30 August 2012

A puzzle for international financiers

The mind boggles...

Let's face it, the Brits and Australians can't even pronounce "boerewors", so what makes British boerewors uniquely Australian?

Or is that something that only international financiers can tell you?

It reminds me of something that happened 40 years ago, back in the old South Africa.

A friend of mine was called up by the army for a military camp "somewhere on the border", to guard against all the "terrorists" who were trying to infiltrate from Zambia and points north.

And one night they were given for supper a tin of

Bull Brand Braised Steak
Specially produced by
Damara Meat Packers Ltd, Windhoek SWA
for the
Cold Storage Board of Zambia
PO Box 1915, Lusaka, Zambia

Now that was at a time that the border was being guarded against people sneaking in from Zambia, and at a time that Zambia was boycotting South African goods (and by extension goods from South West Africa), and had been doing so for years.

But I don't think it beats the uniquely Australian British boerewors.

Or is it kangaroo boerewors, with kangaroo meat being exported to Britain for turning into sausages?

I suppose that would make it uniquely Australian.

29 August 2012

The facility: book review

The FacilityThe Facility by Simon Lelic

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Kafka meets Orwell in contemporary England" says the blurb on the cover.

Well, not quite, but one can see how they arrive at the comparison. Simon Lelic simply extrapolates some trends in British society and politics into the near future, and the picture he gives is generally quite believable. All it needs is the detention-without-trial legislation that some British politicians desperately wanted, but didn't get.

Franz Kafka and George Orwell wrote about dystopian futures in which there are extreme changes in every aspect of society. Simon Lelic writes about a society that is deceptively normal.

In that respect this book more closely resembles A Dry White Season by Andre Brink. For the first 50 pages of The Facility I thought it was about a Britain that resembled South Africa c1968, after the passing of the Terrorism Act. It was a Britain transformed into Vorster's South Africa.

After the first 50 pages the plot is slightly different, and there are a few plot holes that make it fall short of Kafka, or Orwell, or Brink, but it is still a pretty good read. And scary, too. This is something that could happen, and something that some British politicians are on record as wanting to happen.

See, for example, here Notes from underground: The swing to fascism in the USA and the UK, when the British media lauded Tony Blair's attempts to turn Britain into Vorster's South Africa as "the moral high ground". And The Facility shows how very easily that could happen.

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24 August 2012

Is Putin's "secret weapon" going to blow up in his face?

More contrasting views from Russia and the West. According to Time the Orthodox faithful constitute Putin's new "secret weapon". Russia: Pussy Riot and Putin’s Religious Backing | World | TIME.com:
The prison sentence handed down last week against three members of Pussy Riot, a group of activists opposed to President Vladimir Putin, will restrict a lot more than the personal freedoms of the young women convicted. Judge Marina Syrova sentenced them to two years in prison for offending the faithful of the Orthodox Church by performing a crude anti-Putin song near the altar of a Moscow cathedral in February. While many were offended by the gesture, the judge’s verdict has put the state’s seal of approval on the righteous anger of one community, and that anger is proving hard to control.

But according to a Russian source something different is going down Russian Orthodox to Form Party | Russia | RIA Novosti:
Autocratic Russia and the Union of Orthodox Citizens are planning to register an “Orthodox” political party, Izvestia daily reported on Thursday.

The organization’s founders said they see Russia as a monarchy with a special role for the Russian Orthodox Church and the patriarch of Moscow and all Russia as the country’s spiritual leader.

Does that mean Putin is going to leave his own political party, and join this new one?

22 August 2012

On treating miners as human beings

Did 44 people have to die to get people to take striking miners seriously? Are they being taken seriously even now? Are they even regarded as human beings? Writing Africa - Tinyiko Sam Maluleke's Website: Did Human Beings Die At Lonmin's Marikana Mine?:
If the workers are human, government will engage in more than the knee-jerk, poorly thought-out proliferation of publicity stunts aimed at appeasement of investors and mineworkers as well as the saving of face. If they are human, perhaps Lonmin might just realise that expectations of an improved wage, better working and living conditions might just be valid and even reasonable. If the miners are human then Shanduka may wish to contribute to the improvement of the wages and living conditions of the miners instead of waiting till the workers are dead to contribute to funeral costs.

There have been calls for a week of mourning.

Back in the days of hippies and student power there was a saying, "Don't mourn! Organise!"

Mourning, lamenting, wailing and hand-wringing are mere self-indulgent exercises if there is not an immediate and tangible improvement in the wages and living conditions of the miners, as Tinyiko Maluleke points out so eloquently in the blog post I have quoted above.

And, from the point of view of the investors and bosses, even if you don't want to treat miners as human beings, but rather, to use that dehumanising phrase, as "human resources", it still makes sound business sense, as this article points out: Lonmin needs to pay up to avoid another Marikana showdown - Telegraph:
Since the drillers walked out on August 10, all Lonmin’s managers have done is bang on about the strike’s illegality. Sure, they may have the law on their side. But look at the cost. Thursday’s massacre, at the hands of the police, came after a misguided ultimatum that strikers return to work or be sacked.

Even after the bloodshed, there have been two similar ultimatums, rather undermining the sincerity of the condolences with which they were interspersed. Depressingly, here was the main message today from Mark Munroe, executive vice president for mining: “By 7am tomorrow we expect workers to return to work. After that Lonmin has the right to fire them.”
If they say that the mine can't afford it, and that the workers' demands are unreasonable, perhaps they should look to see if they can afford the salaries of the grossly overpaid bosses, whose incompetence and intransigence led to the crisis in the first place.

And even Zwelinzima Vavi, the Cosatu leader, was banging on about the illegality of the strike.

For those who want to have a purpose-built liturgy for such occasions, here are some suggestions:

Jer 22:13-14 Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour's service without wages, and giveth him not for his work; That saith, I will build me a wide house and large chambers, and cutteth him out windows; and it is cieled with cedar, and painted with vermilion.

Look at the houses of the mine bosses, and the houses of the rock drillers, and weep.

Pro 28:8 He that by usury and unjust gain increaseth his substance, he shall gather it for him that will pity the poor.

Pro 28:11 The rich man is wise in his own conceit; but the poor that hath understanding searcheth him out.

Pro 28:15 As a roaring lion, and a raging bear; so is a wicked ruler over the poor people.

Pro 28:17 A man that doeth violence to the blood of any person shall flee to the pit; let no man stay him.

Pro 29:7 The righteous considereth the cause of the poor: but the wicked regardeth not to know it.

19 August 2012

Making political capital out of the miners' strike

Violent clashes between police and striking miners at the Lonmin mine at Marikana in North-West Province, and between members of rival unions, have left 34 dead (at the last count) and many more injured. This has shocked most people in South Africa. After 18 years of talk of transformation, can we say that anything as been transformed from the old South Africa? Are the police that shot striking miners at Marikana in 2012 any better than those who shot protesters against the pass laws at Sharpeville in 1960? What has been transformed?

In such circumstances it's all to easy to join the blame game.

Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in all this?

But the more you learn about what happened and is happening there, the more you realize that it's not at all simple. There are no good guys and bad guys. There's good and bad in all. So before pronouncing judgement, it is wise to learn a bit more about the issues and what is at stake, and what led to the strike. One fairly good article on this topic is here: Daily Maverick - Beyond the chaos at Marikana: The search for the real issues.

I'm sure that it doesn't tell the full story, and things have moved on since then, and much of it has been overtaken by subsequent events, but it is worth reading anyway.

Can this be compared with Sharpeville?

Yes and no. The Sharpeville protesters were unarmed, and most were shot in the back; the Marikana strikers were armed, though most with "traditional weapons". One can hope that there will be a Commission of Inquiry, and that it will not suffer the same constraints as the Sharpeville one.

The miners, we are told, are striking because they want an increase from R4000 a month to R12500 a month. How does R4000 a month compare with 1960?

Back then, when we decimalised our currency, and exchanged pounds shillings and pence for Rands and cents, underground miners used to earn between 15c and 35c a shift. That was roughly about R4.00 a month. If they are earning R4000 a month, that is 1000 times more.

Of course back then the Rand was worth a lot more than it is now. Again, at a rough guiess, I'd say it was worth 100 times more. A Rand today is worth what a cent was worth back then.

How do I measure?

In 1961 an omelet and chips in a downtown Joburg restaurasnt cost 35c, as did a plate of mince and rice. You'd be lucky to get the equivalent for R35.00 today. A bottle of Coke or Fanta or Sparletta cost 5c, as did a cup of coffee or a daily newspaper. You'd be lucky to get any of those for R5.00 today. A hamburger cost 15c -- equivalent to the daily pay of the lowest paid miners at the time (the miners did get food in the hostels).

So if you multiplied the pay by 100 it would be R400 a month today, not R4000. But I don't know if the miners of today who are earning R4000 a month are still getting free board and lodging. And even those who got free board and lodging on the job back then often had families at home elsewhere. So if they had a wife and three children, they could feed themselves on a quarter of a hamburger each per day.

So are the miners justified in striking? Are they justified in aerming themselves? Are they justified in killing those they regard as scabs? Are the police justified in shooting them?

I don't know. If such questions are to be answered, let a judicial Commission of Inquiry look into it.

But there are some things about this that do seem more unequivocally bad -- people who are not directly involved trying to cash in and make political capital out of it.

For example, there's one of those photos doing the rounds on Facebook, which is both disingenuous and malicious.

Why is it bad?
  • The farmers were killed by criminals; the miners were killed by the police who are supposed to be catching the criminals.
  • The miners were killed on one day; the farmers were killed over a long period.
  • If one is going to make a thing about occupational groups, then one might as well acknowledge that the criminals picked on the farmers because the thought they were rich; the miners killed by the police were striking because they were poor.
So that picture is intended to spread disinformation, and to encourage the uninformed to spread disinformation. It's not that murdering farmers is not a bad thing, but rather that those who are ostensibly campaigning against it are trying to promote their cause by using thoroughly dishonest pictures like the one above.

Another example of someone trying to cash in on the situation to make political capital is here: Malema at Marikana: 'Many will die' - Mail & Guardian Online:
Julius Malema wasn't pulling punches, when he spoke to several thousand Marikana mineworkers on Saturday. President Jacob Zuma should step down, he said, as should Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa.

ANC National Executive Committee member Cyril Ramaphosa came in for a drubbing as well – with the implication that he was partially responsible for the deaths of the strikers killed this week.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) were sellouts, he said, and police had no excuse for using live ammunition.
Julius Malema seems to see this as his ticket out of the political wilderness.

Not your average Scandiwegian whodunit

Between Summer's Longing and Winter's Cold (The Fall of the Welfare State, #1) Between Summer's Longing and Winter's Cold (The Fall of the Welfare State, #1) by Leif G.W. Persson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Over the last 10 years or so Scandinavian crime fiction has come to dominate the genre in the English-speaking world. Many of the books in the genre have a gloomy boozy divorced (or about to be) detective as protagonist. This one is different.

There is no protagonist. We are given glimpses into the lives and loves and hates of members of different branches of the Swedish police as they are touched in some way by the apparent suicide of an American journalist who fell from the 16th floor of a student residence.

The book is not well-written; in many ways there seems to be too much irrelevant detail. Describing in detail how a single protagonist spends Christmas is one thing; doing it for five or six different characters seems to be overdoing it. Some of the problems in the writing may be problems in translation rather than in the original. The writing sometimes seems stilted.

One of the more disconcerting things is that it takes one a while to work out the period the story is set in. The book was first published in 2002, so one expects it to be at around the turn of the century, but the technology doesn't fit -- there are no personal computers, only typewriters. No cell phones. The technology used would seem to date it to about the mid-1970s, but the story also concerns the investigation of a possible plot to assassinate the Swedish prime minister, which links it to the assassination of prime minister Olof Palme in 1986. Though the prime minister in the book is not named, there are sufficient resemblances in the story to make that a possible period as well.

One of the minor characters is a South African student with an improbable name, and there were stories of South African connections to the assassination of Olof Palme, and in Totale aanslag by De Wet Potgieter this is presented as historical fact. As an aside (this is not mentioned in the story, and is rather a personal anecdote), in 1988 my wife worked in a factory and the office next door to hers was used by a company that was indirectly linked. Sometimes she could not help overhearding conversations in the next door office, and she got the impression that they were involved in some shady business -- money laundering, illicit diamond buying, or something like that, and possibly the assassination of the Swedish prime minister. At about that time we had a break-in at our house, and the house was thoroughly ransacked, cupboards and boxes were emptied, but the only things that were taken were the cheap loudspeakers for our radiogram, which had been carefully unscrewed from their cabinets (the cabinets themselves were left behind), and some food. We had the impression that the thieves were looking for something very specific, which they didn't find, and the usual things that thieves took, cameras, computers etc., were left behind.

But, to get back to the book, in spite of its deficiencies, it was an interesting story, even if it was not well-told, and ultimately worth reading.

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13 August 2012

Olympic Ideals: Truer, Deeper, More Humble

In spite of all the commercialisation, the professionaslisation and the patriotisation, something of the true Olympic spirit survives, as these pictures show.

Hat-tip to Red Horse Down: Post #310 - Olympic Ideals: Truer, Deeper, More Humble

And three Russian gymnasts (Afanasyeva, Komova and Mustafina) give thanks for their achievements in the Games:

12 August 2012

Cowboys & Aliens

I laughed when I saw the trailer of Cowboys & Aliens (2011) - IMDb the other night. It looked like yet an other B movie to watch for a few laughs when there is nothing else on TV.

But actually it didn't turn out to be quite as bad as that. District 9 it wasn't, but it wasn't bad as a piece of no-brain-strain entertainment. And in the end we didn't even laugh at it. Though it was a blending of genres, unlike District 9 and Avatar, it didn't satirise either genre. It just combined them.

And it was the combining of the genres that seemed to make it worth blogging about. When I saw the trailer it seemed as if it would be anachronistic and a kind of "jump the shark" thing. Westerns are set in the 19th century, and space aliens are set in the mid-20th century, and that's where they belong, in human culture anyway. But if you think about it, if there are intelligent races from other planets or other galaxies, whiy should they visit Earth just at the time when we, or some of us, are culturally ready to think that they might? They could conceivably visit earth at any time. One could just as easily make a movie about Vikings and Aliens, or Aztecs and Aliens, or Julius Caesar's Alien wars. And then there are people who are convinced that the prophet Ezekiel was describing an alien spacecraft in Ezekiel chapter 1.

06 August 2012

Pussy Riot: crossed wires

I've been reading many differing opinions about Pussy Riot, the punk rock group whose members are on trial in Moscow after inturrupting a church service in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral with a political song.

Reading different opinions is one thing, but reading different facts is another. For example the US branch of Amnesty International is claiming that it was a case of mistaken identity, and that the three facing trial are not the same people as the ones who sang the song in church. Take Action Now - Amnesty International USA:
Three young women are being detained by Russian authorities for allegedly performing a protest song in a cathedral as part of a feminist punk group "Pussy Riot".

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich were arrested in March 2012 and charged with "hooliganism". If found guilty, they could be jailed for up to 7 years.

The three women deny any involvement in the protest although even if they took part, the severity of the response of the Russian authorities would not be a justifiable response to the peaceful - if, to many, offensive - expression of their political beliefs.

Tell the Russian authorities to drop all charges and release them!
Where did Amensty International get their information from, or are they deliberately trying to mislead people?

Forty years ago I got thousands of Christmas cards from people all over the world, thanks to Amnesty International. It must have kept the Security Police quite busy back then. But in this case they seem to have come up with "facts" that are known only to them, and that don't seem to be known even to the defendants in the case.

For instance, according to a report of the trial in Rapsi News:
Defendant in the Pussy Riot case Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has called the "punk prayer" performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior an "ethical mistake," stressing that she had no intention of offending anybody, the Khamovnichesky District Court told the Russian Legal Information Agency (RAPSI/rapsinews.com).

Tolokonnikova's defense attorney Violetta Volkova read out her response to the indictment. The defendant noted in her address that her conduct had only political and artistic motives.
How could they have had "no intention of offending anyone" by their conduct, if, as Amnesty International maintains, they weren't even there in the first place?

There have been wildly conflicting accounts of what they are charged with. According to one news report they are charged with "disorderly conduct", for which, we are told, they could face up to seven years in prison.

According to another report
On February 21, five girls wearing brightly colored balaclavas stormed the altar of downtown Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral to perform an anti-Putin protest song entitled, “Holy Sh*t.”

Prosecutors have maintained that the Pussy Riot members "inflicted substantial damage to the sacred values of the Christian ministry…infringed upon the sacramental mystery of the Church… [and] humiliated in a blasphemous way the age-old foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church."
Other reports hav said that they sang "Mother Mary, save us from Putin".

Since the incident has been widely publicised on YouTube, surely there must be some place, somewhere on the web, where what they actually sang is accurately reported?

I asked if anyone knew what they were actually sining, and my daughter found a link that provided a translation:

Punk-Prayer "Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away"


Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away
Рut Putin away, put Putin away

(end chorus)

Black robe, golden epaulettes
All parishioners crawl to bow
The phantom of liberty is in heaven
Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains

The head of the KGB, their chief saint,
Leads protesters to prison under escort
In order not to offend His Holiness
Women must give birth and love

Shit, shit, the Lord's shit!
Shit, shit, the Lord's shit!


Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist
Become a feminist, become a feminist

(end chorus)

The Church’s praise of rotten dictators
The cross-bearer procession of black limousines
A teacher-preacher will meet you at school
Go to class - bring him money!

Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin
Bitch, better believe in God instead
The belt of the Virgin can’t replace mass-meetings
Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!


Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away
Рut Putin away, put Putin away

(end chorus)

01 August 2012

The Absolutist: book review

The AbsolutistThe Absolutist by John Boyne

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm in two minds about this book. The plot and the story line are quite good, and it is a very sad story. But the manner of its telling is not so good. The basic story is set in the First World War, where two new recruits, Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft, stike up a friendship of sorts at Aldershot training camp. But they have different perceptions and expectations of their relationship, which sours when they go to the frontline trenches in France.

Tristan survives the war, but Will doesn't, and after the war Tristan goes to see Will's sister in Norwich, to take her the letters she had written to her brother, but also to tell her something about the manner of Will's death, which had brought disgrace on his family.

But the narrative seems unconvincing.

The blurb on the front cover says, "If you loved Birdsong, you'll love this."

Well, I read Birdsong, and I did find it a good read. But The Absolutist falls a long way short of Birdsong. It is not nearly as well or convincingly written. Sebastian Faulks, who wrote Birdsong had a feeling for the time and the place, and managed to give a convincing picture of what things might have been like during the First World War.

But in The Absolutist the time and place are fuzzy. I got the feeling that there was anachronistic slang on just about every couple of pages, and the dialogue felt as though it belonged to the 1980s rather than 1916 and 1919. For example, I can't imagine people saying, in 1919, "We were an item". Or perhaps they did, and I'm just not aware of how old that idiom is, but there are a number of other idioms that seem anachronistic, and this detracts from the story. If the dialogue is unconvincing, then one wonders how accurate the descriptions are.

I suppose such anachronisms are one of the pitfalls that writers of historical novels need to be careful to avoid, and John Boyne seems to fall into too many of them, and too many of them seem too obvious. An author does not need two write all dialogues in contemporary idiom, which might require too much research. But then it is best to avoid slang, and to write in more neutral English. Some writers, like Georgette Heyer, don't hold back from contemporary slang, but the more successful of them go to some trouble to make it seem authentic.

The book might be much more enjoyable to people who have no interest in history, and don't care if the atmosphere and setting are not authentic -- just badly-painted stage props for a story. And the story is quite good, and holds interest to the end. It's just a pity that it wasn't told better.

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