31 March 2011

Geoff Moorgas RIP

I've just learned of the death of an old friend. Geoff Moorgas died on Saturday 26 March 2011, according to a brief message just received from another old friend, Mark Ramsden. Both Geoff and Mark were originally from Durban, and both were recently living near Oxted in Surrey, England.

I first met Geoff when, as a student in Pietermaritzburg, I visited some friends in Durban one weekend and went to a gathering of Durban Anglican Youth (DAY), on 4 August 1963, where young people from parishes all over Durban gathered for a kind of sports day. We first went to a service at St Raphael's Church in Sydenham, which was then one of the High Church parishes of Durban, and it was followed by hockey and soccer matches between the various parishes. Geoff Moorgas was one of the organisers.

I didn't really get to know him until 1969, when I was living in Durban, and, at the urging of Beyers Naudé, had formed some Christian Institute youth groups. Geoff became involved in these, and mentioned at one meeting that he had been asked by a group of young people in the parish of Greenwood Park to help them form a band. He agreed, and helped them to get instruments and became their manager. Then I was asked by the priest at St Columba's, Greenwood Park, to lead a couple of services there while he was on leave. He said they didn't have traditional Anglican Evensong, but had, with the permission of the bishop, "experimental services." I asked if would be ok if the Christian Institute youth groups got involved in planning and leading the services. He agreed, so we got the band youngsters to take part as well, but they were not accomplished musicians and it took a great deal of practising in Geoff's house to get them ready for the service, which was also their first public gig.

One result of the service (which you can read about at Notes from underground: Psychedelic Christian Worship -- thecages if you are interested) was that I got fired by the Anglican bishop of Natal and lost touch with Geoff again for a while when I went to Namibia. Three years later I saw Geoff again, after being deported from Namibia and banned to Durban, but he was then very busy running a shoe factory, so I did not see a great deal of him.

Several years later I heard from Geoff again -- a letter arrived out of the blue, saying that he was in Namibia -- an Anglican priest in Luderitz. He wanted to live a monastic or semi-monastic life, but he suffered from ill-health and went to England, where he lived as a hermit of sorts, and Mark Ramsden, whom I had known from Durban North days, visited him a few times.

It would be good it people who knew Geoff write some of their memories of him as comments.

May his memory be eternal.

28 March 2011

Death of a serial killer

Is it a case of life imitating art, or is it an illustration of the adage "You can't make this stuff up"?

Sacto 9-1-1: Dorothea Puente, Sacramento's infamous landlady killer dies:
Dorothea Puente, the notorious F Street landlady convicted of killing her tenants and burying them in her backyard, died Sunday, state corrections officials said.

Puente, 82, had been seriously ill for months, and was transferred from the Central California Women's Facility near Chowchilla to an outside hospital in September 2010.

Even in a city with no shortage of infamous and gruesome murders, the Puente case stands out.

She was a sweet-looking, grandmotherly woman who ran a boarding house out of a rented two-story Victorian at 1426 F Street.

Puente began the business in 1980, renting out the top floor of the home, but she was sent to prison for three years for drugging her elderly tenants and stealing checks from them.

I wonder if she got the idea from Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring. I saw the film many years ago, and had always thought the book was written by Agatha Christie until I looked it up.

27 March 2011

Book Review: The Snowman by Nesbø

The SnowmanThe Snowman by Jo Nesbø

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came to this book after reading The Leopard by the same author, which I found disappointing. My wife bought it, and I wasn't particularly keen to read it, as I thought it might be similarly disappointing, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was vintage Jo Nesbø, except perhaps for the last couple of chapters.

Oslo detective Harry Hole is asked to investigate the case of a missing woman with his new partner Katrine Bratt, who urges him to check older unsolved cases in Bergen that seem to have some similarities. When a second missing woman is found murdered, it seems that a serial killer may be at work.

Towards the end, however, the story shows the same descent into the improbable that characterises The Leopard throughout, and the figure of the boozy Scandiwegian detective seems well on its way to becoming a literary cliche. Perhaps this is because Nesbø's publishers have taken to hyping him as "the next Stieg Larsson", which is a pity, because Nesbø writes better as Nesbø than as a faux Stieg Larsson.

View all my reviews

21 March 2011

District 9 versus Avatar

Last year I blogged about two science fiction films that had been nominated for Oscars: Oscar battle: District 9 versus Avatar |Khanya, though in the end neither of them won and the winner was a film that had a meaningless (to me) title The hurt locker.

I had seen District 9 when it was first released, and blogged about it here, but had not seen Avatar until it was shown on TV a couple of nights ago, so now, for the first time, I'm in a position to compare them, though I should probably watch District 9 again, as it's 18 months since I saw it.

I hadn't realised that Avatar was satire until I saw it. Most of the descriptions I'd read suggested it was a kind of parable of colonialism, and that while it was science fiction, and so broadly in the same genre as District 9 I didn't realise how directly comparable they were.

I enjoyed Avatar, but I think District 9 was better.

In District 9 the satire works at multiple levels, not least because it satirises the genre itself. In one scene, where the protagonist Wikus van der Merwe is driving a robocop-type machine, it could even be satirising Avatar. In District 9 there are no good guys, there are wheels within wheels and plots within plots and the satire is liberally splashed on everyone.

Spoiler altert - if you haven't seen Avatar, what follows gives away the plot

Avatar, by contrast, is much more simple. It is like an old-fashioned Western, where the white hats fight the black hats, and the white hats always win.

The plot can be summarised in one sentence: Redskins fight Palefaces; Redskins win and send Palefaces home.

Only in this case the redskins are blue, and "home" is another planet.

In District 9 the aliens are stranded on earth, in an anything but beautiful environment. In Avatar the earthlings themselves are the aliens, out to rape the planet of its mineral wealth and exterminate any natives that get in their way. The natives, Na'vi, live in a beautiful environment that the alien earthlings destroy, and it is an environment that earthlings cannot even live in. They can only enter it by creating remotely controlled avatars, using alien DNA - another parallel with District 9, where Wikus van der Merwe becomes contaminated with alien DNA, which makes him a desirable property to corporate and Nigerian gangsters.

On another level Avatar has parallels with C.S. Lewis's novel Out of the silent planet, which has the same theme of science and high finance in an uneasy partnership to exploit another planet, Malacandra (Mars). In Lewis's book the natives have a similar relationship to a planetary deity, the Oyarsa, as the Na'vi in Avatar have with their deity Eywa. But Out of the silent planet doesn't end with the same shoot-'em-up scenes as Avatar.

Avatar is entertaining and has a moral message, and no doubt deserved the Oscar it got for special effects, but it falls a long way short of District 9

17 March 2011

I'm an Aristotelean and didn't know it

My Philosophy Guru | Mark Vernon:

Your recommended philosophy-guru is ARISTOTLE.

Key fact: The star pupil of Plato.

Must have: A desire to study the world and see what it reveals.

Key promise: The good life, which comes from living a virtuous life.

Key peril: The virtuous life can be tough.

Most likely to say: 'Everything has its proper place.'

Least likely to say: 'Science is where humanity went wrong.'"

Hat-tip to The Stroppy Rabbit: Zeno of Citium

Find out who your ancient Greek guru is.

Rob Bell go to hell

It sounds like the kind of chant that could be used by street demonstrators and protesters, like "Turkish troops: out of Cyprus" -- "Rob Bell: go to hell". Lots of my Protestant blogging friends have been writing about the tizwoz in the blogosphere that has greeted the publication of a book on hell by a fellow called Rob Bell. Julie Clawson, it seems, was one of the few who had actually read the book before writing about it at Love Wins – A Review | onehandclapping:
Whether it was a brilliant marketing strategy or just a sad reflection of the charged atmosphere of Christian dialogue these days, one cannot deny that Rob Bell’s latest book Love Wins has stirred up a load of controversy before it has even hit the shelves. As a book claiming the daunting task of being “A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” the uproar was understandable although disappointingly cruel at times. For some reason many Christians hold to the notion that where we go when we die is the most important aspect of our faith and thus get rather up in arms when people even dare to open that topic up for conversation. Bell deftly addresses the need to re-prioritize what is central to our faith, but more on that in a moment. Let me first get the controversial stuff out of the way.

Tall Skinny Kiwi: Who has the skinny on hell? notes that "'Farewell Rob Bell' has probably become the most famous Christian tweet of all time". Then there's Stoking The Religious Fires With Rob Bell by Jonathan Brink. And so it goes.

I'm not going to add to the blog posts about the book because I haven't read it, and on the subject of Hell I have little to say other that what I have already said in two other blog posts at Hell became afraid and Go to Hell! | Khanya.

So why am I writing this?

It is mainly because I went back to read those two previous posts as a result the flurry of posts about this book, and was struck by some of the comments on the second of them.

I had noted that in the New Testament when Jesus talks about going to hell he does so mainly in the context of wealth accumulation and redistribution. Specifically, he teaches that those who accumulate wealth and fail to redistribute it are going to hell (in the parables of the sheep and the goats at the last judgment, and the rich man and Lazarus). Yet this emphasis seems to be lacking in the blog posts of those who seem to be most upset by Rob Bell's alleged threat to the doctrine of hell.

And a lot of the commenters on the post at Go to Hell! | Khanya seemed to be obssessed with a point that seem (to me at least) quite peripheral to the parables. For them the question of whether or not Lazarus got health care was unimportant. And whether he got it or didn't get from the rich man or from the dogs was unimportant. The really important point was that it should not come from the government. This, it seems, is the first and greatest commandment, which supersedes the law, the prophets, the Fathers of the Church, and indeed the gospel itself.

They seemed to regard any use by "the government" of tax-funded resources to relieve suffering as the worst possible form of theft.

And that led me to thinking about the recent earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand. Various governments of various countries offered to send help, and many of the "search and rescue" teams looking for survivors were government funded. US president Barack Obama even offered the services of a US government-funded aircraft carrier that happened to be in the vicinity of Japan.

Some of those who have offered and provided help are NGOs, and therefore, one hopes, not stigmatised with the "theft" accusations in their effort to rescue and help survivors. Such, for example are Rescue SA to search for survivors - Times LIVE:
The South African search and rescue team that left for Japan last night will have the grim task of helping to search for survivors in the devastated town of Ishinomaki.

Half of the town, with a population of about 16500, was engulfed by the tsunami triggered by Friday's earthquake. The town is 60km north of Sendai and 100km west of the quake's epicentre.

I just hope they don't use government funded helicopters in their work!

And then there is International Orthodox Christian Charities:
International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) has been in contact with the Holy Autonomous Orthodox Church in Japan and our ACT Alliance partners to assess the emerging needs following the massive earthquake and tsunami which devastated north eastern Japan on March 11. IOCC is also reaching out to the Metropolis of Korea which is also the Exarchate for Japan under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. As the Orthodox Church in Japan works to assess the needs of survivors, it reports that one priest in Tohoku, Japan is missing.

'Most of the church buildings in Tohoku parish along the Pacific coast are severely damaged and one priest is missing,' reports Fr. Demitrios Tanaka of the Holy Autonomous Orthodox Church in Japan. 'However, we confirmed that the clergy of Sendai Orthodox Church, including Bishop Seraphim, are safe.'

13 March 2011

Dropbox - Online backup, file sync, and sharing made easy.

Various of my friends have invited me to join Dropbox - Online backup, file sync, and sharing made easy..

Unfortunately, when I go to the site, I'm, invited to "watch a video".

I don't want to "watch a video. I never watch videos on my computer because:
  1. They hog bandwidth
  2. They are jerky and incomprehensible and annoying
So can anyone tell me in plain language what Dropbox does, and why I should join it?

I've already received a notification from my ISP that I've used 80% of my monthly bandwidth (and the month isn't half gone yet), so I'm not going to watch a video when I know that I'll have to hear a second's incomprehensible sound, and wait ten seconds for the next bit to load and then watch another second. And find I've wasted all my bandwidth on such junk.

12 March 2011

Urban Joburg: Japan in Brixton

A few weeks ago the Parktown Heritage Society went walkabout in Brixton, Johannesburg, and about 60 people trooped into our church and we explained something of the history of it to them.

Now one of them has blogged about it, with pictures, and there's even a picture of our car in it. Urban Joburg: Japan in Brixton:
On the 5th of February 2011 I joined the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust for a tour of the Joburg suburb of Brixton, as conducted by the very knowledgeable and affable Alex Parker. Brixton, like many of Joburg's suburbs, is absolutely fascinating, with a tumultuous history and some beautiful old houses. It currently is a little rough around the edges (i.e. not Sandown), but there is a great community spirit evident in the suburb, who really take pride in the inclusivity of their suburb.

09 March 2011

Anatomy of exile

This month's synchroblog, in the week in which Lent begins, is on Experiences in the wilderness. March Synchroblog – Experiences In The Wilderness – 3/9/2011 | synchroblog:
During the season of Lent we are reminded that all of us experience wilderness times in our lives – times of searching, of mourning, of anticipating, of waiting, of watching, of unknowing, of struggling, of preparation. Join us during the season of Lent for this month’s synchroblog as we reflect and share insights and thoughts about “Experiences In The Wilderness”.

As I look back on my life I can recall several experiences that could be said to be experiences of the wilderness, some literal, some figurative.
I won't go into all the details of all these now; for the sake of those who might be interested, I've linked a couple of them to other posts that give some more details.

The first, flight into exile in the UK, was not a real wilderness experience, though it felt like it at the time. I had finished my BA degree at the University of Natal, and was working as a bus driver in Johannesburg to try to raise money for postgraduate study in the UK. I needed to be in the UK at the end of September, but in January a man from the Security Police phoned me and wanted to see me. I thought he was either going to give me a banning order, or confiscate my passport, so I scarpered the same night, driving to Bulawayo and catching a plane to London from there. When I got back two-and-a-half years later they came and confiscated my passport. It wasn't really exile, but it felt like it because of the sudden and unexpected parting from friends and family and arriving in a strange country with no money and no job. I felt, in a very mild way, what refugees must feel like.

The last, churchlessness, was when we left the Anglican Church in 1985, and asked to join the Orthodox Church, which entailed writing a letter to the bishop. The bishop referred the letter to the Pope, who said he must refer it to the Holy Synod, but then died before the Holy Synod could consider it. The Anglican Church sent a lawyer after me, who unfairly and unjustly accused me of stealing church property, and was extremely nasty about it. So we were left in a kind of ecclesiastical wilderness, and at times both Val and I entertained thoughts of going up to the railway line that runs over the road from us and throwing ourselves under a passing train. Neither of us told the other about these thoughts until long afterwards; it was definitely a spiritual wilderness experience.

After being deported from Namibia I read a book called The anatomy of exile: a semantic and historical study, and though I can now remember very little of what it said, it made me reflect on the experience of exile, and to realise that what I missed most was not so much places, as people.

But in Lent, and especially in the first week of Lent, we are reminded that all our earthly experiences of exile are actually pointers to a larger exile, and the hymns of the church focus on the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.

In Western theology there is the idea of dwelling in the Land of Unlikeness, where we have lost the likeness of God in which we were created.

In the Orthodox Church we have the picture of of Adam weeping at the gates of Paradise and lamenting:

The Word of God the Father,
begotten before the ages,
in the latter times willed to be incarnate of the Virgin
and endured crucifixion unto death.
He has saved mortal man//
by His Resurrection.

v. (6) If You, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You.

Tone 6 (from the Lenten Triodion)

The Lord took a handful of dust from the earth.
He breathed into it, and created me, a living man.
He made me lord and master of all things on earth;
truly I enjoyed the life of the Angels.
But Satan the deceiver tempted me in the guise of a serpent;
I ate the forbidden fruit and forfeited the glory of God.
Now I have been delivered to the earth through death.//
O my compassionate Lord, call me back to Eden!

v. (5) For Your name's sake I have waited for You, O Lord, my soul has waited for Your word; my soul has hoped on the Lord.

When the Enemy tempted me,
I disobeyed Your command, O Lord.
I exchanged the glory of my mortal body for shame and nakedness.
Now I must wear garments of skins and fig-leaves;
I am condemned to eat the bread of bitter hardship in the sweat of my
The earth is cursed and brings forth thorns and husks for me.
O Lord, You took on flesh from the Virgin in the fullness of time;//
call me back and restore me to Eden!

v. (4) From the morning watch until night, from the morning watch, let Israel hope on the Lord!

O Paradise, garden of delight and beauty,
dwelling-place made perfect by God,
unending gladness and eternal joy,
the hope of the Prophets and the home of the saints,
by the music of your rustling leaves beseech the Creator of all
to open the gates which my sins have closed,
that I may partake of the Tree of Life and Grace,//
which was given to me in the beginning!

v. (3) For with the Lord there is mercy and with Him is plenteous redemption, and He will deliver Israel from all his iniquities.
This post is part of a Synchroblog, in which several bloggers post articles on the same general theme. This month's theme is "Experiences in the Wilderness", and here are some other blog posts on the theme.

Who won the Cold War?

Who won the Cold War? In a book I read recently, Book review: A history of the English-speaking peoples | Khanya the author was in no doubt that Maggie Thatcher and Ronnie Reagan "won" the Cold War, but the author's worldview was utterly anachonistic, and can only be described as neojingoism.

Clarissa takes a somewhat different view of it in Clarissa's Blog: Who Caused the Collapse of the Soviet Union? Part I:
Nothing annoys me more than hearing people discuss completely in earnest whether the collapse of the Soviet Union was brought about by Ronald Reagan or by somebody else. Such discussions make just as much sense as trying to figure out whether world peace was achieved by this or some other politician. 'Well, there is no world peace,' you'd say. Right you are. And there was no collapse of the Soviet Union. Not in any meaningful sense, that is. As to the end of the Cold War, if you seriously think it's over, you need to stop spending so much time listening to the American media and turn to some external sources of information every once in a while. The winner of the Cold War is yet to be decided but I somehow doubt that you can win any war by pretending it isn't taking place.

I think her whole article is worth reading, though I disagree with the premiss that the Cold War is continuing.

To that extent I agree with the late Samuel Huntington, who said that the Cold War was primarily a clash of ideologies, while what we are seeing in the post-Cold War world is a clash of civilizations.

One of the relics of the Cold War is the term "Third World", which still seems to persist, though its meaning seems to have changed, or rather dissipated. The "three worlds" view of geopolitics was composed of
  • First World: the capitalist world
  • Second World: the communist world
  • Third World: the non-aligned states
The Third World was founded by India, Indonesia and Yugoslavia, and Yugoslavia was the only Third-World state in Europe, and, in a sense, its disintegration, like that of the Soviet Union, marks the end of the Cold War.

If the Cold War was a war of ideologies, as Huntington says, then one could say that Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher "won" the Cold War, because their brand of free marketism is the dominant religion in the world today. That is where Huntington got it wrong; he posits Western Christianity as the religion of Western Civilization. It isn't. Free Marketism is.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Bolshevik rule in Russia is a somewhat different matter. By Brezhnev's time, if not before, faith in communism had grown cold. The leaders of the ruling Communist Party uttered all the old slogans, but the conviction had gone out of them. All that was left was a clinging to power, and, as Clarissa points out, the most powerful men in Russia today resemble nothing so much as the Vicar of Bray.

04 March 2011

British Airways: world's worst airline?

Not only does British Airways's customer relations leave much to be desired, it seems that they offer some unpleasant extras in the way of in-flight service too.

BA Bites!:
This small site was built after two horrendous flights taken in January and February of 2011 on British Airways. During the first, I turned on my light to find bugs crawling on my blanket and a bedbug-blood-spattered shirt. On the return journey, I left my 10-hour flight to find my body covered with 90 bug bites. The worst part was the nonexistent customer service throughout the 10-day ordeal.

I vowed never to fly British Airways after our daughter was stranded in London with no money when British Airways would not allow her to board her flisht to Athens, because the paper extending her residence permit was written in Greek. She usually flew with Olympic Airways, but thought it might be a pleasant change to go via London instead, but it proved to be a very unpleasant one.

And friends who were stranded in London because of snow storms last December report that the few inches of snow on the runways were the least of the problems.

British Airways cannot process re-bookings at their Heathrow counters. You have to do it by phone or online. Within an hour or so, both the BA phone system and their online site had crashed due to overwhelming demand. I am fairly certain their in-house IT systems also crashed, because agents at the counters were able to provide no information.

The next day (we slept on the floor of the terminal) was even worse. There were thousands of people standing in queues for every imaginable thing. Nothing could be done, because there were no scheduled flights. I bought a cell phone, called my sister in Cape Town, and told her to rebook us. I stood in line for three hours to find an hotel in London, and we left the airport. I could not contact BA until the next Wednesday, neither by phone nor online. We did not get out of London until Christmas night.

What was supposed to be an overlay of a few hours for a connecting flight became an eight day ordeal.

When the airport did start operating again, most departing flights were half empty. Since the IT systems were down, they could not match passengers to flights. And, many flights were canceled because planes were in the wrong places.

Heathrow had to be rebooted. It was not simply a matter of clearing a few inches of snow from the runways.

02 March 2011

Banned books return to shelves in Egypt and Tunisia

Like many other people, I've been wondering which way the "velvet revolutions" in Egypt and Tunisia were going to turn. In some places, like Iran, the overthrow of the Shah brought a regime with greater repression. In Egypt the army is now (or one could say still) in control, but there are some straws in the wind that give hope:

Banned books return to shelves in Egypt and Tunisia | Books | guardian.co.uk:
Anecdotal reports are also emerging of once suppressed titles appearing for impromptu sale on street corners and newspaper kiosks across Egypt. Salwa Gaspard of joint English/Arabic language publisher Saqi Books said accounts in the Arabic press told of books that had been hidden for years in private basements now once more seeing the light of day.

Cairo is also to hold a book fair in Tahrir Square – the focus for protests against former president Hosni Mubarak – at the end of March, according to Trevor Naylor of the American University of Cairo Press bookshop, which is based in the square. Naylor told the Bookseller that the event had been planned in the wake of the cancelled Cairo Book Fair, which was abandoned in January in the face of growing political unrest.

Let's hope the wind keep blowing in that direction.

Some Zimbabwean exiles have been calling for Egyptian-style demonstrations there, but so far there is no evidence of such things.


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