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Archive for the category “lifestyle”

Sometimes there is a void (review)

Sometimes there is a Void – Memoirs of an OutsiderSometimes there is a Void – Memoirs of an Outsider by Zakes Mda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve often found that I enjoy literary biographies and memoirs more than the works of the writers themselves, and this one is no exception. I had read one of Mda’s novels, Ways of dying but I knew him mainly as a newspaper columnist before I came across this memoir in the library. I found it very interesting, partly, no doubt because the life and times of Zakes Mda overlapped so much with my own. As I often do, I’m expanding my review on GoodReads here, adding some reminiscences of my own, and comparing Mda’s experiences of some events with mine, because that was what I found most interesting about the book

Like me, Zakes Mda was born in the 1940s, so we belong more or less to the same generation, one of the ones before Americans started giving them letters. He grew up in Johannesburg and in the Herschel district of the Eastern Cape, near the Lesotho border. His father was a political activist, first in the African National Congress (ANC), later in the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and had to go into exile in Lesotho, along with his family. So Zakes Mda finished his schooling in Lesotho after dropping out and going back to complete his high school education.

He describes one of his drop-out periods as follows

We saw ourselves as part of the international hippy culture. Make love, not war. Janis Joplin was our chief prophetess. “Mercedes Benz”. That was my song asking God to buy me the luxury German sedan. The one that I sang as Mr Dizzy strummed the guitar. I never learnt how to strum it myself, so he strummed it for me. And hummed along. Another prophetess was Joan Baez with her folk songs. And the prophets were Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix with his psychedelic rock. When we were around the shebeens of Maseru reverberated with some of their music instead of the traditional Sesotho songs that were a staple of drunken sing-alongs. And Mr Dizzy strummed his guitar.
Source: Mda 2011:159

And I can say much the same of when I was a student in Pietermaritzburg and Durham in the 1960s. Mda mentions Jeremy Taylor’s Black and White Calypso from the revue Wait a Minim, which I saw in Johannesburg in 1962 on my 21st birthday.  Mda heard it sung by his friend Mr Dizzy (Sechele Khaketla) in Maseru shebeens, and it seems that Jeremy Taylor’s satire was appreciated just as much there as it was by the all-white audiences in Johannesburg. And a few years later Bob Dylan’s satire had much the same effect, when he was singing about “you unpatriotic rotten doctor commie rat” — just how the South African government of the time thought of us.

Mda tells his story in a series of flashbacks — visiting places from his past, and then telling of past events in those places. And so I discovered that he was far more than a novelist and newspaper columnist. He had begun as an artist, hawking paintings to tourists in Maseru, and his fame was chiefly as a playwright. He also became a teacher, teaching literature and creative writing both in Lesotho and in the USA.

I knew vaguely that plays that were banned in South Africa were sometimes performed in Lesotho — my wife had once travelled from Durban to Maseru with her cousins to see Godspell, which was then banned in South Africa. What I was not aware of was that there was such a lively literary scene in Lesotho, with local authors and playwrights mingling with South African exiles, so Mda’s memoir reads like a who’s who of southern African writers.

I am more historically inclined, so what I found most interesting was Mda’s take on historical events that I had been aware of, but from a different viewpoint. The ANC/PAC split of 1959, for example, and its relation to the politics of Lesotho. I had then been living in Johannesburg and at university in Pietermaritzburg, where I had once tried to explain it to some of my fellow students, and I was interested to see that my explanations fitted pretty closely with Mda’s experience.

Mda’s father was critical of a preface to a book of his plays, written by Andrew Horn, which said that Zakes Mda questions the basic tenets of the PAC, saying that they rejected class analysis of South African society and adopted a narrower race-based Pan-Africanism, influenced by Marcus Garvey. Mda’s father rejected this analysis.

My father believed that in a free and democratic South Africa there would be only one race, the human race. He spoke of non-racialism as opposed to multi-racialism long before it became the trend in South Africa and wrote against “narrow nationalism”. Race as defined by the social engineers of the apartheid state came into play when he discussed the intersections of class and race. Even ardent Communist leaders like John Motloheloa came to him for his class analysis of the South African situation. Although I am not an authority on my father’s writings, as people like Robert Edgar and Luyana ka Msumzwa are, I’ll be so bold as to say Marcus Garvey never featured in any of them.
Source: Mda 2011:353

And that was how I tried to explain it to white South African students in 1965. The predominant perception among whites at that time was that the PAC was racist and anti-white (and anti-coloured and anti-Indian). And the PAC, being banned, could not correct this impression. No doubt some rank-and-file members saw it that way, and their opposition to communists in the ANC was that most of the communists were white. But that was not how Robert Sobukwe expressed it, and he had been a lecturer at Wits University when I was a student there. Sobukwe said that whites were Africans too, as long as they saw Africa as their home, and did not have one foot in Europe. In his book Mda reports that the PAC later did become more narrowly racist and chauvinist, and he then switched his support to the ANC, but at that time Robert Sobukwe was in prison, and could not influence its direction so easily.

I was disillusioned with the PAC, though I still believed in two of its three guiding principles, namely continental unity and socialism. It was with the leadership’s interpretation of the third principle, African nationalism, that I had a problem. It was quite different from the way in which my father used to outline it for us at one of his family meetings. His was not a narrow nationalism. It was all inclusive of all South Africans who identified themselves as Africans and paid their allegiance first and foremost to Africa. But the way my PAC comrades understood the concept it became clear to me that the rights of citizenship of a future Azania, as they called South Africa, would be limited only to black people of African descent. In the meetings which we attended, especially when I was staying at the Poqo camp, the leaders did not make any bones about that. I saw this position as a misrepresentation of the tenets of African nationalism as propounded by my father.

The PAC wrote extensively against tribalism: African nationalism was essentially about embracing Africans regardless of which cultural, linguistic or ethnic group they belonged to. But our PAC and Poqo cadres in Lesotho, who were predominantly amaXhosa, had a negative attitude towards their Basotho hosts. They viewed themselves as naturally superior to other ethnicities.
Source: Mda 2011:250

I had visited Maseru a few times in the 1960s when attending student conferences over the border at Modderpoort in the Free State. On free afternoons groups of us went to Maseru just to enjoy a freer atmosphere. There we sometimes met a bloke in a pub, Desmond Sixishe, whom we didn’t quite trust, and thought was a South African government spy. On one such visit we saw a procession of vehicles, mainly LandRovers, with flags waving, hooting and celebrating. They were from the Basutoland National Party (BNP), which had just won a by-election. We stood at the side of the road as they went past, giving the hand signals of the opposing parties, the Basutoland Congress Party and the Marema-tlou Freedom Party. A few hours later in the pub Desmond Sixishe told us he had seen us, as he had been in the procession. It turned out he was a big BNP supporter. And from Zakes Mda’s memoir I learned that he had become a cabinet minister. But he later died in an ambush on a mountain road.

I was in Namibia when the BNP lost the 1970 general election, but continued to rule by staging a coup. I was then far away in Namibia, but Mda confirmed that it was just as nasty from close up as it looked from a distance, and after that Lesotho immigration and other border officials went from being the friendliest and most welcoming on the subcontinent to being the surliest and most arrogant and officious.

Another link that I found was that Zakes Mda had stayed at my Alma Mater, St Chad’s College, Durham. Same place, different times. I was there from 1966-1968, and he was there 25 years later.

The following year I went to Durham, England, as a writer-in-residence at the Cathedral there. I was the guest of an organisation called Lesotho-Durham Link which was itself linked to the Anglican Church. My brief was to write a play that would be performed in the Norman Cathedral as part of its nine hundredth anniversary celebrations. I was based at St Chad’s College just across the street from the Cathedral and I spent a lot of time taking walks along the Wear River. It was during these walks that my character Toloki was born.
Source: Mda 2011:357

Durham Cathedral, above the banks of the River Wear, where Mda’s character Toloki was conceived

His character Toloki is the professional mourner who is the protagonist in Ways of dying, and I recall many walks along the banks of the River Wear (as it is called locally — the “Wear River” is a South Africanism). My friend Hugh Pawsey would give names to the strange alien vegetation that I had previously read about in books, but could not have identified or even imagined — beech trees, rhododendrons and so on. Rhododendrons are a bit like oleanders and azaleas, which we do know. I recall the “Count’s House”, a tiny dwelling once the home of a man who was only three feet tall. But I can picture the place where Toloki was born. .

Mda does not tell us how he felt, as an atheist, being asked to write a play to commemorate the centenary of an Anglican Cathedral, but he did leave before his term as writer-in-residence was up.

When I was a student in Durham in 1967 there was a civil war in Nigeria, and the Eastern Region broke away from the federation and became the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Someone from the Nigerian High Commission in London came to Durham to speak to the university African Society about the civil war, and noted that the Igbo people of the Eastern Region had a legitimate grievance, because 30000 of them had been killed, but he said that was not a sufficient reason to break up the federation.

I found  it interesting that Mda and I both supported the breakaway state of Biafra, though for quite different reasons. Mda and his friends supported the secession of Biafra from Nigeria in 1967, in spite of its being contrary to Pan Africanism. They knew the Igbo people well because of Chinua Achebe’s books, and did not know of any other of the peoples of Nigeria. In 1967 the only book by a Nigerian author I had read was My life in the bush of ghosts by Amos Tutuola, who was a Yoruba from the Western Region, It was a kind of magic realism story.

At independence in 1960 Nigeria was a federation of three regions. The Northern Region was Muslim and feudal and dry savannah or semi-desert, where Hausa and Fulani people dominated. The Eastern Region, where the Igbo people lived, was around the Niger Delta, largely forest, rich in oil, and the people were mostly Christian. Igbos from the Eastern Region migrated to the north for trade and business, but because of religious and cultural differences were regarded as exploitative foreigners, and were increasingly subject to xenophobic attacks similar to those on Nigerians and Somalis in South Africa in the 21st century. Eventually in a pogrom some 30000 were killed, which led to a civil war, and the secession of the Eastern Region as Biafra. And in the northern part of Nigeria the killing of Christians by Muslims has continued to this day.

Mda notes that such a thing went against his Pan Africanist sentiments. He wanted the countries in Africa to be united. He mentions admiring Julius Nyerere, who united Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form Tanzania. What he does not mention, however, is that Julius Nyerere supported Biafra, one of the few African leaders of the time to do so. After the secession of Biafra ended, and Nigeria ceased to be a federation and became a unitary state with the aim of avoiding such secessions in future, Nyerere published a kind of elegy for Biafra, explaining why he had supported it. He said it was an elementary matter of justice. But in this world oil counts far more than justice.

A couple of years later I was living in Namibia, where South Africa was busy tightening its control, and planning to apply the apartheid policy in Namibia as it was doing in South Africa. I saw each of these closer links as a retrograde step, and was glad to see the independence of Namibia. So I am not a strong pan-Africanist. And one of the reasons for that is apparent from Mda’s own life. He was able to escape the clutches of the apartheid security apparatus precisely because Lesotho was not part of South Africa, and though the South African security forces made incursions into neighbouring countries, and kidnapped or killed people, Mda and his family found a safe refuge there. An advantage of having a lot of small countries rather than just one big one is that there are more places where one can take refuge from an oppressive government.

Mda also makes some interesting observations about developments in South Africa since the end of apartheid. He describes attending his mother’s funeral:

Throughout the ceremony I wear a white Xhosa ceremonial blanket, which makes me feel rather silly. These are some of the traditional innovations that have been introduced by Cousin Nondyebo into our lives. We never used to practise any of these customs when my father was alive. We didn’t even know about them. But, what the heck, it’s only for a few hours. I might as well humour the neo-traditionalists in the family and wear the ridiculous blanket. It all has to do with the movement that is sweeping the country of black people trying to find their roots after having “lost” their culture due to colonialism and apartheid. The problem with this movement is that it does not recognise the dynamism of culture but aims to resuscitate some of the most retrogressive and reactionary, and sometimes horrendous, elements of what used to be “tribal” culture but have long fallen into disuse..
Source: Mda 2011:543

This neo-traditionalism and attempts to resuscitate the culture of an imagined past has been much promoted by the SABC, and has led to the phrase “our culture” being used to justify all kinds of dubious practices. A few years ago a student who had studied in another country was told by the college authorities that he would not be readmitted as he had committed adultery with a married woman whose husband had vowed to kill him if he ever saw him again. On being asked about this the student attempted to justify his adultery by saying “it’s our culture”. I wonder what King Shaka, who had no compunction about putting adulterers to death instantly, would have thought about that.

Mda also has some interesting comments on the tendency to refer to the people who used to be called Bushmen in English as “San”:

You’ll notice that I keep referring to these vanquished people as the Bushmen instead of the politically correct term that is used for them today, the San people. The reason is simply that these people never called themselves the San. They merely referred to themselves as “people” in the various languages of the tribal groups. The clans or tribes did indeed have names: the !Kwi, the /Xam and so on. The San label has the same weight as Barwa or abaThwa or Bushmen, it was what other people called them. They were called the San by the Khoikhoi people (who did call themselves the Khoikhoi) and the name referred to those people who were vagabonds and wanderers and didn’t own cattle,. The Khoikhoi even called fellow Khoikhoi who were poor and didn’t have cattle San. So the name, though generally accepted, has derogatory origins.
Source: Mda 2011:306

I found the last hundred or so pages a disappointment, however. Mda was going through an acrimonious divorce, and lets a lot of the acrimony spill over into the pages of his memoir. During much of that time he was teaching at a university in Ohio in the USA, but he says little about his classes or what he was teaching, or the literary characters he met. It was all about his wife and his marital problems. I’ve no doubt that that played a big part in his life and affected his creative work, and so could not be left out. But there seemed to be too much self-justification, and trying too hard to persuade the reader that his wife was an evil villain. But for that I might have given it five stars on GoodReads.

Mda was also asked by many why he lived in Ohio and taught at a university there, now that South Africa is free. Why did he not return home to help build the nation? And he explains that there was no place for him in South Africa, dominated as it is by crony capitalism, where who you know is more important than what you know and in applying for a job party affiliation trumps competence every time, whether one is talking about membership of the board of the SABC or running a municipal sewage purification works:

Though Mda doesn’t explicitly say so, it seems reasonable to me to infer from what he does say that the ANC has learned a great deal about how to govern from the Broederbond, and in this respect has confirmed the observations of Paolo Freire in his Pedagogy of the oppressed — that the oppressed interrnalises the image of the oppressor.


Toxic and Narcissist

No, I don’t really want to read this book.

The description on GoodReads just reminded me that “toxic” and “narcissist” seem to be among the most popular words on social media currently, and the book blurb struck me as ironic, since probably the most narcissistic thing you can do is to see other people as toxic and to want to protect yourself from them.

One of the primary characteristics of narcicissim as a personality disorder is to project one’s own failings on other peopl;e and denouncing them for it, which seems to be just what seeing other people as “toxic” entails.

Perhaps it goes back to Ayn Rand, who attempted to subvert the Christian moral order by proclaiming selfishness a virtue and altruism a sin.

Fundamentalist Christians are sometimes criticised for their judgementalism, proclaiming certain people as sinners, and therefore to be despised. But the same judgementalism can be found in quite secular circles too, when one classifies certain people as “toxic”. The same judgmentalism lies behind both.

For Orthodox Christians the season of Great Lent, which is approaching, is preceded by several Sundays whose themes urge us to recognise these tendencies in ourselves and to engage in an ascetic struggle against them, for example the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee (which falls on 17 February in 2019).

For some (depending on which Lectionary you use) that is preceded by the Sunday of Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus was the paradigm case of a toxic person. And did Jesus delete him? No, he invited himself to dinner.

So as a Lenten (and even pre-Lenten) discipline I suggest the elimination of the words “narcissist” and “narcissism” from one’s spoken vocabulary, and to avoid liking, sharing or otherwise endorsing or propagating posts that use the term on social media.

I likewise suggest that the same be done with the word “toxic” when applied to human beings or human characteristics. It should continue to be OK to use it of non-human beings, like snakes, spiders and socks.


The Great (and dirty) City of Tshwane

This morning as we were driving to church we saw a bakkie dumping rubbish at the side of the R104 near the entrance to Saulsville. If we hadn’t been late we might have slowed down and taken a photo of it, but it is becoming all too common.

On the way home I did take several photos.

R104, entrance to Atteridgeville West.

All over the city there is rubbish dumped like this. Not just in Atteridgeville, but near the Botanic Gardens in the east, and in various other places, and it has been getting worse and worse. The place in Atteridgeville is noticeable because we drive past it once a fortnight, and see each time how more and more of the verges are covered with rubbish. Littering has become part of our lifestyle.

Political parties love to blame other parties for maladministration, but it was bad when the ANC confrolled the city council, and it is worse now that the DA controls the city council. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the municipal administration will remain just as putrid as the rubbish littering the streets.

Thirty years ago I visited Singapore, which was then reputed to be the cleanest city in the world. And the reason was not far to seek — as you walked down the street, you would see lots of signs informing you that the fine for littering was $750. And that law was strictly enforced.

The City of Tshwane could deal with this in similar fashion.

Increase the fine for littering to R5000 or so, put up signs, and employ the Metro Police see that the law is enforced.

As one sports shoe manufacturer likes to tell us, Just do it.


Rugby, race, and privilege

For the last few days I’ve been seeing a lot of comments about something that happened recently in the rugby world.

There have been posts on Facebook and tweets on Twitter and people are apparently taking sides and arguing about what happened and the rights and wrongs of the affair.

I haven’t had anything to say about it because I don’t know what happened, other than that someone walked out of a TV studio (“Don’t touch me on my studio!”), but from what I’ve seen everyone is expected to have an opinion about it, whether they know what happened or not.

Perhaps the people who think that everyone should have an opinion about it should reflect on the fact that they are the privileged few, and the debate is taking place among the privileged few.

Rugby is a sport that you can only watch on TV if you are rich enough to afford dsTV Premium, and most South Africans cant afford it, so rugby is likely remain in its privileged niche for the foreseeable future. The hoi polloi aren’t going to get a look in.

Some one once said that rugby is a ruffians’ game played by gentlemen, while soccer is a gentlemen’s game played by ruffians.

And if dsTV (or is it DStv?) have their way, it’s going to stay like that.

So this particular storm in a teacup is strictly a gentlemen’s affair — the privileged talking to the privileged.

Don’t expect the rest of us to have an opinion.



Stuff you don’t see any more: 3×5 index cards and the metrication blues

The other day I wandered into the CNA (a local newsagent/bookseller/stationery chain) in search of 3×5 index cards, and a couple of other things. There were no index cards there. A sign of changing times, perhaps — people use computers for that sort of stuff nowadays.  But I’ve been using computers to store data for more than 30 years, and I’ve still been able to buy index cards.

Talking of computers reminds me of something else you don’t see any more — computer magazines. I started buying those 35 years ago, before I even had computer. At one time there used to be a large selection, and I would browse through them to see which had the most interesting articles that month, and buy that. Then they started to come with disks (and later discs) with free or shareware software and other good stuff. I then started buying the ones for the most interesting software selection, rather than the most interesting articles. But there was only one in the CNA this month — Linux Format.

This morning I went to a different branch of the CNA hoping to find index cards. I couldn’t see any. They did have the same computer magazine, so, rather rashly, I bought it. I do have Linux on my computer, but I don’t use it much, mainly because it doesn’t run the software I use most of the time (and please don’t tell me, as some people are wont to do, that I could find another program that does something similar and use that and “move on”. Thinking that having your programs in one operating system and your data in another is a good idea is really not a sign of intelligence).

But this other CNA branch did have index cards — in A6 and A7 sizes.

Just think of it — 47 years after South Africa switched to the metric system, and it was illegal to sell rulers marked in inches or milk measured in pints, they suddenly decide it’s time to switch index cards to metric sizes. For 47 years we’ve being buying cards (and boxes to store them in) that are 3×5 inches (76.2 by 127.0 mm), and now we need to replace them by “metric” cards that are 74 by 105 mm. They can’t easily be stored together, so it would mean you can’t easily add new cards to an existing file — you’d have to copy all the existing cards to the new size.

But why use index cards when you can use a computer?

Computers are much more efficient at searching and sorting information than a card system. You can search and sort in different ways and on different fields, while cards can only be sorted one way, and searched on one field. It’s a no brainer, isn’t it?

Well, not quite.

Computers are very good at storing, searching and sorting information, What they are not so good at is displaying it in a way that makes it easy for human beings to interpret it.

When you have index cards, you can lay them out on a table cloth (or even a carpet or bedspread), move them around, lay them out in patterns and change the patterns to look at the information in different ways. Two or three people can look at the information and discuss it while they are doing so. One of my mentors, Professor David Bosch, used to recommend this as a research method for masters and doctoral students.

There was a time when computer programmers used to think that everyone knew about index cards, and used icons of card indexes on their screens, and some programmers even used to make their input screens look like index cards. But they had grasped the wrong end of the stick. Index cards were useless at the input end, but very few programmers grasped that that they might be very useful at the output end. Very few wrote their programs with the option of producing index cards as printed output, yet that would have been a far better use of computing power.

There were a few exceptions.

There used to be a genealogy program called Personal Ancestral File (PAF). It stored genealogical information, and produced reports. In the 1990s various people produced supplementary programs that accessed the PAF database and did more things with it. I have two of those supplementary programs on my computer. One prints reports on 3×5 index cards, and the other produces them on 6×4 index cards. The down side is that the PAF program they work with was not Y2K compatible, and so does not accept dates after 31 December 1999. And no one else has seen fit to include such reporting facilities in more up-to-date programs (or apps, as people like to call them nowadays).

My main use for index cards now is as bookmarks. While I’m reading a book, I record significant passages, and then later use them to find the places in the book and make notes on the computer. I don’t usually read books while sitting at the computer so I can make notes as I go along. When used as bookmarks, I use one card per book, but if the computer could spit out one card per note it might improve considerably on David Bosch’s research method.

But at least part of this story ends well — after failing to find 3×5 index cards at the CNA I went round the corner to Archneer Stationers, and they had 3×5 and 6×4 index cards in stock. And no A6 and A7 ones at all.

There are lots of other things you don’t see any more, like gooseberry jam, quince jelly, tinned mutton breyani, real peanut butter, 8mm film projectors, Beta video tape players, and many more.

But 3×5 index cards are the ones I’d really miss.



Is life without Facebook even possible?

There have been lots of “social media” sites on the web, but Facebook has undoubtedly been the most successful. Some years ago Yahoo made my account inaccessible for 6 months. They hosted my web pages (because they had taken over Geocities), they stopped me managing my mailing lists because they had taken over a mailing list host, and so  to be contactable on the web I registered for MySpace, but MySpace was clunky, its pages were cluttered and it was difficult to navigate. Then I found Facebook, which was clean, simple and easy — but it was only for current students at tertiary institutions. So when Facebook opened for everyone I joined.

Soon afterwards Yahoo! let me back in, but I still found Facebook useful, because Yahoo closed down most of the services I found most useful, including Geocities, MyBlogLog and WebRing. The only useful service they still provide is their mailing-list host, YahooGroups, and they’ve tried pretty hard to make even that less attractive and more user hostile.

Facebook, however, has succeeded in making itself almost indispensable, as this article shows I tried leaving Facebook. I couldn’t – The Verge:

Facebook had replaced much of the emotional labor of social networking that consumed previous generations. We have forgotten (or perhaps never noticed) how many hours our parents spent keeping their address books up to date, knocking on doors to make sure everyone in the neighborhood was invited to the weekend BBQ, doing the rounds of phone calls with relatives, clipping out interesting newspaper articles and mailing them to a friend, putting together the cards for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, and more. We don’t think about what it’s like to carefully file business cards alphabetically in a Rolodex. People spent a lot of time on these sorts of things, once, because the less of that work you did, the less of a social network you had.

And, as the article also points out, everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook.

Facebook took over from MySpace because they did what MySpace was doing, but they did it better, making it less clunky and cluttered (they’ve cluttered it up now, but after eliminating rivals they don’t need to make it better).

Someone recently invited me to an alternative called MeWe, but they kept sending me e-mail  saying “Please read this message in an HTML capable reader”. I replied to the first couple saying “Please send me this message in plain text format”, but they didn’t, and I got tired of those identical messages, so just filtered them off to the spam bin. If they deliberately choose to make their messages unreadable, then the rest of what they are doing isn’t worth bothering about.

For a while Google had a better alternative to Facebook. It was called Orkut. It retained the simplicity of the early Facebook when Facebook began to get clunky, but it somehow only caught on in South America and South-East Asia, and Google dropped it.

So even though I sometimes find Facebook frustrating, especially when they come up with stupid ideas that make it more difficult to use, I haven’t tried to leave it, because in what it does, even when it tries to place obstacles in the way of doing what it does, it’s the only game in town.

One of the problems with Facebook is that it tries to make itself the only game in town even for the things that it doesn’t do, or doesn’t do well. One of the most egregious examples of that was when they changed everyone’s e-mail addresses in their profile to a Facebook one, and didn’t tell users that they had done so, and also didn’t tell them how to find mail that was sent to the address that they provided. So they tried to force all their users into using an e-mail service without telling them how it worked or even that it was there.

Many people are wary of Facebook because they are concerned about “privacy”. The people at Facebook are aware of these concerns, and they keep nagging me about them. My concern is the opposite — there’s too much privacy. If I want to keep something private, I don’t put it on Facebook. But Facebook doesn’t want that. Facebook wants me to use Facebook for everything. They want Facebook to be the whole Web, and even the whole Internet (as the linked article above shows).

Facebook keeps asking me “Who can read this?” and when I click on it, it tells me that anybody can read this. I’m more interested in knowing who can’t read this. I post links on Facebook thinking that some friends may be interested, but very often Facebook doesn’t show it to those people, but rather shows it to other people who find it boring or irrelevant, who then sometimes make silly or incomprehensible comments on them.

So I sometimes think of leaving Facebook, but I don’t. Why? Because, again as the linked article points out, I would lose contact with friends and relatives that I’ve found through Facebook. The contact is intermittent, scratchy and broken, like an old shortwave radio in a thunderstorm. But at least is there, and if I left Facebook I would lose it.

A couple of days ago we had lunch with Jim Corrigall, an old friend I had last seen more than 40 years ago. He told me by e-mail that he was going to be on Joburg last weekend, and we arranged to meet by phone, but it was through Facebook that we found each other, and without Facebook I would have have had no idea how to get in touch with him.

Jim Corrigall with Steve & Val Hayes, 28 April 2018

Most of my “friends” on Facebook are people like that — old friends who live far away, and in the past, if I stayed in touch with them at all, I might have sent a Christmas card, or a duplicated newsletter once or twice a year. In the days before duplicating, people would send “round robin” letters — write to one member of the family, and ask them to pass the letter on to another member of the family, and so on. Facebook has replaced those functions with something more immediate.

Facebook makes it possible, but Facebook also tries very hard to make it extremely difficult because of the obsession with “privacy”. You might write something in a round robin letter that you think will interest Aunt Joan, but Cousin Pete has fallen out with Aunt Joan and sends it to Uncle Bob instead. And Facebook often behaves like that.

Thirty years ago people use to talk about the “information superhighway”. Facebook built one, but then puts concrete blocks across all but one lane, so you have to negotiate an obstacle course.

Facebook’s “privacy” precautions are just that: obstacles to communication. If you are concerned about privacy and information leaks, then you won’t solve them by leaving Facebook. Disconnect your phone line. Get rid of all your mobile phones. Disconnect from the Internet, and build a high wall so that nosy neighbours can’t see what you are doing. Don’t go out of doors, lest a passing satellite spot you.

You used to be able to go to websites like Zoominfo, where you could find an amazing amount of information about you trawled from the Web.  At one time they used to let you edit it, and identify which applied to you and which didn’t. Now they don’t, so there’s no way of checking for accuracy, but they still sell it. You don’t need to subscribe to it or have ever logged into the site. So worrying about privacy leaks from Facebook is a bit like children playing at damming a stream when a flash flood is on its way.

And everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook.

The Big Six (review)

The Big Six (Puffin Books)The Big Six by Arthur Ransome

When I was a child, books by Arthur Ransome were the kind of children’s books that adults thought that children ought to read, but which I found rather boring. Our school library was well stocked with them, so I read a few, but if I’d been on Good Reads back then I’d have given them two stars, three at the most.

I can remember little of what I read, and perhaps I read Coot Club, of which this is a kind of sequel, and I suppose my main memory is knowing what the Norfolk Broads were — the kind of knowledge that comes in useful when watching TV quiz shoes like Pointless, until you’ve seen them so many times that you stop trying to work out the answers, and rather try to remember which question is going to come up next and which of the very familiar contestants gets the right answer. But yes, reading about that di help to me form some kind of picture of the place, which recurs in other books, such as The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers.

I also read Missee Lee, from which I learned that typhus was a serious disease, but when I grew up I found that its cousin typhoid was more common.

Arthur Ransome’s books were great for children who liked messing about in boats, but the closest thing we got to that was paying an exorbitant fee for half an hour rowing round the island in Joburg’s Zoo Lake, or the slightly less crowded Germiston Lake.

The Big Six has boats, lots of them. But it is also a whodunit, and that adds to the interest. I don’t remember reading it as a child. I do remember reading a couple of Enid Blyton‘s Secret Seven series, where a group of children outwit the criminals that have the local police foxed.

In this one it is not difficult to guess the culprit, but the child detectives are themselves accused of the crime, and so in order to exonerate themselves they have to find the real culprits. The crime is casting off moored boats, and stealing some equipment — not major crimes worthy of Interpol, but serious enough in a small village where the children’s fathers are boatbuilders, and a bad reputation could harm their livelihood.

Though it takes a long time for the children to identify the suspects, that is not the main problem. The main problem is to collect evidence that points unambiguously to the perpetrator, because so much of the evidence they do manage to collect is open to different interpretations. So as a children’s whodunit, this one is quite sophisticated. Finding a suspect is one problem, getting enough evidence to convict is another.

In addition to being a whodunit, there is an undercurrent of environmental concern, perhaps of wider concern now than when Ransome wrote it in the 1930s. One is conscious of such concerns throughout the book, that, and the price of things. The idea of a lawyer’s fee being 66c makes the mind boggle.

I don’t think I read this one as a child, but if I had, I wonder if I would have been able to grasp that point at the age of 9 or 10. But as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

View all my reviews

Same-sex marriage: one cheer for Bermuda

There have been reports that Bermuda has rescinded a law on same-sex marriage that it passed a year ago, and replaced it with one on domestic partnerships.

Bermuda legalized same-sex marriage a year ago. This week it abolished it. – The Washington Post:

In an unusual move, Bermuda has abolished same-sex marriage less than a year after it was legalized, replacing the same-sex unions with domestic partnerships.

Bermuda Gov. John Rankin signed a bill into law Wednesday that reverses an earlier Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. The new law gives domestic partners in the British island territory similar rights as married couples — but without the legal title.

The reports are short on details, but from what I have read it seems to me to be a step in the right direction, and one step towards something that I proposed in a blog post 12 years ago: The State should get out of the marriage business | Notes from underground. I’d be glad to see if some countries went the whole hog, and left marriage to civil society, rather than making it a government prerogative.

Divisions of England, then and now

In 1966 I went to study in England, and spent two and a half years there. It took me about a year to get over the culture shock, and to appreciate different aspects of English culture — or rather English cultures, for there are several regional cultures.

Forty years later I visited England again, on holiday this time, and revisited some of the places I had known, and explored some new ones. I found that there were many changes, some expected, some unexpected. I’ve described that, and some of the changes I noticed here.

Then someone posted this graphic, which illustrated some of the changes I had noticed, and some that I hadn’t.

The most startling change to me is the one on chips.

Back in 1966 the area marked above as “gravy on chips” was definitely salt and vinegar.  I never, ever saw anyone have gravy on chips.

Whether bought from Sarah’s or Sweaty Betty’s, it was only ever salt and vinegar.

And in the area marked on the map as “salt and vinegar”, chips were unheard of. No matter where I went in London (and I went to most places on my London Transport free pass), there were no chips, only “French Fried Potatoes”. Chips were strictly north of the Trent.

The area marked “curry sauce on chips” was unknown territory for me, so I can’t comment on that.

So what happened? Did “French fried potatoes” go out with the bowler hats?

The bit about Greggs, I don’t understand much, but when we visited Cornwall in 2005, pasties were as scarce as chips in London in 1966. We asked at several places, and they sent us somewhere else, until we eventually foudn them at the 6th place we tried. And everyone in Bodmin spoke with Estuary accents.

The most astounding thing of all, however,  is the beer.

Before starting my studies in Durham I worked as a bus driver in London for 6 months. After a union meeting, which was held in a pub (the Telegraph on Brixton Hill), I was accosted by a conductor, who wanted to know about the big buses in Johannesburg that I had talked of at the meeting. Then I bought him a drink and he told me  he was the king of Streatham, and offered to take me on a tour of London and a trip to Brighton. He had been in many jobs before he became a conductor — street sweeper, rider on the wall of death, barrow boy. He had been in the cooler once for three months for scaling a motorbike. He bought me a drink. Then we went round the corner to another pub, his favourite hang-out, it appeared.

There we pooled our meagre resources and bought another drink. He scorned me for drinking cider, and said I should drink bitter. I said that draft bitter was usually flat. He said that didn’t matter, it was the taste that counts. The English like their beer warm and flat. I can think of nothing more insipid or puke-provoking. Then John starts waving and beckoning to his friend Reg, who is over at the other bar opposite. Reg, he tells me, is a tit-tat man. What the hell is a tit-tat man? Well, he’s the chap at the races who stands at one end and waggles his fingers and the bookies then know what every horse is doing. Reg is one of the best tit-tat men there is. Reg comes round and joins us. I like Reg. John introduces me as Steve, and Reg called me “Stephen”, so I called him “Reginald”, which provoked much giggling. Then he tried to guess my age, and said I was 32. Then changed it to 27 (I was actually 25). He said I’d never guess his age to within five years. So I said he was 57. No, he’s 56. He seemed rather amazed. He talked a little more. Then I said goodbye to John and Reg, and slipped away quietly, leaving them talking in a very lively way to someone else. The closing bell had rung, and I came home.

That was London, the area shown on the map as “craft ale”. Does bitter count as craft ale? There was bottled ale, but that was too fizzy. So English beer was either too flat or too fizzy. Nothing in between. Then I went north to Durham and discovered Newcastle Brown Ale. Now that was beer, the best in the world, I thought. Lion Ale, the beer Natal made famous, came a rather poor second, but still way better than bitter, or lager. And in Durham no one had ever heard of lager, except perhaps a few people who had gone to Germany on holiday.

So when did ale move south and lager move north? Was that yet another thing wrought by Margaret Thatcher?





How US Net Neutrality affects the rest of us

Those of us outside the US may have observed their debates on net neutrality, and wondered whether it would affect us.

Even if it is something confined purely to the US, however, the loss of net neutrality there will affect people all over the world. But when people speak of the loss of net neutrality, there are many ways in which it has already been lost, or rather, it is an ideal that has never been fully realised.

This article helps to explain what it means for people in the US — Someone Finally Illustrated What The Loss Of Net Neutrality Really Looks Like, And You Won’t Like It:

Net neutrality has become a volatile, high-profile news story, and with good reason: Americans are in danger of losing it. But what is net neutrality, and why is it important? Why are some lawmakers fighting so hard to make it a thing of the past?

The answer is complex, rooted in technological progress, a changing economic landscape, and a society and culture that is seeing greater class divisions than at any other time in our history. Some in our government are determined to make the internet a profit-driven product, and while this may sound understandable in a capitalist society, the dangers are very real.

Aptly illustrated by this picture:

If you live in South Africa, say, and you post some family photos on Facebook, the loss of net neutrality in the US might mean that your cousin in the US may not be able to see them, because their ISP has decided to charge more for access to Facebook.

Of course even with net neutrality your cousin in the US might not have been able to see your photos, because Facebook’s algorithm already decides who gets to see what you post, and who doesn’t get to see it.

Think of another example. An academic researcher in South Africa posts a research query in a blog, trying to verify some fact, or get reactions to a conjecture or hypothesis. With net neutrality, anyone with a web connection can see the blog and respond to the post. But without net neutrality, an ISP can decide to make that particular blogging platform only accessible to some of its subscribers who pay extra for it.

Even without legal protection of “net neutrality”, there have been all kinds of attempts to corral users into a closed system. Facebook’s Messaging app is an example. Get people to use that, and people have to join Facebook to communicate with you. Others may have attempted the same thing, but it might have backfired on them. In an earlier post, The decline and decline of tumblr | Notes from underground, I noted that tumblr had gradually reduced the functionality of their site to make it a closed world. Perhaps they did this in the hope that they, like Facebook, might be able to lock users in to their site, though the actual effect was to remove the incentive for many people to visit their site at all. To lock people in successfully, you have to be big like Facebook, not small like tumblr.

We had something similar in South Africa. A few years ago people who used MWeb as their ISP found it difficult to access certain web sites, because MWeb was trying to lock them in and steer them towards its own offerings. I don’t know if they still do that, but there was quite an outcry at the time.

Something similar was seen back in the 1990s, when dial-up BBSs were popular. Telkom, whose phone lines were being used for it, wanted to charge more for data calls to BBSs than for voice calls, but the counter argument was that Telkom was a “common carrier” — their job was to provide the connections, for which they could charge, but the content of the calls was none of their business. The “common carrier” principle is the same principle as net neutrality — an ISP charges you for the internet connection and the band width you use, but the content of your connection is none of their business.

The “common carrier” principle provided a great deal of freedom, because anyone could set up a BBS, and so BBSs were a great enhancement to free speech. It was one of the factors that helped to topple a lot of dictatorial regimes in the annus mirabilis of 1989. It was how news of the Tianamnen Square massacre in China reached the rest of the world; pro-democracy activists used a BBS conference called ASIAN_LINK to communicate with each other and the rest of the world.

So the loss of New Neutrality takes the USA another step further away from the “free world” that it once claimed to be the leader of.




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