30/11/2004

Mythical Tricks

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:21 am

So, my buddy TheMythod, aka Myth, from the WGB is clearly signalling me in a unique way. The stats package I use on this blog, stattraq, allows me (and you, if you click on the relevant link) to see a number of interesting stats, including the kinds of search queries that people have entered in the search box to the right.

I’ll quote a few from today, given that they’ll change by tomorrow, or maybe even later today:

  • myth
  • have a good day Davey!!
  • Tell your family that you have friends online that love you in a non-creepy totally cool way
  • Isn’t this a super sweet way to say hello dude?
  • are you having fun reading this?
  • Myth is super cool guy that should be featured prominently here in bravus blogland
  • Dave is brave
  • poopy dipers
  • digital footprints make dave happy
  • myth is watching you watch him

There’s actually quite a narrative stream there, which is indeed ‘super sweet’. Not sure if the ‘poopy dipers’ fits… Anyway, Myth is now featured prominently. 😉

Now, getting a message into the ‘Referrer’ box by using Google searches might be even more of a challenge!

Insignificant

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:11 am

I knew I’d written this little poem a while ago, and wanted to post it in relation to our trip to the Boyden Observatory last week, but I didn’t have it with me. It was published in our department newsletter, but I couldn’t find it in the archives there either. Ah well, I finally dug it up:

Insignificant
It’s how I always feel when
Contemplating space

And yet, I somehow
Seem to hold my central place
Observing, observed

It’s only quantum
Fluctuations in space-time
That make these things real

The roiling blue foam
Of vacuum self energy
Throws forth stars – and me

29/11/2004

Heaven 17

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:16 pm

Today is my 17th wedding anniversary with my perpetually amazing wife Sue. Sadly, I just dropped her off at the airport to fly home to Australia for a family wedding, after I just arrived back from South Africa yesterday, so the celebrations were pretty brief.

Both of us actually replied to the question asked in The Nuggery about whether soul mates are found or made1 – and we think we’ve found/built/co-evolved our soul mates in one another. It’s not a term we really use, though – it seems too narrow to describe what we have together.

In fact, I don’t think there are even words for it. It’s impossible to describe an experience that in some way subsumes all our other experiences for the last 18 or so years since we met and started spending a lot of time together. We phone each other at the office every day, often more than once, just to continue our on-going conversation. We’ve lived together through my multiply broken leg, and her lung cancer, the loss of our first child halfway through the pregnancy, and lots of time as broke students – but also through the birth and growth of our amazing children and thousands of hours of conversation. We’ve played hundreds of hours of role playing games like Eye of the Beholder, Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights together, and are learning karate together. We’ve lived in about 12 or 13 different houses, in three countries, and earned 5 university degrees between us.

Suzie was struck recently by something she heard:

I can’t get this thought out of my mind. It was on the movie ‘Shall We Dance’. When talking about being married she said:

Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will witness it.

That’s kind of what marriage is. Single people are alone and nobody notices what they are doing or how everything is, or only to a certain degree. But by being married you have one person who is a witness to everything.

There are other facets too – one of them is refusing to grow up. Or at least, to become jaded and bored and boring. Of course we’ve become more responsible, and learned some maturity in dealing with each other, the kids and others, but we really do continue to see the world as a wide open place, full of wonders and opportunities, and worth engaging with wholeheartedly. Being willing to play – with one another and with our children – is a big part of what keeps our life together fun and enjoyable. Courtesy, consideration and everyday affection – along with occasional bursts of rampant, child-grossing-out desire – make a huge difference too.

So here’s to at least twice this much again (and hopefully much more) life as one another’s witnesses, lovers and friends.

  1. She’s ‘TheBoss’ 😉

28/11/2004

Carrot Pizza in a paper bag

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:29 am

I was feeling a bit nauseous yesterday before the flights, and delivered a technicolor yawn (in 16:9 widescreen) in the bathrooms at Bloemfontein airport just before getting onto the first of the four flights. Coped OK with that 1 hour flight, although it was (of course) the most turbulent flight I’ve been on for a few years, or possibly ever.

Called Huey on the big white telephone again in Jo’burg airport, rested up for a while and then called Ralph. Had a bit of a sleep on the chairs there until it was time to board, then got on the flight. Was very careful, but even a sip of ginger ale would very quickly have me sweating, pale and about to hurl (and of course I had a middle seat instead of the aisle seat I prefer and always request and usually get). The paper bag was definitely in my hand, although fortunately I never had to use it – I did push in to the toilet queue at one point though.

I’m now in the London Lounge at Heathrow for the next 5 hours or so, and am feeling much happier and healthier than I was. Sticking to water for the next little while though, to try to rehydrate and also give my abused belly a chance to rest up…

On a firmer footing

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:24 am

I probably should have mentioned that the leg improved significantly over 3 days or so, so I didn’t go back to the doctor, and will just wait and see whether it gets bad again. I’m halfway home now (in London) and it feels good so far.

27/11/2004

On Safari

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:47 am

Here’s an article Sol wrote for our Faculty’s alumni magazine after our last SA trip in July:

With David Geelan on a Modern Safari

On the road again, again

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:30 am

So, last chance in the little Bloemfontein web cafe, then it’s back on planes for another couple of days. With time zones, the trans-Atlantic flight appears to take no time – leave at 8:00, arrive at 8:00ish – but of course it’s still 9 hours subjectively. Guess I’ll be out of touch for the next couple of days – the web kiosks in Heathrow (where I’ll dispose of my last couple of chunky mirrorworld pound coins) allow me to catch up with what’s going on, but they’re horrible composition environments.

We do a little pre-test/post-test evaluation of ourselves on some of the content we teach in the workshops (though teaching content is a tiny part of what it’s about), and when I marked the post-tests this morning (while watching Australia flog New Zealand in the cricket) I observed a change in the mean score from 38% to 53%, so there’s some positive change but some distance still to go… Much more important are the comments the teachers wrote about how this project has affected their classroom practice: I’ll probably transcribe those comments somewhere along the way and share some when I get home.

Anyway, until I get back: “Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes!”

25/11/2004

Same town, different planets

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:57 pm

As part of the workshops we’re running, we had Jamela, a South African expert in the area, come in to facilitate a 2 hour discussion of HIV/AIDS and related gender equity issues in our group yesterday. She did the same in the Mathematics workshop that Sol is running and in a Biology workshop run by Dennis, another colleague.

The discussion in our group was very thoughtful and wide-ranging, and these are very live issues in the communities in which these teachers teach. We also covered such intriguing gender questions as ‘does playing soccer turn girls into lesbians?’…

One of the female teachers in our group said “These ideas about how teachers can empower girls to make better decisions are good, but the reality we face is this: our school is near an industrial area. Every Friday, many of our female students don’t come to class in the afternoon, because it’s payday, and they’ve gone up to prostitute themselves to the workers to get money. When we contact the parents to inform them, we find out that they already know…”

And then, Sol reported to me, in the Mathematics group our fine, upstanding, Dutch Reformed Afrikaner colleague – who is a wonderful, intelligent, well-informed guy – interrupted the session discussion to pronounce that “Really, it’s all about the moral issue of sex outside of marriage”.

/me explains some jokes…

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:38 am

OK, maybe being so focused on these workshops is leaving me scratching for material… actually, what it’s mainly doing is (a) leaving me mentally porridge-like at the end of each day and (b) disconnecting me from my usual drip-feed of news sources, so that I’m writing about what’s going on right here right now and my reactions to that… maybe not a bad thing generally…

Anyway, I know it’s bad form to explain a joke or a reference – but I’d hate y’all to miss them all. And I flatter myself that they’re eclectic enough that everyone will have missed something. Still, Terry Pratchett doesn’t do it… Ah well, just for fun, the obscure references in the titles of some recent posts:

I am large: OK, I am kinda large – around 200 pounds or 93 kilos – but this is a reference to Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself‘, that contains the lovely lines: Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Maintaining the Privilege: A kind of flipside of former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s call for supporters to ‘maintain the rage‘…

Hearts and Minds: LBJ’s famous quote of John Adams.

My Left Foot: Just the title from the 1989 Daniel Day Lewis movie of Christy Brown’s autobiographical book.

Sufficient Guidance Strikes Back: This little-known indie film.

Full and frank…: Yes, Minister – where Sir Humphrey Appleby frequently used the term ‘full and frank exchange of views’ to describe conversations that were anything but…

Doo-doo-doo, lookin’ out: …my back door. Creedence – there’s a very special circle of hell reserved for record company executives.

A broke guy in the gilded mirror maze: William Gibson’s ‘Pattern Recognition’ frequently refers to London as ‘mirrorworld’, and indeed, the reference to ‘chunky mirrorworld pound coins’ is a pretty direct rip from that excellent novel.

On the road again: Does anyone here doubt that Willie’s The Man?

24/11/2004

Power

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:46 am

Every day in the workshops we ask the participants to complete a very simple evaluation sheet – “what I learned today”, “what I still find difficult or don’t understand” and “suggestions for next time”.

The other day we did a workshop with computer simulations of chemistry labs, and some of the computers had trouble reading our CDs. The evaluations came back with the suggestion that “all computers must work properly all the time”. (So get with it, you intolerant geeks!) Clearly, these are people who are unfamiliar with the ways of computers.

Then last night we went to the observatory, and the weather was cloudy, so we were unable to do as much stargazing as we would have liked. The evaluations came back saying (at least implicitly) “please control the weather better”. 😉

I Am Large

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:43 am

We went on a field trip to the Boyden Observatory outside Bloemfontein last night. In the crystal clear, pollution free skies of southern Africa, with no town larger than Bloemfontein (maybe 50,000 people) even close, it’s in an amazing place to do good astronomy. The presenters did a great job of unfolding the beauty and size of the universe for us. As always, it tended to make me feel rather insignificant, but Cobus, my colleague here, said something cool: “Always before when I thought about the size of the world and the solar system and the galaxy and the universe, and then of the size of my country and my town and me and my brain, I felt so tiny and insignificant. But then I realised that my tiny, insignificant brain is capable of at least making a start on understanding and containing all that huge universe…”

23/11/2004

Maintaining the Privilege

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:19 am

I’ve been reading some South African history while I’ve been here, as well as keeping my eyes and ears open, and talking in depth to people of all races and backgrounds. This is my seventh visit to this beautiful country with the terrible history, and I keep on trying to understand.

It seems to me that apartheid was actually never really about race, except in a secondary sense. It was always about privilege, and keeping privilege in the hands of those who already had it, and keeping it out of the hands of everyone else. In South Africa, race was simply the most convenient marker for distinguishing between these groups.

I think it’s true to say that, when people feel their privilege1 is threatened, they will act in desperate ways, and will end up doing things they never thought they would. I’ve been repeatedly told by white South Africans that “we never knew what was going on”. To some extent I’m sure that’s true – they lived in privileged islands, and saw little of the death and pain and desperate poverty that bought that privilege. At the same time, it’s clear that they didn’t look too hard, and that their society actively discouraged them from asking questions and ‘rocking the boat’.

In trying to understand the reasons, I’m definitely not excusing or condoning the horrible things that were done – quite the reverse. But I firmly believe that the only way to avoid it happening again is to try to understand. To demonise individual people or whole cultures, or to throw up our hands and declare ourselves unable to understand, it to guarantee it happening again.

The case of South Africa got particularly bad because (a) the differences in privilege were so dramatic and finally unsustainable and (b) the numbers in the respective groups were so great that democracy would automatically mean a dramatic redistribution of privilege. In Germany in the 30s, these conditions were not there, and the threats to the privileges of everyday Germans were largely manufactured (Lebensraum), but it was threats to privilege that worked.

I’m not comparing modern Western countries like Australia, Canada, England and the US to Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa2, but I am noting that a significant driver of policy in all of these countries in recent times, in various ways, has been fear of lost privilege. Whether it is fear of the ‘boat people’ arriving and taking our jobs in Australia or fear of losing cheap access to oil, or fear that raising minimum wages will destroy the economy, policies driven by this fear are dangerous.

It probably won’t get as bad as South Africa – but look at my conditions (a) and (b) above and then take a close look at your country… Are you willing to vote for candidates and policies that attempt to share wealth and advantages and privilege with those who have less? Or are you one of those manning3 the barricades to protect your privileges and repel boarders?

  1. Terry Pratchett has noted that ‘privilege’ means ‘private law’ – one rule for the privileged, different rules for others
  2. Godwin’s law
  3. I use the less gender inclusive term here because, sadly, I think it fits the realities of how such policies actually are created and defended

Workshopping

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:57 am

Here are some of the South African science teachers I’m working with, hard at work in the lab where our workshops are happening:

workshop participants

22/11/2004

Innovations of the Anglo War

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:19 am

We had the rather sobering experience yesterday of going to the Anglo-Boer War1 Memorial just outside Bloemfontein. Our colleague Gawie (pronounced ‘Harvey’) from the workshops was our very knowledgable guide, and it was quite fascinating. That war, just over a century ago, was the one that introduced a number of the innovations that have made war so much more hellish than it used to be2.

Prior to that time (I’m talking about modern warfare here, since the invention of the flintlock or musket – stone age and bronze age warfare would have been plenty hellish too, but actually followed similar patterns) the armies most often went out to a battlefield, resplendent in colorful uniforms, lined up and marched toward each other, dying in ranks. The Boers (the word means ‘farmer’) on the other hand were hunters who knew their land well, and horsemen, and they perfected the art of guerilla warfare – lighting raids from cover and then melting back into the hills.

This led to significant successes in the early stages of the war, but then the British general Lord Kitchener invented the ‘scorched earth policy’: burning the crops and the farmhouses that were supporting the Boer raiding parties, and interning the women and children in concentration camps. This brought the war to the civilians, away from the battlefield, and was really the beginning of the concentration camp phenomenon that was used so hellishly in the Second World War 40 years later.

Over 26,000 Boer women and children died of starvation and disease in the camps, including some in fields just across from the university where we’re conducting our workshops. Every war since has involved significant deaths on the part of non-combatants…

  1. From my own Anglo-Australian heritage, the war in South Africa from 1899-1902 was always called simply the ‘Boer War’, but the area of the Free State where we are was on the other side, and it’s often called simply the ‘Anglo War’…
  2. OK, the First World War a few years later introduced the major ‘killing technologies’ like machine-guns, aerial bombing and chemical weapons, but they were still largely used against military targets.

21/11/2004

African Carousel

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:07 am

Also at the Oliewenhuis was an amazing carnival, where each ‘horse’ was an African animal, as rendered by a different artist. Too cool…

carousel2
carousel

Hearts and Minds

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:05 am

What we’re about here is teacher professional development, and it keeps coming back to me that telling teachers what to do and how to do it is worse than useless. To change what they do, you have to change their minds – or, more accurately, give them experiences that will allow and encourage them to change their own minds. That’s much more difficult, but what we do in the classroom (and the world) comes out of who we are, so to change what we do, we change who we are…

Sol, Shirley and Friend at the Oliewenhuis

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:02 am

We went to the Oliewenhuis (Olive House) yesterday – a former residence of South Africa’s Presidents, now a museum and arts centre. There was an amazing exhibition by South African surrealist Norman Catherine – the stuff blew me away, find it if you can! This photo is of my colleague Sol, with whom I’ve been working very closely for the past couple of years on this project, and who I respect and like enormously and am inspired by, and his wife Shirley who has joined us for this final trip. They’re standing beside an amazing sculpture by Catherine, who has worked in all sorts of media over a long period and created amazing darkly funny images.

sol, shirley and a norman catherine sculpture

20/11/2004

My Left Foot

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:02 am

My lower left leg has had a tough life – if I can get the doctor to release my X-ray films to me on Monday I’ll post a pic here. I broke both bones (tibia and fibula) in 1985 in a motorcycle accident that I was lucky (blessed) to survive. The doctor screwed a steel plate to the tibia (front bone) and just hoped the fibula would be splinted by the tibia and heal itself. When the leg was still pretty sore a few years later, I got it checked out and discovered that it really hadn’t healed. Back into hospital, have the plate removed from the tibia and a new one – and a bone graft off the top of my hipbone – screwed into place on the fibula. That all healed nicely, then I had a rollerblading accident in 1996 that broke both bones again, above and below the old breaks respectively.

I can normally walk very comfortably and without a limp (except possibly a little one that’s habitual, and worsens when I feel shy), but it gets sore if it gets any sideways pressure. It got really sore on the trip here – I thought maybe from walking around in airports lots, sometimes carrying heavy bags, but possibly also because I got some very cool new Harley Davidson boots a while ago that go high enough that they might be putting pressure on it. Whatever caused it, I thought the soreness would go away in a day or two, like it usually does.

it didn’t, and it was aching enough that it was tending to keep me awake, so I went to the local Medi-Clinic here in Bloemfontein yesterday afternoon. My good friend Sol came along with his credit card in case it cost heaps, but the exchange rate meant it was actually pretty cheap, and the hospital was excellent and very efficient. They did X-rays, and also poked and prodded – the main thing they were worried about, hearing I’d been on a number of long flights, was deep venous thrombosis (DVT – the so-called ‘economy syndrome’). They’ve pretty much ruled that out, but put me on aspirin for de-clotting just in case. They wanted to shoot me up with radioactive technetium and film the leg with a gamma ray camera to try to see it more clearly than the X-ray showed, but I said I’d rather just take it easy for the next little while and do that stuff back in Canada. So they gave me some good drugs and sent me home.

So the short version is that I’m limping around, trying to take it easy, taking the drugs and hoping it will settle down if I wear sandals instead of boots…

19/11/2004

Sufficient guidance strikes back

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:48 am

So, one of the ‘bosses’ of the project turns up for an hour in the morning yesterday, derails a well thought out and productive process that we’ve developed, insults us by making a big statement about how we should be listening to our South African colleagues and not just proposing our own answers (which is what we were doing for the prior day and a half while he was nowhere in evidence), then vanishes… Eventually we manage to get back on track, but a lot of the momentum and almost all the collegiality has been killed. Ah well, I guess we have enough ego and resources to get back into it today and make it happen…

Santa

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:44 am

S’gotta suck to be wearing a Santa suit and beard in SA at this time of the year. I would have included a photo, but I would have had to pay, and sit on his knee…