28 January 2012

Seth's Blog: Solving problems (vs. identifying them)

Someone pointed me to this blog post: Seth's Blog: Solving problems (vs. identifying them):
Often, we're hesitant to identify a problem out of fear we can't solve it. Knowing that we have to live with something that we're unable to alter gives us a good reason to avoid verbalizing it--highlighting it just makes it worse.

While this sort of denial might be okay for individuals (emphasis on might), it's a lousy approach for organizations of any size. That's because there are almost certainly resources available that can solve a problem if you decide it's truly worth solving.

In my experience, people opt for avoiding both identifying problems and solving them. Instead of doing either of those things, they simply "address" the problem.

Talk nicely to the problem and it will go away.

If that doesn't work, then don't call it a problem, call it an "issue".

No problem.

25 January 2012

Book review: The selected works of T.S. Spivet

Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet, TheSelected Works Of T.S. Spivet, The by Reif Larsen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a 12-year-old boy who lives on a ranch in Montana in the USA, close to the continental divide. He is obsessed with making maps of everything, and wants to map the entire world, or at least the whole of Montana. He lives with his rancher father, his entomologist mother, and his older sister Gracie, and their dog Verywell. He misses his younger brother Layton, who died a few months earlier.

He receives a phone call from the Smithsonian Institution, to which a scientific friend of his mother has sent some of his maps and drawings, and they want to give him a prize. He at first turns it down, embarrassed because they think he is older, but later decides to accept, and sets out to hitchhike to Washington by train and by car. The book describes his journey, and his thoughts and experiences on the journey, and the maps he makes of them.

The book is unusual, and difficult to compare with others. In some ways it reminds me of Sammy going south by W.H. Canaway in that describes a long journey made by a child on his own, but the first-person narrative in this book also makes it quite different. It is both humourous and sad. Like another book I read recently, The shadow of the wind, it is set in the real world, but also has elements of fantasy, science fiction and mythology.

There is a Megatherium Society, which is based on something real, but in the book functions like a secret society in a conspiracy theory. The train passes through a wormhole, which reminds me of the the short story A subway named Möbius.

But really it is in a genre on its own, and comparisons cannot convey what it is like. I found it a very good read.

View all my reviews

24 January 2012

Seeking asylum: varying views from five continents

Asylum seekers seem to keep on making news. In some places, like Australia, asylum seekers are regarded as criminals, and the media sometimes refer to "suspected asylum seekers", as though seeking asylum was a crime one could be suspected of committing.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has been signed by most countries, says:
Article 14.

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

In Canada, it seems, this right has been respected even when it seems contrary to Section (2) above: Row as Canada gives asylum to white South African | World news | The Guardian
Asylum seeker Brandon Huntley claimed he had been persecuted, abused and repeatedly stabbed. But it was the reason he gave for his ordeal that caused a diplomatic rift today. Huntley is South African – and white.

Canada's decision to grant him refugee status because of his colour prompted accusations of racism from the South African government and a fresh bout of soul searching in a country still scarred by the legacy of apartheid. Some South African whites say they have become a persecuted minority.

But France refused asylum to Vladimir Popov, Yekaterina Popova and their two children, who claimed that they were persecuted in Kazakhstan because they were Orthodox Christians and ethic Russians. French authorities kept them in detention for two weeks and repeatedly tried to deport them to Kazakhstan. That seems to be in line with the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia and, in some cases, South Africa.

But in this case the European Court of Human Rights disagreed Interfax-Religion
The European Court of Human Rights found France guilty of violating Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), Article 5 (right to liberty and security) and Article 8 (right to respect to private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights, and ordered France to pay the family 13,000 euros.
So here are five different countries -- Australia, Canada, France, Kazakhstan, and South Africa -- on five different continents, with very different attitudes to asylum seekers and asylum seeking. For some seeking asylum is a human right, for others it is a crime.

16 January 2012

Bees, wasps and hornets

On the alt.usage.english newsgroup we've been having a discussion on bees, wasps and hornets, and it seems that the names of these insects vary a great deal from country to country.

In my youth I used to be terrified of insects like the one in the picture on the right, which used to come buzzing into our classroom during morning lessons and distract us from anything our teachers were saying.

When I was at Mountain Lodge School in Magaliesberg we used to call them "hornets", but I later heard they were called "mason wasps". This picture comes from an American web page here, where they are called "mud daubers".

I've looked for pictures of mason wasps on the web, and they don't look much like the insect in the picture. As far as I can judge the picture shows the insect pretty much life size, at least for the ones we have around here.

They seem to be solitary insects -- unlike common South African wasps, they don't live in colonies. They come into our house about November-February, and buzz around looking for places to build their nests. And if not chased out, one will come across the nest, weeks, months or sometimes years later -- in a fold in a curtain, or when pulling a book off a bookshelf. Their nests, as the American name implies, are made of mud.

What I would like to know is what they are called in South Africa. If they are not hornets, and not mason wasps, then what are they?

I've never been stung by one, and am not as scared of them was I was when I was 9-10 years old, though I still discourage them from nesting in the house because I don't like finding books whose pages are glued together with a mud construction.

08 January 2012

The ANC centenary

The African National Congress, which has ruled South Africa for nearly 18 years, is having a big bash in the Free State to celebrate its centenary.

ANC parties in Bloemfontein | News24:
An ANC centenary torch was lit at midnight in Bloemfontein on Saturday, while party leaders, members, heads of state and guests celebrated until early hours on Sunday.

ANC president Jacob Zuma and Archbishop Desmond Tutu lit the torch at the Wesleyan Church in the company of various party elders including former President Thabo Mbeki and guests. The ANC was founded at the church.

Fourteen heads of state, five former heads of state and four heads of governments in Africa and elsewhere were welcomed at the presidential gala dinner at the Vista campus during the night.

Coming home from Vespers last night we heard Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba speaking on the radio. "We didn't know we were making history, but we were making history," he said.

And history was what it was all about.

At that meeting 100 years ago, history was made -- but who realised it at the time?

Therr or four years before an all-white National Convention was held, which hammered out a racist constitution for South Africa. Those blacks in the Cape Colony who had qualified to vote before Union continued to be able to vote, but the new constitution gave all white males the right to vote. And in 1936 the right of blacks to votes was severely reduced, and in 1960 it was abolished altogether.

When the ANC started, as the then South African Native National Congress, its aim was to reverse that process, and to strive for a society with more equal rights. It was a long, hard and uphill struggle. And it was a struggle in which history was made. And it is good to celebrate it.

For 80 years, from Union in 1910 until 1990, freedoms in South Africa were gradually whittled away, and they weren't all that great to start with. Though for a long time the ANC only had black membership, it fought for freedom for all of us. And that is something worth remembering, and worth throwing a party for.

But I also feel ambivalent about it.

President Pohamba said "We didn't know that we were making history, but we were making history."

And the history is there, though there were bad moments as well as good in it.

But there is also a sense in which history is all it is.

The ANC today is not the ANC of Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, and Nelson Mandela, two of whom won international recognition as Nobel Peace Prize winners. And many people who are involved in the celebrations recognise this, realising that the motives of amy who are joining and seeking office in the ANC today are very different from those who led the organisation before 1994. Back then the dangers were many, and the rewards few.

Well, it is still true today that the dangers are many, but the dangers are different from what they were in the glory days of the treason trial. Today the dangers are of being caught with one's fingers in the till, and for those who are not, the rewards are great too.

So perhaps one can hope that in recalling the history, the current crop of leaders, especially those at provincial and municipal level, will be inspired with something of the vision of the leaders of yesteryear. But I'm not counting on it.

As Lord Acton said, "All power tends to corrupt..."

02 January 2012

Night of the zombie fashion models

When I saw this picture on James Higham's blog nourishing obscurity | Modern ugliness is no accident I thought it was advertising a sequel to John Wyndham's novel The Midwich cuckoos. Or perhaps a new film of a Stephen King novel about a malevolent doll animated by an evil spirit.

Instead it turned out to be more like the Night of the Zombie Fashion Models: Last day of Paris shows is good, bad and ugly - World news:
The ninth and final day of Paris' grueling ready-to-wear marathon was reminiscent of Sergio Leone's classic 1966 spaghetti western, with good, bad and downright ugly displays.
I thought that the job of fashion models was to show off the clothes and persuade people to buy them, but here one barely notices the clothes at all, and all you see is that procession of shopwindow mannequins with reanimated corpse expressions on their faces.


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