Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

A heartbreaking work of staggering genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It you read the blurb at the top of the Good Reads entry for this book, you will see it’s described as a hipster story from the 1990s. That puts it in the same genre as other semi-autobiographical hipster novels, like those of Jack Kerouac. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I liked Jack Kerouac’s books better. Or perhaps I just identified more closely with the hipsters of the 1940s (On the Road) or 1950s (The Dharma Bums) than w1th those of the 1990s. I found The Dharma Bums far more hip.

Dave Eggers, however, helps his readers.

He says pages 209-301 are just stuff about people in their 20s, and the book could just as easily have stopped at page 109. I agree. I quite liked it up to page 109. The story about this family in Chicago whose parents died, and they moved to California, and Dave Eggers ends up looking after his younger brother Christopher (Toph for short).

I read about 30 pages beyond page 109, got bored, and following the author’s recommendation skipped to page 301. But the last pages were not as good as the first ones. He goes on and on and on and on describing his thoughts when trying to decide whether or not to throw his mother’s ashes into Lake Michigan. I was occasionally tempted to start skimming such passages in Ulysses, but the temptation was far stronger here. The best bits are better than Kerouac at his worst, but don’t approach Kerouac at his best.

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Singapore, colonialism and Helen Zille

A few days ago there was a big tizz-wozz on Twitter about Helen Zille tweeting that colonialism was not so bad because piped water.

You can read more about that at Zille’s career in ruins:

She has a million followers on Twitter and as she waited for her flight she engaged, as is her wont, in some argument with her followers and critics.

And then, for some maniacal reason, at 8.25am, she tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

So powerful was the outrage from (mainly) black South Africans, who don’t have quite so rosy a memory of colonial South Africa, that by 9.59am she was obliged to tweet this: “I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not.”

Except, of course, that it was. We are all prisoners of our time and our generations.

The timing could not have been better for those who were facing embarrassing questions from the judges of the Constitutional Court for the mess-up of SANSSA and CPS and the possibility that 17 million pensioners and other recipients of social grants might not get paid. That was a big joke, according to the president. Seventeen million people could go hungry, ha ha ha. They could be evicted for not paying rent, Heh Heh Heh.

But a silly tweet about colonialism, and suddenly the pressure is off.

And it was a silly tweet.

Did Thailand (then known as Siam) have no piped water until they were colonised by the Japanese in 1941? And did the Japanese have no piped water because they weren’t colonised? Did Ethiopia have no piped water before they were colonised by the Italians in 1936? Seeing the judiciary, transport infrastructure and water reticulation as products of colonialism is really daft.

But, like the misdirection of a stage magician, that silly tweet distracted the attention of the nation from something much more serious.

And, to give Helen Zille her due, she sometimes says and writes things a lot more useful than that silly tweet, and I think this is much more worth reading From the Inside: Lessons from Singapore | Daily Maverick:

I thought loftily: “What can we learn from Singapore? It’s an authoritarian country. We are the South African Miracle, the rainbow nation, that moved from being the skunk of the world to democracy’s poster child in less than a decade. Our transition was even faster than Singapore’s! They can learn something about democracy from us.”

I had drunk the Kool-Aid of South African exceptionalism.

She writes about how Singapore has changed in the last 35 years, a single generation, and what South Africa can learn from Singapore.

But I visited Singapore a generation ago, back in 1985, when South Africa was still wracked by P.W. Botha’s States of Emergency and Magnus Malan’s Total Strategy to meet the Total Onslaught.

Singapore was probably more authoritarian then than it is now, and though there weren’t Kasspirs and Hippos visibly prowling the streets there was, underneath the surface calm, that knowledge that somewhere behind the scenes Big Brother was watching.

But one other thing impressed me.

Singapore was a small country, and had no natural resources. The only resource it had was its people, and to make the most of that it invested heavily, very heavily, in education.

Back then, in 1985, the South African education system was broken, and had been badly broken for a generation, since Bantu Education and Christian National Education were brought in in the 1950s. The education wasn’t too good before the 1950s either, but at least then the government wasn’t deliberately trying to cripple it, as the National Party regime set out to do after 1948. And we can see the difference even today, when we meet the much-looked-down upon immigrants from Zimbabwe, legal and illegal, who are generally much better educated than their South African counterparts. Whatever else Mugabe and Smith before him (authoritarians both, like Singapore) managed to destroy, they did not set out to destroy the education system as the Nats did in South Africa.

Then came 1994, and all the talk of “transformation”.

But was the education system transformed? Hardly at all.

So yes, listen to Helen Zille when she talks about Singapore.

Singapore managed to transform their education system. We haven’t transformed ours.



The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few days ago I read Embrace by Mark Behr, and then read this book. I picked them up almost by accident at the library, and found quite a number of similarities. The protagonists are separated by age, but there are also similarities, in that both look back on earlier parts of their lives. In Embrace the protagonist is a boy who has reached puberty, and looks back on his childhood. In The Remains of the Day the protagonist is a butler, looking back on his working life.

If I hadn’t read them one after the other, perhaps I might not have seen a connection, but what stands out for me is the similarity of technique. For the schoolboy the “present” is a year of school; for the butler the “present” is a holiday trip he takes to the West of England. But in both the bulk of the story is taken up with recollections of the past, and wondering how accurate those recollections are.

In both there is a contrast between the present, and recollections of the past, and it is the recollections of the past that gradually lead to a reinterpretation of the present.

There are also notable differences, based on the age of the characters, and Kazuo Ishiguro manages, in my view, to handle it better. The butler, self-effacing, writes his memoir in a formal and professional style, which is inevitably stilted. He is dominated by the requirements of his job, by the need to give everything to the service of his employer. His own feelings and needs must be subordinated to the needs of the job, and so it is the the job that dominates his life. Even a sense of humour is to be cultivated according to the needs of his employer. Ishiguro portrays this very well indeed.

It also brings out for me the discomfort I feel about the “servant culture”. I would hate to be a servant, and would hate to employ one. I once shared a house with someone who wanted a live-in servant. I was quite happy to pay someone to come in to clean or do the laundry. That is paying someone to do a job one doesn’t have time to do oneself. It’s like paying a mechanic to repair my car. I could do it myself, but because I’m an amateur, it would take me much longer. But a live-in servant is something different. It means having a dependant, and being a dependant, and to me that was a very uncomfortable relationship. And so my housemate and I parted on rather bad terms.

And Ishiguro brings out all the things that made me feel uncomfortable about having a servant, and being one.

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Why I’ve stopped buying newspapers

Twenty years ago I used to buy newspapers quite a lot. Now I may buy a Sunday newspaper once a month or so. Sometimes the newspaper publishers run surveys to find out why people buy or don’t buy their newspapers, but they usually ask all the wrong questions.

I suppose the main reason I don’t buy as many newspapers as I used to is that since I retired I don’t get out much. Going out usually costs money. We do go out to church on Sundays, and on the way home stop at shops, and so for a while bought the Sunday newspapers most Sundays, but even that has dropped off, partly because of financial constraints, but also because of this — What is the Labour Party for? On the mystery of Jeremy Corbyn:

There is a preference in the media’s political coverage – and in political campaigning altogether – for symbol and personality over policy and fact. The media coverage of Corbyn, who despite being an MP and unusually active campaigner for over thirty years had not much figured in the press until the leadership contest, has been by any measure persistently negative.

Of course South African Sunday newspapers only rarely refer to Jeremy Corbyn, but in their coverage of South African politicians, the same general principle applies: The emphasis is on image rather than substance, personality rather than policy.

Almost every Sunday there will be a full-page article on some politician, and the article will usually be about some political rival threatening to take over their position. I rarely read beyond the first paragraph, because I know from experience that if there are no facts in the first paragraph there will be none on the rest of the page. The policies of the politician in question are not important. What’s important is that there is conflict, and that increases circulation, or so they say.

Jeremy Corbyn

The problem with Jeremy Corbyn is that he has no ambition, and it ambition that fuels the conflict that journalists like to write about. Corbyn talks too much about principles and policies, and not enough about his rivals or their voters. If he started calling Tory voters “a basket of deplorables” he’d probably get a better press, though whether it would get him more votes from Labour supporters is a moot point.

So where do we get our news nowadays?

A few days ago our TV was on all day on the channel showing the Constitutional Court hearings about the crisis in social grants payments. When it comes to the judges of the Constitutional Court, they are not interested in the fluff about personalities, they want the facts. And if they don’t get the facts, they ask. They don’t concern themselves with speculations about who might get Bathabile Dlamini’s job because she messed up, or how much sushi was consumed at her last birthday party. They want to know what she has done and what she hasn’t done about the payments of pensions and other social grants.

Bathabile Dlamini, Minister of Social Development

Even the Daily Maverick, which is usually better an more insightful than most, writes, Sassa grant crisis: In this game of thrones, can Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini survive? | Daily Maverick. The important question, you see, is not whether 17 million social grant recipients will get paid. The important question is the personality-cult one: the political survival of one celebrity politician, rather than 17 million people who might have no food on the table in April.

When it comes to the media and their predilection for personality cults, one wonders which came first, the chicken or the egg. The scramble for power of ambitious politicians makes great copy, at least in the opinion of journalists, and so if politicians want the publicity they crave, they must spend more time on polishing their images than on fine-tuning their policies. It’s a vicious cycle, the one feeds off the other.

And politicians like Jeremy Corbyn break that mould. That’s why the media hate him, and why I rather like him.

Embrace (book review): recollections of childhood

EmbraceEmbrace by Mark Behr

A book about a 13-year-old boy in Standard 6 (Grade 8) in the Drakensberg Boys Choir School.

It’s a long book (over 700 pages) and written partly in “stream of consciousness” style. It follows Karl De Man though his school year, but it also jumps back to his memories of earlier events in his life, from his earliest childhood.

The novel is semi-autobiographical, as the protagonist, like Behr himself, was born in Tanganyika (before it united with Zanzibar to become the United Republic of Tanzania). When he was 2 years old the family moved to South Africa where his father became a game ranger for the Natal Parks Board, and he then attended the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School from the age of 11. The main period covered by the book is his third year at the school, when he develops a crush on one of the teachers and also on a fellow pupil, as well as a girlfriend whom he sees in the holidays, who is two years older than him.

Another teacher recognises his ability in art and writing, but his macho father wants him to ignore his talents and prepare for a more lucrative career, even if it is in fields that don’t really interest him. So a lot of the book deals with teenage angst, and probably quite authentically, since it is based on the author’s personal experience.

The chronology is at times confusing, as the “present” moves through his year at school, but there are conversations in which he refers to previous events in his life, which he later recalls in stream of consciousness fashion. He also tries to sort out what are genuine memories, and what he has been told by others, and he becomes quite lyrical in his descriptions of the Mfolozi, Hluhluwe and Mkuzi game reserves where he lived until the age of about 7.

I found that in some parts the book, like Frankie and Stankie, was evocative of my own childhood and life. Both books mentioned not only childhood experiences that were similar to mine, but also people whom I had met in real life, though not as a child — Alan Paton in Embrace, and Ken and Jean Hill, and John and Andy Argyle in Frankie and Stankie.

At one point he writes of shooting mousebirds with an air rifle, and I remember doing that, standing in our paddock, and shooting at mousebirds in the almond trees. I was with someone else, I forget who, and my mother stormed out, very angry, and said she would confiscate my air rifle if she ever caught me shooting birds again. Eventually the air rifle was given to a younger cousin, but I sometimes wish, in my more xenophobic moments, that I still had it to take pot shots at Indian mynahs, exotic birds that tend to drive indigenous birds away.

Another similar childhood experience was when he was riding a horse behind another, which kicked him, and he had to have stitches in his knee. I recalled being kicked by pony Tom, on the sole of my foot, in similar circumstances. I could recall the cold and the wet and my bare feet in the stirrups, my wet jeans, my wet shirt clinging to me, and down below the Jukskei River, flowing through Lyndhurst. I thought he had kicked me on the knee too, but perhaps that was another occasion, and I remember my knee being bruised and swollen, though not so that I needed stitches.

But memory is funny. What I wrote in my original diary I don’t know. I still have the blue 1953 one from McDonald Adams that my father gave me, but the 1954 one, with a maroon cover, is lost. But what I wrote in it at the time was simply an aide memoire, to remind me when it had happened. My pony Tom had run away, and I chased him on our other horse Brassie. Five years later I wrote it down more fully, and ten years later I rewrote it, adding to it from what I remembered of the day — how Tom had run away from home, and I jumped on to our other horse Brassie, not even stopping to put shoes on, and caught up with him at Lyndhurst. At the time I was 12 yeas old, a little younger than the protagonist of Embrace. I could not get Tom to come home, and eventually put him in someone’s garage for the night, and returned for him the next day when I had dry clothes and shoes on.

With my pony Tom, March 1953

But now all I have as a memory is a snapshot, a single image of me sitting on Brassie, the feel of cold and wetness, and the cold slipperiness of the wet metal stirrup, and Tom flicking his hooves up and kicking the sole of my foot, and the anger I felt at him. The rest of what I wrote is like a story told by someone else. I know I chased him down to Lyndhurst, but I cannot recall the route I took, or even the garage where I wrote that he stayed overnight, or how I got him back home. There is just the single image of the cold, the rain, the wind and the kick. And Behr writes about memories like that. He recalls his father teaching him to shoot with a revolver at the age of five, but his father does not recall, or denies that he does. Memories of events seem to become compressed into snapshots, single images and one cannot recall what led up to them or what followed. So it is a book about memory and recall, and the narratives that shape our lives.

There were also considerable differences, however. Mark Behr describes the racist and white supremacist views of many of the pupils and teachers at the Drakensberg Boys Choir School in the 1970s. It was a private fee-paying school, and therefore under no obligations to give the National Party indoctrination that went on in government schools, but apparently it did. When I was the protagonist’s age I attended St Stithians College in the 1950s, and I don’t recall such racist attitudes among the teachers at all, and relatively rarely among the pupils.

The headmaster at St Stithians, Wally Mears, used to provide magazines for the common room, and when I went to fetch them one day he explained the selection — The Motor and Autocar for those interested in cars, Flight for boys interested in aircraft, Amateur Photography for those interested in photography, and Contact “because it’s best on the position of the natives,” as Mears put it.  Contact was the journal of the Liberal Party, which was then the only legal non-racial political party in South Africa, and was forced to disband about 10 years later when multiracial political parties were banned by the National Party regime.

Another thing that struck me, which has nothing to do with the content, was that the publishers (Abacus) had obviously paid no heed to the adage “Putt knot yore trussed in spell chequers.” The book really could have made use of a human editor, but was apparently produced by an el-cheapo publisher who tried to save money by dispensing with their services and relying on a semi-literate typist using a spelling checker. Among the numerous errors were “in cohort with” where “in cahoots with” was obviously intended, and “pallet” instead of “palate”.

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Twitter vs Facebook and blog stats

This blog got the biggest number of hits over the last 30 days on 21 February, when I re-announced an old post on Home Schooling and Bigotry on both Facebook and Twitter.

I just checked the blog stats for that day, and the home schooling post was the most popular. It was interesting, though, that 45 visitors were referred from Facebook, and only 2 from Twitter.

I’m not a great one for stats, and don’t often look at them, though I have noticed that since I moved this blog from Blogger to WordPress the number of visitors dropped drastically and still hasn’t recovered. I moved it because the Blogger editor became more difficult to use.

But another blog I read, A Pilgrim in Narnia, had an article on blogging stats, and so I thought I’d take a closer look at them. And it seems that that blog, too, gets far more hits from Facebook than from Twitter.

Perhaps as a result of this, Twitter has started trying to imitate the Facebook way of doing things, and I suspect that that will cause them to lose a lot more ground a lot more quickly. Instead of doing what Twitter did well, the people at Twitter are trying to do what Facebook does, and doing it badly.

To start with, Twitter was a quick and concise way of sharing information, if necessary with links to where one could get more detail (so great for announcing blog posts). The 140 character limit ensured that. But then they added pictures, which made nonsense of the 140-character limit. Now, like Facebook, they are deciding what to show people, which means that big organisations get more exposure than individuals, and eventually the individuals will leave Twitter to the big organisations to tweet to each other.

There were other tools that enabled one to fine related material on blogs, but they’ve all killed themselves off, perhaps by trying, like Twitter, to emulate the Facebook model instead of doing something useful and unique. There were Technorati and BlogCatalog, which killed themselves off in that way.

So statistically, at any rate, Facebook seems to be one of the best ways of announcing blog posts at the moment



2017 Reading Challenge Meme

For those who like memes (of the internet variety), here’s one that may bring more interesting reading in 2017 (Hat-tip to Jennifer Neyhart).

That should provide some interesting reading.

The ones I have so far are:

  • a book you’ve already read — Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
  • a book in a genre you usually avoid — Veil of Darkness by Gillian White

I’m going to have to think about it a bit more before I complete my list, but I have another challenge to my friends, if any (more shameless self-promotion).

In which of the above categories would you put my book Of wheels and witches?

Follow the link to see how you can get a free copy (offer closes  on 11 March 2917 — it’s part of the Smashwords Read an E-book Week promotion).

Technology addiction?

This morning at TGIF Dr Marlena Kruger spoke on the impact of our technology addiction.

I think she made some useful points, for example that young children learn more from playing with hands-on toys that from playing with simulations of them on a computer screen.

Shape sorting toy

Shape sorting toy

When our kids were small, they had one of these shape sorting toys. It would be possible to design a computer app to match the same shapes to spaces on the screen, but kids learn a lot more by handling the shapes, coordinating their sense of sight with the sense of touch by feeling it, and yes, putting it in their mouths.

So playing with computer apps is no substitute for playing with actual things in the real world.

But the problem with this kind of talk about “technology” is that people seem to get locked into a narrow two-dimensional world like a computer screen. What do we mean by words like “technology”?

Consider, for example, this article, which seems to be making a similar point to that made by Dr Kruger — 10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12 | The Huffington Post:

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics state infants aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to technology, 3-5 years be restricted to one hour per day, and 6-18 years restricted to 2 hours per day (AAP 2001/13, CPS 2010). Children and youth use 4-5 times the recommended amount of technology, with serious and often life threatening consequences (Kaiser Foundation 2010, Active Healthy Kids Canada 2012).

Think about it for a while, especially the heading, because it is an example of tunnel vision — like limiting yourself to the number of pixels on a computer screen, and seeing nothing outside that.

What is a “handheld device”? A pen, a pencil, a crayon, a pair of scissors — all these are handheld devices. All these are technology. Specialists in early childhood education have been saying that children should learn to handle such things long before they start school.

Ah, you say, but those are mechanical devices, and we are talking about electronic devices.

But experts in early childhood education say that listening to music is important for the development of young children. Does that mean you are going to take your toddlers to symphony concerts? No recordings, because playing recordings nowadays usually requires electronic devices — when last did you hear a wind-up gramophone played? No discos, because there they use electronic devices to amplify the music.

I’m not simply being pedantic here. Before making huge generalisations about “technology” and “hand-held devices” we need to see the three-dimensio0nal world beyond the computer screen. When you dig in a garden you are using a hand-held device and a spade is technology. Technology is part of what makes us human. Saying that children under 2 should have no exposure to technology is insane. No cooked food, because cooking uses technology.

huntgathEven hunter-gatherer societies use technology, at least for the “hunter” part. Without technology we would just be gatherers.

So when we talk about being “addicted” to technology, we need to think about the wider meaning of technology, and the extent to which technology has made us human.

And when we speak of a remedy for addiction to technology, we need to think about whether the addiction is to technology, or to something else that the technology is used for.

When television was invented, people learnt how to send images to a cathode-ray screen (later LCD) in a remote location. At first, in television, the image was controlled by the sender. The receivers were passive. They could perhaps choose between images sent by different senders, but they had no control over the content of the images received.

Technophobes lamented the bad influence on children — “the flickering blue parent” was one phrase bandied about.

But it was not the TV that was generating the images. They were being sent by people who decided on what was sent, to serve their own purposes. It was one-way communication, yes, but it was one-communication from one group of people to another. The technology facilitated the communication, and to some extent determined it (yes, I’m old enough to have been influenced by Marshall McLuhan, and maybe I’ll say more about him some other time) but it was still communication from people to people.

For me it was a huge liberation when personal computers came along.

Yes, there I was looking at images on a cathode ray tube (CRT), but they were images that I put there. They were things I could control. For a while the rest of the family thought I was opting out of family life. I was “playing with the computer” instead of being sociable and watching TV with the family. That was tantamount to being accused of being addicted to technology. But it wasn’t. If I wrote a letter on the computer, I was no more addicted to the computer as technology than I was addicted to the typewriter before I had a computer, or addicted to a fountain pen before I had a typewriter.

In every case I was “using technology” to communicate with other people, and what I was doing was not “playing with the computer” any more than a handwritten letter is “playing with a pen”. Yes, I do sometimes play with a pen. I twiddle it, I idly click a ballpoint pen so the tip comes in and out.  But using it for a task is not “playing with it”. Is doodling “playing with” a pen? Idly and absentmindedly drawing little pictures? Is sketching fellow participants at a meeting playing with a pen? Perhaps great art exists because some people were addicted to playing with the technology of paint and paintbrushes.

One of the things Marlena Kruger said was coming home and putting your cell phone down and not touching it. Abstain from using the cellphone, because people are more important than the device.

But on Wednesday night we went to church in Brixton, Johannesburg. On the way home at 9:30 pm, on a badly lit road, with cars with bright lights coming the other way, we hit a pothole which dented the wheel rim so the tyre went flat. It was the first time in 11 years and 250000 km that we had had a flat tyre. Where is the jack? We’ve never had to use it before.

So I phone my son, who is a Toyota mechanic and knows these things. And ask where is the jack (it’s dark, you see). It’s under a plastic cover under the front passenger seat. You’d never find it by feeling for it. And how do you remove the cover, and how do you get it out?

But if he switches off his phone, because he’s not going to be addicted to it, it’s not a mere device. There is a person at the other end of the device. So by switching off the phone, you are switching off the person.

So speaking of “technology addiction” can be a bit simplistic. Your addiction can be to the device, like a cell phone, but more often it is addiction to what you do with the device. A cell phone is mainly used to communicate with other people. And you have the stereotype of a group of people all sitting together, all using their cell phones. Are they addicted to their phones? Not necessarily. What it means is that they prefer to communicate with people elsewhere than communicate with the people they are close to at that moment. The problem is not so much with the device used to communicate, but with human relations, that you would rather communicate with someone other than the people you happen to be with.

I said personal computers were a liberation, and its true. I can store information on my computer and find it much more quickly than if I had written it down on bits of paper. I’m writing an essay or an academic paper or even a blog post, and I need to verify the date of a historical event. Google leads me to that information much more quickly than trying to see if I have a reference book that has it.

E-mail was a liberation too.

I used to hate phoning people, and still do. I don’t know if I will be interrupting them when they are doing something important. If I send them e-mail, then they can read it and reply to it at their convenience.

But the people who liked the one-way, one-to-many model of broadcasting did not like this liberation. They wanted their captive audience. And Microsoft developed Windows 98 which was the first version of Windows to be integrated with the Internet, and the developed “push” technology for it. It was an attempt to re-enslave people that personal computers had liberated — by networking those computers and then pushing stuff at them.

And now cell phones use “push” technology too. My smartphone had “push” notifications for Facebook and Twitter, which drove me mad until I found how to switch them off (they don’t give you a manual, so it’s not easy to find out how to do that). So yes, cell phones are useful, but they can drive you mad. And there’s even a cell phone advertising itself with the slogan “Never miss a moment” — you’ll be so busy not missing moments that you’ll never have a moment to do anything.

But even though this is labelled “push technology”, it is not the technology that is doing the pushing. It is people doing the pushing. Yesterday I downloaded 90 emails and 85 of them were spam, sent to my “junk and suspicious mail” folder and deleted in bulk. They may have been sent by bots, but it was people who programmed the bots to send them.

Then back to TGIF, where technology, even electronic technology, was not absent.

TGIF: technology addiction. Two laptops and a projector

TGIF: technology addiction. Two laptops and a projector

I’m not against using educational technology. At one time I used some quite complicated gadgets to improve students’ reading skills, or at least show them how they could improve their won reading skills. But there is also this: Universities should ban PowerPoint — It makes students stupid and professors boring – Business Insider:

Overreliance on slides has contributed to the absurd belief that expecting and requiring students to read books, attend classes, take notes and do homework is unreasonable.

Courses designed around slides therefore propagate the myth that students can become skilled and knowledgeable without working through dozens of books, hundreds of articles and thousands of problems.

I’m not sure I agree with that article either. A lot depends on the content of what is being taught. Some topics can be enhanced by the use of slides, and others not. I must say that in this morning’s presentation I paid very little attention to the slides, and can remember little of what was on them

Steinbeck & Coetzee as chroniclers of their times

The Wayward BusThe Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What do you think of your fellow passengers on a bus, or a plane, or a suburban train?

Usually they are anonymous.

You might sometimes idly wonder about their lives outside the conveyance that briefly brings you into the same moving space, but rarely does it go beyond that.

But in this book it does go beyond that. A group of people, with their own lives and thoughts and histories are drawn together as passengers (and a driver) on a bus, and by the end of the book they have all interacted with each other, and their lives have all been changed in some way.

Some knew each other before they got on the bus: there is a family travelling on vacation, and two of the passengers were employees of the driver, but none knew all the others before they gathered for the bus trip, and before the journey ended they knew things about the others, and about themselves, that they had not known before.

There is little action, and no real plot. The book is a study of character and human interaction between people whose paths briefly, and apparently randomly crossed.

One of the other reviewers, Kim, writes (Goodreads | The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck — Reviews, Discussion):

The narrative is in the third person, with shifting points of view and an uncomplicated linear progression. The point of the work is not so much the plot – because not a lot happens – but more the characters’ internal conflicts and Steinbeck’s critique of post WWII American society. Steinbeck sets the work in a fictionalised Salinas valley and starts it with a quote from Everyman, the 15th century English morality play. This is a clue to the fact that the characters represent more than themselves and are to an extent allegorical figures.

And that invites a comparison with another book I have just read, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, because Coetzee seems to be trying to do for South Africa what Steinbeck was doing for America. Disgrace could be said to be about the characters’ internal conflicts and Coetzee’s critique of post-apartheid South African society The difference is that Coetzee writes from the viewpoint of one character, and all the other characters are seen through his eyes.

I disagree about the extent to which the characters are allegorical figures, though. They are stereotypical rather than allegorical. They don’t really represent abstract qualities or concrete historical personages, as those in allegories do. But they do represent types of people — the war profiteering businessman, the manipulative wife, the celebrity-obsessed shop assistant, the lecherous mechanic, the ex-serviceman salesman. And in Disgrace the disgraced professor, the hippie-going-on-earth mother daughter, the uptight puritanical school teacher, and the peasant, who calls to mind Roy Campbell’s poem The serf

I see in the slow progress of his strides
Over the toppled clods and falling flowers,
The timeless, surly patience of the serf
That moves the nearest to the naked earth
And ploughs down palaces, and thrones and towers.

And there is a similar abstracted “feel” to Steinbeck’s Of mice and men and Coetzee’s The life and times of Michael K. This quality is hard to put a finger on, but I find it in both Steinbeck’s and Coetzee’s writing. It’s more noticeable in Coetzee, because I have been to the places he describes his characters as visiting, and they feel like the same places in an alternative universe, where there are points of resemblance, but history has taken a slightly different turn. But in both the buildings feel like stage sets, and not places where real people live and work.

I compare The Waward Bus with Kerouac’s almost contemporary On the road. It’s not my favourite Kerouac book, but that characters are alive and the places real. And I had a similar feeling when reading Coetzee’s Youth. It feels as though a lot of important in-between bits were left out.


DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book won the Booker Prize, so someone must think that it’s great literature. I’m not so sure. I nearly stopped reading after the second chapter. I just didn’t connect with any of the characters.

It’s about a university professor who seduces a student. Her father complains and he is asked to resign and does. He goes to stay with his daughter in the Eastern Cape, and doesn’t really connect with her.

I didn’t connect with any of the characters, and their motivations seemed strange to me. Or perhaps their actions seemed to be unmotivated. I found the ending very sad.

That was about all I could say in my review on Good Reads, but I read it at a time when I was seeing a lot of posts about “farm attacks” and “farm murders” in social media. One of the scenes in the book is a “farm attack”, which which seems to link with what I was reading elsewhere, but that goes beyond what the book says, so I’ll say more about that aspect of it here.

One of the stories was this: Zuma should face the International Criminal court charges over murder of farmers: former Miss World Anneline Kriel:

Former Miss World Anneline Kriel has suggested President Jacob Zuma face charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court for failing to protect farmers in South Africa.

Her call‚ which includes the deployment of the military to protect vulnerable farmers‚ comes after a string of farm murders and the release of quarterly crime statistics‚ which revealed that there had been 116 more murders than the same period last year.

And I think, how stupid can she get. Zuma has many faults, but he did not give orders to criminals to murder farmers, as George Bush did to his air force to bomb Iraq, or Tony Blair and Bill Clinton gave orders for their air forces to bomb Yugoslavia. If they weren’t charged in the ICC why should Zuma be?

The increasing bombardment of racist propaganda about “farm attacks” as “white genocide”, seems calculated, by its very irrationality and its racist assumptions, to make one lose sympathy for the victims of farm attacks. The propaganda tends to create the impression that the victims of farm attacks were themselves as racist as the propagandists and that that they therefore somehow deserved what they got.

I wonder, why this singling out of one occupational group, and I want to say “all lives matter”, not just farmers’ lives, but then we are also bombarded with constant propaganda from a different quarter that it is wrong, evil and wicked to think that all lives matter.

But then I think about my own personal experience. As far as I can recall, I knew four people who were murdered. They weren’t close friends, but they were people I had known and talked to. And three of the four were murdered in farm attacks. The fourth was murdered in a town attack. Those are the ones I can recall now. Neil Alcock, Theo Vosloo and Jan van Beima were murdered in farm attacks; Fritz Bophela was murdered in a town attack (a drive-by shooting). So among the people I have known who have been murdered, farm attacks outnumber others by 3:1. But all of them were pre-Zuma, and that is just my experience. Other people may also know people who were murdered, but possibly in different circumstances.

And that brings me back to the book.

It did not make racist propaganda about the farm attacks, such as one sees on social media. But nevertheless there was a racist subtext. The only black people in the story are described in a racist way, not directly; it is a subtext, not the main text, but it does tend to leave the reader with the impression that all black people are like this.

It is also from the viewpoint of the protagonist, and the protagonist’s viewpoint is not necessarily the author’s view. It is sometimes too easy to think that it is — I’ve seen people attributing views to Dostoevsky through quotes from his novels, but they were quotes from his characters, not from Dostoevsky himself. So it is dangerous to attribute the views of a fictional character to the author. Part of the skill of a novelist is to create believable characters with their own views.

Nevertheless, at the end of the book, the reader, or at least this reader, is left with the impression of black people that “give them an inch and they’ll take a yard”. That’s a common white racist stereotype. Yes, it’s the view of one character, but it’s also the impression created by the book as a whole.

Perhaps it did not strike the people who awarded the Booker prize like that, but that is how it struck me.





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