Oct 31, 2009

Book review: Things Fall Apart

This is the classic work from Chinua Achebe, often called the greatest African novelist. It concerns the fate of a man called Okonkwo, who is an important man in a Nigerian village of the Igbo people when the white missionaries/colonizers (from England) first arrive. It's a short book, but streamlined and poignant.

Achebe does not romanticize the Igbo. They are depicted (like Europe of that time) as being deeply patriarchal. They have a great fear of twins, which are abandoned at birth. They are also somewhat violent--though their highly ritualized wars usually only have a few casualties.

The book mostly concerns the idea of civilization and the clashing of cultures. One aspect of civilization as a system that allows a human society to escape the kill-or-be-killed logic of remorseless game theory--a way of allowing the culture as a collective to achieve a higher level of satisfaction than they would all alone. In this respect the Igbo are highly civilized. They have a form of democracy, in which every man in the tribe takes part in meetings where village issues are decided by consensus.

Yet when the missionaries come, there is inevitably a clash. Though the missionaries are not wholly bad, and the first reverend is respectful of the village culture, the Igbo are not prepared for what the majority of whites have in mind, and fall victim to the same combination of religion and guns that has worked throughout history.

It's an excellent portrayal of a way of life wholly different from the Western civilization of America and Europe, and a reminder that that way had many elements that we seem to lack, especially in America--community, kinship, and family. It's also a reminder to other Africans that the way of life they once had was not without value; a message that still resonates today. I heard the other day a black woman say that Africa had so many problems because "blacks are stupid and love to fight."

Overall, great and highly recommended. It's so short that one can read it in a couple hours, yet powerful enough that the story will stick for days.

PS: I utterly loathe the practice of giving away plot points on the back of a book. Sure, some setting is fine, but giving away a major development at the end is extremely irritating--as if the editor thinks that every single person in the world has already read the book and knows it well. My edition of this book had such a spoiler, I remember an edition of Abbey's The Brave Cowboy that had the same problem.

Excellent review

This is a book that just came out on Ayn Rand. Check it out: "For if there is one thing Rand’s life shows, it is the power, and peril, of unjustified self-esteem."

Oct 29, 2009

Sometimes one must improvise

Candles have been my friend of late, but I didn't have a candlestick at hand. This here will have to suffice (knowing me) forever.
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Something I always wanted to do

 This, obviously, is a picture of lightning. One might surmise that I was cringing behind my screen door in fear, but I thought the cross-hatching lent some aesthetic gravitas.
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Oct 28, 2009


It means electricity in Setswana, and it keeps going out. There was a cacophonous lightning storm last night, and with that and the wind, it's been going out almost every day. So if you don't get many updates from me for a time that's probably why.

No one could possibly predict...

...that this might come back to bite us in the butt:
Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade, gets regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to current and former American officials.
Shades of the old Nicaragua operations back in the '80s.

Oct 27, 2009

My first snake

Unfortunately, this one was dead. Medium sized, I suppose I'd say, and I'm not sure if it was poisonous or not.

I took this picture with my cell phone, as my real camera seems to be on its last legs. The little telescoping lens part now gets jammed every time I turn it on and I have to switch it on and off while pulling on the lens to make it work. Not a good sign.

On the other hand I am rather pleased with the cell phone camera. I've long thought that was just a stupid gimmick that I would never use, but you really can't get a decent cell phone these days without one, so I went ahead and picked it up.

To my surprise I actually use it a lot, mainly because I end up carrying it around all the time. The camera is bulkier, but mostly I just don't feel super awkward and touristy carrying around a cell phone rather than a camera.

Of course, the pictures are a lot worse on the cell phone. It's only 3.2 megapixels (as compared to 8.1 on my camera, which isn't even very good), and there's no optical zoom. Still, better than nothing. I suppose as some point I'll have to pick up another camera, but it'll be awhile with my financial troubles. For the time being, you're stuck with crappy pictures.
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Oct 26, 2009

A thought on culture: a science major's attempt at pop anthro

Last week I was at the neighboring village, attending what amounted to a graduation party, though the 12th grade doesn't graduate until mid-December. They sang, danced, chanted, prayed, ululated, whistled, and generally made a hell of a noise. The singing here especially stands out; it seems there are dozens of songs that almost everyone in the community knows (mostly hymns I suspect). Everyone knows how to sing, and follow along with 3-7 part harmony.

I tried to imagine something like this is the USA, and I just couldn't. Where in the US can you sing four notes of a song and have a crowd of 60 join in? "Take me out to the ball game," maybe. But we don't have culture like that, a shared set of assumptions that everyone takes for granted. It seems to me that US culture is more corroded--several separate influences have unconsciously or systematically destroyed our culture so that people take few things for granted, especially in the area of human interaction.

Materialism is one big cause, but I'd say the US is as much a victim as a perpetrator of that particular disease. Huge companies seem to behave largely the same throughout the world (though the details are always of course different), always promoting consumption for consumption's sake for obvious reasons. But materialism does make concepts like "values" seem cheap and false.

Feminism and the move toward political correctness in all areas is another. Female-male interactions have rarely been as tangled and difficult as they are now in the US, for the reason that all the old ways of courting (such that we had) have been destroyed, and their replacements have yet to evolve.

Imperialism is a third cause. When one's country is walking around the world, often thrashing the piss out of tiny, defenseless countries, one tends to view one's culture with suspicion, or even actively revolt against it. This is especially true as countries tend to become more humanist and free. The same thing happened to a lesser degree to imperial England.

I don't want to seem too radical here, so let me emphasize that I'm painting with an extremely wide brush, and a lot of this is 30-40% BS. Further let me say that I don't think all this is always a bad thing--suffrage, the civil rights movement, feminism, all destroyed some bit of unjust culture and rightly so.

I also don't think that the BaTswana necessarily have the greatest culture. Women are often treated like dirt, and there's an element of religious conservatism that I find grating. (I often wonder what they were like before the Europeans came and forcibly converted everyone.) Yet here, most people have a place to be, and people know how to interact in a way that doesn't exist in the US. It keeps them a little oppressed, in a way, but it also eliminates some of the existential angst that people tend to experience in the US.

Anyway, that's my BS pyschobabble for the day. Feel free to eviscerate in the comments.
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Oct 24, 2009

Book review: The Bartimaeus Trilogy

Well, I didn't actually read this one, I listened to it. Audiobooks are fantastic, and I think often improve my comprehension of the work. Best to do them both if one wants to get the most out of an important work like Blood Meridian (also great to listen to), but I didn't have the text in this case.

Back to business. The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud, would probably be dismissively shunted into young-adult fantasy by a douchebag like Harold Bloom, but though the main human characters are young (Bartimaeus, on the other hand, is more than 5000 years old), I thought the themes mature and deep. More than worth reading if you're not too pretentious.

The story is an alternate history, where human magicians and spirits (the spirits live on a different plane of existence called The Other Place) rule the earth in a series of large empires. The magicians enslave the spirits by means of incantations, pentacles and runes, and force them to work magic. All the magicians power comes from these spirits, humans themselves are incapable of using magic. Historical kingdoms like Egypt, Rome and Carthage were societies like this.

Bartimaeus is a spirit of middling power, first summoned by a young magician called Nathaniel. The characterization of Bartimaeus is absolutely splendid; he's vain, wry, sarcastic, and hilarious, often going on long digressions on emperors or powerful magicians he served in the past.

Nathaniel is an idealistic young English boy who is quickly sucked into the machinations, backstabbery and politics of the English government (as the British Empire is the dominant empire of the moment). This is another of the book's strengths--the view of human nature and history, which is bleak, jaded, and cynical. He depicts the series of empires as inevitably mistreating their non-magician citizens (called commoners in England), who develop resistance to the magic and overthrow the government. A few generations later, another empire develops in a different part of the world. I detected a strain of the old Marxist historical process in this, with the inevitability of it all.

Another of the main characters is the more sympathetic Kitty Jones, who is a commoner bent on overthrowing the government, to be replaced with the old democratic parliament. She eventually develops a friendship with Bartimaeus.

Stroud wisely avoids too much political commentary about the situation and sticks mostly to the action, which is well-told. All throughout the voice of Bartimaeus, subtle and refined, keeps the book's feet on the ground.

Lastly, the reader Simon Jones did a superb job, most especially capturing the wry tones of Bartimaeus. If you're looking for some splendid middlebrow novels this winter, these are highly recommended.

Department of WTF

Over at a college friend's blog, he's got something you just have to see. Suffice to say that it's round, large, and it floats.

He's also got some pictures of a trip to a gorgeous river canyon...or perhaps I should say "gorge?" I would kill for some mountains right about now...

Oct 23, 2009

Just a short rant

Today I learned that 90% of the eighth grade thinks that the sun goes around the earth, and I spent a good hour trying to convince them otherwise. They stared at me, sullenly uncomprehending, like I was speaking Greek, and impolitely to boot.

More and more I am realizing the preposterousness of the South African education system. Yesterday I went to the neighboring village to check out the high school and see how it goes. I watched Andy (another PCV) teach a couple classes (quite well, I might add). Then we went to check out the various classes, to see how many teachers there were in class. It was then that I got a first glimpse of the matric test, the test that the entire 12th grade must take.

It’s brutally, absurdly hard. Most of the math was stuff I hadn’t seen in years, tricky algebra and second-year calculus. There’s a fat dollop of organic chemistry that I didn’t see until sophomore year in college, and a lot of college physics as well. If I could describe it in American context, it’s like the AP calculus BC, chemistry, physics, biology, English, foreign language, and mechanical design tests combined. Only the 3-4 smartest people I knew in high school could have done well (in my opinion). I’d bet that not a single one of the teachers in my village could pass well enough to go to college. Of course, passing is only 33%, but to go to college one has to do better than that.

The whole system is set up to ensure cascade failure for the students. Starting in 9th grade they take tests in all 11subjects, and if they don’t pass the math they are forever shunted into “maths literacy,” which is like math for poets, with no way to make it back into the real class. It’s bad enough to have the matric as the be-all, end-all of the future of a student, but to have a test that I would regard as wildly inappropriate for an American landing on these poor rural students…it’s outrageous.

There are more little things. Like how the curriculum demands that every subject should receive a set amount of time, but the percentages are strange (one subject is 7%), so the schedule is different every day of the week. This isn’t followed, of course, but it seems out of the question to suggest that maybe we should say “screw the government, let’s make up our own timetable,” so it’s just improvised every day.

What a mess. But if my students someday realize that the Earth goes around the sun, I suppose I can consider this a success.
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Oct 22, 2009

Link love

My neighbors over in the next village have a blog, you should check it out! It's on the blogroll. They had a recent post about the water tower at the college where we had training. Well, I've got a picture of the very ladder he had to climb up, so I thought I'd share. Go read!
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Book review: The Robber Barons

This is the classic work by Matthew Josephson on the famous monopolists of the nineteenth century: Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gould, etc. I'm a real fan of popular history like this (Cadillac Desert, for example), and this was no exception. Well told, and well organized. I quite enjoyed it.

One thing that stuck out for me was the diversity of attitude within the barons themselves. Jim Hill the railroad man was inclined toward engineering and built his roads solidly, while Jay Gould basically sucked the money and life out of anything he touched.

The work had a distinct Marxist character, which is typical for the time--1934, right in the midst of the Great Depression. Russia was on the upswing, and the last 140 years had been the worst kind of confirmation of Marx's historical predictions about capitalism. Still, Josephson keeps this kind of commentary to a minimum and focuses mostly on the gritty awful details of the barons.

Great work overall, highly recommended.

News: in which I get robbed

This is a picture of my village, maybe the best I can get. It's from one of my constitutionals down the riverbed.

I keep accumulating the various things I think I need to live; the last major item I've got down is a bike. Unfortunately that means my room keeps getting more and more cramped, with no wardrobe or table. I still have semi-regular attacks of spoiled-rotten feelings, especially when I think of others I've known that did the Peace Corps in the past. If I'm bored I've got two dozen books to read, or the entirety of The Wire and Star Trek: TNG, or surfing the internet. I had an idea of living in Africa (or at least the bits that the Peace Corps would send me to) in a very primitive way, forced to interact with a native culture that is totally estranged from my own. Here, most people speak some English, and are saturated with (somewhat garbled) American culture. Times change.

I've been teaching basically every day, though I do plan to travel to the closest village to observe some other teachers and see how they work. Quite frankly I'm an awful teacher, and my weaknesses are especially crippling here. I struggle with taking the initiative, with being proactive (especially in a situation where there are no standards whatsoever--if I so chose I could sit and read a book every day and no one would say boo), and especially with the kind of forceful personality (or perhaps magnetic charisma) one needs to have good classroom management. My instinctive attitude if someone doesn't want to listen is to say, "Fine, the hell with you. You don't want to learn, stay here forever. See if I care." Deeply American of me, I suppose, but it's something I must work on. It's just so many things coming at once--I've got to develop a curriculum (as the students aren't even close to on track), learn how to teach, learn how to manage a classroom, and deal with the ESL piece, without any help, or any examples. Daunting for an education newb like myself, but I wanted a challenge, right? *cough*

Honestly, the students are mostly fine here, and I'm sure any teacher worth a warm bucket of piss in the states could have them speaking Elizabethan English inside of a week. I should be grateful I have such easy students, and not the basketcases I remember from the Bronx. The fact that they come to school day after day is pretty impressive in itself. Mostly I hope to get my feet under me (or at least my knees and hands) this year so that when the next school year starts in January I can be ready to start fresh.

Yesterday I went to Kuruman again to run some errands. I went bike shopping, and found that most people ride these massive steel-frame monstrosities (like from Wal-Mart), but I did find a little shop with some better ones. They had some genuine mountain bikes for 8000+ rand (about $500--way more than I could afford), but also some alloyed ones for cheaper. The real mountain bikes were fascinating; everyone rides on these thorn-proof tubeless tires that have a latex sealant inside them, even a step beyond the auto-sealant I know in the states. Apparently the acacia and camelthorn here are waxy, so normal sealant doesn't cut it here. I'm not surprised at all, as every time I go walking down the riverbed I pull a dozen thorns out of each shoe.

I also bought some screen to make a screen door out of my burglar bars, and a pair of hiking boots that were probably more expensive than they should have been (about $100). Like a fool, I left the screen in my backpack and carried the shoes. I got some groceries and was heading back to the bus for the ride home when I stopped for a second to rest my hands. Up comes a "helper" who was in all likelihood following me. He grabs my shoe bag and one of the grocery bags and starts to walk off with them. Good old white male middle-class awkwardness stood me in good stead at this point. I put up a fuss, saying it's fine, I can take them, please give them back, etc. He of course refuses, and I was taken aback. What do I do? I should have set to howling, or yelled "STOP THIEF!" but I didn't. I figured I could watch him as we were close to the bus. Then as we're almost arrived another guy (they always work in teams) grabs my shoes and runs off with them. I'm helpless, hands full. My "friend" hands me the other bag (now that his accomplice has the expensive one) and makes like he's going to run him down. The shoes, of course, are gone for good.

A cheap lesson, all in all. I really was asking for that one, carrying something expensive down the street in plain sight. Next time I know what to do--if I had followed the Peace Corps advice, and assumed that anyone who touched my stuff or offered help was a criminal, I would have my shoes now. Yell, make a scene, get that sumbitch away from my things. Could have been much worse, and I'm definitely going to be a lot more vigilant in the future. I don't regard Kuruman as a dangerous place--the fact that I wasn't mugged, even being the worst kind of brain-dead lekgowa (white person), speaks to that. Criminals wouldn't be that bold, they're more weaselly and conniving. Which is a good thing. I sat around with all the old men and ladies at the bus rank, and after awhile I was kidding around about it. Nothing like a good lekgowa joke to get a laugh.

Still, I was a bit shaky and pissed for a while afterward. If I'm not careful, South Africa will make me into a sexist. More and more I look at males between 9-45 with open suspicion, and gravitate toward the old ladies for security. The grandmas are the backbone of this country--raising the kids, keeping house, running a lot of the businesses, while most of the men seem to just drink all the time or steal stuff. A bit unfair, but it's more than half true. I guess there's worse prejudices than disliking the young and the male.
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Oct 19, 2009

Contrarianism of the day

Check out this bit of pop-psychology thrashing. My favorite quote: "Mr. Miyagi didn't teach the Karate Kid to believe in himself. He taught him how to kick people in the f__king head."

The Tortise

I found this little guy on the walk down from my favorite vantage point on my downstream riverbed walk. I pestered him for a while trying to get a good shot, but I trust he recovered in the end.
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A few weeks back one of the house dogs had a litter. They're starting to get adventurous, and they're awfully tempting to play with, but they have to have terrible fleas. Still, there's always something interesting going on, even if it's just the animals.
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Oct 17, 2009


I'm just reading a book on the robber barons called, strangely enough, the Robber Barons. It's the famous old Matthew Josephson work. Surely they put modern capitalists to shame as far as sheer brutality. When financial/boardroom intrigue was not enough to secure their business aims, there was always dynamite.

But I think the one thing you've got to respect about that era of American history was that these men often took real risks. Sure, most of them stole vast piles of currency or land from the government, or invested taxpayer dollars while protecting their own, or wasted huge treasury sums because it would be slightly cheaper for themselves thusly. But these men were playing for keeps, and often as not they would end up crushed and ruined by their capitalist brethren. Every 10-20 years some doofus's land scheme or gold-cornering ploy would collapse like a ton of bricks and lay the whole stock market out for a couple years, and rich men would suffer catastrophic losses.

Not so for today's incarnation of these "captains of industry." None of these pathetic financiers has the steel of a Vanderbilt, a Rockefeller, a (ha ha) Carnegie. Some of those old tycoons had such dizzying wealth (Rockefeller's fortune today would be worth about $320 billion) that in all likelihood the government couldn't have bailed them out even if they tried.

As Kevin Drum says:
As the piece points out, banks aren't using all this cheap money to increase lending. They're using it to fund bigger and bigger bets in the fixed-income sector — the same sector that brought us junk bonds, credit default swaps, subprime loan securitization, interest rate carries, collateralized debt obligations, and all the rest of Warren Buffett's "financial weapons of mass destruction." Fixed income was a sleepy backwater until about 30 years ago, and if we had any brains we'd apply a massive dose of regulatory narcotics to make it that way again. Instead, we're actually egging it on. It's like giving Nero a new barbecue lighter for Christmas because his last one got burned up in that big fire.
It's not like I'm pining for the gilded age. It's just the pathetic, weaselly simpering of today's megabankers that makes me sick. What slime.

Oct 16, 2009


This from my walk home today. I do enjoy a bit of clouds sometimes after the endless empty blue.
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Today I attended a graduation for the grade 12 at the neighboring village. Style means something slightly different to these characters than in my own personal dictionary. I had some more thoughts, but I think it shall have to gestate for a day or two before I can get them down.
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Oct 15, 2009

Infinite Jest review

Warning: some mild spoilers ahead.

Yet another huge, complex work, rambly and dense. My initial impression was that it is a good book that I didn’t like, but I suppose it should be broken down a little more than that.

First, the good. The prose was excellent, I thought: “She was the kind of fatally pretty and nubile wraithlike figure who glides through the sweaty junior-high corridors of every nocturnal emitter’s dreamscape.” Wallace has a way of intermixing the colloquial and the highbrow that works surprisingly well (even throwing in “like,” in the valley girl sense), and he’s often hilarious (though some jokes are repeated a few too many times). I’m fairly amazed that anyone could churn out this much original writing, and make it fun enough that I enjoyed most every page.

There is much wisdom in the book as well, a lot of well-researched content, and I especially agree with the contention that what many people crave in this connected, cynical, ironic time is earnest, unselfconscious experience. The character of Mario, the protagonist’s brother, was the best example of this.

Now for the bad. The worst part, I thought, was the total lack of plot resolution. I suppose I might understand a little postmodernist not-tying-it-into-a-neat-bow sort of thing (like Gravity’s rainbow), but this is too much. It’s a total lack of any closure whatsoever. The plot, which is really kind of a standard comedy/action/drama device, just stops in midair with half the characters blowing fuses right and left. Pissed me off. It should have been vastly shorter or longer.

As for the actual ideas, there’s a lot of mocking of consumerist American culture (time itself, for example, has been auctioned off to different companies each year), which I mostly enjoyed. However, I think that Wallace vastly overestimates the power that modern advertising has over us all (don’t get me wrong, I think that consumerism and advertising have a strong hold indeed). Wallace seems to hold that consumerist culture, and advertising in particular, is capable of inducing paralyzing mental trauma--and have done so, to practically every person alive. I don’t doubt that the effect is subtly powerful, but in my experience advertising is more often inept and buffoonish. The culminating example of this power is a video called “the Entertainment,” which is so powerful anyone who sees it can do nothing but beg to see it again until they die.

From this consumerist effect, and the standard family problems, almost every single character in the book has serious psychological problems. The sole exception that I remember (could have missed some, there are a lot) is Mario, whose list of physical ailments goes on for an entire page. This brings me to my next point: Wallace’s treatment of drugs. Most of the characters are serious drug addicts, and one of the most irritating parts of the book is the extent to which Wallace uses all drugs, especially pot, as a crutch to make his characters seem more screwed-up. I don’t doubt that many people have struggled with marijuana addiction (shoot, people can get addicted to anything), but to speak about it in the same terms as heroin addiction is simply ridiculous.

Wallace is also just full of shit on occasion: “...she has taken Ecstasy, Joelle can see, from the febrile flush and eyes jacked so wide you can make out brain-meat behind the balls’ poles, a.k.a. X or MDMA, a beta something, an early synthetic, the Love Drug so-called, big among the artistic young under say Bush and successors, since fallen into relative disuse because its pulverizing hangover has been linked to the impulsive use of automatic weapons in public venues, a hangover that makes a freebase hangover look like a day at the emotional beach…(230)” It’s the fake gritty realism that was the worst part of the book. Wallace nailed it most of the time but missed enough to be extremely distracting.

Alcoholics Anonymous was also dealt with in a strange way, almost buying (but not quite) their semi-cultish view of addiction and recovery as outside the purview of the scientific method. That was a minor annoyance though.

All in all, I enjoyed reading it but didn’t like it.

Oct 13, 2009

Geeking out

Here you can see my full setup now. A bit cramped, but frankly I think I'm pretty spoiled. All I'd need to be really fixed up would be another table for my stove. Well, that and a wardrobe. I cropped out the massive pile of clothes on the floor (but it's not really my fault, since I have literally no where else to put them).

I'm still stunned by the whole technology business on a semi-regular business. Due to cantankerousness I missed five or six generations of cell phone technology, and I'm still amazed that I can look up HTML-rich Wikipedia at a moment's notice on a two-ounce device in my pocket. In the midst of rural South Africa, where the water is on about half the time. Hell, this is a lot faster than the dial-up I remember for years back in the States.

Next to the computer is a hard drive with 1 TB capacity. I think in the US you can get those for about $100 nowadays. On it I can fit something like 1300 movies, depending on the compression. Sometimes I feel like Louis CK: "Everyone should just be shouting 'WOW!!' all the time."

We live in a crazy and depraved world, but I'm proud to be part of it.
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Good ol' Texas

Anyone remember that New Yorker article a while back? I guess it's caused a stir:
In 2005, after the execution, Texas established a commission to investigate forensic errors, and the commission started reviewing the Willingham case. In the course of its review, the commission hired a nationally recognized fire expert who ultimately wrote a "scathing report" concluding that the arson investigation was a joke.

The expert was originally set to testify about his report on Friday, October 2. On Sept. 30, however, Perry suddenly replaced three members of the panel, including the chair, against their wishes. The new chair promptly canceled the hearing. More recently, Perry replaced a fourth member (he can only appoint four -- other state officials appoint the remaining five members).[...]

Of course, his motive is fairly clear. Perry contributed to the execution of an innocent person. And the formal recognition that Texas executed an innocent man would trigger a massive political earthquake -- one that would clarify to an inattentive public the utter barbarity and immorality of Texas's criminal justice system.


Check it out. Right from my backyard.
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Oct 12, 2009

The riverbed

This is a pretty good view of the riverbed that I spend so much time on. This point (which is atypically steep) takes me about an hour's brisk walking to reach. Quite the spot though, nice place to sit and think.
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Life in my village is settling down to a bit of a routine—I go to school every day, and today I started teaching “for real.” The Peace Corps has a schedule that they want me to follow for the next few months, but it seems to me that their program is ill-suited to my village. There is not much need to get acquainted with the school if there is hardly any teaching for any of the classes. So I’m fumbling through some basic stuff for maths and science for 7th and 8th grade mostly, as 9th grade will apparently be taking tests for the next two months straight. I’m a lousy teacher at this point, but I figure the bottom is a good place to start.

I thought we had it bad in the States as far as tests, but this is a whole new level of crazy. If I understand correctly, in 9th and 12th grade you spend literally half the year taking one massive test. I think that speaks for itself.

Basic multiplication/division is still not very solid for any of the classes. That might be the first thing that I work on. One of the (very) few good presentations from training was from an older couple that did a flash card completion for the whole class with a little reward (bit of candy or something) at the end for the best student. Participation is a real problem—I think because the students are so unused to having a teacher in the class they get bored and want me to leave. However, I think with a little motivation (i.e., a bribe) they’d be more excited. Some mild public humiliation might be in order as well, maybe one of those progress charts with everyone on it.

I’m enjoying the country around my village a lot. I’ve been running or walking every weekday, and I’ve explored far up and down the riverbed. I’m not really integrating into the community very fast, but everyone in the village knows my name and I keep trying to use my Setswana when I get the chance. I don’t spend as much time with my family as I would like, because they often just sit around and drink all day with a rotating crowd of strangers who ask me for money over and over. “Mpha 2 rand! Mpha 2 rand!” (give me 2 rand!—my host mom sells gigantic cups of this “beer” powder mix that she cooks up for 2 rand, I think. It’s dank and foul stuff.) They don’t stop when I say “no,” either. It’s just “please, meneer,” until I leave. I’ve talked to my host mom about it and she didn’t seem to understand what the problem was. Apparently every American is assumed to be fantastically wealthy without exception (though the principal of my school makes 8.6 times as much as me—the equivalent of about $2400 per month). I learned a new phrase: “Ga ke banka.” (I’m not a bank.) Another PCV says that he just asks them for money right back, and 10 times what they wanted. I think that might be worth trying just for the entertainment value.

Not to say that I don’t like my family, in fact my living situation has improved a lot since last week. I now have a 20 amp circuit in my room so I can run stove, kettle, and computer all at once if I so choose. I don’t have room for the stove on my desk, so I keep it on the floor. A bit obnoxious but better than nothing. Just yesterday I cooked my first meal—a large portion of beans and rice.

Oct 10, 2009

Gravity's Rainbow review

So I finally did it. Plowed through this beast of a novel, all 887 pages in my tattered and duct-taped paperback version (I tore the cover off at one point on accident...coincidence? It can't be). I think I read five other books from the time I started to the time I finished. Everyone said that this is the kind of novel you either love or hate, but in this as in many, many other things my principal reaction is…shrug.

First let me say that it wasn’t that hard, certainly not as hard as I was led to believe. Sure, Pynchon often changes subject or narrator in mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence, he often starts a section without any lead-in whatsoever, and figuring out time is a chore (on purpose, I suppose), but that’s about it. Running through it all is a relatively straightforward plot that one can follow even with long breaks at times. There are numerous references to obscure 1940s pop culture and a dollop of engineering and chemistry here and there, but none of those are key to understanding the basic points. I was lazy and didn’t read much supplementary materials, but even I caught a lot of the references (except for the tarot and Gnostic stuff at the end). Those who have called it as hard as Finnegan’s Wake are fools—it’s written in a real language, fergawdsake.

On balance, I’d say I liked it, but I was often at a loss as to how to react. Not to say that it inspired no reaction at all. Parts of it are truly inspired, and often funny, and the prose is devilishly original. Pynchon makes these winding digressions, piling on lists of objects and characteristics (one of his signature moves, and he’s good at it), making what seems to be a massive effort, but I was often left admiring nothing more than the sheer strangeness of it all. The main pulse of the book, the consistent motivating force across most of the main characters, is paranoia. Deep, nail-biting megalomaniac paranoia. I never quite grasped why this should be such an important feeling, subject of such a massive tome. Maybe if I were smarter I would get it.

On a side note, Pynchon often uses simple activities or natural phenomena (like the rise and fall of a rocket) and imbues them with heavy metaphorical significance. Combine that with the consistent theme of paranoia, and I got tired of it after awhile. I suppose my main problem with the book was just crankiness. I see (in a dim way) what he was getting at with the Us/Them business infusing everything, even molecular bonds, but it just pissed me off a little.

Still, a great book. Someday I may even read it again and learn to like it more. But not for a long time.

Oct 9, 2009

Things I like about my village, part I

This is going to be a continuing series, but I'd like to start out with just a little positive thinking.
1) I've got a very nice pit toilet. You can see it there in the back; I think it's a government pre-fab job because there are identical ones all over my village. I didn't learn my good fortune until I talked with some of the other volunteers who are staying nearby who speak of their toilets as an abomination. When I told them sometimes I would take a book with me if I knew it was going to take some time they stared at me in horror--though truly, it barely smells, and there are hardly any flies.

2) The riverbed. It makes for some really nice walking, twisty and interesting, and as long as you like. Last time I went I got greedy, went too far, and was in the stumbling dark when I finally got back.

3) The school's physical resources. There are many books (they don't use them, of course, but it's a start), and two (!) very nice copy machines that I can use anytime. I remember in New York how the teachers would have to go make copies at Staples on their own nickel (or send me to do it), or go for 45 minutes on the subway.

4) How competent I feel. Sure, my self-confidence is sorely tried in a lot of ways every day (like how will I ever learn Setswana? I don't have any friends here, etc.) but when it comes to computers or technical subjects I am a god. My measly half-assed computer skills in the states make me like some sort of wizard here. I can type at least ten times faster than anyone at the school, I know math and science cold (up through 9th grade, anyway) and my English is solid. Today I defined "abdicate" and the teachers treated me like Newton.

A little bigheaded perhaps, but it makes me feel better.
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Oct 8, 2009


This is a picture from some time back in Marapyane, right behind my host family's house. We were out there with buckets for a couple hours defending the perimeter of the property with buckets and so forth, which was successful. It probably wasn't too necessary as it was one of those cool, fast grass fires that goes out easy when it runs out of fuel, and my family's lot was mostly sand. Still, it felt good to be out there manning the barricades as it were, and it helped me integrate into the family a lot. Brush fires are quite common back there, especially during the winter/early spring where there's lots of dead growth to burn, and probably part of the natural order as not two weeks later there was a couple inches of fresh growth over the black ash. I used to see little kids starting those things practically every day.

Perhaps it's too bad that the goats and sheep have gnarled down every bit of edible anything for a mile radius around my village--down to mineral soil, as my dad would say. The vegetation is a bit sparser here in any case.

Today I went for a long walk down the dry riverbed, and perhaps tomorrow or Monday I'll have some good pictures of that country. It's a bit deserty and certainly filled with some spiny plants (next trip to Kuruman I plan to buy some sturdy boots, or my tennis shoes will be toast in short order), but against all expectations I actually found a steep slope with some commanding views (for Northern Cape). Quite nice.
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Oct 6, 2009

Here we go


Here's that picture I was talking about. Kind of a large river bed, ain't it? I think every 10 years or so there must be a huge flood for something like that to be so wide. It took two days of relatively solid rain to make it run at all, so I can't imagine what kind of rain it would take.
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I hoped slightly that this new president wouldn't be a lying prick. Unfortunately:
But even granting the significance of those first-week measures, the Obama administration has aggressively defended, justified and embraced the overwhelming bulk of Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies -- the exact ones that caused liberals and Democrats to object so vehemently over the last eight years: imprisonment with no trials, maintaining a legal black hole at Bagram, military commissions, renditions, warrantless eavesdropping, claims of state secrets to prevent judicial review of presidential lawbreaking, legal immunity for all but the lowest-level war criminals, abuse-guaranteeing Patriot Act powers, impenetrable walls of secrecy in the national security context.
I suppose it's inevitable. Power is a ratchet and all that. Still a pisser though.


Today I was helping the 9th grade with an end-of-term mathematics test that they were supposed to have finished the week before last. The first issue I noticed was that every single question was drenched with vaguely irritating social-justice “context” that grated at the mind—the first task, for example, was to take a survey of 50 people’s voting records over the last 14 years (this in a village of 500, mind you) and then organize and analyze those data in a simple way, like finding the average and the range.

I used to think the education system in the USA drenched with politics—it is, of course, but nothing compared to this. Even finding a simple average has to be turned into a lesson on April 27, 1994, or how mathematics has roots in many different cultures, or some other such hokem. It has its place, I imagine, but not in the maths classroom.

On a side note, this seems to be a systematic problem in South African schools that I have seen—that is, too much contextualization. There is not chemistry and physics, there is “Natural Science,” which remains shoddy and jumbled in terms of subject development all the way to 12th grade. (The textbooks suck, too—imagine a 12th grade chemistry book combined with a similar physics book, pared down by 2/3, half written by a chemical company, with no index.)

To my mind, this pollution of mathematics is bad in every case. Mathematics should remain conceptually distinct—some examples from real life are of course necessary, but it is of primary importance to be able to deal with numbers as abstract objects, to lay the groundwork for proof-based maths. Many, perhaps most, problems should be totally abstract. I recall a study a few months ago which found children learn faster from abstract examples than from ones based in reality (I’d track it down if I had some more bandwidth). The RNCS says, “The learner should develop an appreciation of how algebraic manipulation is used to solve problems (and not engage in algebraic manipulation for its own sake).”

But this need not be a death blow for an education system. In a country like England or the USA, where there are teachers that could instill the art of plowing the political, bureaucratic language, digging through the muck to find the concepts beneath, the students still might do well, and perhaps pick up some life skills also. But here, where half the teachers don’t know words like “facilitate,” this is absolutely devastating. Consider this question: “Does the voting trend correlate with the respondents’ impressions about democracy in South Africa?” Forget momentarily what the question is about, just imagine trying to explain it to someone who didn’t know what “trend,” “correlate,” “respondent,” or “impression” meant. It’s not written for an ESL student, and the vocabulary is bureaucratic and unnecessarily sophisticated—and this is supposed to be math!

The 9th graders, of course, had deeper problems. They didn’t know what an average was. They had some small idea of a “mean,” but due to the obscurantist language the question was utterly out of reach. To my mind the social justice lessons should be kept out of the mathematics classroom, but even if not, rural South Africans are not ready for it in any case. I half believe it when some of the teachers tell me that Bantu Education was better.

I’ve been thinking a lot about George Bush’s famous quote: “The soft bigotry of low expectations,” meaning that disadvantaged children should be expected to perform at the same level as rich ones. You’d have to be a racist to think that a Motswana is genetically incapable of performing at the same level as a rich white American. I have been frankly flabbergasted by the students here—their discipline, their halting attempts to teach themselves, and their relative politeness and respect towards me. In any similar situation in the USA—dirt poor kids essentially running free in a school with something like 30% teacher attendance in the classroom—it would be Lord of the Flies.

But students don’t exist in a vacuum. They have teachers, parents, relatives, etc. One can’t just stuff OBE (outcome-based education) and the RNCS down the throats of these terribly oppressed communities and expect the schools to start pumping out Jeffersonian democrats. I’m sure the students, given the proper opportunities, could manage as well or better than anyone, but the teachers, sadly, cannot. The worst problem I see in my village is that the teachers spend very little time in the classroom. It’s not just that they are lazy (they are) or that they can’t wait to move to Joburg and get out of the stinking village (they can’t), or even that they often don’t know their subject well (they don’t). It’s also that they spend roughly half their small amount of school time filling out paperwork. With the Department of Education breathing down their necks (with lots of computerized forms), the Kafkaesque submission requirements for teacher and student portfolios, and their fumbling computer skills, it’s a wonder there’s any teaching at all.

If I were king there are a few obvious first steps I would take. First, RNCS and OBE must go, and should be replaced with something a thousand times simpler, with all the subjects mostly distinct. Second, the teacher quality standards need some teeth—by hook or by crook, every classroom should have a teacher in it every day, or else. Probably out of the question, but I can dream.

Maybe in 20 years, South Africa could start implementing the kind of extremely complex system they've got on paper now. But at this point, it's hard to imagine something failing worse in my school.


I would start this post with a picture, but I'm still having some trouble uploading. Suffice to say that it rained all weekend, so much that the riverbed through town was actually running a little bit for about half an hour. Exciting! Yet it meant I had no cell signal all weekend, so if you were trying to call me then, that's what happened.

Oct 2, 2009

A week off

I thought I'd give everyone a real update now that I've got the computer properly tethered to the phone and sweet shining internet running in at a brisk trot. First, I've added a few people to the list, so if you don't want my spam, give a shout.

Down to business. Things are progressing relatively well here in my village. We're still on a week-and-a-half break from school, so I've been walking around a lot and listening to audiobooks. Yesterday I was in Kuruman again and met up with some volunteers--with all the down time some of us were a bit stir crazy and needed to see some other makgowa (white people). One of these days I really must break out my camera and take some pictures.

I now own a small bar fridge, which cost me 3/4 of my monthly stipend, but due to electrical problems I can't yet plug it in. Wiring standards here are a bit lax--there's a five amp breaker which serves as a light switch in my room that is just hanging from the live wire. Money management is going to be a trial here--most things are slightly cheaper than they are in the states (except for electronics--much more expensive), and we are paid about $300/month. I suspect I'll be eating a lot of rice and beans.

There's a dry riverbed that runs right through my village, and I've been exploring that up and down, as well as walking down the road. This is strange behavior, even more than running--about every third car going my direction stops and offers a ride. At some point I plan to buy a bicycle, which would put me within striking distance of five or six other volunteers (within 30km or so on gravel). One of those volunteers is allegedly going to visit me today, as he already has a bike (it was left there by the previous volunteer, who also left a fridge, a stove, a nice bed, and various other items).

I've been plowing through a lot of books as well, I've even made it most of the way through Gravity's Rainbow. I might be putting up some reviews on the blog, who knows.

School starts again on Monday, so hopefully by that time I'll have my electricity woes figured out. Next I want to buy a small two-burner stove with a small oven--a slick little rig I never saw in the states, perfect for a broke bachelor like myself. I figure at some point I should become capable of feeding myself and this seems like a good a time as any. Maybe even someday I can muddle through a pretentious conversation about spices and mushrooms. I've already been thoroughly shamed by another volunteer who was not impressed with my choice of favorite food (which shall remain nameless).

Other than that, it's been fairly slow around here. With luck, I should have some pictures for next time.

Dear god

Finally, FINALLY!

I now have my phone's internet up and running, and hooked up to my computer as a modem. It wasn't easy, and I eventually ended up downloading a 32 MB exe from Nokia on my phone, transferring it to the computer, and installing it. But now I have sweet sweet internet, anytime I want. It is glorious. I should be in a lot more close contact these days.