Howard W. French’s book is, functionally, a travel log of his most recent tour of Africa where he asks the baseline question, “what, exactly, is happening with Chinese investment and emigration to African states?” He takes the reader across the continent and recounts his experiences, today, versus when he was professionally in the region in past decades. It’s this background experience — which enables him to conduct before/after assessments — combined with his experiences in both the populous and more rural areas of China, along with linguistic fluency, that makes the book as compelling as it is.
The actual findings of the book are pretty common across all cases: Chinese efforts to shore up mineral and vegetative resources are, widely, disliked by the public. This dislike follows from Chinese companies predominantly bringing in skilled labourers from China and minimally employing locals, and while also rarely providing sufficient training so that locals can take on more advanced tasks. Moreover, in many of the cases French recounts the Chinese companies are massively either underpaying locals or, in contrast, engaged in bidding practices that result in poor quality infrastructures being developed and which are often obtained in part through bribery or corrupt dealings.
Many of the Chinese persons who are interviewed in the course of the book hold, frankly, colonial values. They regard African employees as lazy, and uneducated, and as unwilling to adequately develop. And, similarly, Chinese companies and government consular staff are engaged in systematic efforts to, on the one hand, establish control of important resources that will enable China to prosper while, on the other, stripping Africa of its resources at a scale that could only be dreamed by Western colonial powers in the decades and centuries past.
The repetition that emerges through the chapters ultimately makes the book a tad boring to read, especially towards the end, notwithstanding French’s efforts to inject local colour and humour throughout the book. However, it is that very repetitiveness that makes the book as striking as it is: Africa has become a space where China’s transactionalist foreign policy means that Chinese companies can thrive while aggressively stripping resources from Africa whilst the country itself avoids projects focused on developing democratic norms, rule of law, or other governance systems. These latter activities, often associated with American and Western aid projects, are set aside by and large by China and, as a result, the supposed ‘progress’ of African states will only come if the states’ governance structures change on their own, and in the face of exceptional bribes and other corrupt business practices. I remain dubious that a Chinese-facilitated model of “development,” which largely entails economic activities and exclusionary approaches to engaging in broader governance activities, will do any more for Africa than the French, British, and Belgians did when they focused their attentions on Africa.
I think that I really fell in love with photography after purchasing, and shooting with, a used Fuji x100. It was a terrifically flawed little camera: autofocus was terrible, it was generally slow, and battery life was subpar. Furthermore, I didn’t really know what I was doing: I had shot on an iPhone for years and I didn’t really understand how to configure the x100 for semi-automatic shooting (e.g. setting aperture priority, the importance of difference ISO settings, etc.). Frankly, the x100 was probably too much camera for me at the time…but I loved it, nevertheless.
But as I’ve written about previously, I’m not entirely certain that I really enjoy shooting in the 35mm format. Some of that, I suspect, is associated with how I fell (back) in love with photography. I originally bought my Olympus OMD-EM10ii to travel to Cuba, and purchased a Panasonic 25mm 1.7 lens for the trip. While it’s inadvisable to take a new camera and lens with you when you travel, that’s what I did, and I walked out of Cuba with a lot of images that I really, really loved. I shot exclusively on the 25mm (50mm equivalent) and it lead me to understand how the lens worked in ways that I don’t think I’d have ever appreciated had also brought and use a zoom lens. However, I bought the lens because it was what reviewers said was a good ‘first’ lens insofar as it’s pretty versatile for anything and everything: you can do some portraiture (not really my cup of tea), can do landscape (as I did for that week in Cuba), and some architecture shots (also, as I did in Cuba).1 But without learning other focal lengths I was just going on what other people said the 50mm equivalent lens was good for without understanding from practice what I thought of it.
Fast forward to last week, when I travelled into the United States of America for a wedding and some quiet time in Savannah. Before I left I had to answer a hard question: what lenses should I bring with me? I decided to bring the Olympus 17mm 1.8 and the Panasonic 25mm 1.8, with the goal of trying to learn which I might prefer for general walkabout photography, and why I prefer one over the other.
To be honest, for general walking I think that I really enjoy the Olympus 17mm lens. I truly began to appreciate the ability to capture a broad scene, in excess of what the 25mm lens could capture. And I truly, absolutely, with all of my heart love the manual/automatic focus clutch; I tend to shoot exclusively in manual with the 17mm and it just feels right.2 I also started to come to terms with the differences in how the lens present colour; I don’t know that I prefer one or the other and, instead, just appreciate the differences that come from either one of them.3
However: I also learned that I really, really, really dislike how the 17mm presents humans — and in particular my own body — when not carefully used. I saw one picture in particular and was shocked: was that how I appeared? Was my entire sense of my body inaccurate?
I mean, I’m sure that my perception and the world’s perception of my body varies. But the 17mm could be incredibly unflattering if not used with a degree of deliberateness that I’ve never required with the 25mm. (It can also produce some pretty nice portraits, too, based on some shots a friend took of me.) For anyone who’s shot these two focal lengths for any period of time this won’t come as any kind of a shock. And I’ve seen enough online tutorials to know that what I saw was to be expected. However, I’d never actually lived the reality of having shots of myself, from 35mm equivalent and 50mm equivalent lenses, put beside one another. It’s meant that I have a pretty visceral and lived reality with either focal lens which is, in and of itself, a photography experience that I’m delighted to have had. Even if it made me question my body for a little bit until I figured out why some shots appeared one way, and others another!
I do a fair bit of personal reading that is like eating candy — i.e. fiction that caters to my guilty pleasures — and some that is like eating fibre — i.e. non-fiction and fiction alike that impress upon me the lived realities of other cultures, groups, and persons.
I just finished Adam Hochshild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa and, at various points in the book, I felt like I’d been hit by a baseball bat. The kinds of actions which were taken against persons living in the Congo were, at their best, barbaric. What was most striking was how those historical facts were so carefully hidden away, destroyed, and removed from the minds of Western and African persons alike. I’ve read anti-colonial literature in the past but this was the first book that helped me genuinely appreciate the horrors inflicted by Western nations on persons around the world; the stories from the victims, quoted in their entirety, were particularly painful and sickening to read. I think that it’s also the book that has opened my eyes to some of the challenges around excavating history of colonialism, and how such excavation and hardship is the necessary pre-condition to coming to terms with the past: Western governments and elites buried the past and, before the past can be reconciled, it must first be made present in our daily lives.
Inspiring Quotation of the Week
“People matter. Meaning matters. A good life is not a place at which you arrive, it’s a lens through which you see and create your world.”
— Jonathan Fields
Great Photography Shots
One of the things that I’m trying to get better with is presenting images according to how I imagined them. This is distinct from how things may have looked: I often want to transform the scene in some way to present something that was in excess or slightly aside from the scene itself. It’s for this reason that I really like Gilmar Silva’s shots that juxtapose the ‘before’ and ‘after’ portraits he takes. In taking us behind the scenes of a final shot it’s easier to think through the logistics and editing that may enter into making an image, as opposed to snapping a photo.
Music I’m Digging
Gang Starr – Daily Operation // I’ve had this 1992 album on repeat for the past week or so; the tracks are incredibly solid mind melds of DJ Premier and The Guru. What’s striking — and depressing — is that so many of the tracks on racism and segregation in America (and North America more broadly) are as poignant and accurate, today, as they were when written over twenty years ago. Whither progress?
Seafret – Tell Me It’s Real // Seafret reminds me ofBannersin terms of their sound and topics that they sing about. And, to my ear and taste, that’s a good thing! The album spends time focusing on the themes of love, loss, and despair, all themes that have resonated deeply with me over the past few months.
Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems // Cohen is a staple in my daily listening, and has been ever since I visited an exhibit/memorial to him in Montreal last December. His dry, cutting, lyrics combined with his lyrical whimsy were what caught me, and it’s the pain of love and life that keeps me coming back listen after listen.
Neat Podcast Episodes
On the Margins – Jason Kottke and Twenty Years of kottke.org // I have to admit that I’m having a hard time with On the Margins. On the one hand, I find the idea of having discussions with authors about the bookmaking process to be pretty neat. On the other, I find that Craig Mod (the interviewer) is too heavy handed in some of his engagements; he has a tendency to push the conversation in unnatural or forced ways. All that having been said, this episode on kottke.org, one of the older websites in existence, is pretty interesting insofar as it digs into the rationales for why the site exists in the first place, projects that have been considered and set aside, and reflections on what comes next.
The Daily – When We Almost Stopped Climate Change // Warning: this is a deeply enraging podcast, because it walks through how there were active efforts that almost led to real action to affect climate change in the 1980s…and which was stopped by conservative politicians on the basis of their economic interests. The episode does a good job in walking through efforts to raise awareness and combat climate change while, at the same time, making it very clear how naked capitalist interests are responsible for selling out the next generations.
The Daily – The War Inside the Catholic Church // I don’t follow religious politics particularly closely, but am aware that the current Pope is in routine conflict with more conservative elements of the Catholic church. As a non-Catholic I personally believe that Pope Francis is the best thing that could have happened to the Church, at the time it’s in now, and so it’s particularly distressing to learn how American conservative Catholics are actively engaging in warfare meant to diminish the current Pope. (As an aside, Francis’ book, The Name of God is Mercy, is a beautiful book that clearly both sets him as a progressive while simultaneously acting as a curious introduction into what the Church could and should be through his understanding of Catholicism.)
The Art of Photography – Your Camera Is Better Than Ansel’s // It’s easy to get caught up in gear that is used to make images but focusing on equipment mistakes the importance of technology versus vision. This episode emphasizes the need to develop our vision first and foremost, with equipment being of tertiary importance.
Good Reads for the Week
We’re in a new age of obesity. How did it happen? You’d be surprised // In another analysis of the obesity epidemic, Monbiot asserts that it’s less about people exercising less, less about the quantity of foods people are eating, and more about the manner in which foods are chemically designed. He writes, “we ate more in 1976, but differently. Today, we buy half as much fresh milk per person, but five times more yoghurt, three times more ice cream and – wait for it – 39 times as many dairy desserts. We buy half as many eggs as in 1976, but a third more breakfast cereals and twice the cereal snacks; half the total potatoes, but three times the crisps. While our direct purchases of sugar have sharply declined, the sugar we consume in drinks and confectionery is likely to have rocketed (there are purchase numbers only from 1992, at which point they were rising rapidly. Perhaps, as we consumed just 9kcal a day in the form of drinks in 1976, no one thought the numbers were worth collecting.) In other words, the opportunities to load our food with sugar have boomed.” This kind of assessment is important because it pushes back on the concept that people become obese because of a lack of motivation or other self-drive rationale: weight gain is a community problem, driven by chemists and marketers, and obese individuals are their victims.
Facebook Fueled Anti-Refugee Attacks in Germany, New Research Suggests // This study again speaks to the ills of the filter bubble economy: to drive engagement, persons are shown more and more polarizing material which often includes anti-immigration materials. This polarization isn’t ‘just online’: it leads to increases in physical violence towards immigrants, and when Internet outages take place the rates of violence decline in statistically significant ways. At some point the mountain of research has to showcase that services like Facebook are prone to increase misinformation and threaten certain communities in serious and lasting ways.
‘We Cannot Afford This’: Malaysia Pushes Back Against China’s Vision // While the prospect of China assuming greater and greater regional power isn’t necessarily surprising, the pushback against Chinese efforts is curious. The article, generally, provides a good overview of Chinese-Malaysian relations but what got me laughing was how obviously corrupt some of the business dealings have been. As an example, a company who’s past work included building a zoo and bird park was hired to build a series of artificial islands as well as establish a deepwater port capable of hosting an aircraft carrier. I guess building cages for animals made them well suited to build housing for military vessels?
Woman: My iPhone was seized at border, then imaged—feds must now delete data // The suit against the government for having seized and imaged the woman’s iPhone is novel. But it was the 90-day period for which devices can be retained that struck me: what is the time delta for updates to be developed to successfully crack iOS devices these days? Is the period of time for which devices are retained functionally the period of time required before attacker’s can successfully overcome Apple’s protections?
Prosecutor: Suspect must give up his phone’s passcode in fatal hazing case // Case law in the USA remains disturbingly unsettled concerning whether compelling a person to disclose their decryption password constitutes a Fifth Amendment violation. This Louisiana case adds further confusion as to how to interpret that law; it’s only a matter of time until the Supreme Court is compelled to determine the scope of Fifth Amendment protections as they pertain to securing contemporary electronic devices. God help us all if they find that decryption doesn’t infringe up existing rights, as such a ruling would likely have a cascading global impact, to the detriment of citizens’ rights around the world.
How the Trump Administration Is Remaking the Courts // Zengerle has done a masterful job analyzing and assessing how the Trump presidency has been quickly and significantly affecting the political leanings of courts throughout the United States, and how his actions rely on the Senate having changed its own rules concerning judicial appointments. The impacts of these appointment will likely be felt over decades, not days or months, and could ultimately lead to significant changes in the nature of American jurisprudence as old norms are overturned based on novel legal philosophies taking hold in courts across the United States.
What about those mandate letters, Premier Ford? // An apt column by John Loric summarizes the significance — and historical precedent — of the Ontario government refusing to publish the letters to the Cabinet. Those letters indicate the objectives Ministers are expected to meet; absent them, and absent a real campaign platform, the public has no real way of understanding what the government is specifically directed to do or whether everything is just being made up on the fly. The Ontario government’s decision is bad for democratic accountability which is, ostensibly, one of the issues voters had identified as an issue in the previous government.
Researchers Edited Mice Genes to Stop Them from Dreaming // Though the researcher’s ultimate goal of the research — to better understand the role(s) of REM sleep to human well-being — is a serious goal, the article itself almost reads like a finding one would stumble across in a dystopia hellscape. “Researchers liberate workers from non-productive sleep elements, ensuring the regime’s productivity.” On second thought, I could imagine an ever-so-slightly modified headline of that type in at least a half-dozen western newspapers in as many different countries…
I know: 35mm is often regarded as better for landscape and architecture alike, but I personally enjoy how you can isolate particular characteristics of a scene using the Panasonic 25mm. ↩
Although for the love of all things even marginally holy I wish that Olympus would push a firmware, so that when I set the clutch to manual the camera would activate focus peaking. It drives me nuts that this is only included in the Pro line of lenses. ↩
I’ve found a particular editing aesthetic with the 17mm that I like; it seems to start to approximate Fuji’s Classic Chrome look (the sole reason I wish I owned a Fuji is for that look!). In terms of the 25mm, I like the vibrancy of its images, as compared to the more neutral colours of the 17mm. For both lenses I tend to shoot jpg and in the ‘Natural’ colour filter on the camera. ↩