Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Lion in Winter

In his 75th year, Wole Soyinka reflects on what has been, for a writer, an unusually eventful life. Towards the end of the interview, Soyinka is asked the inevitable "advice" question: What advice does he have for the young and aspiring?

Soyinka answers:
That question comes up again and again, and I say that I don't really know. I think it's up to people to decide what they want to extract from what I've done, or left undone. But the advice I always give to my young children, or to young writers, or those who want to be activists in some way, who come to me and say, "What shall we do about this situation? How can we contribute?" I just say, "Follow your instincts." Don't feel you have to follow the paths of others, because you may not be temperamentally fitted for it. And so you'll just harm yourself and your cause and others. But just follow your instinct, and don't ever pretend to be what you're not.
Wise words.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Probably the best sitcom of all time

Blackadder, that is.

A morsel of proof-producing pudding:
Blackadder: Personally I thought you were the least convincing female impressionist since Tarzan went through Jane's handbag and ate her lipstick, but I'm clearly in a minority.
Behold: The vast Blackadder quote generator.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Funny, what?

First, a rather geeky joke:

"There are 10 kinds of people in the world ...
those who understand binary, and those who don’t."
And this, apparently, is the world's funniest joke:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead! What can I do?". The operator says "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says "OK, now what?"

Friday, April 16, 2010

Simon says

Simon Singh is a well-known science writer, one of the best in the business indeed. I found his books on cryptology and Fermat's Last Theorem both enlightening and entertaining -- a difficult combination to pull off at the best of times. I recommend them highly.

On 19 April 2008, Singh published a now (in)famous article in The Guardian criticising certain scientifically unfounded claims made by some chiropractors. The third paragraph of Singh's article, the paragraph that got him into trouble, specifically mentions the British Chiropractic Association (BCA):

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments. [Italics added]

The BCA sued Singh under the United Kingdom's notoriously onerous defamation laws (onerous for the alleged defamer, that is). In his judgement of 7 May 2009, Mr Justice Eady, a senior High Court judge, ruled in favour of the BCA. Singh later secured permission to appeal Mr Justice Eady's ruling in a judgement by (the rather aptly named) Lord Justice Laws on 14 October 2009. Singh's appeal was heard on 23 February 2010 by three of the UK's most senior judges: (the equally euonymous) Sir Igor Judge, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales; Sir David Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls; and Lord Justice Sedley. In their ruling delivered on 1 April 2010, the three judges unanimously upheld Singh's appeal. On 15 April 2010, the BCA announced that it had decided to discontinue its libel action against Singh.

This court ruling and subsequent climb-down by the BCA marks an important victory for common sense and scientific freedom. I blogged recently about an unfortunate case in Zambia where a man, who was probably drunk, was jailed for defaming the President. I need not mention that Zambia's highly retrogressive defamation laws were largely inherited from the British legal system.

Such onerous defamation laws limit freedom of speech and are an insidious form of censorship.

The three learned judges correctly described the eventual state of a society that embraces, or even tolerates, such laws: Orwellian.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Things that go bump in the light

A bumper sticker I saw this morning:

I HAD a life...but my job ATE it.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Mapanje's Musings

Jack Mapanje, who hails from Malawi, is one of Africa's most distinguished living poets. His poems are constructed with great skill and subtlety and suffused with delicate humour and deep humanity. Mapanje's delivery in person is as impressive as it is on the page, as amply demonstrated by these four online recordings.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Nervous Conditions

Nervous Conditions, the debut novel by the Zimbabwean writer and film-maker Tsitsi Dangarembga, starts like this:
I was not sorry when my brother died.
You'll be hard-pressed to find a more arresting opening line.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Sword of Cicero

Cicero's sword was his razor-sharp mind, tongue and pen. Cicero's biography by Plutarch (John Dryden's translation, 1683) notes that "to make his orations more striking, he neglected decorum and dignity. [...] To use this sharp raillery against opponents and antagonists in judicial pleading seems allowable rhetoric. But he excited much ill feeling by his readiness to attack anyone for the sake of a jest."

Plutarch supplies numerous examples:
  • When Munatius, who had escaped conviction by his advocacy, immediately prosecuted his friend Sabinus, he said in the warmth of his resentment, “Do you suppose you were acquitted for your own meets, Munatius, and was it not that I so darkened the case, that the court could not see your guilt?”

  • When from the Rostra he had made an eulogy on Marcus Crassus, with much applause, and within a few days after again as publicly reproached him, Crassus called to him, and said, “Did not you yourself two days ago, in this same place, commend me?” “Yes,” said Cicero, “I exercised my eloquence in declaiming upon a bad subject.”

  • At another time, Crassus had said that no one of his family had ever lived beyond sixty years of age, and afterwards denied it, and asked, “What should put it into my head to say so?” “It was to gain the people’s favor,” answered Cicero; “you knew how glad they would be to hear it.”

  • When Crassus expressed admiration of the Stoic doctrine, that the good man is always rich, “Do you not mean,” said Cicero, “their doctrine that all things belong to the wise?” Crassus being generally accused of covetousness.

  • One of Crassus’s sons, who was thought so exceedingly like a man of the name of Axius as to throw some suspicion on his mother’s honor, made a successful speech in the senate. Cicero on being asked how he liked it, replied with the Greek words, Axios Crassou.

  • When Crassus was about to go into Syria, he desired to leave Cicero rather his friend than his enemy, and, therefore, one day saluting him, told him he would come and sup with him, which the other as courteously received. Within a few days after, on some of Cicero’s acquaintances interceding for Vatinius, as desirous of reconciliation and friendship, for he was then his enemy, “What,” he replied, “does Vatinius also wish to come and sup with me?”

  • When Vatinius, who had swellings in his neck, was pleading a cause, he called him the tumid orator; and having been told by someone that Vatinius was dead, on hearing presently after that he was alive, “May the rascal perish,” said he, “for his news not being true.”

  • Upon Caesar’s bringing forward a law for the division of the lands in Campania amongst the soldiers, many in the senate opposed it; amongst the rest, Lucius Gellius, one of the oldest men in the house, said it should never pass whilst he lived. “Let us postpone it,” said Cicero, “Gellius does not ask us to wait long.”

  • There was a man of the name of Octavius, suspected to be of African descent. He once said, when Cicero was pleading, that he could not hear him; “Yet there are holes,” said Cicero, “in your ears.”

  • When Metellus Nepos told him, that he had ruined more as a witness, than he had saved as an advocate, “I admit,” said Cicero, “that I have more truth than eloquence.”

  • To a young man who was suspected of having given a poisoned cake to his father, and who talked largely of the invectives he meant to deliver against Cicero, “Better these,” replied he, “than your cakes.”

  • Publius Sextius, having amongst others retained Cicero as his advocate in a certain cause, was yet desirous to say all for himself, and would not allow anybody to speak for him; when he was about to receive his acquittal from the judges, and the ballots were passing, Cicero called to him, “Make haste, Sextius, and use your time; tomorrow you will be nobody.”

  • He cited Publius Cotta to bear testimony in a certain cause, one who affected to be thought a lawyer, though ignorant and unlearned; to whom, when he had said, “I know nothing of the matter,” he answered, “You think, perhaps, we ask you about a point of law.”

  • To Metellus Nepos, who, in a dispute between them, repeated several times, “Who was your father, Cicero?” he replied, “Your mother has made the answer to such a question in your case more difficult;” Nepos’s mother having been of ill repute.

  • [Metellus Nepos'] son, also, was of a giddy, uncertain temper. At one time, he suddenly threw up his office of tribune, and sailed off into Syria to Pompey; and immediately after, with as little reason, came back again. He gave his tutor, Philagrus, a funeral with more than necessary attention, and then set up the stone figure of a crow over his tomb. “This,” said Cicero, “is really appropriate; as he did not teach you to speak, but to fly about.”

  • When Marcus Appius, in the opening of some speech in a court of justice, said that his friend had desired him to employ industry, eloquence, and fidelity in that cause, Cicero answered, “And how have you had the heart not to accede to any one of his requests?”

  • Marcus Aquinius, who had two sons-in-law in exile, received from him the name of king Adrastus.

  • Lucius Cotta, an intemperate lover of wine, was censor when Cicero stood for the consulship. Cicero, being thirsty at the election, his friends stood round about him while he was drinking. “You have reason to be afraid,” he said, “lest the censor should be angry with me for drinking water.”

  • Meeting one day Voconius with his three very ugly daughters, he quoted the verse,

    He reared a race without Apollo’s leave.

  • When Marcus Gellius, who was reputed the son of a slave, had read several letters in the senate with a very shrill, and loud voice, “Wonder not,” said Cicero, “he comes of the criers.”

  • When Faustus Sylla, the son of Sylla the dictator, who had, during his dictatorship, by public bills proscribed and condemned so many citizens, had so far wasted his estate, and got into debt, that he was forced to publish his bills of sale, Cicero told him that he liked these bills much better than those of his father.

Plutarch concludes: "By this habit [Cicero] made himself odious with many people."

Cicero lived by his sword and he died by it:

In the aftermath of the assassination of the Roman dictator Julius Caesar on 15 March 44 BC in a conspiracy led by Brutus and Cassius, Mark Antony, a close associate of Caesar, assumed control of Caesar's political and military forces. Meanwhile, Cicero, a stauch republican, was thrust into the role of leader and spokesman of the Roman Senate. Octavian, Julius Caesar's 19-year-old great nephew, adopted son, and designated heir, arrived in Rome on 6 May 44 BC and set about trying to wrest control of Ceasar's legacy from Mark Antony. Cicero saw this as an opportunity to divide the anti-republican Caesarean faction. In 44 and 43 BC, he made a series of scathing speeches denouncing Mark Antony (the so-called Philippics) and threw in his support with Octavian. Cicero quipped: "laudandum, adolescentem, ornandum, tollendum" ("the young man should be praised, honoured, and then done away with"; the last word "tollendum", meaning either "to be done away with" or "to be exalted"). It was a quip Cicero would live, and die, to regret.

Cicero's plan back-fired. Octavian and Mark Antony reconciled and, in alliance with Lepidus, formed the Second Triumvirate on 26 November 43 BC. The three men drew up a list of more than 200 people who were to be killed. Cicero's name was at the top.

Cicero, an elderly man of 63 by this time, half-heartedly fled Rome. He was caught by his assassins on 7 December 43 BC, as he was leaving his villa in the Mediterranean resort of Formiae on a litter (a covered, curtained couch carried by slaves), on his way to catch a ship to Greece. His last words are said to have been, "There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly." Cicero was Ciceronian to the very last.

Plutarch records a poignant incident that occured long after these events (Loeb Classical Library edition, 1919):
I learn that [Octavian], a long time after this, paid a visit to one of his daughter's sons; and the boy, since he had in his hands a book of Cicero's, was terrified and sought to hide it in his gown; but [Octavian] saw it, and took the book, and read a great part of it as he stood, and then gave it back to the youth, saying: "A learned man, my child, a learned man and a lover of his country."

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Simply the best

The greatest player in the history of football was, and remains, Diego Armando Maradona. But in this evening's UEFA Champions League quarter-final second-leg match between Arsenal FC and and FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou, I, we, saw the man who might, just might, wrest that accolade from Maradona: Lionel Andrés Messi.

Arsenal lost 4-1, despite taking an early lead 19 minutes into the match with a goal by the Danish striker, Nicklas Bendtner. Barcelona responded with four stunning goals, all from the boot of Messi. Barcelona won the quarter-final tie 6-3 on aggregate, having drawn 2-2 with Arsenal in the first-leg at the Emirates last week. Messi's dazzling performance confirmed what Barcelona and Argentina hoped (and perhaps knew), and their rival teams feared: that Messi, at just 22, is indisputably the best football player in the world. As an Arsenal fan, I was of course disappointed to see Arsenal fail, yet again, in its bid to win the European Cup, but who can begrudge Messi his moment of glory and not applaud what can only be described as a masterclass in the art and science of football?

The only question yet to be answered is this: Can Messi reproduce his incredible club form for his country at the World Cup in two months' time?

We shall see.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Geniuses and morons

From the entry on "Racism" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon:

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.

Racism claims that the content of a man’s mind (not his cognitive apparatus, but its content) is inherited; that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical factors beyond his control. This is the caveman’s version of the doctrine of innate ideas—or of inherited knowledge—which has been thoroughly refuted by philosophy and science. Racism is a doctrine of, by and for brutes. It is a barnyard or stock-farm version of collectivism, appropriate to a mentality that differentiates between various breeds of animals, but not between animals and men.

Like every form of determinism, racism invalidates the specific attribute which distinguishes man from all other living species: his rational faculty. Racism negates two aspects of man’s life: reason and choice, or mind and morality, replacing them with chemical predestination.


A genius is a genius, regardless of the number of morons who belong to the same race—and a moron is a moron, regardless of the number of geniuses who share his racial origin.