Notes from underground

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The Book of Air and Shadows (review)

The Book Of Air And ShadowsThe Book Of Air And Shadows by Michael Gruber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I started reading this book I didn’t think I’d like it, and wrote some initial thoughts on my blog, here The book of air and shadows | Khanya. But it seemed to improve as it went along, and in the end I rather enjoyed it.

In a way it reminded me of The de Vinci Code in that the characters go running around in search of a myterious artifact, pursued by shadow villains, with secret ciphers that need to be solved. But The book of air ans shadows seems to be better written, and the plot holes are not quite so crass and annoying.

I suppose one of the reasons I found The da Vinci code annoying is that history is my subject, and that book was based on obviously bogus history. In The book of air and shadows the plot revolves around accidentally discovered ancient documents that seem to point to a hitherto unknown play of Shakespeare which might be found if only the coded letters can be deciphered. Perhaps the difference is that I know more about history than I do about Shakespeare and dramatic art generally. I mean I’ve read some of Shakespeare’s plays and seen some of them performed on stage and screen and found them enjoyable enough but truth to tell I found author Samuel Beckett]’s Waiting for Godot or Jean Genet‘s The Balcony just as enjoyable, if not more so. No doubt this will mark me as a Philistine among the true devotees of Shakespeare, but I’m just saying that this is why my bullshite detectors were more sensitive to The da Vinci code, and if there was similar nonsense in this book, I was less able to detect it.

But The da Vinci code was simply ludicrous. A character who was supposed to be an expert cryptographer could not detect simple mirror writing, and they went on puzzling about it for several pages while the reader is urging them not to be so thick and just get on with it. In The book of air and shadows, by contrast just about every character has a go at deciphering the coded letters, and somehow manage to solve the puzzle with ridiculous ease.

Though there are plot holes, they are not quite as annoying as in some other books, and it is generally better written, and there are some occasional quite astute observations. There are conspiracies, ancient and modern, but the book is not quite so obviously based on a conspiracy theory of history.

There are two main characters: a rich intellectual property lawyer, Jake Mishkin, and a poor book shop assistant, Albert Crosetti, who dreams of being a film director. They only meet about halfway through the book, and the lawyer’s story is told in the first person, while the film fan’s is told in the third person. At one point after they have met they are discussing movies and life, and Mishkin is interested in Crosetti’s view that movies really determine our sense of how to behave, and more than that, our sense of what is real.

‘surely not,’ Mishkin objected. ‘Surely it’s the other way around — filmmakers take popular ideas and embody them in films.’

‘No, the movies come first. For example, no one ever had a fast-draw face-to-face shoot-out on the dusty Main Street of a Western town. It never happened, ever. A screenwriter invented it for dramatic effect. It’s the classic American trope, redemption through violence, and it comes through the movies. There were very few handguns in the real Old West. They were heavy and expensive and no one but an idiot would wear one in a side holster. On a horse? When you wanted to kill someone in the Old West, you waited for your chance and shot him in the back, usually with a shotgun. Now we have a zillion handguns because the movies taught us that a handgun is something a real man has to have, and people really kill each other like fictional Western gunslingers. And it’s not just thugs. Movies shape everyone’s reality, to the extent that it’s shaped by human action — foreign policy, business, sexual relationships, family dynamics, the whole nine yards. It used to be the Bible but now it’s movies. Why is there stalking? Because we know that the guy should persist and make a fool of himself until the girl admits that she loves him. We’ve all seen it. Why is there date rape? Because the asshole is waiting for the moment whem resistance turns to passion. He’s seen Nicole and Reese do it fifty times. We make these little decisions, day by day, and we end up with a world. This one, like it or not.’

It’s bits like that that make the book worth reading, and that particular bit reminded me of Jean Genet‘s The balcony.

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The honour, the glory, the boredom and futility of war

The Sword of Honour Trilogy (Everyman's Library Classics & Contemporary Classics)The Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Guy Crouchback, lonely, divorced, and living in Italy, returns to the UK at the beginning of the Second World War, and tries to do his patriotic duty by joining the army. Because of his age, however, no one will have him. Eventually, though an acquaintance of his father’s, he joins the regiment of Halberdiers, and undergoes boring officer training. The war progresses, but nobody seems to want the Halberdiers either.

After training, they have a new commanding officer, who wants them assigned to Hazardous Offensive Operations, for which more training is required. Whenever he seems about to go into active service, Guy Crouchback is sidelined, by accident, injury or illness, or the need for further training for some new task.

This book was originally a trilogy of three novels, and was rewritten into one in the 1960s. While reading it, I wondered how Britain ever managed to win the war, as everything seemed to be stifled by red tape. At one level the novel is satirical, making fun of the military bureaucracy. But there is also something authentic behind the satire; this is indeed how many soldiers probably spent the war, with action brief and inconclusive, and much of the time just hanging around waiting for someone, somewhere, to give an order.

So the book is also something of a historical record. Many soldiers left diaries and memoirs, but what they told and what they chose to leave untold varied a great deal. Many may have recorded battles and action, but the logistics of preparing for the action gets omitted. Waugh seems to tell more of the story than most. This is what it was actually like, not in surreal fantasies like Thomas Pynchon‘s Gravity’s Rainbow or in the story of planning and carrying out of military operations, but in the experience of one soldier, and a few of the people he encountered, buth military and civilian.

I’m not an expert on military history, but some parts that touch on things that I have read about in history books, such as conditions in war-time Yugoslavia, seemed pretty authentic to me.

Guy Crouchback is a Roman Catholic, and so we are given a glimpse of the lost world of pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, to which Evelyn Waugh was a well-known literary convert.

It reminded me in some ways of Waugh’s contemporary, Graham Greene, also a converet to the Roman Catholic Church, whose The power and the glory reflects on the challenge of being a saint. Guy Crouchback is nothing like the whisky priest in The power and the glory, in either his upbringing, his circumstances or his character. But he faces similar problems of conscience and ethical dilemmas, in which attempts to help others sometimes turn out well, and sometimes disastrously for all concerned.

As it is a concatenated trilogy, it’s a long read, and when I finally reached the end, the overwhelming impression was of the futility of war.

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Cherie’s Place » Avebury

Avebury is a fascinating site that connects to other prominent features in the ancient landscape. What remains of the Avebury Circles is largely reconstructed. In the 1930s Alexander Keiller having purchased the site of Avebury and part of West Kennet Avenue started to excavate the site and in time restore the site to some of its former glory. Where stones had been removed he placed concrete plinths to mark their former position. The outbreak of WWII put a stop to the excavations and restoration. Sadly the excavations have never been resumed.

via Cherie’s Place » Avebury.

Thanks to Cherie for a fascinating description and some beautiful photos.


via Cherie’s Place » Avebury.

One of the reasons that I found it so interesting was that I first learnt about Avebury in a series of stories about moles — my review of the first book in the series follows below.  The moles had a religion connected with stones and silence, and so Avebury, with its standing stones, was a kind of holy place for them. The moles also had special ceremonies on longest night and shortest night, and so it seemed appropriate that last night (or is it tonight?) was the longest night here, and the shortest night at Avebury.

The series of mole books unfortunately seemed to deteriorate as it went on. I got the impression that the author wrote the first one because he enjoyed it, and the others because he was under pressure from his publishers to produce sequels. The second and third books weren’t too bad, though not up to the standard of the first, while the last three in the series were dreck.

But anywau, many thanks to Cherie for posting the information and the pictures at such an appropriate time.
Duncton Wood (Duncton Chronicles, #1)Duncton Wood by William Horwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On reading this for the first time, it seemed to have been inspired by the popularity of Watership Down by Richard Adams. What Adams did for rabbits, Horwood does for moles.

The system of mole tunnels under Duncton Wood is large, and moles in one part hardly know those from other parts of the system. There also some parts of the system that are almost forgotten, and there are also some customs that have been forgotten as well, so that the moles are using their centre, the silence of the Stone at the centre of the system. This enables a cruel tyrant, Mandrake, to take over the system.

Two young mioles, Bracken and Rebecca, the latter Mandrake’s daughter, meet, and eventually embark on a liberation struggle.

The moles are given a philosophy and a mythology that is very human, and yet it somehow does not seem to diminish their moleness.

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The complete idiot’s guide to Algebra (review)

The Complete Idiot's Guide to AlgebraThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Algebra by W. Michael Kelley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I was 11 years old I went to high school and started Algebra. A couple of weeks after the beginning of the school term I was sick, and missed about 3 days’ classes, and must have missed something vital, because I never managed to catch up. In maths exams I did well in geometry, was mediocre in arthmetic and trigonometry (mainly because of careless mistakes) but very poor in algebra. So when I saw this book in the library, I thought it might be an opportunity to see what I had missed.

I found the first few chapters interesting and informative. I was amazed at how what I had learned about vulgar fractions at school came back to me, and made more sense than it ever had at school. Even the beginning of algebra made much more sense. Perhaps it was because more than 30 years of using computers had taught me the uses of variables, though with computers one usually assigns values to variables rather than trying to work out the value of variables in equations. Things I had learnt at school as arbitrary rules suddenly began to make sense. Perhaps they made too much sense, because I found sometimes I could not follow the reasoning in the book, but following my own reasoning was able to solve simple (very simple) equations in my head.

I began to think that algebra could make sense after all.

So I read on, and then came a section where there were a lot of arbitrary unexplained rules that would need to be memorised if I were to make any more progress. Nevertheless, I kept the book in the bathroom and read snatches of it in the bath. Some bits made sense, others didn’t.

I don’t think I’ll finish the book because the time is drawing near when I’ll have to take it back to the library. That’s OK. I don’t think I’ve used the little algebra I learnt since leaving school over 50 years ago, so I doubt that I’ll have much use for it in the short time left to me. But I’d still like to read a book in which the reasons behind the rules are explained. For a few chapters I thought that this would turn out to be one of those books, but it wasn’t.

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Opinionated Vicar: Desperate news from Iraq

Iraq is now in its worst crisis since the 2003 war. ISIS the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Group, a group that does not even see Al Qaida as extreme enough, has moved into Mosul, which is Nineveh. It has totally taken control, destroyed all government departments. Allowed all prisoners out of the prisons. Killed countless numbers of people. There are bodies over the streets. The army and police have fled, so many of the military resources have been captured. Tankers, armed vehicles and even helicopters are now in the hands of ISIS.Mosul residents fleeing the ISIS takeover.

via Opinionated Vicar: Desperate news from Iraq.

Ieaq now aeems to be in a full-scale civil war, with Ukraine not far behind. And the big powers just seem to be fanning the flames with threats of more violence.

Pre-1994 — or pre-Thatcherist?

In a somewhat disingenuous article, My Broadband accuses Zumas government of returning to a pre-1994 structuring of Posts and Telecommunications:

Zuma going full circle – from apartheid telecoms and back:

Unbeknownst to many people, Zuma returned to the structure used under the apartheid government, which had a Department of Communications and a Department of Post and Telecommunications.

The cabinet of FW de Klerk, which ran South Africa from 16 August 1989 to 11 May 1994, had Roelf Meyer as minister of communications and Piet Welgemoed as minister of post and telecommunication.

Zuma’s decision to go back to the pre-1994 structure is seen as a mistake by many commentators – and they have a point.

In South Africa, telecommunications services were operated by the South African Post Office until 1991. It therefore made sense to combine telecommunications and postal services into one ministry.

However, Telkom became a public company in 1991, which meant that it started to operate independently from the SA Post Office.

This is rather misleading, and the give-away is there in the text — it was F.W. de Klerk’s National Party government that privatised Telkom back in 1991, and the ANC government inherited that structure in 1994. The previous structure was not a specifically apartheid one, but was found in most Commonwealth countries before the Thatcher-era privatisation mania.

telephone-5579776Back in the 19th century post offices handled the delivery of written communications, whether physically, by means of hard copy, or electrically, by means of telegraphs. These were complementary, and the services were integrated. Later telephones added voice communications to the mix but in many cases the same infrastructure was used.

Was the apartheid between posts and telecommunications brought about by privatisation a good thing? Some, like the people at My Broadband, might argue that it is, but don’t try to muddy the issue by pretending that the integration had anything to do with apartheid in the past.

postboxThere are similar problems when it comes to moving people, rather than moving words and pictures. An integrated bus, train, and mini-bus taxi public transport system would arguably be of greater benefit to the travelling public. But such a thing meets opposition from vested interests in the privatised taxi industry, and those vested interests are sometimes prepared to use hitmen to oppose integration, where as those with vested interests in privatised telecommunications services have not gone as far as that. But in principle the issues are the same.

The illegibility of WordPress

Whose idea was it to fill WordPress blogs with illegible fonts?

I recently wrote a comment in another blog, and the first line of my comment was this:

The Facebook world is very much a Web 1.0 world.

but all I could see of it was this:

Th     l  l    ll i   i  mu h i   l       i l l.

The vertical strokes in the letters are visible, horizontal strokes are faint, and diagonal strokes fainter still, so that in a word like “Facebook” all one can see are the vertical strokes of the b and the k, which make the word look like ”    l  l”.

The blog post in question was Church in a Facebook World | Liturgy, where the blog says that it is “Powered by Headway, the drag and drop WordPress theme”, but most of WordPress’s public and help pages seem to be written in the same barely legible font. The list of Categories in the right column where I am writing this are in the same illegible font.

I really couldn’t be bothered to read most of the comments on that blog, because peering at the screen trying to work out what the words are leaves one so exhausted that it isn’t worth bothering to think of what those words are trying to say.

These are not the Dead Sea Scrolls or some other ancient documents that have to be deciphered after being exposed to the vagaries of the climate, insects and other hazards for thousands of years. Why make text on a computer screen look like a badly-fixed paper photograph that has been left out in the sun?

You can surely devise fonts with a face and colour that contrasts enough with the background to make them legible. So why do the people at WordPress seem to go out of their way to make them hard to read? Are they trying to kill blogging?


Mamphela Ramphele lets her supporters down again

A few months ago I noted that Mamphela Ramphele had let down her supporters by seeking an alliance with the DA.

Now she’s done it again. Ramphele to ‘take a break from politics’ | Politics | BDlive:

In a letter published on Agang’s website, Dr Ramphele, who founded Agang in 2013, said she would be handing over the Parliamentary reins to the party’s national youth forum co-ordinator Nyameka Mguzulo and chairman Mike Tshishonga.

I suspect that many of those who voted for Agang in the general election last week did so because they wanted Mamphela Ramphele’s voice to be heard in parliament, and would not have been too disappointed that Agang won only two seats, in parliament, provided that one of them would be occupied by the party leader.

Mamphela Ramphele, founder and leader of Agang

Mamphela Ramphele, founder and leader of Agang

Agang was too new for many people to vote for the party on it’s policies or its record. Few people knew anything about it apart from the public utterances of its leader. If Mamphela Ramphele had gone to parliament and played a useful role there, perhaps Agang might gain more support at the next election, but without Ramphele in parliament it will probably disappear more quickly than Cope.

South Africa (and probably many other countries) has had no shortage of leaders, like Jacob Zuma and P.W. Botha, who are adept at political wheeling and dealing, but have no vision of where they want the country to go. It seems that Mamphela Ramphele is at the opposite extreme — plenty of vision, and seeing what is wrong, but totally lacking in the kind of common sense needed in practical politics. Somewhere there must be a golden mean between the wheeler dealers and the impractical idealists, but Mamphela Ramphele evidently isn’t it.

It’s a pity, really.

When she was Principal of the University of Cape town she had some pretty good things to say about education policy. Saying them in parliament, not just in debates, but in committees etc, could have had a beneficial influence 9n education in the country.

I also suspect that, in addition to those who thought she said things that needed to be heard by those in government, she may also have drawn some of the residual Black Consciousness votes that might otherwise have gone to Azapo. Historians may argue about the role that Black Consciousness played in our history, but there can be no doubt that it did play a role, and perhaps its voice still needs to be heard, and Mamphela Ramphele could perhaps have been that voice too, but no, she’s pulling out.

Two very serious tactical errors in less than six months — I think her “break from politics” will be permanent.

The short-lived romance with the DA was disastrous, because I suspect that many people who were thinking of voting for Agang were thinking of doing so precisely because they did not want to vote for the DA (at that stage I was one of them).  They had second thoughts then, and Agang no longer seemed like a possibility even after the romance was broken off. I suspect that many of them voted for the EFF instead.

And now this.


Racism in Pietersburg

Thirty years ago I was visiting a then-disadvantaged (now previously-disadvantaged) university, the University of the North at Sovenga, near Pietersburg (now Polokwane).

It was one of the “tribal colleges” founded in pursuance of the Extension of University Education Act No 45 of 1959. This act made “it a criminal offence for a non-white student to register at a hitherto open university without the written consent of the Minister of Internal Affairs” (Lapping 1986: 184).

It also “provided for the establishment of a series of new ethnically-based institutions for Blacks, together with separate universities for Coloureds and Indians”.

The University of the North was one of those creations of apartheid, but in conversation with a couple of lecturers I learnt how it bit back at its creators.

Extract from my diary for 13 May 1984

After lunch I had a long chat with one of the churchwardens and another bloke who were lecturers at the university. One of them told me that the presence of the university had made a big difference to the attitude of the whites in Pietersburg. The whites had always insisted that a black man get off the pavement when a white man came along, and if blacks did not move into the gutter, the whites would elbow them off.

That all changed when the university started. One group of students, who were karate experts, went to town and walked down the street, and when some whites tried to elbow them off, they remonstrated with them, and were attacked for their pains, but were able to give as good as they got, and were charged with assault. They were defended by a lecturer in the law faculty, who asked the magistrate if, when there was a fight between whites and blacks in Pietersburg, it was more likely that the whites would have attacked the blacks or vice versa, and the magistrate decided the whites were more likely to have started it, and let the blacks off.

I had thought of including this as one of my Tales from Dystopia on my other blog, but decided it was too much of a second-hand story, and not something that related to my personal experience. But I still think it is worth telling.


Reflections on the election

Though the fat lady hasn’t sung yet, most of the votes have been counted, and one can begin to see possible trends in the 2014 General Election in South Africa.

One of the most significant things that strikes me is that in the great City of Tshwane, where I live, the ANC thus far has polled less than 50% in the Provincial polls. Though all the results are not yet in, the current figure is 49.54%. If that trend continues to the muncipal elections in two years’ time, the ANC could lose control of the city council.

The figure for the national poll in Tshwane was a little over 51%, and that is in itself quite interesting. Nearly 47000 people voted for the ANC for parliament, but did not vote for the ANC for the provincial council.

In fact the ANC appears to have lost a lot of support in Gauteng generally.

I’m quite surprised at the result in Tshwane, because on the whole I think our city council has performed fairly well. Roads are repaired, rubbish is removed, the infrastructure seems to be working most of the time. I know that it’s a big place, and some parts of the city may be worse off, but generally Tshwane has not seem the same kind of service delivery protests that have been seen in other parts of the country.

E-oll gantry (photo from the linked article)

E-oll gantry (photo from the linked article)

One issue that has probably affected citizens of Tshwane more than many other residents of Gauteng, and affected Gauteng more than other provinces, is e-tolls, for which Sanral announced an increase in tariffs the day after the election.

Though that is probably not the only issue that has caused a drop in support for the ANC, it is certainly one of the ones that was most publicised in Gauteng and affected large numbers of people, and almost all the opposition parties said that they were opposed to e-tolls.

Taking a wider view, and looking at the country as a whole, one of the outstanding features has been the even more spectacular decline in support for COPE (the Congress of the People Party). I don’t think that was unexpected, or that anyone was greatly surprised by it. COPE did quite well in the 2009 elections for a new party, but the unseemly and very public squabbles among its leaders from then until now meant that no one could take them seriously at all, and so most voters didn’t.

If e-tolls was an issue that affected Gauteng, the Marikana massacre was one that affected the North-West Province, and the platinum miners in particular. And the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were the party that took their plight most seriously.

The polling districts marked in red, where the EFF got the most support, are where the platinum mines are located.

The polling districts marked in red, where the EFF got the most support, are where the platinum mines are located.

I suspect that the EFF drew some of its support from the moribund COPE, and and more from disgruntled ANC voters who felt that the ANC had betrayed the working class and the unemployed.

I suspect that it also drew some support that might otherwise have gone to Agang.

Agang, like the EFF, was a new party in this election, but, like COPE, it shot itself in the foot before it really got started, with Mamphela Ramphele’s disastrous flirtation with the DA. I suspect that many of those who might have been willing to support Agang would never have voted for the DA, and were looking for an alternative to both the ANC and the DA. After the flirtation with the DA, I think many potential voters probably transferred their votes to the EFF and the other smaller parties, and would not have voted for the DA even if Agang had merged with it.

I think it is a pity in a way, because Mamphela Ramphele had some good things to say about education, and perhaps if she makes it to parliament as the sole representative of her party (there have been precedents for that) she might be able to exercise some influence for good.

Agang did get some votes, and I suspect that, rather unusually for a proportional representation system, people were voting for a person and not for a party list. Some may have voted for sentimental reasons, seeing Mamphele Ramphela as a vestigial representative of Black Consciousness, which flourished in the 1970s — and Azapo seems to have lost some if the little support that it had.

The DA has increased its support, but I think that it has almost reached its limit. I don’t think it can hope to get much more than 25%, 30% at the very most. I think the EFF has more potential for growth, because their potential support base is much larger — the workers and the unemployed outnumber the middle class who vote for the DA, though, to be honest, I think I prefer WASP (the Workers and Socialist Party) to the EFF. They stand for many of the same things, but they lack the fat cat leaders.



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