Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Great Escape

Shingwedzi Camp, Kruger National Park
I stayed in one of those bungalows with friends last year.

Last week saw a mass break-out of around fifteen thousand highly dangerous inmates on death row.  They were held at Rakwena in north-west South Africa, near the Botswana border and also near the Limpopo River.  Although some of the escapees have been recaptured, nearly ten thousand are still at large.  They were the beneficiaries – perhaps the only beneficiaries – of a major cyclone over Mozambique which caused the Limpopo River and much of the Limpopo province of South Africa to experience another massive flood event.  Kipling’s “great grey-green greasy Limpopo” showed what sort of stuff it’s really made of.

So back to the great escape.  Actually, it wasn’t an escape but an evacuation.  As the flood waters rose at the Rakwena Crocodile Farm (Kwena means crocodile), the external pressure of the water on their holding areas became intolerable.  So the staff opened the gates, and shortly afterwards 15,000 crocs of various ages – destined to become handbags and the like – took off into the great outdoors.  In fact, the river eventually flooded the farm completely, so the crocs were heading for the exit in any case.

 The escapees made it their business to put as much distance between themselves and the crocodile farm as quickly as they could.  Well, so would you if you were going to be turned into fashion boots.  One was found a few days later nearly eighty miles away on a rugby field at Muskina.  Others were spotted at parks, rivers, golf courses…

Water trap?
The crocs were described as “not large,” which seemed to mean under eight foot.  I would hate to meet any of these “not large” crocs on a dark night!  The Rakwena folks also said they were “domestic” animals and used humans to supply food rather than as food.  Hmmm.  I’m not too sure how crocodiles think about us humans; the Nile Crocodile is the animal responsible for the largest number of human deaths in Africa.  Wildlife authorities advised people to "stay indoors and keep away from the crocodiles".  Not easy to do when your house is being flooded!

Catching the crocs is mainly attempted at night, when their eyes reflect bright red in the beam of a spotlight.  It’s still a messy business, involving jumping on the creature, taping its jaws and avoiding its tale.  I won’t be applying for that job, thanks.  If you want some tips as to how it's done, take a look at this video Capture

A less humorous aspect of the story is that the floods forced people to wade through these swollen waters.  They probably found the thought of sharing it with fifteen thousand crocs less than hilarious.  Still, in fact there have been no reports of attacks. It was the floods themselves that killed more than twenty people…

Michael – Thursday.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Winning is not everything

My English is not as good as I would like it to be but I think I have the word that well describes a victory that just came our way here in Iceland: bittersweet. The happiness associated with winning, tainted by the events leading up to it.

Two days ago Iceland won the court case filed against the country by the EFTA Surveillance Authority and later in some strange manner co-filed by the EU. It was tried before the court of the Europe Economic Community. Lots of big official words and lots and lots of capital letters flying around.
The case regarded our failed banks, private institutions whose debt was to be nationalised. Aided by a group of people that started up a movement called Indefence and then later our president, the public ended up refusing any attempts of Icelandic officials to place humongous burdens on the taxpayers, thereby taking a different approach to such a scenario than most countries.
And we ended up getting sued – pay up or else. But surprise, surprise: We won. The debt of private companies has nothing to do with the public. Hurrah.

One thing must be noted. Account holders in the Icelandic bank branch offices in question have  already been repaid. The UK government and the government of Holland stepped up and paid their citizens soon after the banks closed and the legal teams in charge of the estates of the defunct banks have been repaying these countries since. I understand that the full amount has almost been repaid - piecemeal with the selling of the assets - and that 100% is expected to be repaid with time. Soon even.

What has not been paid is interest on the money Britain and Holland paid out at the end of 2008 and have now at the beginning of 2013 almost fully recaptured. Hence the court case, apparently the people of Iceland were supposed to pay 5.55% interest on those exuberant sums. The interest amounts were staggering so one can imagine what the capital sums must have amounted to. But the courts threw this out and also announced that Iceland was under no obligation to repay the money in the first place, let alone the interest. Privatising the earnings and nationalising the debt no more applies to banks than any other company. These were private banks, no different from airlines, shoe factories or ice cream parlours. Why should it be my problem if some bank alongside its rich owners goes bust?   

This whole thing is so complex that my version is not particularly thorough and I can only hope you have managed to follow and that  have not been too one-sided. At least according to the court there is actually but one side in this. For those fluent in legalese I suppose I must add that in order to repay the account money Iceland changed its laws in order to move account holders to the front of the debtors’ queue and were thus able to use the bank assets to pay back the UK and Holland. These assets I might add were not in Iceland. Aside from Icelandic mortgages that were sold off to no gain of the mortgage holders, all or most of what the banks owned was located in Europe.
Below is a simplified, cartoon version of events by NMAWorldEdition. It is subtitled in English but note that the spoken language is not Icelandic.  

So why is the victory bittersweet? We won and fairly so. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the people who held the accounts were caused all sort of troubles because of this banking debacle. For them I feel very bad. Cringeworthy is the mess our banks made and the problems they caused other nations. It annoys me to no end that this pyramid scheme a.k.a. banking was associated with my country. 

To end this on a fully positive note I would like to share with you a video made by the city of Reykjavík in its attempt to secure the World Outgames in 2017. When I watch the segment I am proud of my country. Some of us may suck at banking but we do get the important stuff right. It does not hurt that the campaign is the brainchild of a great guy and friend of mine - Ingi Þór.  The song is Icelandic, singer Þórunn Antónía belting out a feel good tune called: Too late. 

Reykjavík is competing with Miami - fat chance they have. Winning obviously makes me cockey - is there not a saying out there: Cockyness comes before the fall. If not there should be.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

books, authors, publishers, librarians

Here's to being a lazybones and posting pictures. Friday night (Burn's Night) Ian Rankin, yes himself,  and Caro's Scottish neighbor came to a wonderful bookstore in Half Moon Bay. He gave a talk on his novel, the first Rebus in five years, Standing on a Dead Man's Grave. Ian's self-deprecating, entertaining and not short on stories with his Scot's humor on Burn's Day. Luckily after reading Caro's post I knew what hogamany meant and felt haggis savvy. Ian's great and here's the fangirl moment. I've missed Rebus and he's back with force. Am loving this book. 

Then it was up to Seattle for the midwinter ALA 13 conference and signing at the SOHO booth. And there was our Tim Hallinan signing his Junior Bender's and making nice with his fans. Long line. Leighton's future book was there - in prominence - then Tim and I taxi'd over to the Seattle Mystery Bookstore to say hi to Amber. Today Tim had his special first signing there for The Little Elvises,  which comes out officially tomorrow.
 In the meantime we joined the SOHO squad - that's our publisher Bronwen and marketing guru Paul to visit Elliot Bay Books because we all love this indie bookstore that's thriving in Capitol Hill.

We also met a lot of the 5,000 librarians attending the conference and chatted with Nancy Pearl, the BookLust Librarian, who lives up there and is a fan of Tim and SOHO's crime line.
I scored a copy of Lisa's new book Tale of the Rat before the librarians gobbled them all up. And I sweet talked my way into grabbing a copy of Yrsa's new book The Day is Dark that looks like it comes out in February!
So excuse the short photo post, I've just gotten off the plane, turned in my next Aimée manuscript and will give myself a treat to catch up on some reading.
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, January 28, 2013

Death By Fire

It happened here:

A small town in Rio Grande do Sul, a state in Southern Brazil that share borders with Argentina and Uruguay.

On Saturday night, the 26th of January Some two thousand teenagers, mostly between the ages of sixteen and twenty. were packed into a popular nightclub call Kiss, a venue designed to hold no more than one thousand.

One of the members of the band on the stage ignited a flare as part of the show.
The flare caused the ceiling of the club to catch fire.
And, within moments, the place filled with smoke.

Bodies are still being counted, but the lowest estimate of fatalities now stands at 231, placing the disaster as the second largest of its type in Brazilian history. (The first being a circus fire, Rio de Janeiro, in 1961, which claimed 501 lives.)

This being an age of smart phones the coverage of the event was unprecedented.
And the photos are heartbreaking.

Dilma Roussef, the nation’s president, in Chile on a visit of state, promptly cancelled her plans and returned home. She was unable to hold back tears in the interview she gave to the press.

The fire inspection certificate for the location was long expired.

One of the double exit doors was locked shut.

And there is a custom, in the country, for people to run a tab which they pay upon leaving.
So many of the people who were trying to escape, and hadn’t settled their accounts before they did, were simply held back until it was too late.

 The cause of death, in the majority of cases, was smoke inhalation.

It’s easy to blame the authorities in Brazil – and they will be blamed - of that you can be sure.

But the sad truth of the matter is that this is the kind of thing that can occur anywhere – and has.
Several of the worst fires around the world in recent decades have been at nightclubs.
A fire killed 492 people at Boston's Coconut Grove club in 1942, the deadliest nightclub blaze in U.S. history.

-In 1977, 165 people perished and more than 200 were injured when the Beverly Hills Supper Club in
Southgate, Kentucky, which touted itself as the Showplace of the Nation, burned to the ground.

A fire at the Ozone Disco Pub in 1996 in Quezon City, Philippines, killed 162 people, many of them 
students celebrating the end of the school year.

A welding accident reportedly set off a Dec. 25, 2000, fire at a club in Luoyang, China, killing 309.

A nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003 killed 100 people after pyrotechnics used as a stage prop by the rock band Great White set ablaze cheap soundproofing foam on the walls and ceiling. The same thing that happened on Saturday night at Kiss.

At least 194 people died at an overcrowded working-class nightclub in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2004.

And a blaze at the Lame Horse Nightclub in Perm, Russia, broke out on Dec. 5, 2009, when another indoor fireworks display ignited a plastic ceiling decorated with branches, killing 152.

My heart goes out, tonight, to the hundreds of parents in that one little Brazilian town who are mourning the deaths of their sons and daughters. There is no experience in life that is worse than losing a child.

I ask all of you who are reading this to remember those grief-stricken parents in your thoughts.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tim's Back!

Our Blogger Emeritus, Tim Hallinan, honors us today by stepping in for Lisa with a post he calls

Lost In Translation

William Blake, “Capaneus the Blasphemer” from The Inferno of Dante

Years and years ago, John Ciardi, then the best-known translator of Dante into English, defined poetry as the thing that is lost in translation.

This may seem like a pessimistic perspective for someone who translates poetry, but I think that what he meant is that the thing most likely to get lost in translation is the unique way that fine poetry communicates the poet's personal experience of his or her subject.  Anyone can count the circles of Hell and locate the usurers, but Dante's poetry was a combination of the subject matter and his unique attitudes and reactions to it.  And when a translator interposes himself or herself between Dante's verse and the reader, we readers of the translation are no longer in Dante's company.

But I don't believe that essence is “lost in translation” only in poetry.  I think that the most basic struggle of all artists, no matter how skillful they are, is the struggle not to lose in translation – in the act of writing or painting or composing or whatever – the thing that initially sparked the work.  

It seems to me, on the broadest scale, that there are two components to being an artist of any kind.  First is to see the world in an individual way.  Second is to develop the control of the chosen medium well enough to show it to us—not to lose it in translation.

All the novelists I know have had the experience of a finished book not meaning quite (or even nearly) what he or she meant to say.  And I don't personally know any writer who will point to a finished work and say, “In that one, I got it all.”

Visual artists have the same problem, but at least they don't have to push what they mean through the wall of language.  One of the things I like about the visual arts is the sense that I'm close to the imagined image (hmm, never saw those two words side by side like that) that prompted the work.  Here's some recent work I really like.

Thierry Cohen, “Darkened Cities – New York

Thierry Cohen is a French photographer who travels to remote locations—the Sahara, for example—that share the same latitude of a great city.  He photographs the night sky and then superimposes upon it a “darkened” photo of that city.  He's interested in the way cities would look at night if they were completely free of light pollution, but these images also suggest very strongly that even the mightiest cities are blips in time compared to the heavens.

Rune Guneriussen

The work of Danish photographer/installation artist Rune Guneriussen examines the relationship between nature and the man-made world, and I think his images are brooding and mysterious and even funny.  Guneriussen declines to attach any text or “meaning” to the images, but they communicate a great deal to me, about the ways we hold back the mystery of the world and even (sometimes) create beauty when we do so.

Just some musing.  Lisa Brackmann will be back next week.

Note: All these images are taken from the invaluable art site

Tim (in for Lisa) – Sunday

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Let's Go To A Wedding.

Today in Athens, Laoura Lalaounis Makropoulou (the daughter of my Greek publisher, Aikaterini Lalaouni) marries the love of her life, Yiannis Dragnis. Na zesete!

In honor of their wedding day, I thought I’d take you to a Greek wedding.  But our invitation is for one on Mykonos, where traditions are somewhat different than in Athens.  But you’ll get the general idea, and no matter where a Greek wedding is held I can assure you the party is always a blast.

Traditionally when two Mykonians marry, several hours before the service the bride and groom go to their respective parents’ homes to gather with family and friends who’ve come to help prepare them for the big day.  Amid a lot of singing, drinking, and nuts (meant to be the edible kind, symbolizing fertility) the party begins.

The groom, accompanied by an entourage including musicians, arrives at the church first, to cool his heels waiting for his bride to show.  Tradition always has her arriving late—possibly to give her groom a chance to sober up.

The bride and her family also arrive with musicians, generally playing a santouri dulcimer and an accordion or two. They stop in front of the groom as the bride’s parents turn their daughter over to her soon-to-be husband.  Then it’s on to the ceremony.   

All organized faiths offer more than simply words when asking souls to exchange lifetime vows; centuries-old symbols and rituals are employed to impress upon the couple the seriousness of their commitment.

Symbolic of all Greek Orthodox weddings are a bible, almonds, wine cup and decanter, and two stefana—bridal crowns of starched white leather, orange blossoms and ivy joined together by a single silver ribbon (or a variation thereof)—all on a small table.  

And everyone attending a Greek wedding has some traditional part to play. 

The priest reads from the wedding service as he performs the expected traditional rites, such as touching the wedding bands, and later the stefana, three times to the foreheads of the bride and room.

The koumbarous and koumbara, honors akin to, but far more significant than, best man and bridesmaid, are charged with switching wedding bands three times from the couple’s left ring fingers—where worn when engaged—to their right where worn when married, and with holding the stefana above the couple’s heads waiting for the moment to switch them three times between bride and groom.

The bride has the most whimsical, and some say “instructive,” tradition.  Near the end of the service the priest reads, “The wife shall fear her husband,” at which point the bride brings to life the expression, “It’s time to put your foot down,” by stepping on her man’s foot to the great joy and cheers of all, especially chiropodists.  

The guests play their parts after the couple drinks three times from the common cup and begin their ceremonial first steps together as husband and wife.  The bride, groom, koumbaroi, and priest circle the small table three times amid a barrage of rice and, in Mykonos tradition, powerful whacks to the groom’s back by his buddies.

Then its time for greetings of  “kalo riziko,” “na zesete,” and “vion anthosparton” wishing the couple a marriage of “good roots,” “long life,” and “full of flowers,” and off to the party venue.  The only ones who don’t head straight to the party are the bride and groom.  They stop at their new home to change clothes. 

By the way, don’t worry if your name isn’t on the guest list, because as long as you’re with an invited guest you’re in.  That sort of thing is expected at a Greek wedding where there’s always more than enough food, drink, and room for one more. 

There’s also music playing while the guests wait for the bride and groom to arrive, and as soon as they do, the tune switches to one that lets everyone know the couple is here.  Amid a roar of applause and shouts of good wishes, they make their way through a phalanx of hugs and kisses to the dance floor.
With a nod of the bride’s head, the band begins playing the ballos, the traditional six-step dance of the Cycladic islands, one of the most beautiful to watch, and the first done at any true Mykonian wedding.  Once they are dancing the party is officially underway, and the couple is joined in sequence by their parents, koumbaroi, immediate family, and guests until a full line of partiers is dancing in the syrto style that symbolizes the essence of Greek life to so much of the world.  Later will come the kalamatiano, arguably Greece’s most popular dance and one played at every Greek wedding.

I will not mention the food. Just think enormous…and triple your thought.

Tonight is a time to let loose and worry about nothing more than passing out before the last guest departs, which will be long after the cake cutting and fireworks display.  And don’t worry about having to find your way home in the dark. The sun will be up by then.

Vion anthosparton, Mr. and Mrs. Dragnis!


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Did this criminal prevent civil war in South Africa?

Robert Foster was born in an area of South Africa called Griqualand East in 1886, the year in which gold was discovered in what became Johannesburg.  He had a good childhood, was a decent student, played sport, and became a good husband, a loyal friend, and a loving father.
Robert Foster
He also became South Africa’s most wanted man.
As is often the case, it started with little things – resisting arrest when drunk, resisting arrest when apprehended on a train without a ticket,  and so on.  In 1908 he moved to South West Africa (now Namibia) where he was caught stealing donkeys.  He was sentenced to 6 months prison in South Africa.
When he returned from a trip to England in 1913, he settled in Johannesburg and became friendly with an American – ex-rodeo rider and sharp-shooter, John Maxim.  They decided they should move up in the world.
They went to Cape Town and decided to rob the American Swiss Watch Company with Robert’s brother Jimmy and another man, Jack Johnson.  Wearing disguises of false beards and moustaches, off they went and robbed the establishment of about £5000 of cash and watches.  After the heist, Foster put the loot in one bag, his disguise and clothes in another, then put both bags into a trunk, which he took to railway station to leave at left luggage.  Here he made his first mistake.  He didn’t have change for the attendant and had to persuade him to take his luggage while he went to get small change.  Of course, this made the attendant remember him.   
The second mistake was telling another resident in the lodgings at which they were staying that they were actors.  The man was an actor himself and knew they were lying.  When the four men disappeared on the morning after the robbery, which was of course reported in the newspapers, he became suspicious and spoke to the police.
The police searched his room and found evidence of the robbery.  They found the taxi driver who took him to the station.  They spoke to the left-luggage attendant, who showed them what he had left.  And so very quickly, the police had all the evidence they needed.
Three days later, Foster came to fetch his trunk and was arrested and held in the Roeland Street jail.  While awaiting trial, Foster married his long-time lady friend, Peggy – the ceremony being held in the prison.
Foster's wife, Peggy
Maxim had evaded arrest, so the three of the four robbers on trial were sentenced to 12 years hard labour and sent to Pretoria Prison.  Foster's wife, Peggy, managed to gasp “I’ll wait for you, Chummy,” before collapsing in court!
Now comes the interesting part.  (The bizarre part comes later.)
Nine months later, Foster escaped from a hard labour gang. 
Together with his friend Maxim and another man, he then started his reign of terror.
They tried to rob the National Bank in Boksburg, were discovered by a night watchman, and eventually killed a barman from the hotel across the road who came to see what was happening.  An onlooker who tried to stop the escaping men was shot and crippled for life.
Then the gang successfully robbed two post offices without harming anyone.
Then they went after the Big Bottle Store.  During the break-in they tripped an electric alarm (in 1913!).  A night watchman alerted the police and the gang fled, killing one policeman.  Later a policeman stopped Maxim, searched him, and found a revolver on him.  Maxim then shouted for help, Foster came out of the hotel at which they were staying, and in the ensuing gunfire, Foster was hurt and another policeman killed.  The three escaped on motorcycles.
The Wanted poster
Needless to say, a massive manhunt ensued, and a little old lady in one of the suburbs told the police that she thought the gang was staying in a cottage next to her.  The police went, one was killed, and the gang escaped again.
It was at this stage in the saga that some bizarre events took place.  More of that later.
The gang abandoned the car and took refuge in some caves in the hills on which Johannesburg is built.  The police found the car, and tracker dogs soon located the men.
Entrance to the cave
The mouth of the cave was soon surrounded by police and spectators.  Obviously the three men of the gang weren’t going to get away this time.
Police and spectators at the cave
The next morning, a shot rang out from the cave.  The third man, the police later found out, had committed suicide. Eventually Foster came to the mouth of the cave and asked the policeman in charge, Inspector Martin, to let him speak to Peggy and his baby daughter.  Foster promised that once he had seen them, he and Maxim would surrender peacefully.
Martin eventually agreed and sent a police car to the neighbouring town to fetch the two.  Peggy and her daughter went into the cave where Foster told her that he and Maxim were going to commit suicide rather than be hanged.
“I’m going to stay with you, Chummy!” Peggy said.
Fosters parents were also outside the cave.  He asked to speak to them.  When he had done so, he gave them the 5-month old daughter.  After they left, three shots rang out.  Maxim and shot Robert and Peggy Foster and then himself.
The saga was over!
But not quite.  Inspector Martin was so upset that he had let Peggy go into the cave and to her death that he later committed suicide.
And the bizarre events?
When the gang escaped from the cottage, the police set up roadblocks all around Johannesburg.  At one, a doctor responding to a medical emergency failed to stop and was shot dead and his wife wounded.
At another, an ex-Boer general, Jacobus Herculaas de la Rey, told his chauffeur to drive through it.  He too was shot dead.  It turns out he had broken his oath to support South Africa and was on his way to start a rebellion among the South African troops, who were supporting Britain in World War I.
General de la Rey
So perhaps Robert Foster inadvertently prevented a civil war in South Africa, just as it was finding its feet after the Boer War!

Stan - Thursday
P.S.. I gleaned a lot of this information from the book Famous South African Crimes by Rob Marsh.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Norway - what's not to like?

The title of this post is not cynical. There is nothing not to like about Norway. As I have previously noted on this blog, Norway is wonderful.

To state the obvious I am now in Norway. The country my ancestors left in a huff over something or the other. Our languages, Icelandic and Norwegian, are so related that if the two coupled had a baby language together it would be incest. Having never learned Norwegian I can still read most things in print here and understand them. I also thought I understood everything spoken but soon found out this was a misconception. Something I believed to be a joke about tax credits turned out to be something completely unrelated. Wishful thinking I guess.

The faces on the street are familiar, something I do not experience in the other Nordic countries. Weird how DNA does not change much in hundreds upon hundreds of years. To make me feel even more at home, the fish here is just as good as in Iceland. Personally, if Iceland shuts up shop I could easily live here.

The winter that has passed the south of Iceland this time around is in Norway. White snow, crisp air – makes even a vertigo sufferer like myself want to strap on skis and hurdle down a hill.
The only thong is that it is pretty expensive here - when I pack for a trip to Norway I double check to see if I forgot anything. Should one forget toothpaste I have a sinking feeling that it would be cheaper to have a cavity fixed when back home than buying toothpaste in Oslo. Well, almost.  
Til next time

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

bzzzzzz....winter in Paris

 And it snowed. Snowed a real snowball make-able blanket of white.
This shot taken on Saturday morning shows Square du Temple - in an almost Caillebotte painting - in front of my friend's apartment.  She lives to the left of the yellow umbrella'd playground slides - next to the townhouse on the upper floor.

But what about the bees in Paris?
What happens to the bees during the winter and how do they defend themselves from the cold?
When the thermometer goes below zero the bees in the more than 50 apiaries in Paris adopt a range of behaviors that enable the colony to spend the winter and grow again in the spring. They stockpile pollen and honey in the summer. Beekeepers estimate that it takes twenty pounds of honey in the hive at the entrance of the winter to cover the needs of the colony.

 Here's the beehives on the roof of the Institute for the Deaf in the Latin Quarter. In the fall, the bees in the hive decrease from say 50,000 workers in May and June to 20 000 bees in December or January. That's a lot fewer mouths to feed. Winter bees with abundant fat reserves live about 6 months, gradually replacing the short-lived bees.
Even more remarkable is how the bees warm each other and protect the queen. For this they get together, shake against each other to form a kind of ball known as the cluster. At the same time, they consume honey and vibrate their muscles like little helicopters. This produces heat which maintains the center of the cluster to a temperature close to 30 ° C. And a rotation similar to that of Emperor penguins forming a turtle on the ice to defend against blizzard. So within the cluster their heat radiates and all are warmed.
 These hives are on top of Ma Tante - my aunt - which is the city run municipal pawn shop in the Marais. Duc d'Orleans, a brother of one of the kings, had gambled too much a few centuries ago resulting in an awkward situation with no Louis in his pocket. He disappeared for awhile saying he had to go to 'ma tante' actually cashing in a ring and returned to pay his debt and gamble more. From aristocrats to the poor, everyone, it's said, eventually visits their aunt one time.
These are the tilleul - lime - trees on the Marais street near ma tante which the bees frequent.
Cara- Tuesday