Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “family”

Social networking and social media

Over the last 30 years or so we’ve seen a tremendous increase in electronic communication by computer networking. Thirty years ago I mainly communicated with distant friends and family by snail mail. Now I mainly use email, if I have their email address. And there are social networking web sites like Facebook and Twitter where you can find friends and family even if you’ve lost touch with them.

But though the internet in general, and social networking sites in particular, make communication easier, the owners of the sites seem to go to great lengths to place obstacles in the way, so that the potential of the internet for communication is never fully realised. One of the most notorious examples was when Facebook, without telling its users, changed every user’s email address in its directory to a Facebook address, and hid mail sent to that address in a place where no one could find it.

I’d like to make some suggestions for improving the utility of social networking to the users. They probably won’t be tried, because there is a huge clash of interests, so Facebook is perpetually fighting its users in order to manipulate them and sell them, offering them the minimum of what they want in order to keep stringing them along.

Other social networking sites have been less successful at this. They start offering something that people find useful, and gain a lot of users. They then sell the site to a big company that announces that they are going to improve the site, and remove the very thing that attracted users in the first place. Yahoo! was notorious for buying up such sites and killing them — for example Geocities, BlogLog and WebRing.

When BlogLog went, there was another similar site called BlogCatalog, but they tried making “improvements” that crippled the main thing that attracted users.

Yet another was Technorati, which was a very useful tool for finding blog posts on similar subjects by means of tags. It also showed a list of trending topics in blog posts, some of which I did not understand at all, but curiosity made me investigate some of them, and so I leant something about popular culture, and the meaning of words like Beyonce, Pokemon and Paris Hilton (no, not the hotel, the daughter of its owner). And one of the things that trended was Twitter. I didn’t see much point in Twitter at first, but when Technorati abandoned its main function, Twitter became a less satisfactory substitute.

friendsWhenever I link to a new blog from one of my WordPress blogs, there is a kind of social networking questionnaire. It’s an idea that’s been around for a long time, and I’ve filled in the information in the hope that someone will find a use for it one day. It’s called XFN, or the XHTML friends network, and you can read more about it here.

The rationale behind XFN’s categories of relationship is given here. While I don’t agree with all their decisions and categories, I think that it is a pretty good starting point, and that social networking sites like Facebook would be immensely improved if they instituted something like that.

In terms of XFN categories, all these are obviously "met". But otherwise, from left to right -- (1) friend kin colleague; (2) kin, friend; (3) me; (4) acquaintance (5) friend, colleague.

In terms of XFN categories, all these are obviously “met”. But otherwise, from left to right — (1) friend kin colleague; (2) kin, friend; (3) me; (4) acquaintance (5) friend, colleague.

The only thing I would add for a site like Facebook would be the time dimension — the “met” category can mean last week or 40 years ago. I find Facebook most useful for contacting old friends and far-away friends.

But the use of categories like the XFN ones could enable Facebook to improve their algorithms of what they show to users. At the moment Facebook shows me lots of stuff from some people in the “contact” category, people I have never met.

Allowing users to categorise posts would also help. Some categories might be family news, general news, professional news, humour, trivia, etc. And possibly an importance rating — I don’t want to learn of a death in the family after the funeral has taken place (as happened in a couple of cases recently), while a new bird seen in the garden might be of less importance.

Does anyone else think any of this would be useful if implemented by Facebook or some other social networking sites?

Visit to Western Cape

friendsWe hope to visit the Western Cape in late August. Unless we win the Lotto or something this will probably be the last time in our lives that we’ll ever go there, and so will be the last opportunity to visit friends and family who live there, so it may be the last chance we’ll ever have to see old old friends, and cousins, some of whom we’ve met, and some of whom we haven’t.

famtreeIf you would like to see us when we are there, please use the form below to give us your contact information, so we can get in touch with you. We would not like to get back home after the trip and have people say, as so often happens, “Why didn’t you get in touch when you were here?”

There are more details about this proposed trip on our family history blog here.

So far the following are on our list of “people to see”:

  • Sam van den Berg
  • Edmund van Wyk
  • Lindsay Walker
  • Michael Preston
  • Sandy Struckmeyer
  • Brenda Coetzee
  • Jean Mary Gray
  • Jeanette Harris
  • Chris Saunders

Trans-Kalahari Highway, Kang to Windhoek

Continued from Kang — ver in die ou Kalahari.

We woke up about 4:00 am at the Kang Ultrastop, where we had stayed overnight, and after breakfast at 7:00, filled up with petrol and left at 8:25 on our way to Windhoek.

Accommodation at the Kang Ultrastop on the Trans-Kalahari Highway in central Botswana

Accommodation at the Kang Ultrastop on the Trans-Kalahari Highway in central Botswana

This time the only vehicles we saw on the road were big trucks, mostly 26-wheelers, and they were fairly few and far between. It is obvious that this is a mainly commercial highway. It probably cuts off quite a bit of the journey time betweeen Windhoek (and points north, like northern Namibia and Angola) and Gauteng, but tourists might prefer to travel a longer but more scenic troute, through Upington. This route is miles and miles of miles and miles.

The Trans-Kalahari Highway somewhere north-west of Kang, where most of the traffic is 26-wheelers

The Trans-Kalahari Highway somewhere north-west of Kang, where most of the traffic is 26-wheelers

We did discern three varieties of Kalahari scenery (I’m sure the local Bushmen would tell you there are hundreds of kinds of Kalahari). The ones we saw were (1) Bush and grassveld, (2) Bush and sandveld and (3) Smaller bushes with scattered big trees.

Kalahari bush and grassveld, about 65 km north-west of Kang

Kalahari bush and grassveld, about 65 km north-west of Kang

About 100 km further on we came to the bush and sandveld variety:

Kalahari bush and sandveld, about 160 km north-west of Kang

Kalahari bush and sandveld, about 160 km north-west of Kang

And a bit further on we passed through the third type — low scrub with scattered trees.

One often reads descriptions of the Kalahari, or of people travelling through it, but they are rarely illustrated, and I know my picture was somewhat different from the reality. Previously I had only seen the southern fringes, and the central Kalahari was not what I imagined it to be.

A third type of Kalahari scenery -- low scrub with scattered trees

A third type of Kalahari scenery — low scrub with scattered trees

For the first 100 km or so from Kang we passed black plastic rubbish bags at regular intervals, until we reached the teams picking up the rubbish and hoeing thorn bushes out of the verges, I imagine it must help to provide employment for local people, not that the Kalahai here has a large population. We saw fewer animals on the verges than yesterday.

Beyond the cleaning teams, we saw at some of the roadside sitplekkies what they were doing — there were polycarbonate cold-drink bottles, and polystyrene hamburger boxes everywhere, and we had to walk quite a long way into the bush to take photos that didn’t have the foreground full of them.

The sigh that everyone seems to ignore

The sign that everyone seems to ignore

There are some creatures that seem to like the rubbish though…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese birds seem to congregate at the sitplekkies. We didn’t have our bird book with us, but they seem to be a species of crow.

The map showed a village 138 km from Kang, but we saw no sign of it, and one of the first settlements we saw after the highway turned left towards the Namibian border was Tsootsha, about 300 km from Kang, and from there there was still another 100 km to go to the border at Mamumo.

We were struck by the politeness and professionalism of the customs and immigration officials on the Botswana side of the border, and the rather lax and couldn’t-care-less attitude of those on the Namibian side. When we went to pay the road fund contribution they were sitting on their desks eating lunch, and seemed to mildly resent the interruption.

The scenery was slightly different on the Namibian side, for a while at least. The bush seemed greener, and more familiar. I wondered whether it was because of different farming methods, because the border is not based on any natural geographical features — it is an arbitrary line, drawn on a map by people who had probably never been within 5000 kilometres of it, colonial officials playing at maps in London and Berlin — we’ll cut off this bit from Namibia and and give it to Botswana in exchange for the Caprivi Strip.

We reached Gobabis at 3:20 pm, nearly 7 hours and 500 km after leaving Kang. Actually it was 2:20, because Namibian time is now an hour behind South African time, tho0ugh I think they have daylight savings time in summer. Gobabis should have been familiar territory for me, but wasn’t. I used to come here about once a month when I lived in Windhoek. But after 40 years, the town had changed beyond recognition. Now there were islands with trees down the middle of the main street where in the past there had been a central strip of tar, with wide gravel stretches on either side. Now there were branches of all the major chain stores in southern Africa, and we saw at least two specialist stationery shops. Back then there were a couple of banks, a couple of general dealser stores, a hotel and farming cooperatives and suppliers. Perhaps it is the Trans-Kalahari Highweay that has brought prosperity to Gobabis,.


As we headed west for Windhoek the main road too was unrecognisable. On my monthly trips 40 years ago, it had been gravel from the airport at Ondekaremba, 40 km east of Windhoek to Gobabis, though construction teams were building the tarred road, leading to frequent detours. I think it was only on my last trip there that the tarred road had been completed all the way. In many places it followed a different route, giving different views, like this one of the approach to Witvlei.

Witvlei, Namibia

Witvlei, Namibia

The hills in the distance were a familiar sight, but I was used to seeing them from a different angle.

As we approached Windhoek, the road from the airport into town was more familiar, and we stopped to take photos of the Auas mountains. They were a familiar sight when I lived in Windhoek, so I would not dream of taking a photo of them, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I wanted a memento of a once-familiar sight that I will probably never see again in my lifetime.

Auas mountains, east of Windhoek

Auas mountains, east of Windhoek

We reached Windhoek at 17:37, South African time, just over 9 hours and 718 km after leaving Kang. We went to stay with Val’s cousin Enid Ellis and her husband Justin. I first met Justin when he came to Windhoek in 1970, with a group of Anglican students from Stellenbosch University, who had come to spend part of the Christmas vac working for the church there. When I was deported from Namibia a couple of years later,  along with the bishop and two other church workers, I met Justin again at a student conference, and tried to persuade himn to go to Namibia to take our place. Whether as a result of my blandishments or something else, he eventually did so. I met Val and her cousin Enid at the Anglican parish of Queensburgh, which I was looking after for a year while the rector was overseas, and they went on a holiday to Namibia in 1973, and then Enid went back in 1974 to work there, and married Justin. Then they too were deported, and spent several years in England, returning when Namibia became independent in 1990.

The story continues here.


Mirbane: In Memoriam

Back in 1961, more than 50 years ago now, a friend of mine, Sam Turner, found an old car parked in the garage in the house where he was lodging. The landlord told him that it belonged to a former tenant, who had left it there when he had moved to Naboomspruit. We wrote to him and asked if we could take it for a drive, and possibly buy it from him. It was a 1936 Austin Ten, and to us it seemed enormously ancient. having been made before either of us was born.

Mirbane, with Steve Hayes and Sam Turner, Johannesburg, |February 1961

We took it out of the garage, and, mirabile dictu, it started. We drove it around, and the owner agreed to sell it for R50.00. He also agreed to renew the licence and 3rd party insurance. A car could not be registered in the name of a new owner until it had passed a roadworthy test, and we thought it might need some work before it could achieve that. It had been registered in Barkly West in the Northern Cape, where the previous owner had worked before, but it appeared that it would have to be reregistered in Naboomspruit. So its number changed from CAG 1595 to TNS 784.

We thought it needed a name, and Sam found the name Mirbane in a dictionary, which said that it was “of obscure origin”. Oil of mirbane was another name for nitrobenzine, a substance rumoured in those days to make cars go faster when added to the petrol. The picture shows it on the first day we took it for a drive after getting it out of the garage.

The only problem was that the clutch did not work, so every time it stopped someone had to get out and push to get it moving in order to get it into gear. Nevertheless, that evening I used it to drive across town and take another friend to a party, praying all the while that we would not encounter an uphill stop street.

Mirbane with the Prestons’ Volvo Sport

Sam decided to pull it apart and put it together again, and spent just about every weekend doing that, with occasional help from his friends. He took out the engine, and took the body off the chassis, and cleaned it. After about 6 months, it was ready for a test drive, so we took it for a spin, with no bonnet, no dynamo, no headlights, and no fan belt. We visited my friend Mike Preston, and parked it in their driveway next to his father’s Volvo Sport, which, despite its rather old-fashioned appearance (even for those days) was one of the best-performing saloon cars on the road.

On another occasion, doing a similar test drive, a traffic cop overtook us in Johannesburg Road in Lyndhurst. He ignored the lack of lights and obviously unroadworthy condition of the car, and homed in on the lack of third-party insurance disc, and wrote a ticket for that.

I was driving, so I was the one who had to go to court. I sat with sinking heart as half a dozen similar cases came up before mine, and the magistrate fined each one R30.00 (worth about R3000.00 in todays money). When my turn came I asked for the charge sheet to be amended — I was driving in Johannesburg Road, but the ticket said Pretoria Road. It was a pedantic point, but it seemed to impress the magistrate. He asked the traffic cop about it, and the traffic cop seemed confused. I said yes, I was driving without a third party disc, but my friend had sent money for the third party insurance to the registered owner, and he hadn’t sent the disc yet. Why was I driving, not my friend, asked the magistrate. Well, my friend doesn’t have a driving licence. “Cautioned and discharged,” said the magistrate. “Next case.”

After about a year it was more or less in running order again. When we found it had been painted black, but Sam was into numerology and palmistry and such pursuits, and determined that the most auspicious colours for travel were green or white, followed closely by yellow and purple. So we painted Mirbane green and white and yellow and purple, with a mermaid on the sun roof.

In July 1962 I had some leave, and wanted to go and see my cousins in Durban, so we decided to go in Mirbane. Unfortunately, a day or two before we were due to leave Mirbane jammed in first gear. We spent a day pulling the gearbox apart, and found that the first gear cog had pushed beyond some spring-loaded balls that prevented it from being moved back. We got a file and removed the spring-loaded balls, which also abolished the synchromesh on second gear.

We worked through the night, in the driveway of Sam’s lodgings, and the next-door neighbour kept sticking his head out of his window and saying things like “There’s a time and a place.” We tried to hurry, and forgot to put the gearbox into two gears at once to tighten the nut that held the drive shaft on the back. We tightened it against the engine compression, which wasn’t very good.

We left at 5:00 on a Monday morning, having worked through the night, and so were in some danger of falling asleep at the wheel. The main road was not a multilane one as it is today, and we went bouncing round the winding bits between Nottingham Road and Howick. Mirbane had cart springs and the shock-absorbers also left something to be desired.

Mirbane at the entrance to Durban harbour, July 1962

We arrived in Durban about 5:00 pm, when the evening rush hour was in full swing, and we were halfway across one of the busiest intersections in town when the prop shaft fell off. So we held up the traffic still further while we removed the gear lever, put it into two gears to lock the shaft, and tightened it properly. We were getting quite expert at that by now, so it only took us about 40 minutes.

A couple of days later we were taking my cousins, Jenny and Glenda Growdon, for a drive, when Mirbane suddlenly began firing on only two cylinders. It appeared that the cylinder head gasket had blown. Jenny and I went into town by bus to McCarthy-Rodway, the Austin agents. We were gobsmacked when they produced a new gasket, which they had in stock.

We arranged for an engineering shop to skim the cylinder head, and when it was all working we set off on our delayed drive, up to Camperdown on the road to Pietermaritzburg, where there are some quite nice views down into the valleys below.

Mirbane at Camperdown, with Glenda Growdon, 13 July 1962

We took some photos of Mirbane there, and then went to Inchanga, where another cousin, Brenda Growdon, was on holiday with her mother. We went on to Gillitts, where my friend and guru, Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection, was spending his holiday with the retired Archbishop of Central Africa, the Most Revd Edward Paget.

It was Brother Roger who had introduced me to the works of Jack Kerouac a couple of years earlier, and here we were, a bunch of scrufty beatniks like the ones in Kerouac’s On the road, arriving at the archbishop’s rather posh retirement home in a rather posh suburb in a beat-up old car.

The archbishop passed the Christian hospitality test with flying colours, and invited us in for a pre-prandial drink. Afterwards Brother Roger told us that the archbishop had been quite impressed with us because we didn’t smoke and talked about art.

Mirbane outside Archbishop Paget’s house in Kloof: Sam Turner, Jenny Growdon, Brother Roger CR, Glenda Growdon.

Brother Roger knew quite a lot about art, and had been something of an artist himself before he had become a monk. A few weeks after we got back to Johannesburg he opened an exhibition of the work of a Johannesburg artist, Harold Rubin. The police later seized a couple of the pictures and charged Harold Rubin with blasphemy, and Brother Roger was hauled off a train to give evidence at the trial (for more on that, see here).

Having seen quite a lot of my cousins  who were children of my mother’s brothers, we went to to see yet another cousin, Patricia Maxwell, whose mother Doreen was my father’s sister. They lived not far from Gillitts, in Kloof, but were about to move into Durban itself.

Patricia Maxwell, Sam Turner, Glenda Growdon, Jenny Growdon

So Mirbane got me to see five cousins on our journey — the one I haven’t mentioned was Jenny & Glenda’s baby brother Mark Growdon, who didn’t accompany us on our running around, as he was only two years old.

At the end of our holiday Mirbane got us back to Johannesburg in about 10 hours, which was not bad for such an old car. After that Sam used her mainly for running around Johannesburg, and after a couple more years she finally died, and ended up in a scrapyard, and I later saw the body, lying on its side in the veld near Alexandra township. So we had resurrected it to have a few more years of life, and one memorable journey, so she is a vehicle I remember with affection.

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