Saturday, November 24, 2007

Attack of the KILLER HAIL!!!

My golly gosh! Yesterday evening was SO exciting, to say the least! It was crazy!
It all began when I was sitting at my desk, desperately trying to access my e-mail (our ISP has been down for a few days...who knows why...). I noticed, that my family were all standing in the entrance to our garage chattering. Now, my family is a little odd, I'll admit, but even for them, this is not normal behaviour. Thus, I got up and went to investigate.

They had just returned from doing the weekly shopping and thus had all clustered around the boot (trunk) of the car. But they were facing the wrong way. They were all facing the garden with their backs to the newly acquired shopping. I walked forward, trying to hear what they were all saying. As I got closer I suddenly realised that they were talking about hail and, looking around, I realised that it was beginning to hail.

Now, anyone who has ever spent some time, during summer, in the Gauteng region will be able to tell you that the area is bombarded frequently by massive thunderstorms - many of which, hail is an integral part. However, this time, the situation was very different. Most of our storms begin with a little thunder, rumbling away in the distance, like a flatulent co-worker tottering down the passage. This is usually followed by rain, which steadily strengthens in it's force and eventually culminates in hail. This time, there was no thunder, no rain, nothing. There were suddenly millions of little comets, plummeting down from above to slay any innocent leaf that was fooling enough to remain attached to it's parent plant.

Luckily for us, my mother had a moment of paranoia and insisted that we cover my car with something to protect it from the hail. My car is the only car in the family that lives outside, so it's the one that battles most in winter to get started and it's also the one that gets nailed by the hail. My mom found an old carpet lying about in the garage and we hurtled out to throw it onto my car. As we were in the process of straightening out the carpet, we realised, to our horror, that a carpet was not going to be enough! The hailstones that were crashing down all around us were getting to be about the size of a small apricot, only a lot harder and certainly not as pleasant.

Oddly enough, right next to the car was a pile of roof tiles that had been taken off our roof to be cut to make way for our new solar-pannel geyser. They had been replaced on the roof, so there was no gaping hole or anything. Immediately, my mother and I began to place these over the car (and it was a good thing we did too!). As we placed the last tile, things got scary...

Massive shards of ice began to fall all around us. These balls of chilly death were about the size of a golf ball, only they were larger and most were covered in very sharp, icey projections. Take a look at the picture. This is my sisters had with some of the hailstones in it:

By the end of the storm, which carried on for a good 10 minutes or so, the devistation was like nothing we have ever experienced before! The trees had been stripped of half their leaves, there were broken windows, about 7 dead birds were on our lawn and the solar panel was certainly a thing of the past. Apparently three people were killed last night during this storm, but it is still not clear how they died (walking around in the hail, car accidents as a result of the hail...?). We spent all of today cleaning up and trying to get our home looking more like a Bedfordview house and less like it was translocated for New Orleans following the floods. Check out the pics:

Our ill-fated solar panel...

The ill-fated solar panel complete with hailstones-del-los-muertos and a matchbox for scale.

Believe it or not, there is in fact a driveway beneath all that green!

Friday, November 23, 2007

On traffic and musical genius

G'day bloggers!

Today I had to go off to Pretoria for a meeting with the primate curator of the National Zoological Gardens (NZG). My meeting was at 2:00pm, so I ensured that I had an hour and a quarter to get to NZG. The route to Pretoria (of which there are actually two, both of about the same distance) is approximately 100km, so, any trips between Johannesburg and Pretoria take just under an hour or so. I had also considered the fact that today, being a Friday, traffic would be particularly hellish. But, I was soon to realise just how much I had underestimated the traffic!

I'd been in the car approximately 10min before it hit. I was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic already. I looked along the road and to my horror, realised that the traffic was backed up all the way down the hill I was on, across the valley below and up the next hill. Internally I cursed the human race for procreating to such a degree that there would be this many cars at all but I resolved to accept that I might be a few minutes late for my meeting.

Once I reached the bottom of the hill, 15min later, I began to worry somewhat. I thought it a good idea to send a text message to the curator, explaining that I might be a tad on the late side.

About another 15min later, we reached the top of the hill. The traffic began to move a bit more and relief very cautiously dipped it's big toe into my mind shortly before shivering violently and scampering off. The problem was that I, once again, had completely misjudged the traffic, for it was nowhere nearly over!

The traffic continued to frustrate for a further 45 minutes...

There was one little gem that the traffic brought, however. As luck would have it, yesterday, it was announced on the radio that today, just after 2:00pm, they would be interviewing a band member of the group 'Chicane'. Now, had this been any other group in the universe, I probably wouldn't have given a fig about the interview. However, Chicane is a group that I've been a MASSIVE fan of ever since I heard their track, 'Saltwater'. But, as fate would have it, shortly after I discovered this uber-group, they went on an involuntary sabbatical of approximately 9 years during which, they would release absolutely nothing. So I sat, with my only Chicane album, waiting patiently for my next fix.

Coincidentally, I've somehow lost that CD within the last few days. It has literally vanished! I'm most upset.

Back to the story...Thus, due to the terrible traffic that was making me ridiculously late for my meeting, I got to listen to the interview! It was also made supa-cool by the fact that the interview-ee was none other than the groups founder and front-man, Nick Bracegirdle! Yay! The universe smiles upon me! I was surprised by the fact that he sounds like he's a Bristolian...I stand to be corrected on that. He is by far one of the worlds most talented and brilliant musicians of our time (methinks anyway!).

Once the interview was over, and the traffic eventually let up, I headed off to Pretoria. As I got in to Pretoria, the heavens opened and a deluge rushed forth. It was a good thing though. Somehow, people always take pity on you if you look as though you've been half drowned on your way to get to them for a meeting...

The meeting went well and I will be placing my devices in the chimp enclosure on Monday (HOORAY!!!). Big up to all my supporters!

PS: As it turned out...there was absolutley NO reason for the traffic...apparently people just like to slow down and huddle...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

No chimps were hurt during the testing of this device...

Another victory to me! Today I tested out my enrichment devices at the Johannesburg Zoo! It was awesome! They did exactly what they were meant to do and nothing broke! Including the chimps!
The story of the devices is a long and winding one, a story that I shall recount to you, bloggers. It all began in about February, before my project proposal, when I was designing my devices. I started off asking my supervisor what I could use as an enrichment device for the chimpanzees. He suggested that I choose something that would be strong and functional. I mentioned to him that I was thinking of using a feeding tube (see photograph) because that way we could provide an incentive for the chimps to go to a particular area of their enclosure. To this he agreed and suggested that I then speak to the respective zoo keepers about what they would prefer.

I did exactly that. The first person I spoke to was the primate curator at Johannesburg Zoo. She's also a good friend of mine and was very nice and helpful about it all. I asked her what she would prefer that I use for the devices and she said that she would be happy for me to use any material to make my feeding tubes. So, feeling confident that I was on the right path, although still a little lost about what I should be using, I approached the head of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) to ask her what she thought would be appropriate for me to use at the JGI sanctuary in Nelspruit.

She was not as open to the use of any materials. She said that the manager of the sanctuary would most likely not be happy with me using artificial materials as they would prefer to keep their animal enclosures as natural-looking as possible (as an aside, I'd like to point out that their enclosures are surrounded by a 3m high electric fence, are full of alien invasive plants and the animals get fed food - such as cream-cheese and doughnuts [ever SO natural] - by the tourists that visit the sanctuary, so clearly my placement of a plastic tube in their enclosure would have had a catastrophic effect on this pristine environment which they have created and manage...yeah right). So, I said I'd try to carve these devices out of wood.

There were two major obstacles associated with this scenario. Firstly, where does one obtain sections of tree trunk that have not been treated with chemicals of any kind (another requirement for their immaculate ecological setup) from which to carve? Secondly, how exactly does one hollow out a log to form a tube? As far as the second question goes, I'm sure there are special machines that have been designed and built for this express purpose. But, alas, I don't have any such miracles of technological advancement.

Finding logs proved to be considerably more difficult than expected...My first thought was to ask tree fellers for the logs. However, many of the tree fellers that I contacted would cut their trees into sections that were too small for me to be able to use. The pieces are easier to move that way, for those who are wondering why they cut them up. Others would cut me large sections but of woods that were not suitable (too soft or poisonous).

So, after months of searching, and almost giving up hope entirely, I drove into university one day and to my delight, there were people cutting down trees all over campus! As it turned out, many of the trees had been sceduled to be felled for some time, it's just that nobody knew about it. So I, in my joy, drove around campus collecting bits of tree and shoving them into my car. Helen (I am eternally grateful!!!) helped me and between the two of us, I think we developed enough lower back pain to last a lifetime.

Now that I had a car full of logs and a renewed sense of imminent success, I went home to try carving one out. This too proved much harder than expected! Firstly, simply using a chisel to carve away was NOT doing the job at all! I resorted to using a drill to drill out lots of holes and then chisel in between them. This was working very well until I killed our drill...

So I borrowed my uncles drill (also, to who I am eternally grateful!!!). I didn't kill that one. But still the process was taking a long time. Eventually (another drill-bit later) I'd managed to hollow out a log. My arms were aching and I had blisters all over my hands, but it was at last finished! It had only taken me...about two weeks.

I believe it was the next day that I went to a meeting with one of those in charge at Pretoria Zoo. There, I learned, they would not allow me to use wood because it was unhygenic (because as everybody knows, there are no germs in the wild...) and that they would only accept plastic.

I had a car full of tree trunks, blisters all over my hands, a sore back, six months worth of planning and searching and now I was told that it had all been in vain.

Not being one to give up that easily, I went back to the drawing board - this time, with the intention of making my devices out of PVC piping. But, to my horror, I remembered that the JGI people had said that I couldn't use un-natural materials. So I was totally screwed. At the suggestion of my supervisor, I contacted the JGI again and asked them what they would prefer for me to use.

Suddenly, they changed their tune. PVC was okay! SIX BLOODY MONTHS DOWN THE LINE!!!

After a minor emotional breakdown and (probably) a lot of grumpiness, I began designing my devices anew. This time, I intended to use high-pressure water piping due to the fact that it is incredibly strong and there would be no chance of the chimps getting their hands stuck inside (the diameter of the pipe is 200mm). This was then approved by all parties! Again, I was thrilled and riding the wave of my brilliant recovery.

I then told my supervisor about how much it would all cost.

He recovered surprisingly quickly and then agreed to go ahead with it. By this stage, it had been 9 months since I'd started my degree, and I'm sure he was very worried that at that rate, I'd never leave. So I made all the appropriate arrangements to buy the materials. It was then that I learned that it was standard practice for one to buy things first, and then claim the money back from the university. I didn't have a small fortune, so more drama ensued in trying to obtain money from the university before buying the material.

Eventually, the money came through and I bought everything. As luck would have it, there turned out to be a university handy-man who was willing to help me with the construction of my devices and he (once again, I'm eternally grateful!!!) gratiously built them for me.

I now have an odd 10 devices lying about in my lab and I can now say that they have been tried and tested and WORKED!!! YAY!!

And now you know the back story of my chimp feeder/toys!

Monday, November 19, 2007

The horror of your own works...

Have you ever done something that has really horrified you? Such as doing a drawing that was just SO awful that you find it hard to believe that YOU actually made it. I have done this kind of thing many times. My horrible works, however, tend to be pieces of music that I have written. Take, for example, the story of Tricky Tortoise.

My cousin, Sarah, is a first and second grade teacher and while she was still studying she asked me to help her with an assignment. She had been given a book and had been instructed by her lecturers to make an audio recording of the book complete with appropriate music and sound effects, a-la Disney read-along book-and-tapes. I, for those who don't know, mix and create my own music. So, I was hauled in to write some appropriate music for her to use for her audio recording.

The story itself was one of those African folk tales, along the lines of 'How the lion got his mane' and that sort of thing. For non-South African readers, these are a particular type of folk-tale that usually involves animals form the savanna talking to each other, one outwitting the other, and an animal aquiring a particular characteristic as a result. There's always a moral thrown in there somewhere and they usually don't make for very good reading beyond the age of 5.

This story was different in that no animal aquired a characteristic, nor was there any moral involved...but this is beside the point.
Anyway, I wrote this piece of music (aptly named 'Tricky Totoise') for my cousin. It was a guitar piece which was meant to sound particularly African and in the style of Johnny Clegg (Google him if you have no clue who he is). What I ended up with was one of the most catchy and ANNOYING pieces of music in the universe!!!

If blogger will allow me, I shall post it to share the misery with you all :)
It was a song that haunted all who heard it for weeks afterward, like the indigestion of a bad beans curry...

And last night, while at Duncan's house, I was composing the musical score for another movie that we filmed earlier this year. Duncan and David have been hounding me all year to compose the music so that Duncan could finish it all off and burn it to DVD (he keeps threatening to post the movie on YouTube, so there is a good chance that you bloggers may just get to see the sheer embarrasment of all of our work. Fun times!). While I was listening to some of the music, I realised that it was another 'Tricky Tortoise'. It is meant to sound really awful as the film is an intentionally terrible action movie (we can't really do better than intentionally terrible with a cast of three), but it still doesn't subtract form the fact that the music is still HORRID!!
I suppose it really does work with the film, adding to the humour, but I can't help writhing in horror on the inside every time I hear it...

Here are some pictures that Duncan took and edited of me. He's in an Andy Warhol phase at the moment... :)

Hmm...I appear to have misplaced the Tricky Tortoise are very lucky bloggers...very lucky indeed...

Friday, November 16, 2007

I'm surrounded by incompetants!!!

My sister got very angry with me when I said that...

Today I returned from Wits to discover that my mother needed me to go and collect some furniture for her from somewhere. So, being a good and obedient son, I got my car keys and headed off to the car to go fetch said furniture. However, I was intercepted by my uncle who had one of those I'm-about-to-make-your-life-hell-and-I'll-enjoy-every-second looks on his face. As I'd suspected, he indeed had planned to make my life miserable and immediately said, 'Oh good! You're home! What are you plans for this afternoon?'

I told him that I was not going to be at his disposal and walked off to the car. I should have known things were going to be pear-shaped when he chuckled like he did as I walked away...

So, I went off and collected the furniture and returned home. Once I'd off-loaded all the stuff from my car, I went to find out from my uncle what he had up his sleeve. It turned out that he wanted me to go up into our roof and oversee the installation of some supporting brackets for our new geyser. We're converting our geysers from just electrical to solar heating and as a result, the geysers need to be mounted differently. Thus, they need to install the geysers onto mounted platforms at a particular height.

So, after much internal grumbling and cursing, I went to observe the installing of the support brackets for the geysers, and...yes, it was as exciting as this sounds.

Once the majority of the installation was complete, I descended from the roof to check with my uncle whether there was anything that needed to be done. It was at this point that he asked me how things were set up in our roof. I described everything and my uncle was slowly realising that things had gone horrible wrong. As it turned out, they installer had installed the brackets on the opposite side to where they were supposed to go!

So, lucky little me will be spending my Saturday in my roof, fixing this problem. Fun times...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A day in the life of 'John'

So peeps, today was my first day of working under the pseudonym of 'John'. It was interesting to say the least!

Firstly, there is the obvious problem of not always realising that people are talking to you when they refer to you by your new name. It happened a few times today. Particularly this morning! I arrived at work (late due to some really terrible traffic on which I shall comment later) and immediately was issued with orders which were simply to lay things out so that I could deal with them later and that it would be easy. This I did dutifully after spending a few milliseconds in complete bewilderment, trying to figure out why on earth they had called me John. I think that my brain isn't all that keen on working first-thing in the morning...

Then, the second problem that came up was that others forgot that I was called John. My sisters and Duncan kept forgetting to call me John and would accidentally refer to me as Luke in front of our bosses. Thank God that I wasn't around when these little slip-ups took place! I think I would have probably gone bright red and made deliberate and ever-so-inconspicuous gestures at them to shut up. I'm a very subtle person when it comes to being embarrassed...(It's sarcasm for those who didn't pick up on that...)

Finally, I recieved a name tag with John Duncan on it which just threw my mind for a six (for any American readers, that means that I was very confused)! It was terrible! I got the tag and I stared at it thinking, 'Why the hell have they given me this?! It's not mine! What's wrong with these people?'. The situation dawned on me shortly thereafter but it took a while.

As far as the work side of the day goes, we didn't really do much at all. Most of the day was spent either watching TV in our hotel room (I'll rant about that shortly), parking off at the front desk of the hotel in which we are working or scuttling between the hotel room and the front desk. I did get to run off to get food for everyone though, which was a welcome change from mooching around the hotel.

The hotel was horrible!!! For any readers who are likely to visit South Africa (which is well worth the visit by the way! ;) )and need to stay in a hotel, AVOID the Monte Casino Pallazzo Hotel! Firstly, the workers at this place are completely clueless and have no idea about how to serve the customer. They make screw-ups left, right and centre. I must interject here and say that the porters were very nice though. I think it's just the admin people that are useless.

Another problem with this hotel, from my point of view anyway, is that it has taken cheesy to a whole new level! It's modelled on Italy and tuscan villas, but it would appear that the architects and interior designers had never seen Italy and based all their designs on what they had seen in stylised pictures of tuscan villa style town-houses. That place is in absolutely NO way any reflection of what Italy is like AT ALL!!! Italy is beautiful and classical, whereas this hotel is hideous and lame! The room was so revolting, the headboards for the bed looked like plywood that had been given to some kids under the instruction to paint on a stensil but with as much colour as possible. It was horrendous...and the view from the window of a large, very obviously concrete and fake-looking Monte Casino shopping centre/Casino didn't help things much at all.

So, as you can imagine, I'm not a fan of the hotel or shopping centre/Casino.

As for the traffic, today was, it would appear, national bad-traffic day. We arrived at work late this morning due to an accident involving a taxi and two other motor vehicles just before one of Johannesburgs biggest highway offramps (Rivonia Rd, for those who care). Then, at another large offramp, all the traffic lights were out of order, which automatically resulted in utter chaos. Then, later today, amidst the usual insanity that is Johannesburg post-work traffic, an airplane crashed on one of the highways! It had apparently hit some powerlines and had been forced to try a rather unsuccessful emergency landing on the highway. Crunch!

That's all folks! I leave you with this amazing picture of the most hideous fish I've ever seen up close (He/she lives at the Pretoria Aquarium):

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On being an international man of mystery

Well dear bloggers, whoever claims to live a dull life has never spent a day in these moccasins! For I, over the next two days, will be working under an alias. Yes, I am going to work, incognito.

It's not nearly as exciting as I am making it sound. I'll be working a function for the International Platinum Association which a good friend of mine has helped organise. The reason for my disguise is that I am not in the good books of the company for whom he is organising this function, not by anything that I did wrong. The problem all started a while back...

I was asked if I'd like to work for them for a day, doing some phoning around and inviting people to this function/confirming their attendance. I said that I'd be interested and they then said that they would contact me about it at a later stage, which they did. However, by this stage, things had fallen apart in my life, as they often do, and I was no longer able to work for them. I did offer a replacement, my sister, who they gladly used. However, their favour for me dwindled rapidly. They were apparently furious that my name was now on their contract and I was, in fact, not going to be working for them. So, instead of doing the rational thing and just changing the name on the piece of paper, which nobody had yet signed anyway so it would have not made a stitch of difference anyhoo, they simply decided to hate me to the day that I die.

Luckily for me, I didn't have to deal with them directly. I was doing all of these dealings through my good pal, David.

So, a few weeks ago, when I received a call from David asking me if I'd be interested in working the function, I said that I would be very keen to do so. At this stage, I didn't actually know that I was loathed by these people. David then explained that I would be able to work with them, provided that I assume a different name as they didn't like Luke Duncan and were very angry at him. Given that these people had never laid eyes on me in their lives before, I figured it would all go smoothly. I stand to be corrected on this but, touch wood, I doubt that I will.

So, today I went to a meeting with the employers who hate Luke Duncan. It was the most hysterical and tense meeting of my life! David, my two sisters, Duncan and Candice were there with me. All was going well until they asked for our names. David had decided that my alias was to be 'John'. So when it came to giving my name, I said just that. From that point on, every time my 'name' was said, I'd feel a wave of terror shoot through me as thoughts like, 'Do I have a "John" face? I DON'T! They'll figure it out any second now!' frolicked through my mind. Another side effect of being given an alias is the urge to giggle every time your name is mentioned. NOT a good thing, trust me! Luckily, I soon found out that I was not the only one who suffered from this compulsion, as immediately following the meeting, we all convened to discuss how funny it had been.

So, the next two days should be rather interesting to say the least! I shall let you know who it is that eventually slips up and let's it out that I'm not actually John...

To make things worse, it appears that a Prof. John Duncan may be attending this function. I really hope I don't bump into him!

Monday, November 12, 2007

It bit me!!!

Hello bloggers!

I have to appologise. I have not blogged for almost half a year or so. It's just that doing a Masters degree is a hell of a lot more work than I ever expected and so I rarely had the energy to pick my nose, let alone write about it in my blog. So, I'm sorry.

The point of todays post is to update you all and let you know about what has happened to me in the interum. Firstly, I have started my research at Johannesburg Zoo approximately three times over the course of this year. It has been a great source of stress but I'm chuffed to announce that that stress is no longer a problem as I am not doing my work at Jo'burg zoo until next year, if I get a chance. Instead, I'm working at Pretoria Zoo!

Actually, it's not Pretoria Zoo, it's the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa. I'm sure you can understand why I just call it Pretoria zoo...

So I've started work there and so far, it's working really well! I've finished the first phase of my work there and I'll be meeting with the keeper on Friday to discuss how and when we'll be implementing the second phase! I'm so excited! This will be the first time that I've EVER gotten as far as the second phase! Yay!

Working at Pretoria is interesting to say the least...I have to drive through on a daily basis and as any person who lives in the PWV will tell you, it's not a fun drive. To make things worse, I only end up driving through there between 09:00 and 15:00 so, while I avoid the traffic, I am driving through the hottest hours of the day. It's okay though. I rather enjoy it and I am developing quite a tan from all that sun :D Now, if only I could equlise the tan by tanning my other arm...

I've also enrolled my sisters as my research assitants. They've been a great help with keeping tabs on the chimps and watching the stopwatch for me. Thanks guys!

My supervisor is currently in Cape Town, as an examiner for the University of Cape Town. He goes at the end of every year for about three weeks or so. I think he only actually works there for about a week or two and takes the rest of the time off but I guess, that's cool. He does work like a mad thing when he's at Wits so I suppose some time off isn't a bad plan for him.

And now, for the story relating to the title of this post. Yesterday, I was at the Pretoria Zoo and I was observng the chimps as I do. All was going well, apart from a couple of children who hurled Marie biscuits at the chimps whom I had the joy of shouting at about it (It's very cathartic to yell at misbehaving children in zoos! Try it some time!). All of a sudden, I felt a sharp pain in my elbow. I immediately looked down and saw what I thought was a mosquito biting me! The audasity of this creature! I immediately slapped at the thing, which naturally just wafted off and I ended up slapping myself for no reason. After giving the insect a very disapproving look, I resumed my observations.

All was well until this morning. I woke up and to my horror realised that my elbow was severely swollen! It looks like someone cut a golfball in half and surgically implanted in into my arm! It's not very itchy but it's huge and rather uncomfortable. Then, today I was at the zoo again and I got bitten AGAIN! But this time, the thing that bit me looked like some sort of fly. Once again, I slapped myself as the little bugger gracefully floated away blissfully.

The end.