Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Invertebrates in the Gulf of California

The Log from the Sea of CortezThe Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I began reading this book I was reminded of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. It’s the same genre — travel with a lot of philosophical musing thrown in.

Most of the book is a description of a voyage to the Gulf of California. John Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts was a marine biologist, and they chartered a fishing boat to collect specimens of marine invertebrates. There is an appendix, Steinbeck’s memoir of his friend Ed Rickett’s.

I found it interesting because it’s a part of the world I knew nothing about, and after reading the book I know a little more, at least about what it was like 70-odd years ago. And in the process I learnt something about marine biology; most of what I knew about that was from bed-time stories my father read me when I was 3 or 4 years old from his biology text books. Who needs extra-terrestrial monsters when you can have a sea urchin? That caused me problems in my later reading when I came across descriptions of children as urchins — were they all spiny?

As for the philosophy, I’m not sure if I understood it all. I think Steinbeck was coming from a completely different place, with different assumptions. He seemed to be anti-teleology, and to think that there is too much teleology in the world, but he seemed to see it in a quite different context. Here’s a sample, for anyone interested:

It is amazing how the strictures of the old teleologies affect our observation, causal thinking warped by hope. It was said earlier that hope is a diagnostic human trait, and this simple cortex symptom seems to be a prime factor in our inspection of our universe. For hope implies a change from a present bad condition to a future better one. The slave hopes for freedom, the weary man for rest, the hungry for food. And the feeders of hope, economic and religious, have from these simple strivings of dissatisfaction managed to create a world picture which is very hard to escape. Man grown toward perfection, animals grow toward man, bad grows toward good, and down toward up, until our little mechanism, hope, achieved in ourselves probably to cushion the shock of thought, manages to warp our whole world. Probably when our species developed the trick of memory, and with it the counterbalancing projection called “the future,” this shock-absorber, hope, had to be included in the series, else the species would have destroyed itself in despair. For if ever any man were deeply and unconsciously sure that his future would be no better than his past, he might deeply wish to cease to life. And out of this therapeutic poultice we build out iron teleologies and twist the tide pools and the stars into the pattern. To most men the most hateful statement possible is, “A thing is because it is:” Even those who have managed to drop the leading strings of a Sunday school deity are still led by the unconscious teleology of their developed trick. And in saying that hope cushions the shock of experience, that one trait balances the directionalism of another, a teleology is implied, unless one know or fell or think that we are here, and that without this balance, hope, our species in its blind mutation might have joined many, many others in extinction.
Source: Steinbeck 2000:72f

What puzzles me is that I don’t find “It is because it is” hateful at all, but I find Steinbeck’s aversion to teleology in this context (biological evolution) puzzling, because elsewhere he appears to cite with approval his friend Ed Ricketts’s theory that rattlesnakes and kangaroo rats are symbiotic. Though rattlesnakes eat kangaroo rats, they are actually doing them a favour by removing the weaker elements of the population, thus increasing the chances of the species as a whole to survive. But if it is because it is, why should it matter, and why should we see such ecological connections.

So some of his comments were interesting, but others seemed to make little sense, to to be contradicted by something else he wrote a few pages later.

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Sex and Stravinsky

Sex and StravinskySex and Stravinsky by Barbara Trapido
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I saw this book in the library I recalled reading another one by the same author, Frankie and Stankie, with its vivid evocation of a Durban childhood. I didn’t review that one on Good Reads, so I don’t know how many stars I would have given it, but I did write about it on my blog Growing up in Durban | Notes from underground.

But I found this one rather disappointing. The descriptions were not as vivid, and seemed somehow less authentic. When Barbara Trapido describes scenes from the 1940s to the 1970s she is usually spot on, but in Sex and Stravinsky the main action takes place in 1995, and the descriptions seem anachronistic. Perhaps the most jarring was the use of “the uni” to refer to universities. I don’t know if South African students use that term now, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t use it in 1995 (when I was still working at a university). In my own student days we spoke of “varsity”, never of “uni”, and I think I first encountered “uni” on the internet, and only in this century. I believe it started in Australia and was adopted in the UK, but does not seem to be used much elsewhere.

Another anachronism was the description of cell phones. In 1995 they were a novelty in South Africa, and were about the size of bricks. Very few people had them, and those that did would ostentatiously show that they had them. There was a story of a man walking into a restaurant talking on his cell phone when, to his embarrassment, it rang.

Apart from the anachronisms, there are serious plot holes. The story is about characters whose lives are linked by an amazing series of coincidences, which stretch credulity too far, and keep on happening. One of the characters, Josh, who lectures in theatre, perhaps explains this, when his mother-in-law takes him and his wife to see Rigoletto, which he did not enjoy:

-He likes early opera, for heavens sake; chamber opera, tightly-plotted comedies in which everyone is in love with somebody else’s betrothed, and sundry marriage contracts are called into question by a range of incompetent stage lawyers. Foppish drunken halfwits or scheming rogues. He likes it when the entire dramatis personae is cheating, spying, playing dead and dressing up in other people’s clothes.

Some of Shakespeare’s comedies are like that, and indeed A midsummer night’s dream makes an appearance in the book. In some ways it looks as though Barbara Trapido is trying to write the whole book along the lines of one of those early operas, but though it may have worked for 17th-century stage productions, it doesn’t come off too well in a 21st-century novel.

I quite enjoyed reading it, and wanted to know what happened to the characters in the end, but it was disappointing. There were too many dei ex machina, and some of the characters were too inconsistent.

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The Tudors

The Tudors (British Monarchy)The Tudors by Geoffrey Christopher Morris
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There is a chapter on each of the Tudor monarchs of England, a dynasty that lasted from 1485-1603. Each chapter deals with the character and relationships of the particular ruler, derived from contemporary sources.

One of the most interesting of these sources was Edward VI’s diary. He came to the throne at the age of 9, and died before he was 16, and was one of the earliest English diarists.

The biggest problem I had with the book is that it assumed the knowledge one expects to gain from such a book. It is not really a history, or even a series of biographies, but a series of character sketches of the reigning monarchs. It is therefore best to be familiar with the history before reading this book.

For example, it says that Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs, came to the throne not so much because of a hereditary claim, because his claim was weaker than that of some other candidates, but because he won the Battle of Bosworth. It does not, however, explain what his hereditary claim was, not even in the genealogical tables at the end of the book, or who the other claimants were. Nor does it explain the Battle of Bosworth, who the combatants were, or what they were fighting for, other than the throne of England.

I knew some parts of the history, having studied Church History at an English university, though that was 50 years ago. The period was that of the English Reformation, and the character sketches of the monarchs throw some light upon that, but this book is best read after reading a more general history of the period. Or else be prepared to interrupt your reading by Googling such things as the Battle of Bosworth.

The Background section of the Wikipedia article is the kind of introduction that should have been included in this book, but wasn’t. The lack is all the more remarkable since, when the book was first published, neither Wikipedia, nor Google, nor the Internet itself would have been available.

And since Wikipedia is now available, I suggest reading the Wikipedia article on The House of Tudor before reading this book.

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A copy of this post may be found at my old blog here.

I originally intended to post it here, but could not find the functional WordPress editor, which had been hidden again, and only the new enhanced dysfunctional one was available. Eventually I did find the working editor, so was able to post it here too.


For more than three weeks we have had a faulty ADSL line, and have been virtually incommunicado.

Every time we tried to connect to a Web page, the following message appeared:

Secure Connection Failed

The connection to was interrupted while the page was loading.

The page you are trying to view cannot be shown because the authenticity of the received data could not be verified.
Please contact the website owners to inform them of this problem.

Learn more…

Report errors like this to help Mozilla identify and block malicious sites

Today the problem has been fixed, and we can communicate again.

Instead of reporting it to the Website owners or to Mozilla (how would we do that when we are unable to send e-mail?) we reported it to Telkom. They sent a couple of people round who informed us that our router was at fault and pushed off. We spent R1000 on a new router, and installed it and it had exactly the same problem. So we reported it again to Telkom.

The people came back, restrung the wire between the house and the pole, and tested various other things, but could not solve the problem.

huaweiWe were able to communicate to a limited extent with a mobile WiFi gadget supplied by Telkom, which works on 3G. We’ve previously used it when travelling, but it proved quite useful for emergency use when the ADSL line wasn’t working. Unfortunately, however, it only has 1 Gb a month on our contract, and when that was used up, even our limited emergency access to the Web came to an end. We asked Telkom if we could transfer some of our bandwidth from the ADSL line to the 3G mobile WiFi device until the ADSL line was repaired, but in spite of their advertising such devices in their brochures as “failover”, they said it wasn’t possible. We’d only get another 1Gb at the end of the month. They would give us a credit on our phone bill for the time the line wasn’t working. In the mean time, of course, there is still snail mail.

I’ve actually been able to download most of my e-mail, usually after 5-20 attempts. But none of the queued replies were sent.


Telkom subcontractors trying, unsuccessfully, to repair our line

Telkom subcontractors trying, unsuccessfully, to repair our line

I’ve been thinking uncharitable thoughts about who ever it was who invented and recommended outsourcing. On a previous occasion when our phone line was down, we got two different subcontractors, who could not sort out the problem. The third one came in a Telkom van, and fixed it. This time it was the second subcontractor. But outsourcing such things seems to be a remarkably inefficient way to run a telecoms business.

But my main purpose in writing this is not just to complain about Telkom’s rigidity in being unwilling to allow us to use the 3G device while the the ADSL line waa not working (if you ever see this, it will be working again). It is about the bad advice from Mozilla.

Reporting such errors to Website owners or to Mozilla, as the error message suggests, could be not merely misleading but could cause a lot of unneccessary problems. There is nothing a Website owner can do about a line fault, which might be in another country or another continent.

Similarly, the line fault does not necessarily mean that a site is malicious, and so reporting such things to Mozilla could lead to a lot of quite innocuous sites being identified as malicious and blocked.

So I suggest that Mozilla add a line to their error message along the lines of “if this error is reported for several sites, report it to your ISP, as your connection may be faulty”.


Robert Goddard: pastiche and parody

The Ends of the Earth: (The Wide World - James Maxted 3)The Ends of the Earth: by Robert Goddard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book of Robert Goddard’s spy trilogy. I’ve just finished reading the second and third books one after the other, so will comment on the series as a whole rather than on each volume separately.

It’s quite an enjoyable read, even though it has more plot holes than a colander and more loose ends than a bowl of spaghetti. It’s not up to Goddard’s usual standard, where the books are more carefully and believably plotted. Most of his best books are written to a formula in which a mystery in the past influences events in the present. There are echoes of that here, but in this book the “present” is itself in the past, as the main action of the story takes place immediately after the First World War, during and following the peace conference at Versailles, though it is influenced by events that had taken place nearly 30 years before.

But in most of Goddard’s other books the protagonist is usually an ordinary person who gets involved either accidentally, or in an unsuspecting way. Here, however, the protagonist is James “Max” Maxted, wartime flying ace and and James Bond-type swashbuckling hero. The second volume starts off reading like a sequel to The Thirty-nine Steps, which was set before the war, and this one is set after it. One of the characters even mentions The Thirty-Nine Steps. Perhaps the mention of the book is a hint that Robert Goddard is self-consciously writing a pastiche and a parody of the spy story genre, with hints of John Buchan, Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum. Perhaps the real challenge to the reader is to work out which bit is imitating whom. And perhaps in some parts he’s even parodying himself.

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Cellphone blues

I have three cell phones. This puzzles people who try to phone me, and are not sure which number to use, But I’m sure I’m not the only person how has acquired a number of cellphones as “upgrades” of a previous model.

The problem is that the perfect cell phone has not been developed. Each one has particular features that the others lack, and which makes it useful, and very often the “upgrade” is actually a downgrade.

I don’t know if it will help anyone who wants to call me, but here are my three phones, with a kind of catalogue raisonne of what they are good at, and what I try to use them for. Perhaps if any cell phone manufacturer happens to read this they might use it as a resource for designing the perfect phone, with all the good features and none of the bad.

My current cell phones

My current cell phones

Here they are, with the newest on the left. The leftmost one (Phone 1) I’ve had for a year. It’s from Vodacom, but I think the manufacturer is LG. I got it as an upgrade for the middle one, an Alcatel (Phone 2), which was in turn an upgrade for an HTC Cha Cha (since lost). The one on the right, the Samsung (Phone 3) was one Val got as an upgrade back in 2008, and she gave it to me when it was itself upgraded in 2010.

The main advantage of Phone 3 (the Samsung) is that it has a good quality 5 megapixel camera, which actually works. The main disadvantages are that its battery life is pretty short, and if you want to send an SMS you have to press the same keys multiple times. Also, its ring is not very loud, so if it’s at the other end of the house I often don’t hear it ringing. I use it mainly for family members, and for sending SMS messages to remind people about church services. And, of course, as a notebook camera for recording all kinds of things.

The main advantages of Phone 2, the Alcatel, is that it’s battery lasts for several days, and it has a loud and unmistakable ring. It also gives me 100 minutes a month (on our Telkom contract) so I use it for outgoing calls where possible. It also has a comprehensive keypad, which is good for typing SMSs, but I’m not sure how many one is allowed to send, and it will suddenly offer 50 free ones, to be used the same day, but then no more till the end of the month. It has a crummy 2 megapixel camera, with no easy way of getting pictures off, so I usually carry the Samsung along as well. It’s not so good for incoming calls, however, because it tends to switch itself off when it’s in my pocket, so there are sometimes missed calls.

The main advantage of Phone 1 is that it a smartphone, and so can theoretically connect to the Internet and send photos of gravestones to BillionGraves. Like the Samsung it has a 5 megapixel camera, but the quality is not so good, when it does take a picture, and most times it doesn’t. It will take any number of test pictures of nothing in particular, but when it’s something you really want, it doesn’t work at all, so I always carry the Samsung with it. It also has no keypad at all. When I first got it it took me a month to discover how to answer it when it rang. The other two have a green button you push to answer the phone. This one has a virtual button that appears randomly, and pushing it makes not a blind bit of difference. After a month or so I discovered you had to swipe right, if you can find the screen you are supposed to swipe right from. So I get a lot of missed calls on this one too.

The Internet connection on Phone 1 is also useful for times (like now) when our ADSL connsction isn’t working, but connecting to the Internet by 3G is pretty expensive.

Phone 1 is also good for receiving SMSs and replying to them. Unfortunately it often gives me phantom notifications for SMSs that are not there. It is also not so good for sending SMSs to groups. The other two are good for that, except for the Alcatel’s tendency to suddenly offer 50 free SMSs on the 3rd of the month, and nothing for the rest of the month. I realise that’s not the phone’s fault, but some inexplicable policy of the service provder (Telkom).

Phone 1 also likes to show photos of some of the people in my contacts list. They are not people I often phone, except by accident, because when I put the phone down on the table I may accidentally touch one of the pictures and the phone dials their number without my being aware of it.

So if I get a missed call on one phone, I might return the call from one of the others (usually the Alcatel, because that’s cheapest). And if I get an SMS on the Alcatel, I might reply on one of the others, because the Alcatel may have reached its monthly limit.

And if any phone manufacturer is thinking of producing the perfect phone, then I’d like to see one with a decent camera, and an easy way of getting any pictures I take from my phone to my computer. The Samsung (the oldest) does that best. It has a cable, and an SD card you can remove without having to open the phone and take out the battery and put in the computer’s card reader slot.

I’d like to see one with an easy and intuitive way of answering the phone when it rings.

But until I get one, whenever I buy trousers I look to see if they have enough pockets for three phones.

The Red Queen

The Red QueenThe Red Queen by Margaret Drabble
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“One does not expect a run-of-the-mill academic conference to have such a far-reaching effect.”

The first part of this book is the memoir of an 18th-century Korean princess, describingn the cloisered but eventful life of the Korean royal family, incorporating a modern and postmodern commentary on it..

The second part describes, in minute detail, how Dr Babs Halliwell travels to and attends a run-or-the-mill academic conference in Seoul, Korea. On her journey she reads the account of the Korean princess, and in breaks in the conference she visits some of the scenes of her life. Until the events that cause the far-reaching effect, however, one might think Margaret Drabble‘s main purpose in writing was to record the early-21st century academic conference experience for posterity, perhaps as raw material for a furtire historian of academic conferences.

I’ve attended enough academic courses and conferences to find it familiar territory, very familiar territory, even though most of the ones I’ve attended have not been held in such posh hotels. As I read, I kept having flashbacks to this or that incident at this or that conference.

“One does not expect a run-of-the-mill academic conference to have such a far-reaching effect.”

And most of the academic conferences I’ve attended have had no effect at all.The participants exchange e-mail addresses, and promise to keep in touch, but almost never do. Some of the papers may be published, and may appear on the Internet in one form or another, and probably have more effect there than being read at the conference, as the book notes.

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Beaufighters over Burma

Beaufighters Over Burma: 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, 1942-45Beaufighters Over Burma: 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, 1942-45 by David J. Innes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spotted this book in the library, thought “That’s interesting”, then took it out and read it, interrupting all my other reading to do so, and found it more absorbing than many novels. Having finished it, I’m left wondering why.

It’s not particularly well written, and has the rather annoying habit of some writers of military history of putting a list of all the medals a person was awarded after their name in the text. But I still found it fascinating, and I find aircraft of the Second World War particularly fascinating.

I’m not sure why I, a convinced pacifist, should find that particular conflict so interesting. Perhaps it is because I was born during the war, and I was four years old when it ended, and so war seemed to be part of the normal state of things, and when it ended, the world seemed to be in an abnormal state. My uncle, who had been in the paratroop regiment, had a couple of books called Aircraft of the Fighting Powers and I read them with great interest when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and had the specifications of several of the aircraft memorised, even though some of them were probably inaccurate to confuse the enemy.

One of the things that struck me about Beaufighters over Burma, however, was the logistics and bureau7cracy of war, with people being posted into and out of squadrons for no apparent reason. That must have been an enormously costly exercise in itself, and I wonder who decided such things and why. There was this squadron with trained crew and pretty expensive aircraft, and they would have pilots and navigators transferred in and out and all over the place, for no apparent reason. And in the days before computers, who kept track of these things, stores and supplies and personnel, not to mention petrol and ammunition to keep the planes flying and shooting up the Japanese occupation army in Burma, and trying to disrupt their supplies of petrol and ammunition and personnel.

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The Whistler: corruption unmasked

The WhistlerThe Whistler by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of John Grisham‘s better novels, dealing with an investigation into allegations that a judge is corrupt, which uncovers a major crime syndicate.

It isn’t really a detective novel, since the investigators are not detectives, and their breakthroughs in the case mainly come from informers or lucky accidents, with activities and suspects being caught on video, or careless slips by the criminals.

While I have linked this post to my review on Good Reads, I’m adding more here because it has less to do with the book itself than my reaction to it.

Central to the story is the building of a casino in an Indian reservation in Florida, USA, and the way in which the corrupt judge smooths the way for a crime syndicate to profit from it in various ways. And it seems that many Indian reservations in the USA built casinos, which were to some extent, at least, not subject to the local state or federal laws of the United States.

I found this part of the book very interesting, since something very similar happened in South Africa before 1994, where there were “Bantu Homelands” that were the equivalent of the Indian reservations of the the US, and they also had a penchant for building casinos. I can quite easily picture the process of planning and building the casinos in such places being very similar to that described in this book. Many of the casinos built back then still exist, and in some cases the descriptions fit remarkably well.

One of the visions of the National Party regime in South Africa was of a “constellation of states”, which resulted in newspaper cartoons about “Star Flaws”, and snide comments about the “Constellation of Casinos”.

Nowadays we hear a lot about corruption, but much less is heard of corruption before 1994. That is largely because we now have a free press, and press freedom guaranteed by the constitution, whereas before 1994 the corruption was much easier to cover up.

In addition, a lot of the civil servants who were around at the time of the building of the casinos, and who cut their teeth on corruption in the “homeland” governments, were simply absorbed into the civil service of the new South Africa.  So South Africans might find this book an interesting read simply for the insight it gives into how the system worked back then, and even, to some extent, how it works now.

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Neoinklings: Tolkien in South Africa

At 10:30 we went to Cafe 41 in Eastwood Road for our monthly Literary Coffee Klatsch of Neoinklings, and David Levey joined us to inkle, as he put it. It seemed a rather felicitous term.

He told us of a thesis someone had written, or was writing, on Tolkien’s South African connections, and we had a rather discursive discussion about that — Tolkien had left South Africa when he was 3 or 4, and as far as I know he never returned. Most of one’s memories of that age seem to be a series of still pictures. I recalled Leo Aylen, a poet who was the son of a former Anglican bishop of Zululand, who visited there about 35 years ago. He said the Australian aborigines had a concept of early childhood as one’s dream time, and he was revisiting the scenes of his dream time to give him something to write about.

Goanikontes, Namibia

Goanikontes, Namibia

We talked of the landscape — the Free State, where Tolkien was born, seems to be like the land of the Rohirrim in Lord of the Rings, and Val said that Goanikontes, in the Namib desert, was like Mordor though it seems unlikely that Tolkien would have visited it. Goanikontes had been where Val’s great great great grandparents, Frank and Frances Stewardson, had lived for a while, in the 1850s, and it may have been there that Frank Stewardson had been mauled by a lion.

We talked about the identity, or lack of it, of white English-speaking South Africans. It will be interesting to see if the thesis mentions whether Tolkien had such an identity, but generally speaking white English-speaking South Africans do not have a distinctive identity or a distinct culture. There is no consciousness of being a “volk”, like the Afrikaners. Though one could put them in a Venn diagram, it would be far less significant than a set of white Afrikaans -speaking South Africans, or Zulu or Tswana-speaking South Africans. I mentioned a friend who had recently written of “we”, referring to white South Africans, and that I find that to be one of the primary markers of racism, using “we” to refer to a group defined by race, and “they” or “these people” to refer to the outgroup. David said that John Lambert, one of the former history lecturers at Unisa, was writing about white English-speaking South Africans, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with.

He also mentioned that the history department at Unisa has now been reduced to one lecturer, which is very sad, and does not augur well for the future of South Africa — all of history before 1994 will, in effect, become dream time, and labelled “Van Riebeeck”.


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