Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Who doesn't want to be a millionaire?

Does the following statement mean anything to you:
If a compact 3-dimensional manifold M^3 has the property that every simple closed curve within the manifold can be deformed continuously to a point, does it follow that M^3 is homeomorphic to the sphere S^3?
That statement is the Poincaré Conjecture, a famous mathematical problem that was first formulated by Henri Poincaré in 1904.

The Conjecture was only solved almost a century later, in 2002 and 2003, in a series of three revolutionary papers by the Russian Jewish mathematician, Dr. Grigori Perelman.

In recognition of his monumental achievement, Dr. Perelman was awarded a Fields Medal in 2006 and, about two weeks ago, the first Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Prize. The Fields Medal is the most prestigious prize in mathematics, whilst the Clay Millennium Prize is the most lucrative with prize money of US$ 1 million.

All that is remarkable enough.

What is even more remarkable is that Dr. Perelman has turned down both prizes, the first and only person ever to do so.


The answer, complete with all the relevant background and key players, is told in a long and fascinating article by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber that was published in The New Yorker in August 2006.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Something Ngugi this way comes

New from Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir

Ngugi is one of Africa's finest writers. But I profoundly disagree with some of his political ideas, particularly his notion of "the problematic interaction between dominant languages and marginalized ones." The interaction and intermingling of languages has been a feature of human society for thousands of years and needn't be viewed as "problematic". What emerges as the "dominant" language is not necessarily a result of anyone setting out to centralise or marginalise any particular language. The most widely used language in the Roman Empire, for instance, was not Latin, but Koine ("common") Greek. This was simply a function of the preceeding history of the ancient world and the huge diversity of peoples who lived under the Empire. Any attempt to impose Latin as the dominant language would have faced formidable, if not impossible, odds. Ngugi abandoned writing in English (the "dominant" language) in favour of Kikuyu (the "marginalised" language). Apparently, he now only translates his works into English after they have been written in Kikuyu.

The fact remains though: if Ngugi's work were only available in Kikuyu, we would never have heard of Ngugi wa Thiong'o and we would not be having this discussion. That's just a existential fact which it seems to me unwise to ignore.

But anyway, not to spoil the party: Ngugi's new book is a memoir, a childhood memoir. It is sure to take its place alongside the childhood memoirs of two other giants of African literature: Ake: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka and The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Tribute: Augustine Lungu (12 December 1970 - 19 March 2010)

Augustine Lungu (in the baseball cap) and Benne Banda in Footers (Source: Visiting Arts UK)

There's a story told about a famous Zambian who died. Thousands of mourners turned up at his funeral. One of the funeral orators was just reaching the climax of his impassioned eulogy, which had been met with the equally enthusiastic if necessarily muted approval of the crowd, when suddenly everyone's attention was drawn to the casket by an unmistakable cough. In the following moments, the corpse opened his eyes, muttered some inaudible words and climbed out of the coffin. The dead man walked calmly over to the astonished (and speechless) eulogist and took the microphone into his until-just-a-minute-ago-lifeless hands. The deceased motioned for the vast throng to be silent so that he could address them. By this time, all the wailing, tears and sombre expressions of the mourners had been replaced, first by incredulity, and then by indignation. "Just like him to be so arrogant and self-centred on an occasion like this," they said, "and shamelessly use it as an opportunity for self-promotion."

In truth, there's no such Zambian story. I just made it up for two reasons.

The first reason is it captures and illustrates something of the peculiarities of Zambian culture: the unstated rule that the eminent must be modest about their achievements; the generally unexpressed (to the living, at least), but nonetheless genuine, admiration for those achievements; the not-always-ingenuous respect for the dead; and, of course, the absurdist sense of humour with more than a hint of the macabre.

The second reason is I think it's a joke that Augustine Lungu, one of Zambia's most eminent and versatile artists and humorists, would have enjoyed. Augustine died, of an undisclosed illness, on the 19th of March 2010. He was only 39. At the time of his death, Augustine was Director of Programmes at Muvi TV, a private television station in Zambia. He is survived by his wife and four children. (And yes, as it happens, there were hundreds, and according to least one report I've seen thousands, of mourners at his funeral.) My blog has a special connection to Augustine because its title, Perfect for Biltong, was coined by him, albeit for an altogether different purpose: a Zambeef advert, as I recall.

Augustine Paul Lungu was born on the 12th of December 1970. (Augustine, here's another one. Question: Who said "Never trust a man with three names"? Answer: Francis Ford Coppola.) He was educated at Chelston Primary School and Kabulonga Boys Secondary School in Lusaka. It was at school, both primary and secondary, that Augustine's multi-faceted artistic talents began to flourish. He proved to be a natural and supremely gifted performer.

After school, Augustine went on to establish himself as one of Zambia's most accomplished artists and humorists. He was certainly the most versatile. During his career, he played many different roles, in both the functional and theatrical sense, each with distinction: actor, director, producer, writer, broadcaster, arts administrator and activist; comedy, tragedy, tragi-comedy, poetry; you name it, Augustine did it. As an actor and voice-over artist, he performed in (and probably wrote, co-wrote or directed) countless radio and television advertisements, including several instant classics that have become part of Zambian language and culture. He was a delightful mimic and could impersonate the voices and gestures of virtually anyone at will. He worked in and mastered all of the different media: theatre, film, radio, television, print, and latterly even the so-called new media. He was also a much sought after master-of-ceremonies for all kinds of functions like weddings, beauty pageants, corporate events, and so forth. He was equally adept in English, several Zambian languages, and various hybrids thereof, including Zanglish, or Zambian English. There are some fine examples of Augustine's comic writing in his "Just Musing" columns in Zambian Analysis magazine. His verbal and linguistic dexterity was just one of the weapons in a formidable arsenal which also included: a deep, sonorous and highly distinctive voice; large, expressive eyes; a face capable of displaying the most nuanced mood or emotion; a keen intelligence; and a seemingly inexhaustible creativity.

Perhaps his versatility, too, was reflective of the contemporary Zambian condition. For one can ill-afford to specialise in a country where "just" being an actor, or "just" being a director, or "just" being a writer, is unlikely to provide a sustainable income. And so, the typical Zambian thing is to generalise: to do a bit of this, and a bit of that, and a bit of the other thing in order to make ends meet. The surprising thing in Augustine's case is that he seemed to excel at virtually everything he did.

Augustine's finest hour internationally came in 2003, when he and Benne Banda starred in a two-man play entitled Footers at the Edinburgh Festival. Footers, or Headers and Footers as it was billed in Zambia, was written by the Irish playwright, Shay Linehan, who lived and worked in Zambia for many years before moving back to Ireland. Augustine and Benne played Zeddy and Yoyo, two uneducated and unemployed youths who have to live by their wits on the mean streets of Lusaka. The play is supposed to be satirical, and so it is. In many ways, though, it is an all too realistic and painful portrayal of the daily lives of many promising youngsters in Zambia. Footers was the first Zambian production ever to play at the Edinburgh Festival.

However, the most remarkable thing about Augustine's repertoire of skills was probably that they were all largely self-taught. He had no formal training to speak of, no diploma from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, or the New York Film Academy, or their Zambian equivalents (for none exist, in any case). But what he did have in abundance was talent, aptitude, determination, and an insatiable and indiscriminate love for the arts. He also had what every great artist must have: a personal taste and style all his own. He was--and is--inimitable in that respect.

I had the great privilege of seeing and hearing Augustine perform in a variety of formats, including one incredible evening spent watching Headers and Footers.

But for me personally, the most memorable performance that Augustine ever gave must have taken place some 11 or 12 years ago. Augustine was already by then a household name in Zambia. I had gone to visit a friend, a mutual friend as it turned out, in Rhodes Park, one of the suburbs of Lusaka. I didn't know that Augustine was staying over at our mutual friend's house. Our friend had just let me into the lounge, when Augustine emerged from one of the corridors with both hands proferred in greeting. He had an extremely grave look on his face. I recognised him immediately and must have appeared somewhat bemused. Without missing a beat, Augustine shook my hand warmly and said: "Hello, I am Auntie Josephine!" The ice, such as it was, was instantly broken and I collapsed in an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Pure Augustine.

Augustine had the ability to make anyone that came into contact with him experience joy and laughter, a priceless gift in this world surely. I'd give my eye-teeth--now there's an Augustinian seed for a joke if ever there was one (what kind of word is eye-teeth anyway?)--but I digress (now, where was I?)--(oh yes) my eye-teeth to have heard what Augustine said to Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. But that's a story for another life and another world.

Augustine, Zambia will miss you. Thank you for the unforgettable joy and laughter. Rest in Peace.

--Mjumo Mzyece, 28 March 2010.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Works every time

I never get tired of watching all 120 seconds of this (the mellifluous voice at the end, incidentally, is that of Garrison Keillor):

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A sad day for democracy in Zambia

Yesterday, Darius Mukuka, 35, a driver and father of four, was sentenced to 18 months in prison with hard labour by the Chief Resident Magistrate in Ndola, Zambia.

He had been charged and convicted under Chapter 87 of the Laws of Zambia ("The Penal Code Act"), Division I ("Offences Against Public Order"), Section 69 ("Defamation of President"):

Defamation of President

69. Any person who, with intent to bring the President into hatred, ridicule or contempt, publishes any defamatory or insulting matter, whether by writing, print, word of mouth or in any other manner, is guilty of an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years.
(No. 6 of 1965)
On the evening of Sunday, March 22 2009, Mr. Mukuka had apparently been in a bar in Ndola when an item concerning the Zambian president had come on the ZNBC evening news. According to reports in The (Zambia) Post, the Zambia Daily Mail and the Times of Zambia, Mr. Mukuka had then referred to the President by a highly derogatory Bemba epithet and expressed his opinion about the President's conduct and performance. Literally translated this is what Mr. Mukuka said: "This [Bemba epithet referring to the President]...what is he saying...he's lying to people...he's failed to govern the nation."

Was Mr. Mukuka insulting towards the President? Undoubtedly. There is no ambiguity about the Bemba epithet that he used and the way in which he used it. However, in the legal context, an insult in and of itself does not constitute defamation.

Was Mr. Mukaka defamatory towards the President? Possibly. Defamation in the legal sense must exhibit all of the following characteristics: (1) publication (to third parties); (2) falsehood; (3) malicious intent; and (4) reputational or other damage.

Characteristic (1) is not in dispute: Mr. Mukuka definitely made his remarks in the presence of, and for the apparent benefit of, several other people present at the scene. Characteristics (2), (3) and (4) are not so clear-cut.

Characteristic (2), falsehood: Mr. Mukuka's statement about the President "lying to people" was in apparent reference to earlier remarks made by the President in the news item. Mr. Mukuka's statement would therefore have to be considered in the light of those earlier remarks and judged accordingly. On one end of the scale, Mr. Mukuka's statement could well have been justified simply on the grounds of human fallibility (on the President's, or perhaps his speechwriter's, part)--someone could have made an innocent mistake. And there are numerous other possibilities between that and the other end of the scale (malevolent purpose).

Characteristic (3), malicious intent: Was it Mr. Mukuka's "intent to bring the President into hatred, ridicule or contempt". Perhaps, but there appear to be mitigating factors in this respect. For instance, Mr. Mukuka was apparently under the influence of alcohol at the time.

Characteristic (4), reputational or other damage: Did Mr. Mukuka's in fact "bring the President into hatred, ridicule or contempt" and thereby damage his reputation or good standing? Recall that all of these damaging effects are with reference to that legal factotum, the "right-thinking" or "reasonable" person. Would any right-thinking, reasonable person's estimate of the President have been lowered if he had heard Mr. Mukuka's words on that Sunday evening? Or would he have instead, for example, dismissed them as the words of a man who had had a little too much to drink?

Evidently, there is a great deal for good lawyers to play with on both sides of this case.

It's also worth noting that, apart from the crude Bemba swearword, in many ways Mr. Mukuka's words are quite tame compared to the everyday rhetoric of Zambian politicians, including the incumbent President.

But all of that is beside the point.

The point is this: In a liberal, pluralistic democracy, leaders can and should expect to be subjected to constant scrutiny and criticism. This is not to lend support to gratuitous insults, but rather to recognise that a free society must tolerate, and indeed cultivate, dissenting opinions, some of which may be expressed in ways that certain people, perhaps even most people, will find unpalatable. And public persons, particularly leaders, should expect (if not necessarily enjoy) a lot of comments and opinions on their conduct and performance. This is the price society must pay for freedom and accountability--and progress. The alternative is ghastly and one that Zambians are well acquainted with from Zambia's comparatively short independent history: a leadership that becomes increasingly aloof and unaccountable and a people that become increasingly disenchanted and despondent.

Update (26 May 2010):

Apparently, the President has pardoned Darius Mukuka for his offence. This is highly commendable. However, the dodgy defamation law is still on the books. It should be scrapped.