Jan 31, 2010

Broken Technology

Hello All- RJA is currently unable to post because the power button on his cell phone is broken. He thus has no way to connect to the internet. It is being fixed and he should return to fill his rightful place on the blogosphere in about a week.
RJA's lil' sis'

Jan 27, 2010

A view of Mpumalanga

I'm on my way back home again. This bit of South Africa is exceptionally hot and humid.

Jan 24, 2010


So we're here in Mpumalanga about an hour from the old training site of Marapyane. Today we went and visited our old families but unfortunately mine was not there.

I picked up a cold here, just like old times. Sickness is part of the mix.

Jan 22, 2010

Quick update

We're here at a Peace Corps training in Mpumalanga. I'll have some
more stuff tomorrow.

Sent from my mobile device

Jan 20, 2010

Facepalm: GOP wins 41-59 majority in the Senate

Sure, Republicans are terrible. George Bush started two wars, one of them for no reason at all. Yet somehow I can't muster as much scathing disgust at him than I can at the Democratic Party. They somehow managed to nominate some lazy elitist douche who was a terrible prosecutor, a lousy campaigner, and who insulted Red Sox fans for Ted Kennedy's old seat, and she lost. The Democrats choked away Ted Kennedy's seat. In Massachusetts.

Of course, it's only one vote in the Senate, which has already passed health care legislation, but you know Democrats are going to take that belt they've wrapped around their neck, breathe deep, and tighten it ten or eleven more notches. The House won't pass the Senate bill, and no one will even mention the filibuster.

Health care reform, Ted Kennedy's signature issue, is done in America for a generation. That's some sick irony.

See here for more.

(h/t Village Voice for the title)

Jan 19, 2010

Flash flood!

It was raining fiercely all afternoon here, sheeting soak-through-your-shirt kind of rain. An Afrikaner fellow is building a new classroom for the Grade Rs (kindergarten), and a big pile of pre-mixed concrete got thoroughly soaked. But the thing that most excited me--so much that I ran down to the bridge to get a look--was that the the river was running. I imagine it was going 75 cfs or so, not a savage flood or anything, but my heart was gladdened.

In fact, I was almost giddy. I watched a rusty 55-gallon drum float under the bridge whistling to myself like a fool. I've talked a lot about culture on this blog, often describing the relative lack of it in American society. But standing on that bridge, watching the thick, dirty, chocolate milk water feeding waves off half-submerged acacia bushes, I knew where I come from. River folk.
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Jan 18, 2010

Host family profile: Letlhotlho

This little guy is in Grade 1 now. He stays here with his grandma (my host mom), and mostly hangs out with my host brother Tebogo (his malome, or uncle). He's always got a big smile, but he's got a bit of a kitten-torturing habit. I'm trying to break him of that.
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Jan 17, 2010

Fun with light sensors

I flogged my camera back into working order and got a couple cool pictures by fooling around with the autofocus. This one looks kind of like a nuke is going off in Upington.
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Jan 15, 2010

In which I bemoan my lousy teaching

I'm gaining more and more respect for the teachers I know in New York City and elsewhere. I'm having a devil of a time with the intermediate phase. With the grade 7-8, I could mostly rely on a grumpy persona and reasoning to keep the class focused; 4th graders are a different beast. After an hour or so, they get increasingly fidgety and restless, and thus harder and harder to keep on task. It doesn't help that I don't yet know most of their names and can't speak their language very well.

On a side note, I have to say this has been the best thing to happen to my Setswana by far since I came to my permanent site. These Grade 4s have not been taught English at all, which makes my head spin. I was talking to the new principal and she said that the previous Grade 2-3 teacher refused to teach the kids English, and my old principal agreed with her. When the guy from the Department of Education came earlier this week, he said that we were the only school in the entire district that was "in such egregious violation of the regulations." I have a feeling my old principal knew what was coming which was why he skedaddled.

I had a simple introductory class and some straightforward rules, but I think a better idea would be some kind of a reward pathway where I could threaten them with the loss of a treat or some such if they don't behave. I'm thinking a behavior chart where they earn points for correct answers and good behavior and lose points for getting up, hitting each other, etc. I also need to do a lot more activities. They clearly hate sitting down for more than an hour or so. My first project I've got in mind (which hopefully I can drag out over a couple weeks at least) is building some bridges out of tightly-rolled newspaper and tape.

In retrospect these kind of things seem blindingly obvious. I've never been an elementary teacher (well, save last term, I've never been any kind of teacher), and the training we had here was like learning to be a doctor by watching one episode of Grey's Anatomy. I'm trying to dust off memories from that time in my life and making some improvements to my classroom as well; finding some colorful posters and so forth to hang up. Anyone else have some ideas?
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Hilarity of the day

This from the CDC on the fact that Americans have stopped getting fatter:
Dr. Ludwig said the plateau might just suggest that “we’ve reached a biological limit” to how obese people could get. When people eat more, he said, at first they gain weight; then a growing share of the calories go “into maintaining and moving around that excess tissue,” he continued, so that “a population doesn’t keep getting heavier and heavier indefinitely.”
Maybe I'm sick and twisted, but I laughed myself hoarse about that one. My dad would appreciate it.

Jan 14, 2010

The faces of evil

So Pat Robertson, in his usual shtick (when he's not leg-pressing 2000 pounds), uses God Almighty as a sockpuppet to say the Haitian earthquake was caused by the slaves making a pact with the devil way back when. Me, I see more evil here in these roosters. You can see the demonic intelligence.

UPDATE: TNC has the best response to Mr. Robertson.
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This was from yesterday.
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Jan 13, 2010

School limps into gear

So school offically started on Monday, though the learners didn't show up until Wednesday. Monday was spent throwing together some lesson plans, which consists of copying the relevant material out of the course schedule (the document that details what is supposed to be taught when according to the law). These will bear only a passing resemblance to what is actually taught--and that's probably a good thing, as most of the time the learners are not remotely ready for what is laid out in the work schedule.

Apparently the high school in the next village bombed the matric test (4/25 passing), so on Tuesday a guy from the Department of Education--an Afrikaner who knew a little bit of Setswana, no less--stopped by to read us the riot act. This was frankly refreshing, as it seemed to put the teachers and especially the new acting principal (who used to be the head teacher) in a productive mood. That same day they put me down in the intermediate phase for this first term (grades 4-6--I used to be helping grades 7-9). This seems a bit silly as I know math and science ten times better than any of the other teachers, but on the other hand I'm being replaced with the best teacher in the school and now I get my own classroom, with my own lockable filing cabinet, posters on the walls I can keep maintained, etc.

The other issue with the change is that grade 4 is where everything is supposed to be taught in English, but as the kids don't really get much practice in English they have no bloody idea what I'm talking about. However painful this might be at first, I think it's going to be great for their English and my Setswana also (the latter especially).

The first day, though we started late and ended early, went better than any day I have seen thus far at my school. Every teacher was in the classroom, and I saw all of them teaching at least a little bit. I think this is mostly due to the new principal, who mentioned specifically that educators were not supposed to be in the staffroom during class unless they have some copying or something to do. I was pleasantly surprised at the abilities of the intermediate phase (especially grades 5-6), and managed to teach a few half-decent lessons with a combination of English and broken Setswana. I'll say I'm cautiously optimistic about the new year. Hooray for 2010!

Earthquake in Haiti

Talk about picking on the helpless ones! Here are some ways to help:

American Red Cross International Response Fund
AmeriCares Help For Haiti
Doctors without Borders
Haiti Emergency Relief Fund
Mercy Corps
Yele Haiti

Jan 12, 2010

Disco chicken

This might be tough to see, but some chickens around here have feathers growing on their feet that look disturbingly like bell-bottoms.
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Collateral damage

Radley Balko from Reason Magazine gives some background on recent victims of paramilitary police raids:
Three drug war deaths in recent headlines show that the Verdun mentality continues to thrive in America's century-old effort to protect its citizens from themselves. Today, actual war weaponry, armor, and tactics are as much a part of the war on drugs as Reagan's rhetoric implied back when the drug war was young. And law enforcement officials shrug off the deaths of innocents as if they were the same sort of collateral damage you'd find on a battlefield.
Go read.

Jan 11, 2010

The cute...

...it burns!

This might be the best thing I ever wrote

It was my final from a creative writing nonfiction class. Not stupendous or anything, but not too bad.

I was right at about the age where your parents are debating whether or not to start feeding you solid food. We were deep in the high desert of Utah, following an old power-line road that hadn’t been maintained in about twenty years. This was back when we had the old Ford Ranger pickup, before my folks forswore American cars altogether, because this Ranger was the lousiest hunk of steel that any greasy mechanic ever set to a torque wrench. That’s another story. This was about the halfway point on our journey and we were stopped for lunch. My parents were debating the solid food concept, and they failed to notice my shark-like gaze following them back and forth until my mother dropped her tuna fish sandwich within range of my chubby little talons. I seized it without a moment’s hesitation, and according to reliable sources, stuffed as much as could possibly fit into my mouth, grinning like a demon. That seemed to settle the debate.

I don’t remember this because I was too young, of course. It makes me wonder, though. Is there such a thing as a personal identity? Does it make sense to call the rascally little protagonist of that story me? I lean towards scientific materialism, meaning that the only things that exist are the various forms of matter and energy. One can draw a line through time and space following a collection of atoms that were always called by my name. These atoms have been swapped out numerous times in the course of my life and if I’m lucky will be changed many more times before I die. I’m not even sure this story about my infancy is true—in fact, I’d wager my father embellished it for comic effect. It seems to me that living things are like a sand dune being blown across the desert, each grain being replaced in its turn but the shape and size of the dune remaining roughly the same. A metaphysical naturalist would have no problem saying that emotions, theories and ideas like love and beauty exist solely as computational constructions of our brain, but I think this could be applied to living things as well. Ryan is a name for a particular shape of atoms that happens to be blowing across the desert right now; in a relatively short time that shape will disintegrate. Still, might as well enjoy the ride.

Copyright 2008, all rights reserved. No part of this writing can be reproduced, rewritten, broadcast, or published without the written consent of the author.

Additional thoughts on Avatar

The film Avatar has been stirring around in my mind since I saw it (so much so that I might try and catch it again when I'm in Pretoria next week--for those of you near an IMAX, I beg you to go and see this one. Seriously). Conor Friedersdorf says the things that were vaguely coagulating in my head, but better than I would have:
But James Cameron isn’t portraying native people of our world. His alien protagonists aren’t intended as stand-ins for the Navajos or the Aztecs or the Cherokee. In his different world, the native people really are in communion with nature. Were his purpose to comment on European history, this would be a terrible choice, but in fact Avatar is a film whose purpose is allowing humanity to reflect on its circumstances and fallen nature in a novel way. That is why I approve of the decision to portray the kinds of natives that were shown.
Maybe I'm just a dirty hippie, but I went into that movie expecting the standard Hollywood flash in the pan that you forget ten minutes later and came out surprisingly moved. I'm pretty cynical, so I laughed at reviews that made snarky comments about the Na'vi being equipped with USB ports. Yet I couldn't just dismiss it as a movie (not just a special effects extravaganza); it had gotten under my skin a little bit. I suspect the movie is good, better than it lets on (if that makes sense), maybe even great.

Jan 10, 2010

Personally commissioned humor

Science? Check. Chemistry? Check. Orbitals joke? Check. (Really?) Pun? Check.

Some structural issues

It's been raining hard for the last couple days here. Here you can see where the bit of my room that's supposed to keep that from dripping on my head isn't functioning as advertised.
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Article of the day

Kevin Drum takes a look at the financial crisis from a different perspective:
It's about the way that lobby—with the eager support of a resurgent conservative movement and a handful of powerful backers—was able to fundamentally change the way we think about the world. Call it a virus. Call it a meme. Call it the power of a big idea. Whatever you call it, for three decades they had us convinced that the success of the financial sector should be measured not by how well it provides financial services to actual consumers and corporations, but by how effectively financial firms make money for themselves. It sounds crazy when you put it that way, but stripped to its bones, that's what they pulled off.


If the case against self-regulation was strong then, it's stronger now. Far from being chastened by last year's meltdown, banks are back to their old tricks. The sliced-and-diced mortgage securities that caused so much trouble during the credit bubble are being re-sliced and -diced via something called a RE-REMIC (resecuritization of real estate mortgage investment conduit)—and business is booming. At Goldman Sachs, leverage in the first half of 2009 was at its highest level in its history. Even more astonishingly, the Wall Street Journal estimates that overall pay on Wall Street will rise to record levels in 2009, higher than at the height of the bubble. It's as if the global collapse that nearly destroyed them has been completely forgotten.

Jan 8, 2010

Article of the day

I've always had kind of a sneaking suspicion that economics, especially high-finance kind of economics, is saddled with a lot of BS. I took an intro economics course in college (and did very well, I might add), and it seemed like some fairly non-controversial material. When you start talking about hedge funds though, a lot of that stuff seems to go out the window. If you're still reading, you might check out this article from James Galbraith about why so many economists (Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong being the most obvious exceptions) completely missed the latest financial cataclysm.

(h/t Nick Baumann)

Jan 7, 2010


Well with all my trumpeting about how South Africa is a super-sweet place, I think one shouldn't forget other countries around the neighborhood. I'm living in a Setswana-speaking place that's only about 100 km from the Botswana border, so it's a natural place to start.

I still think what South Africa managed in 1994 is the most remarkable diplomatic event of modern history, but what Botswana managed to pull off is in some ways even better. Despite being a British colony like so many others, Botswana is the only country in Africa to have unbroken free and fair elections since they gained their independence in 1966. They have managed to shepherd their considerable wealth in diamonds carefully, and maintained for decades a growth rate comparable (or even exceeding) Southeast Asia, while also keeping a good stockpile of foreign currency. Depending on who you ask, it's got per-capita income close to Russia (and probably higher than South Africa--some say almost half again as much). Transparency International says it's the least corrupt country in Africa, similar to Portugal and South Korea.

It's home to the legendary Okavango Delta, which according to a source I trust is the coolest safari place in Africa.

In short, they've done quite well for themselves, and in a deeply Tswana kind of way. The Batswana are peaceful folk, not aggressive like Zulus or Xhosas (I don't think we'll ever see a Tswana president of South Africa); during the Mfecane they just packed up and headed for points north. While South Africa had all the drama, controversy, oppression, and attention, Botswana quietly and peacefully built itself into the one of the most stable and healthy countries in Africa. That's something I can appreciate.

Of course, they have the second-highest HIV infection rate in the world, but they were the first country to provide free ARV drugs to all those infected. At least their president never said that AIDS is not caused by HIV.

Jan 6, 2010

Vacation news!

Happy New Year!

I hope everyone had a great holiday season and had a nice kiss over the last moments of 2009. Unfortunately my transition to 2010 was unmuffled, but as I was vacationing on some of the most beautiful coast I’ve ever visited, I had no cause to complain. At least now we can stop the “two-thousand” nonsense. Long live twenty ten!

So, I checked out my friend Noah’s village, which was broadly similar to my own save for a terrible ant infestation. He was quite manly about the little bastards as they didn’t really bite, but perhaps due to a childhood incident involving a red ant pile and a Tonka truck, I couldn’t bear the feeling of them crawling on my feet. “Bina!” said Noah’s host family. (Dance!)

We took a taxi to Pretoria, and stayed the night at a backpacker’s there. Pretoria’s a remarkable place; one can sense a nice little city struggling to be born out of the crime and car wrecks (a bit less than 1100 people died in traffic accidents in December alone in South Africa, one of the highest rates in the world). The backpacker’s is in a nice neighborhood with clean, tree-lined streets…if it weren’t for the spike-lined electric fences, you could be in Portland, Oregon. Jarring.

After some food and drinks at a local college bar complex that night (where I was forced very much against my will to dance in a lousy club) we spend the night at the backpacker’s. The next day we met the rest of our group (11 all told) and caught the night bus to Mthatha. Eastern Cape is a beautiful, rainy, rugged, grassy province—I was strongly reminded of Scotland, though I’ve never been there. If Braveheart is close at all, then I’m not too off base. Our destination was a place called Coffee Bay—we stayed at a backpacker’s called “The Coffee Shack.”

The coast was staggering. Around the bay were towering slate and granite cliffs where four-foot swells broke heavily on the rocks, surging tendrils of spray fifteen feet up, interrupted by half-mile beaches. The stuff of postcard legend, no airbrushing required. We did a lot of touristy things, hiking around, surfing, getting the everlovin Jeebus sunburned out of us, etc. I was careful with the sunscreen—most everyone else got badly burned (save Noah, who is weirdly resistant to the sun)—but I still got it pretty bad on my scalp. Damn alopecia.

The Coffee Shack seemed like a quick stopover, one or two nights, for people moving along the coast from Cape Town to Durban. All kinds of nationalities were represented: German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Israeli, English, South African, etc. Americans were a bit scarce, though I suppose that’s understandable. Personally, I liked that we stayed there for over a week. If a place is at all cool, it’s worth staying for a long while, kicking off your shoes, digging in your toes, and exploring. You also don’t spend nearly so much time moving around.

I read several books on the trip (maybe I’ll have a couple reviews later this week on my blog). The one that stuck in my mind was Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. It’s a brutally unsentimental look at her African childhood in Rhodesia, Malawi, Zambia, and Namibia. Reading about the war for independence in Rhodesia, the collapse of white rule, and the mass emigration of whites out of the new Zimbabwe, I’m again struck by the sheer improbability of what happened in South Africa in 1994. No war, no diaspora. It’s almost enough to require divine intervention.

So now I’m back home where they speak Setswana, a surprising pleasure to hear. Xhosa was beautiful but being totally out of the loop was a bit frustrating. At the Coffee Shack we met a couple Batswana who were totally blown away at this pack of Americans that all spoke Setswana (at least a little).

School starts next week, so I’m getting ready for that now, but I’ll be heading for a Peace Corps training the week after that.
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Articles of the day

Here is a great meditation on the possible decline of America, to what extent we've been hyperventilating about it before, and what must happen in order to drag ourselves out of the hole. The Senate, as always, is the source of most of the problems we face as a society.

This article (which is actually an excerpt from Brad DeLong's new book) is about a similar topic: the cultural effects of being in hock to the rest of the world, particularly China. However, there's some interesting facets to this that I think people tend to overlook:
Proverbs 22:7 instructs us: "The borrower is servant to the lender." But the lesson requires some exegesis to fit smoothly into context. The burden of the U.S. foreign debt may be better explained by the oft-repeated Wall Street wisecrack, which we repeat: When you owe the bank $1 million, the bank has got you; when you owe the bank $1 billion, you've got the bank.

Neither side can walk away; we're locked. The debt binds China especially and other governments that have the money. Selling the debt would send the dollar way down and thereby destroy the value of their dollar holdings and severely damage their economies' massive export-based sectors. Worse yet, sell it for what? Their "reserves" are so huge that there is nothing else they can hold them in, not at that scale. From a Chinese viewpoint, it's exasperating.

Jan 5, 2010

I'm home!

Long, sweaty bus ride back...but I made it! Tomorrow I'll have a more concrete update.

Jan 4, 2010


I'm visiting another volunteer tonight before catching the bus back to the village. They've got some great grapevines here, enough for a lot of wine.

Jan 3, 2010


Just caught this flick today here in Pretoria. Quick capsule review: amazing. Sure, the plot's a bit derivative, but the setting and the special effects are absolutely stunning. I've seen it compared to Star Wars, and I think that's about right. I wanted to see it again the second it was over.

Jan 2, 2010

Sunset on the bus ride home

Some sweet mountains on this side of the country. Definitely worth a visit if you're in the area, my whole trip of about two weeks cost roughly 250 dollars US.

Jan 1, 2010

Sunset over Coffee Bay

This from tonight. It's remarkable, usually the sunsets here haven't been great.