Jeremy Paxman vs Richard Nixon: the alternative reality that never was (S&R Honors)

In an alternative universe Jeremy Paxman, not David Frost, interviewed Richard Nixon in 1977.

David Frost became an extremely successful comedian. His tours with Monty Python are celebrated to this day. Jeremy Paxman was newly-arrived in the US from Beirut where his explosive interview style had led to tension within the BBC.

His now infamous interrogation, in 1976, of Étienne Saqr of the Gardiens des Cèdres, whose militia massacred hundreds in Karantina in East Beirut, included 20 minutes of Paxman demanding, “Are you a genocidal maniac?” while Saqr threatened him with a machine gun. Continue reading

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Understanding Nigeria: Boko Haram, joy, corruption, Egusi soup and the racism of #BringBackOurGirls

When Kim Kardashian takes up your cause, you know  you’ve hit rock bottom.

“Hmmm, the website is, excuse me, my Oga at the top knows the website.”

Mr Shem Obafaye, by the grace of political favour, Lagos State Commandant of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps — the paramilitary NSCDC — was on the spot on Channels Television’s live breakfast show, Sunrise.

The probing, penetrating, unforgiving investigative journalism continued in the full light of the public gaze. “What is the official website of the NSCDC?”

“My Oga at the top is working on the website and I don’t have them.” Continue reading

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What if Russia’s invasion of Crimea is really a post-democracy problem?

The Crimea crisis may feel like a throwback to the Cold War, but it’s actually reflective of 21st century democracy.

ImageDemocracy is defined as “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” Despotism is “the exercise of absolute power, especially in a cruel and oppressive way.”

A child denied any access to sweeties, despite abject pleas to the contrary, is experiencing despotism. A child offered a choice of two sweeties, but not one of the fifty they actually wanted, is experiencing democracy.

History is messy. Continue reading

Africa

Tackling poverty means that there will be more KFCs in Africa

Photo credit: CIMMYT.

Smallholder farmer prepares maize plot for planting with CIMMYT improved varieties, Embu, Kenya

Gates Foundation and KFC initiatives are better news than many understand.

Rural villages in Africa are not just poor, their demography is hollowed out. Continue reading

Remembering Nelson Mandela: the origins of hope and despair

Nelson Mandela emerging from Victor Verster Prison, 11 February 1990, Reuters

Nelson Mandela emerging from Victor Verster Prison, 11 February 1990, Reuters

Sunday afternoon in 1990. 11 February in Port Elizabeth. The height of summer, just after schools have returned for the start of the year. The wind howls as the air tears down South Africa’s long coast.

That day was calm. The country held its breath.

Thousands gathered at Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, about an hour outside Cape Town. They were waiting for the unhoped-for release of one man: Nelson Mandela.

I, 16 years old, poised in front of the television with my camera on a tripod. I knew it was probably futile trying to catch an image, but I wanted somehow to hang on to this moment. Continue reading

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Novel Journey 8: In which the author submits

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Eventually there comes the moment when any author has to submit what they have written to the jaded palate of agencies. Friends have enjoyed what I’ve written, but one always receives a bit of a free pass from that quarter. Today I started the process of seeking representation. Continue reading

Feral dog and motorbike, Moalboal, Philippines

Novel Journey 5: In which the author fails to buy a pig

Feral dog and motorbike, Moalboal, Philippines

Feral dog and motorbike, Moalboal, Philippines

The small child was perched under a shelter, upon the wall of a square enclosure. “You want buy pig?” he inquired.

The author, being as he was on his way back from diving, demurred.

I can see why folks dive at Pescador Island – a small atoll only a few minutes boat ride from Panagsama Beach – it is simply beautiful. I was, for reasons known only to itself, adopted by a remora which became the surreal highlight of my dive. Oh sure, there were all sorts of colourful fish, nudibranches, sea horses, soft and hard corals, and snotty-looking things, but every time I reached for my pressure gauge, I would grab a handful of Romy (that was her name).

The giggling probably reduced my downtime a bit, but I still got an hour in. Continue reading

Village shop, Moalboal, Philippines

Novel Journey 4: In which the author gets back to work

Village shop, Moalboal, Philippines

Village shop, Moalboal, Philippines

The only way to take a month off is not to take a month off. Today was a work day. Tomorrow is a diving day. So writing resumes on Saturday.

Still, the ocean is just over the lawn and I saw a ray leap out of the water a few metres out.

Words completed: 20,969 and 5,482 written on Wednesday, including a re-edit of work to date.

Some influences for this work include Italo Calvino (If on a winter’s night a traveller), Alexander McCall Smith (No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) and Alan Paton (Cry, The Beloved Country). They’re an odd mix for a near-future science fiction story. I love the tone of Paton’s book, the timbre of the conversation. I love the gentleness of McCall Smith’s work, the care people have for each other. I love the post-modern exuberance of Calvino, the patchwork-quilt that is a story.

I don’t have any books with me. I haven’t read a fictional work in months. Clearing my head. That doesn’t mean I’m not reading, but I’m taking care to keep an aesthete’s approach to fitness.

The clearing is important because only a week ago I was doing this: Open Knowledge Conference – Gavin Chait

Suit-to-surf in three days and then leaving the complex world of open data, metadata standards and such behind is a culture shock.

Tomorrow I go diving. That should help.

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

Novel Journey 3: In which the author goes snorkeling

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

It is a 20 minute walk from Dacozy to Panagsama village through the village where the folks who support the tourist industry actually live.

There is one cluster of small houses where everyone seems to have gone made for bonsai trees. I’m not sure if it is a very enthusiastic hobby or something raised to sell elsewhere. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

Novel Journey 2: In which the author commences

House Beach, Dacozy Resort, Moalboal
I have spent years trying to come up with the first sentence and following paragraphs for the novel. I have tried every voice, even an idea of letting a group of animals sit around a camp-fire and tell the story of my human protagonists.

This morning I deleted about 2,000 words of an introduction written six months ago in favour of rewriting the second chapter. This works and captures the narrative feel I want from the beginning. Continue reading

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

Novel Journey 1: In which the author goes forth

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

My father passed away three weeks ago.

His cancer returned in May and I flew home for a few weeks to spend time with him and my mom. He had just completed a round of radiation therapy and was recovering his fitness. My mom was retiring early and they were hoping to go travelling together, bringing forward plans originally slated for my mom’s 70th birthday, still two years away.

When I left, only two months ago, all seemed well. But it hangs over everything. Every conversation. Each moment.

My dad’s sister visited from Australia six weeks ago and, again, everything seemed fine. Then the phone call and the hasty trip to South Africa.

I started writing my first novel, Tartarus One, when I was 12 years old on my father’s first computer. It was an IBM clone with a tiny green cathode ray screen. I wrote about 10,000 words before stopping. The story then was about a man who was unjustly imprisoned in a jail in space, who escaped by building a small craft, and crashed in central Africa before returning to exact vengeance.

It was a clever story but I realised quite quickly that the voice and approach I was writing in wasn’t my own. It was Stephen King’s. And I knew that wouldn’t do.

I tried off and on over the years but, unless one has a trust fund or a supportive, wealthy and understanding spouse, writing full-time is too expensive and the returns too insecure. I have always worked and never earned sufficient to give it a go.

Over the years Tartarus One became Tartarus Falls. The story evolved, became more complex, then simpler, then honed. But I never wrote it.

I arrived on Monday afternoon. He was in bed and hadn’t moved for a few days. He was thrilled to see me and my normally physically reserved father held my hand tightly as we spoke that afternoon. Him in short, exhausted bursts. Every word leaving him panting from the effort.

He didn’t look well. His face swollen and blotchy, pale. His skin cold, even though he said he felt warm. He couldn’t lift his arms, so I helped feed him, change him, drop water into his mouth with a syringe.

But he was cheerful. Chatty, even. He wasn’t in pain, except when we moved him.

He seemed to think that he could recover even from this. The nurse who arrived left me in no doubt how serious things were. He hadn’t urinated in days, his kidneys had stopped.

I’ve always worked hard and have taken tremendous risks with my ideas, ambitions and choices. Sometimes that worked, sometimes that didn’t. My life hasn’t been dull.

A year ago, with an awareness that life is shorter than one may hope but still long enough, I contacted a writer mate of mine. Jon Evans has written a few novels and even sold sufficient of them to pay for an expanded life-style, although he does keep a regular software job as well. He travels and writes and works.

Let’s go somewhere with a beach, sufficiently low-cost to keep us there a while, good internet access, and good diving, and let us each write a novel, I suggested. He thought it a good idea and we began hunting though island nations.

Cuba meets most criteria, except for being an evil Stalinist dictatorship. So the internet is crap. Papua New Guinea is just fucking expensive. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand … either of us have already been.

That left the Philippines. Which consists of several hundred islands. Next question, which one?

My brother arrived on Tuesday. By then, my father could only speak a word or two before losing consciousness. I called the UK and let my wife speak to him.

They’ve always had a very special relationship, going to see cricket together at Lord’s in the UK. Could it be only a year ago that my wife made my dad run for a bus to get to the grounds?

“I love you dad,” she said.

My mom, my brother and I sat around the bed, playing music, telling stories, laughing, sometimes crying. We remembered.

My story, while being science fiction, happens to be set in Nigeria. Why? Well, when my hero escapes from an orbital jail which uses a space elevator to transfer goods and people, it has to be sited over the equator.

I was fortunate to have spent a month in Nigeria over this year, working on a local data transparency project for the Edo State government. I also took a few days to visit some of the places where the story happens. I found books on Efik culture and cuisine. I did my research, discovering I could make my villains much more terrifying than I had originally imagined.

I worked out the structure of the story, the set-pieces, the characters.

My sister-in-law and nephews arrived on Wednesday. He wasn’t able to speak anymore although, at least in the morning, he was able to acknowledge that he was still listening.

When I helped move him, or dress him, or feed him, I could see the dark splotches under his skin that must be part of the cancer spreading throughout his body. If a thing could be said to be evil, they looked it.

“Wait,” he would gasp. Short, stubby words. Every time we needed to move him.

Through the day, he got weaker.

Even as I booked my plane tickets and reserved accommodation, I was worried. What happens with my dad’s cancer? Would he live long enough for the book to be published? He was never much of a reader and the cancer meant that he couldn’t see very well, but he could know that it was written. That it was done.

I never expected the call to come so soon.

At 16h00 he asked me for peanuts. I put a little peanut butter on a teaspoon and he sucked it. Then he asked for cheese and onion chips. I couldn’t give him that. I placed some water in his mouth with the syringe.

He refused food at 17h00. Clamped his jaws shut and wouldn’t take anything. Then he slept, his mouth open, gasping.

I was already exhausted when I packed for Moalboal. I had just returned from South Africa, spending the night before working through my dad’s documents with my mom, helping her prepare for the accountants so they could settle his estate.

There had been no space to mourn yet and it would be another two weeks before I would get any rest. I still had a conference to prepare for in Geneva, several projects to close out, a number of proposals to write and submit, and a report to finish.

I stayed with him till 23h50. It had been three days since I last snatched more than a few hours of sleep and I left my mom alone with him.

She woke me at 00h28 on Thursday morning. I checked that he was no longer breathing, that his heart had stopped, and I covered him with a sheet.

We called the Chevra Kadisha and we sat quietly together. My brother, my mother, and me.

This morning I woke up with the sound of the ocean against the shore. Two-and-a-half days of travel behind me.

For the next four weeks, a novelist’s journey ahead.

CATEGORY: Democracy & Social Media

Egypt, Brazil, Turkey and the revolutionary implications of a Social State

An Egyptian protester shouts ant-President Morsi slogans as anti-riot forces block the entrance to the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

An Egyptian protester shouts ant-President Morsi slogans as anti-riot forces block the entrance to the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

In August 2006, 18 months before I would choose to leave South Africa, I was invited to speak at a gathering of technology pundits.

It was still the height of the last economic boom and the room was a hubbub of young people doing well for themselves. I was surviving a disastrous business venture and had spent a year contemplating the emptiness behind that financial well-being.

“An individual is a person with a long tail. Individuals have tended to live in states full of wildly swinging doors. Cities, nations and markets are as able to serve their needs as they are of tracking every grain of sand in a three-week desert sand-storm,” I said.

I warned of revolution, that emerging social media would lead to people finding mutual interests that would permit them to express themselves in ways we had yet to understand. People who are currently alienated and isolated will make common cause with others. Continue reading

CATEGORY: World

Oscar Pistorius and the heart of South Africa’s violent society

It was about 3am when the noise of a car being stealthily driven down the drive awakened him from slumber. Fearing that criminals were attempting to invade, he drew his firearm and shot at the vehicle.

When Rudi “Vleis” Visagie looked inside he saw that he had shot his daughter, Marlè, in the head. She died instantly.

Marlè had been sneaking out quietly to surprise her boyfriend for his birthday.

The tragedy convulsed South Africa back in 2004. Visagie was one of South Africa’s minor celebrities, an ex-Springbok rugby player, and the story was an all-too-common and all-too-horrifying reminder that South Africa has become the place where far too few people die of old age.

“Who killed her?” asked the five-year-old daughter of an acquaintance upon being told that her granny had died. That she could have died of old age and natural causes never occurred to the little girl.

South Africa’s population is 50 million, about 16% of the United States’. Despite this – and as violent as the US is – in absolute numbers, almost as many people die in gun-related homicides in both countries. 17 people per 100,000 die by gun-fire, five times that of the US.

That isn’t even the worst of it.

It is estimated that over 40% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime and that only 1 in 9 rapes are reported. It is also estimated that 14% of perpetrators of rape are convicted in South Africa.

“I’m tired and sore,” said Anene Booysen, then she closed her eyes and, very quietly, died. She was 17.

On Friday, 8 February, Anene had been out with friends in a bar in the small Western Cape Town of Bredasdrop. Sometime in the small hours of the morning she was gang-raped.

That wasn’t all, so skip this paragraph if you are not prepared for this level of brutality. Her arms, legs and fingers were broken. Her throat was sliced open. She was disembowelled and her guts ripped out. She survived long enough to identify one of her attackers; an ex-boyfriend and close family friend.

The violence in South Africa is so overwhelming, so ubiquitous, that it takes a lot for it to make news. The death of a celebrity helps; Lucky Dube, one of the world’s most successful reggae musicians, was murdered during a hijacking as he dropped his children off at school. Just last week the CEO of Chrysler South Africa, Trent Barcroft, was shot during a robbery.

But such attacks are too common to make the news that often.

The brutality of the crimes is sometimes so appalling that it is almost unbelievable. In February 2012, a 78-year old woman, Johanna Moore, was tied up, tortured with a hot clothes iron, and then beaten to death in her home in Dullstroom, Mpumalanga.

Rich, poor, politically-connected and socially isolated: everyone is a potential victim. Neither is it clear that the political elite have much interest, or credibility, in reducing crime. The president, Jacob Zuma, has survived a rape trial and numerous charges of corruption. The previous two heads of the police are both, independently, in jail after being found guilty of corruption and racketeering.

The violence of the crime begets a nervous and easily volatile populace. Large gatherings of people protesting legitimate grievances – such as poor public services, low pay, or lack of security – can quickly become horrific tragedies.

The Marikana miner’s strike, in which 47 people were killed by police, made the international press. There have been such protests almost continuously, although with less loss of life, but people have still been killed.

It is against this context – of a terrified and defensive people – that the awful events of the morning of 14 February, when Oscar Pistorius allegedly shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, took place.

We have, at this time, insufficient facts to know what actually happened. However it works out though, a deliberate murder or a terrifying case of mistaken identity, if it weren’t for the fame of the protagonist it would just be another invisible statistic in South Africa’s ongoing struggle with anarchy.

CATEGORY: CATEGORY: ArtSunday

An unexpected Hush

An unexpected Hush

Hush in waiting

I bought Hush one of those new life-blogging collars about a month ago. It’s the version with a GPS and wifi transmitter and takes a picture every half-a-second of whatever happens to be in front of him. I thought it would be something to remind me of the day going on outside my studio. I’d get to watch Hush as he toured his domain. Maybe I’d even find some new places to draw in.

Hush and I moved here a few months ago, after the Olympics had died down and rentals in Hackney Wick had dropped a bit. We were in Shoreditch, but the software companies were gentrifying the place and driving up the rents. Haven’t you heard? Hackney Wick is the new artists’ commune. Even an organised band of anarchists have moved in to a warehouse in Maverton Road. Always stringing up new wifi transmitters, which is why I thought the collar might work.

I always wanted to move to Hackney Wick as my family has a bit of a dark connection to the place. My great grandfather, Henry Muller, was the nephew of Franz Muller, England’s first railway murderer. The murder took place here. Quite the family secret, but I’ll get to that later. Continue reading

S&R Honors: Ivan Toms and Lawrie Schlemmer – what we were we still are

Waiting for a miracle

“How long are you prepared to wait?” I asked.

It was 1991 in the Eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth and I was in my final year of high school. Nelson Mandela had been released in 1990 with me hovering over the television, my camera on a tripod, in a futile and excited attempt to capture the moment.

Continue reading

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The NRA proposals trigger the Gun Event Horizon

The NRA’s press conference and suggestions were somewhat astonishing:

  1. Don’t regulate guns, regulate video games.
  2. Don’t blame gun-owners, create a database of all the mentally disabled/ill and track them.
  3. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” which boggles the mind.
  4. Congress should authorise armed guards at every school and public location in the country – both the cost and the impact on civil liberties make this a gobsmacking proposal.

So, the NRA proposes turning the US into a nation of people who risk being sectioned as having any form of mental disability for fear of being digitally-tagged and monitored, while armed guards stand at the entrance to any public or private building, school, theatre, shopping centre or street-corner to protect each other from guns.

The entire economy of the US risks being gun-based.  Hundreds of thousands of people hired – at taxpayer expense - to shoot anyone who attempts to use their gun, while everyone else buys and sells guns, grenades and Kevlar vests to each other.  Douglas Adams spoke of the Shoe Event Horizon, when every business becomes a shoe shop.  I think the US just reached the Gun Event Horizon.

This all sounds just slightly mad.

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Playing Far Cry 3 in the aftermath of Sandy Hook

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The Atlantic describes “Far Cry 3″ as the “First Video-Game About the Millennials.” John Walker, at rockpapershotgun.com, describes it more prosaically:

“A group of wretched white rich kids arrive on an island for a holiday of self-indulgence and thrill-seeking, their fear of leaving adolescence exposed by their need to jump out of aeroplanes rather than move on with their lives, privilege protecting them from needing to be anything other than vacuous. But the island on which they’ve chosen to do this turns out to be lawless, and under the control of murderous pirates, and quickly their faux-idyllic lives are destroyed. Kidnapped, threatened, and beaten, a brutal reality instantly crushes them. And you, your character, he sees his own big brother murdered right next to him. He’s changed.”

Continue reading