Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

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.




Someone invited me to a site called

I read the blurb and it seemed to be a kind of contact page, and since others said it could be useful I signed up, and put a few links on it. But having actually joined, I can’t see what purpose it actually serves. It just has a lot of weird stuff on it that has nothing to do with me at all.

It has a kind of home page with a picture on it, which I put there, and some barely legible written text in tiny print. It shows me odd pictures with barely legible captions, that it says are my “collections”, and invites me to use a link to that page as a signature on my e-mail — but why?

Can someone who uses the site explain what it’s for, or how it’s supposed to work?

Until then, my actual about me page is here, and that’s the one I’ll continue to use in my e-mail sigs.




Whew! Back to normal

By reading the Beep Beep Boop screen with a magnifying glass, I could just make out a place to click to restore the old editor that works properly.

Beep beep boop

I want to post something on this blog, and all Woprdpress gives me is

beep beep boop

and a glaring white screen with pale gray writing on a dazzling white background that I can’t read, so I don’t know what I’m doing.

Why do they want to force me to use a crippled dysfunctional editor?

I suppose this is one of their bloody experiments where they call reduced functionality “an enhanced user experience”.

I was going to post something but there’s not enough contrast between text and background to read much other than Beep Beep Bloody Boop.


One thing that everyone in our family likes to eat is pizza, and sometimes, if there isn’t time to cook anything, we’ll buy takeaway pizza from one of the places that sells it.

The trouble is that none of the takeaway places makes pizza that tastes as good as home-made pizza. So when our son Simon isn’t working, he makes pizza, and he made some for supper last night.

Our homemade pizza

Our homemade pizza

Most bought pizza is baked in circular pans, but we don’t have any of those. It doesn’t seem to make any difference to the taste.

Another advantage is that if you keep shop-bought pizza more than about half an hour, it doesn’t taste so good.  The homemade variety tastes just as good the next morning, cold or warmed up.

The Unburied: a historical murder mystery

The UnburiedThe Unburied by Charles Palliser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second historical murder mystery I’ve read in as many weeks, the previous one being Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. This one, however, is far more complex.

Dissolution is set in the sixteenth century and stays there, and though there are lots of deaths, they all take place in the 1530s. The Unburied is set in the nineteenth century, in the fictitious English cathedral city of Thurchester, but as the primary narrator, Dr Edward Courtine, is a historian, it harks back to several mysterious, or at least historically-disputed deaths in the past, in several different periods.

I enjoyed the book a lot, but perhaps that is because history is a topic that interests me a great deal. An interest in history, however, is not enough to make one enjoy historical novels, and in fact can impair enjoyment of them. A historian reading historical novels is always on the lookout for anachronisms (and yes, there are some in this book — the use of the word “teenager”, is but one example). But because the protagoinist is a historian, as are some of the other characters, perhaps one could call this a historigraphical novel, and that would make it of more interest to historians.

As I said, it is complex, and you have to keep your wits about you when reading it, to follow the motives not only of the characters, to see who had a motive for murdering whom, but also the motives of the historians who left their written accounts of the events, and the motives of the current characters in the story who interpret the documents and other evidence — part of the evidence is in the fabric of Thurchester Cathedral itself.

The bulk of the book is taken up with Dr Courtine’s visit to Thurchester, which lasts five days. He visits an old friend, from whom he has been estranged, and also visits the cathedral library in search of a manuscript that he believe’s may throw light on the death of a ninth-century bishop, which may in turn illuminate the character of King Alfred. During his visit there is another murder, in which Dr Courtine is a witness, and uses his skills as a historian to try to work out what actually happened, but to some extent he is blinded by class prejudice, and so misses some important clues. So we have to read his account with a critical historian’s eye, looking for unjustified assumptions and other historical errors.

It’s a good and challenging read, especially if you like history.

View all my reviews

In Memoriam: the public telephone

The growing popularity of cell phones has made public telephones quite rare these days, and perhaps the day is coming when very few people will remember them at all, so perhaps a few reminiscences will be in order.

Old pre-decimal tickey

Old pre-decimal tickey

When I was young, phone calls from a public phone booth cost a tickey. A tickey was the smallest coin, worth 3d before 1961, and 2 1/2c thereafter. In 1961 we switched to decimal currency, and a shilling, previously divided into 12 pence, was divided into 10 cents.

As a rouch guide, you could say that money was then worth 100 times what it is worth today. One Rand today is worth about what one cent was worth in 1961. So, in todays terms, a phone call from a public phone booth cost about R2.50 in today’s money.

Long-distance calls were more expensive, in both relative and absolute terms, than they are now, and you couldn’t make them by dialling from public phones — you’d have to ask the operator to connect you and deposit the requisite number of coins. Overseas calls were unthinkable. A call to Britain cost three pounds for three minutes. There were 80 tickeys in a pound, which meant that you would have to deposit 240 tickeys to make a 3-minute phone call.

Back then public phone booths were cylindrical affairs that looked as if they were made from a concrete pipe, with a door and a conical roof, so it was difficult for people outside to see what was going on inside.


Old-style phone booth

Old-style phone booth

Now that is the kind of picture where, if you see it on Facebook, people say “Click ‘like’ if you remember this”. You can click “like” if you like (see below), but it would be more fun if you actually shared some of your memories of these in the comments section. And a hat-tip to Paul Galowey of Cape Town Daily Photo for the picture. Those old phone booths are a rare sight nowadays, and I can’t remember when I last saw one.

When I was young one of the advantages of the design was that it was hard for people outside to see what you were doing inside, and so it was easy to resort to various tricks to get free phone calls. In those days all the public phones used pulse dialling, and you could fool the phone by jiggling the handset rest at roughly the same speed that the numbers were dialled. So, if the number began with 32 you would go tap-tap-tap pause tap-tap, and so on.

Another method of getting free calls was to use a “long tickey”. The “long tickey” was a piece of wire which you inserted in a hole in the handset, and earthed the other end, usually on the metal grille that covered the light, at the point at which you would have inserted the coin (when the other party answered).

The tickey coin was abolished in 1965.

In that year a new series of smaller coins were introduced, with the silver coins being replaced by nickel ones. The new 5c piece was a little bigger than the old tickey, and the public phone booths were converted to take those. I remember the first time we encountered one. I was travelling back to Pietermaritzburg from Grahamstown with some friends, and we needed to phone home for some reason, and we stopped in Ixopo to do so, at the post office, where there was a public telephone booth. But it only took the new coins, and we didn’t have any, and had never seen any. It was late, and the post office was closed, so we had to rush around the town looking for an open shop to find if they could give usb some in change. We dicovered that if you dropped the new coins they didn’t clink like real money, but clattered like plastic buttons.  We were not impressed.


Post Navigation


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.