Sunday, December 5, 2010


The cover feature of November's National Geographic (at least, the South African edition), is on animal migration. I briefly thought about my colleagues from the UbuntuNet Alliance, coming from Malawi to Helsinki, and the tortuous route they had to take to get there...

I read the article, fascinated by it on the plane from Johannesburg last night and had some strange dreams... in one of them, I dreamed that I was disguised as a Cape Buffalo, crossing the veld on an annual migration.

More than a dream, it was a nightmare - crocodiles, lions, fighting for breath and traction in swollen rivers... Who knows how a buffalo survives the trip to the Okavango !? However, mulling over this article, something struck me, something which seemed to be a parable for the effort we're putting into infrastructures. Particularly in our neck of the global research woods - sub-saharan Africa.

Apparently, Hugh Dingle has proposed 5 characteristics to migratory behaviour, which I will repeat here, with (or without) his permission :
  1. persistence
  2. linearity
  3. undistractability
  4. special start and stop behaviours
  5. stored energy
Thinking about this a bit, and thinking about what we're coming to Helsinki to do, I let my mind wander through the analogy which was forming. Artic terns will pass right by outstretched hands offering fish and chips, whereas the pigeons nearby will happily peck distractedly at whatever is on offer. The animals start together, move with cause and do not turn back until they reach their destination, even though they may not know where that is, individually. Sandhill cranes will stock up for weeks on end before taking off on a long journey into hazard...

In my analogy, we too are on a migration. I feel (or, would like to feel) that we too are moving with a cause, that we too are resolutely embarking on a migration of human effort to build something which we individually don't know the benefit of just yet. This migration starts with nothing but a desire... a desire to provide that feeding ground, that breeding ground for ideas, by building and supporting the infrastructures necessary for science to flourish.

The analogy is perhaps tenuous, but with this conference in mind, I did allow it to act as a kind of catalyst to consider our mission, how we should behave - and what sacrifices we should be willing to make for the common good. This last point has been an important aspect of my work in the last two years, and is now growing in relevance as usage and interest in e-Infrastructures takes off in South Africa, and is being seen as a model for our region. Collaboration is hard. Collaboration stands on peoples' toes. Collaboration often hides the sacrifices of one, papers over the failures of another, does not present obvious immediate benefits. Collaboration, in a sense, does not come naturally to many parts of the research community, particularly those parts which deal with the budget and manpower... not to mention the adoption of new technology.

Sometimes, I wish we had this "undistractability" of migratory animals, that we would just embark on a mission, together, and nobody would deviate from that until we got to the save and bountiful plains of well-supported and operated infrastructures. However, we don't have the benefit of instinct. Instead, we've got the benefit of imagination, of resilience and innovation. I must admit, I far prefer the frequent discord, the loggerheads, the intractable and paradoxical behaviour of everyone in our many collaborations, to what might be if we were all resolutely on the same path.

Science is fun - that's why we do it. In my very personal opinion, science is fun in Africa too, in part because doing it is so hard, with so many obstacles in the way. I think we want not so much to remove these obstacles, but decorate them, turn them into instruments for extending our innovation, for doing things more efficiently, for finding new ways of skinning the cat. Much has been solved, in terms of deploying and managing e-Infrastructures, and there is of course no point in re-inventing wheels. But there is so much yet to do, so many bright and motivated researchers just in our little neighbourhood who will just amaze us when we see how they take what's on offer and use it in new ways.

We're on a migration, which started when we collectively realised that only by providing the best research infrastructures, the best research environments, will our economies and communities survive, will they thrive. Doing this is hard, because we have to work sometimes in a way which seems contrary to our instincts of self-promotion and self-preservation - because we have to sacrifice short-term, minor successes for longer-term achievements.

I'll close off this morning musing with another quote from the article I'm referring to here (written by David Quammen), which perhaps captures the apprehensions and aspirations which have slowly been growing in me :
Their prodigious efforts, their resistence to distraction, would yeild new cohorts .... extending and rejuvenating the species. I almost wrote "perpetuating the species", but no, we can't be sure of that. Nothing alive is perpetual

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