09 February 2024

Plausible versus Credible: the Language of Genocide

The International Court of Justice recently declared that South Africa's accusation that the government of Israel was committing genocide in Gaza was "plausible", and ordered the government of Israel to desist from certain actions, and to allow others, such as "humanitarian assistance" to the people of Gaza. 

The response of many Western governments was not merely to connive at, but to actively support this possible genocide by immediately cutting off support to UNRWA, the main agency providing this "humanitarian assistance". They thus directly went against the judgement of the court, which had examined the evidence. and did so because they found some unsubstantiated allegations by the government of Israel that some UNRWA employees had participated in the October 7 outrage in Israel to be "credible".

This raises the question of what the words "plausible" and "credible" mean.

"Credible" is a much stronger word than "plausible" -- it means trustworthy, reliable, worthy of being believed. 

"Plausible", on the other hand, is a much weaker word. It means that something is apparently true.  We speak of someone who is a "plausible rogue", a person who has the gift of the gab, the ability to persuade people that something is true even though it may not be. 

The Western governments that apparently rejected the judgment of a court that examined the evidence, and yet immediately accepted unsubstantiated allegations by the accused in the case as "credible" are therefore credulous at best, but more likely to be complicit in war crimes, mass murder, and possibly genocide (if the ICJ eventually does find that the government of Israel was indeed practising genocide in Gaza). 

But it might clarify a lot of muddled thinking about such things if people were more careful about how they use words like "plausible" and "credible".


05 February 2024

A Quiet Belief in Angels

A Quiet Belief in Angels

A Quiet Belief in Angels by R.J. Ellory
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Given the title, it was not quite what I expected.

It starts off with this kid, Joseph Vaughan, who's 11 going on 12, and in love with his teacher and half in love with the girl who sits next to him in class. But his father dies and the girl is murdered, and someone tells him about dead people becoming angels so he gets interested in the topic and tells his teacher all about the Celestial Hierarchy -- the works. Like he's read Dionysus the Areopagite (Pseudo, if you insist) and all that stuff, but he says he got it from the Bible.

But after that there's not much mention of angels, apart from a few feathers. Joseph's teacher encourages him to become a writer, and give him books to read.

A lot more girls get murdered, and Joseph and his friends vow to protect them, but fail to do so, and his friends grow up and forget their promise, but Joseph persists, and his life is pretty sad. It's a sad story, but worth reading, only not for the reason I thought.

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30 January 2024

Winds of Evil: a Christian urban fantasy novel (incomplete)

Winds of Evil (Book One of The Laodicea Chronicles)Winds of Evil by Sharon K. Gilbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have not finished the story, this book is not a stand-alone, or part of a series. It is a long book published in several volumes, but as I didn't see the next part in the library, I probably never will finish it, and so this is not a review, but just a few observations.

The book is billed as a "supernatural thriller", which immediately makes me think of Charles Williams, whose novels have been described as such.

But the back cover blurb begins "what would you do if your town was infested with demons?" -- to which my answer would be "Thank God they were exorcised." And it immediately makes the think of Frank Peretti whose "supernatural thrillers" have very materialistic demons.

Fortunately the demons in this story (or at least the first volume of it) are not as materialistic as Frank Peretti's. The story is set in a town called Eden, in Indiana on the banks of the Ohio River. Katherine Adamson, now a successful author, returns to her home town after the death of the aunt who brought her up after the death of her parents, and everyone tells her that the town is much worse than when she left it. There seems to be endemic corruption in local government and local business. On the outskirts of town there is a sinister Institute reminiscent of the N.I.C.E. in That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis. And a child who was among the first to see one of the infesting demons compared it with the description of a balrog from The Lord of the Rings.

So far, so good. I'd be interested to see how the story develops in subsequent volumes, though I would hope it didn't go on for ever, like The Game of Thrones, which I gave up halfway through the second volume.

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08 December 2023

Gaslighting God

God's Monsters: Vengeful Spirits, Deadly Angels, Hybrid Creatures, and Divine Hitmen of the Bible by Esther J. Hamori
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A rather disappointing book.

That's a personal opinion, of course. I was disappointed mainly because I didn't find what I was looking for, and the author doesn't have any obligation to the reader to provide what they are looking for. But I was also disappointed because what the book did provide, it provided in a very tendentious and rather misleading way.

What was I hoping to find?

I write, and enjoy reading, fantasy books that include various kinds of creatures that could fall under a general heading of "God's monsters" -- angels, demons, dragons and the like. I was hoping to get more insight into their character and activity.

The main aim of the book appears to have been to show that in the Bible God is a malevolent, capricious and extremely violent tyrant, and that the "heavenly host" are nothing more than a bunch of violent thugs employed as enforcers. Anything that doesn't fit this picture is either left out altogether, or twisted until it can be made to fit.

There are occasional useful insights, but they are suffocated by the overarching need to show the malevolent wickedness of God.

One of these useful insights was that Isaiah went to sleep in church one Sabbath, and dreamed about the seraphim. There was a seraph in the temple, which he was probably looking at just before he had his dream. It was called Nechushtan, and was made of brass. It was said to have been made by Moses and when the people of Israel were attacked by a lot of poisonous snakes (seraphim in Hebrew) in the desert, Moses held up the brass seraph and they were healed (Numbers 21:6-9). So this brass seraph quite possibly triggered Isaiah's vision in the temple (Isaiah 6).

But the point Hamori emphasises here is that the cruel and sadistic seraph, servant of a crueller and more sadistic god, deliberately and with malice aforethought literally goes and burns Isaiah's mouth with a burning coal. I thought this was taking literalism too far.

Next come the cherubim.

I think the first mention of a cherub in the Bible is the one that barred the entrance to the garden after Adam and Eve were expelled. Author Esther J. Hamori (correctly in my view) makes the point that cherubim are found all over the ancient Near East as guardians of holy places, but the problem is with what went before the expulsion. The story is twisted into something like its opposite. God deliberately tricks Adam and Eve by lying to them, and the snake tries to help them.
In the moments leading up to God’s deployment of the monstrous guard, he lies to his human creation, promises them a painful future, and gaslights them. No wonder they hide from him behind the trees. After this, stationing monsters at the door looks less like a new security feature warranted by the people’s actions, and more like the next threatening move of a controlling figure whose m.o. now includes bringing in thugs to do his dirty work.

When God stations his hybrid guardian monsters at the gateway to Eden, it’s the culmination of a story of divine danger. The garden of Eden, where the deity strolls among the trees as the human beings hide behind them, contains more danger than the world outside. Even in Eden, there is no Paradise.

 If, however, one takes Occam's Razor to Hamori's interpretation, one can find a simpler explanation. God says Adam and Eve can eat the fruit of any tree in the garden, except that of one tree. They eat the fruit of that tree. Taking what it is not given is theft, and when the thief sees the rightful owner of the stolen goods coming the natural reaction is to hide, not because the owner is inherently dangerous but because of what one has done.

 And the Christian metanarrative (yes, I know postmoderns don't like metanarratives) is that this theft and abuse of hospitality breaks the relationship between man (male and female, should anyone quibble) and God, and, whatever else it is, the cherub at the gate represents the inhuman face of God, which is the result of the broken relationship and how God appears to man after the break, until, in Jesus Christ, God appears again with a human face to restore the relationship.

Hamori says that in this story God gaslights the first humans, but I think in this book Hamori gaslights God.

And the further one reads in the book the more obviously and relentlessly does the author press this Orwellian twist -- freedom is slavery and slavery is freedom, the oppressor is the victim and the victim is the oppressor. 

This becomes more obvious in dealing with the King of Babylon in Isaiah chapter 14. The obvious meaning is that in death the oppressor comes down to the level of those he oppressed -- he has no power in the grave. His victims can say, where is all your power now, with which you oppressed people? But Hamori presents God as the oppressor and the King of Babylon as the victim of oppression by creepy shades roused by God to gloat over his fate. Elsewhere Hamori talks of "monsterising" people we don't like, but here she monsterises the oppressed and presents their oppressor as the victim.

I would, however, be interested in discussing this book with others who have read it, and looking at it especially in terms of all the things that Hamori leaves out.

For example, Hamori must know, but fails to mention in the book, that Christians often interpret the fall of the King of Babylon typologically, as analogous to a fall of Satan. So much so that one of the epithets of the king of Babylon, Lucifer (in the Latin Vulgate) has been taken by some to be the personal name of the satan.

In discussing the book of Job Hamori points out, correctly, that "satan" is not a name but a job description, but then rather disingenuously claims that "Finally, the word becomes a name: Adversary, or Satan. Even then, he’s not the same as the Satan of the New Testament, who’s also called the devil (and a few other choice names). In the Hebrew Bible there’s no devil or hell. None. Zip. Devil-free territory."

Elsewhere Hamori claims that nowhere in the Bible is the satan called an angel. yet the Septuagint version of Job 2:1 says that the angels of the Lord came to stand before the Lord and the devil was among them. "Devil" (Greek diavolos) is the Greek translation of the Hebrew satan, and, like "satan", means adversary or accuser.

In the scene in Zechariah 3, where the high priest Joshua is on trial, Hamori emphasises the injustice done by God to the satan, rebuking the prosecutor for simply doing his job, thus obscuring the main point, which is that God's mercy trumps his justice. And this is clearly because it contradicts Hamori's main point, hammered in just about every paragraph in the book, that God is not merciful, but malevolent, vindictive, cruel and sadistic.

For what it's worth, a Christian metanarrative here is that the satan, who is indeed the prosecutor in the heavenly court, like many human prosecutors, takes his job too seriously. For him the overarching goal is the conviction rate; it is better that the innocent should suffer than that the guilty should escape. He regards the judge as too soft on sinners, and thinks he could do a better job, so aims to take over the judge's job. But he comes short with Jesus, who is found guilty in the magistrate's court (under Caiaphas), and likewise in the high court (under Pilate, even though Pilate has his doubts, he is not prepared to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt), but in the court of ultimate appeal Jesus, the high priest Joshua ("Jesus" is the Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua) is vindicated because the filthy clothes he is wearing are not his but ours -- he put them on at his baptism in the Jordan -- and the ultimate court of appeal not only reverses the verdict of guilty, but it reverses the sentence as well, the sentence of death, and Jesus rises from the dead. Satan not only loses his case, he loses his job and is tossed out of court by Michael, who has become the bouncer (Rev 12:7-12), and there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for their accuser (satan, devil) has been fired.

Hamori's account is more interesting for what she leaves out than for what she includes, and the excluded bits tend to show that throughout the book she is gaslighting God.


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02 December 2023

My Two Facebook Accounts - FAQ

I have two Facebook accounts, one as Steve Hayes and the other as Stephen Hayes. 

As I am frequently asked about this I thought I should write a blog post to answer the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) to save a lot of typing every time I'm asked. 

The short answer is that I hoped to use the Steve Hayes account as a general one for keeping in touch with family and friends, and the Stephen Hayes account (which is linked to my author page on Facebook) for keeping in touch with people who have read books I have written, or might want to read them, or are generally interested in books, literature and writing. 

The story is more complicated than that, however.

At the time of writing this, I only have access to my Stephen Hayes account on my computer, and I only have access to my Steve Hayes account on my phone. 

Using a phone for Facebook is OK for  for quick scrolling to see what is happening and recording "reactions" to people's posts in the hope that that will encourage Facebook's algorithms to continue showing those people's posts to me. The phone also works for video links. The phone is not good for comments or replies other than facile one-liners. So anything that requires thoughtful replies longer than a line or two I save for my computer, and that means I'm using the "Stephen Hayes" account, which has fewer followers/friends, and therefore doesn't always work. 

I used to have full access to my Stephen Hayes account (and my author page) from my laptop computer (using Firefox on Windows 7), but that was stolen in October 2023, and appears to be irreplaceable.

I used to have full access to my Steve Hayes account on my desktop computer (using the Maxthon browser on Windows XP), but since about September/October  2023 Facebook has been tossing me out after about 20-30 seconds, so I just have time to see that someone has a birthday, but not enough time to send them birthday greetings. And if I want to see if there is an update to the Maxthon browser that might work better, it takes me to the Maxthon Facebook page, which tosses me out after 20 seconds. And in case anyone asks about that, I used the Maxthon browser because it worked on Facebook when most other browsers didn't. It was the last resort.

I do have limited access to my Stephen Hayes account from my desktop computer, however, using Firefox Version 41 (less bloated than newer versions, and also more secure, since it runs NoScript). It keeps telling me that my browser is not supported, and that I'm not getting the full benefits of Facebook, but it does let me read and comment on posts. 

As for why I have two Facebook accounts, that goes back several years. 

I originally had only the Steve Hayes account back when Facebook was only for current students in tertiary education. Then suddenly Facebook blocked my access to my account unless I downloaded and installed an undescribed piece of software on my computer. I suspected that the thing they wanted me to install was some kind of spyware, and refused to download it, and opened another account in the name of Stephen Hayes as a kind of emergency account to keep in touch with people. If any of my friends on the other account asked to be friends on the new one, I accepted them, but I didn't solicit friends other than people I needed to be in frequent contact with.

After a few months Facebook unblocked the Steve Hayes account and dropped the demand that I install the unknown software, so I began using the Steve Hayes account for most things again, but kept the Stephen Hayes one for emergencies, and eventually started using it mainly for literary stuff, as described above. 

But right now (December 2023) I use whichever account gives me access on the device which I happen to be using at the moment, and the kind of access Facebook gives me to either account on which device seems to change from week to week. Last week when I tried to go into the Steve Hayes account from my computer, all I saw was a blank black screen. Today I can see everything on the screen, but only for 20 seconds or so. 

Tomorrow it may work, or it may not. It depends on whatever torments the UX (User Experience) boffins at Facebook are thinking up next. I just wish they would take seriously the adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But that's too much to ask.

For more reliable communication, use email. 


29 November 2023

Digitisation is death to data

A few weeks ago my laptop computer was stolen, and since the insurance company asked me what it would cost to replace it, I've been stuck, because it is beginning to appear that it is irreplaceable.

The computer that was stolen was about 13 years old, a Toshiba Satellite laptop running Windows 7 32-bit. It came with 64-bit Windows, but with a set of discs for a 32-bit version. Using it for a couple of hours showed me that it would not run many of my older programs, which I used to access research data I had collected over the last 25 years,  so I quickly installed the 32-bit version of Windows and all was well. 

Now, however, it seems that 32-bit versions of Windows are extremely difficult or impossible to get. I can still access my data on my desktop computer that runs 32-bit Windows XP, but what happens if that dies?

Referring to a related issue, director Guillelmo del Toro pointed out the dangers of streaming serivces when he said:

Physical media is almost a Fahrenheit 451 (where people memorized entire books and thus became the book they loved) level of responsibility. If you own a great 4K HD, Blu-ray, DVD etc etc of a film or films you love... you are the custodian of those films for generations to come

But there is another bigger problem. Even if you possess the physical media, they are quite useless if you have nothing to play them back on. And for many of these things the hardware and software to read such physical media is becoming rarer all the time. 

For a long time people have been recommending the digitisation of paper documents, with or without the destruction of the originals, as a means to better preservation, but that depends on the availability of the hardware and software to access the digitised versions. Someone wrote a book a few decades ago called CD-ROM: the New Papyrus, but how easy is it to get a computer that can read a CD-ROM? Better stick to the old papyrus!

One thing that would go a long way towards alleviating this would be for historians, librarians, archivists and others who are concerned about preservation of information from the past to push for international agreements and legislation to ensure that whenever an operating system, or version of an operating system is no longer supported by its manufacturer, it should be put into the public domain, without copy protection, and possibly also made open source, so that people can adapt it to run on new hardware.

Something similar should be done with application software (apps) such as word processors and the like -- how many people can read a Multimate document nowadays?

A personal example: 

Since the age of 11 I have kept a diary, originally written in pen and ink in a series of notebooks. In 1985 I began digitising it. I typed out the entries for 1969 in Wordstar on an Osborne Executive portable (luggable!) computer running CP/M3, stored on 185k single-sided floppy disks. I did it because I wanted to collect memories of my grandmother that I had written back then when I had seen quite a lot of her. 

Later I realised that quite a lot of what I had written might be useful to historians of Namibia, so I continued to transcribe it beyond the period relating to my grandmother. In 1987 I got a newer computer running MS-DOS, and a better word processor called XyWrite. I converted the Wordstar documents to XyWrite (I still have the conversion program on my computer today) and carried on transcribing. In about 1990 I printed out an edited version of the Namibian portion and sent a bound copy to the Windhoek archives. 

In 1992 I began making notes for the current version of my diary using a then-popular "terminate-and-stay resident" program called Sidekick, which I would then use to write up the hard copy version. In about 1995 I started using a text database program called askSam, and stopped keeping up with the hard copy version. In 2001 I started using a different text database program called Inmagic, and began converting all the remaining Wordstar, XyWrite and askSam versions to that, and since 2006 have kept it in a single file. A couple of years later I had more or less finished transcribing all the hard copy ones going back to when I had started at the age of 11, and every morning I look at it to see what I was doing in the past going back at 10-year intervals. I can do that on a computer running 32-bit Windows, but not on one running 64-bit Windows. So 64-bit Windows is quite useless to me. 

That is just one example, but there are many other things, like research notes made from books, interviews with people, with research data that I've now been collecting for 35 years (and older data that I have digitised in a similar manner to the diary). but the planned obsolescence policy of software companies like Microsoft would require that I must give up all that. Perhaps I need to do a "Go Fund Me" appeal for the funds to print out all the stuff on my computer on hard copy in order to have continued access to it.

Digitisation as a means of preservation only makes sense in an open source and public domain environment.


26 November 2023

Books about enchanted things, and some unsolicited writing advice

The Enchanted Crossroads

The Enchanted Crossroads by Dora Blume
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm not sure where this book came from. When my daughter sent me her old Kindle, having got herself a new one, this appeared as one of the books I could read, so I began to read it

In this book Kaira, an up-and-coming lawyer, is followed home by her Lyft driver, Leif (who later makes an unexplained switch to Uber), and it's just as well because when she reaches her apartment she is attacked. Leif rescues her from her attacker, and takes her home to his apartment, where he tells her she isn't really human but a Mage, and that some equally inhuman creatures, called morrigans, are out to get her.

Kaira learns a lot about herself that she didn't know, but has a great deal more to learn, and wonders how this will affect her legal career. She is also attracted to Leif romantically. So there's conflict, drama and romance. What's not to like?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

First, the characters are irrational and predictably unpredictable, prone to inappropriate reactions and behaviour. 

In my experience one of the red flags for this is rolling eyes. In nearly all the books I've read, the only mention of rolling eyes is in terrified animals in immediate danger of losing their lives to predators, fire or similar perils. In The Enchanted Crossroads the human characters do it more than 35 times, for no discernible reason and the message, if any, that they are intended to convey is obscure.

Then the characters smirk at each other in situations where smirking seems inappropriate. None of the other things they have been doing leading up to the smirk seem to warrant such a reaction. They also saunter as if they had set out to go somewhere with a purpose, and then forgotten what they were going to do, but do it anyway.

The weirdest reaction, however, is swooning. Kiara's mother's reaction, on first meeting her daughter's new boyfriend Leif, is to swoon. She recovers almost immediately, without the aid of smelling salts, or having her face fanned or her pulse taken, and carries on talking as if nothing had happened, and nobody else present shows the least concern, or even seems to notice that she had swooned.

Kaira also learns that Mages, unlike humans, bond for life. She is romantically and sexually attracted to Leif, but there can be no question of a one-night stand. Divorce is not an option. Bonding is irrevocable. After knowing Leif for a couple of days she decides to take the plunge and be irrevocably bonded to Leif for life. A day or two later she discovers that nothing like this has ever happened to her before -- the fact that it happened yesterday has slipped her mind -- and she is faced with the choice of  making an irrevocable decision to bond with Leif for life. And then it happens again a third time. Three irrevocable life-changing decisions in as many days! The mind boggles.

It seems that Mages (and Sages and Verities, their allies, and morrigans, their enemies) are familiar with and use modern technology like cellphones and motor vehicles. But when it comes to actual fighting, it is sword and sorcery only, no firearms in sight. So when Kaira discovers she is a Mage, and the morrigans are out to get her, she has to learn to defend herself by fencing and potions. What's wrong with that? After all Harry Potter and the Hogwarts crew learn that kind of stuff. Yes, but in Harry Potter there is at least an explanation -- a prohibition on the use of Muggle technology. Here this, and many other things in the story, are not explained to the reader. The characters switch from mawkish love to exasperation and anger, and back again, within a couple of sentences, and they do this not once but many times, all the way through the book.

Now I'm not an expert on how to write books. I have been an editor of non-fiction for more than 50 years (mostly newspaper reports and articles and academic texts), but that doesn't qualify me to edit fiction. Nevertheless, I think I can recognise bad writing in fiction even if I'm not qualified to suggest improvements. I've read several books on how to write books, and they warn against using things like adverbs and the passive voice and telling rather than showing, but none of them warns against having more rolling eyes than a load of marbles falling off a moving truck.

So unqualified as I am, I do make some suggestions to authors of fiction:

1. Avoid giving your characters violent and unexplained mood swings without explanation (eg passionate love followed by exasperation and anger)

2. (Which follows from 1) If you are going to describe facial expressions or bodily gestures, like rolling eyes, smirks, grimaces or even swoons, make sure the reader understands the reason for them, and do try to make the reason sound convincing. 

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14 November 2023

Now that I have an ebook reader...

My daughter had a spare Kindle, and when I mentioned that such a thing might be useful for reading during load shedding, she sent it to me, and I've just finished reading this book on it:

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain, #1)The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not quite fan fiction, but a story in the setting of the Mabinogion with some of its characters, like Math, son of Mathonwy, in background roles. I found it an enjoyable read, so I gave it 5 stars on GoodReads.

It's a book I've been hearing about for a long time. On GoodReads, people who liked books I liked also liked this one. In online forums where people discuss books, several people have mentioned this one, but I've not been able to find a copy in a library or bookshop. But I found one for the Kindle reader, which could also be read during load shedding.

I won't go on to the next book in the series immediately, because there are other series that I want to read as well, like The Dark is Rising. That one interests me more, not because it's better written or anything, but because several readers have compared my children's books to it.

Some people have asked why, if we can't find books locally, we don't just order them from suppliers like Amazon, which seem to have everything. Well, yes, that is where I got the first two books in the The Dark is Rising series, but getting physical copies of books from overseas is very expensive and a big schlep. If you don't collect them from the post office within a certain time, they send them back, and we don't go to the post office very often, partly because there isn't much post, and partly because the City Council of Tshwane has turned most of the parking space near the post office into no-stopping zones, and the few parking spaces left are 15 minutes only, if they aren't full, and it takes more than 15 minutes to collect overseas parcels from  the post office, so you are likely to return and find your car has already been towed away. So fetching the post is such a schlep we don't do it very often, and most of it is commercial bumpf anyway. 

So that gives ebooks two big advantages right now: (1) you can read them during load shedding and (2) you can get books that are unobtainable in hard copy.

But I still prefer hard copy books when I can get them, and when there's light to read them by.

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26 September 2023

Coming to faith through Dawkins

Coming to Faith Through Dawkins: 12 Essays on the Pathway from New Atheism to Christianity

Coming to Faith Through Dawkins: 12 Essays on the Pathway from New Atheism to Christianity by Denis Alexander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this was a very good book and well worth reading.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the book launch where Denis Alexander, one of the editors, introduced it by interviewing three of the authors, and the following morning I heard him speak on genetic determinism, which happens to be his academic field. Dr Alexander, and the authors, made the book sound interesting, and so it was.

What bothers me a bit about writing a review, no matter how much I enjoyed the book, is that it is in effect a collection of twelve reviews of a book that I haven't read, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Note: Though this piece is based on a review I wrote on GoodReads, it goes beyond the review in being more wide-ranging, and also more personal

The God Delusion is a polemic against religion in general and Christianity in particular, and in this book all twelve authors describe how reading it had the opposite of the intended effect on them.

Obviously not all readers will find Dawkins's book counterproductive, and indeed for some of these authors it initially wasn't; but in all of them it ultimately produced the opposite effect to what the author intended. Many of these authors were looking for something to confirm or reinforce their atheism, but instead The God Delusion had the opposite effect and made them doubt it.

Several of the authors had also read, and been similarly influenced by others of the so-called New Atheists, notably Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I haven't read any of their books either. The nearest I got was picking up The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris in a book shop one day, and glancing through it. I was curious to read what he had to say on the topic, but I didn't want to spend any money on it, so thought I'd wait till I could find someone who had a copy of the book and was willing to lend it to me. From my skimming through it I couldn't see anything new about the "new" atheism though; it all looked very much like the "old" atheism I'd learned about as a first-year university student through the arguments and the tracts handed out by members of the university Rationalist Society led by the redoubtable Dr Eddie Roux. These arguments and tracts were more rational, more logical, and more coherent than a lot of the stuff put out by the "New Atheists" and their followers seems to be.

Some of the contributors to Coming to Faith through Dawkins are working in the same or related academic fields as Richard Dawkins, and admire his work as an evolutionary biologist, and say how disappointed they were when they read The God Delusion, which fell far below the standard of his scientific works. Celebrity in one discipline does not necessarily make one an expert in another, unrelated, field. For more on that, see here.

Though I haven't read any of the works of the "New Atheists", I have encountered some of their disciples and fans online. I usually try to avoid being drawn into arguments with them, as most of them tend to be more dogmatic than their heroes, and their logic tends to be even more simplistic, so that the arguments go round in circles. They love to recite the creed of valid and invalid arguments, often just before asking question-begging questions or setting up a straw man, so one thing I learned from this book was that even the models they base themselves on do that.

One of the best examples of that came from a colleague at work who was an agnostic, and tried to join an online group for discussing atheism, agnosticism and so on. But he was blackballed because he had a heretical view of the nature of God. It turned out that in order to join the group one had to not believe in the god that Sam Harris didn't believe in, having exactly the same nature and characteristics. No other god would do. 

One reason I haven't read any of the works of the New Atheists is that I'm not much interested in the question of the "existence" of God. I have never been convinced by any of the arguments for the existence of God, and I suspect that most Christians are unaware of them, much less convinced by them. Some parts of Coming to Faith through Dawkins mentioned the Cosmological Argument and a couple of others. I'd have to look them up to find what they are, so I just skimmed through those parts of the book. 

That is also another of the reasons I try not to get involved in arguments with soap-box atheists online or in person. The arguments wouldn't convince me, so why would they convince them? The only times I do comment are when the atheist asks a question-begging question, or demonstrates some other logical flaws.

One such question, however, I did relay to Dr Denis Alexander when he spoke on genetic determinism, because it seemed to be right in his field. Someone who bills himself as a talented sceptic asked on Twitter (alias X) "What is the biological cause of the fear of death?"

I took his question at face value, and answered: "Natural Selection. Those who do not fear death do not survive long enough to reproduce."

He didn't comment, but I suspect that that was not the kind of answer he was looking for. There may have been a hidden sub-text; there usually is a hidden sub-text to such questions.

And most questions asked by soap-box atheists seem to start in the wrong place and with questionable assumptions, like "What evidence do you have for the existence of God?" (I learned from Coming to Faith Through Dawkins that the demand for "evidence" is a prominent characteristic of the New Atheists).

Any response is likely to be met with "The onus is on you to provide evidence." But who determined the onus? The onus-putters. The question belongs to Humpty Dumpty; it's really "Who is to be master? That's all."

The authors of Coming to Faith through Dawkins come from many different Christian traditions, and many different academic fields. They come from five different countries (three of them are South Africans -- the ones who were at the book launch). Some of the contributions appealed to me more than others, but because of the variety anyone who has any interest in questions of science and faith, or related questions, should find this book interesting.

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23 September 2023

Institutional Memory: Remembering the Good and the Bad

Yesterday morning we participated in TGIF[1] via Zoom, where Nick Koning spoke on "The good and bad of institutional memory." He said he had gone to Selborne College, a high school in East London, and would be taking that as an example, as the whole place was full of reminders of the past. 

The perimeter fence was marked with the names of old boys. There was a Jubilee Tower, a new structure, but it was meant to look old, and to be a reminder of the past. The school hall was full of sporting pictures of the past. He had walked into all this as a 14-year-old boy, and was filled with the sense of past achievements, which helped to give him the ambition to achieve similar things.

Every new pupil at the school had to pass a test on all this historical tradition before they could wear the school uniform, and that was a mild form of initiation. Among the names was one who had been awarded the Victoria Cross because he had killed a lot of Nazis. Another was Mark Boucher, a former pupil who was celebrated as the best wicket-keeper in the world, and had learned to pay cricket at Selborne College. Nick himself played hockey, and was inspired by this to be the best.

The way the past is remembered is the superpower of such institutions, inspiring people to raise their horizons.

There was the annual Founders Day ceremony, full of pomp, highly traditional and very colonial. The head boy was called the Custodian of the Keys, a practice that dated back to when the war memorial, called Bob, was erected after the First World War, and the Administrator of the Cape handed over the keys to it to the head boy. So on Founders Day two lists of names were read out -- that of past Custodians of the Keys, and that of those who had died in the First and Second World Wars. This reinforces the idea propagated by the school motto -- that reward is to the brave, who save the world from bad people.

But there were no people of colour on the lists that were read out, because back then it was an all-white school, and it was only in 2002 that there was, for the first time, a black Custodian of the Keys.  We all know the reason for this, it is a familiar thing, but still an ugly one, and we need to remember the ugly facts of our past too.

What is forgotten is as interesting as what is remembered. White exclusivity is not remembered. The horror of SA society, and the shock of it is forgotten. The glorious past is not as glorious as has been remembered. There were good things to remember, but the way we remember it is better than  it actually was.

There were also some bad things, some bad traditions. Among the lists of names were detention lists, which were mostly of black children, and so a problem. Why were black children more often in detention than white children?

In 2017 one of the pupils drew a caricature of Hector Pieterson, where the people in the famous picture of him being carried after he was shot were portrayed as dogs. There was the continuing use of racial slurs by teachers, but little is said about these things in the institutional past, though they could be used as an educational opportunity.

Though Selborne College was only one school, there are many others that preserve institutional memories and traditions in various ways, yet I thought how different it was from my own school life. 

When I went to St Stithians College in 1953 it was a brand new school. There was no past, no tradition. There were no new boys to initiate, because we were all new together. The headmaster, Wally Mears, said there were no rules, and that we, by our own behaviour would make the rules. The first founders day, on 11 August 1953, was marked by the laying of the foundation stone of the school chapel, and yes, it was an all-white affair. But the only names remembered were those of businessmen who had left money in their wills for the school to be started, or those other businessmen and lawyers who had administered the trust fund. There were no past pupils, only present ones.

In more recent years I have attended the Founders Day services, usually at five-year intervals, so this year was the 70th anniversary of the founding of the school. But it struck me that the remembered past is not much like the real past, and there is not much interest in the real past. I had suggested that they should try to arrange a reunion gathering of the foundation pupils who were there in 1953, and they suggested one for those who had been in my matric class in 1958, which was not at all the same thing.

In 2008 I had gone to a head boy's lunch, where some of the current pupils met some of the past pupils and teachers. I ppoke to Tshegofatso Rangaka, then head of Collins House, who was keen to know about traditions, but I had had to tell him that I couldn't think of any, because the school had been so new. I got the impression that there was a kind of hunt to discover traditions, and perhaps he was under some pressure to pump the past pupils for traditions. 

By that time St Stithians was 55 years old, and there were lists of names on boards up in the dining hall, and the one who had been head boy in my matric year, Bruce Young, was the first on the list, but his name was spelt wrongly, as B. Going, and no one had noticed or bothered to check. The remembered past was not the real past, and an imagined past would do just as well as the real past, as long as it was a tradition.

There are mixed memories of the past, some good, some bad. I don't recall the teachers ever being racist -- they gave us "a liberal education with a Christian teaching" in accordance with the wishes of the businessmen who had left money for the school to be established. 

We ate in the school dining room, wearing school uniforms with blazers even in midsummer. On one particularly hot evening, when the headmaster's wife, Nan Mears, was sitting alone at the high table supervising us, someone dared me to go up and ask if we could take off our blazers. 

"Certainly not!" she replied. 

We were all white, and had to learn to behave like gentlemen. There were black waiters, who brought our food and cleared the tables afterwards. One day one of the waiters appeared with his head shaved, and we all remarked on his new hair style. Only many years later did I learn, to my shame, that in his culture it was a sign of mourning, and that someone in his family must have died recently, but instead of expressing sympathy, we kids insensitively teased him about his hair style. Such things could have become educational opportunities, as Nick Koning suggests.

The best example of forgetting the bad is illustrated in the way St Stithians treated its second headmaster, Steyn Krige. He was my geography teacher from 1954 to 1958, and was only deputy headmaster when I was there, and he died in 2011 -- my memorial for him is here. The school named a hall after him, and published an obituary for him, and noted that when he left St Stithians he went on to found Woodmead School, the first fully non-racial school in South Africa. What they did not mention, and what seems to have dropped out of the institutional memory, is why he left St Stithians. He was fired in an acrimonious row that made the front pages of the Sunday newspapers back in 1969. What was never made public was the reason for his firing, and that has been conveniently swept under the carpet.

I think it is important to remember the past. Shakespeare said "The evil that men do live after them, the good is oft interred with their bones" (yes, I learned that at St Stithians). While that is often true of individuals (think of what people recalled on the recent death of Gatsha Buthelezi), in institutions the reverse tends to be true -- the good things are remembered, especially by the people who enjoyed them, the bad things tend to be forgotten. Partly for that reason I at one time wrote a series of blog posts, Tales from Dystopia, to remember some things that might otherwise be forgotten. Unfortunately I had to give it up, because the Wordpress platform became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible to use. But have a look, and maybe it will jog your memory about the past. 



[1] TGIF, in this context is a gathering that takes place in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Stellenbosch early on Friday mornings, so people can come and get some mental stimulation before they go to work. There are speakers on various topics.

13 September 2023

Missing persons: fact and fiction

Missing PersonsMissing Persons by Nicci Gerrard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Johnny Hopkins goes off to university and disappears. His family and friends embark on a frantic search for him.

The book concentrates on the effects of Johnny's disappearance on his friends and especially on his family, which is rather unusual in such books.

Many novels feature missing persons as part of their plot, but most concentrate on the search for them, or on the missing persons themselves. The reaction of their friends and family usually form part of the story and are not the central element of the plot.

There have also been quite a lot of TV series on missing persons, where the reactions of friends and families of the missing have been central, but these have usually been documentary, or re-enacted documentary rather than fiction. I don't know whether it's the influence of such TV series, but I think I prefer such themes not to be fictional, but rather to be based on real people and real events. You can make up a story about why someone would want to disappear, or why some villains would want to make someone disappear (Shatter by Michael Robotham is a good example of that genre), but making up a story about how people react somehow doesn't strike me as being as interesting as the real thing.

I realise that this is a personal preference, perhaps also driven by my interest in family history, which is a search for missing persons over several generations. So this is not about this particular book, which I thought was interesting and well written; it's rather about my own personal preferences.

One example is Re: Beaglehole, a court case that established the South African law of missing persons. Absalom Beaglehole went missing in England, but his brother died in South Africa, and their sisters in England wanted the missing Absalom declared dead so that they could claim his share of their brother's inheritance (in this instance, real life diverges quite widely from the fictional story). If you're interested, you can read about what happened in the Beaglehole case here: Deceased Estates, Probate Records and Missing Persons

But, my personal preferences aside, the characters in Missing Persons are believable, and its worth a read.

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06 September 2023

Good Advice for Fiction Writers

More on How to Write a MillionMore on How to Write a Million by William Noble
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I got a job as an editor of academic texts I began looking at books in the university library with advice to writers and editors. I could recognise bad writing when I saw it (even as a student, having to read obfuscatory prescribed texts), but as an editor my job as to improve it, and turn a bad text into a good one.

As a result, I read quite a lot of books on writing, both fiction and nonfiction, and when I saw this one going cheap on a book sale, I bought it. I would not have bought it at the full price, because the title put me off. I thought someone really needed to edit that (a million what?). But on sale it was cheap enough that there was nothing to lose, and I'm glad I did, because it really is one of the better books on the subject.

It is actually 3 books in one, by three authors I had never heard of. The three books in one binding have separate page numbers, indexes and tables of contents. They are on Description, Revision and Setting. As an editor, I read the Revision one first, and also used it when revising my first novel, Of Wheels and Witches, and have just reread it for working on a second edition.

They give sensible advice. For example, nearly all books on writing give the advice (or sometimes a command) to "Show, Don't Tell", and this one covers it from three points of view -- in description, revision and setting. But here it is not overly prescriptive about it. It is more helpful than that, and gives advice on when to show and when to tell, and also how to do both showing and telling, when each is most appropriate.

I recommend it for both beginning and experienced fiction authors, but nonfiction authors and editors could also benefit.

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03 September 2023

Utopia as Dystopia: R.A. Lafferty's "Past Master"

Past MasterPast Master by R.A. Lafferty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A bit like Brave New World and 1984 on steroids.

Astrobe is the new Earth, and a paradise where poverty is unknown, and wealth and comfort are freely available to all. The paradise is marred, however, when increasing numbers of people, like the savage in Brave New World, reject this, and opt for a life of voluntary poverty, deprivation and disease.

A group of leading citizens decide to bring Sir Thomas More, the English lawyer and martyr who wrote the original Utopia from the past, as the eponymous "Past Master" to help them to solve this problem. More arrives, and discovers that the paradise is not all that it seems. Those who doubt the vision become the target of programmed killing beasts and are eliminated from the society, rather as More was eliminated from his own English society back in 1535.

The Astrobian Utopia has a far better surveillance system than 1984 and can detect treasonous thoughts before even the thinker is aware of them. This seems to be significant for the role of so-called "AI" in our current society, and it is worth reading for that reason. R.A. Lafferty raises the kind of questions we should be asking about "AI".

There are more interesting parallels with out society. In South Africa there is a widening gap between rich and poor, though in Astrobe it is large still yet entirely voluntary. Thomas More, after first encountering the contrast, remarks:
I was never an advocate of wealth and fineness. I believe fully in holy poverty. But I say that poverty is like drink: a little of it is stimulating and creative; too much of it is depraved and horrifying.
And More has a better name for what we misleadingly call "AI" -- eloquence machines.
At this one thing for which Astrobe has a hunger now, high oratory, we were the professionals and you are the amateurs. I know that you have analyzed the thing and broken the personal aura down into its elements. It is like chopping up a bird, but can you make a bird? Perhaps you can, since you made the Programmed Persons, but we recognize them as artificial. I know you have built intricate eloquence machines, man, but they ring false. The laughter of the people at them like autumn leaves blowing is evidence of this. I've heard the eloquence machines, and I've heard the people's response. I've heard human and programmed orators who have studied under the eloquence machines. I've heard a lot of things in one week on Astrobe. People are hungry for the real thing...
And then there was the tantalising hint of more: "Evita had been battling principalities and powers for a long time, and it showed on her. And yet she didn't appear more than seventeen."

10 August 2023

Celtic themes in fantasy literature and literary genres

Here's an interesting review of a collection of essays on the influence and use of Celtic mythology, or themes from Celtic mythology in fantasy literature. 

I'm unlikely to find the book in a bookshop, or to be able to afford it even if I could, but I found the review itself very interesting and informative, and it sparked off several ideas. If you find these things interesting, you might like to read the review. and possibly the book if you can get hold of it. Strange Horizons - Imagining the Celtic Past in Modern Fantasy edited by Dimitra Fimi and Alistair J.P. Sims By Debbie Gascoyne:

In her introduction to this useful and insightful collection, co-editor Dimitra Fimi writes: “This edited volume aims to open a conversation about fantasy's multifaceted and enduring fascination with the Celtic past, and its various perceptions” (p. 4). Fimi notes that, while previous scholarship (including her own 2017 monograph) has focused on work written for children, the essays in this volume examine texts aimed at adult readers. The collection is divided into four sections: the first deals with what is loosely defined as “intrusion fantasy,” in which a Celtic “otherworld” overlaps with our own; section two looks at “worldbuilding” and the way authors use Celtic elements to create a fantasy world; section three has discussion of works in languages other than English; and the fourth and final section looks at how “the fantastic is situated within cultural practices perceived as Celtic” (p. 5).

The first thing that struck me about that was the notion of "intrusion fantasy", a term that I was unfamiliar with, but which seems to me an apt description of the novels of Charles Williams and the early children's novels of Alan Garner, which are among my favourites. It also seems to describe most of the fiction I have tried to write (examples of which you can see in the side panel on the right).

 Since  I had not heard of "intrusion fantasy" before I did a web search to make sure that it meant what I thought it did, and came across some interesting web sites, such as this one: Bring These 5 Intrusive Fantasy Books Into Your World

If you’re wondering what intrusive fantasy is—apart from sounding like something very rude and impatient—you’re not alone. In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn argues there are four categories of fantasy, one of which is “intrusive.” (The others, in case you’re interested, are portal, immersive, and liminal.) If a portal fantasy is one in which the protagonist and the reader travel from the ordinary world into a magical one (Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are classic examples), then an intrusive fantasy is the reverse. In intrusive fantasy, magic comes from an Elsewhere into the ordinary world, changing it and the protagonist forever.

Of the five books mentioned there, I've read 1.15. I read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova about 12 years ago -- see my review here: At last, a good vampire story. I did find Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell among the new books in our local library, but it is an enormously long book, and after reading 150 pages and realising it would take forever to finish, I returned it to the library to give other readers a chance.

For more on Farah Mendlesohn's four categories of fantasy, see here.

Concerning Celtic mythology and its use by fantasy authors, Debbie Gascoyne goes on to say:

Several of the chapters in this volume make it clear how many of the most popular ideas about “Celtic mythology” or “Celtic traditions” actually arose from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Robert Graves and Jessie Weston (among others) have a lot to answer for. For example, I was quite shocked to learn from Gwendolen Grant’s chapter on Alan Garner that the “triple goddess figure” he weaves through his Weirdstone trilogy owes more to The White Goddess (1948) than to any Irish or Welsh source material (p. 44). Juliette Wood’s chapter on “The Celtic Tarot” describes an “imaginative, though unhistorical link between current ideas about Celtic myth and a divination device that dated back only to the eighteenth century” (p. 175).

...from which I infer that most of the authors of the book disapprove of the rather loose way in which many fantasy writers use mythological themes and tropes, or at least Celtic ones.

Without having read the essays themselves it is hard to tell, but I don't think that in writing fiction one can treat mythology and folklore as if one were documenting them for an academic study. Alan Garner, for example, borrows eclectically from Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Nordic and 20th Century English mythology and folklore, and stirs the mixture quite vigorously. Though the blurb mentions "Celtic mysteries", he freely links the Anglo-Saxon Herlathing with the modern notions of ley lines and the "old straight track" with nothing Celtic about either. He does include Celtic mythology in the mix, but also Norwegian (the strömkarl), more old English (mara - related to nightmare), Nordic (the lios alfar and the svart alfar, as well as Ymir, whose maggot brood they were). The Morrigan is Irish, and hence Celtic, and the bodachs and brollachan are Scottish but Garner gives each of them some characteristics derived from his own imagination, to suit his story.

I haven't made much use of specifically Celtic mythology in my own writing, but as most of my stories are set in southern Africa, there are other mythologies to draw on, but I assume that what the essaysts say about Celtic mythology would apply, mutatis mutandis, to any other system of mythology.

07 August 2023

Trouble Pug -- a fun book for kids aged about 8-10

Trouble PugTrouble Pug by Kathryn Judson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two girls, Morgan and Kisa, find a stray dog in a park, and decide to adopt it. Kisa already has a dog, so they decide it is Morgan's dog, but Morgan's mother doesn't like dogs, so Kisa keeps it for her.

Trouble begins when they discover that the dog can travel in time and take people with her, and Kisa and Morgan have some scary trips until they can communicate to the dog where they want to go.

Adult readers, even those who normally enjoy children's books, might be put off by the way some characters are overdrawn so as to appear almost as caricatures. Morgan's mother, for example, is rude and abrasive, and has a sense of entitlement that seems larger than life. But kids of the target age usually don't notice such things, and subtlety tends to be lost on them. It's the kind of story that most children aged about 8-10 would enjoy reading, even though some adult readers might think it's a bit over the top.

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