Amendments to Terms and Conditions

Among the revised Terms and Conditions I just received from a retail bank I do business with:

On the basis of special market conditions, the Bank may be compelled to introduce negative interest rates. A new provision has been added to reflect this option.

Any interest shall be credited to or debited from the account on an annual basis.

Dave, you’re it! Graph Search surprises

Graph Search 1

Today, Facebook opened up Graph Search for me. Is it just me, or does the tutorial start from your school, too?

Graph Search 2

Yes, it’s a good assumption that I would want to find my Stanford friends.
Graph Search 3

The poster child for the tutorial is Dave. I haven’t talked to Dave in a long time. We have to reconnect.
Graph Search 4
Hello to Kevin, Laura, Peter,  Lesley, Sanu, Phil too!

Graph Search 6

And: Gianluca, good choice.

Getting past Coetzee. An essay by Hedley Twidle

In his life of VS Naipaul, Patrick French remarked that it might be “the last literary biography to be written from a complete paper archive”. I sense something similarly historical about Coetzee’s achievement, a power of pre-internet concentration and application that has now been eroded in Version 2.0 people. A mental discipline that can stay trained on things for longer than other minds, without flinching; that can push thoughts, or sentences, one step further than they would normally go.

A quality of, in a word, seriousness. Coetzee says somewhere or other that, for a certain kind of artist, seriousness is an ethical imperative. So why do I find myself wanting to be so unserious in his august presence? To dwell on all those things that cannot be related in the polite literary profile, or the rigorous academic paper. Such as: what does it mean to be obsessed, perhaps unhealthily obsessed, with an author? And: why don’t black South Africans read or talk about Coetzee? And: why am I beginning to think that his work should not be taught at the University of Cape Town – or at least that a 10-year moratorium on Coetzee studies should be declared?

While I was traveling in South Africa, I happened to read in the Financial Times the winning piece in the 2012 Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize, by South African author Hedley Twidle. It is in turn ironic (“Droves of students arrive from Wisconsin and Ohio to spend a term abroad, filling the Coetzee sign-up lists”), surprising (“Coetzee, the staff informed me, is a regularly shoplifted author”) and clever (“…a question that all literary scholars should put to themselves on a daily basis: “How can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?””). Read the full piece here: you won’t understand anything more about Coetzee than you already know, the unknowability of the subject being among the postulates underlying the essay. But you will learn a bit about literary obsessions, seriousness, unseriousness, and a country that is “as irresistible as it is unlovable”, South Africa.

Thoughts on South Africa

I saw a slice of South Africa, the one meant for tourists, and not even all of it. My vacation itinerary started in Cape Town, worked its way through the historic towns, wineries and game reserves of the Western Cape, and ended up at seaside resort Plettenberg Bay. It was beautiful, interesting, relaxing: the sort of vacation I like to have in order to unplug yet maintain the feeling that I’m learning something new about the world. Yet, it took place in a country that is not just wretched, but probably getting worse. From the recent Economist briefing:

South Africa’s Gini coefficient—the best-known measure of inequality, in which 0 is the most equal and 1 the least—was 0.63 in 2009. In 1993 it was 0.59. After 18 years of full democracy, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. […]

In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, South Africa ranks 132nd out of 144 countries for its primary education and 143rd for the quality of its science and maths. In the Department of Basic Education’s national literacy and numeracy tests last year, only 15% of 12-year-olds (sixth graders) scored at or above the minimum proficiency on the language test. In maths just 12% did.

Nelson Mandela, the universally revered 94-year-old “Father of the nation”, was released from hospital a few days ago and is reported to be recuperating at home. Yet, after his monumental achievements, how many opportunities has the country missed since then? How much of its potential has been lost to a dysfunctional political system, greedy politicians, and bogus theories about AIDS?

During my trip, I felt safe, as a tourist should be – just a bit unnerved by metal gates at the entrance to every little shop, reminding me that things can get occasionally dangerous. I did not feel I saw the new black ruling class: that has to be, I reckon, a Johannesburg (and Pretoria) phenomenon. Blacks and whites mixed at the popular tourist attractions, such as the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town and the Cango Caves in Oudtshoorn; but the wine country was very white, restaurant and hotel patrons were invariably blond and blue-eyed, and they mostly spoke Afrikaans. I do not recall seeing any mixed-race couples – apparently a more common sight in Paris more than in Cape Town. Being a tourist, I did not test people’s education nor witness the country’s incompetence and corruption. I left with mixed feelings: the place is beautiful, but hiding very deep wounds.

In the picture, a Cape Town view from Table Mountain.