A different brand of engagement

Four years after briefly stopping off in Ghana on his way home from a G8 summit, President Barack Obama lands in Dakar on Wednesday night at the start of his first extended visit, in his current capacity, to the continent of his Kenyan father’s birth.

The land of his father’s birth, its president under indictment from the International Criminal Court, he will be giving a miss. Barring any untoward event, he will spend Saturday in Johannesburg and Sunday in Cape Town, and then head to Dar es Salaam, his third and final stop, first thing Monday.

In the US, at least, the trip has been in the news chiefly thanks to leaks about the lengths to which the Secret Service is going to ensure the First Family’s safety. There is predictable harrumphing from Tea Party types about the cost (between $60-$100 million, the Washington Post estimates) at a time when budget cuts have forced the White House to suspend public tours. Continue reading “A different brand of engagement”

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It’s what you do with it

Paul Maritz, Zimbabwean-born alumnus of UKZN and UCT, is a titan of the IT world. As de facto number three at Microsoft behind Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer for 1986 to 2000, “he was responsible for essentially all (Microsoft’s) desktop and server software”, according to his Wikipedia entry. Now he is CEO of Pivotal, a spinoff from his previous company, VMWare, and his head is in the Cloud.

The Cloud is the globe-spanning archipelago of server farms operated by the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook and, yes,America’s National Security Agency, where Big Data lives and is sifted. Big Data is the exponentially swelling cosmos of digitized information saved by and about the owners of the estimated 10 billion devices of all kinds now connected in one way or another to the Internet.

How big is Big Data? Just storing all those ones and noughts on the public Cloud’s servers, according to Hewlett-Parkard’s ad for its new Moonshot system, uses twice as much electricity as the entire United Kingdom. Continue reading “It’s what you do with it”

Insecure spies

When President Obama inherited George Bush’s war on terror, he also inherited the metastasasing, multi-billion dollar surveillance apparatus created to fight it. We – including, one suspects, the president himself — now know a lot more about this apparatus than we did a week ago, and it’s not pretty.

What’s really troubling, though, is not that the National Security Agency, America’s global eavesdropper, has authority to troll through everyone’s telephone records or that its boffins have access, through a programme called PRISM, to the Gmail and other online accounts of anyone they consider a legitimate target.

Actually, what those disclosures bring to mind, more than anything else, is Captain Renault’s immortal line in Casablanca that he was “shocked – shocked” to hear that gambling was going on in Rick’s Café Americain. There is a war on – jihadis are still trying to kill and maim Americans — and what history teaches is that when America fights wars, its constitution usually suffers collateral damage. Continue reading “Insecure spies”