08 June 2024

The Color Purple (Book Review)

The Color PurpleThe Color Purple by Alice Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An epistolary novel.

It's set in the southern USA in the 1930s & 1940s. and is about the life of a poor black family there.

Celie is raped by her stepfather and has a couple of children who disappear. She is then more or less forced to marry a man, Albert ____, who doesn't love her and treats her badly. Celie is gay and doesn't love him. Initially the story is told in a series of letters she writes to God.

Celie's sister Nettie goes to Africa as an au pair with a couple of missionaries and their adopted children, and writes to Celie, with descriptions of what is happening in the place where they live. This, for me was the best part of the book, reminiscent, in a way, of The Poisonwood Bible. It describes how an overseas rubber plantation company dispossesses the local people, forcing them to move off their land, and destroys their way of life -- "expropriation without compensation" is the latest political buzz-phrase for that kind of thing. Though the book is set in the 1930s and 1940s, it is the kind of thing that could still happen in South Africa 80 years on.

Celie, however, doesn't at first receive her sister's letter, because her husband hides them, but nevertheless switches from writing to God to writing to her sister. Celie eventually leaves her husband, finds someone who loves her, and starts a business, but things go wrong again.

In many ways it is a very sad book, all about people's messed up relationships, and how they manage to cope with them. I also found it quite a complex book, and had to read the first few chapters again when I was halfway through, just to keep track of the characters' relationships.

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08 May 2024

Travelling through southern Africa in the 19th & 21st Centuries

Footing with Sir Richard's Ghost

Footing with Sir Richard's Ghost by Patricia Glyn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Patricia Glyn, having heard about the travels of her great grand uncle Sir Richard Glyn, decides to walk the trail of his 19th-century journey from Durban to the Victoria Falls. This is the diary of her journey, with excerpts from his diary, and notes on the places they passed through, and historical events that had taken place there.

Sir Richard Glyn and his English companion were that comparatively rare species of traveller, the British "sportsman", who came to Africa primarily to hunt animals for sport, and left with their trophies. Though comparatively rare, however, unlike most other travellers they kept comparatively good written records in the form of diaries, and so their travels are better documented than most.

The book was a toss-out from the Alkantrant Library, probably a donation from a deceased estate. I hope the reason that the library tossed it out was that they already had a copy, and not just that they didn't think they needed one because it would be a pity if this book were not available. Just as her relative's diary is a valuable account of how people travelled and lived in the 1860s, so hers is a record of how people travelled and lived in the same parts of the world in the early 21st century.

In the 1860s the travellers relied of paid local guides, accounts of other travellers, or local advice or knowledge. In the 21st century this was supplemented by cell- and satellite phones and more accurate maps.

One of the reasons I found it interesting was that in 2013 my wife Val and I went on a similar journey, following in the footsteps of her great-great-grandfather Fred Green, who travelled through much of the same region, and also that to the west, from the 1850s until his death in 1870. Unlike the Glyns, he was not a sportsman, but a professional hunter, trader and explorers, his main source of income being ivory for which he hunted and traded. Unlike Patricia Glyn, however, we did not walk, but drove by car, taking three weeks instead of five months.

The book is illustrated with photos and maps, and has side panels with historical and geographical notes drawn from a variety of sources, which are all listed in the copious bibliography.

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10 April 2024

Rites of Spring

Rites of Spring (Seasonal Quartet, #4)

Rites of Spring by Anders de la Motte
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Scandinavian whodunit with a difference -- the protagonist isn't a boozy detective drinking himself to divorce and death.

Instead the protagonist is a doctor, Thea Lind, who goes to the small town in southern Sweden where her husband David had grown up. He goes back to start a restaurant, while Thea starts working at the local clinic. She soon discovers that there is a secret in the village that affects her husband David, something that happened on Walpurgis Night several years before. She gradually learns that the events back then had affected her husband when he was a child, and a young girl had been killed in a ceremony to mark the night.

The story moves back and forth between past and present, in a manner reminiscent of the books of Robert Goddard, and the past events are written in the past tense, which those in the story present are written in the present tense.

St Walpurgis Night (strictly St Walburga's Eve) is celebrated in Sweden and several other northern European countries to celebrate the canonisation of St Walburga, an 8th-century English missionary nun who worked in Germany. It took place on the night of 30 April, and her feast day was 1 May, which also marked the beginning of summer in Sweden. 

In the story some elements of English folklore have also been incorporated into the celebration, including the Green Man. The "green man" folklore has grown up around the foliate heads that appear in the decoration of churches in various parts of Europe, and in the story the Green Man is treated as a person who appeared on St Walpurgis Night, and the girl who was killed was enacting a rite of sacrifice to the Green Man.

The more Thea discovers about those past events, the more opposition she encounters from those who want to keep the secret, but Thea has secrets in her own past as well.

It's a gripping story and well written.

It also interested me in ways that go beyond this particular story, and that is the incorporation of motifs from folklore into the story, even quite recent folklore, such as that of the Green Man. I like writing such stories myself, and so I find it interesting to see how other writers do it.

The "Green Man" legend goes back about 85 years or so, and was originally applied to the names of pubs, which was then linked to the foliate heads found in churches, and a quite extensive folklore has developed around the linked symbols. 

The legend has been used and developed in several novels. I recently reviewed another novel, Wildwood, that also incorporated it. That was a so-called "young adult" (teenage) story, and each such story adds to the legend. A Facebook friend, who was a fellow student at university with me, recently posted an interesting article on Facebook linking it to the Arthurian story of the Green Knight and the Green Chapel.

While I haven't used this particular story in books I've written, one of my children's stories, The Enchanted Grove, incorporates creatures from Zulu folklore, while another, Cross Purposes has them from Russian and Mongolian folklore.

Rites of Spring doesn't incorporate anything from the life of St Walburga, but I looked it up anyway, and found that German Christians asked her to protect them from various diseases and witchcraft. That didn't seem to form any part of the Swedish celebrations, but then neither, apart from in this story, did the Green Man.

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23 March 2024

Inside the Worm

Inside the Worm by Robert Swindells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A small town is celebrating the millennium of the martyrdom of their patron saint, St Ceridwen (is there a real St Ceridwen?), and so a weeklong festival is planned, culminating in a play on the life of the saint, who, in addition to dying as a martyr, had defeated a dragon that plagued the small village, not my killing it, but by banishing it to a fen.

The Year 8 pupils of the BottomTop Middle School are given the responsibility of producing the play, and Felicity "Fliss" Morgan is chosen to play the part of St Ceridwen, while her best friend Lisa Watmough is one of four children playing the dragon, whose costume they create out of whatever materials they can find.

Lisa is at first reluctant to take part, as she has a strange feeling that something bad will happen, but once she gets started she participates enthusiastically, and it's Fliss's turn to get worried as Lisa seems to change, and not in a nice way, and those who are acting the dragon's part seem to become too enthusiastic. The tension increases, until the day of the festival itself. 

I found this book particularly interesting because it is in more or less the same genre as children's books I have written -- intrusive fantasy, some have called it. So I was interested to see how the author handled dialogue and the relationships between the characters. It was comparable in that way to my published book The Enchanted Grove, and even more to one I'm still putting the finishing touches to, provisionally titled The Venn Conspiracy. I rather hope that one day soon the page for The Enchanted Grove on GoodReads will have books like Inside the Worm listed under "Readers also enjoyed...", but that wont happen until more people have reviewed it.

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21 March 2024

How social networks undermine community and promote extremism

I don't know who coined the term "social media", but in its narrower sense of commercial web sites whose main purpose is to link people with "friends" and "followers", they are becoming increasingly contradictory. 

As Tano Santos and Luigi Zingales point out in their article How Big Tech Undermines Democracy

...social-media platforms purposely seek to undo local communities to maximize profits. The reason is that social-media companies profit from our digital relationships, but not from our “physical” relationships, those that take place in parks, coffee shops, book clubs, and the like. As a result, social media platforms see the physical relationships between people as competing with the digital relations they offer.

The advantage of social media, what makes them "social", is that they have the potential to facilitate communication between people who are separated by physical distance, either through geography or through such things as the Covid19 quarantine. But this potential is often not realised because of the very commercial interests cited in the article. This is like the effect of alcoholic liquor on sex; as Shakespeare notes in Macbeth, in stimulates the desire but takes away the performance.

As for how commercial social network platforms promote extremism, Santos and Zingales explain it thus:

The local nature of physical relationships forces us to compromise. When the pool of potential friends is limited, we can’t be too picky; we must accept what we can find. Being stuck with the locals, our only option is to improve the quality of our relationships. In a digital sphere, where we can instantaneously connect with the entire world, why should we invest energy in making the current match work? By searching a bit longer, we can find a better match. The quality of any specific relationship becomes less important when there is a large pool of readily available alternatives. It is quantity over quality. As a result, digital platforms create shallower relationships among like-minded individuals that are easy to make and easy to drop.

The emphasis on quantity over quality is exacerbated by the gamification embedded in the platform’s design, carefully curated to maximize engagement and the platform’s profits. The number of followers and likes is prominently featured. Thus, users end up maximizing the number of relationships, not their quality. As many others have noted, in a boundless virtual community, the best way to get attention is to be extreme, to radicalize your position, and even to attack others. In a physical community where people constantly interact face-to-face, it is difficult to dehumanize adversaries. Not so in virtual communities. Online people are just avatars like the ones we are used to shooting in video games. Online, we don’t live with the consequences of our actions when we offend others because we do not observe the pain we inflict on them. We only live with the benefits: more retweets, likes, and followers. This is why otherwise calm and lovely people transform into aggressive beasts online.

Commercial social media are also curated to exacerbate the silo effect. Like the concrete grain silos used for holding corn for loading on to trains or ships, users of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter (now confusingly called X, so I'll continue to refer to it as Twitter), Instagram and TikTok are funnelled into silos insulated from those in other silos. 

One of the things that social media were initially good at was linking people to information. Twitter, for example, started off as a microblogging platform. One could not say much in a microblog, but it was very good for linking to longer articles that said more. A blog, after all, was a web log, a log and commentary on web sites visited that one thought might interest others. So many web sites made it easy to post links to them on social media platforms. If you think others will be interested in this, share it on your Twitter feed, or on Facebook or somewhere else. But what do the people who run those platforms do? They adjust their algorithms to ensure that such posts are shown to fewer people. They stimulate the desire, but take away the performance. They destroy the very thing that attracted people to their site in the first place. They don't want people clicking on links to other sites because they fear it will mean fewer eyeballs on ads. But the links are what keep people coming back to their site.

There are, however, some anomalous hangovers from the past, when the social media platforms were more user-oriented than they are now. Sometimes I retweet a link to an article I see on Twitter, and it asks "Do you want to read the article first?" That is a hangover from a time when they were trying to give the impression of being "socially responsible" and at least make it appear that they were trying to discourage users from retweeting clickbait articles that might be fake news. I quite often retweet articles I haven't read, however, because I don't have time to read them now, and want to read them later. 

One effect of this that I have noticed is that fewer and fewer people respond  to things I post on social media, so they aren't social at all. I have something over 1100 "followers" on Twitter, but if I post something only 10-30 people see it. The more important it is to me, the fewer the people who see it. And in most cases the people who do see it never respond. A post may occasionally get a "like" or two, but at least half these "likes" are from bots with fake names, no profile information, and no followers. If Twitter were a real social medium, then there would be social interaction, but there isn't. It is antisocial.

I'll put links to this article on Facebook and Twitter, and it will be interesting to see how many people see it at all, and, of those, how many interact with it in any way, by "liking", sharing, commenting etc. 

Again, Santos and Zingales explain this thus:

...digital [networks] are designed and regulated by the platform owner: They are centralized. The reason is that digital relationships are built and maintained in a space that is controlled by a platform, and this control confers the platform with the ownership of the relationship. We can’t take our X (formerly Twitter) followers with us to a different platform, nor can we access our followers without X’s permission, which can be withdrawn at any time without cause. In contrast, X can advertise to our followers and connect them with other followers. We don’t own our followers—X does.

Not only are most digital networks centralized, but they also have another motive to create and maintain the network: to monetize it. Their economic motives fuel their interest in undermining physical networks. All else being equal, customers are indifferent between a digital relationship and a physical one, but platforms aren’t. They profit from digital relationships but not physical ones. In their effort to subsidize digital relationships and undermine physical ones, these platforms are even willing to pay us to remain glued a little longer to the smartphone and not go to the bar with our friends.
Facebook is much the same. It is forever offering me new "people you may know", but there is very little interaction with people I already know. It doesn't show me what they post, and it doesn't show my stuff to them. Or perhaps it does, but they don't like it, and they don't like me, and if I knew what they really thought and they acted on what they really thought we would unfriend each other. So far from being a "social" medium, it promotes the feeling of:
Everybody hates me, nobody loves me
I'm going to go and eat worms
Big fat juicy ones, little itty bitty ones
See how the big ones squirm.
First you bite their heads off, then you suck the juice out
Then you throw the skins away
Nobody knows how I can thrive
On worms three times a day.

I recently had a look at some of my Facebook "friends" that I hadn't heard from for a long time. Some had died, and their last posts were usually from other people saying that they had died, but Facebook never showed me those, so I didn't even know they had died. But if they had posted some trivia just before they died, Facebook would probably have been more likely to have shown me that. But posts with news of their death weren't monetised enough. 

Other friends had probably just dropped out because they found that having their relationships and friendships manipulated by the platform socially unrewarding. It increased the desire but took away the performance, and eventually they found the lack of performance unrewarding and left.

Back to the danger to democracy...

Once again, Santos and Zingales indicate that

Without information, political participation dwindles, and vested interests have an easy time capturing local administrations because most people don’t vote or don’t vote in an informed way. A captured democracy functions poorly, reducing incentives to participate and the trust in the democratic process. If, as Tocqueville hypothesized, local communities are the gymnasium of democracy, then these trends do not affect just local administrations but also national ones.

State capture is not something peculiar to South Africa, though the Gupta affair was a good example of how vested interests can manipulate social media to undermine democracy

But it can also work the other way, as we have recently seen when the Western "mainstream" media were captured to channel Israeli government agitprop after 7 October 2023 (and probably before that as well), social media platforms were used to keep alternative viewpoints alive. Even though social media platforms are manipulated, it is possible to some extent to find workarounds, though that requires a great deal of time and energy.

And back in the late 1980s and early 1990s there were a lot of non-commercial social media platforms like BBS (Bulletin Board Service) networks, Usenet newsgroups and email mailing lists that were not captured by vested interests. BBS networks, in particular, were run as a kind of private-enterprise socialism, email mailing lists still exist. If any of my friends would like to communicate online without the commercial manipulation, contact me through the OffTopic forum here.

08 March 2024

Advice to would-be horror writers

The Abominations of Yondo

The Abominations of Yondo by Clark Ashton Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I first bought this book, about 50 years ago, I disliked it intensely. If I were reviewing it then, I would have given it one star.

I bought it because I liked horror stories, or thought I did, and the blurb led me to believe that I had found some good ones. When I began reading them, however, I was put off by the author's style. He tried to build an atmosphere of horror by piling adjective on adjective which became so cloying as to be almost meaningless, so by the time one reached the end of the story there was no horror left.

My taste for horror was shaped by reading Dracula and a collection of short stories edited by Dorothy Sayers, called Detection, Mystery, Horror. For more on that, see A Taste for Horror. Clark Ashton Smith did not appear in it, and his stories were disappointing by comparison.

Years later, when I became a professional editor, I read books on writing to help me in my work. I read warnings against this practice of piling on the epithets, and advice to use them sparingly. When I read that advice I thought of Clark Ashton Smith and thought I knew exactly what they meant.

Later, in the 1990s, a friend, who was researching new religious movements, told me about H.P. Lovecraft, who, he said wrote some passably good horror stories as well as a lot of third-rate dreck. His interest was sparked by the phenomenon of some readers thinking that a fictional book mentioned in some of Lovecraft's stories, the Necronomicon, actually existed, and developed a cult based on it. 

I got a book of Lovecraft's stories from the library and read it. I agreed with my friend's assessment, and when I discovered that Clark Ashton Smith was an associate of Lovecraft, I decided to try and read his stuff again, and found it not quite so rebarbative as I did the first time.

Nonetheless, I would urge any would-be fiction writers who have wondered about the advice to be sparing with adjectives and adverbs to read books like this with that advice in mind. Not all of Clark Ashton Smith's stories are overflowing with superfluous modifiers, which showed that he could write quite decent prose if he wanted to. But in re-reading this one I did note some over-the-top examples, like:

corroding planets
dark orb-like mountains
abysmal sand
hoary genii
decrepit demons
leprous lichens
unmentionable tortures
unknown horrors
immemorial brine
undetermined shadows
abominable legends
cacodemoniacal night
forbidden inferences
and eldritch anything at all

Many have the prefix un- or the suffix -less (nameless is another favourite).

Smith and Lovecraft gave rise to the Eldritch School of horror writers, and many have tried to imitate them since then, with unmentionable results. Perhaps it was this that inspired another prolific author of horror stories, Stephen King, to advise aspiring writers to go through their manuscripts and remove every forbidden adverb they found.

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26 February 2024

Of Wild Dogs, and South African crime novels

Of Wild Dogs (Fiction Africa)Of Wild Dogs by Jane Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An above-average crime novel set, like so many South African crime novels, in Cape Town, which, in the case of this one, leads to one of its chief weaknesses -- that though the focus of the story does at some points move out of Cape Town to Limpopo province, the story at those points becomes blurred and sketchy, lacking in the detail that makes it interesting at other points.

In the story Ewan Christopher, a British journalist, travels to Cape Town to meet an old flame, Hannah Viljoen, whom he had met when she was in exile in England. Hannah is working as an artist in a museum, but Christopher arrives to find she has just died, and murder is suspected. He befriends Helena de Villiers, the pathologist, and Cicero Matyobeni, the detective investigating the case, which becomes more complex and involved the more they investigate it.

There are some nice descriptive passages, one that caught my fancy being
Helena's father had marked his European cast of mind by marrying Athena Papandreas, a dark beauty who caught his imagination when he first saw her, in a ruched fuschia-pink bathing suit and floral swimming cap, bobbing like a frosted tea-cake upon the contained tide at St James

I suppose it all depends on how you like your crime novels. Those who like them "gritty" might find a "floral swimming cap bobbing like a frosted tea cake" a bit flowery for their taste. but I found it all added to the local flavour, as did the mention of "varsity", which even now in South Africa has not yet been superseded by the Australian & Brit "uni".

If it weren't for the skimping on the Limpopo bits, especially towards the end, I'd have given it five stars. Chapters 30-36 look like rough drafts that the author meant to complete later. But it's still worth reading. 

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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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