Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thoughts on infrastructure and maps

In recent weeks, I’ve grown increasingly fascinated with infrastructure. What does the word even mean? Infra- is latin for “under, below”. Literally: below structure; what lies under the structure, what holds it together. Or the under-structure, as in underlying structure. If city, if society is structure, infrastructure refers to the connections under the skin of the whole twisting, breathing, giant thing — the skeleton of the city. Traditionally, this means planned, built environments; water pipelines, power lines, highways. The government plans, the engineers engineer, the builders build, the head of the whole thing neatly constructs its own skeleton top-down. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the whole story.

1. Infrastructure doesn’t have to be built. If you’ve ever taken a taxi, you know that there’s more to it than just the street being there. Taxi companies set up a transport network of their own, covering any area where demand is sufficiently high. If demand in a certain area rises, the network can easily expand on very short time scales — let’s call this floating infrastructure; as in not localized and (as a result) easily scalable. Another example are the car- and bike-sharing programs that in the last few years have been writing success stories in metropolitan areas around the world. As far as transport goes, busses are more floating than trains: While trains require specialized rails, bus systems may often be expanded on roads already constructed for other purposes. Of course, not only transport can be floating; wireless networks require only the addition of a router to cover more area.

2. It doesn’t even have to be planned. If a city is setting up a transit system, they’ll hire a planner to do it, and come up with a beautiful bus network complete with maps, schedules and pricing schemes. But what if they don’t? Taxis will come in to fill the gap. In many developing countries, privately owned mini-vans operate on pretty regular routes and serve as the daily mode of transport for millions of citizens. This is ad-hoc infrastructure, an emergent phenomenon that happens as many individual agents swoop in to fill a demand. In Cape Town, I found these so-called “taxi busses” to be safer and more efficient than the publicly run trains — if you know where you’re going. In analogy, private cell phone providers are managing to cover much of the developing world with communication without any government interfering, or any wire being laid down.

Transit coverage in North America

3. The importance of maps. With traditional planned, built infrastructure, the system starts growing from a blueprint, a map. With the kind of emergent infrastructure I’ve become so enchanted with, we have to become cartographers:make maps to overlay on the existing plans and understand how one ties into the other.
Cape Town is currently working on a major overhaul of its transportation system under the moniker of MyCiTi, including a rapid transit bus system modeled on Rio de Janeiro. Maps are the only way to incorporate the already existent floating and ad-hoc modes of transportation into the plan, and using infrastructure already in place can help prevent a major waste of resources. Unfortunately, I can’t see any evidence that anyone is actually mapping what is already there.

There seems to be an unfortunate tendency among policymakers, still, to think only about the planned aspects of infrastructure, and leave out the emergent on; But if we want to do surgery on our cities’ skeleton, we first have to understand all the little bones and blood vessels that already keep them alive.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cooking Masonja

This is one of the few non-vegan recipes you'll see me writing about... but it was just too good to pass up.

Plus, these animals have many of the criteria that cause people to turn to plant-based food: low in fat and cholesterol, abundantly available in nature without factory farming (at least where they are from), full of healthy protein and a shell that you might compare to fibre in its effect on the digestive tract. Furthermore, many vegans I know still eat honey, an insect's product - and I, too, am talking about insects here.

When I was in Zimbabwe I was told that "Mopane-worms", or masonja, caterpillars found on mopane and mango trees in Southern Africa, are a rather common and delicious dish of the region. I didn't manage to get a hold of a plate of the delicacy - I did, however, manage to purchase a little bag of dried critters with the ominous label "MADORA" written on it, as well as instructions on how to prepare them.

Shuttled them back through Mozambique and South Africa, passed under the radar of German customs and presented them at my parents' house. Where I also finally proceeded to fry them up last weekend!

Before soaking...

The first step was a few hours soak in salt water - the previously dried and rather beef-jerky-like bits turned into plump, black, white-spotted caterpillars.

... and after.

Next, we discarded the soaking water and gave them a little boil in more salted water. A strange smell, like a mix of cow stable and fine tea leaves, wafted from the pot...

Finally, the beasts were thrown in a pan full of piping hot vegetable oil and fried there until crispy. Meanwhile, I prepared a little sauce of onions, tomatoes and piri-piri (little hot chilies) - the only thing missing in the end was a good batch of pap, sadza, or masa: maize porridge.

African groceries, German equipment

The onion-tomato-affair reminded me a lot of evenings by the fire down South, but I have to say that the masonja were a bit, well, unexciting: they tasted like very crispy, slightly salty and otherwise somewhat bland bits of protein. Maybe worm-shaped bits of seitan with a crunchy outside would actually be pretty similar...

At least my mother almost died from disgust when she saw my dad and me chowing down on our masonja, and that's worth something!

Sunday, October 21, 2012


With being back at my desk comes the need to play around and bide my time. I've been extremely fascinated by the spatial structure of information lately - how can we map the ways we interact, communicate, live?

Twitter is one of the most popular ways people share their "status" with anyone who cares to know. The site provides a cool streaming API that allows developers to listen to and filter through all the data that goes through in real time. It turns out it's reasonably easy to access using Python, and the last couple of days I wrote a script that listens to geo-tagged tweets.

Any tweet with coordinates then gets put on a map, and any tweet with an origin as well as a mention of another place is represented as a line between the two points. Within a few minutes, you can see the connected countries - mostly Europe and North America, with a few bursts in Japan and Australia and the occasional life sign from South Africa and South America - light up. And, maybe unsurprisingly, most people seem to tweet about nearby places.

I'm really excited about learning to use APIs and the amazing Python Basemap. What other interesting things can be done with all this data?
(Also, my plotting is waaay slower than my streaming. I can't keep up with twitter! Anyone have a good idea why that might be?)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The wild hunt

Finding an apartment can be a full-time job, especially in Munich, possibly the worst place in this country to find a place to live.

I went down, lodged myself in a friend's apartment, opened my laptop and found a site with flatshare-postings. Tried contacting people. Got about ten times less responses than I sent out requests - welcome to Munich. But hey, there was someone trying to rent out one room in their apartment, willing to meet me tomorrow!

The two-person.  The first two-bedroom I visited had a lovely bedroom for rent, but the horrible body odour of the other occupant filling kitchen, hallway and bathroom.
At the next one I met not only the current inhabitant, but also her mother and the mother's giant German shepherd dog. Mommy was quick to tell me all about how the poor daughter had been so disadvantaged that she now has to spend 3 years finishing high school at age 24.
So it went on, and all of them told me I could move in with them. When I politely declined, their ads went back up on the website. I started looking for bigger living groups.

The university students. They usually live in shared flats, and I was able to get some of them on the phone - no way out, no email you can ignore, I'm coming by tomorrow morning!
When I arrived at my next potential home, one of my two potential housemates was still not there; "he'll be back from this party somewhere out in the suburbs some time soon". "Yeah, we've got a microwave. No, no oven, we're thinking about buying one". "So, what do you do when you're not at uni?" -- "Well, mostly we just hang with friends in our kitchen, we prefer wine over beer usually."
When the tardy partier finally arrived, about an hour late, he repeatedly stated "I'm here now, but only physically so far... Give me some coffee!"

On the blackboard on the wall: a list of all the applicants who were to visit throughout the day. I might've moved into this marvellous living stereotype, but I suppose one of the 15 other hopefuls fit the bill better.

The "Verbindung". That's the German version of a fraternity... I located the only one in Munich that houses women, and called for a visit. Leather couches, a pool table, a garden in the back. Oh, and a fencing range in the basement, as it turned out that all the male members have to participate in an old-fashioned style of sabre fighting four times a week. And women can't be full members anyways, their main raison d'etre is that "guys behave a lot better when there's girls around". Uhm, no thanks.

The perfect. Then, I couldn't believe my eyes, I found a flat just five minutes from a Capoeira academy. It wasn't too expensive, either. I went to visit, and chatted for an hour with the people living there. They're cyclists and climbers and have a little herb garden on the flats balcony which overlooks a shady peaceful back yard. The girl leaving her room mentioned that she'd like to leave her piano in the room for a few years, *if I didn't mind* - I had truly found paradise.

Well, after two days I got a call from them saying "you were up there on our list, but eventually we gave the room to someone else. Sorry!"

The temporary solution. Soul crushed and eyes tired from nearly 2 weeks staring at online ads and waiting for replies, I found rescue in the form of the same friend's apartment I had been staying at: a room is opening up! It's a spacious 10 square meters, only about an hour by train from where I'll be working. And it's being vacated a mere 10 days after I'm supposed to start there - what's 10 nights spent on a couch, after all?
Okay, my new flatmates are engineers, so likely there'll be lots of physics jokes and I'll possibly lose any semblance of social skills.

But I won't be sleeping under the bridges by the Isar, and that's a start.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Back home, with some detours

All things have an end (except for sausages, which have two, as we say in Germany...), and so I had to leave the wilderness and head back into what I've come to jokingly call "civilization".
Mama Schade's Blackforest Cake

First was a week-long stopover in Cape Town, to meet some old friends, tie up some loose ends and catch a plane back to Europe.
The best part of the week was my host Sheila, a lovely lady who had been part of the solstice-activities up in the Karoo and invited me to come visit when I was back in town - so I moved into her guest room, complete with my own bathroom and a heat blanket under the bed sheet, to preheat the bed on cold winter evenings. Oh how I love technology!

Birthday brunch
Sheila and I celebrated her 71st birthday together with lots of good food and wine, and had more of the same during the rest of the week. I also got to experience what life in South Africa is like living in one of the gated communities or "complexes" - very safe, very comfortable and with a lot of driving. The regular coffee shop is "only" a ten minute drive away, you can be in the city in a matter of half an hour on the highway. But there are green fields, beautiful views from the breakfast table and security guards to make sure you can sleep easy.

Breakfast table vistas in Durbanville

During the week I also met my previous host's daughter, who lives in Cape Town, is almost exactly my age and just had a heart transplant 8 months ago. We spent a day having coffee, enjoying classic cape views and collecting some golf balls for her dad... The feat of travelling once around Southern Africa seemed pretty insignificant compared to growing up with a heart disease and having to get used to your own mortality as a teenager.

Michelle trying to blend in with the guinea fowls in the background

And finally, the main reason for coming back to this city, I had my first capoeira-batizado! Sadly without much of my capoeira family, since lots of them were on summer vacation, but still very exciting for me. My mestre Espirrinho handed me my green first belt, and my "godmother" Mordaca gave me my nickname: Beterraba, beetroot, apparently because that's what my face looks like after playing.

with Espirrinho

When I finally got on my plane home, leaving the CT capoeiristas behind was the hardest thing. But in Dusseldorf, my real family was already waiting for me, with a beterraba-bouquet and a blackforest cake! What more could you want?

Brother + beterraba-bouquet
Now, after lots of sentimental pictures with friends and family, what's next? I'm traipsing around Europe for a little while, and then seeing if maybe I can stomach "civilization" for long enough to get my PhD here - I'm doubtful...

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Modes of transportation

After my rather brainy solstice weekend with the Dr. I was to follow a several-month-old invitation to David's home farm further up in the Karoo, near Graaff-Reinet. His cousin Philip, leatherworker and horseman, a carbon copy of Captain Haddock with his beard, cap and tobacco pipe - if only his voice wasn't just a tad to squeaky - had told me I must come up there and learn how to ride a horse.

Philip - what a character.

So on Sunday afternoon, I climbed into the farmer's 6-seater Cessna, for the only airborne leg of my whole trip. He had learned how to fly because he decided it was the most efficient way to travel accross this vast country - and I definitely prefer it over driving! Couldn't stop grinning for about 10 minutes after the stomach-turning ascent, and then got to steer the plane for a little while. It's really difficult to keep the thing level inside a cloud, because everything outside is just white, white, white... But there is a little instrument for everything, including a water balance, so we didn't crash and made it to Coetzierskraal, the Luscombes' family farm, in just over an hour.

What keeps an airplane up in the clouds


Of course the rain in Laingsburg stopped when I left, and it started raining at this new place as soon as I arrived. I moved into one of the now grown-up kids' rooms, and went for a stroll of the vast meadows, complete with rivers and willow trees. And ostriches. And angora goats! Those look just like sheep, really.

3 stoves! The one in the middle has a little fire going.

The next day, after a breakfast of oats cooked by the maid on an old-fashioned wood-fired stove, Plip and I went out to capture the horse I was supposed to ride. Her name was Venus, and she was with a young fole and quite grumpy to be made to carry me around on her back. My excitement made up for her apathy though, and so we managed to do a few circles inside a pen, then a few lanes on a larger field. After two days Venus, the fole and myself spent a whole morning exploring the farmlands all by ourselves. (I'd rather not tell you how the first time I got off the horse to open up a gate, she wouldn't go through the gate at all, turned right back around and trotted back to the stables. And how I had to take off my shoes and run after her through an ice-cold river. But it did happen... only once though!)

I'm on a horse!

Precocious baby horse

Horse riding makes a lot of sense out there, especially in places where a car can't go: One morning, David, his girlfriend and I drove out to a more remote part of the farm where the river had flooded a road, and promptly got the pickup stuck in the mud. It took about 5 men and half an hour of hard labor to finally get the vehicle back on solid ground.

The Karoo as seen from horseback

I stayed at Coetzierskraal for almost a week, and really didn't want to leave at all. But after 6 days I washed the farm dust and horse hair out of my clothes and got back on the road, down the grand N1, through Laingsburg and Hex River Valley. David's son needed his car down in Cape Town, and so for the first time since the beginning of the trip I was driving myself - back to the place where it all started.

(No,f course I would never be taking photos while driving. Ever.)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Winter solstice

When I got off the train in Laingsburg, I was headed for the sheep farm of David Luscombe - a giant patch of arid land with merinos and damaras roaming more or less freely on it. The farm house had a warm fireplace and - for a change - working hot water, but no electricity. David arrived a few hours after I did, and I spent the next two days learning all about sheep farming. Apparently merino sheep are a bit dumb, and tend to get eaten by jackals, so they decided to switch most of their sheep over to the much more goat-like damara sheep. Those don't give wool, but nice meat, and because they sleep in one big flock at night, the jackals can't really get to them.

The plants wer enjoying the rain

Unfortunately it started pouring rain on my second day there, and both the local workers and the local sheep didn't like the unusual weather in the least, so the herding halted. I settled next to the fireplace with a headache and a fever (for a while I thought I had caught the malaria, but in hindsight it was probably just the flu), and waited for the main attraction of my stay: the winter solstice workshop of Dr. Cyril Hromnik.

CH taking pictures of the solstice sunset lining up with a person seated in an ancient worship site

I met Cyril a few months ago through his son - he's a historian studying pre-European African civilizations, and is particularly interested in certain stone structures found in Southern Africa. David's farm has got lots of heaps of rocks, little walls and strange man-made enclosures all over it, that no one was able to explain for a long time. Cyril noticed that all of these stones line up with the movable sky, i.e. the trajectories of the sun, moon and planets. His explanation? Indian gold traders moved down the Eastern coast of Africa long before the year 0, began mixing with the local population and brought with them their religion - the resulting culture he calls "Kenna".

Adjusting the marker for a solstice sunrise observatory

Apparently very similar structures are found in India. And once Cyril started looking for patterns in the temples, as he calls them, he discovered that some of them form shapes from ancient Indian mythology, for instance Rama's bow and arrow. To further corroborate that idea, lots of African languages turn out to have Dravida (i.e. old Indian) words in them!
For the last decade or so, Cyril has taken groups of interested people to David's farm to observe solstices and equinoxes from the old temples. About 5 of them showed up there last Friday, and together we spent the weekend clambering over rocks and staring wide-eyed at beautiful sunrises and sunsets over distant mountain peaks and between little monoliths.

Since the weather remained cold and wet (Desert? Lies!), the traditional South African Braai was moved to the fireplace in the living room. Yup, cooking over open fire can be very civilized!