Bread from air: Fritz Haber, and the unpredictable outcomes of visionary thinking

We pick the narratives that we prefer. And if we find a guru, thought-leader or intellectual who speaks to our values and dreams, confirmation bias means we celebrate their successes, and forgive them their failures. In reality, though, they’re going to be the same mixed-bag as the rest of us, albeit often operating at a higher level of complexity and consequence than we are.

Election thoughts: South Africa, 8 May 2019

Along with many of you, today I made a difficult decision regarding which party to vote for in South Africa’s National elections – more difficult than any of the previous 10 (if you include the Municipal elections) were.

In one respect, I take that as a positive thing, because competition is good, and more than one option on the ballot today had merits to consider. It’s sometimes a sign of a more mature democracy that the choice of whom to vote for isn’t utterly obvious.

Kevin Anderson: who gets to be South African?

Kevin Anderson, a South African citizen, defeated John Isner 26-24 in the final set of the Wimbledon Men’s semi-final yesterday, in what ended up being the second-longest ever match at Wimbledon. (Isner won the longest match, back in 2010, when he beat Nicholas Mahut 70-68 in the final set.)

Does Anderson’s victory make him the first South African to reach the singles finals at Wimbledon? No, it doesn’t, regardless of how you classify Kevin Curren, defeated by Boris Becker in the 1985 final. Does Anderson’s victory beg(gar) the question of who gets to be called “South African”? No, it doesn’t – but it does perhaps raise the question.

New York, The Cure

T and D and I recently went to New York, to witness The Cure in concert at Madison Square Garden. D should really be writing this story, as he’s the professional storyteller, who often tells stories so well that you can hardly believe them to be true.

Perhaps I’m the right second-choice, though, as while T could derive the quotient of any two numbers you give him to 5 decimal places (maybe more – no insult intended!), and then tell you something about the importance of that number to some vital – but really obscure – detail regarding human history, he doesn’t style himself as a writer.

I think I took too few photographs, but photographs wouldn’t tell the full story in any case. Neither will I, but here are a few pieces of the story, starting with a subway ride to Coney Island. It was lunchtime, and I had impressed upon T and D the importance of visiting Totonno for pizza.

Two years previously, I had tried to take B, K, and S to the same establishment, walking the 700 meters or so from the subway stop to the pizzeria (that’s far, at midday in July), only to find that they were closed. Today, I had made sure they were open, and the pizza was as good as I remembered.

Walking out, T and I wondered whether D was a Cure fan of sufficient intensity to really think this pilgrimage worthwhile. So we set him the standard test in these situations, namely asking what his favourite album was. He answered correctly, and T and I knew we were all of like mind.

After pizza, we expended (too few of our) carbohydrates on a boardwalk-walk, ending up at a cocktail bar, where we scored an extra frozen margarita, after the charming and generous barkeep caused a little spillage in handing it to D – or when D grasped it too eagerly. In any event, 3 guys, 4 cups. 4 strong cups, drunk alongside a bare-torso’d and buff man, sporting a tattoo of a Saint, and far too many muscles.

We got back to Manhattan late afternoon, and decided to have drinks at the rooftop bar of my hotel. There was a woman collecting money at the entrance to the elevator – a “couvert charge”, as so many signs at the entrance to clubs in the 80’s and 90’s read. But my room was on the 10th floor, and these folks were ‘my guests’, so we headed towards my floor, and simply passed it by, arriving at the rooftop shortly thereafter.

D went outside, and T and I went to the bar. Cosmopolitans sounded like a good idea to us, and so it was that we emerged into the New York skyline with three glowingly-pink drinks. Onto a rooftop patio populated entirely by muscular black men taking selfies, and who were quite clearly gay.

One of them asked us what we were drinking. D told him it was a Cosmopolitan. He turned his string vest away from us, and D took a photo of our three pink drinks, with that man in the background, taking a selfie.

Later, we walked to Madison Square Garden, where the efficiency was impressive. As was D’s – while T and I stood in the queue to buy T-shirts, he struck up a conversation with a random stranger, which ended up resulting in

  • a seat 10 rows from the front, where D calculated that he would (if he wanted to) be able to run onstage and seize one of Robert Smith’s guitars before security got to him, and
  • advice from one of the security guards that he could use whatever bathroom he liked, depending on which queue was shorter, because by law, they were not allowed to ask whether you identified as male, or female, or whether you reject the choice entirely.

T and I were between D and the nosebleed seats, and alongside two very enthusiastic women, one of whom was quite bonkersly happy, all googley-eyed and yelling things I couldn’t hear or chose to ignore. For some reason, T bought them a few drinks, and they spilled vodka on my Cure T-shirt as it lay on the ground in a bag next to T.

The concert was easily the best one I’ve ever been to. The sound was perfect, the songs were old, and the Garden was full of people as excited to be there as I was. We drank many vodkas, and many bourbons after those. We smiled, from the first note to the last note of the (4th!) encore.

Waking up the next morning, I thought to myself: Suggesting that D walk me home (we were heading in the same direction) is the sort of thing I can imagine a friend like T thinking of. Happily following the suggestion is likewise the sort of thing a friend like D wouldn’t hesitate to do.

And when I saw them both the next morning, it turned out that this is exactly what happened.

Harambe and our hubris

One of the lessons we could learn from the killing of Harambe, the gorilla recently shot by Cincinnati Zoo staff, is that we humans are forgetting that not everything is under our control, and that it never could be.

We are not omniscient and omnipotent gods – all we can do is plan as best we can, and take reasonable precautions against unknown risks. And even when you do so, something could still go wrong, as ended up being the case on Saturday, when a child fell into this gorilla’s enclosure.

It’s easy, from the sidelines, to insist that the mother was negligent. Perhaps she was – but at the same time, the only way to guarantee the safety of your children is to keep them in a protective bubble at the end of a leash. In a padded room. Even if you’re careful, mistakes happen.

It’s easy to say that the zoo is at fault. But this is the only time this had ever happened to them since 1978, and it’s an incident that exposes a weakness in the enclosure security that they hadn’t known about until now, presumably after taking all reasonable precautions in enclosure design and maintenance.

It’s easy to choose sides, and say that it’s outrageous that an endangered animal had to die because of someone’s negligence, because why couldn’t they tranquilize it instead – even as expert after expert reminds you that a 400lbs gorilla would take a good few minutes to go down after a (successful) shot, which would give its agitation more than enough time to be channeled into an expression that kills the child.

We want winners and losers, heroes and people to blame. Some are taking blaming the mother so seriously that over 400 000 of them (more by the time you read this) want the parents to be “held accountable”, and tell us that this incident demonstrates a “negligence may be reflective of the child’s home situation”.

These things seldom stop with petitions, though. Mob justice ensues, and people are bullied on Twitter, Facebook and the like. Sometimes it’s not even the “right” person being bullied, but a namesake only, that some keyboard warrior for Harambe has discovered and intends to shame into abjection.

This was an accident with tragic consequences, which are sometimes unavoidable despite our best efforts. Everyone will learn from it, including – hopefully – the mother, whose immediate response was to thank God, rather than the game-ranger who actually (probably) saved her child.

Meanwhile, as people mourn Harambe, a gorilla on the Internet (as far as most are concerned), they wouldn’t give a moment’s thought to joining any initiative aimed at saving western gorillas more generally.

Meanwhile, as people mourn Harambe (at least the people who – like me – still eat meat), they won’t give a moment’s thought to the animal suffering they are responsible for, simply because they prefer a certain sort of food.

This desire for “justice” and for “shaming” is within our control. This lack of perspective where we think that we could have done better, and someone else is blameworthy – even though we know a fraction of the context – is within our control.

But knowing all possible eventualities, preparing for every possible risk, and making the perfect decision in the moment (rather than bloviating about what it was, in retrospect) is not something we can reasonably expect of ourselves, or anyone else.

In memoriam: Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016)

There are already hundreds of tributes to Prince out there, with many more to come as people hear of his death, yesterday. I heard about it last night at dinner with friends, and was, for a long moment, rather inconsolable.

He was a musician that provided a fair chunk of the soundtrack to my life, and that of many others. I was a fan pretty much from the beginning – other Capetonians will remember those very expensive import LP’s we bought from that place in the Golden Acre whose name I can’t remember, and it was there that I found a copy of “Dirty Mind” in 1980, before Tipper Gore had an “explicit lyrics” warning pasted on to it.

I quickly filled the back-catalogue of his first two albums, and then bought everything else for a decade or two, until his output became too voluminous (and, to be honest, inconsistent) to keep up with.

In 1990, I was coaching tennis to bratty American kids (including one of GW Bush’s grandsons!) in upstate New York, and remember one night when some of the camp counselors and coaches were persuaded that it was a good idea to go and see Bryan Adams perform in Canada.

I stayed behind, because Bryan Adams, and because the rest of us had planned a party. We went to Forest Lake, smoked a joint, drank too much beer, and lay on the shore while a friend played Purple Rain at an absurd volume through his car speakers.

I did so last night also, but without the joint or the beer, although the whisky was good and plentiful. We played “Darling Nikki” too, at my wife’s suggestion, even though that’s the name of an adolescent crush that she doesn’t like being reminded of.

That’s a signal of how much his music means to many folk. And rightly so – younger readers and those who don’t know his music might not appreciate just how damn good he was.

All the early albums had liner notes that read “Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince”. He did everything, in other words. The legend had it that he could play 20 instruments by the time he was in his late teens.

He turned other people into stars too, or gave them some of their most memorable songs – Sinead O’Connor, with Prince’s song “Nothing Compares to U”, written for a band called The Family. The Bangles, with “Manic Monday”, Chaka Khan, with “I Feel For You”. “The Glamorous Life” for Sheila E. And there are plenty more.

Few other people would be able to maintain the falsetto he does in this performance of Purple Rain while simultaneously playing a ridiculously good guitar solo. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s just today – but it feels like nobody else could.

We’ll miss you.

Zuma, Obama and misreading intentions

You’re all familiar with that asshat driver who speeds up to close a gap you were about to merge into. Maybe you are that driver? If so, you’d also be aware of those occasions where you did so accidentally – perhaps you hadn’t noticed the other car trying to merge, or perhaps you suddenly realised you were late for an appointment, and sped up.

Of course, perhaps you’re just an asshat. But let’s assume not, and instead use this as an example of what is called the “fundamental attribution error” in social psychology. This error describes our habit of assuming intention or motive to explain behaviour, rather than considering external factors like the two listed above.

The same error has been in evidence in some reactions – especially in the intemperate world of social media, to this photograph of Presidents Zuma and Barack Obama.

zuma+phoneFor some who distrust or dislike Zuma, whether for good or bad reasons, the photograph is evidence of his arrogance, or simply an opportunity to mock or criticise him (because he was obviously talking to someone more important than Obama, like the Guptas).

But there’s no reason to assume anything sinister, or anything worth mockery or criticism here. A still image, taken out of a context, tells us nothing about what either man was thinking. Obama could have approached Zuma while the latter was already on the phone, as the former was on his way to another table and thought to just quickly say “hello”.

We don’t know. What we do know is that people can reveal their own attitudes, pretty clearly, in how they respond to images such as these. Criticism is good, and necessary – but let’s try to keep it evidence-based.

Building a better society starts with recognising this one’s broken

Today’s horror is the rape of a Northern Cape high school boy, whose classmates tied him to a bed and raped him with a broom handle. “Today’s horror” is of course inaccurate, as there are no doubt many others. But this one stands out for me for various reasons:

The initial use of the word “sodomy” instead of the word “rape”, demonstrating an unconscious (and widespread) homophobia. It’s a mild form of homophobia in isolation – but to note that would really miss the point unless you follow it up with the observation that, for those who identify with marginalised and oppressed groups, all of these mild or micro cases add up to a environment of systemic discrimination.

The norm is white, male and heterosexual. This is not to say that it’s impossible for people to overplay their hand (whatever that hand might be) in terms of being part of some marginalised group – some people can be disingenuous, and excuse some personal failing by reference to a coincidental feature they happen to possess.

That’s an entirely separate issue from whether, on average, someone who is not white, male and heterosexual is likely to have a rougher deal than people like me. So, denying any person’s experience by reference to them “playing the x card” (x = race, gender, etc.) pretends that systemic disadvantage is nonexistent, and makes you sound like a heartless, uninformed and unreflective fool.

SASecond, on the rape case, is the fact that some seem to want to make this all about kids being kids at an initiation ritual, rather than it being a racially motivated attack. The bone I’ll throw at you is that of course we can’t know it was a racial attack. But it’s pretty likely to be, in South Africa, at least to the extent that certain inhibitions about not treating other human beings in a barbaric fashion are more present if the prospective target is white, male and heterosexual.

It doesn’t matter that the crowd of kids who were looking on, and (I’m told) cheering were modeling a united colours of Benetton poster, comprising people of various races. It’s possible to internalise racism against any group, even the group you belong to yourself.

And, as DA spokesperson Phumzile van Damme rightly notes in a statement on this attack

Under the cover of “traditions” such as initiations, children are given the platform to act on their racism and homophobia – sanctioned by the institution and often “protected” by just those who went through the same “rites of passage” themselves. Many of these kids are raised by racist, bigoted parents and then spend years and years in these situations where they barely have to disguise this. In fact, it often gets encouraged.

On Facebook, Max du Preez asked “Isn’t it time to consider legislation declaring racist acts (attacks and serious insults) hate crimes with harsh punishment?” I don’t want to get into hate crimes and hate speech at present, because there’s so much to talk about there, but one thing we do need is to at least recognise that they exist, and identify them for what they are.

We have too many folk who still believe the Rainbow Nation myth, and think we’re pretty much united, and too many who believe we’re still in some sort of (undeclared) race war, or at least socially (or otherwise) incompatible with each other. The truth is in the middle – we’re sorting things out, but that requires work, not mythologising.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, go read and play with the “parable of the polygons” to see an elegant demonstration of how (perceived) harmless choices can still add up to a harmful world. Also, read Oliver Burkeman’s recent Guardian piece, which argues that believing the world is intrinsically fair or just can lead to increased injustice, because we “blame the victim” instead of supporting remedial measures.

I don’t know for sure how we build better societies, but recognising our problems, instead of pretending we live in some alternate and superior universe would surely be a start.

The value of comment sections and debates in digital spaces

Regular readers will know that I’ve recently been wondering whether to continue hosting comments here on Synapses, as well as about their value in a more general sense.

downloadI’m not shutting comments down, but will move to moderating them, meaning that it might take up to 24 hours for any comment to appear, and some comments will not appear at all, if I deem them abusive or idiotic. The decision to do so is precipitated by two coincidences, featuring two friends who raised overlapping conversations on Facebook, both of which I engaged with.

The debate on Nathan Geffen’s wall about trolls on GroundUp, and how to deal with them, raised the point that without full-time moderation, comment sections can easily become toxic.

Also, I’ve been led to believe that there’s a potential for legal liability for things posted on one’s own site by commenters, while no such liability exists on Twitter or Facebook (for what other people say, I mean).

Then, Eusebius McKaiser asked for a view on Nick Cowen’s IOL piece arguing that we can’t have productive debate in online spaces, and much of what I say below is a response to that piece (in short, I think we can, but that it takes more work than many of us care to do. In my case, I get few enough comments that the necessary moderation is possible).

Before I get to responding to that IOL piece, just a note on how things will work here with regard to comment and debate. Individual posts will have a moderated comment section, but please also feel free to do one of three things instead, if you prefer:

  1. The old-fashioned “letter to the editor”, where if you’re amenable, and I think your contribution might be of broader interest, I’ll post it as a separate entry.
  2. If you’re on Facebook, there is a page for Synapses. Every entry appears there, and you can comment as much as you like, unmoderated. The same is true for Google+.
  3. Lastly, there’s Twitter, which isn’t ideal for debate, but certainly gives you the opportunity to call me names (if that’s your thing), or to make more friendly noises.

On to the IOL piece, which you don’t have to have read to follow what is about to follow. To quote myself:

it seems to my mind at least plausible that we’re living though an era in which ideas themselves are not that welcome. Where, as Neal Gabler recently put it in a column John Maytham was kind enough to alert me to, the “public intellectual in the general media [has been replaced] by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness”.

Despite the demise of postmodernism in academic circles, it still lives and breathes in the popular viewpoint that everybody’s opinion is equally worthy of consideration, and that individuals are under no special obligation to set aside their opinions in favour of what the evidence points to.

The Internet, its potential anonymity, and the sheer volume of both opinions and outrage don’t encourage thoughtful reflection and engagement. I find that the overall quality of discourse and openness to correction is poor on the Internet, and as a result, I tend to only read comment sections to confirm that they are places where people seem unafraid to express their racism, sexism and (other forms of) stupidity.

There are pockets where people do engage earnestly and sincerely, and where there is a chance of shifting peoples’ perspectives. Eusebius’s Facebook wall is itself one small example of that. It’s true that people don’t often say “you’ve changed my mind”, but it’s something that can be intuited from how the tone and content of a conversation shifts.

Second, I’m not sure that the situation is significantly better in meatspace. There, just as on the Internet, people are stubborn, prone to confirmation bias and the backfire effect, etc. It’s partly the fact that there are more participants – with those participants not being carefully selected – in the online space that creates the impression that it’s more chaotic there. In other words, if we were to have an open house in meatspace to discuss something contentious, we might more often have the same impression of shouting past each other.

By contrast, if you do online what you do in meatspace, i.e. carefully select your interlocutors, you’d have the same “civilized” conversations (at least in a relative sense). The problem is that a) you don’t always get to select who talks to you online and b), all the non-verbal cues, such as smiles and body-language, aren’t available to us online.

Complicating this all is my sense of the conversations in both spaces being less civilized than they used to be, because everyone is now an expert in everything. The idea of democracy has been illegitimately expanded into epistemic territory, where the average person has been persuaded that their views are as legitimate as any other person’s view, and where they are somehow attacking you as a person when they criticise your view, rather than us simply having a contestation about the facts or interpretation of them.

We’ve become too personally invested in our beliefs, to put it simply.

Should the City of Cape Town rename a street after FW de Klerk?

If you’re too busy to read the full post, my answer (as per Betteridge’s Law) is “no”.

And, in case you don’t know what I’m talking about at all, the issue is this:

FWFrom today and until the end of October, the public have been invited to participate in the City of Cape Town’s deliberations on whether to rename Table Bay Boulevard in honour of FW – so, it would become FW de Klerk Boulevard.

If you want to read the full request for input, it’s on the City’s “Have your say” website, along with a fillable form. You could also email [email protected] (or submit something by fax, and therefore presumably by carrier pigeon also).

We don’t get to see the full proposal – all we can read by way of motivation is the following:

The proposal for renaming Table Bay Boulevard (the first section of N1 from Cape Town), FW De Klerk Boulevard, is motivated by the role that Mr. De Klerk played in the transition to a new dispensation in South Africa. He is a Nobel Peace Laureate recipient who has not received any recognition for the role he has played in the recent history of South Africa.

“He is a Nobel Peace Laureate who has not received any recognition“? I’m guessing they left something out there, like “not received any recognition in the form of a road being named after him”.

And it’s not just the Nobel that he’s been awarded: there’s the Prix du Courage Internationale, the UNESCO Houphouet-Boigny Prize, the Prince of Asturias Prize, and the Philadelphia Peace Prize.

On top of those (and others I haven’t listed), I’ve found reference to 8 Honorary Doctorates, and then the Order of Mapungubwe (Gold) – South Africa’s highest honour – too. So, it’s really only the City of Cape Town who seem to have forgotten to give this man a token of their appreciation.

Here’s why this Capetonian (me) thinks that they should keep on forgetting to do so, and why I’d encourage you to express your disapproval of the plan too (assuming you do disapprove, of course).

First, an objection in principle: it’s irrational to name things after living people in general, especially when naming and renaming costs money. If you don’t already think FW de Klerk unworthy of having a road named after him, he’s still got time to demonstrate his unworthiness to you.

I have no reason to expect that we’re going to learn unsavoury things about him in his remaining years, but it’s certainly possible – so I’d at least want to wait until his full story has been written, in case we end up naming a road after someone who has been exposed as a [insert something unsavoury here].

And second, because it was always absurd that he was awarded the Nobel alongside Mandela. Sure, the 10%-ish percent of white South Africans had a disproportionate number of guns and Rands, so were perhaps taken more seriously than they might otherwise have been, but any of you who were in South Africa in the late 80’s would know that FW had two choices: blood in the streets, or handing power over.

You don’t get to play at magnanimity if you never deserved to be the boss, and also, it’s no great achievement to do what anyone in your position would have needed to do, in order to avoid further bombings, murders, international ostracisation and the like.

I’d perhaps feel differently about de Klerk if he had a history of being a democrat, and someone committed to a non-racial South Africa. But he was the leader of the National Party in our most conservative Province, the Transvaal, and served a succession of racist white Presidents loyally. As Minister of Education, he supported the continued racial segregation of our universities.

To quote from a Telegraph piece with the unassuming title of “The day I ended apartheid

Black Africans had basically lost nearly all of their human rights over that period [the second half of the 20th century].

Nothing in De Klerk’s Afrikaner background suggested he was about to reverse all that. He had been in the job just four months and was still an unknown quantity, but what was known about him suggested he was no reformer. After a lifetime in the National Party (he was 54), he was generally regarded as on the verkrampte, or unenlightened, side of the party, although he always saw himself around the middle, neither verkrampte or verligte (enlightened), but certainly conservative.

“Negative expectations hinged on the fear that FW, far from being an innovator, was a hidebound disciple of apartheid,” said his own brother, Willem, later. “He never formed any part of the enlightened movement in South Africa. It was even rumoured he had tried to put the brakes on all the reforms PW Botha had made.”

He’s not a great man. He’s a man who was in charge at a great moment in history. It would have made some sense to honour him at the time, as one of those reconciliation gestures South Africans seem to be fond of. But in de Klerk’s case, we’ve done that already, and there’s no constituency (that I’m aware of, at least) that’s clamouring for de Klerk to be given any more medals or prizes.

On the other hand, there are still scores of less celebrated but important South Africans who haven’t yet had a road named after them, never mind being awarded honorary doctorates or Nobel Peace Prizes.

You’d think we’ve simply run out of ideas, in proposing to name a road after de Klerk. But sadly, this might be another indication of Cape Town, the Western Cape, and (by extension) the DA’s obliviousness to aspects of political messaging.

When you’re constantly criticised (often unfairly) for being a racist City, renaming prominent roads offers an opportunity to subtly shift the character and reputation of the City either closer to or further from those perceptions. Why choose the former?