27 April 2012

The death of conversation?

In the last four days I've spent quite a lot of time writing a couple of blog posts on topics that I thought were important, here and here.

As I usually do, I announced them on Twitter and Facebook.

Nobody bothered to retweet them, nobody on Facebook bothered to even "like" them, much less click on the link and read them.In fact I doubt if Facebook even bothered to show them to my friends. Facebook, after all, is concerned to show us only the really important stuff, like "X sent you are request in Hidden Chronicles" and "Y sent you a request in Slotomania".

Paper.li, which collects and organises Twitter tweets with links and shows them in a readable form, didn't show the first one of them either (I'm going to retweet it every day until it does).

So when I saw this link, shown in Paper.li and Twitter, I retweeted it. Now everyone is connected, is this the death of conversation? | Simon Jenkins | Comment is free | The Guardian:
As our meeting places fall silent, save for tapping on screens, it seems we have mistaken ubiquitous connection for the real thing.
And I think it's worse than that. Simon Jenkins is talking about viva voce conversations, actual face-to-face, voice to ear ones.But it's reached the online conversations as well.

Twenty years ago we used BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems). They used amateur networks run by volunteers, computers with monochrome screens and no graphics, dial-up lines where 1200 bits per second was considered normal, 2400 fast, 9600 leading edge and 14400 out of this world. But we had real conversations, and talked about real things. And we managed to talk to people on the other side of the world, whom we could never hope to meet face-to-face, (though we did sometimes contrive to meet some of them -- I had lunch with three online friends in a Chinese restaurant somewhere in New Jersey in 1995, and met a couple of others in Moscow a week earlier. I still see them on Facebook, but we have much less to say for each other, because Facebook doesn't encourage real conversations like the BBS networks used to.

The BBS software, again, mostly written by amateurs, got the transmission of real conversations down to a fine art, and was way better for the purpose than anything you see on the Internet. It was "obsoleted" by Windows 95, which made it more difficult to connect to a modem by hiding its communication program several layers deep, and not installing it as a default. But it was not really obsolete, it was just far in advance of anything you see today, and sidelined because it was run for pleasure and not for profit.

And the point of this rant is, that as someone once said, we live in a world of communication without community. Well, he said it about 20 years ago, and now it is worse, because we live in a world of connectivity without communication. We have all these marvellous tools for communication, and we no longer have anything to say to each other.

I sometimes look at my blog stats to see what brings people to look at my blogs, and there is a clear pattern, trivial nonsense is much more attractive and popular than anything that tries to say anything. I once had a firewall called ZoneAlarm, and it kept telling me that "Google Installer is trying to access the Internet" I had no idea what Google installer was, or why it was trying to access the Internet, but I felt that if it was trying to access the Internet from my computer it should at least have the courtesy to tell me that it was doing so, and tell me why. So I wrote a blog post about this, asking if anyone knew (nobody did). Now everyone wants to read that post, which I wrote in a couple of minutes, but nobody wants to read anything I took real trouble over. .

I read a Tweet from a friend that says, "

Loading Tweets seems to be taking a while.

Twitter may be over capacity or experiencing a momentary hiccup."

Oh well, if Twitter gets over its hiccups before I finish writing this post, then I'll tell you what he said. But my reply was 'What the heck are "community stations" and "independent ports"? Is MetroRail going at last?'

His Tweet mentioned "community stations" and "independent ports" but I didn't have a clue what they were. We used to have the SAR&H (South African Railways and Harbours) about 25 years ago, but it was privatised, and  split up into Transnet, with subsidiaries Spoornet and MetroRail and PortNet and a few others..

MetroRail was the suburban train services, so "community stations" sounded as though they were turning all the stations into independent stations run by the local community -- a nice socialist idea. And "independent ports" sounded like they were dropping the "net" from PortNet, and making each port independent. But in a tweet without a link, it really isn't possible to tell. (In joke: at about the time this privatisation was happening someone suggested that they were going to privatise the Dutch Reformed Church and call it GloNet -- which is Afrikaans for "only believe").

So tweet something trivial, and everyone will retweet it. Post a link to something important, and no one will. Post a platitude on Facebook and everyone will "like" and "share" it. Post something that is important to you, and no one will, because Facebook won't even show it to them.

And no, my only request in Slotmania and Hidden Chronicles as that people please stop sending me requests. 

26 April 2012

Computer translation

Google has for some time offered an online translation service, and Microsoft's Bing offered a competing one, which is used on Facebook (guess why). 

The following comment on a Facebook story obviously flummoxed Bing completely, though the Google one wasn't much better. I don't think human translators need to fear for their jobs just yet.

Κοριτσια, ειπαμε να αγαπαμε τα ζωα αλλα μην το παρακανουμε κι ολας. Τα αδεσποτα δεν ειναι και ιερες αγελαδες. Στη Σοφια έφαγαν ζωντανο στο προσωπο και τα ακρα εναν ηλικιωμενο ο οποιος απεβιωσε.
Koritsia, eipame to the other animals agapame don't parakanoyme and olas. The invalid and adespota ieres agelades. In Sofia the person ate zwntano and extreme ilikiwmeno apebiwse employ the smokers. (Translated by Bing
Girls, we decided to love animals but do not overdo and olas. Straying is not sacred cows. In Sofia ate live in person and ends an elderly who died. (translated by Facebook)

Εχω υποστει και εγω επιθεση από τσοπανοσκυλα στον Ωρωπο και Φινλανδος φιλος μας στην Ακαδημια Πλατωνος πηγαινοντας για τα ΚΤΕΛ και κατεληξε στο νοσοκομειο

I have ypostei and tsopanoskyla in vids by affixing Wrwpo and our Finlandos filos Akadimia pigainontas for Platwnos and katelixe in KTEL nosokomeio (Translated by Bing
I have suffered from aggression, and I Sheepdogs Oropos Finns and friends in Plato's Academy Going on the bus and ended up in hospital (translated by Facebook)

The story being commented on was this one:
Sprawling in the sun or barking and chasing cars, stray dogs have become part of urban life in Bulgaria but after a pack mauled a US university professor to death, the mood of tolerance is over.
Stray animals
Perhaps I should mention that in Athens stray animals, especially dogs, used to be rounded up by the city authorities and killed. Animal lovers protested, and so the policy changed. The stray animals were caught, sterilised and innoculated against various diseases, and then released again.


25 April 2012

What is Klout, and how well does it work?

A few days ago I wrote on my other blog about some online software tools, among which was Klout, which I've been trying out Some online software tools | Khanya.

Klout is a website that purports to tell you how much influence you have in social networks, and who you are most in contact with. First impressions were difficult to gauge, because I discovered that Klout takes a bit of time to get up to speed. It starts off by adding your Twitter followers (or is it followees) as "friends" or "influencers", and then after a day or two goes on to Facebook, Google+ and other networks. So you probably need to use it for a week or so to see how it actually works.

Even after a week, however, it becomes apparent that it is heavily weighted towards Twitter. If you want to list your "friends" it loads the people you follow on Twitter, rather than your Facebook friends, for example, and it appears to display them in random order. Taking one of my blogging friends, Miss Eagle, and doing a comparison, I can learn what Klout thinks are our spheres of influence:
Sorry if that's a bit hard to read: you can blame the new and downgraded Blogger interface, which does not appear to let you adjust the size of such pictures before posting them. What it says is that I do 93% of my stuff on Facebook, while Miss Eagle does 100% of her stuff on Twitter. And it also says "You use Facebook as the primary way to spread your influence. Twitter is Miss Eagle's primary network of influence."

How accurate it is, I have no idea.

One of the things I remarked on in my original post was the topics in which Klout appeared to think I was influential: Some online software tools | Khanya:
Among the rather strange things Klout tells me is that I am influential in Singapore (first and last time I was there was back in 1985) and that I’m more influential in “Celebrities” than in “Christianity” — if you look at the tag cloud in the right side bar you’ll see that “Christianity” is quite big, and “celebrities”, if it appears at all, is very small.
I've since discovered that this can be altered in various ways. You can remove topics that don't really interest you. You are also given points, and you can use these to add new topics to either your own page, or to those of your friends and influencers. For example, I used five points to add "Socialism" to the topics on which another blogging friend, Chris Hall, had influenced me. Klout had apparently not detected it, and once I added it, it moved to the top of his influential topics.

But the "topics" of influence also seem arbitrary, and quite bizarre, and this, I think, is one of the biggest weaknesses of Klout. I wanted to add "Missiology", which is my academic speciality, as well as that of a lot of other people in my network, but Klout would not let me. It was not in the "topic dictionary" The nearest I could find was "Theology", which is fine as a generic topic, but I also saw "The California Pacific School of Theology (Japan)", and a couple of other similar entries. That is a really silly topic -- if you are going to add one theology school, you should add them all, but surely a "topic" is for a discipline, not a single institution. If a single school can have a topic all to itself, then surely every single theology school in the whole world should have its own topic? But it makes more sense to have a discipline as a topic, and not to include only a couple of the institutions where that discipline is taught. Yet a whole discipline, Missiology (aka Mission Studies), which is found in hundreds of schools around the world, has no topic at all.

I wrote to Klout about this, and their reply awas not reassuring. I also looked to add "Church History" as a topic. Nothing doing. They offered "Church", "Baptist Church" and "Winston Churchill".

"Baptist Church"? What about other denominations? Try "Anglican Church"? No, nothing doing. You can have "The Riverina Anglican College (University)" as a topic, but not the "Anglican Church" or "Anglican Communion".

And it gets worse. Not only can't you have Church History, you can't have History. You can have Black History Month, but you can't have History.

Now Missiology may be a fairly obscure academic discipline, but History is big. But sorry, historians have no Klout, not even if they are black historians. They only haveKlout if they are Black History Monthians.

I would thus say that Klout's topic dictionary is well and truly screwed up. It is badly thought-out, badly designed and badly implemented. It has lots of very narrow sub-sub-topics, but in many cases the main topics that they should be under are missing.

In the light of that, news stories like this are very scary indeed: What Your Klout Score Really Means | Epicenter | Wired.com:
Last spring Sam Fiorella was recruited for a VP position at a large Toronto marketing agency. With 15 years of experience consulting for major brands like AOL, Ford, and Kraft, Fiorella felt confident in his qualifications. But midway through the interview, he was caught off guard when his interviewer asked him for his Klout score. Fiorella hesitated awkwardly before confessing that he had no idea what a Klout score was.
The interviewer pulled up the web page for Klout.com—a service that purports to measure users’ online influence on a scale from 1 to 100—and angled the monitor so that Fiorella could see the humbling result for himself: His score was 34. “He cut the interview short pretty soon after that,” Fiorella says. Later he learned that he’d been eliminated as a candidate specifically because his Klout score was too low. “They hired a guy whose score was 67.”
Consider the case that I mentioned above -- Chris Hall. Klout had not picked up "Socialism" as one of his topics of interest, yet when I added it, it turned out that he was more influential in that than in any of the topics that Klout did pick up. And perhaps Klout had done something similar with Sam Fiorella in the story above, but because he did not know about Klout, there was nothing he could do about it.

If these things are flawed, there's no way of telling how Klout calculates influence even on the flawed and inadequate data it uses -- what if its algorithms are as flawed as its data?

Klout is an interesting concept, and it is quite fun to compare yourself with your friends and to see which topics you are interested or influential in. But I'm not sure how seriously it can be taken when its data are so obviously flawed.

You can do something to improve it, though. You can check your friends, and see if their topics reflect those that you discuss with them most frequently. You can help to make their scores more accurate -- provided, of course, that their areas of expertise have made it into Klout's topic database in the first place.

Oh yes, and if you're feeling kindly disposed towards me, please retweet a few of my tweets. It's not that I'm looking for a job in marketing or anything, but you never know when you're going to need it.

24 April 2012

E-mail is becoming erratic and dysfunctional

It looks as though spammers are beginning to succeed in making e-mail useless.

Several people have told me recently that e-mail that I send to their Gmail addresses ends up in their spam box. That is something new. One of the things that I thought was good about Gmail in the past was that one never had to check the spam box, because there were so few false positives. But now it seems that one will have to look in the spam box for mail. And also, when sending mail to anyone with a Gmail address, also send a text message to say "Did you get my e-mail? If you didn't, please check your spam box."

But when I tested it by sending a message to my own Gmail address, it came through OK without going to spam. 

I am quite unable to send e-mail to people who have iburst addresses though. It doesn't even reach their spam box, it just bounces right back to me. The only way to communicate with them is through a direct message on Facebook, or SMS.

Oh well, I think I'm going to have to start buying stamps again.

21 April 2012

Google revamps Blogger -- is it worth it?

The last time Google revamped Blogger, it was dysfunctional for 6 months or more, and thousands of Blogger users packed it in and moved to Wordpress.I myself started a WordPress blog, and got ready to move completely if Blogger got any worse, but I kept this one open, and eventually Blogger was more or less fixed, and most of the stuff that was broken started working again. But my WordPress blog quickly passed this one in the number of readers, and still gets about twice as many readers a day as this one. 

Now they're at it again. According to their hype, "Introducing the completely new, streamlined blogging experience that makes it easier for you to find what you need and focus on writing great blog posts."

Does it live up to the hype?

Not really.

It actually makes it harder to find what you need. Perhaps some of that is unfamiliarity, and we'll get used to it, but the main change is that they've put everything into a smaller type in order to make it harder to read, and they've hidden a lot of functions behind cryptic symbols so you have to hover your cursor all over the screen to find what you're looking for. There used to be a clear and unambiguous label "Edit Posts" and you would get a list of recent posts and drafts that you could edit. Now they've hidden it away behind a cryptic symbol, but I can't remember what it is. In the past (and still on blog posts) they've used a pencil icon for "Edit Post", but now they sometimes use it for creating a new post, so it gets very confusing.

On improvement has been the linking. You can now, when you add a link, choose if you want it to open in a new tab or page by ticking a box, instead of editing it afterwards and typing in 'target="_blank"'. That's a definite improvement.

Another improvement has been in simplifyingt their HTML code. Now if you click on the i for italics it uses the code '...', which is better than the nonsense that the older editor produced, but is still not as good as WordPress's use of the standard HTML '...'.

It seems to put pictures where you want them in posts, rather than putting them at the top and leaving it up to you to move them down if you didn't want it at the top. But its picture placement is still not as easy to use as the one in WordPress. Where it scores over WordPress is in the same ways as it did before -- the use of Javascript widgets, for example.

And then there's some weird stuff:.

On the new Blogger dashboard they say:
Connect Blogger to Google+ and get a suite of new features that will help you build and engage your audience. Learn more.
Well, I clicked on the "learn more", and learnt nothing, zilch, nada.

All it does is that it gives you some hype about Google+. It tells you nothing about what happens when you connect your blog to Google+, which is what I wanted to "learn more" about. It also doesn't tell you if you can disconnect it if you don't like what happens.

And this seems to lead into and link up to this: Can We Still Trust Google? – Danny Brown

US politics in a nutshell

Someone posted this on Facebook, and for those living outside the USA it says it all. It tells you all you need to know about both main parties in the current US election, and the other parties don't stand a snowball's chance in hell of being elected anyway.

Yes, I know it's simplistic, and it over-simplifies complex issues, but unless you're a professional political fundi, it tells you all you need to know.

Hat-tip to Daniel Lieuwen, who shared it on Facebook.

The seeds of time: book review

The Seeds of TimeThe Seeds of Time by John Wyndham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my youth I liked John Wyndham's science fiction stories, and when I picked this one off a dusty shelf to catalogue it on GoodReads, I decided to re-read it before putting it back. The seeds of time is a collection of short stories, and I had forgotten some of them, and had only vague memories of the rest, so it was almost like reading them for the first time. And I enjoyed them just as much as when I first read them some 40-50 years ago.

And that made me wonder.

When I was in my teens and twenties I read quite a lot of science fiction, both short stories and full-length novels. Now I hardly read any. On the rare occasions that I browse the science-fiction shelves of book shops I usually don't come away with anything. On the even rarer occasions when I have bought recently-published science-fiction, I've usually been bored, and abandoned the book.

Have I changed, or has the genre changed?

At first I thought that I had lost my youthful taste for science-fiction, and that it was probably something one grew out of, but re-reading these stories by John Wyndham showed me that that isn't the case. So the genre must have changed, or everything that can be said has already been said and the new stuff is just boring repetition. Or else, most likely, popular culture has moved on and left me behind. What a drag it is getting old, as the Rolling Stones (anyone remember them?) used to sing.

View all my reviews

20 April 2012

London's dystopian Olympics: criminal sanctions for violating the exclusivity of sponsors' brands - Boing Boing

In 2010, when Southj Africa was hosting the soccer world cup, some Brit newspapers played up reports of crime in South Africa, and always put in the first paragraph that it was the host country for the World Cup. Perhaps it's time to retaliate.

London's dystopian Olympics: criminal sanctions for violating the exclusivity of sponsors' brands - Boing Boing:
As London ramps up for the 2012 Olympics, a dystopian regime of policing and censorship on behalf of the games' sponsors is coming online. A special squad of "brand police" will have the power to force pubs to take down signs advertising "watch the games on our TV," to sticker over the brand-names of products at games venues where those products were made by companies other than the games' sponsors, to send takedown notices to YouTube and Facebook if attendees at the games have the audacity to post their personal images for their friends to see, and more. What's more, these rules are not merely civil laws, but criminal ones, so violating the sanctity of an Olympic sponsor could end up with prison time for Londoners.

18 April 2012

Sammy going south: book review

Sammy Going SouthSammy Going South by W.H. Canaway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sammy Hartland is a 10-year-old English boy whose parents are killed in the bombing of Port Said in 1956. He knows he has an aunt in Durban, which he knows is somewhere south of Port Said, so he sets out to cross the continent to reach her. He crosses deserts and mountains and savannah, and meets many people, some of whom help him, while others simply try to exploit him for their own purposes.

At one level this is an adventure-travel story, of a boy with no money, trying to make a long journey alone, dependent on the help he receives from strangers on the way. At another level it is a story of growing up, as the boy learns to become a judge of character, who he can trust and who he cannot trust.

The book made quite an impression on me when I first read it, back in 1963 when it was first published, perhaps because of the time at which it was published.

I recently wrote in my other blog Twenty years ago: death of David Bosch and the coming of the Copts | Khanya about the time when the iron curtain between South Africa and the rest of the African continent was beginning to lift. Sammy going south was published thirty years before that, when the iron cutain was beginning to come down.

Nineteen sixty-three was the year Kenya became independent, and there was an influx of whenwes into South Africa, whose views on "black majority rule" were endlessly broadcast on radio programmes to make sure that South African audiences knew that it was a Very Bad Thing. It was the constantly-repeated "When we were in Keen-yah..." that gave whenwes their name.

At the time I wondered why the whenwes came to South Africa. If they didn't like black people, why didn't they emigrate to a country that had fewer black people to disturb their tranquility?

Jeremy Taylor, with his Ballad of the Northern Suburbs, which dated from the same period, gave the answer:

Now there's always a train of servants
Following in my aftermath
They clean the carpets, scrub the floors
And polish up the hearth
There's three to dust the surface
of my Penguin swimming bath
Yes, I'm from the northern side of town.

The whenwes hated black people being equal to white people, but they couldn't live without them -- who would polish their shoes?

And Sammy going south gave a last glimpse of the land the curtain was coming down to cover. We wouldn't see it again for a generation.

I saw the film before I read the book. I'd seen the hardcover edition in shop windows, but hadn't been tempted to buy it. I think the paperback came out to cash in on the popularity of the film. The film had Fergus McLelland in the title role (I wonder what happened to him, he doesn't seem to have made a career in films?)

The film showed some of the scenery only described in the book (to which it kept fairly faithfully, with a few divergences). The South African Sunday Express, however, accused the film of pandering to currently fashionable views (what is now called political correctness), of showing white people as duplicitous villains and black people as kind to wandering orphans like Sammy. Actually the film didn't; it showed good and bad black people and white people. But many white South Africans, including white South African journalists, were beginning to see things that weren't there.

Anyway, I enjoyed the film, so when I found a copy of the paperback edition of the book in the bookrack in a corner cafe, I borrowed five bob from a friend and bought it. Quite an investment, it seems, as secondhand copies seem to be going for fifteen quid, which is about R170. An omelet and chips, which cost 50c (the price of the book) back in the early 1960s now costs about R40.00. So the book has appreciated in value more.

And re-reading it again 40 years later, I still enjoyed it.

View all my reviews

16 April 2012

Look who's defending Western Christian Civilisation now!

Back in the 1950s and 1960s the National Party government in South Africa kept passing more and more repressive laws, which it claimed were necessary to defend Western (or "White" -- the terms were interchangeable in Nat vocabulary) civilisation.

What were they defending it against?

The Communist menace, that's what.

One of the first repressive laws they passed was the Suppression of Communism Act (Act 44 of 1950).

The National Party in South Africa and the Communist Party in Russia fell from power a couple of decades ago. The National Party has since disappeared from the scene, its remnants being absorbed into the DA and the ANC, which are now the two biggest parties in the South African parliament.

The Russian Communist Party, however, still exists, and look what they're up to now:
В Госдуме создают депутатскую группу по защите христианских ценностей - говорят, что для пропаганды : Новости : Накануне.RU, which, being interpreted means

And here it is, from the horse's mouth:
We intend to develop international cooperation for the common defense of Christian values, because we believe that the future of Europe, as well as the future of a revived Russian Federation does not conclude in a plantation of permissiveness, of total consumption, dehumanization, flouting the basic norms of human common life, and a return to traditional, orthodox Christian values.

That's from Sergei Gavrilov, a Communist Party representative in the Russian Duma.

Sergei Chapnin, an Orthodox journalist in Russia, comments on Facebook:
What a disgrace for Russia! What a mockery of history! The Communists are going to defend Christian values​​, "the Communist Party Guide never took anti-Christian positions. You can not put the Communists in the current blame the sins of 20s, the acts of" militant atheists "Yaroslavl-Gubelman or the latest large-scale" Khrushchev's "persecution of the church in the early 60's" (S. Gavrilov, the Communist Party).

One doesn't know whether to laugh of cry.

Some more books to cross off my list

Today Good Reads sent me a list of recommended books, based on the books on my "Abandoned" shelf. Those are the books I found so boring that I never managed to finish them, so I take it that they are saying that I will find these books boring too, and if I see them in a book shop I must not be tempted to buy them.

I don't think that's what their recommendations are intended for, but it is nevertheless probably quite useful, and could save a bit of money.

According to this list, the books to avoid are:

So if you share my taste in books, you'll probably not enjoy those books. On the other hand, if you hate my blog posts, you might love those books.

PS On second thoughts, scratch that

There was a little note at the bottom of each of the other books saying that it was because I had added Engelby, by Sebastian Faulks, to my "abandoned" shelf.

And the reason I abandoned Engelby was that the copy I had was incomplete, and had been badly bound, with lots of pages missing. I was quite enjoying it up to that point.

EnglebyEngleby by Sebastian Faulks

I was a bit reluctant to start reading this book, because the last book I read by Sebastian Faulks, Human Traces I hadn't enjoyed very much. So my wife bought it three years ago, and it has sat on the shelf since then, but then looking for something I hadn't read for bed-time reading I picked it up and started it, and it seemed quite different from Human Traces and I was rather enjoying it and finding it interesting, and beginning to think it was the best thing I had read by Sebastian Faulks.

So I had reached page 280 and hoped to finish it tonight. But unfortunately page 280 was followed by page 25, and it seems that the book has been misbound. After three years it is probably far too late to take it back to the bookshop and ask for another copy that has been properly bound -- they probably won't even have one in stock anyway.

View all my reviews

12 April 2012

Believing the lie: Book Review

Believing the Lie. by Elizabeth GeorgeBelieving the Lie. by Elizabeth George by Elizabeth George

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like most of Elizabeth George's crime novels, this one has the usual cast of Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, his partner Barbara Havers, and his friends Simon and Deborah St James. Lynley is asked to travel to Cumbria for a semi-official investigation of the death of Ian Cresswell, which had been ruled accidental by an inquest. Cresswell was accountant in the firm of his uncle, Bernard Fairclough, who had asked for the investigation.

It transpires that lots of people, including some members of the family, could have quite strong motives for wanting Cresswell dead, but misunderstandings and deliberate deception make the investigation difficult.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints of the various characters involved, so the reader is one step ahead of most of the characters in knowing what is going on, but generally only discovers things with one or other of the characters. So this is a good mystery tale, well told.

View all my reviews

10 April 2012

The marvels of privatisation

The really good thing about privatisation is that it provides more opportunities for income-generation, as this example shows - U.S. judges admit to jailing children for money | Reuters: (Reuters) -
Two judges pleaded guilty on Thursday to accepting more than $2.6 million from a private youth detention center in Pennsylvania in return for giving hundreds of youths and teenagers long sentences.

Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan of the Court of Common Pleas in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, entered plea agreements in federal court in Scranton admitting that they took payoffs from PA Childcare and a sister company, Western PA Childcare, between 2003 and 2006.

07 April 2012

The day the Queen flew to Scotland for the grouse shooting

The Day The Queen Flew To Scotland For The Grouse Shooting: A DocumentThe Day The Queen Flew To Scotland For The Grouse Shooting: A Document by Arthur Wise

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are some books that one reads and re-reads, others that one reads once and discards, and yet others that one re-reads once and reads again after many years. This book is one of the last category.

Sometimes books re-read after a long period are slightly disappointing, not quite as good as one remembered them. Others are better than one remembered them. For me, Jane Austen's novels fall into the "better on re-reading" category; I think that the first time I read her books I was too young to appreciate them.

And then there are those books, like this one, that are much the same.

I can't remember exactly when I first read The day the Queen flew to Scotland for the grouse shooting, but it must have been soon after it was published, when I had just returned to South Africa after spending a couple of years studying in England.

Because of the differences between the South African academic year and the English one, I had a few months to fill in before going to the University of Durham, and I spent them driving buses in London, and so learnt something about the South of England.

And though Durham University drew students from all over, there were several from the North, from whom I learnt that wogs came from South of the Trent.

So Wise's book about a football riot between northern and southern teams escalating into a civil war seemed like a credible scenario. It was about an England that I knew 45 years ago. And one thing that struck me on re-reading it is that little has changed. The book was first published in 1968, and is set a few years into the future, but in the book there is little that might not be equally applicable to the England of 2015, even though much has happened in between.

It could easily have happened in the "winter of discontent" in the mid-1970s, or during the Thatcher years of the 1980s that saw the deindustrialisation of the North.

It could have happened, but it didn't, so perhaps one can relegate it to the "unfulfilled prophecy" department.

But what prompted me to read the book was something someone wrote in a book discussion newsgroup:
What were the boys celebrating? And why should anyone outside Mali care? That is something I tried to figure out when I read that a group called Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad (MNLA; Azawad National Liberation Movement) had today, April 6, 2012, declared Azawad (comprising what used to be north-east Mali) to be an independent, sovereign state (so far unrecognized by any other country). It's not every day that a new sovereign state is declared, after all, even one with a population as small as 1.3 million and one as far away from Europe and the West as Timbuktu (now located in Azawad).

Well, why should anyone outside Mali care? We should care because before we know, it could be happening to us. In the 1950s the Central African Federation was formed; in the 1960s it broke up. In 1960 Nigeria became independent, in 1967 it was wracked by civil war, as Biafra sought to become independent, and this at a time when the dream of some was a United States of Africa.

The European Union has drawn states together, but even today in the UK there are people who wish to see the end of the UK, to undo the ties that bound England and Scotland together for 300 years. Politicians speak of national unity, but local loyalty dies hard. The tensions that Wise writes about are still there, and occasionally make themselves felt.

And so in a sense it has happened. Not in England, perhaps, but in several other countries. One of them is Yugoslavia, which in some ways, in the 1980s, was like England upside down -- with rich Slovenia in the north, and poor Kosovo in the south, and both straining to break away, and all the bitterness and hatred that Wise describes raged through the Balkans in the 1990s, though in real life the Americans were not as benevolent as he portrayed them in his book. But Wise died in 1982, and didn't live to see that fulfilment.

Wise describes the destruction of Nottingham, and I remember when I first read it I thought he was getting carried away with hyperbole. I thought such cruelty and savagery could not happen in real life. But since then we have seen the destruction of Homs and Fallujah. Such things are not only possible, they have actually happened.

So though Wise's extrapolation of trends of his day into the near future didn't take place in precisely the way he predicted, they have happened, and will go on happening, and so his book remains fresh and readable.

View all my reviews

04 April 2012

Tolls: Cosatu cashes in | City Press

I think that City Press are being more than a little disingenuous in this article, which appeared in last Sunday's edition, when they imply that Cosatu is being hypocritical by objecting to toll roads while benefiting by investments in a firm engaged in road construction.

Tolls: Cosatu cashes in | City Press
Trade union federation Cosatu, an outspoken critic of toll roads, secretly benefits from a construction company involved in building new highways.

City Press can reveal that Cosatu’s investment arm, Kopano Ke Matla, has shares in Raubex, a construction company that won a tender to build one of Gauteng’s highways that are now being tolled to pay for the construction.

As far as I am aware, Cosatu has no objections, in principle, to road improvement. The point at issue is not improving the roads, but the method of paying for them.

Road construction has to be paid for, no matter who builds the roads.

For Cosatu the issue is not who builds the roads, but who owns the roads, and how they are paid for.

And the ones who are being hypocritical and confusing the issue are those in facour of tolling who keep uttering their mantra "user pays".

Cosatu and others who object to toll roads say that roads should be paid for by a fuel tax, which is fairest, easiest to administer, and is the best possible application of the "user pays" principle. Its main disadvantage is that it doesn't give enough opportunities for the elites to make money from kickbacks from the manufacturers of the toll-recording equipment.

The Times Literary Supplement's 100 Most Influential Books Since the War

Someone posted a link on Facebook to a list of the most influential books since the Second World War.

The Times Literary Supplement's 100 Most Influential Books Since the War

I found it interesting to see how few I had read, yet I have probably seen the thought of many of them retailed by other writers. It doesn't say whether the influence was good or bad -- that's probably a "readerly" decision, as the postmodernists might say.

The ones I have read are:
  • Albert Camus: The Outsider
  • Arthur Koestler: Darkness at Noon
  • George Orwell: Animal Farm
  • George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-four
  • Norman Cohn: The Pursuit of the Millennium
  • Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago

That's not much out of a list of 100, only 6%, but I suppose "influential" means that the thought of those books has also permeated other books. I have, for example, read many books that cite Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, though I haven't read Kuhn's book myself.

I also don't know how the list was compiled, or who compiled it, though perhaps it says that elsewhere on the site.

03 April 2012

War and peace

h, and if you like the message, you can click in those little squares below to propagate it on Twitter I think this cartoon applies to a lot more places than Israel and Iran.

An American president (I think one of the Roosevelts) once said that the secrecy of diplomacy was to "talk softly and carry a big stick." Now the politicians seem to shout loudly while brandishing their sticks.

Oh, and if you like the message you can click on those little squares below to propagate it on Twitter or "like" it of Facebook. Or you could put it on your blog too. Pass it on.


Related Posts with Thumbnails