to jump at the chance, so am, I think, the first academic to come over from the Balsillie School and do this stint. The idea was to spend a fortnight here in Germany, and teach 14 sessions on a Global Health and HIV and AIDS. The University covered my costs.

There was an additional reason though. Due to the tax rules in the UK I am severely penalized if I spend more than 90 days in Britain. This trip to Europe was therefore a really good opportunity to see a new University, teach different students, and have time with the family. They had to come to Germany for this to happen. Douglas and I travelled together on Saturday 21st October. He left on Wednesday. Ailsa came from Thursday to Sunday and the plan is that Rowan will join me on the last Wednesday. We will then leave together on Saturday and travel to Amsterdam for a night. From there she will fly to Norwich while I go to Cape Town.

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Football Madness Continues: Early July 2010

This posting should go up soon after the World Cup semi finals, but before the final. It has been an amazing month both for me personally and for the country. My personal score card is four games in two stadia. The first was the England against the USA in Rustenburg on the 12th June. On the 23rd July I went to the Moses Madiba stadium in Durban for the Nigeria versus Korea game. Three days later I returned to see Portugal play Brazil, and on Monday 28th I saw Netherlands versus Slovakia. On Saturday 3rd July I joined friends at the Fan Park next to the Suncoast Casino to see the Germany Argentina game. In addition to this I have watched numerous games on the television in my flat or with friends.

It is hard to describe the events of the past month without getting emotional. The general consensus in South Africa was that we could (probably) deliver the World Cup and we have done so and exceeded out own wildest expectations. So far everything has gone smoothly, more smoothly than we believed possible. In part this is due to the way the event was built up by the Government and our media. There were extensive advertisements on the television telling us: the World Cup was coming, we should be gearing up to it, getting excited and preparing to welcome the many tourists flying to South Africa, for this once in lifetime event.

As time went on the message changed to say: ‘Ayoba: It is here’. After South Africa were defeated there was another switch in emphasis to say: “Well we didn’t get very far but let’s keep welcoming visitors and ensuring that they have a good time”.

I think we have succeeded. One concern was around crime, and it has been amazing how little there has been. The press reported on the first tourist to be shot (and wounded), an American walking in a very sketchy part of Johannesburg. I think we all have been taken aback, and people have just been lucky. I had two people from Sweden staying in the flat. One day they set off to walk into town, which I think is safe! They had just reached the Warwick Junction area when they were accosted by a lady driving through who said: “You can’t walk here. It is really dangerous. Get in the car at once”.

Sadly she then took them to the Suncoast Casino, which would not be my first choice of an environment for visitors. She also proposed that one of them, both being blonde Swedes, might be a perfect match for her son. Mind you I wonder about the some people and their naivety. A colleague had a ticket for the semi-final that he cant use. He gave it to a friend to sell. This person got a buyer, a Nigerian who took the ticket to ‘authenticate it’, and also took the bank details so he could deposit the money. I wonder how that story will turn out!

There has been flag waving patriotism. It has been enthusiastic and inclusive, when teams were knocked out their flags have continued to be flown on the cars and drivers have added second and third team national flags. At one point I estimated that one in five cars was flying a flag for someone. It has been a profitable time for the hawkers who operate at traffic lights. Instead of pineapples and coat hangers they have been selling flags and, something I have not seen before, mirror socks. These are little material socks which fit over the side mirror on vehicles. It has also been fascinating to how the nation has come together. All the crowds have been very multi-racial. At the Suncoast park the audience was largely Indian but there was a good smattering of visitors, mostly German fans and a number of black spectators.

I found the comment of a bright young white South Africa very telling. He said “Well we don’t expect to do well because we are not a soccer nation”. How typical that he should not understand that, for the majority of South Africans, we are a soccer nation. I really do think this will change.

What about the football? Of the games I have seen perhaps the most exciting was the Netherlands – Slovakian match. The stadium was packed with Dutch fans, who stood out in their bright orange jumpers and football shirts. They cheered their hearts out; the team played its heart out; and beat Slovakia. Then on Friday 2nd July they managed to knock the favorites, Brazil, out of the competition which was fantastic and now they are thought to the final. That match I watched at the gym, carefully taking my distance glasses so that I could be on the cross-trainer and actually see what was going on. I got there for the second half and the co-owner of the gym came to join me on the next machine. As a result we were able to get rid of the normal terrible music and listen to the commentary. That was a plus side, but I guess the minus side was that the gym was completely deserted. I think there were four people in the cardio section and another five in the rest of the building.

There will be huge economic benefits to South Africa. In the long-term we have invested in infrastructure which will serve us well for decades to come. In the short-term there is tourist money pouring into the country, and one has to recognize that there are some advantages in having the wealthy nations staying in the competition. It has been patchy though, I have been on aircraft that were virtually empty and others that have been jam-packed. I think that we overestimated the level of spending there would be. The other evening I went to one of the best restaurants in Durban, Fusion : there were only four people, and we outnumbered the staff. At the same time there have been sudden influxes of people, the airport at Port Elizabeth had more large aircraft on the hard standing than at any time in its history.

Things have not always worked perfectly, but when they went awry most people have been good humored. For example the Fan Park where I watched the Germany Argentina game, with all my German friends, had the live feed collapse just five minutes before the end of the match. At that point Germany were three nil ahead so we were pretty certain of the result. I was impressed by the good humor of the crowd both as they got up and left a little early, and as we navigated our way out of the ghastly Sun Coast Casino parking area, with its cones and tortuous routing to the exit.

Of course, this past month has not just been World Cup. On the 1st and 2nd of July we had our annual HEARD Retreat at a hotel called the Caledon near Ballito. This is a boutique hotel, one of the Life Group. I have written about them previously in my blog. I’m not impressed. It is situated inland and I am somewhat perplexed by its location. It will have to trade on something other than its non-proximity to the beach. It is in an area which seems to rapidly be developing into retirement villages and golf estates. It is, however, close to the new airport. The retreat was well facilitated and was helpful and useful to get an idea of where we will be going in the organization.

Taxis In Holland And Germany And Smiles At Airports

I begin with taxi cab experiences in Holland and Germany, destinations in late September. I spent two days in The Hague in Holland for a meeting of The AIDS, Security and Conflict Initiative (ASCI) a research project convened by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ and the US Social Science Research Council. The final report and other information are on the web athttp://asci.researchhub.ssrc.org/rdb/asci-hub.
The flight from Norwich to Amsterdam is about 35 minutes if KLM uses their Fokker F70 jet and 55 minutes if the aircraft is smaller, creaky, propeller driven Fokker F50. That is a name to the company probably regretted when they became an international brand, but as they went bankrupt in 1997 it not that relevant. Getting the train from the airport was not easy as it seems the Dutch railway system does not accept most major credit or debit cards and the machines need coins for most tickets.

The meeting was being held at a hotel in Scheveningen, an attractive seaside resort just north of The Hague so I took a cab to the hotel. It isn’t far and there are trams, but when one does not know a city it is easiest to be driven. The taxi drivers I had were all young, foreign men, (sample 3, 100% accurate.) The first driver told me he worked two jobs and wanted to complete his education. He spent the entire journey telling me how tough his life is; how many of his passengers are mentally disturbed (presumably when they get into the cab because I could well understand it if they got out feeling unsettled); and finally how dangerous it is to be a cab driver in Holland. He took the view that drivers should be in cages and have cameras in the cabs for additional security. A depressing experience!

The second cabby drove far too fast. As this was from the hotel to the station, I can only assume he thought, correctly, that I had a train to catch. But the trains leave every 15 minutes so it was quite unnecessary. He went through at least two red lights leaving in his wake, numbers of shocked and shaken cyclists. In the end, I asked him to slow down which rather surprised him, commenting on taxi drivers’ skills is a no-no.

By contrast, the drivers in Berlin were fast, did not speak English, and drove safely. There was a degree of precision and accuracy to their driving which was, well, Germanic. It was easy and cheap to use the U-Bahn and the bus in Berlin. I managed to negotiate both. On the Saturday I caught the airport bus from the romantically named boulevard, ‘Unter-den-Linden’, to Tegel airport, very simple and comfortable. Not being able to get on an earlier flight, I sat in the lounge and edited an article. That was boring but productive. Two loud Americans came in and talked about their Blackberries and families in that order!

On the journey from the Hague I also ended up spending a couple of hours at the airport, Schipol this time. The check-in was supposed to be self-service. The automatic passport reader did not like my passport so I was obliged to enter details manually. I managed this until it asked for the first three letters of the home country. So, what was it to be? ENG (for England) or GRE (for Great Britain) or indeed UNI , (United Kingdom) Naturally, it was the last of the three options. Before I solved it I turned to a KLM staff member and asked for help. She was talking to two other passenger and the following conversation ensued.

“Hang on” she said, “I can only do one thing at a time.”
“I thought women could multi task.” I teased her.
“No.” she responded, “Only knitting and talking!”

In the departure area, the microphones were not working, so the person on duty had to round up all the passengers by shouting across the hall. It was clearly a day of equipment failure. Still, the plane did take off on time and so was into Norwich 20 minutes early. It really was a beautiful day to be in the air: clear and sunny with the whole of Norfolk spread out below us at its best. I managed to spot Coltishall Airfield, an old Royal Air force base. I now recognise it as a useful landmark before coming into Norwich from the North when I am in the flying school plane. Really interesting! Now I have to start working at spotting it from the other side.

The trip to Berlin was to a talk to a sub-group of the German Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and also to GTZ on of the main German aid giving bodies. Berlin is such an interesting city. One of the striking things is how little of ‘The Wall’ is left, and what there is, is rotting, with concrete falling off and steel reinforcing rods exposed. My assigned seat was 6C and next to me was a German woman, Cordelia Marten, who is one of two or three people running an art book company owned by a friend of hers. What an interesting position, the idea is to take artists out more broadly into society and to the public. It is better than one person having a one picture on a wall or a gallery which depends on people coming in. It is also highly specialised. It fitted very neatly into my books read and reviewed category at the end of this news.

The company has a great website and the books are in both English and German. The one I found most interesting on the site was by Michael John Whelan, ‘RED SKY MORNING’, Berlin 2009, So often I feel extraordinarily privileged to travel and meet such a range of out-of-the-ordinary people that I learn from.

I have just three weeks of sabbatical left. It has been good to be in Norwich through a spring, summer and now an autumn. The garden has been magnificent although at the moment it is terribly dry. Despite the general view of England as a constantly damp isle we have not seen rain for at least six weeks.

As I prepare to leave my final reflections are flying and the range of wildlife that this patch of garden attracts. The weather has been perfect for spiders and there are webs in every location that will support one. It seems unlikely that there is enough insect life to keep them all going. Perhaps they become cannibals, although my experiments of introducing one spider to another’s web show the intruder scurries off as fast its eight legs will carry it. (Sample 2 confidence 100%).

The pond beside the shed has been home to a batch of fearsome mosquitoes. Mowing the lawn the other evening I was really bitten. I could actually feel each bite, and as the little beast got caught in the hair on my legs I was able to kill them, but that was cold comfort. The result of the bite, even interrupted by death, was great itchy wheals (sample 5, and two spider’s bites, the difference being a black spot at the centre of the spider bite and not as irritable). The pond has also been home to tadpoles. At the moment there are at least big frogs living in it, when I went round this morning there were three plops as they leapt in. Curiously if they are in the water they feel confident enough to sit with their head out and watch me, but if they are outside they want to get in as fast as they can.

More flying stories September 2009

It has been a frustrating few weeks as far as flying goes. I booked a lesson a couple of Sundays ago. I went to the Flying School (this sounds grand, but is just an office with a white board at the end of one on the runways) for my pre-flight briefing. My instructor warned me that it was rather windy and we might not be able to fly, but we went ahead. This lesson was to be about low flying, higher than 500 feet but less than 1000. (One of the rules of flying is that you should not go nearer than 500 feet of a person animal or vehicle).

After the briefing we went out to the plane and on to the next step which is the pre-flight check list. This takes me about 15 minutes, and includes opening the engine cowlings and checking for dead birds. This done we got into the plane, did the next checks, started the engine and taxied to the end of the runway. At the holding point the instructor called the tower to get the latest weather and clearance for take-off. The wind strength had increased and so he decided that we should not fly. The main reason is if anything went wrong the insurance would be invalid. Flying is about margins and making sure they are as wide as possible. On the whole I fully approve of this.

The school does not charge when this happens, so effectively I got an hour and half of time and 20 minutes taxiing. This was no bad thing because I have finally mastered that to a degree. The moment that made a difference was realizing how the plane is steered. There are two peddles on the floor that control the rudder (a bit on the tail which turns left and right). They also control the nose wheel which I had not understood! It made a huge difference to me to realize that what I was doing with my feet had an immediate effect just in front of me, rather than being transmitted to the tail and then effecting the angle of the plane – or something. Also, and I don’t know if this is only true of the Piper or if it is the case with most small planes, the controls require a lot of effort to make them work at low speed. If you think of a car without power steering, and how much exertion it takes to turn the steering wheel when it is stationary, you have a sense of what I have to do.

My sense of frustration was that I could not do what I wanted, for the instructor it meant no pay! The reason for becoming an instructor for younger men is to build up the hours of flying to allow them to get commercial licenses. If they don’t fly they don’t get paid and it is pretty minimum wages for them anyway. I think I am going to have to give this plane a name as it seems to becoming a part of my life. If you have moment, look at the picture and give me your nomination. It is a Piper Tomahawk, as they say ‘ideas on a postcard please’.

Books and things 

Chris Anderson ‘The Longer Long Tail‘ Business Books 2006, 267 pages

This is about the fact that there are a few hits and then many other products. The essence is niche interests have come together on a global scale and create a substantial market. The author (editor of ‘Wired’ begins with the effects of the internet. The simple version of his argument is if you lower the cost of production and distribution you can offer more variety and if this happens people will start to look for the product that most closely meets their needs. The best example at the moment are the media products available on the internet. One key point is this does not mean the end of hits, there will still be the big blockbuster films, but there may be fewer of them and not as big. The major issue that he does not address is around quality. There are some products that need investment otherwise quality suffers. In other words there is a level at which what is good cannot be left to the market.

A movie recommendation in this letter District 9 is a South African film that is full of dark humour and is really astutely observed. I took Douglas and a friend and we all enjoyed it. I wont say more- other than do go see it, and the website www.argobooks.de