Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Citizen journalism, traditional journalism and social media

Yesterday on the way to church we caught part of a radio discussion on SAFM hosted by Ashraf Garda, discussing the relationship between traditional journalism, citizen journalism and social media. Those taking part were mostly from traditional media, and one of the points they were making, quite validly, was that traditional journalists have a code — check sources, check facts, which is not always followed in citizen journalism, and is very rarely followed in social media.

WordleNewsOne participant, however, pointed out that in Zambia, where she had been working, traditional journalists often used social media as news sources, with little checking. A story breaks on Twitter, and it is in a remote part of the country. The journalist has a choice: write the story, and risk getting facts wrong, or drive for several hours to check, only to find that the story is old and no longer news. Younger journalists tend to think that social media are the main source of news, as reliable as any other.

Ono thing that was not mentioned, and perhaps traditional journalists would not think of it, is that citizen journalists are often more independent, and while they may not have as many sources available, their bullshit detectors are more sensitive.

One example from the last year has been the Ukraine crisis. In reporting on it, most of the Western media said very little about what has happening on the ground in Ukraine. What they reported, again and again, was what David Cameron or Barack Obama said about Vladimir Putin. If you wanted to know what was actually happening in Ukraine, you would need to go to blogs, and possibly social media, because what Cameron said about Putin was all the “mainstream” media were interested in.

The mainstream media operate under certain constraints, imposed by the capitalist system. The thing that puts most pressure on the editor, and the editorial staff, is the need for rising circulation and rising profits. If the editor fails to deliver that, the editor is history.

What sells papers?

To judge from the newspaper placards we see driving down Tsamaya Avenue in Mamelodi at 9:15 on a Sunday morning, the formula for success is sex, soccer and celebs.

When politial differences are presented, they are usually presented in terms of personalities — who is up and who is down? who is in and who is out? The issues are almost never presented in the mainstream media — for that you have to go to the bloggers, to those who are more concerned with what is happening than with who it is happening to, because the readers love a good fight, and so the pressure is on the mainstream media to present every difference of opinion as a major battle.

One of the points many of Ashraf Garda’s panel made was that blogs and social media were more opinion than news. And that is true. But to balance it, one needs to see that the same is often true of the mainstream media, though it is often better disguised. Cameron’s opinion of Putin was more important than anything that Putin did or didn’t do. And as neither of them was in Ukraine, it was pretty far removed from what was happening on the ground.

From the point of view of readers or viewers, the “consumers” of news, the news is a manufactured product, and independent sources, like blogs and social media, can be valuable in giving a balanced viewpoint.

If I want to know what is happening in Russia or Ukraine, I watch Al Jazeera — they don’t have a dog in that fight. When I want to know what is happening in the Middle East, I watch Russia Today. And when I want to know what is happening in South Africa, I check out the Daily Maverick. Yes, it’s biased as hell, but who isn’t, these days?

Thunder on the Blaauwberg

Thunder on the BlaauwbergThunder on the Blaauwberg by Lawrence G. Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We first heard of this book from a relative who told us that it documented the royal descent of the Green family (my wife Val is a member of this family), and indeed chapter 3, with the title “Blood Royal”, is all about Edward, Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria, and his lover Julie de St Laurent, whom he had to give up when he needed to make a suitable marriage tio produce an heir to the throne.

So far, so good. But the story is that the prince and Julie had a son, William Goodall Gteen, who was the ancestor of the Green family in South Africa. Unfortunately that is not so. The full story is told by Mollie Gillen in her book The Prince and his Lady. William Goodall Green was born in 1790 in Quebec, a year before Edward and Julie had ever set foot in Canada; his father was William Goodall, a London businessman, and his mother was Eliza Green, the daughter of a Quebec butcher. Green tells some fascinating stories, but at the most significant points this one is untrue. I’ve covered this in more detail here: Mystery cousins and royal legends | Hayes & Greene family history.

Another chapter, about a British spy in German South West Africa, mentions another mystery of our family history. The spy was Alexander Patterson Scotland, manager of a store on the border between the Cape Colony and German South West Africa. The Namas and Hereros rebelled against the Germans, and one of the leaders of the rebels was Abraham Morris, who was known to Scotland, and Lawrence G. Green tells something of his story in in chapter 6, “Hauptmann Schottland”. Abraham Morris was also related though we are not sure how yet, and that is one of the problems we are working on in our current family history research.

I’ve read several of Lawrence G. Green’s books, and most of them deal with stories of interesting characters or places, many of whom featured in news stories of their day, or sometimes rumours — stories of outlaws like Scotty Smith, guerrilla fighters like Abraham Morris, spies like Alexander Scotland and many more. This one includes a diamond prospector, Solomon Rabinowitz, a visionary theorist of time, John William Dunne, a legenderay escaper and others. But the second half ofr the book was rather disappointing, where Green doesn’t focus of people and places, and goes into themes, like tastes, sounds and smells of Africa, where he jumps from one place to another, and the story becomes rather fragmented.

As I said at the beginning, some of Green’s stories, like the “Blood Royal” one, have been debunked, and most need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but he is a marvellous raconteur, and they are enjoyable reads, even if the history is sometimes doubtful.

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Testing WordPress

Just testing to see if WordPress will let me post.

If this appears, it will let me post text, but it doesn’t seem to want to let me post links or pictures.

Here is a picture:



This is a link — click on it.

You can’t even enter a link manually <a href=””>this is a link – click on it</a>

Hey, WordPress — have you ever heard of the saying — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

I don’t want an “improved posting experience”, I just want an editor that works.

I hate it when softweare developers promise an improved “experience”.

Every time I see that, I know what it will be — reduced functionality, and the main experience is frustration.

When they offer an “improved experience” it always means more bells and whistles, fewer pistons and cylinders.










Coming up for air

George Orwell Omnibus: The Complete Novels: Animal Farm, Burmese Days, A Clergyman's Daughter, Coming up for Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and Nineteen Eighty-FourGeorge Orwell Omnibus: The Complete Novels: Animal Farm, Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Coming up for Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Coming up for Air is a strange book. I was determined not to like it, and yet I felt compelled to finish it, though I couldn’t stand to read much more than a chapter a day; a page-turner it wasn’t. It’s about a fat middle-aged salesman called George Bowling living a dull middle-class life in a dull London suburb, who goes out to get his new set of false teeth. On the way he sees a poster about King Zog’s wedding, and that sets him off reminiscing about his childhood in a small town in Oxfordshire. One expects the memories to last for a chapter or two, but they go on and on and on, while I kept wondering when it would get to the point, if there was one.

Yet in some ways it was also strangely compelling. The description of the esperience of going back to the scenes of one’s childhood seemed uncomfortably close to my own, some of which I have described here. He finds the rivers and ponds where he used to fish in hsi childhood either drained or hopelessly polluted so no fish could live in them. And I sometimes recall that I used to go swimming in the Jukskei River upstream and downstream of Alexandra Township. Would anyone dare to do that today?

It was all the more uncomfortable because George Bowling is not a very sympathetic character (sympathetic also in the Russian sense, in that one cannot feel a great deal of sympathy for him). He is selfish and and self-centred, and yet I found myself agreeing with some of his opinions: “I don’t mind towns growing, as long as they do grow and don’t just spread like gravy over a tablecloth.”



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Suburb versus Township

Hat-tip to The Pittsford Perennialist: Suburb vs. Neighborhood:

One thing about Oak Lawn Estates: if a child — or anyone — had screamed long and high and hard like that on George Street, Mrs. Fountain, Mrs. Godfrey, Ida Rhew, and half a dozen housekeepers would have flown outside in a heartbeat (“Children! Leave that snake alone! Scat!”). And they would mean business, and not stand for any back talk, and stand watch at their kitchen windows after they went back inside just to make sure. But things were different at Oak Lawn Estates. The houses had a frightening sealed-off quality, like bunkers or mausoleums. People didn’t know each other. Out here at Oak Lawn you could scream your head off, some convict could be strangling you with a piece of barbed wire, and nobody would come outside to see what was going on. In the intense, heat-vibrant silence, manic laughter from a TV game show wafted eerily from the nearest house: a shuttered hacienda, hunched defensively in a raw plot just beyond the pine skeletons.

Kitsch Corner, Tshwane

The Great City of Tshwane has its very own Kitsch Corner.

In Hatfield, in the east of Pretoria, at the corner of Jan Shoba (Duncan) and South Streets, are two buildings that seem to represent concentrated essence of kitsch.
Kitsch01This one looks vaguely like a church, or an office building got up to look like a church. It’s rumoured that somewhere inside there is a church.

Kitsch02On the other side of South Street is this/ It’s a shopping centre/office block of sorts, very 1990s in design, but it is surrounded by fibreglass statues of animals that look quite out of place in the urban or suburban setting.

Kitsch03Looking south along Jan Shoba (Duncan) Street, you can see both buildings adding kitsch upon kitsch. It is clear that the whole is kitschier than the sum of its parts.

Kitsch04One plastic giraffe might have been acceptable, a nice decoration for the parking lot, but add the lion and the elephants and even the poor old giraffe looks ridiculous.

Kitsch05On it’s own, and looking from the front, even the lion on the roof doesn’t look too bad, but when you see it from the side, or in relation to the rest of them, it looks over the top.

Kitsch07Back in the 1950s people used to travel to Pretoria to admitre the architecture of the office buildings, which seemed so much more imaginative than those in Johannesburg. Now those buildings are rather decayed and down-at-heel, and would excite no comment. But would people come from far and wide to see these ones? I doubt it, unless they came to laugh.

Kitsch08So  there it is, in all it’s glory. Kitsch Corner, Tshwane. I wonder if anyone will add to it? But as long as they keep it all in one area, at least it will keep the rest of the city free of it.


Nine years of Notes from Underground

This blog opened with its first post nine years ago, on 28 November 2005, so I’ll look back on some of the highlights of the last nine years of blogging here.

When it started, Notes from Underground was on different platform, Blogger, and I was impressed with the east of posting quick articles. The very first post was a bit of an experiment to see what was possible, and you can see what it was about here: Notes from underground: Seek and ye shall find

I’ve lost touch with a few old friends, and so I’ve entered their details in a “reverse people finder” at:

Who? Me? Is someone (old friend) looking for you? People Search Finder.

I’ve subsequently found a couple of them.

One found me through my web page, which shouldn’t be too difficult. Another I found through Google — entering her name in normal search brought up too many hits. But I searched images, and wondered how easy it would be to recognise someone after 30 years. Well, bingo. Up popped an image, and my old friend had changed, of course, but was still recognisable.

That was before Facebook, and I’vw found Facebook a better way of finding old friends. but if your friends aren’t on Facebook, Who? Me? might be worth a try.

Quite early on, however, Google took over the Blogger platform, and began fiddling with the Blogger editor. I had been attracted to it by its ease of use for posting stuff quickly, but Google set about making i8t harder to use and reducing the functionalityy so that eventually I, like many others, moved this blog to WordPress. I left the original one up, so that links would not be broken, but nothing new has been posted there for the last two years.

Within a month of starting this blog it was involved in a blogging experiment. Two Christian bloggers, Phil Wyman and John Smulo, proposed a synchronised blog, or Synchroblog, where a group of bloggers would post on the same general topic on the same day, and post links to each other’s blogs, so that someone could read several different views on the same topic. The topic was Syncretism, and my contribution was an article which I had posted on a Geocities web site, since closed, but you can still see the article at Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism

Abandoned places of empire: Ruins of an English monastery

Abandoned places of empire: Ruins of an English monastery

Synchroblogs became quite popular for a while, and there was one every month or so, with quite a wide variety of views. But eventually it came to be managed by a few people in the USA, who chose topices that were mainly US-centred, and a lot of the variety disappeared. Partly for that reason, I rarely participate in synchroblogs any more, but the main reason  for not participating is that there used to be a mailing list, with a monthly reminder, and those now organising the Synchroblogs disdain to use it, and without the regular reminder I simply tend to forget to find out what the topic and date are for this month. But it can be found out here. if one remembers to look, which I rarely do.

Looking back over the last nine years, some of the best Synchroblogs that I have participated in have been:

Not all blog posts are synchroblog posts, of course, and there have been other kinds of posts over the last 9 years. Still on the theme of the “new monasticism” is

Abandoned places of empire

and another post on the theme of abandoned places concerns the Metroblitz, the ill-fated predecessor of the Gautrain:

Trains and individualism

Other posts on trains seem to be perennially popular:

and, still on the theme of travel, our series of posts on a holiday trip around Namibia and Botswana in 2013, which covers three of our blogs, and so goes beyond this one.

Influx control is for the birds

Back in the bad old days of apartheid we had a system of “influx control”. The aim was to prevent urbanisation, or at least to preserve it for white people. Black people were forced to live in rural areas, and were allowed in the cities only on sufference, as long as they could provide useful labour for whites.

By 1990 the system was beginning to disintegrate, and more and more people flocked to the cities. But birds also flocked to the cities.

Two species in particular, which had previously mainly been seen in rural areas, started showing themselves in the cities in increasing numbers in the 1990s. They were hadedas and crowned plovers.

From being quite rare sights, that would get bird watchers twitching, they became extremely common.

I suspect that one of the things responsible for the increase in the urban, or, more specifically the suburban population of hadedas was the ubiquity of pet food in the form of pellets. We used to put out such food for our dogs, and the hadedas would pounce on it. Then, on the advice of the vet, we measured out an exact quantity of food for the dogs, and fed them twice a day. The result was that there was no food left for the hadedas.

But that didn’t faze them. They started right in on the crickets in the lawn, which was probably better for them, and certainly better for the lawn. The raucaus cawing of hadedas replaced the chirping of crickets. It stopped the lawn being full of bare patches.

In the 1980s one also used to hear horror stories from Johannesburg housewives about the “Parktown prawn”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in the flesh, or rather in the chitin, but apparently they are a large kind of cricket, or grasshopper or locust that gives housewives the screaming abdabs. But since the influx of hadedas, I have heard very little of Parktown prawns.

All this — influx control, Parktown prawns, and the rest, was satirised in the science fiction film District 9.

But I’ve noticed a change.

I can hear crickets again at night.

From seeing and hearing at least a dozen hadedas every day, we now only see one or two a week.

Blacksmith plover

Blacksmith plover

And this week there was a new visitor to our garden, one that I had not seen before – a blacksmith plover, or bontkiewietjie, as they call it in Afrikaans. It’s about the same size as the crowned plover, but has different colouring. One plover does not make a summer, but I wonder if we’ll see more of them this summer.

And, now that I come to think of it, I haven’t seen any swallows yet, even though the northern hemisphere seems to be having an early winter.

In some ways we will be glad to see fewer hadedas. For the past several years they have built theit nests in our mulberry tree, under which we park the cars. You wash the car, and within a couple of hours it’s covered in hadeda crap. But they don’t seem to have built a nest there this year.

Plovers don’t build nest in trees, they just scrape a place in the ground. But in an urban environment that isn’t really safe for the children of ground-nesting birds. Urban environments tend not to be safe, for human children, plover children , or prawn children.

And now an assassin bug has just flown in the window and landed on my computer, and is crawling across the keys towards me. Excuse me while I go and get some bug spray.



Flu vacccines and snake oil

Almost every year my medical aid sends out a circular to its members, urging them to get vaccinated against influenzs, and saying that they will pay for it. And the letter they send usually warns of the dire consequences of not being vaccinated, and the complications that can ensue from influenza.

flu-shotAnd every year I ignore their advice, because I believe it is unnecessary. Yes, I know that they will pay for it, and so it will cost me nothing but the effort of going to the doctor or the chemist to get vaccinated. But I believe that the main purpose of medical aids is to help with medical expenses in the case of serious illness or injury, and that wasting money on things that I regard as trivial, like flu vaccines, mean that contributions will have to go up, or benefits will go down. So I ignore it.

Influenza is something that comes around every year, and I suspect that one of the reasons for that is that the virus that causes it mutates, so any immunity you have from last year isn’t much good for nezt year’s variety. And in my experience, most times it can be sorted out by two days of bed rest and a couple of boxes of tissues. An aspririn to two can help with headaches, and Vitamin C seems to help, if only as a placebo.

influenzaOf course two days in bed usually means two days off work, and that means lost productivity, and as employers provide substantial funding for most medical aid schemes, it is in their interest to urge people to get vaccinated to avoid the time lost. But if immunity to last year’s flu doesn’t count this year, then vaccines made for last year’s flu won’t count for much this year either. And my experience has been that if I have flu once this season, I’m unlikely to have it again. So the most effective vaccine for flu is flu. Unless, of course, you suffer from something like Aids, which weakens the immune system; in that case it is probably safer to be vaccinated against everything.

I’ve had no scientific basis for ignoring the blandishments to be vaccinated against flu, just my own experience and reasonings. But now there comes this article, which seems to support wehat I’ve long thought: Johns Hopkins Scientist Reveals Shocking Report on Flu Vaccines

A Johns Hopkins scientist has issued a blistering report on influenza vaccines in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). Peter Doshi, Ph.D., charges that although the vaccines are being pushed on the public in unprecedented numbers, they are less effective and cause more side effects than alleged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Further, says Doshi, the studies that underlie the CDC’s policy of encouraging most people to get a yearly flu shot are often low quality studies that do not substantiate the official claims.

So it seems that my reluctance to support big pharma is not so crazy after all. Of course influenza can lead to complications like bronchitis or pneumonia, but I also suspect that it is most likely to do so if you skip the two days of bed rest and try to carry on with n0rmal activities. So by all means have the vaccination if you can’t afford to take the two days off work, or if you are planning to travel to America, where they might mistake the symptoms for Ebola.

But generally I think medical aid schemes can find better things to spend their money on.

They can also find worse things to spend their money on.

The medical aid I belong to, Bestmed, retains some vestiges of its socialist origins, and therefore tends to consult its members about some things (we are memberts, not customers, you see). One thing they consulted us on was whether we wanted to participate in one of those “loyalty” programmes, which give you points to save up for this or that benefit, or discounts at various shops you never frequent and on products you would never dream of buying. I gather most members said that they’d rather pay lower subscriptions or get more medical benefits than such frippery, because no more was heard of it. But capitalist medical schemes, which have “customers” rather than members, and are accountable to their shareholders rather than to their customers, embark on such things without asking the people who ultimately have to pay for them.

So there are definitely things worse than flu vaccines, but I still don’t want one.

Martinmas: Poppies and corn

Today is the day when people, especially in the UK, tend to wear red poppies in remembrsnce of those who died in the two world wars of the last century.

But in recent years I’ve been repelled by the sight of British politicians appearing on TV wearing poppies in their lapels three weeks or more before the day, in a blatant attempt to curry favour with the voters. And it seems that right-wing politicians are particularly apt to jump on the bandwagon.

Red poppies among the corn (photo by Chris Gwilliam)

Red poppies among the corn (photo by Chris Gwilliam)

Perhaps to counter this my friend Chris Gwilliam posted a picture on Facebook of red poppies where they belong, among the corn, not in the lapels of smarmy politicians. The poppies symbolise the blood shed by the predecessors of those same politicians, and, very often, the blood shed in our day by the very politicians who wear them, who still send young people to fight in futile wars as their predecessors did a century ago.

Coincidentally, and perhaps ironically, 11 November is also the feast day of St Martin of Tours, who could be the patron saint of conscientious objectors, since when he became a Christian he resigned from the army. On being accused of cowardice by his commanding officer he offered to stand, unarmed, between two opposing armies in an impending battle.

On an altogether different tack, the picture of the cornfield reminds me that in American English the word they use for corn is “grain”, and they reserve the word “corn” solely for maize. Looking at the picture, I wondered why I would not describe that as a grainfield rather than a cornfield, since I do also use the word “grain” to describe cereal crops. And I realised that I think of it as “corn” when it is growing in the fields, and “grain” only when it has been milled.

Grain elevators in Koster, North-West Province, where grain is fouind

Grain elevators in Koster, North-West Province, where grain is fouind

So what is seen in the fields in the picture on the left is corn, and what is kept in the grain elevator in the picture on the right is grain, even though Americans might call it corn.



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