Thoughts: Lockdown

End of month one of lockdown: some thoughts as someone lucky enough to still be getting a salary.

Following the president’s example, I’ve donated a third of my April salary. Everyone’s choices of where to donate will differ, here were mine:

  • First priority was Silvertree staff (and ex-staff, in companies that have had to shut down). This month, between UIF and crowdfunding, everyone received a salary
  • I didn’t donate to Solidarity Fund this month, as (right now at least) we seem to have enough PPE, which seems to be their main focus
  • Next, I tried to donate or buy vouchers at restaurants+coffee shops I usually support. Not yet easy! Hopefully, initiatives like will help
  • Lastly, I focused on NGOs that I know and that have established infrastructure to reach people that are hungry. This month, that included Thembisa Feeding Scheme, Streetlight Schools ( and Gift of the Givers (
  • Economically, our problem is that the velocity of cash has dramatically slowed, as people can’t spend due to lockdown. This is causing a demand-side slump. So, your duty if you have cash: spend as you would have previously, and if you can’t, donate!

[Let me know your great ideas for causes to donate to!]

“Africa at work” report finally published

The report I’ve spent quite a few months working on has been published — Africa at work: Job creation and inclusive growth. We look at the state of employment in Africa, and what needs to be done to create more wage-paying jobs. It’s awesome to see it getting lots of media attention, but also just good to get it out — it was a lot of work!

In other news, Claire and I are back in Johannesburg after a great year in London and a month of travel in Europe. I’m on a leave of absence for another month or so, still enjoying a more relaxed life!


I’m very excited about a project running at the moment, as summarised below. Full disclosure: It’s funded by my company, Thornhill, so I may be biased!

The idea is a modern alternative to initiation – a way in which school leavers could be introduced to the attitudes, ethic and life skills required to be an effective employee and citizen. The programme, for thirty school leavers, began this Friday with a weekend away in the Magaliesberg, and then runs for two weeks at GIBS (a business school).

The first few days have gone very well, with the participants committed, excited and learning lots. I particularly enjoyed hearing about some excellent spontaneous poetry in response to the weekend away.

A huge congratulations to Sarah Tinsley, Lanier Covington and Jonathan Cook for the concept and for making it all happen. This is also unlikely to be the last time the project runs, so I’m excited about it having a very useful impact on the lives of many high school leavers. Obviously, there’ll be a need for more volunteers to scale it all up, so anyone interested please drop Sarah a line — see contact details below.

Some further information:
Continue reading “BizSchool”


Next week is going to be full of talking about doing, rather than doing, because I’ll be attending two conferences.

The first, on the weekend of 11-12 October, is a Johannesburg BarCamp. BarCamps are one of these new class of “unconferences”, where the idea is to get a group of people together, and have them give talks to each other about anything interesting. This one, I suspect, will be like most others and have a strong leaning towards the internet startup space. But I’m excited about the chance to meet some other local people working in this environment, and make some connections.

Then on 13-15 October is MobileActive08. This is a big, proper conference, where “proper” means that it has a topic: “Unlocking the Potential of Mobile Technology for Social Impact”. The agenda is full of really interesting presentations from people around the world using mobile (cellphone) technology to revolutionise business and social development. It’s especially relevant in South Africa, which is such a huge mobile technology market — I keep seeing new and fascinating applications being developed (like the incredibly successful MXit, now with somewhere on the order of 10 million users).

Talking of which, I’m going to these conferences with some mobile ideas of our own in mind — one relating (surprise, surprise) to the health sector. So this week will see a lot of work on getting out marketing paperwork sorted out.

Lastly: it looks like I can get some guests in for social functions for MobileActive. Any friends in Joburg interested? Drop me an email.

Tags: #barcampjozi #mobileactive08

Update: for non-Caltech friends

As you may have noticed, the blog has been very quiet for the last few months. This is largely due to my thesis, and the crunch of finishing it sooner than I had been expecting, say, a year ago. But I have indeed finished my thesis, and am now a Doctor of Philosophy in the field of Theoretical Physics (String Theory). It is fun saying this. I intend to continue doing so.

The last few months, or even years, of the thesis have been tough going — in retrospect, the topic was not really an ideal fit to me. My work was ultimately very mathematical, and light on physical visualisation, which is probably the opposite of what would have suited me. Anyway, it’s done now!

As a result, however, I’ve decided to take at least a break from physics, and not immediately start a new postdoc. I’m going to be working full time on an internet startup that does online administration of highly customised leadership development instruments (questionnaires, PDF reports, etc.), called Thornhill Associates. We’ll see whether I enjoy it, and where it goes. But it will be nice to still have the flexibility of working hours that I’m used to!

I’ve just moved back to Johannesburg. It’s been tough to leave the friends and places of the last five years, but also great to catch up with friends here.

And now I’m degenerating rapidly into generic platitudes, so that’s enough for now. You want to know more, you’ll have to contact me!

It’s done!

This Wednesday I successfully defended my PhD thesis, so I’m now Dr. Cook!

It’s been a great day or two since then — big party Wednesday night, with lots of tasty things, then sleeping reaaallly late Thursday, then some excellent sushi that evening at a great place on Hollywood Boulevard (on the walk of stars).

Now it’s back to the office to catch up on some marking (grading) of homeworks, and my thousands of unread emails. But I’m looking forward to coming out of the isolation the last few months have required!

Life just got more … interesting

Ok, so not really life — just my physics. But this title flowed better.

So far today (it’s noon), I have made some real progress on a tricky problem we’ve been working on, that looks like it might soon give some very interesting results, possibly publication-worthy. This is very good. Also today, another paper appeared online with similar results to some of our work, from a different approach. This is potentially very bad. It’s 62 pages of heavy maths, so I’m not sure how bad at this stage. Preliminarily, though, it looks like at least some of our work is not in their paper.

So yes, things might start moving quickly now.

Controlling computers with the mind

You may have heard of research being done on sensors which allow computers to be controlled with thoughts alone, as opposed to physical movement of the body (via, say, a keyboard). This research has immediate implications for people who are paralysed, but also longer-term implications for human-machine interfaces in general. At the moment it’s a pretty new field, and not very many people have actually controlled computers with thought alone.

I am one of those people.
Continue reading “Controlling computers with the mind”

Strings 2006

One more day of the Strings 2006 conference to go! It’s been a very intense conference, with many ideas and talks. I’ve gained some ideas which are at least somewhat related to things I’ve been thinking about, but I’m not sure how they’ll turn out.

I have been a little disappointed that there have been no “big picture” talks — string theory has had a slow year, and I would have been interested to hear what some of the big names were thinking about for the coming year. Though I suppose if anyone did have a big idea, they would have already published.

I’ve been contributing a little to Jonathan Shock’s very ambitious efforts to summarise proceedings at the conference, over at his blog. It’s turning into a useful reference (judging by his page hits, if nothing else), and it’s certainly be useful for me to review the talks. Though it is hard trying to write down succinct summaries of talks in other areas of string theory, especially when there are 5.5 hours of talks a day!
Continue reading “Strings 2006”

When do we learn?

Education and learning are strange beasts. At school and university, people seldom understand even close to everything, and forget most of what they did understand soon after the final exam. But yet we trust doctors to prescribe correctly; professionals to know their jobs; or professors and teaching assistants to know what they are talking about. Where does this knowledge come from??
Continue reading “When do we learn?”