Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Accuracy of Fuzzy

Strange, but the old and well worn adage that “there are three types of lie; lies, damned lies, and statistics” (apocryphally ascribed to Benjamin Disraeli but certainly quoted by Mark Twain) seems to be universally acknowledged by all; in a jolly jocular, chatting down-the-pub sort of way but is not actually considered and accepted as a fundamental truth.

Some time ago (here we go again – but I shall continue!) I read an excellent piece about Climate Change. Not “Global Warming” mind, but “Climate Change”. I wish I could remember where I read it because it was a careful piece of scientific writing couched in terms that as a non-scientist I could understand and that laid out its thesis in a succinct and even handed manner. The publishing platform for this piece of work must have been some open-access forum and was probably linked from the Guardian, the BBC, Al Jazeera or some similar notable news channel. In common with such publications there was ample opportunity for the man-in-the-street to comment – and given the subject matter comments abounded and re-bounded with lots of energy.

I should add that the piece in question supported the thesis that we are experiencing climate change and that on balance that change could be attributed to anthropogenic influences. The comment that attracted my attention most was from some Colonel Blimp from Stoke Poges, or perhaps he was a Parish Councilor from Upper Twittering; either way he sadly slotted into a stereotype that one knows still exists but wished it didn’t. This Gentleman clearly had time on his hands and was either bored or angry (I suspect that latter) because he wrote that he had read the piece, printed it out and re-read it and marked with a highlight pen all references to uncertainty. So words or phrases such as “on balance”, “it would appear”, “subject to further data”, “uncertain”, “less certain”, “requires further study”, and so forth and so on were subjected to his damning scrutiny. If I remember correctly (and I do wish I had saved the piece) he even reported on the number of such apparent vacillations or violations of certainty. He justified this pointless exercise by concluding that a scientific article redolent with so many uncertainties was unworthy of publication and was essentially very poor science.

Staggered by this fat-headed critique I returned to the offending article and re-read it to see if I had missed anything, and concluded that I had not. The author had presented his thesis. He examined the evidence and admitted the strengths and weaknesses of his thesis in this context, and came to a reasoned conclusion. To me he had presented the reader with very good science that admitted to significant levels of uncertainties in a field of study that is rotten with doubts.

The very essence of science had been missed by the misguided commenter who had clearly approached the subject with a raft of boiler-plated preconceptions that he did not wish to have dented, let alone breached. The author of the offending article had in my view actually presented good science with a humility that spoke not of uncertainty but rather of assurance that there is no certainty. Science with honesty; an honesty borne of reservation.

Aside from this laughable example of self-inflicted misinformation there are the far more sinister examples of deliberate obfuscation by apparent experts who lift large amounts of often pseudo scientific information to use as contrary arguments against scientific standpoints. In these instances the nay-sayer is more often than not in the pay of the beneficiaries of the contrary view. A superb recent example occurred in the South African debate about wind power and other forms of alternative energy. The Nay-sayer used selective evidence and extrapolated no doubt valid statistics but stretched them to breaking point in order to make his point. In this instance both accepted doubts and selective anecdotes were brought to bear to rubbish the entire alternative energy industry. A little bit of judicious digging uncovered the fact that the author of this clumsy piece of writing was in fact a retired PR person for one of the multinational oil companies, no doubt working on enhancing his pension by “consulting” to the industry on the murky affairs misinformation.

Incidentally I use the word clumsy advisably here, because unless you were alert to the possibility of a bit of wholesale wool pulling over the eyes the entire article could have been taken at face value by the unsuspecting and uninformed reader. Indeed the danger of uncritical acceptance of this type of underhand journalistic guerilla warfare (which was actually op ed stuff) was evidenced by the piece in question - because it was published wholesale (in the business section nogal) and without comment by a respected South African Sunday Newspaper. Only those who were incensed by the obvious bias and factoid cherry picking took the article to task, and of course this type of debate and debunking inevitably happens on subterranean comment pages that are hidden from the general public just below the pavement level of the web.

Which leads me effortlessly to the realms of the pavement - that area inhabited by the gutter press, where individual and often of singular facts are pedaled to marvelous levels of crassness.

The UK Mail on Sunday fell unwittingly into a statistical crevasse by reporting that the extent of arctic sea ice actually grew in 2013 contrary to trends predicted by climate scientists. This, so the theory went, thus disproved the doomsday prognostications of said scientists and therefore lent weight to the climate change contrarians. This piece of factoid cherry picking was gleefully picked up by the Guardian Online who could hardly contain themselves as they hacked into the offending piece of journalism and with almost unseemly joy pointed out that the other organ of right wing fat-headedness, the UK Telegraph, was also guilty of this daft piece of inaccuracy.

The Guardian article pointed out the very great danger of taking selective facts that have but short term relevance and applying them to a longer time frame. Indeed, the extent of sea ice had increased from one year to the next, however the thickness of the ice was significantly reduced, and given the extreme losses of previous years this increase, in the context of longer time frames was to be (and had been) expected. The article directs the reader to the concept of “Regression towards the Mean” which crudely says that if you’ve had extremes within a set of results there is a reasonable expectation that future results will trend towards the average and be therefore considerably below currently experienced extremes.

Or to put it another way an apparent single extreme event now is no indication of a trend but has to be seen in the context of all other valid data. And that, to my mind, as a non-scientist, is where good science sits.

I might add that within the “science” of environmental assessment is embodied the wonderful philosophy of the “Precautionary Principle” which says that if there is any doubt, then err on the side of caution. This I think is a sweeping acknowledgment that there is an awful lot out there that we really do not understand. Statistics can be an invaluable guide, but must be read in the context of a grand framework the extent and complexity of which I don’t believe we have fully grappled with, let alone understood.

A statistic on its own, without context, is a lie, because it tells a selective story. Without a barrel load of statistics (and our world is so diverse and complex that we don’t have that barrel load) we must rely upon imagination and intuition – a fuzzy logic, and that’s the best we have.
Yorick - a sage (and a cat) who lives by his
wits and fuzzy logic.
I must say that every time I am assailed by statistics I figuratively stand back and try to contextualize them within my understanding of the world before I heard this new information. Try it. It’s a liberating feeling because you can then apply your own fuzzy logic and avoid the extremes of emotion that the purveyors of much of these selected facts want you to experience; more often than not to feed their own ends.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Dog Day Sunday's

When individual weekend commitments allow I walk with a good friend. His dog and my two are all of a similar age and seem, in a doggy sort of way, to rub along very well with each other. In fact I find it rare that dogs accompanying their human charges take umbrage or offense at each other. Just occasionally, very occasionally, there is the canine monster with clearly psychotic tendencies, but such encounters are unusual because their human companions are generally alert to the potential for bloodshed and sensibly, in such circumstances we keep away from each other.
A decidedly un-psychotic dog!

A characteristic of this doggy paradise is that there are actually very few other dogs, in fact the chances of meeting other human charges (let alone their dogs) are, I calculate, 1 in 10. This is due to the fact that it is a tough and steep climb to get to the expanse of veldt on top of the Sibebe massif. Small wonder then that the boys and I are up and at it in glorious isolation most weekends, climbing and exploring the veldt, the rocks and the incredible stands of pristine indigenous vegetation.
A lone - but not I think lonely - feral horse

Another characteristic of this space is the significant population of cows and the occasional feral horses. The cows are in the main a fairly sanguine lot, often initially suspicious but generally accepting of one or two human charges accompanying their dogs. Seth and Hamlet will trot past the wickedly sharpened horns of the Nguni cross bovines without so much as a glance in their direction, and every time they do I feel a warm glow of pride at their restraint, especially as I know that their DNA is subliminally shrieking at them to "herd, herd, herd!"
An abundance of cows
From this you will have deduced that another characteristic of this space is that human charges are not on leads, and that they, and of course the dogs are free to roam without that annoying pull on aching arms (not to mention choking necks). I once saw, at a distance, a small family group; four in number if I remember correctly, one of whom was tethered to a placid looking yellow Labrador, or Retriever or similar posh and sophisticated hound which was no doubt the product of an exclusive and expensive private education.
"What the hell", I thought, "is this animal thinking of?"
"Let the people free", I felt like shouting.
"Let them roam and run in random directions," I thought, loudly and indignantly.
"Give yourself space to soak up the amazing aromas abounding in this landscape, for they are surely magic!" 
The boys looked sadly in the general direction of the sorry group and forged ahead with noses to the track, hoovering up aromas of such sophistication and fascination that they beggar description.

Water stop

Needless to say it is not always paradise in Arcadia.

Only the other day I was striding through a dispersed herd of cows, walking towards a diminutive calf that looked cute enough to cuddle.

Behind me I became aware of a beast that was not as sanguine or as placid as its masticating companions. In fact it distinguished itself from its fellow grazers by stopping grazing in a threatening sort of way, and then charging me in a very aggressive sort of way. The dogs, by now well in front of me by some 20 metres, stopped and turned with the air of an audience mildly interested in seeing what might transpire next; rather than two healthy dogs whose instinct, let alone duty, should have been protection of their human charge.

In the face of half a tonne of trotting un-marinaded beef I raised the point of my trekking pole to a horizontal defensive position, placed my weight on my rear leg, balletically pushed my best foot forward, braced my body, and calmed and cleared my mind of extraneous and distracting emotions. From this perfect statuesque stance of oneness I engaged the fevered eye of the angry beast, and turned swiftly and fled towards the nearest assemblage of rocks that I guessed could not be scaled by even the most limber of cows. Still at a safe distance the dogs observed this tactical cowardice with interest.

I'm still not sure if this was a horny heifer or a young bull with attitude. My now fading memory has it that the undercarriage of the beast was udder-less thus rendering my strategic retreat probably a sensible move.

A terrible case of canine posturing against a painted sky.
Mostly the dogs are the only real time walking companions I need, but there are times when their canine habits do becomes a little annoying. Often their foibles only become truly evident after the walk is over and we have returned home, and the kitchen, living room, TV room - in fact every room that the dogs are temporarily inhabiting is smelling like a sibaya (cattle byre).

Just occasionally I manage to forestall this unacceptable behaviour. After a long walk with the painted man and his tribe, returning through and round the four giant marbles I admonish the dogs - and to my surprise they obey my masterful commands as Hamlet starts to eat with guilty relish a new cow pat - "No!" I snap; and as Seth contemplates rubbing his neck in an adjoining pile of ordure - "No!" I order. Judging from the colour and texture of the newly formed skin on the cow shit it is only an hour of two old, just ripe enough to be irresistible to a dog but to have long term odiferous consequences in a pristine and well ordered indoor human world.

"Are we nearly there yet?"

However, when all is said and done, there can be no better walking companions than two alert dogs whose appreciation of the immediate scented earth is complementary to mine of the painted skies and landscape. Each of us enjoys our excursions and adventures. None of us really understand what the others appreciate, but I sense we all know that, and it doesn't really matter.

Fellow walkers - not getting too concerned about what blows each others hair (or fur) back.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

The Painted Man

The dogs and I shared the Sunday Sibebe morning walk with someone else.

By rights we should not have been walking together because the organized walk planned for the previous day had been called off due to expected inclement weather. Had that walk gone ahead the boys would have been excluded (society rules) and been left at home cooling their heals.

As it happened the morning beamed at me with clear blue skies and yesterday's rain sodden clouds kept their early morning distance over the mountains to the West, although by doing so did not exclude a return of their wet and windy behavior over the past three days. By nine o'clock - a late start I readily admit - the day was warming, the sun gently combating the light wind that was still carrying the memory of a night chill.

I decided to walk North along the base of the rocks rather than bounding straight up the Zip, partly because although the granite on the steep slope of the Zip is rough, after rain even the course grained surface is treacherous. I also felt that my Sunday morning body was not ready for any form of bounding. A more steady ascent was somehow more seemly.

Importantly I also wanted the visit the painted man, to photograph him and record his GPS location.

Once over the annoyingly un-ergonomic stile that straddles the barbed wire fence by means of two ungainly horizontal poles we climbed through an isolated stand of last seasons knee high grass which had escaped recent Veldt fires, up to the higher pastures that had been burnt off.

HIgh Veldt pastures that have recently been burnt off
A cosy rock overhang

One of the dogs set up a game bird, I think a Francolin, which rose with an alarmed shriek and flew in noisy indignation at a low trajectory downhill away from us. I wonder why ground breeding birds always fly downhill when disturbed and never up the mountain?

The painted man stands alone in a cosy rock overhang. He stands about 5 inches high on a concave rock face about 2 feet from the earth floor. Why he is there I cannot tell. Why he is alone I also cannot tell, and indeed I cannot be sure of its gender. Perversely I suspect a male because there is no indication that it is a female. And I also have no idea how long he has been standing there. The "pre-history" of this area, and by that I mean the history that pre-dates European written records and Swazi oral records, is, by its very nature, contested ground and archaeological dating of such signs is open to conjecture.

The Painted Man

We leave the rock shelter and climb upwards through boulders and stunted protea bushes. The ground is red where cattle and humans have exposed the friable sub-soil. Here the 'A' soil horizon is thin and fragile, and once the sparse vegetation cover is damaged or removed erosion advances rapidly. Once out of this series of minor gullies and up a steep sheet of rock the vegetation on the higher, steeper slopes is thinner, but the diversity of new spring flower growth is more evident. High Veldt ground-cover is sparse and fragile, there is not the degree of root reinforcement of lower and flatter areas, but perhaps because of that the profusion of young colour and growth is striking. And this is the season of the Coral Tree (Erythrina zeyheri) which flourishes stark and showy, bright red sprays on otherwise denuded, leafless branches.

Coral Tree (Erythrina zeyheri)
The author of the painted man, the artist of pre-history would also have followed this path, and at this time of year, after heavy early rains would have seen these same growths; there is no obvious recent infestation of alien vegetation in this area. I wonder what they would have meant to him or her?

I share this landscape with the painted man, through the eyes of the artist of the painted man who many years ago also traversed this land but who walked this mountain for very different reasons. Who looked with eyes and senses alert for the swift and furtive movement of small game who are equally alert for potential predators. Who walked with knowledge and purpose towards areas where herbs, fruits and rhizomes were known to grow, to harvest them for whatever small community she belonged to. Who perhaps walked with feelings of fear of the spirits and deities  that controlled and directed how this land behaves.

The painted man and the artist are one in my eye and in my spirit, because they are indivisibly one,  a representative of a group who shared this landscape long ago - and are sharing it now, with me.

Having laboured through small gullies and up slabs of exposed granite we top the initial edge of the mountains to arrive at new lush High Veldt pasture, pristine light greens of new spring growth following recent fires, spotted and splashed with dashes of blues, yellows and reds.

As we lope across this gentle relieving highland I feel suddenly vulnerable; alone and exposed and strangely fearful of a lightening struck death. Although there are and have been neither indications of lightening and thunder, nor that indefinable sense of primordial electricity in the air I quicken my step and look back and around me. The painted man, his artist and his tribe are, I know, behind and by me, but I wonder if they also feel, and have felt this otherworldly sense of danger? The fear climaxes and subsides as I lengthen my stride and the dogs forge on ahead, but the hairs on the back of my neck remain stiff and my back feels chilled.

High Veldt pasture
In front of us across a small flat valley is another one of those remarkable assemblage of rock and vegetation unique to this plateau. Four gigantic rock marbles, two large and two small granite globes teetering on the cusp of a steep rock slab. Below them the granite has been incised by millennia of weathering to form deep vertical grooves, like the knuckles of a stubby fist, that have provided sufficient protection for young saplings and opportunistic succulents to mature into robust and majestic growth, filling, populating and framing the rocks. Geology and botany illustrating our dry and unpoetic academic descriptions of ecology and natural systems at work . . . . poetry in statis.

"Marbles" and "Knuckles"
Up on this plateau there is another world, one that has echoes of a past that stretches back in geomorphological time, periods that are younger than geology but far far older than words. Here there are a few signs of modern agriculture or other human marks. You have to scratch the surface to find evidence of older anthropogenic activity. There are however new marks; occasional homesteads, newly installed electric poles, and my nemesis - 4x4 tracks. For a moment I can let these temporary human marks be subsumed into this ancient landscape, because to allow these minor aesthetic infractions to cloud the immensity of this is to a allow a temporary devaluation of what is there. It is impossible to know if the signs of the older narrow single person purposeful tracks are impressed only by modern feet, or whether they have a far older provenance.

High valley
The dogs and I shared the mountain with someone else this Sunday morning. I didn't speak in the conventional sense with the painted man, or his portraitist, or his tribe, but he, and she, and they were definitely with us on our very brief journey. They were not ghosts, because their spirits were very much alive and empathetic to that landscape that has changed so little between their time and mine.

I walk to the nearest high point and look South towards Mbabane, visible but sufficiently distant to be a view and not a dominant intrusion. To the left the higher parts of the weathered Sibebe pluton rise over the high flat and ancient valley, a valley that surprisingly, given its elevation, hosts a perennial stream. East, on this clear, rain washed morning I can see the distant blue heights of the Lebombo Plateau, beyond which lies Mozambique. I wonder if the painted man standing by my side would have been aware of the ocean lying unseen in the distance. He would only perhaps have heard of it from tales of travelers who had walked the hard four or five days journey. Or from hunting parties that had meandered circuitously for four to five weeks there and back in search of game. Perhaps his knowledge of the ocean has a time frame of four to five months defined by seasonal migration, or a far longer personal memory or oral history of a more permanent migration measured in years.

Looking East towards the blue mountains of the Lebombo
Plateau, with Mozambique and the Indian Ocean beyond
We returned from the plateau to the rock shelter of the painted man and looked out West over a view he, and his tribe, shared many many years ago. We paused briefly in the shadow of the enfolding rock and then I left the painted man to descend onto the more gently sloping new grassed pasture coloured with african alpine spring flowers. He and memories of him and his tribe remain engrained on the steep slopes, gullies and crazy rock formations; and I will be back to visit him again. 

West - from the shelter of the Painted Man

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Eco Village for Sale!

I am deeply suspicious of anything that has the preposition “eco” attached to it, and am only slightly less wary of its prepositional sibling “green”.

Ever since conservation and environmentally responsible movements started gaining traction, and politicians and lawmakers have been forced to listen (albeit in a desultory and sly sort of way), the machinery of corporate greed has ramped up the language – not to say the actions – of green-washing and eco-punting.
Eco-eating. The table is set for a green lunch.

The sad fact is that there is a belief that if you slap the preposition “eco” in front of any word or phrase that in its unencumbered form actually describes or implies an activity that is likely to be harmful to the natural environment it will somehow mitigate that harm. A particularly ubiquitous favourite is “eco-friendly” which implies a sort of cursory handshake rather than a meaningful and long-lasting relationship. This inaccurate phrase is applied liberally and people fall for this verbal charlatanism.

Incidentally this piece could easily be extended to a discussion about other more serious words and phrases that are also frivolously misused, but this is about particular name calling and such names and phrases need to be put aside for another day lest they muddy the immediate waters, so let’s not talk about . . .

      carbon trading - a strange mechanism for assuaging environmental guilt by using just the same mechanism that created the cause of that guilt – were that guilt to be felt – which of course it isn’t – hence the need to use the same mechanism, which is the greedy pursuit of wealth . . . . .

      sustainability - another loose and easy badge of social conscience which should actually be talked about in terms of grades and layers, instead of misunderstood and poorly defined goals or panacea.

       oh and green accounting, which at a macro scale is a very useful way of applying negative values to GDP for the cost of dealing with pollution and waste disposal, but at a corporate level has been used to green-wash annual reports.

. . .  and return to the eco-wash at hand.

A particularly cynical piece of deliberate corporate miss-use of the eco lie is the eco-village, or in fact almost any style of eco-property development.

Commonly the enticing advertising blurb seeks to persuade you that the proposed development will, far from having an impact on the natural environment actually enhance it. Of course what it is not saying is that the development will be placed in an as yet largely undisturbed environment and will modify and manipulate it in such a way as to provide a sanitized milieu; a faux jungle, a pretend forest, a stretch of re-designed and manufactured savannah grazed by obliging ungulates.

All this will be provided without the irritating inconveniences of the chaotic ebb and flow of natural ecological processes; fire, mud, flood, species population expansion and contraction and so forth. Of course the newly created anthropogenic landscape will now be enhanced by electric light, treated water and artificial reed beds, all in the interests of physical security and health for the new inhabitants of this hitherto pristine environment.
The reality of rural cycles - widespread and sometimes
devastating fires. (High veldt in Swaziland)

The reality of rural cycles - flash floods. (High veldt in

Of course the property development industry is not the only one to cynically wave the green eco-flannel in the face of a confused and ill-informed public. Virtually every conceivable product, packaging and service you buy unconvincingly trumpets some sort of eco-advantage.

The problem of course is that the property development industry is very visible and has an awful lot of ground (if you'll excuse the phrase) to make up. Let’s face it building construction activities are visibly so destructive and permanent; yet they are carried out to ensure our secure existence and feed our aspirations for an even more comfortable existence. Where new developments are to be built at the boundaries, or the very heart of “nature” this is of course fertile ground for less than fertile imaginations to sell – what ought to be seen in ethical environmental terms – the fundamentally un-saleable.  Smack in the “eco” preposition and Joe Public buys it - and of course sadly Joe Public (at least those few who can afford it) literally does buy it.

Is all this wrong? Well not necessarily if measured against a myriad of environmental ills such as the plundering of floral, faunal or mineral natural resources and the seemingly irreversible damage to natural systems.  The glaring truth however is that so called eco developments invariably do not protect let alone enhance natural environments. They are located in natural environments and thus modify those environments. Eco should describe something that is at least as good as what was there. In fact a good eco development should be better than what it is modifying or replacing.

Urban environment that could benefit
from some green thought (Moshi,
Urban environment that could benefit
from some
Mpumalanga, South Africa)

To give the preposition eco any real meaning in the context of property development I suggest that it should be used in a regenerative, rather than a deceitful sense. The words green or eco should be exclusively reserved for development in already impacted and modified environments rather than in pristine ones.

  • When I see regeneration in desperate inner city urban areas that goes some way towards reinstating at least a part of the originally long lost natural environment I would be happy. 
  • When shattered and squalid urban spaces are populated with indigenous flora and irrigated by harvested water sources then I would support the appellation “green”
  • When hardened urban surfaces are softened to allow the absorption of rain water, shade is provided by the leaves and branches of trees, urban colours are modified to allow for something nearer to natural albedo then inhabitants can derive direct benefits. 
  • When carbon sequestration is a pre-requisite and the precepts of ecological footprints are at least considered for any development then that deserves an “eco” appellation.

Returning to my rude maligning of faux eco villages, how about giving the sales pitchers the phrase – “Broadly Harmonious” to work with.  Let them weave their daft magic around that damning description, and please – next time you see an advert for an eco-development – demand a full and exhaustive explanation!

Here is an untouched environment that is fortunately too high for comfortable living. I cannot imagine anything designed or built by man that could do anything but utterly devastate this. (Kilimanjaro, Tanzania) An extreme point perhaps . . .

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Bumbling Around Moscow

I am alone in a square, surrounded by people. I am crouched over a rucksack connecting an ignition device to an explosive cell that could have an undetermined lethal effect on detonation.

At one end of this long open space is a dark red turreted pile of a building that ought to be decorated with snow a foot thick on its near vertical roofs, and at the other end is a building constructed with brashly coloured children’s building blocks stolen from a Victorian nursery. Along one long side of the square are massive crenulated walls punctuated with huge towers that speak of proud and uncompromising imperialism, and along the other a building with a façade that is more blousy than seventeenth century Paris. There is a definite, if understated military presence in the place.
". . . . a dark red turreted pile of a building that 
ought to be decorated with snow a foot thick" 
- The State Historical Museum
The cobbles are small, charcoal grey, smooth and homely. They are warm and soft to the touch and have the feel of roadside parking areas in English country towns about them. They are painted with white and yellow longitudinal lines that far from delineating parking spaces are there to guide troops, motorised and rocket propelled armour that are brazenly paraded to the world every May Day.

So there I am about to arm a small nuclear device, in the middle of Red Square in Moscow, which together with Tiananmen and Trafalgar, must be one of the most iconic squares in the world.
 ". . . brashly coloured children’s building blocks
stolen from a Victorian Nursery" - Saint Basil's
Well actually I’m in the fumbling process of charging my cell phone by connecting a foot long 3 cm diameter battery tube to it. The last message I had tried to send from the ailing instrument had remained sullenly in the “out-box” and the screen was fast losing its cheerful lustre. There is nothing more despairing and lonely than watching your e-lifebelt disintegrating before your very eyes - and believe me Moscow is a place that you can feel alone in very easily. My sole connection with the outside world was a limitless travel metro card and the fast fading cell phone umbilical. Clearly a re-charge was vital.
". . . . . massive crenulated walls
punctuated with huge towers" - The
walls of the Kremlin
Half way through this deeply suspicious process I realised how deeply suspicious I looked; single unshaven man with furtive worried expression dressed in shabby, foreign clothing, bent over rucksack, in possession of a long thin metallic tube, USB cable and elderly cell phone; in the middle of a capital city of a country that may be controversially at war with a neighbouring state (although they deny this) and that is being viewed with deepening suspicion and unease by its western allies, and with fear by it’s traditional enemies.

Thrusting the now connected bomb components into the rucksack I sidled towards the edge of the square by the facade of the GUM store and furtively looked at the newly energised and cheerful face of the cell phone nestled in the dark of the rucksack. The previous barely legible messages from an hour or so before between me and my companion from whom I’d become separated sprung to life.

". . . . . a façade that is more blousy than 

seventeenth century Paris" - GUM Department 
“Where are you?” - I had messaged.
"I've found Red Square!” - She'd replied.
“How? Where is it?”
“I just followed the shiny things.”
“Which way?” – In retrospect a pretty daft question, which, with gentle emphasis was answered by -
“Just follow the shiny things.” - Clearly a reference to golden turrets and cupolas. 
“See you back at the Hotel.”

I could now join the rest of the world, and triumphantly messaged “I've also found Red Square”, and filled with awe at this amazing place and washed with relief at having avoided arrest for subversive behaviour reluctantly set off on the quest to find a metro line that just might lead back to our hotel.
Red Square

Wednesday, 8 April 2015


Here’s something that I came across the other day while I was cooling my heels impatiently in a garage waiting room. It was at the front of a car manufacturers brochure. The type of brochure of such dazzling lustre that it leaves your figures permeated with perfumed printer’s gloss, your head reeling from the scent of hardcore, high level, in-your-face advertising, and your mind numbed by unfulfillable images of impossible places and fabulously plastic young people. This is what it said:

When Imagination Can Take You Everywhere 
The road. A simple path really. And yet it’s come to mean so much more. Perhaps the real reason roads are special is that each one leads us to some place we’re not – but could be. At Super-Car, roads are our springboards. They challenge us, taunt us and guide us to create better, more exciting, more ingenious ways to move through life. Roads drive us to places we’ve never been before. And we’ll never stop seeking out new ones.

All this and not an exclamation mark in sight; not so much as a hint of tongue in cheek! In one paragraph there are 79 words packed into 8 sentences. The longest sentence is a measly 21 words, and shortest (non)sentence a brief 2 words. To start one sentence with a conjunction is acceptably risqué, but two in the same paragraph is just sacrilegious, yet to miss the opportunity of an ellipse or two . . .

This is without doubt one of the most remarkable pieces of copywriting garbage I think that I have ever read. It is designed to persuade me to buy a small family car. Instead it persuades me to stick my head in a brown paper bag and opt for public transport.

To conflate a stretch of tarmac with ones journey through life is at best disingenuous and at worst just plain stupid. As if one sets out on a road journey – be it short, to the shops for instance; or long, to distant mountains – with a song in the heart and an existential thought – “gosh this is just like my journey through life hitherto and what an amazing metaphor this stretch of road is going to be for my life henceforth!”

I almost hesitate to unpack this rubbish and by doing so fall into the trap of the Mitchells Law – but hell it’s awfully difficult to avoid the temptation, so here goes . . .

The road. A simple path really. Short, sharp and punchy; and already confusing. What, I wonder, is a complex path?

And yet it’s come to mean so much more. More than what? Toast and Marmite? Babies tears? Beetroot sandwich spread? Low calorie shoe polish? The English Daily Mail? Yesterday's socks? Oh - but I do like the flagrant use of “and” as a sentence opener – risky and dangerous!
One of those wonderful, simple roads (in the dry season)
that go on, and on, and on, but eventually get there. 
Anywhere in Southern Africa! 
Perhaps the real reason roads are special is that each one leads us to some place we’re not – but could be. Well there’s no “perhaps” about it. If you are at point “A” you cannot be at point “B” – unless of course you are Schrödingers Cat, and if you are your very live existence is of course subject to debate, and your position (locationally speaking) may – or may not – be at “A” or “B”, or “A” and “B” at the same time, and there again, in which time continuum? But I do like use of the throw-away “could be”. It does indicate the sheer unbridled excitement of choice! I hesitate to bitch about the use of “some place” which is an irritating Americanism, but I suppose the use of “a place” or “anywhere” would upset the rhythm of this absurd roller coaster of crass words.

A road with absolutely no end in sight. A roller coaster  of
a wayfare redolent with cattle and newly released school
children just waiting to leap out in front of you - Swaziland
An urban road of surprising orderliness where two-wheeled
transport is king and jay-walking appears to be a capital
offence - not to say a stupid occupation - Kathmandu,

At Super-Car, roads are our springboards. Well unless Super-Car have also entered the sports equipment racket (pun intended) or have developed some fabulously resilient shock absorbers I hope not! But hey – it does introduce the following touch of whimsy . . .

They challenge us, taunt us and guide us to create better, more exciting, more ingenious ways to move through life. I see. You, the manufacturers of cars are somehow galvanised, taunted no less, by the very vector along which your much vaunted vehicles have to travel. You are challenged to present presumably more ingenious ways of flamboyant acceleration and deceleration along the straight bits, swooping around bends and roundabouts with birdlike flair, not to mention stopping with style and élan when needed. I see now that it’s all just like life. If I think about it I do accelerate and decelerate while walking in an exciting sort of a way and my personal and business relationships are a whole melange of swooping bends, blind corners, unexpected rises and red lights, let alone having to navigate over cross pelicans and zebras and sleeping policemen. Oddly this has never occurred to me before!

Masculine, unromantic roads full of bombast and hurried
impatient drivers rushing from one crisis to the next in the
heart of an edgy economic and political empire - Moscow

Homely and soft small urban landscape, pedestrianised
and carefully controlled and preserved with a slow
synergy between walkers and drivers  - Lichfield, England

Roads drive us to places we’ve never been before. Well actually they don’t. Cars, buses and taxi’s, and jalopies and skoro-skoro’s, and motorcycles and donkey carts and Yaks and bicycles and pedestrians all actually do the motive bit. The road just sits there. Roads are passive and utilitarian. And while we’re at it they usually also connect us to places that we do know very well and maybe even hate going to although necessity demands the journey. I very much doubt that the most vaunted small family car is going to in anyway mitigate the journey to the oncologist or the funeral of a close friend.
A road that has never seen an internal
combustion engine, and rarely (if ever) a
wheeled cart or bicycle. People, Yaks and
occasionally donkeys give a very different
feel to time and purpose and goals - Lukla,

And we’ll never stop seeking out new ones. Now I'm confused. Are you never going to stop seeking out new ones? Or are you telling me that I will never stop seeking out new ones? If it’s the former I would far rather you expended your energies on safety and economy than on daft whimsy. If it is the latter then you let me sort out my own desires for “new roads”, be they actual or fanciful and let’s both leave the state of said roads to whatever incompetent agency is responsible for their parlous state of repair and general levels of safety.
A road that should never be. The chap in the pothole is not
kneeling and is not responsible for the parlous state of this
byway - Swaziland

But back to the beginning, and here’s the real irony. The copy is tritely entitled When Imagination Can Take You Everywhere”. Self evident for anyone with a smidgeon of imagination - and that’s all the copywriter needed to have said. A stupid and meaningless sentence of absolutely no import has been expanded to a degree of senseless prattle of such magnitude that I would be embarrassed to be seen dead in the subject small mundane silver grey family car with indeterminate styling, the usual basic accoutrements and absolutely no mod cons.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Moscow Statuary

A first and gentle encounter in a formal and well kept linear garden lying between two streets.

A young woman of extraordinary beauty and grace set in front of two curved explanatory tablets. The text is naturally in crylic so I could not fathom either her name or why she had a statue in her honour. Later I discovered that she is N. K. Krupskaya who was none other than V. I. Lenin’s wife and a noted Marxist and political activist in her own right. Photos of her later in life bear little relation to the stunning depiction of her in that peaceful part of Moscow, but she does have the high honour of having an asteroid named after and the dubious honour of having her name on the wrapping of a popular chocolate bar.

In contrast, in Cosmonauts Alley which is lined with heroes of the Russian space program, there is a fellow who clearly had something important to do with Soviet space endeavours. Again in ignorance of the Russian language and alphabet I could not ascertain who or what he was, although there is a depiction on the plinth that indicates something to do with Sputnik. He stands square jawed with rigid shoulders and exudes supreme confidence and looks as if he will move off at any moment, and when he does he will walk with a swagger. The realism is amazing, and I somehow didn't feel that I would have liked meeting him.

As a youth I fell hook, line and sinker for the soviet dream that was depicted in the West by “Challenge” the mouthpiece of the Young Communist League. I read the Communist Manifesto and Engels’ necessary accompanying commentary. I was fired by a visceral desire to do good and responded at a deeply emotional level to the photographic heroic depictions of noble young men and women facing the rising sun with jutting jaws and heaving breasts, or rather more accurately in my young and testosterone fuelled imagination - jutting breasts and heaving jaws. Tremendous, stirring and fiery stuff. 

Later I came across real life examples of revolutionary iconography, youthful heroism and nationalism half a world away in post civil war Mozambique. But here in Moscow, the home of my original youthful yearnings, I was now confronted with the core of uncompromising revolutionary bravado and nationhood. Moscow unashamedly revels in it and by God it is magnificent!

Moscow does indeed do statuary very well and I feel partially qualified to say that with confidence because our hotel was positioned at one end of a vast area called All-Russian Exhibition Center a permanent trade fair venue. VDNKh is short for vystavka dostizheniy narodnogo khozyaystva which apparently translates to “Exhibition of Achievements of the People's Economy” which is suitably and satisfyingly triumphalist -  and hooray for that. 

To enter this wonderland one walks beneath and through a vast five arched structure (The Propylaea) that suffers from being a mish-mash of several classical styles and bas reliefs  – but atop of which is – oh bliss – a statue of heart stopping nobility.

Gold clad the Tractor Driver and Sovkhoz Woman hold aloft a wheat sheaf that is heavy and fat with organic goodness and socialist triumph.

Gold is a recurring theme, especially in a resplendent fountain in this same complex. The Fountain of Friendship of the Nations is a striking circle of robust and fecund women in a variety of traditional or national costumes, although from which nations I could not fathom. I presume they are all from nations within the old soviet fold? Whoever they are and whomever they represent they are magnificent examples of the species.

In the centre of the triumphal esplanade that bisects this vast area is the inevitable statue of V.I. Lenin. There must be hundreds of such statues throughout Moscow, let alone Russia. Here he stands, beetle browed, avuncular and imposing in classic pose – exuding thoughtful power; grasping coat lapel in one hand and a rolled document in the other. And then with paternal and watchful eye he gazes over an early evening modern day rock concert towards citizens from an earlier era - the Tractor Driver and Sovkhoz Woman silhouetted against the dusk sky.

On the morning of my departure I walked from our hotel North along a busy duel carriageway towards a statue that had been looming in the middle distance throughout our brief stay. In a way it is more monumental from a distance than it is from close by - but no less grandiose for that - for it is vast.

For sheer size and power "Worker and Kolkhoz Woman" cannot be beaten. I gazed with open mouth and understood the loud and huge clarion call to arms, or the plough, or the sickle, or the hammer and imagined that I heard Shostakovich Second Symphony dedicated to the 1917 October Revolution.

There are so many more, and I am reluctant to even mention the bizarre appearance of a stone effigy of General Charles de Gaulle incongruously framed against the unwelcoming curved facade of the 30 storey Hotel Cosmos.

But for me the most striking of all the Moscow statuary I saw are the two flanks of the Monument to the Conquerors of Space which are decorated with haut and bas-reliefs depicting men and women of the space program: and notably Laika, the first space dog.

This piece of visual historicity is monumentally topped by the piece de resistance, an ascending rocket eternally supported upon a titanium con-trail, setting a clear course for the heavens – both physically and metaphorically. Quite stunning.

And more by luck than design I managed a photograph that caught the perpetually ascending (and thus ironically static) rocket against an ephemeral sky and a moving lunar target.