31 December 2007

End of the year

It's four minutes to noon and the end of the year for Blogger, because at noon Blogger turns into a pumpkin, so there isn't time to write a retrospect on the past year.

See you next year.

29 December 2007

Benazir Bhutto -- martyr for democracy or crook?

To judge by the way the Western media covered the death of Benazir Bhutto, they should just love Jacob Zuma and Shabir Shaik.

It is sad that she was killed as she was. But a martyr for democracy?
I have to start off
with my recent perceptions of her. She was a corrupt politician
who was more interested in her political legacy than in the welfare
of her nation and people. President Bush said today that Bhutto
was someone who fought against terrorism. She did so, conveniently,
post 9-11. During the mid 1990s she was openly pro-Taliban as
the Pakistani government was one of the few nations in the world
that recognized that neo-Khawarij regime.
I am disgusted
with the US media. Their coverage of Bhutto as some sort of martyr
is despicable and inappropriate.
This woman was liable to be arrested at any moment by Interpol
because of all the money laundering she and her husband were
involved in with 3 to 4 different countries.
blog it

28 December 2007

askSam 6.1

I've been using the askSam database software for 17 years, and this year my wife bought me an upgrade to the latest version for Christmas, and I've been playing with some of the new features.

If you are doing any kind of research, askSam is one of the best tools for keeping your notes and documents in order. It's a freeform text database that lets you find anything you put into it, and also allows you to have fixed fields for sorting.

I started using it when I persuaded the university departments I was working in to use it for journal abstracts and a terminology database. I'd read reviews of it in computer magazines, and it sounded as though it would be one of the best tools for the job. It was.

Back then it was the DOS version.

It was easy to get started using it -- you simply tossed information in and it would fish it out again. But to get the best out of it required quite a lot of learning, and to learn to use it I tried it out on different kinds of applications -- making notes from books, genealogical research, keeping track of correspondence, keeping a log of various activities. For all of these things, it worked very well.

Back then we also used the XyWrite word processor, and XyWrite's formatting was done using codes similar to HTML markup, so it was easy to produce askSam reports that were fully-formatted XyWrite documents. Reports could be imported into e-mail for sharing information. It worked just as well for exporting data to web pages.

For a long time I resisted the Windows version, but the new version has several features that older ones did not. One of them is the ability to import, link to and attach documents. So you can use it to keep track of word processor documents, PDF files and the like. It handles MS Word documents, pdf files (text only) and RTF files as well. It is somewhat limited in not handling Open Office files, for example, though those can be exported to rtf of pdf format.

If you do any kind of research, especially in the humanities, and want to keep your research notes in order, I definitely recommend askSam. I've found it useful for genealogy research, theological research and articles (keeping notes for my MTh dissertation and DTh thesis) and much more.

If this sounds like the sort of program you could use, you can read more about it (and download a 30-day trial version) at the askSam web site.

27 December 2007

The real origins of Christmas

At this time of the year one finds all sorts of fluff pieces in newspapers and in the blogosphere and on the web about the origins of Christmas. Most of them are not worth the effort to read, because they are so full of vague speculations and over generalisations as to be almost completely worthless.

Adventus evidently feels the same way as I do about them, and writes:
If you wade through that (as you should, if you want to know something verifiable about history), you reach this conclusion:
The present writer in inclined to think that, be the origin of the feast in East or West, and though the abundance of analogous midwinter festivals may indefinitely have helped the choice of the December date, the same instinct which set Natalis Invicti at the winter solstice will have sufficed, apart from deliberate adaptation or curious calculation, to set the Christian feast there too.
Some years ago I had the job of marking some student assignments on this very topic. The assignment was part of a missiology course at the University of South Africa. It had not been set by me, so I had to read everything on the reading list to make sure I knew where the students would be coming from. Most of the reading was articles in various respectable (peer-reviewed) theological journals. I was rather surprised to see how many unsubstantiated assertions there were in these articles, and decided to do a bit of research on my own and tried to find out when Christians began to observe the Feast of the Nativity of Christ from contemporary sources, and why they did so. And what struck me was the remarkable absence of contemporary sources.

Some of the assertions were based on wild assumptions and speculations made by 19th century scholars. Or, more often, some historian had made a tentative hypothesis, and those who cited him did so as if it had become and absolute certainty.

Eventually, in marking the assignment, I found that most of it was urging the students to use their sources critically. It appeared that many missiologists are given to speculation, and are not familiar with church history, or even secular history. And church historians are very often not aware of the missiological implications of the matter they deal with. In the matter of Christmas, many of the assertions are based on huge anachronisms, which even an elementary knowledge of history would enable people to see through.

Anyway, Adventus also seems to have got sick of these muddled speculations and has taken some pains to set the record straight, or at least straighter. It's worth reading.

26 December 2007

Catching up on the blogroll and tying threads together

December has been a somewhat broken blogging month.

A couple of weeks ago there was a storm that knocked out our phone lines for a couple of days -- a cable struck by lightning or something. No sooner had that come back than we lost web access -- run out of bandwidth again, halfway through the month! No I don't do YouTube and podcasts, so it must be someone else in the family -- perhaps my son downloading updates to his graphics program, which he's using to draw fleas.

Then it comes back, and then it's off again. Telkom has a thing that lets you buy extra bandwidth now, but it doesn't seem to work. There's a problem, they apparently didn't like my credit card, so I report the problem but there's no feedback. They simply don't reply. Later my wife tries with her credit card, and that works, so we are back on the web, but for how long I don't know.

So I try to catch up with blogs I read -- starting first by checking on visitors to my blogs who have either left comments, or who have left a record of having visited through MyBlogLog. Then I go on to my blogroll, and so eventually discover several others who have been blogging on similar topics to me, so here is some of the catchup, and linking similar threads together. Some of them have been on my other blog, Khanya, which I use for afternoon and evening blogging, since Blogger works only in the morning. If it were afternoon now, I'd be blogging this on Khanya too, but since it's before noon, I'll use Blogger while it's working.

Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery

This is a topic that has long been of interest to me, and I recently blogged about it on my Khanya blog, noting an apparent difference between Christian responses in Southern and Eastern Africa, and those in Western and Central Africa, notably in Nigeria and the DRC. And this seems to be spreading to the Western world as well, through the African disapora.

In my catchup, first through MyBlogLog and then through my blogroll, I discovered that some of my blogging friends have also been blogging on this topic:
If you're interested in the topic, those are well worth a read.

We've also been discussing it in the AIC mailing list. One things that strikes me about all this is that it seems to point to a significant divergence between Pentecostal and Neopentecostal theology, and between the attitude of Zionist and other "Spirit-type" African independent churches (AICs) on the one hand, and Neopentecostal AICs on the other.

I say "seems to point" because there does not seem to have been enough research on this topic. It's something that needs urgent attention from African and Pentecostal theology researchersbecause people are dying, and so far the reasons are mostly based on guesswork.

For me there are at least three big questions, probably more:
  1. What is the reason for the apparent differences between Eastern and Southern Africa and Western and Central Africa?
  2. What is the difference between Pentecostal/Zionist theology on the one hand, and Neopentecostal theology on the other?
  3. What is the link between Neopentecostal theology and Neoliberalism? How far have Neopentecostals bought into the Neoliberal ideology, and is Neopentecostalism simply a contextualisation of the gospel in a Neoliberal worldview (thinking of economic liberalism rather than political liberalism here).

The Golden Compass

Before the film The Golden Compass (based on Philip Pullman's novel Northern Lights) was released, there was an SMS campaign by some people in South Africa urging people to boycott the film. I blogged about this at The Golden compass -- to boycott or not to boycott. When the film was released I went to see it, and enjoyed it, but found it rather over-simplified. But once again, I've discovered some of my blogging friends had written far better reviews than I could:
The first is from a neopagan, and the second from a Christian perspective, and both are well worth reading. Lots of people have written reviews of the film, but these are two of the best.

25 December 2007

Iambic Admonit: review of "The Golden Compass"

A very good review of the film The Golden Compass, and also the books on which it is based.

Iambic Admonit:
Now, let’s move to the next phase of discussion: The Golden Compass as a film adaptation of the book.

This is definitely one of the most satisfying book-to-movie adaptations I have seen. There was a lot of plot streamlining, some character merging, and a good deal of simplification that happened in the transition process. However, these simplifications are necessary in order to adapt a novel of 350 pages into a 2 hour movie. I would have been happy had the filmmakers decided to go the Lord-of-the-Rings-three-plus-hour-epic route. The book deserved it. But I’m happy that there were no shocking plot changes (like in Frankenstein--the 1931 version, which I saw recently) or character destructions (like Faramir) or ridiculous additions (like the atrocious riding the ice scene in LWW!) or pervasive alterations of tone and emphasis (like in the beautiful new Pride & Prejudice). I have only two criticisms.

Well worth reading.

24 December 2007

Computer illiteracy rife among British civil servants

Over the last few months British news media have been reporting that government agencies have been losing computer data regularly.

The mind boggles at such a level of computer illiteracy -- have the civil servants in so many different government departments and agencies not learned of the need to make backups of important data?

clipped from news.sky.com

Thousands of confidential records belonging to NHS patients have gone missing in the latest data scandal to hit the Government.

Breaches in nine NHS trusts
Breaches in nine NHS trusts

Nine NHS trusts are now known to have lost data that was stored on either CDs or memory sticks.

Notes about 160,000 children were reportedly lost by London's City Hackney Primary Care Trust after a computer disc failed to arrive at its destination.
The losses were disclosed as police continued to hunt for two HM Revenue & Customs computer discs containing the details of 25m child benefit claimants.

blog it

I remarked on this in some genealogy newsgroups, expressing concern about various records used by genealogists and family historians, and the danger of their being lost as well. Some said that the records were not actually lost, but that it was just copies of the records that had been mislaid. But if that is so, it is the British news media that are being irresponsible, in deliberately trying to create the wrong impression. Journalists have been using computers to file stories for the last 30-40 years. I cannot believe that there is any journalist in Britain working for a major newspaper or broadcaster who does not know what "lost data" means.

But there were also reports that officials were calling on those who had applied for driving tests to contact the officials concerned to remake their appointments -- why would they be asked to do that if the data concerning their appointments had not indeed been lost?

So is it the civil servants who are computer illiterate, or the journalists, or both?

18 December 2007

Reconciliation and forgiveness

Yesterday was the Day of Reconciliation, a public holiday in South Africa. Perhaps it is one of those "happy holidays" that Americans talk about. And today I came across a quotation from Laurens van der Post's book Venture to the interior, which I first read more than 40 years ago. He wrote about the suffering in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902:
It has always been one of the more frightening ironies of Afrikaner life that people like my father, who with Smuts and Botha had fought and actually suffered in the war, could forgive and begin anew, whereas others, alive today, who were never in the heart of the conflict, can still find it so hard to forgive an injury that was not even done to them, and how can there be any real beginning without forgiveness?

I noticed something similar in my experience with War Crimes officers, who had neither suffered internment under the Japanese, nor even fought against them. They were more revengeful and bitter about our treatment and our suffering in prison than we were ourselves.

I have so often noticed that the suffering which is most difficult, if not impossible to forgive, is unreal, imagined suffering. There is no power on earth like imagination, and the worst, most obstinate grievances are imagined ones.
That passage struck me at the time, and I commented on it in my journal when I first read the book, on 4 June 1966
This seems to touch on the core of a rather big question of human behaviour, One is that we so often find it easier to forgive those who injure us than those who injure others; and this imagination business. Reading about life in Nazi Germany conjures up all sorts of horrors, but they are imaginary horrors, I have never experienced them. In South Africa there are probably the same horrors, but one gets used to them. This is why so many people emphatically deny that South Africa is a police state, because it does not fit their mental image of a police state. But Germans probably felt the same 30 years ago.

I seem to recollect Trevor Huddleston in his book Naught for your comfort saying how much harder it was to forgive things done to other people, because one can only imagine how they feel. And John Aitchison, questioning the value of Liberal Party rural meetings, because you know that you go to encourage them in the face of SB intimidation, but by going you only encourage the SB to step up their campaign of intimidation. But it is a selfish martyrdom attitude -- a sort of "I alone can bear the suffering" kick. But they too must bear their share of suffering -- we are not the ones to deny it to them. It is their privilege as members of God's kingdom.

It is so also among the Jews. The ones who keep harping on the Nazi concentration camps are not the ones who suffered there, but those whose relatives did. In a way this is the root of altruism -- a willingness to suffer for others. But it can also be selfish and self-glorifying.
That is one reason I am sceptical about demands that people should apologise today for deeds committed by other people in generations past, such as, for example, the demand by Anglican bishops that Tony Blair should apologise for the slave trade.

The same applies, of course, to recent conflicts in the Balkans, which still have repercussions today in the demand for independence for Kosovo. One of the best comments on that is at Notes from a Common-place Book: Remember the Balkans?. Perhaps the Balkans need a Day of Reconciliation.

There is another entry from my journal, though this time more recent, from an Orthodox mission conference in Athens on 6 May 2000:
The next speaker was Dr Tarek Mitri of the Patriarchate of Antioch, who spoke on Orthodoxy and other religions. He said that the many conspiratorial interpretations of the role of other religions blur the role of Orthodoxy.

These interpretations were based on the conservatism of survival, and aggravated fears of seeing Orthodoxy marginalised. Globalisation meant that there was pressure for uniformity. National government structures are less able to make decisions. Orthodoxy and Eastern culture are regarded as archaisms in the West -- there is talk of "ancestral hatred", but it is not "ancestral hatred" that is the cause of war, it is war that is the cause of "ancestral hatred". If the past does not meet the needs of the present, another past can be constructed. The more people look alike, the
more they wish to preserve their differences, and the smaller the differences, the more important they become. We are caught between the voices of homogenisation and those who advocate religion as a marker of nationalism and ethnic identity.

He suggested some preliminaries for a theological consideration of these things:

(1) respect for other religions;
(2) listen and learn;
(3) give thanks for manifestations of the Logos in other religious traditions;
(4) Pray over insurmountable differences.

The mystery of the Trinity as the answer for those who think that the Father has no Son, and those who think that the Son inevitably kills the Father. Orthodox Christians and Muslims need to seek ways of preventing the use of religious symbols in support of conflicts. Human rights: despite emphasis on their universality, they can be applied selectively. Human rights abuses are emphasised when the victims are members of our own communities, but ignored when others are victims. The contemporary discourse about religion drawing bloody borders between people is a self-fulfilling prophecy, which Orthodox Christians must resist.
It is not ancient hatreds that cause war: it is war that causes ancient hatreds. And we can overcome ancient hatreds by forgiveness and reconciliation.

17 December 2007

The ANC conference

My wife came in while I was working in my study, and said she had just seen a Sky News report on the ANC conference at Pholokwane, and ended by saying that it was very difficult to find out what Jacob Zuma stood for, and that if he ever became president, it would be a presidency more of style than of substance.

That puts it in a nutshell, I think.

Yesterday caught Thabo Mbeki's address on the radio. Not the whole two hours, but just the last half hour or so. He spoke of the movement losing its moral compass, of people who joined the ANC for personal gain and motives very different from its original ethos. Judging from the applause, he was scratching where it itches, for somo people anyway.

I don't usually listen to politicians' speeches on radio or TV -- they are usually too boring and filled with platitudes. But Mbeki spoke well. At least he has vision. One might not agree with everything in his vision, but at least he has one. But Zuma, as the TV reporter said, has style but no substance.

13 December 2007

The Santa boycott

'Tis the season to SMS boycott exhortations, it seems.

First it was the Deon Maas/Satanism affair: (see Notes from underground: Christian responses to "Satanism" and journalists who write about it). Then it was the film The Golden Compass. Now, in this month's Synchroblog, Matt Stone comments about Christmas in a pluralist society, and the demand for a politically correct Christmas, where he says:
To my way of thinking what we should be aiming for, as a democratic and pluralistic society, is not a blanding out of religious distinctiveness, but rather for the mutual respect of religious distinctiveness. I may not agree with everything Jewish or Pagan tradition stands for, or Hindu or Buddhist or Atheist for that matter, but I can surely give non-Christians space to express what they find meaningful in life in their own way. I see nothing in the New Testament that would justify compulsion.

But by the same token I feel no compulsion to water down my own tradition either, and I expect the same courtesy and respect I show to others to be returned to me.

And that reminded me of the Santa boycott, which had a huge influence on the way in which I see and celebrate Christmas.

No, not that Santa.

It was this one -- the South African National Tuberculosis Association.

It was a long time ago, when I was still at school, about 1958, I think.

Santa was (and still is) an NGO, and one of the ways that it raised funds was by selling Christmas stamps. These could be bought at post offices, and they urged people to buy them and put them on Christmas cards that they sent out. This would not only raise funds for Santa, but also publicise the work of the organisation. Its work is needed more than ever today, because TB is on the increase, as Aids weakens people's resistance to the disease.

In about 1958 their Christmas stamp showed the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus, and the Dutch Reformed Church called for a boycott of the stamps, because they depicted the Virgin Mary with a halo.

Back in those days there were no cell phones, and so one couldn't call for boycotts by SMS, so it was done by press release instead. The Afrikaans press dutifully plugged it, and the sales of Christmas stamps dropped. And, as happens today, the English press commented on how bigoted and narrow-minded it all was.

My own response at the time was to react against it.

I resolved never to buy Christmas cards that did not show a nativity scene, preferably one showing the Virgin Mary with a halo. And I began, self-consciously and deliberately, to write "Christmass" with the double-s spelling.

The people who then called for a boycott of Christmass stamps were the same elements of society who have more recently been calling for a boycott of Deon Maas and The Golden Compass, and in that respect little has changed. But as Matt Stone points out in his blog, they have now been joined by other elements.

There was a reaction from other quarters as well.

The following year the Catholic Church brought out its own Christmass stamps, with the slogan "Put Christ back into Christmas", and sold them at Catholic Churches after their services. And many Anglicans I knew also went along and bought them.

Santa, on the principle of once bitten is not twice bitten, capitualted just as Beeld did in the Deon Maas affair, and produced entirely secular Christmas stamps the following year. I don't know whether Dutch Reformed Church members started buying them again, but by then many Catholics and Anglicans were buying the "Put Christ back into Christmas" stamps instead.

I've already posted my contribution for this month's synchroblog on Redeeming the season on my other blog, and tried to avoid the culture wars, and simply describe what the season means to Orthodox Christians, reckoning that most of the other synchrobloggers would not be familiar with that

But many of the other synchrobloggers did blog, directly or indirectly, about the culture wars, and Matt Stone's contribution reminded me of this episode in the past, so I thought I'd have a second bite at the cherry and blog about it here.

And the work of Santa is still needed.

11 December 2007

The Golden Compass

Last night I went to see the film The Golden Compass, based on Philip Pullman's book Northern Lights. It's been a bit controversial, with some people urging others to boycott it, which I blogged about here. So this comment is avbout the film itself rather than whatever moral or philosophical or theological issues it raises.

One of the problems of films made from fantasy books is whether one should see them in case the film does not live up to the book. I did not see the films of Lord of the rings because I did not want the film to interfere with the pictures in my head when I read the book. I had no such problem with, for example, the Harry Potter films. Though I haven't seen them, I'd be quite happy to see the Narnia films. But not Lord of the rings.

But The Golden Compass was for the most part OK. It generally stuck fairly closely to the book. Other people who have seen it said that the bits with the armoured bears were the best, and I have to agree, and in fact those were better than the book. The armoured bears were something I liked least about the book, but worked better on film.

The beginning and the end, however, were cut short.

Perhaps the end of Northern Lights will be tagged on to the beginning of next one (The subtle knife) if it is made.

But the beginning was cut so short as to be confusing. The explanation that it was not taking place in our world, but in one of many possible parallel universes was OK, but the explanation of Dust at the beginning was a bit of a spoiler. Not that it should make much difference, though. One of the things that hooks the reader is that "Dust" is something of a mystery, and one goes on reading to find out more about it, and one of the disappointments is that Pullman never really explains it.

The emphasis on the aletheiometer and the explanation of it as a "golden compass" of the title of the film also seems to oversimplify the plot in the film. Perhaps that is inevitable in the transfer from book to film, but when the plot was a bit tjhin in the first place it seems a pity to oversimplify it further.

10 December 2007

Pies, tarts and Synchroblog

Sweet Violet, an American living in South Africa, writes about the difference between American and South African Christmas customs: A View from the Other Side: Christmas on the Other Side

One of the things that comes up in the discussion is the difference between pies and tarts. To me the distinction is that a pie always has a pastry crust on top, whereas a tart does not. In America, it seems, the difference has something to do with size. So we have milk tart (which is a kind of custard tart, or a jam tart, and quiche is a variety of tart. But mince pies are pies, even if made of fruit mince rather than flesh meat.

South Africans do sometimes confuse them, though, especially those for whom English is a second language. A lawyer friend once told me of a judge, who, in sentencing a recently-convicted accused, said "He had a finger in every tart in town."

Sweet Violet also mentioned turkeys, which she said were not part of South African Christmas celebrations. My memory is different, but perhaps because I grew up on a smallholding in Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg, where we had chickens, ducks and turkeys. We always had turkey for Christmas (and sometimes sold them to our customers for that purpose).

In recent years years, however, turkeys have been more difficult to find. I attribute this to the Rainbow chicken boom of the 1960s, when traditional poultry farms were replaced by battery hens, initially near Camperdown, Natal, but later all over the country. Turkeys didn't fit the pattern, and demand was seasonal, so it was probably uneconomic to raise turkeys.

One could still get turkeys in supermarkets, though, but they were imported from America. I had visions of all the supermarkets in the USA bundling up their unsold turkeys on the day after Thanksgiving, and airfreighting them to Pick 'n Pay in time for Christmas. They came wrapped in plastic, and the label proclaimed them as "self-basting", which made me wonder what kind of sinister genetic modifications had been carried out on them!

Talking about Christmas reminds me of this month's Synchroblog, with the theme Redeeming the season. As Phil Wyman writes:
Redeeming the Season is the Topic for this month's SynchroBlog. Now there are a variety of seasons being celebrated at the end of each year from Christmas to Hannukah to Eid al-Adha and Muharram, from the Winter Solstice to Kwanzaa and Yule. Some people celebrate none of these seasonal holydays, and do so for good reason. Below is a variety of responses to the subject of redeeming the season. From the discipline of simplicity, to uninhibited celebration, to refraining from celebrating, to celebrating another's holyday for the purpose of identificational evangelism the subject is explored.

This is a kind of anniversary , the first one having been held in December 2006, at the instigation of Phil Wyman and John Smulo, when a group of us blogged on the theme of "Syncretism.

This month's synchroblog is on the theme of "Redeeming the season", and here are the links to the posts:

Swords into Plowshares at Sonja Andrew's Calacirian
Fanning the Flickering Flame of Advent at Paul Walker's Out of the Cocoon
Lainie Petersen at Headspace
Eager Longing at Elizaphanian
The Battle Rages at Bryan Riley's Charis Shalom
Secularizing Christmas at JohnSmulo.com
There's Something About Mary at Hello Said Jenelle
Geocentric Versus Anthropocentric Holydays at Phil Wyman's Square No More
Celebrating Christmas in a Pluralistic Society at Matt Stone's Journeys in Between
The Ghost of Christmas Past at Erin Word's Decompressing Faith
Redeeming the season -- season of redemption by Steve Hayes
Remembering the Incarnation at Alan Knox' The Assembling of the Church
A Biblical Response to a Secular Christmas by Glenn Ansley's Bad Theology
Happy Life Day at The Agent B Files
What's So Bad About Christmas? at Julie Clawson's One Hand Clapping

08 December 2007

Facebook - caution or conspiracy?

I've already commented that I've found Facebook too much to cope with Notes from underground: I can't face Facebook any more!. Since they introduced third-party apps it changed from being a useful tool into a burden and a distraction and I now look at it maybe once a fortnight or less often.

Then Anja Merret blogged about it, pointing out that the terms of service implied that you virtually relinquished copyright to anything you posted on Facebook, so that if, for example, a professional photographer posted some of their work on Facebook, Facebook could use it for advertising, selling or anything else. Several commentators said or implied that Anja Merret was succumbing to conspiracy theories and that the threat to privacy on social networking sites like Facebook was overrated, but it seems that Syria takes these threats seriously, and has banned Facebook, seeing it as too vulnerable to Israeli espionage.

When Facebook started, it became popular because it did one thing, and did it well. It was a tool for students in tertiary educational institutions to keep in touch with their friends. The first time I tried to join it I wasn't allowed. Retired staff members of such institutions simply weren't eligible.

Then Facebook opened to the general public. It had some uses, but it also had some severe shortcomings. One of the shortcomings was the idea of "networks", which worked fine when it was limited to academic institutions -- one could limit a group discussion forum to members of a particular institution, for example. But when it was opened to the general public, the concept needed to be rethought, and it hasn't been. If, for example, one wants to have a group for the South Africa network, members of the Pretoria network can't join it The Pretoria network should be part of the South Africa network, the smaller being part of the large, but on Facebook it isn't.

Some people got carried away by Facebook. Some members of the rec.arts.books newsgroup on Usenet migrated to a Facebook group called "The prancing half-wits", which deprived the newsgroup of some of its best contributors, and made much of their discussion inaccessible. As a medium newsgroups are far better for interactive communication than web forums (even though they were originally intended for one-to-many communication rather than many-to-many), because navigating to the forum on Facebook is a much more complicated process, and there are too many distractions along the way. I check newsgroups at least once a day, but the Facebook forums I look at once in six months, if that often.

But the rot really set in when Facebook allowed third-party applications.

This diffused things too much, and instead of making it easier to keep in touch, made it more difficult. For example, there are several apps for recording books you have read. The result is that you may have several bookloving friends, each using a different app. Instead of keeping in touch, you are separated. But they will all invite you to join their app, so if you do, you would have to enter each book you read six times. I gave up. I'd rather use Bibliophil or LibraryThing for that. Their approach is to do one thing and do it well, rather than Facebook's clumsy and cumbersome "one size fits all".

Others are also jumping on to the social networking bandwagon. Plaxo, which was a synchronised address book tool, has expanded into a social network, and may do it better than Facebook, though their interface is a bit slow. But if there are too many social networks, things are likely to become just as diffused as when there are too many books applications on one of them. I still prefer Tribe.net, though it didn't take off like Facebook.

And for interactive communications, mailing lists and newsgroups still remain more effective than web forums, whether hosted by Facebook or anyone else. Even blogs are better in some ways for that. It's much easier to find what people have posted on blogs than to find what they have posted in Facebook forums.

05 December 2007

Green Hannukia campaign sparks ire

There is a campaign to persuade Jewish families to light fewer Hanukka candles in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

I wonder if that will spread to Orthodox Churches, which burn large numbers of candles at every service.

But the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from those is probably infinitesimal compared with what is emitted in cremations. Save the environment -- close the crematoria!
clipped from www.jpost.com

In a campaign that has spread like wildfire across the Internet, a group of Israeli environmentalists is encouraging Jews around the world to light at least one less candle this Hanukka to help the environment.

The founders of the Green Hanukkia campaign found that every candle that burns completely produces 15 grams of carbon dioxide. If an estimated one million Israeli households light for eight days, they said, it would do significant damage to the atmosphere.

"The campaign calls for Jews around the world to save the last candle and save the planet, so we won't need another miracle," said Liad Ortar, the campaign's cofounder, who runs the Arkada environmental consulting firm and the Ynet Web site's environmental forum. "Global warming is a milestone in human evolution that requires us to rethink how we live our lives, and one of the main paradigms of that is religion and how it fits into the current situation."

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Blogger: now mornings only

It seems that Blogger is now "mornings only".

If one posts after noon, the time of the post reverts to 12 hours earlier. If you have already posted a blog entry in the morning, the afternoon post appears after it, out of order.

For a while it was possible to correct this manually, for example by clicking on "Post Options" and entering the time as, say 18:15 instead of 06:15, but now if one does that it says one must enter the time as hh:mm. Never mind that 18:15 IS hh:mm -- one simply cannot get the correct time stamp on a blog posting, so afternoon posts appear out of order in the blog, and also don't show up on blog aggregators.

Yet another reason to switch to WordPress, I suppose.

03 December 2007

Chavez loses Venezuelan reform referendum

One of the disturbing things about President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is his publicly expressed support for Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. And it was when Mugabe lost a referendum over constitutional changes that would have increased his powers and extended his term of office indefinitely that his regime of repression really began in Zimbabwe.

One hopes that Chavez does not follow Mugabe's example.

clipped from www.presstv.ir
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has conceded defeat in a referendum that aimed at expanding his power, saying he cannot do it for now.

Chavez admitted his defeat in a weekend referendum in a media conference broadcast live Sunday.

"I don't feel sad, no, I don't feel sad," he said, stressing that there were "minimal differences" in the final result, put at 51 percent against and 49 percent in favor moments earlier by the National Electoral Council.

The reforms would let Chavez run for re-election indefinitely, control foreign currency reserves, appoint loyalists over regional elected officials, and censor the media if he declares an emergency.

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Books to read before you die

British librarians have compiled as list of 30 books to read before you die. I find I have read 19 of them, but I don't agree with some of their choices.
according to Britain's librarians, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird is the book that everyone should read.
The Pulitzer prize-winning classic has topped a World Book Day poll conducted by the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), in which librarians around the country were asked the question, "Which book should every adult read before they die?"
To Kill a Mocking Bird heads an odd triumvirate at the top of the librarians' list: it is followed by the Bible and, in third place, the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Bible
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien
1984 by George Orwell
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
All Quite on the Western Front by E M Remarque
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

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The ones I've read are:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Bible
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien
1984 by George Orwell
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn

Started but did not finish:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran

Haven't read:

All Quite [sic] on the Western Front by E M Remarque
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Tess of the D'urbevilles by Thomas Hardy
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Middlemarch by George Eliot
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

I also disagree with some of the librarians' choices - here's a quick off-the top of my head fiction list, without thinking about all the books I've read:

The place of the lion Williams, Charles.
The weirdstone of Brisingamen Garner, Alan.
The greater trumps Williams, Charles.
The moon of Gomrath Garner, Alan.
Lord of the Rings Tolkien, J.R.R.
War in heaven Williams, Charles.
The Dharma bums Kerouac, Jack.
The time traveler's wife Niffenegger, Audrey.
Asta's book Vine, Barbara.
Gulliver's travels Swift, Jonathan.
The hobbit Tolkien, J.R.R.
Piece of my heart Robinson, Peter.
Cat's cradle Vonnegut, Kurt.
Corn dolls Lennon, Patrick.
Harry Potter and the philosopher's stone Rowling, J.K.
Descent into Hell Williams, Charles.
The Eyre affair fforde, Jasper.
The echo Walters, Minette.
Harry Potter and the chamber of secrets Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter and the half-blood prince Rowling, J.K.
All Hallows' Eve Williams, Charles.
Northanger Abbey Austen, Jane.
A high wind in Jamaica Hughes, Richard.
The nine tailors Sayers, Dorothy L.
Brideshead revisited Waugh, Evelyn.
Heartsease Dickinson, Peter.
Lost in a good book fforde, Jasper.
The talisman King, Stephen & Straub, Peter.

Those are just books I like, and not necessarily ones I think everyone should read before they die (the Harry Piotter ones, for example), and there are others I like that are not on the list.

Among children's books, for example, I think Alan Garner is far, far better than His dark materials, and would add his Elidor to the list as well.

The master and Margarita, The poisonwood Bible, and The curious incident of the dog in the night time are ones I've read and enjoyed, but I wouldn't say everyone should read them before they die.

I'd put the Alice books by Lewis Carroll above The master and Margarita. I'd certainly recommend that missiologists should read The poisonwood Bible, but there are other much better books for general readers.

Hat-tip to Iambic Admonit for the link. And you will find some more suggestions there, including another list, of which I've read 29.

02 December 2007

CIA overthrowing democracy in Venezuela?

hope the CIA keep their sticky beaks out of Venezuela's business.

I'd sympathise with Chavez but for one thing -- he publicly supported Mugabe, and many of his sympathizers also publicly support Mugabe. And anyone who knows what is going on in Zimbabwe and supports Mugabe is no friend of democracy.
In Venezuela, tens of thousands of protesters marched through Caracas Thursday to oppose constitutional changes proposed by President Chavez that come to a vote on Sunday. Citing a confidential memo, the Venezuelan government is claiming the CIA is fomenting unrest to challenge the referendum.
It actually mentions the fact that the US strategy is what they call a “pincer operation.”
to try to undermine the electoral process, the vote itself, and then secondly, once the vote goes through, if they are not able to stop the vote, is to engage in a massive campaign calling fraud and rejecting the outcome that comes from the election
what they seem to have on their agenda is to try to seize either a territorial base or an institutional base around which to rally discontented citizens and call on the military—and it particularly mentions the National Guard—to rally in overthrowing the referendum outcome and the government. So this does include a section on a military uprising.
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01 December 2007

Entities in the land of echoes

I recently finished reading an interesting novel, Land of echoes by Daniel Hecht. It is a kind of ghost story, based on beliefs of the Navajo people in the south-western USA.

One thing I found strange and rather off-putting, however, was that the author kept referring to the ghost as an "entity". It seemed an odd sort of word to use in the context of the story. Apart from its use by database fundis, I've only seen "entity" used with such frequency in American atheist polemics. I wonder if "entity" has a meaning in American English that it doesn't have elsewhere.

One of the things I found interesting about the book, however, was that the plot revolves around possession by an ancestral spirit, the Navajo term for which is chindi.

At the moment I'm busy editing a book that deals with similar phenomena in Zimbabwe, where Shona-speaking people are often troubled by ngozi spirits. These are angry or vengeful spirits with a grudge, and could include the spirit of a murdered person, the spirit of a servant who was not paid, or the spirit of a relative who had been wronged, such as a mother who had been wronged by her children or a husband or wife who died unhappy.

This is not confined to Zimbabwe, however. A few months ago a woman I know told me of her half-sister and her daughter who were murdered by burglars who broke into their house. A few weeks later one of the murderers confessed to her, saying he could not sleep because the spirit of the murdered woman was haunting him, and she went to the police and the four murderers were arrested.

The parallels go even further, however. The book is a study of Christian healing ministries in Zimbabwe. One Christian healer in particular uses methods very similar to those of traditional (pagan) healers, and also very similar to those described in Land of echoes. This is the method of reverse possession, where the healer allows herself to become possessed by the spirit that is afflicting the victim, and the victim's family then engage in dialogue with the spirit (now inhabiting the healer). When the healer "returns" from this state, she offers prayers, but has to be told what happened while she was under the influence of the ngozi spirit.

While many Christian healers, especially those in African independent churches, have ways of dealing with the various kinds of evil spirits that people in local cultures believe in, very few seem to adopt this method of dealing with them.

I won't say too much about Hecht's novel, as I don't want to include spoilers for those who haven't read it. I found it improved towards the end. At the beginning, apart from the strange and frequent use of "entity", I was also put off by something that had annoyed me about The da Vinci code -- supposed experts who seemed remarkably ignorant of their own supposed field of expertise. In this case it was a parapsychologist who seemed to be ignorant of the phenomenon of "possession". But once those hurdles were over, it was quite an interesting story.

I'd be interested in knowing of any other instances of Christian healing ministries dealing with the same phenomenon, and how they deal with it.


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