Thursday, 21 June 2007

Lily white Olympians and other bedside stories

You know, I deal with fractions quite often. I write maths textbooks, so me and fractions have quite a close relationship. I can write neat little exercises that'll teach your 6-year-old to define fractions, compare them, convert them to a different form and whip them through any mathematical operations. Fractions, as far as I know, are useful little buggers as long as you're lining up a set of equal parts of a whole.
Now, according to IOL yesterday:

Next year's Olympians will be the last "lily white" team to represent South Africa at the world games, according to Butana Komphela, chairperson of the National Assembly's sports committee. This was after several MPs baulked at the 74-member team's racial composition, expressing concern that it was 37 percent black and 63 percent white.
Right. So we're dividing up a sports team according to percentages. How very useful. A percentage, in case you've forgotten, is a fraction with a denominator of 100. So this little piece of journalism is really telling us that:

37/100 x 74 = 27,38 black people
63/100 x 74 =
46,62 white people

Terrifically useful. One wonders what 0,38 of a black person (or 0,62 of a white person) is; no doubt Dulux could put together a consulting team from the Old Guard and come up with a range of earth tones ranging from Titanium Albino to Ebony Stallion, with a fine mid-range of Skinny Lattes (with and without wings?) to guide us. Or am I being petty? Is the use of percentages so commonplace in defining the demographic breakdowns of human groups that we should overlook the fact that, really, people are different? OK, OK. Moving along. Now that our MPs have embarked on this useful mathematical endeavour, they offer the following little gem:
They also regarded the team's gender make-up of 62 percent male and 38 percent female as being "unpalatable".

62/100 x 74 = 45,88 males
38/100 x 74 = 28,12 females

I'm tempted to wonder about that 0,12 of a female. Is that the really effete guy on the rugby team? Or the gymnast whose prepubescent body is so pumped up on hormones that you can't really distinguish it from a young boy's?

Yes, yes, they're stats, I hear you say. But why the hell convert a real team of 74 people into a hypothetical team of 100, I want to know. What USE is it?
What would happen if you lodged the complaint without resorting to the obfuscation of mathematics?

I'll tell you what I think. As soon as you word it sanely, you're complaining that 74 people are going to the Olympics.
The gender ratio: 46 men to 38 women. The race ratio: 27 black people to 47 whites. We're talking about 74 exceptional individuals, each at the top of their field, each of whom has sacrificed most of their life to training and reaching a level of sporting excellence so finely tuned that most of them will only be able to maintain it for a few short years, at most. We're not talking achievers, we're talking super-achievers. These are the obsessive, tenacious, never-say-die few. They have genetic advantages. They have talent. They have the peculiar blend of mental attributes required to go the distance and train til they want to die and then train some more. They are lunatics. They are NOT average.

And Butana Komphela, bless his lily white socks, wants to apply a law of averages to them.
He said the team would have to get to the airport quickly as it would be the last time an unrepresentative team would be allowed through immigration.
He added that it was time the sporting federations felt the government's whip after they had in many instances failed to transform their teams voluntarily.
It was not until people were severely punished that they would know that there was a rule of law in the country, Komphela said.
I'd like to challenge Mr Komphela to go to a school playground. Go play PT teacher for a day. (Sorry, make that Arts and Culture educator in charge of Phys. Ed. or whatever the OBE-speak is for that post these days.) Check out how fairly talent gets spread out. God doesn't queue children up and dish out talent and commitment in equal measures. Sure, provide the opportunities as equally as you can across the board. Teach girls to throw and catch and kick balls; teach black kids to swim. Redress the balance, go for it. But don't pretend all kids are created equal. Don't pretend that we're all equal parts of the whole. Equality is based on maths, not on humanity. Life doesn't divide well into fractions. Life's not fair, Mr Komphela. And you can't severely punish anyone for that.

Friday, 15 June 2007


Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

(Robert F. Kennedy)

My favourite break-up line ever

Watched "Secretary" again last night. What a fine film. Worth seeing for the best break-up line of all time:

You're my fiancee!
I don't want you. Get out.

I mean, poor Peter. But when you know, you know, right? I wish more people had the balls to say it out loud and clear when they do want you. And when they don't. Makes things so much clearer, doncha think?

Monday, 11 June 2007

Radical participation

I remember the first time I heard the name "Burning Man". I was on a boat in the Red Sea. We were diving three times a day. There was barely time for anything besides getting our dive kit on and off between dives, eating and sleeping. The occasional game of 30 Seconds. And several good conversations. I wasn't having a rough time. I wasn't premenstrual. I wasn't even homesick. I was certainly not susceptible to unbidden tears. But the words "Burning Man" sent a shiver down my spine. And when Richard described, in a few broad strokes, what the event was about, I almost cried at the thought of it.

Now, I've never been to Black Rock. I've never seen the Man burn; I've never partaken of that magic. I've only heard of it, and wondered what it might be like. The photographs tell me one thing only: that I can't tell til I'm there. I'm not sure I'm ready to go there. But, it seems, there is ready to come here.

(If you've never heard of Burning Man, I am not the person to tell you about it. Rather go read this:

Last week, I discovered that a friend his helping to organise Afrika Burns, which bills itself as "an art festival heavily inspired by Burning Man". In other words, a little bit of Burning Man comes to Africa. Ambitious, I thought. Fucking awesome, I thought. Damnit, I'm going to be away in July, I thought. And then: Thank God for that. I mean, how the hell would I, within a month, come up with a creative offering that was equal to the task of radical participation that Richard had described that day in Egypt?

Out of curiosity, I checked out the website, and then checked out the Facebook group that the organisers have set up to keep participants in the loop. As I skimmed through the online information, I couldn't help getting the sense that the organisers haven't quite gotten their point across. I see a lot of people lining up to buy tickets to the rave of the decade. "I hope this isn't gonna be another crappy hippie trance party," says one. I cringe. Depends, I can't help thinking. Are you going to make it more than that? What are you bringing, besides those cool expectations?

See, Burning Man isn't about going and getting wasted in the hippest, most spectacular and most wildly creative setting you could imagine. It's not about going and being entertained. There's nothing passive about Burning Man. My descriptions should adhere to E Prime here, in fact: everything about this event screams ACTIVE. Do it, make it, bring it, and give it. Freely. Think of surviving in a harsh place. Then think of doing that while simultaneously sustaining others - not just with bread and water. With art. With flowers. With buildings. Think of generosity of spirit. Multiply it by 1 000. That's how I think of Burning Man. Think radical freedom of expression. Multiply that by a whole lot of powers of ten too. Getting there.

So. Burning Man comes to Afrika? Amen. You're thinking of going? Amen. Just grant me one wish: Go without expectation. Go with arms full of your gifts, and palms open, expecting nothing. And make it something beyond any of our wildest dreams. Everything you're hoping for, take it with you and give it away. That's the only way it can ever come back to you, and even it doesn't, you'll find it already has.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Internet dates that didn't happen #1

Dear M______

I hardly know you very well, off these few emails, and you seem, you know, genuine. I imagine your friends refer to you as "such a sweet guy". I imagine you get along passably well with ex-girlfriends. But. M_______. Forgive me for taking this liberty - but, as we're unlikely to meet, it seems pointless to miss the opportunity to point something out to you, with all the best intentions. Take a look at these:

"If you would prefer to cast this tentative friendship adrift for any reason, then please let me know." ??!!

"I'll expect an email if/when I receive one." ??!!!

"If you would prefer to keep things virtual, that's also cool." ????!!!!

Read them a couple of times.

You wrote them.

Did you see what you were writing?

Do you see what I'm trying to tell you?

Do you know what's coming?

It's your interpersonal proactivity dial, dude. You seem to have set it to 0. As in Radically Tentative. Houston, we have a problem. I mean, I'm all for considerateness and sensitivity in men, but you're taking it to a new level here. Out of the thousand-odd matches that datingbuzz threw at me, you're one of a tiny handful that had something at all to say. And yet, here you are, running out a line in tentativeness like nothing I've ever seen before. It's like driving with your handbrake on, dude. Ease up. I mean, I'm taking myself out of the loop in any case ... but I'm pretty convinced you're one of the creatures that would find himself hooked up in a heartbeat if you could just take a deep breath and put yourself on the line. Do you know what I'm saying?

Now. I'm really in two minds about sending this email. Will I press send? Or will I simply delete it, and let you go on your gentle way, out of fear that you might find my point of view a little uncomfortable, a little prickly? You might take offense. You might simply be hurt. And I don't like hurting people. What am I trying to achieve here, I wonder?
Well, I'd like to think that I just might inspire you to do something out-of-the-ordinary. So I think I might just hit the send button. Go on. Stretch yourself. Risk something. Pursue someone. Put yourself on the line.

All the best

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Quotation of the weekend

"Silence is usually understood to be something negative, something empty, an absence of sound, of noises. This misunderstanding is prevalent because very few people have ever experienced silence. All that they have experienced in the name of silence is noiselessness.
But silence is a totally different phenomenon. It is utterly positive. It is existential, it is not empty. It is overflowing with a music that you have never heard before, with a fragrance that is unfamiliar to you, with a light that can only be seen by the inner eyes.
It is not something fictitious; it is a reality, and a reality which is already present in everyone - we just never look in.
You inner world has its own taste, has its own fragrance, has its own light. And it is utterly silent, immensely silent. There has never been any noise, and there will never be any noise. No word can reach there, but you can reach.
Your very centre of being is the centre of a cyclone. Whatever happens around it does not affect it. It is eternal silence.
Days come and go, years come and go, ages come and pass. Lives come and go, but the eternal silence of your being remains exactly the same - the same soundless music, the same fragrance of godliness, the same transcendence from all that is mortal, from all that is momentary.
It is not your silence.
You are it.
It is not something in your possession; you are possessed by it, and that's the greatness of it. Even you are not there, because even your own presence will be a disturbance.
The silence is so profound that there is nobody, not even you. And this silence brings truth, and love, and thousands of other blessings to you."

Meditation - The First and Last Freedom)

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Go find me a verb please - one that works

I know this might lose a lot of you off the bat, but how often do you think about the verbs you choose? A while ago, a friend told me about a language called E-Prime. Simply put, E-Prime refers to the sum of the English language, minus all versions of the verb "to be". In other words, E-Prime contains all the same words as English, except for the following: be, being, is, isn't, am, are, aren't, was, were, weren't.

It sounds like an interesting thought experiment. Except that various academics have written extensive papers explaining the significance and virtue of a language minus the pernicious verb "to be". And I find myself wishing that more writers - journalists, especially - would take note.

Why use E-Prime? Several reasons spring to mind.

Firstly, E-Prime jettisons the passive voice. No longer can you construct sentences using is seen, was said, was killed, will be found, was written, will be done. Instead, E-Prime forces you to ascribe agency. Who sees it? Who said it? Who killed it? Who will find it? Who wrote it?

So what? Well, it results in clearer, easier to read, and - most importantly for me - more accurate and specific writing. Too many unexamined assumptions lurk behind that passive voice which has become the ubiquitous construction of so much so-called information these days. In my role as editor, I spend a lot of time excising the passive voice from new authors' work. Changing apparently simple textbook statements like Gold is mined underground to We mine gold underground. What difference does the change make? A lot, I'd say. Apart from the fact that students, especially second-language students find the passive voice confusing. The change subtly ascribes responsibility to the statement, subtly imparts a deeper level of understanding: Things do not simply happen, passively, then wait for us to observe them. People make them happen. Someone chooses to mine that gold; someone sets up the infrastructure and someone else goes down with a light on his head and sweats his way along the coalface. The first statement does not open this awareness to the reader. The second statement does.

Secondly, E-Prime encourages you to take responsibility for your own subjective opinions. The rose isn't red, darling; the rose appears red. The movie isn't great, sweetheart; we watched it; you liked it; I loved it, and those other silly people walked out. What is the movie? It's a movie, that's all. If you want to say something about it, E-Prime nudges you closer to clarifying your opinions accurately. E-Prime cannot eliminate opportunities for spouting dogma and unexamined prejudice. But it can encourage the speaker or writer to acknowledge and "own" their point of view.

So. I wouldn't advocate that you rewire your brain to yank out any versions of "to be" from your everyday usage. But next time you want to write something, think carefully about what you want to say. And take a little meander into your brain, and find a suitable verb for that sentence.