My quest for the perfect cat toy

I’ve always loved playing with cats. We’re getting two kittens this weekend, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time putting together cheap, durable cat toys with random items salvaged from around the house.


Constructed from a toilet roll core stuffed with leather, along with a single long leather strip that protrudes from both ends. Tightly wrapped in thick packing string. Hoping this will make for a good wrestling toy.

Size: approximately 10cm across.


The Mayfly

The ‘lure’ is made up of supple leather strips and ribbons attached to a doweling rod with strong twine. The strips emit a pleasant flapping sound.

Size: 12cm in length


The Catfish

Rough packing string and ribbons attached to a rod as above. Light and agile, but I don’t expect this one to last very long.

Size: about 10cm in length.


The Cnidarian

Toilet roll core filled with long leather strips and an old sponge. Wrapped in soft leather and reinforced with sturdy packing string. It’s too large to attach to a rod, but may come into its own when hidden under a carpet. My favourite.

Size: around 30cm in length.


Now all we need is a couple of kittens to begin testing…

Rosetta / Philae is here. Witness and remember.


[Update: Philae has landed — well done ESA! Liked the DG’s comment: ‘The problem with success is that it looks easy.’]

New house. Full-time job. Life. And yet — I will watch the Rosetta landing, or at least as much as humanly possible.

Watching this, I feel there are too few momentous events in our lives, particularly where the exploration of the solar system is concerned.

Something like this doesn’t happen every day. Let’s enjoy it.

At the risk of seeming petty, the attractive lady presenter is dressed rather like Carl Sagan from Cosmos: beige jacket, dark polo neck, gawky manner and so forth. Sexy, enthusiastic and scientific. Bless her.

She is interviewing lots of nerds. Bless ‘em too.

The broadcast is from ESA in Darmstadt, Germany. I worked for EUMETSAT for a couple of years, who are ESA’s sister organisation. Memories…



Leafy creature (in progress)

A leafy creature, made largely of cat’s claw creepers wrapped around a T-shaped frame of wire and string. The head is an old piece wood. Once this layer dries up and the leaves fall off I’ll add more cat’s claw and embellishments to fill out the limbs.

So far the creature is rather ugly and has a distinct voodoo look, but that is not really my intention. I’m hoping the end result will suggest some kind of wood sprite / forest guardian.

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Who will defend our collective chastity?

[The full version (PDF) is published in the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership’s newsletter Reflect.]  

Politics and reality television: not so different. (Image source: Washington Post)

Politics and reality television: not so different. (Image source: Washington Post)

Politics are like reality television, where a group of good-for-nothings denounce one another – most often in an attempt to curry favour with the audience (i.e. voters). I’m simply too embarrassed to listen to politicians, or their bronzed and air-headed counterparts.

For reasons I still don’t fully understand I was asked to write an editorial about responsible leadership in the political domain, which may be the grandest oxymoron I have ever encountered. As a rule I avoid reading or writing about anything political. This means I need to begin from first principles in the hope of uncovering a grain of integrity hidden beneath a mountain of slush funds and dodgy lobbyists. I apologise in advance for my naivety.

First things first: we live in a democracy, which is a vast improvement over apartheid, ruthless colonialism, laissez-faire corporate anarchy (I’m looking at you, Cecil Rhodes), terrorism and war. Unfortunately democracy is largely defined by its flaws, rather than its redeeming features. Right now South Africa is not particularly democratic, nor are its rulers very effective – mostly likely due to a lack of a cohesive opposition. The lack of accountability in the present government is a problem.

Autocrats inevitably begin to take liberties with their citizens.

Autocrats inevitably begin to take liberties with their citizens. (Image source:

Leaders in a ruling majority invariably start to take certain ‘liberties’ with its citizens, and  there is every indication that something similar is happening in South Africa. We citizens are like secretaries subjected to the occasional paternal pat on the rump every time the boss wobbles by on his way to another six-hour luncheon. Such naughty behaviour may seem relatively harmless at first but can easily escalate into a full-scale assault on our collective chastity. Ruling parties can grow dangerously paranoid and quickly ossify into tyrants as the citizenry are increasingly forgotten or oppressed. Just ask Uncle Rob M up north.

A more immediate concern is that South African leaders appear to suffer from ‘entitlement syndrome’, where the act of achieving a position of leadership is seen as the equivalent to being a leader. A perfectly random example may involve a politician who commissions a R200m taxpayer-funded ‘homestead’ for having achieved a position of leadership – and not much else. A case of such monumental hubris may actually be visible from space.

Visible from space?

Is this presidential ‘homestead’ visible from space? (Image source:

But we need to be careful, as it’s all too easy to criticise el presidente and his minions. Politicians are flawed individuals like the rest of us. Like us, some are arrogant, short-sighted, occasionally even stupid. A handful of them do work hard and with the best intentions, that is until their luck runs out. Politicians often need to make deeply unpopular decisions sooner or later. All we can hope for is that they consistently make the least undesirable of choices on our behalf. That said, their labours are conducted within an overwhelmingly corrupt administrative and party-political superstructure. Idealists often fail through slow asphyxiation of their principles.

My point is that politics are a mirror of society at large: a bedlam of fragmented souls, confusion, contradiction and lethargy – so there is little sense in us complaining about their general ineptness, unless we’re willing to criticise ourselves in turn. Until that happens we simply cannot expect a host of diligent saints to ease us into the future.

However, there is no harm in searching for a benchmark – some default level of competency that can help us determine whether our dear leaders are of any use to us. Here’s one: above all, our politicians should do what they’re supposed to do. Decent leaders don’t need to be charismatic, driven, or even particularly intelligent. What’s important is that they do what they are supposed to do. Everything else is secondary.
But this raises the question of what we should expect of our politicians in the first place. A knee-jerk answer may be ‘to govern’, but such a response already hints at trouble. To govern implies domination, subjugation, even ownership.

Thomas Jefferson, looking determined.

Thomas Jefferson, looking determined. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s go back to basics: we often forget that democratically elected leaders are intended to be our representatives. Voting somebody into office is not the same as having them represent us. Quite simply, if our leaders do not represent us then we should not expect any help from them, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out: ‘When the people fear the government there is tyranny. When the government fears the people there is liberty.’

Jefferson was right, but I think we can do better. Let us rather state that when the people serve the government there is tyranny. When the government serves the people there is liberty – which suggests that politicians should be caretakers who do as they’re told, rather than overlords who do as they please.

But we’re not out of the woods yet, because the whims of the average voter may easily be misguided, naïve or just plain wrong. The mob can be as vicious as any dictator who displays an unsettling fondness for firing squads. So, should a leader simply be an unthinking automaton who does the bidding of the voter? No. We need responsible politicians who will leave behind a legacy of enlightenment and education. A great leader will set an example and help us make the difficult decisions. Such a leader will not only do what they are supposed to do; they will also be remembered for changing us – hopefully for the better.

Anybody come to mind? There was one man, not so long ago. But he’s gone now.

Letter to the President of Botswana

Office of the President
Private Bag 001

Flag_of_Botswana.svgDear President Khama,

South Africa is in difficulties. Following centuries of misrule we are no closer to establishing a stable and competent political system. We lack leaders – and options. Our current system is in a state of (self-inflicted) paralytic buffoonery.

2014 is an election year in South Africa, where an array of political parties will vie to rule over a persistently divided country. This year’s elections may be summarised in four figures: 51 million voters, 135 parties, one existing majority, and zero credible alternatives. Barring divine intervention, one smug and corrupt party will continue to govern over us by default – and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. The other 134 parties are tiny, fractious microbes that barely deserve a mention, much less any praise.

We have no credible government and no effective opposition. This is the root of our problem.

Some political commentators believe that we require a strong coalition to tackle the ruling party. The trouble is that coalitions don’t work because they weaken the resolve and credibility of all its member parties. Ruling majorities adore opposing coalitions, who are hopeless at presenting a united front. At best, a South African coalition would resemble current Italian politics. None of us want to be like Italy.

Others talk about the need for a single, strong opposition that will force a ruling party to govern more carefully. Unfortunately a two-party system does not guarantee meaningful progress. Two-party systems are like a pair of identical twins, of which at least one is a raving lunatic (and nobody seems to be sure which one). The United States, for example, is as poorly governed as any ‘young’ democracy. We do not wish to be like the US either.

Thus, we concluded that our democratic system is inherently flawed. We duly considered various other political structures, but all present equally serious limitations. For example, dictatorships are renowned for their brutality. Apartheid is simply nasty. Communism is out because we dislike watery soup. Theocracies and oligarchies are even more prone to corruption than our current government. None of the above-mentioned systems offers a plausible solution to the worrying state of South African politics.

But there is another way, and it is the reason we write to you.

We have determined that the single remaining solution is invasion by a foreign power. We formally request that your armed forces occupy South Africa (preferably peacefully) for an indefinite period. During your occupation we kindly ask that you either a) devise and install a reputable political system that takes to heart the concepts of leadership and responsibility; or b) grant us Botswanan citizenship, enabling us to participate in your political system. We gladly leave the details to you and your advisors.

You may be asking yourself why we chose Botswana as the executor of our proposal. Allow us to explain:

Botswana’s government and its leaders are accountable for their actions. Its political system is uncharacteristically down-to-earth, efficient and respectable. The Botswana Democratic Party enjoyed a strong majority in the last elections – but your political opponents nevertheless present a semi-coherent front. Your economy is thriving, you have a robust educational system, and you tackled HIV/AIDS quickly and effectively. The BBC further points out that your ‘no-nonsense approach has made [you] popular abroad, particularly since [you] broke ranks with regional leaders’ timid approach to join international criticism of democratic abuses by Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.’

While it is clear that Botswana has its share of problems too, we can only dream of such progressive leadership – hence our proposal.

The Botswana Defence Force should have little trouble annexing South Africa. However, given the hazards presented by pot-holes and e-toll (don’t ask) we do suggest conducting an airborne invasion, as you already possess a well-trained air force which is used for disaster relief efforts, typically in times of flooding. Mr President – a flood of stupidity has struck South African politics. We need your help, and hope that our proposal will be met with a favourable response.

Yours in desperation,

The People of South Africa