Reconstruction of a Train Wreck: How Priming Research Went off the Rails

The concept of “priming” has gained a lot of adherents in psychological research, but is it real? If I lead a group of students to think about the challenges faced by the elderly, do the students walk more slowly because of that “priming?” Several independent studies have produced significant p-values and were published in high-impact journals. As is common in research, however, these studies used relatively few subjects. A recent meta-analysis that attempts to combine the data among these studies, however, concludes that the significant findings in the individual studies were illusory. This negative result was published to relatively little fanfare.

The example from “priming” is illustrative of a greater problem for reproducible research.  Under-powered studies are the norm. Academic journals have a clear bias toward positive findings, and negative results frequently fail to be published!


Authors:  Ulrich Schimmack, Moritz Heene, and Kamini Kesavan

We computed the R-Index for studies cited in Chapter 4 of Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow.” This chapter focuses on priming studies, starting with John Bargh’s study that led to Kahneman’s open email.  The results are eye-opening and jaw-dropping.  The chapter cites 12 articles and 11 of the 12 articles have an R-Index below 50.  The combined analysis of 31 studies reported in the 12 articles shows 100% significant results with average (median) observed power of 57% and an inflation rate of 43%.  The R-Index is 14. This result confirms Kahneman’s prediction that priming research is a train wreck and readers of his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” should not consider the presented studies as scientific evidence that subtle cues in their environment can have strong effects on their behavior outside their awareness.


In 2011, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman…

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Furrier Cats

When I include Fourier Transform in my lectures, my explanation is just about as non-technical as can be. In her post, Dr. Scaife demonstrates convolution by manipulations in the transformed image of an adorable cat!


Last week I gave an introductory lecture on imaging with radio interferometers. I started off with a Python demonstration of Fourier filtering using cat pictures, which seemed pretty popular and lead to one of my fellow lecturers coining the term “Furrier Cats” (this is genius and I wish I’d thought of it).

Since it was so well received, I thought I’d repeat it here. If you’re already au fait with Fourier transforms then this is perhaps not for you, but for all those new starters out there who (1) would like a visual introduction to Fourier analysis and (2) like cat pictures, read on.


This description was inspired by the ever insightful xkcd comic strip, and in particular this cartoon:


Which lead to an enjoyable afternoon for me, looking at cat pictures on google and selecting one that I thought would illustrate the points I wanted to…

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You can be an academic YouTube STAR!

Many universities have begun exploring the use of the Internet for sharing academic coursework, either via “flipped classrooms” or Massive Open On-Line Courses (MOOCs).  Over the last year, I have uploaded approximately 50 videos to my YouTube Channel, most of them academic lectures.  I hope that I have learned something in this process that will you to publish your work more broadly, as well!

I would start by explaining that my lectures come from multiple purposes and even multiple university campuses.  My longest-running series of lectures came from a weekly seminar on topics of my own choosing called “the Useful Hour.”  I produced fourteen of these sessions (with help from Brigitte Glanzmann when I had to be away for a week), though I only started recording them on video for the last twelve.  I recorded the eight-session bioinformatics module from our division’s B.Sc. Honours program as a trial run for creating a “flipped classroom” in future years (a model where students watch lectures outside of class and spend in-class time working exercises).  More recently, I collaborated with the H3Africa BioNet to produce a four-lecture module on Gene Expression.  From time to time, I help the Tygerberg Postgraduate Student Council by recording a lecturer.  Each of these experiences has had its own lessons to convey.

The technical aspects of recording a video are generally easy enough that even a Ph.D. can do it!  Today’s budget camcorders capture more detail with better sound under lousier conditions than did cameras that cost five times as much even five years ago.  Best of all, one no longer needs to wrestle with tapes and analog-to-digital transfer loss.  Today we simply pull the Secure Digital card out of the camcorder and plug it into the socket on a laptop, where the video files are instantly accessible.  Of course, many people record video using digital cameras or cell phones.  Preparing videos for upload to a public server, however, is frequently more difficult than the initial capture.  I’ll talk about these aspects below.

Focus on the speaker


Speak softly, and carry a big stick!

We must start with video that is worth watching.  Far too frequently, I see that people recording lectures focus on the slides rather than the person who is delivering the lecture.  Reading text from video is generally unpleasant, and the reality is that looking at people fires circuits in our brains that academic content does not.  Video is a format designed to capture motion; it is a notoriously inefficient method for capturing still images, though!  Keeping the camera on the speaker, then, makes more sense.  This comes with some caveats:

  1. Viewers still need to be able to see the slides.  My answer has been to produce a PDF from the PowerPoint or other presentation software, since almost everyone has the ability to view PDFs on any platform.  I post the PDF to a shared directory on Google Drive, and I include the URL leading to the PDF in the YouTube description.
  2. From time to time a researcher will point to a particular part of a slide.  This is probably problematic on video; if he or she has used a laser pointer, the spot of light will either be too bright (green) or too dim (red) to appear well on video.  A moving mouse pointer might be better.  If the speaker is old-school (like me), he or she may use a stick to point at the slide instead.  This can create a problem of the lecturer “blooming” as he or she moves away from the bright field created by the projector into the relative dark outside the projector’s light.
  3. How will a person watching the video know to advance to the next slide?  Hopefully the speaker says “next slide” out loud.  When my parents recorded my brother’s and my first efforts to read aloud, they told us to bang a spoon against a mug to produce an audible chime with each page turn.  That was even more fun than reading!
  4. Software is publicly available to integrate the slowly-changing slide video with the quickly-moving speaker video.  Screencast-O-Matic will produce videos of up to fifteen minutes in its free version.  This approach will guarantee that your viewers are seeing the same slide the lecturer is seeing as the talk progresses.

Screencast-O-Matic insets your image atop the slides you are presenting.

Light and detail go hand in hand

As I alluded above, lighting is frequently a problem in academic lecture videos.  We frequently keep our lecture halls very dim in order to make the slides stand out as much as possible.  In a large venue, you may have a spotlight on the speaker, which will help.  In a medium venue, you may have a light in the ceiling directly above the speaker, which can make him or her appear somewhat ghoulish.  The more you rely upon zoom, the less light will reach your camera!  Keep that camera close.  If you can open the blinds on a window so that your speaker is lit, you will have a more interesting video.  Try to find ways to position your camera between the light and the subject (without casting a shadow, of course).  Never forget that the projected slides are much brighter than the subject you are trying to record.  If even the corner of the projected image appears in-shot, expect the speaker to become a flat silhouette.

Today’s cameras can record in very high resolutions, such as 1080p (the same as your HD television).  If lighting is truly problematic, you may want to consider forcing your high-resolution camera to a lower resolution, such as 720p; this may allow it to combine intensities across multiple transistors for each pixel.  Similarly, you should expect that a camera with a larger “retina” will outperform one with a tiny CCD in low light.  To put this in plain terms, do not expect a cell phone to produce quality video in semi-darkness, no matter the name on the label.  That said, I have observed that my “mirrorless” Canon EOS-M2 is inferior to my much cheaper Canon VIXIA HF R62 for video.  The lenses and electronics of the EOS-M2 are optimized for photos, not video.

Privacy issues are a big deal

Ensure that your audience knows that the lecture is being recorded.  Bad things can happen when a person does not want his or her image to be on-line and somebody else decides that they shall be.  Imagine how much worse this becomes when that member of the audience is a minor!  Nobody should be forced into public view because he or she attends a talk.

We frequently expect a period of questions and answers at the end of a lecture (and sometimes in the middle).  A novice camera operator may automatically swing to capture the questioner in action.  Depending on the situation, this part of the video may need to be truncated outright due to privacy issues.

Video is big and hard to handle well


I use my hands a lot.

When I upgraded to my Canon VIXIA HF R62 from a JVC Everio (GZ-HM30AU), I had a rude shock.  My old camera had captured 720p video in very manageable MTS files, but the new camera captured 1080p video in massive MP4 volumes.  I used a 16 GB SDHC card for videos.  The cameras assumed that no file should be allowed to be larger than 4 GB (linked to 32-bit computing).  With the new camera, I consume 4 GB every 33 minutes!  At a couple of long events I recorded, I found that I needed more storage than the 16 GB card could provide.  I solved that problem by upgrading to a 64 GB card.

Naturally, keeping the raw footage of every event I video is not practical.  If each of the 50 videos I posted to YouTube over the last year produced 66 minutes of raw footage, I would need to archive 400 GB for just this period!  Similarly, posting these videos to YouTube would be a problem.  Each hour would span two files, which would require my viewers to watch part ‘A’ and then queue up part ‘B’ immediately afterwards; many would just skip watching the end, humans being humans.  To compound the problem, I live in South Africa, which means my upload speeds to network servers are dreadfully slow.  My home DSL line, for example, achieves 0.3 Mbps.  I have uploaded one GB before, but it takes hours.  In any case, I will probably need to truncate a bit of time off the front and the back of the video.  In short, I need to do video editing.


While semi-professionals might opt for Adobe Premiere and those who “think different” will break out iMovie, I am a bioinformaticist, and I like software that lets me master high-quality videos with a minimum of fuss and bother.  I use ffmpeg, a very powerful suite of tools that one can use directly on the command line.  Most of the time, I am (a) concatenating my source video files into one movie, (b) including only a middle section, and (c) writing a more compact movie from the source materials.  To use a recent example, I have two input files; I write their names into a file called list.txt:

file mvi_0031.mp4
file mvi_0032.mp4

Next, I run a command line that looks like this:

ffmpeg.exe -ss 00:00:15 -f concat -safe 0 -i list.txt -t 00:50:00 -c:v libx264 -preset slow -c:a copy output.mp4

In order, the options do the following:

  • -ss specifies where in the combined files ffmpeg will start the output video (in this example, after the first fifteen seconds).
  • -ff concat -safe 0 -i list.txt specifies that the files listed in list.txt should be combined into one video and that they are formatted the same way.
  • -t specifies the total duration of the video to be encoded (in this example, exactly fifty minutes).
  • -c:v libx264 -preset slow specifies that my output video will be MPEG 4 pt 10, a very common format for storing video (and one that YouTube knows how to read).
  • -c:a copy directs ffmpeg not to re-compress the audio, making it sound just as nice in the output as it did in the original.

The ffmpeg software is very good at reducing the size of videos without compromising its quality.  I find that I can represent an hour-long lecture in a two GB 1080p video, rather than the nearly 8 GB of source footage.  If I am filled with caffeine for my lecture, the video size increases a bit (more motion requires more bits for accurate representation).

These smaller videos can then be uploaded to my YouTube account.  Happily, if you have a Gmail account (or if you use a different email address to log into Google Services), you can simply use that login for YouTube.  One clicks the arrow pointing up, and a screen will appear to which you drag your video file.  All done, right?

No job is finished until the paperwork is through!

Meta-data is key to your video reaching an audience, and too few people spend adequate time on this step.  I would call your attention to both the “Basic Info” and “Advanced Settings” pages that video authors can complete.  Of course, you should enter a paragraph of information in the basic description blank.  Ask yourself what web searches should find your video, and be sure you include those key terms in the text.  For good measure, add them again in the keywords section!  I like to include the university name where the recording took place.  Hopefully the social media minders for these schools will highlight your video to their large audiences.  YouTube will sniff the video for still frames that might be representative for the video.  I always try to pick the one in which I do not look like I’m suffering a fit of some sort.

Advanced Settings has more options to help users find your video.  Pick a category; generally my lectures fall in the “Science and Technology” category.  Be sure to enter a video location.  Google will translate your information to GPS coordinates so people can find videos shot near particular locations.  Enter a recording date, and select the language of your video (especially if you are not using English).

In many cases, you will have several videos that belong together as a set.  When I produced a short biography and four videos on Gene Expression for H3A BioNet, I also created a “playlist” that contained all five videos in the correct order.  Remember, if you can hook a viewer into watching one of your videos, you might be able to retain their interest for a few more!  Ideally, people will like your stuff enough that they subscribe to your YouTube channel, receiving a notification every time you post a new video.  You will be launched on your next career as a YouTube star!

Bloemfontein: On the trail of Tolkien

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 13, 2017

Why would any famous son or daughter of a city be ignored? J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and of Lord of the Rings, was born in Bloemfontein. Trying to learn a bit more about his origins in this city, however, led in interesting directions.

I should start by explaining that J.R.R. Tolkien was born to Arthur and Mabel Tolkien, British citizens. They had been drawn to Bloemfontein by the offer of a lucrative banking position for Arthur. Mabel joined her fiancé in Cape Town via a three week journey by ship just after her 21st birthday.  They were married in the cathedral there on 16 April, 1891, with a honeymoon in the Atlantic suburb of Sea Point.  Immediately thereafter they took the long train run to Bloemfontein.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892; a year before, his mother had been in England!  During 1892, Bloemfontein was the capital of a Boer Republic called the Orange Free State. The Union of South Africa was still eighteen years in the future.  Mabel Tolkien didn’t think much of her new home, writing to her family of the “Owlin’ Wilderness!  Horrid Waste!”  She tolerated it for her husband, who seemed completely absorbed in his new position as manager at the Bank of Africa.


The Tolkien family in Bloemfontein, November, 1892 (I first saw this picture in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography.)

I had read that the Tolkiens had been part of the Anglican church in Bloemfontein, so I spent my Sunday morning visiting the cathedral (along with its Catholic neighbor). It was Confirmation Sunday, and the service had all the special elements one might expect. The bishop came to the service in order to interact with the Confirmation class. After the service, he posed for photographs, and he even took a photo with me!


I met the Right Reverend Dintoe Letloenyane!

Seeing the cathedral after a “high” church ceremony was a bit mystical. Smoke from the incense drifted in the sunlight pouring through the high windows. The Cathedral is dedicated to St. Andrew and the angel Michael.  It was built in 1866 and substantially expanded in 1883 (the old nave is the new one’s choir and chancel).


Looking from the new nave into the old

I took some photographs throughout the cathedral, but my target stood close to the entrance. While a baptistry in a Baptist church is essentially a bathtub large enough to immerse multiple adults, the Anglican church baptizes infants, and the white bowl was fitted with a metal cover suspended from the ceiling. I was pleased to learn that the city had memorialized J.R.R. Tolkien with a plaque celebrating his baptism on January 31, 1892. (The plaque was added on November 11th of 1992, the centenary year.)


The baptistry was bathed in light!

The early history of J.R.R. Tolkien is a tragic one. His mother Mabel had tired of enduring Bloemfontein’s harsh summers, and she and J.R.R. Tolkien (and his younger brother, Hillary Arthur Reuel Tolkien) returned to the U.K. in 1895. Only a year later, his father, who had stayed behind to complete his bank contract, died of rheumatic fever. Knowing that Arthur Tolkien was buried in Bloemfontein, I perused the cathedral’s garden of memory, but I did not see any cenotaphs for that period. I later learned from a member of the church that Arthur Tolkien had been buried in the large cemetery on the other side of the hill.

If the baptism and burial aspects were the ceremonial aspects of the Tolkiens, could we find non-spiritual evidence of the Tolkiens? Sadly, the house where the Tolkiens lived (included in the premises of the Bank of Africa in Maitland Street) was destroyed in a flood during the 1920s. It was at this house where J.R.R. Tolkien, then a toddler, was bitten by a tarantula; his nurse sucked out the poison.  The National monuments Council issued a historic marker for J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthplace, but you will not find it at the former site of his home! Instead, one must visit the Hobbit Hotel, located at 19 President Steyn Street.


I was surprised to learn that these could be moved!

The proprietors of the hotel have not gone overboard with the Tolkien theme. Each room has a needlepoint sign, naming the room after a particular character from the series. I paused for a moment at the signboard for Frodo’s Room, because who wouldn’t?  The hotel offers a little library of books with a tree top-level porch nearby. Yes, the hotel does have the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, though they are on display downstairs, where they are closely watched since their hardbound copies vanished. I really liked their garden pub, with a distinctive tree-wrapped bar.


It’s a bar, but it’s it’s also like a woodland realm!

In short, J.R.R. Tolkien is not forgotten in Bloemfontein. His memory is cherished in at least two places. I would certainly encourage the city to build on this beginning, though. I know I am not the only reader to feel so strongly about his importance!

Bloemfontein the Beautiful

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 13, 2017

When I first mentioned to friends that I was planning a trip to culminate in Bloemfontein, several of them asked why I wanted to visit this city. I would summarize it this way:

  • Bloemfontein is one of the three national capitals for South Africa.
  • It was previously the capital of a Boer Republic.
  • It was the birthplace of one of my favorite authors (more in the next post).
  • It is the 8th biggest city in South Africa.
  • To be a city known for flowers in such a dry land is remarkable!

In person, I see that Bloemfontein does not disappoint. When I drove up President Brand Street, it seemed that every other building should qualify as a national monument! During my last full day of vacation, I visited several of Bloemfontein’s historical buildings, and I was very glad for the opportunity.

When I visited Pietermaritzburg, I commented that the Voortrekkers founded the city only to have it forcibly annexed by the British five years later. Bloemfontein was the same process except in reverse! In 1846, Major Henry Douglas Warden, a British soldier, acquired a farm belonging to a Boer couple, and he began recruiting other British people to build a town he called “Fountain of Flowers.” The town began growing quickly, with the First Raadsaal (city hall) constructed in 1849 (although it was first used as a school). The area between the Vaal and Orange Rivers was declared as British territory. In 1850, a church on the site occupied by the current Anglican cathedral was constructed. The Boers in the area, however, were not thrilled with these developments, and they began a whisper campaign casting aspersions on the way in which Warden had acquired the lands for the town. By 1854, the Boers had won, and the Orange Free State was named as a Boer Republic instead!

I was very happy to talk with Shuping Moeca, who opened the First Raadsaal museum to me. He helped me to understand why the first years of the Orange Free State were so rocky. The first state president, J.P. Hoffman, lasted only a year in office amid taunts about members of his administration needing crutches to walk and because of a scandal involving his gift to King Moshoeshoe of a barrel of gunpowder. The second president, Boshof, lasted four years, fighting a war against the same King Moshoeshoe and being torn between the English (who wanted to be part of the Cape Colony), the burghers (who wanted to become part of the Transvaal), and the republicans (who wanted the Free State to remain independent)!


I’m standing straight, but the building is slumping!

Imagining these arguments taking place in the First Raadsaal is entertaining. The clay walls were not “cooked” quite right, and the street side wall has a significant slant to it. The floor was made of cow dung, much as the Basotho have been doing for years. At least the thatched roof would allow cool temperatures. The museum also features an interesting assortment of ox and horse wagons. I was very impressed by the stagecoach until Shuping mentioned that this wagon would be a temporary home for its riders for twenty days to get to Cape Town!


Shuping also enlightened me about a mystery concerning two hills in town. One that offers an imposing view of the entire Bloemfontein skyline has been named “Naval Hill.” An eight-meter bronze statue of Nelson Mandela appears at this scenic point (the year after it was unveiled, Pretoria unveiled a nine-meter statue). Why would a landlocked capital have a Navy? He explained that the Free State government sought favor with the Dutch, and so they used the name Orange Free State.  Naval Hill borrowed its name from two guns that had been placed there by the British, actually!  Similarly, the Free State government copied a Scottish hill by laying out a horse outline on the hill to gain favor with the Scots. The “Signal Hill” district of Bloemfontein seems quite flat, by comparison. Apparently, the citizens demolished much of the hill but retained the name.


Bloemfontein panorama from Naval Hill

Bloemfontein has cycled through several Raadsaals, over the years. The current National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Sesotho Literature Museum are housed in the third Raadsal (1875), featuring a beautiful tower.


Third Raadsaal

The Fourth Raadsal immediately draws the eye. I wandered in through its gate and was taking a photo when security guards stopped me. The hall is now used for meetings of the provincial parliament. They explained that I could take photos outside the gate, but not inside; the building is a “National Key Point.” Oddly, the building adjoins a massive equestrian statue of General Christiaan De Wet (1854-1922), who performed brilliantly in the Anglo-Boer War but rose in rebellion against the government of the Union of South Africa when it decided to join forces with the British in the First World War.


Be sure to take your photos outside the fence!

One can certainly have mixed feelings about another son of Bloemfontein, J.B.M. Hertzog, an ardent Afrikaner nationalist. Serving in the Parliament for thirty-three consecutive years, Hertzog bedeviled both Jan Smuts and D.F. Malan. He even served as the Union of South Africa’s prime minister during 1924-1939.  Under his leadership, South Africa adopted its prior national flag (1928), promoted Afrikaans as the nation’s second official language, approved women’s suffrage, and denied black citizens the right to vote.  His support of the gold standard and of the German side in both World Wars also hindered South Africa.  I wanted to visit his house museum on Goddard street, but the museum didn’t open at the time stated on the sign out front. Instead, I looked at his statue near the National Museum. The fountain below is entirely dry, and street people have been using it for a garbage dump. The plinth on which his statue rests carries graffiti. Like several other white politicians of South Africa’s past, Hertzog is being forgotten.


Hertzog’s plaza is now entirely derelict.

I mentioned that Bloemfontein is the judicial capital of South Africa, and with that role, it is home to two different courts. The High (Appellate) Court is located in a very solid-looking building opposite the Fourth Raadsaal, and the Supreme Court of Appeal is not far away; repairs to offices were underway when I visited.


Appellate Court

Certainly, anyone with an interest in institutional architecture will enjoy a stroll down President Brand in Bloemfontein. Whether the buildings have dung floors or sandstone facades, they speak to the centrality of Bloemfontein in Afrikaner history.

Bloemfontein: in praise of troublesome women

An index to this series appears on the first post.

Augut 12, 2017

I arose with a sense of anticipation and excitement about returning to South Africa, the country where I feel at home. My vacation had been so tightly scheduled that I was feeling a bit worn and ready to head back. Just the same, I was curious about Bloemfontein and determined to learn what made it remarkable. I waited through a growing line of people on foot to get my entrance stamp in my new passport, and then I hit the N8 heading west.

I am always concerned to see pedestrians standing in the middle of the driving lanes on a national road, but something unusual struck me about the figure ahead of me. I had encountered a police roadblock! Along with a few other drivers, I maneuvered my car to the side of the road. A police officer greeted me and asked a few basic questions. Had I been in Lesotho? What was my citizenship? Was I really using a paper map? I resumed my westward course in no time.


After a tasty breakfast at Wimpy in eastern Bloemfontein, I followed the M13 to get south to the Anglo-Boer War Museum, but it was incredibly busy on a Saturday morning. Pedestrians, taxis, and other drivers seemed in no mood to give the others space.  It seemed ominous to realize that my turn had directed me toward massive cooling towers for a power plant. I was a bit rattled from the chaotic neighborhood, but I managed to reach my destination shortly thereafter.

I realized I was close when I saw the top of an obelisk pointing out of the trees behind a massive gateway inscribed in Afrikaans. I had reached the Anglo-Boer Museum and Women’s Monument! I was not sure what to expect of it. A museum glorifying the war that erupted along the fault lines between Boers and British would seem quite beside the point in today’s South Africa, but the museum is far from glorifying battle, as it focuses on the tragic losses to all South Africans due to the war. Of all museums I have seen in South Africa, the Anglo-Boer War Museum has adapted to the changes in South Africa since 1994 the best! Rather than throw together a side gallery themed “oh, black people got hurt, too,” the curators have worked to integrate the stories of non-white South Africans into all parts of the museum. This evolution is most apparent in the person who is my emphasis for this post.


The word Agterryer (“squire”) refers to a person of color fighting in the South African War.

Emily Hobhouse was a highly contentious woman, and she is my hero.

Photo from

Emily Hobhouse felt this statue made her look sickly and old.

Born in Cornwall, U.K., Emily Hobhouse spent her entire life in service to others. After her father’s death, she moved to the United States to improve the welfare of miners in Minnesota. In 1898, she returned to the U.K., but after the outbreak of hostilities with the Boer Republics in 1899, she joined the South African Conciliation Committee, and she sailed for South Africa in 1900. The British Army began using concentration camps to relocate Boers (essentially women and children) and others who were dispossessed (approximately 350,000 people in all) by their “scorched earth” policy to beat the guerrilla Boer commandos. Having gained permission to visit the concentration camps, Hobhouse discovered inadequate sanitation and nutrition for the prisoners and indifference among the administrators. (by the time the concentration camps were ended, 50-60,000 had died from these conditions; as many as 28,000 black South Africans may have lost their lives). Having observed that British leadership in South Africa was ignoring her, she returned to the U.K. with a scathing report that the Government confirmed through a separate committee. British policy changed, and conditions began improving.

Emily Hobhouse was turned back to the U.K. after taking ship once more to Cape Town because she was a disruptive influence. She was able to return to South Africa after the war, in 1905, when she established spinning and weaving schools for Boer girls in poor areas of the country. In South Africa, she is considered something of a saint! Hobhouse was not finished, however. During the armistice after World War I, she sought to help victims of a famine in Germany, fundraising and collecting food for the German people. For the second time in her life, Hobhouse was called a traitor for relieving the suffering of people against whom the U.K. had fought.


The National Women’s Memorial, Bloemfontein, contains the ashes of Emily Hobhouse.

It seems natural, then, that when in 1913 South Africa unveiled the 36.5 meter obelisk for the Women’s Memorial at Bloemfontein, they invited Emily Hobhouse to give a speech. She accepted, but her failing health prevented her attendance. Her speech was read instead by Mrs. Rachel I. Steyn (wife of the last president of the Free State). Despite their long friendship, though, the organizing committee had committed an injustice to Emily Hobhouse. They omitted from her speech this key phrase: “Does justice bid us to remember to-day how many thousands of the dark race perished also in Concentration Camps in a quarrel that was not theirs?” As Afrikaner Nationalism grew in power, sympathy for non-whites was silenced. In his diary, Sol Plaatje noted that “The Imperial Government may be as good as we are told it is, but one thing is certain, that (it) does not care a hang over the lives of its distant subjects.”

I was thrilled with the Anglo-Boer War Museum, and yet it was only lunch time! At the restaurant, I watched as two young people were counseled by a gentleman my age to join a program that sounded much like Amway. When I said hello, he tried to convince me I needed to be part of the company. Well, I hope that their joint venture turns out well.

The National Museum

I continued to the National Museum. Remember that Bloemfontein was the capital of the Free State, so the town is filled with monuments and soaring buildings to celebrate that glory. The National Museum had previously been held in the original city hall (they’ve progressed through a series of buildings for that purpose), but it is now held in a building constructed explicitly for that purpose. I was helped in my appreciation of the place that they had listed these highlights for their guests:

  • A complete fossil skeleton (with skull!) of a Melanosaurus,
  • The Florisbad skull from an archaic human (~259,000 years ago),
  • The Malvern meteorite, a rare stony meteorite from 1933,
  • A fiberglass replica made from a genuine adult bull elephant,
  • A model street scene to represent Bloemfontein in the early 20th century, and
  • The largest selection of live animals on display among all SA museums!

From the exhibit, you might not think this meteorite is special!

In other words, the museum was a bit scattershot in its focus. I must say that their evolution exhibits (everything from the Permian-Triassic extinction event to why the Great Karoo is such a bonanza for fossil finds to the route from primates to modern humans) were top-notch. The Melanosaurus was a bit confusing because it had been billed as a Euskelosaurus in the handout, but it was subsequently renamed. The Florisbad skull was actually a bit hard to find, and it’s not very complete. The Malvern meteorite is smaller than my fist, and the handout’s claim about a Mars origin didn’t make the cut for the exhibit including it. I’m still not sure why the elephant cast is inherently superior to one that is sculpted (except that the hair on the fiberglass model is the hair from the original elephant– shudder). The street scene was a little weird when I was in there by myself. The drug store played chicken noises when I walked by.


“It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed… bred for its skills in magic.”

Their room devoted to the history of Bloemfontein was a collection of many facts and artifacts (including a “Liger,” born from a male lion and female tiger); it was a bit randomly tossed together for my tastes, but I did really like their model of Bloemfontein 1851. The gallery of architecture from the city was very nice indeed (some were even accompanied by scale models), but it seemed that every other structure had a sign marking that the building had subsequently been demolished to become a parking lot. The live animal displays were a bit of a bust. From the handout, I could expect bees, snakes, fish and crayfish, and cockroaches, but the bees colony had collapsed, and I didn’t see any live cockroaches (my feelings aren’t hurt). I did, however, enjoy seeing a live African clawed toad (Xenopus laevis) and a terrapin in a tank!


Xenopus laevis: important to research and cute, too!

I would emphasize some other things that the National Museum does well. They’ve sought to complement their recreation of a 20th century street with reproductions of the Batho community, a township that actually had some thought given to its design. I thought the blue jeans that had been patched with shweshwe fabric (donated by a Batho resident) were quite stylish! I was also very impressed by the African cultural anthropology exhibit, which explained the defining features of the different cultures of southern Africans that derived from populations on this continent. Their images from the colorful artistry of homes in the Ndebele culture made me want to see the real thing, in person!


Bespoke jeans!

Every museum in South Africa was faced with significant changes in the aftermath of true democracy. Some have taken real steps forward in the population they serve, and others are still struggling to navigate that change. I was very pleased to see that these two Bloemfontein museums understand how to be relevant to today’s South Africa!

Thaba Bosiu: Sunrise of a Nation

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 11, 2017

I awoke early this morning, filled with purpose.  I was traveling to another country! Clarens, in the Free State, is very close to the northern periphery of Lesotho, but I was driving to Lesotho’s capital, Maseru. As a consequence, I had a couple hours of driving ahead of me, and Free State highways are renowned for their potholes. Until this day, those seemed like urban legends, but the stretch of R26 between Fouriesburg and Ficksburg taught me differently. Litchi bounced along, but she didn’t lose her grip on the road. Of my KFC breakfast at Ficksburg, the less said the better. From there, I hopped down the road to Ladybrand, where I had a surprise. When I merged onto the N8, heading east, the road swooned down a massive slope. That is not what I had imagined in entering “the kingdom in the sky!” Instead, the border crossing came at a bridge across the Mohokare River (which later flows into the Orange).

The Border

I botched my first border crossing with my new passport. The South African side seemed mostly intent on passing people through, and so when I arrived at the Lesotho side, the inspector was alerted by the absence of my exit stamp from South Africa. I ended up parking my car, walking back across the border, and then asking the South Africans at the pedestrian booth to stamp me. Then I walked back across the river, visited the tourist booth for a map, and then returned to the Lesotho inspector for my entrance stamp. Solved! I also got my first taste of Lesotho hospitality. I met a wide variety of Basothos in the course of the day, and none of them treated me like a stranger. I felt greeted like a long, lost friend!

Let’s have a word or two about this landlocked country. First off, one must pronounce the name as though it were spelled “Lehsootoo.” The people of this group are called “Basothos,” and the language they speak is called “Sesotho.” We see something similar with prefixes in other languages, such as Zulu and Xhosa. Although the official currency of Lesotho is the loti, the value of one loti is pegged to the value of one South African rand, so one can spend ZAR as though they were loti (highly convenient). To summarize conventional wisdom about Lesotho, one would say “impoverished,” “HIV epidemic,” and “politically unstable.” My visit, however, was to touch something special about its foundation.


My goal in visiting Lesotho was to visit Thaba Bosiu, in many ways the nation’s historical and even spiritual capital. Before I launched into that visit, though, I decided to establish myself the the Kick4Life Hotel, just south of central Maseru (the capital and also my point of entry from the Free State). I knew very little about this organization before the trip, but I must say I was deeply impressed by the impact this organization has produced. All of its customer service people at the hotel, it associated restaurant, and at Thaba Bosiu put in extra effort to make me feel at home. I think the “Football for Hope” effort is paying serious dividends for its participants.

Driving in Maseru was a bit challenging. I am accustomed to the approximate adherence to traffic laws that we see in South Africa. For example, I don’t blink when I see a shuttle bus taxi picking up passengers on the shoulder of the national road. It’s expected! Maseru releases the rule-following impulse a few more notches. Their main highway leading south from the capital, the A2 (don’t expect labels on Google Maps, BTW), is littered with speed bumps so that drivers don’t kill pedestrians. I saw people reversing their cars into oncoming traffic with little warning. On two occasions, I saw cars driving against oncoming traffic by using the shoulder. It’s only workable because there are far fewer cars on the road in the city than one might expect.  I was jarred when I encountered a long funeral procession, led by a motorcycle cop.

Thaba Bosiu

With an omelet in my belly from the hotel (and some time rationalizing Google Maps with the insufficient tourist map in a hand-drawn sketch), I was ready to plunge ahead! Thaba Bosiu is within an hour of the border, but I must say my navigation was weakened by a variety of factors:

  • I had seen photos of the site that were of the wrong mountain.
  • When I saw the cultural center, I thought it was a resort rather than recognizing it as another “living museum.”
  • I was looking for a road leading south from the B31 to a visitor’s center.

All of these contributed to a bad bit of navigating. I drove right by the Thaba Bosiu Cultural Village, entirely missing that the mountain across from it was Thaba Bosiu. The mountain I thought was Thaba Bosiu came soon after, but I didn’t see any way to get there except some doubtful-looking dirt roads. I continued for another five km, when finally the blacktop of the B31 gave way to very bouncy rutted gravel-on-dirt. I stopped right where I was. A herd of cows was being guided forward by two young teen boys and a primary-school aged boy. I tried my pronunciation of “Thaba Bosiu,” but that didn’t seem to help. Showing the spelling on my hand-drawn map, however, elicited a response from one of the teenagers, directing me back where I had come. The small child said “money!” I pulled a couple R10 notes from my wallet, and the teen speaker reached into the car to grab them. I let the herd pass, and then I U-turned and headed back in the right direction.


The junior herdsmen and a lovely vista

I tried my luck with the dirt roads to the peak I thought I recognized. The road kept winding on and on through a mix of formal (mostly cinder block) and informal (shack) housing. I stopped by a well-built brick building, some distance from the peak I thought was the right one. A woman reclining in the building entrance explained that I was looking at the peak after which the traditional chief’s hat was designed! She pointed back toward Maseru. The huge plateau back to the west was Thaba Bosiu. She mentioned, as an afterthought, that I was standing in the city hall for the modern Thaba Bosiu settlement.


The modern Thaba Bosiu city hall and the “hat mountain”

After some photos from the site, I returned to my car and headed back to the west. In no time at all, I found the information center. The docent (a Kick4Life graduate) sat down with me at a table to profile King Moshoeshoe, the central figure of Basotho history. (Pronounce it like “Muh-shway-shway,” quickly.) As a young chief (1820), Moshoeshoe was faced with a problem. The Mfecane had resulted in a brutal social Darwinism throughout southern Africa in which tribes that could muster large armies absorbed their weaker neighbors, thus releasing desperate refugees into neighboring areas, sparking more conflicts. Moshoeshoe’s solution was to find a home for his band that was secure from attack. He made the bold decision of moving his tribe from Butha Buthe (near the northernmost point of Lesotho) to Thaba Bosiu, essentially the distance I had driven that morning.


Panorama of Thaba Bosiu, seen from the east


Looking back down the “ancient pass” at the Cultural Village

Why Thaba Bosiu? The Basothos gave it this name (“Mountain at Night“) as a neat bit of propaganda; they alleged that the mountain had magical properties that would make the apparent hill in daytime grow ever larger at night! The plateau, being considered as a World Heritage Site, has an area of approximately two square kilometers, more than enough for a substantial village, and the surface offers several water springs. Seven passes allow one to reach the top.  150 years ago, each would have been guarded by a trusted family member. I decided to make the trek by the “ancient” route rather than the nicely paved ramp. I reminded myself several times on the ascent that I am a middle-aged professor. I felt proud to make it by that route, though!


Moshoeshoe’s home atop Thaba Bosiu, constructed with help from allies

Moshoeshoe was also a gifted negotiator. He allowed other refugee groups, running from the Zulus under Shaka or the Ndwandwe or the Ngwane to join his band, but in each case he demanded that they contribute whatever skills that they could. He applied this logic to his contacts with whites, as well. He welcomed missionaries who had education to offer, and one can still see a Blue gum tree atop Thaba Bosiu along with several stone buildings that came about through his interactions with Westerners.


A century-old bluegum tree beside a stone kraal

The Basotho position atop Thaba Bosiu was sufficiently strong that the group could repel assaults by hostile tribes and also by aggressive Voortrekkers; the settlers of the Free State made a few attempts at “King of the Mountain,” but the plateau surface never fell to attack while defended by the Basotho. His diplomatic skills were his best weapon, though. In 1868, Moshoeshoe asked for British protection from the Boers, and he retained control of the territory even with that help. In 1884 Lesotho was listed as a separate British protectorate.  Moshoeshoe, incidentally, was personally responsible for the tradition of blanket-wearing among the Basotho.  He acquired a blanket from a trader in 1860 and began wearing it around his shoulders; those who revered him soon took up wearing blankets rather than the traditional “karosses.”


I liked the understated elegance of Moshoeshoe I’s tomb.

One should not think of Thaba Bosiu as a simple historic site. When King Moshoeshoe died in 1870, he was buried at the top. When King Moshoeshoe II (a few generations down) died in 1996, he was buried at the top! This plateau continues to have cultural relevance for the people of Lesotho. When I approached the top of the pass, I saw two people begin their descent by the same route. The man was dressed in a brilliant green robe and carried a religious staff. The woman was dressed in brilliant pink and also seemed ceremonially dressed. I saw remnants of candle wax and other sacramental leavings across the plateau. In times of trouble, the Basotho look to Thaba Bosiu as a source of strength.


The eastern view from the plateau

Lesotho had been granted the status of a separate protectorate by the British, then called “Basutoland.” At Moshoeshoe’s death, the British tried to annex the protectorate to the Cape Colony, but the Basotho raised havoc in the Gun War, leading to the British relinquishing effective control. When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, the Basotho rejected being included. Lesotho turned away from later proposals to integrate the nation into South Africa, particularly once Apartheid laws had been enacted. They were granted independence from Britain in 1966.


I first learned of Lesotho from my friend Marky Pace, whom I met in the Nashville in Harmony choir. I wanted to do something special in her memory since she had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in this country many years ago. My poem, written the day before at Mushroom Rock in Golden Gate, is titled “For Marky.” I read it from the shelf of Thaba Bosiu, where one can overlook the mountain that gave the chiefs the shape of their conical hats.

“Life is too short to shake hands,”
she said with a hug.
Her memory brought friends
from far and near.

Her family, by choice and by blood,
lives powerfully,
Touching others with her spirit
of joy and love.

As I reach a place that shaped her,
I am moved by her once more.
As I return to the world I’ve chosen,
I will strive to be present, like Marky.