26 March 2023

Monotheistic Hinduism and the Clash of Civilizations

The clash of civilizations updated.

Thirty years ago Samuel Huntington predicted that in the post-Cold War world the clash of ideologies would be replaced by a clash of civilizations, the civilizations concerned being based on religion. He got a few things wrong -- he assumed that the fundamental religion of the West would be Roman Catholic, but it has turned out to be Secular Humanism. In most other respects, however, his scenario in The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of world order has played out in subsequent history.

One example of this is the rise of Hindutva in India, which is remolding Hinduism for political purposes: Why Hinduism Is Being Molded Into A Monotheistic Religion Like Islam And Christianity

The political, cultural and religious symbolism of the occasion, as well as its timing in conjunction with the Hindu festival of lights, Deeputsav, were not lost on the people of India. The event was part of an ongoing, all-encompassing effort to craft and sustain a larger Hindu identity across its diverse traditions and forge Hinduism into a structured faith with Ram as its principal divinity.<

Although Ram is one of the most familiar deities in Hinduism, he is not a central figure in all of its various strains, where different deities are worshipped. However, Hindutva — the reigning political ideology of the far-right government led by Modi, which took power in 2014 — has been systematically working to organize Hinduism along the lines of monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Hinduism is otherwise more of a diverse way of life than a formal faith.

Another example is the rise of the Russki Mir doctrine in Russia, and Poroshenko's nationalistic Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which are having a similar effect on Orthodox Christianity. These parallel older movements that have a similar relation to other religions -- Zionism in relation to Judaism and Islamism in the case of Islam.

I think it would be a pity in some ways if Hinduism went monotheistic. One of the things that made it interesting has been its polytheism, or at least the polytheism of certain branches of Hinduism; some bracnhes, like Advaita Vedanta, have tended to monism, which I find much lass attractive. But it doesn't seem as though Modi is going for that. 

It's not that I myself want to worship Hindu deities -- that is forbidden to Christians -- but within a Christian worldview such deities can be seen as angels, created gods ontologically different from the creator, but nevertheless among the "things invisible" created  by God.

20 March 2023

Robot Centenary

R.U.R. and The Insect Play

R.U.R. and The Insect Play by Josef Čapek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems appropriate to read R.U.R. on the centenary of its first publication in English, as the literary work which first introduced the word robot to the English language. R.U.R. stands for Rossum's Universal Robots, a firm that produced artificial workers to take care of the drudgery that human workers didn't like doing.

The firm is based on a remote island, from which it exports its products to many parts of the world, and business is booming when governments discover that robots make efficient soldiers too, with the advantage that they have no relatives to mourn their loss. 

The island-factory is visited by Helena Glory, who is concerned about whether the robots may be sentient beings, and therefore might possibly have, or perhaps ought to have, legal rights similar to human rights, and eventually there is a robot revolt.

As a result of the play the word "robot" became part of the English language, at first mainly in science fiction, where is spawned a plethora of stories about artificial workers. I'm not sure when it first began to be used for real-life replacements for human workers, but I suspect that one of the earliest instances was in South Africa, where coloured traffic lights replaced human policemen in controlling the traffic at intersections and so came to be called robots. The electro-mechanical robot replacements initially stood where the human traffic controller had stood, in the middle of the intersection, but later they were moved to poles at the sides or gantries overhead, especially in one-way streets. But quite recently a town in India has even made one that looks like a human traffic cop

And now everyone is talking about artificial text aggregators, like ChatGPT, and several of my friends have been asking them theological questions and compiling long theological essays from the answers to such questions, and I've been looking to see what they get right and what they get wrong. Though people are talking about Artificial Intelligence (AI), I don't think these programs are sentient, and they are a long way from reaching the level of the robots in R.U.R. a century ago. Basically ChatGPT is just a powerful database engine with a very large dataset, and works on the same GiGo (Garbage In, Garbage Out) principle as other database programs, with a more sophisticated reporting system.

The Insect Play, which I found even more interesting from the point of view of history of literature, seemed to be in the same category as the plays of Jean Genet or Samuel Beckett of 20-30 years later. Perhaps they were pioneers of the genre. The Insect Play reminded me of The Balcony by Jean Genet, a kind of precursor of the theatre of the absurd.

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11 March 2023

Woke, wokeness and wokeism

Over the last few years the words "woke", "wokeness" and "wokeism" have become thoroughly skunked. When people use them, one is never sure what they mean by them without further definition.

One can get a vague approximation of meaning if you know that those using the words think they signify something that they approve of, or something that they disapprove of, but even then it is often pretty vague.

I'm going to stick my neck out, and say how I understand them, and try to find out how many people have a similar understanding, in the hope of clarifying the meaning, at least among people that I talk to.

Woke, as I understand it, means being aware of social injustice.

In my youth, an equivalent term was "with it", though it applied to a much wider range of things than social injustice. To be "with it" meant that you were aware of what was happening in a particular field of human activity. It could, for example, be jazz music and musicians. You were with it if you knew and appreciated the music and knew who the musicians were that people were talking about.

Woke means much the same thing, but in the narrower field of social justice. To be woke means to be aware of the kinds of injustice that are endemic and sysyemic in a particular society. There's also an interesting shibboleth here -- people who are not woke, and disapprove of wokeness, usually do not know the difference between the meanings of "systemic" and "systematic" and often confuse them, and think that people who are talking about one are talking about the other.

Wokeness is the state of being woke, it is the awareness of social injustice.

Wokeism, in my understanding, is something different. People who are wokeist are those who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. They tend to major on minors, as some people say. They largely ignore the big issues, and focus attention on mpre trivial ones, and often use big words like "intersectionality" as an excuse for claiming that the smaller issues are just as important as the big ones.

A recent example of this kind of wokeism is the bowdlerisation of Roald Dahl's children's books by the publishers Puffin books. Perhaps the publishers were trying to be woke, but if so, they failed miserably, and were thoroughly dishonest as well, in that they misrepresented Roald Dahl.

In one book Dahl makes the point that reading books can make people aware of different countries and cultures. Kipling, for example, can take a child to India. The Puffin editors substituted Jane Austen. This censorship seems to have been automated on ebook readers like Kindle. This kind of censorship is not "woke", it's the opposite of woke; but it might be wokeism.

And then there is the matter of being anti-woke.

On 20 February 2022 Roman Pope Francis tweeted on Twitter:

#SocialJustice demands that we fight against the causes of poverty: inequality and the lack of labour, land, and lodging; against those who deny social and labour rights; and against the culture that leads to taking away the dignity of others.
Pope Francis (@Pontifex) February 20, 2023

Now that's pretty woke. It is, in fact, the essence of wokeness. But anti-woke crusader and pop psychologist Jordan Peterson responded with:

There is nothing Christian about #SocialJustice . Redemptive salvation is a matter of the individual soul. https://t.co/cKFt3umiAl
Dr Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) March 2, 2023

As one Orthodox deacon (not me!) commented, it's a good thing this pope bloke has Jordan Peterson to tell him what Christianity is. The first sentence in Peterson's tweet is simply a lie. On the contrary, there is nothing Christian about deprtiving people of social and labour rights. The second sentence is a partial truth, taken out of context. Though being woke does not make one a Christian, to be anti-woke is to be anti-Christian.

09 March 2023

Urban Fantasy vs Rural Fantasy in Children's Books

Over the last few years I've taken to writing children's novels that could be broadly categorised as "rural fantasy". I've published three such books, all of them set in the mid-1960s. Two of them are set in apartheid South Africa, while the third has a more international setting.

One of the motivations for writing such stories was a conversation between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, in which they concluded that if they wanted to see more of the kind of stories they liked, they should have to write them themselves. I liked some of the stories they had written as a result, and also stories by their fellow Inkling Charles Williams, and ones by Alan Garner.

Alan Garner's first two children's stories, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath were rural fantasy, but his third, Elidor ventured into urban fantasy. They are set in Manchester and neighbouring Cheshire in England. I iked them, but Alan Garner moved on to other things, and Lewis and Tolkien were dead, so I thought I'd have to write some myself.

Another motivation was to give South African children an idea of what life was like under apartheid, and rural fantasy seemed the best vehicle for that. One reason for that is that, by the very nature of apartheid, black children and white children had few opportunities to meet in towns. White children sometimes had opportunities to meet black adults, though mostly as dosestic servants and therefore as social inferiors. Black children had even fewer opportunities to meet white adults. So I chose to set my children's stories in rural areas of the southern Drakensberg, where there were white farming families, and also some independent black peasant farmers who were not employed by whites, and therefore not servants, though they were under threat of removal from what the apartheid government had declared as "white areas".

But now I'm trying my hand at urban fantasy, which is a more recognised genre than rural fantasy, but also in some ways more difficult to write. So I wrote about a group of white children, who have few or no opportunities of meeting black children. And in the 1960s the only black people that most urban white children had an opportunity to meet were clergy, and that only if they knew white clergy who would introduce them to black clergy.

I thought I'd try setting my story in Johannesburg, mainly because that was where I happened to be living at that time and so was most familiar with it. But there are also disadvantages. Many urban fantasy novels feature things like underground railways and underground tunnels. and there was a shortage of those in Johannesburg in my period. The only underground tunnels that I was aware of was stormwater drains. And, in the southern parts, mines. I suppose one could make something of those.

Are there any other urban fantasy novels, esecially ones for children, set in Johannesburg? Or indeed in any other South African city? I would like to know how they handled some of these things.

26 February 2023

The Government appears to think that load shedding is the problem: it is not

Various media reports in recent weeks indicate that the government thinks that load shedding is the problem.
Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has accused Eskom of "actively agitating for the overthrow of the state" as it continues to implement load shedding, which hit Stage 6 this week as power plants suffered breakdowns. At a signing ceremony for 13 new independent power projects on Thursday, Mantashe said load shedding was becoming worse than state capture because of how it directly affects citizens and takes a toll on the economy. "Eskom, by not attending to load shedding, is actively agitating for the overthrow of the state", Mantashe said in Johannesburg (News 24).

We were told that a Minister of Electricity was beeing appointed to deal with load shedding. The utterances of government leaders do not inspire confidence, because they do not understand the problem. The problem is not load shedding, and the government's aim should not be "to end load shedding".

 To use a simple analogy, load shedding is like a splint on a broken leg. A splint on a broken leg is usually an interim measure, used by people like paramedics and first aiders to prevent more damage to the damaged limb until a competent osteopath can set it and usually put it into a plaster cast until it is sufficiently healed. 

The problem is not the splint, but the broken leg. Similarly load shedding is not the problem. It is a temporary fix to prevent more damage until the underlying problem, the broken leg, can be set and allowed to heal. 

Saying that load shedding must end is a bit like saying that the splint must be removed from the broken leg at all costs. Load shedding is not the problem. Load shedding is implemented to stop the problem from getting worse. The rhetoric of many politicians shows that they do not understand this. 

Eskom is not planning to overthrow the government by load shedding, but it looks as though the government is trying to destroy the electricity supply by demanding the end of load shedding without dealing with the underlying problem.

23 February 2023

My Facebook profiles and activity

I'll be scaling down my activities on Facebook on my personal Facebook profile, and in future concentrating more on my author page.

I've been on Facebook since it first opened up beyond current full-time students back in 2007 or thereabouts, as it seemed to be a useful way of keeping in touch with friends and getting in touch with friends one had lost touch with. But over the years since then Facebook has become more and more like alcohol in its effects on sexual activity, which, as one character in Shakespeare's Macbeth puts it, increases the desire but takes away the performance.

The last straw came when I was hoping to raise enough money to enter one of my children's novels, Cross Purposes, in the Best Indie Book Awards (BIBA). I needed to sell about 15 copies of the book by the end of February 2023 to have enough money for the entry fee. So I asked my 640 Facebook friends (among others) to pass on information about the book to anyone they knew who had children in the 9-12 age range who liked reading. Of course if they bought the book for their own kids, so much the better, but engaging with it in some way on Facebook would be OK, preferably by "liking" and sharing it. That wouldn't cost them anything but the effort of a couple of mouse clicks, But very few were willing to do even that. Unless people do that, Facebook will not show the post to any more people. Facebook's algorithms emphasise trivia, and so more people engage with pictures of cats and sunsets than they do about more serious subjects.

Only about 3 or 4 reacted to that post, so it was probably seen by very few people. And only 2 people had bought the book after 10 days -- not enough to pay the entry fee for BIBA,

Facebook says that if you want people to engage with more serious stuff, you need a page, not just a personal profile. For a long time I resisted this, because I thought I would prefer to engage with friends and acquaintances over a wide range of subjects, and not just one topic. I thought that out of my 640 friends I might be able to find at least 40-50 who shared my interest in reading and writing books, but no, Facebook's algorithms squeeze out that interest in favour of pictures of cats and sunsets, unless a sufficient number of one's "friends" are willing to "like" and share posts about books, and it seems that I don't have enough friends who are willing to do that.

So most of my Facebook activity in future will be on my author profile and author page, and I'll be scaling down my activity on my personal profile, I'll probably still link to my personal profile on my cell phone, which is good for posting pictures of cats and sunsets and for one-liner replies and comments. But for serious stuff I'll use my computers which will go first to my author profile and page. If anyone is really interested in talking to me, my email addresses are in my "bio" on my personal Facebook page -- and I prefer email to Facebook's Messenger and Whatsapp. I rarely look at Messenger and don't have Whatsapp at all.

Facebook, like many web sites, operates on a "bait and switch" principle. The "bait" is an easy way to keep in touch with friends and family, and getting in touch with old friends. The "switch" is that in order to keep people's eyes on ads that earn Facebook their money, users must stay on their site as long as possible. Therefore Facebook shows photos on its own site to more people than it shows posts that have links to other sites (like blog posts or book reviews) -- unless those sites are ones that pay Facebook's owners Meta for click-throughs. And it is for this reason that no matter how many "friends" you have on Facebook, Facebook will only show you posts from about 25-30 of them, and those posts will not be prioritised by how much you like them, but by how much other people like them as well, and the other people may not share your interests at all.

Some of this activity can be measured by Facebook, but some of it cannot. They can measure how many likes and shares a particular post has. What they cannot measure is the number of people who get tired of being channelled and herded into trivia and away from serious posts that have external links, and eventually visit Facebook less and less. They have no way of measuring the loss of those eyeballs on ads, and what it costs them in lost ad revenue, and is therefore counterproductive.

So if you want to see stuff from friends whose stuff Facebook has stopped showing you, you'll need to go to their profile and "like" some of the stuff they have posted, unless, of course, they are among those who have become sick of being herded and channelled by algorithms and have simply dropped out of Facebook altogether. 

18 February 2023

Deconstruction, and some weird stuff I'd never heard of

One of the weirder experiences I've had online is to come across a bunch of people discussing something I've never heard of, and they all seem to know about it, and assume that everyone else knows about it, and so see no need to explain it because they are unable to conceive of anyone not having heard about it.

I came across such a thing today -- some people were talking about deconstruction. Well, I have heard of deconstruction -- I've been hearing about it for the last 30 years or so. But these people were talking about it in a way that made no sense to me..It was sparked off by this tweet on Twitter:

Is "deconstruction" primarily a protestant experience, an evangelical experience, an American experience? I'm not suggesting there are no catholic/Anglican/Episcopal/Mainline/non-English-speaking people deconstructing, I'm just wondering if it is more the former?

It puzzled me because as far as I knew Jacques Derrida, the originator of deconstruction, was not American, but French and as far as I know he wasn't Protestant or Evangelical, and what did it matter anyway? Were there different denominational ways of doing deconstruction? I didn't think so. 

I've even written a journal article doing a bit of deconstruction: Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism. Now I'm an Orthodox Christian and the text I was deconstructing was written by a Lutheran bishop, so perhaps that suggests that there might be different denominational varieties of deconstruction, but I didn't realise that that was so significant. 

But then the people twittering about deconstruction start talking about Fowler's stags 3 & 4. Fowler? I've heard of, and have a copy of Fowler's Modern English Eusage, but I don't recall him talking about deconstruction. I reread the article on deconstruction in The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, but it's all Derrida, Derridqa, Derrida. I've seen Derrida and heard him speak, but Fowler? As Tom Lehrer says, "this I know from nothing."

Now if this was all in some field remote from my interests, it would not bother me. But they are talking about theology and liturgy and stuff like that. I have four degrees and a diploma in theology, it's my field! So how come I've never heard of it before today? And the people who are talking about it seem to assume that it is so well known as not to need any explanation -- just refer to Fowler Stages 3 & 4? I follow people on Twitter who mention theology among their interests, I participate on online discussions relating to theology. But this is entirely new to me. 

Now this has happened before. 

Some years earlier, when I started this blog, I did a search on bloggers' interests to see how many mentioned missiology, which happens to be my field. I found that about half the people who were interested in missiology were also interested in "emerging church", which I had never heard of. Search  engines were no help -- everything they took me to simply assumed that everyone who read them already knew what the "emerging church" was. Well, if you've never heard of the emerging church either, don't let it bother you -- it submerged again a few years later, leaving barely a ripple on the surface to show where it had been, but at the time it was quite big. 

But it was the same phenomenon: a bunch of people talking to each other online about something that they simply assumed everyone knew about, and thought needed no explanation. Better score, better deal.

16 February 2023

History through Fiction

I've just finished reading a children's book that has history in it. The author, Annie Barrows, recalls that as a child she didn't much like books that had a sort of hidden educational purpose, and in an author's postscript says:
... It is with some embarrassment that I find that I have written a book that has some history in it. I would be a good deal more embarrassed if it were a book about history, but it's not, I promise. It's about some kids who live in this very od house and, well... you can read it yourself. But the story also contains some hunks of history, and though I have absolutely no intention of being educational I have to confess almost all of them are true.
I found this particularly interesting because I have written some children's books of which similar things could be said. They all have hunks of history in them, and most of them are true. I can't use the disclaimer about no intention of being educational, because part of my intention was to give children a feel for an earlier time in a fictional setting. I suppose that is something that could be said of most historical novels.

Magic in the Mix

Magic in the Mix by Annie Barrows
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A rather moving story of children who are caught up in time travel, and learn about their own family history and that of their country as a result. I class it as fantasy rather than science fiction because in the book the time travel is ascribed to magic rather than to technology.

Miri and Molly Gill are sisters (as a result of an earlier time-travelling adventure) with two older twin brothers and two younger twin sisters. The house they live in seems to be built on a thin place in time, where events of different times come close to each other, and sometimes this allows the inhabitants to cross from one time to another.

Miri and Molly are initially the only members of the family who are aware of this, and believe that they have been allowed to travel in time to put things right. Presumably they discovered this accidentally in an earlier book in the series, but in this book, while they cannot travel at will to any time they choose, they can with some thought, and some trial and error, manage to do it sometimes.

In this book they travel to the twentieth century, and learn something of Molly's family history, and travel to the nineteenth century and learn something about the American Civil War, and experience some of its dangers.

One of the reasons that I found this book particular interesting is that I finished writing one about six months ago that similarly included hunks of history that happened to be true, and instances of time travel, in a children's novel called Cross Purposes. Both stories are therefore a cross between historical novel and fantasy. The difference is that whereas in Annie Barrows's story the fantasy element is mainly confined to the time travelling itself, mine extends to folklore mythology and mythical creatures.  

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14 February 2023

Literary Theory: an Obituary

Literary Theory: An IntroductionLiterary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Terry Eagleton calls his book an "introduction" to literary theory, but rather hopes that he is writing its obituary. He traces the recent history of literary criticism which was initially devoted to getting "English" accepted as a suitable subject to be studied at university, and the focus was generally on the question "what is literature?"

He examines various schools of literary theory, which were mostly linked to contemporary philosophical trends, such as phenomenology, structuralism, poststructuralism and the psychoanalytic school, and points out the inadequacies of all of them. He notes that all are dominated by the question "what is literature", and notes that it becomes a kind of academic racket and power game of indoctrinating students by teaching them to use a certain kind of discourse:
Its apparent generosity at the level of the signified is matched only by its sectarian intolerance at the level of the signifier. Regional dialects of the discourse, so to speak, are acknowledged and sometimes tolerated, but you must not sound as though you are speaking another language altogether. To do so is to recognize in the sharpest way that critical discourse is power. To be on the inside of the discourse itself is to be blind to this power, for what is more natural and non-dominative than to speak one's own tongue?

The power of critical discourse moves on several levels. It is the power of "policing" language -- of determining that certain statements must be excluded because they do not conform to what is acceptably sayable. It is the power of policing writing itself, classifying it into "literary" and "non-literary", the enduringly great and the ephemerally popular. It is the power of authority vis-a-vis others -- the power relations between those who define and preserve the discourse, and those who are selectively admitted to it. It is the power of certificating or non-certificating those who who have been judged to speak the discourse better or worse. Finally, it is a question of the power relations between the literary academic institution, where all of this occurs, and the ruling power-interests of society at large, whose ideological needs will be served and whose personnel will be reproduced by the preservation and controlled extension of the discourse in question (Eagleton 1983:203)

In my experience this academic power game is not confined to English Departments of universities, it is found in several other departments too, often driven by the same philosophical schools.

I studied English literature at two universities. The one, Wits (University of the Witwatersrand) did not seem to adhere to any particular school (but in my naivety as a first-year student I may not have been able to recognise it), and covered a fairly broad spread of literature. The second, the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (now UKZN) was firmly wedded to the Leavisite school, and had a very narrow conception of what constituted "literature" so I was fairly sympathetic to Eagleton's approach. Academic fads change with time, though, and no doubt the English Department at UKZN has a different emphasis today. At the time, however, it put me off  majoring in English. 

My real education in English literature came from another source altogether -- an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, CR, who lent me all sorts of books to read from the community library, none of which appeared in the university English syllabuses -- Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Jack Kerouac, Iris Murdoch and Charles Williams, to name a few. 

Eagleton concludes with a suggestion that is both radical and reactionary -- that English Departments at universities should be abolished, in the sense of studying English "literature", and should be replaced by a wider study of communication, which was covered by the older academic study of Rhetoric. This should be applied not merely to texts like Milton's "Paradise Lost", but also to newspaper articles, advertising and the like -- all forms of communication, whether written or spoken.

I'm not sure, though, whether university departments of Communication don't already do that. 

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08 February 2023

A novel about a farm murder

Close Your Eyes

Close Your Eyes by Michael Robotham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Clinical psychologist Joseph O'Loughlin is asked to help with the investigation into a farm murder near Clevedon, Somerset, where a woman and her teenage daughter are murdered.

The investigation is complicated by there being too many suspects, many of whom are hiding at least some of what they did on the day of the murder. O'Loughlin's estranged wife Julianne has to go into hospital for an operation, and calls on him to return to their cottage to look after their daughters in her absence. The elder daughter Charlie has finished school and wants to follow in her father's footsteps by studying psychology, and offers to drive him around.

## spoiler alert ##

If you haven't read this book and might want to, be aware that there may be spoilers in what follows.

I might have given the book four stars on GoodReads, were it not for what struck me as a rather large plot hole. 

Charlie O'Laoughlin, accompanying her father as a driver, looks at sketches made by the murdered girl, Harper Crowe, on the day of her death, one of a house, and one of an old man, and finds a clue to what she was doing that day, as the sketches are dated. But the clue turns out to be a plot hole that bothered me so much that after finishing the book I had to go and reread parts of the book to find out why it bothered me.

Charlie meets the killer three times, yet apparently does not remember him at all from the previous meetings.

The first occasion is when she takes it upon herself to ask people she meets whether they recognise the place or people in the sketches. One of the people she asks is the killer, who recognises the old man as his father, and the house as the nursing home where he stays. He tries to take the sketches from Charlie, who runs and locks herself in the car. The killer breaks a window of the car, but runs away when it seems there is another witness. The incident is reported to the police, who give it a case number.

The second time Charlie meets the killer is when she goes to the nursing home and identifies the building in the sketch. The killer confronts her in the garden of the nursing home while she is watched (from a distance) by retired detective Vincent Ruiz, who accompanied her as her protector after the previous attempt to take the sketches. Charlie apparently does not recognise the killer, which means she must be remarkably unobservant. She says nothing about it to Ruiz, nor to the police, not even to say that he was the man who broke the car window.

The third time she meets the killer at the beach, where she is with her little sister. He again tries to get the sketches off her, and again she does not seem to recognise him from the two previous meetings, but seems to meekly acquiesce in her own and her sister's abduction. Her behaviour seems most peculiar, but is not explained or even questioned.

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but if I am, I hope someone will be able to explain it to me.

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03 February 2023

The Horse and his Boy

The Horse and His Boy (Chronicles of Narnia, #3)

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my least favourite of the Narnia stories -- not that I dislike it, I just like the other ones more. I'm also not sure why this one is listed as 3 in the "Chronicles of Narnia", I was pretty sure it was number 6, the penultimate one in the series. I've read this one three times, but I've read the others several more times.

Of all the Narnia stories, this one is the most moralistic and didactic, and as far as I can see this can be explained precisely by its being number six (and not number 3) in the series. It is as though Lewis, having fed his readers with enough ontology, telling them the way things are, thinks it's time to tell them about some oughts -- given that life is the way it's described in the preceding five books, now he's saying that, since this is the way things are, now this is is the way one ought to behave. Well, why not? Most of St Paul's letters are structured like this; the first half says this is the way things are, and the second half begins with a "therefore" -- therefore you ought to behave like this and this.

In The Horse and his Boy Aslan intervenes a lot more than he does in the earlier books, micromanaging the characters' lives far more. In the earlier books Aslan appears for big projects - creating a world, saving it, or at least a country in it, and, in the last book of the series, wrapping things up. There is an occasional individual lesson thrown in, but this book is full of them. Aslan is continually intervening in the lives of people, both human and equine. It's not that the lessons are bad ones (though I do think that some are better than others), it's just that there are so many more of them.

Pride, selfishness, arrogance, thinking you are better than other people are all things that Aslan comes to show people are not acceptable. On the wider canvas, there is quite a bit of anti-imperialism. Calormen is a powerful empire, given to swallowing up or at least dominating smaller countries on its borders. I'm not sure that Lewis's militaristic solutions are the answer, though. Slaughter on the battlefield is OK, as long as a proper "defiance" has been sent. But perhaps that's just me.

Spoiler Alert

In what follows there may be some spoilers, so if you haven't read the book, and you want to read it, maybe you should read no further here.

One of the lessons of behaviour and character that appears here is followed up in the last book, The Last Battle, where Susan doesn't go to Narnia with the others, because she was too taken up with parties and invitations and the like. This has occasioned quite a lot of discussion among readers and critics as The Problem of Susan. I have also blogged about it a bit more here. Some have said that Lewis didn't want Susan to grow up, and that he thought growing up was a bad thing. I believe that those who say this either misunderstand or misrepresent Lewis at this point, because in The Horse and his Boy Lewis shows the the kind of character  he fears that Susan may grow up to be like -- an adumbration of the future character of Susan appears here in the person of Lasaraleen, the Platonic ideal of an airhead.

 There are also some obvious plot holes, which I'm sure have been mentioned by plenty of other reviewers, one of the most egregious being when Cor/Shasta goes back after the battle to the hermit's dwelling to fetch Bree, Hwin and Aravis, he is accompanied by retainers and heralds, who disappear on the return journey. It is not clear whether they all walked there, or they road dumb horses, which also disappeared.

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28 January 2023

What a drag it is getting old

The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81

The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81 by J.B. Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What a drag it is getting old.

Actually that is one of the few songs that I don't recall being mentioned in the book, but it sums up the theme pretty well. Frank Derrick is an 81-year-old pensioner who is harassed by people trying to sell him stair lifts, and ends up in hospital after being run over by a milk float. When he is released from hospital with an arm and a foot in plaster his daughter in America thinks he needs home care, and so he has a nurse visit him once a week to see that he is OK and help with the housework.

He looks forward to the visits and so enjoys the company that he doesn't want the visits to end, and spends most of his time planning how to raise money to continue the care.

When I found the book on the library shelf I nearly put it back. I'd read other similar books, like The 100-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared and I Didn't Know You Cared. But then I thought, the bloke in the story is 81, I'm 81. What better time to read it than now, before I turn 82? I'm not lonely and living on my own like the bloke in the book: I have a wife and two sons and a daughter-in-law (who happens to be a caregiver, like the other main character in the book). But yes, I have known people like that. And it seemed appropriate to finish reading it on the 70th anniversary of the day I started high school, at a brand new school -- new not just to me, but to everyone there. So the school has been going for 70 years now, a good pensionable age.

So I've read it, and quite enjoyed it, but I don't think I'd want to read it again, as I have re-read I didn't know you cared. But it's worth one read at least.

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26 January 2023

Total Onslaught: Apartheid's Dirty Tricks Exposed

Totale Aanslag: Apartheid se Vuil Truuks Onthul

Totale Aanslag: Apartheid se Vuil Truuks Onthul by De Wet Potgieter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The history of the Total Onslaught and the dirty tricks of the apartheid regime, told by a journalist who doesn't bother to hide his sympathy for them.

That was all I wrote as a "review" on GoodReads, and it wasn't really a review, just a copy of a note I had made in a list of books I had read. 

I read it 14 years ago, and couldn't really write a review now unless I read it again. 

My reason for posting this now is that an online friend mentioned on Facebook that he was reading it, so I mentioned that I had read it and found a kind of dissonance between what was said in the book and the way in which it was said. 

On the surface, a catalogue of evil deeds of the apartheid security forces (Shock! Shock! Horror! Horror!), but a subtext of salaciousness (Nudge! Nudge! Wink! Wink!), like a British tabloid gleefully reporting the vicar's adultery. And  the author describes with relish how the perpetrators of some or other outrage would gather in some bar to celebrate it and congratulate each other.

It occurred to me, as I said that 14 years later, that this might, just possibly, have been very subtle satire that my mind was too coarse to grasp, but on finding the book on my shelf and opening it, I thought that unlikely. 

It also made me a bit curious about the English translation. In the Afrikaans the subtext is there, plain to see. But the nuance could be lost if it is translated into English, because the idioms do not translate well, or do not have the same force when translated.

But what confirmed my initial evaluation was a caption to a photograph. 

The photo showed a worried-looking President de Klerk, and the caption read:

F.W. de Klerk, 'n duidelik bekommerde man in die dae toe hy Suid-Afrika uit die era van Totale Aanslag gelei het na Totale Oorgawe

I don't know what the official English translation says, but my reading of that is, F.W. de Klerk, a clearly worried man in the days when he led South Africa from the era of Total Onslaught to Total Surrender

"Totale Oorgawe" can be translated as "Total Surrender" or "Total Capitulation", and it is the kind of phrase that only a diehard bittereinder supporter of the apartheid regime would use, and it, as well as the more nuanced idioms, clearly shows where the author's sympathies lie. Anyone else would say something like "a negotiated settlement".

25 January 2023

Do "left" and "right" in politics or economics mean anything?

For a long time now I have found it difficult to understand what people are talking about when they use terms like "left" or "right" to describe people's political positions. It seems that they can be used to mean opposite things, and none more so than in the following article, which I came across on the web yesterday -- The concerted, cowardly #MeToo attack on Harvard professor John Comaroff - World Socialist Web Site:
John Comaroff, professor of African and African American studies and of anthropology at Harvard University, has become the target of what has all the earmarks of another filthy #MeToo witch-hunt. In August 2020 Comaroff was placed on paid administrative leave in the midst of an investigation into several allegations of "unwanted touching", "verbal sexual harassment" and "professional retaliation."
Please read the whole article, and tell me which of the parties in the dispute described there are, in your opinion, the "left" and which are the "right".

From my reading of it, the source of the article is "left", Prof John Comaroff is "centre left", and his attackers are "far right" and exponents of the "cancel culture". But what do you think?

I've blogged about the left/right confusion before (see this article on the "theological left", for example), but the Comaroff one takes the cake.

The way I discovered this article, and the many other issues it raised, is quite complicated, and shows that the world is a lot weirder than I thought it was.

It began when a friend sent me an article claiming that the QAnon conspiracy theory in the US was started by a South African cartoonist and was based on African witchcraft. That sounded like a metaconspiracy theory on its own. It was a topic my friend knew I was interested in, and I've written a couple of children's novels and an academic journal article in which witchcraft is one of the themes. One of the things that interested me was the fact that there was almost no overlap between the bibliography in my article -- Christian Responses to Witchcraft and Sorcery -- and the QAnon one.

I therefore did a web search for articles by the anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, using the search terms "Comaroff witch devil", and the list produced on my desktop computer, which uses the DuckDuckGo search engine, contained not a single academic journal article, but only news items about some allegations against Prof John Comaroff. 

Later, working on my laptop, which uses Google as the default search engine, I wanted to read more about the controversy, and, using exactly the same search terms, not a single news article turned up, but only a list of academic journal articles. 

Intrigued by this, I tried other search terms to find some articles on the controversy, but with no result. As far as Google was concerned, the controversy did not exist. 

That is enough to make one suspect a conspiracy. 

It's a conspiracy-theory generator par excellence.

Why was Google apparently suppressing the story of that controversy? Did they think it was fake news? But reading the article, it doesn't look like fake news. And there are apparently several other articles on the same topic which I haven't read yet. And if it were fake news, surely a web search would turn up something from Harvard University denying that such a controversy had ever taken place?

And then to add to it all, someone I've known online for several years, a fellow blogger who, like me, often blogs about the Inklings literary group and their writings, announced that she has a written a paper on Christian Nationalism and the occult -- another overlapping topic -- which appears in my children's books, and is of interest to me, since Christian Nationalism was the ideology behind the apartheid policy of the South African government between 1948 and 1994, which we thought was thoroughly discredited 30 years ago, but now seems to be making a comeback in some circles in the USA and Russia (try a web search on "Dugin"). 

It looks as though I have a lot more reading to do to catch up, but sifting out the fake news and the conspiracy theories and the metaconspiracy theories is not going to make it easier, especially in a world that, like Nineveh in Jonah's time, contains millions of people who don't know their left from their right.

12 January 2023

The Young Unicorns

The Young UnicornsThe Young Unicorns by Madeleine L'Engle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've just finished reading this book for the third time, and was surprised to find that I could remember very little of the plot, the characters, or what happened in the story, so it was almost like reading it for the first time. That's one reason that I haven't written a review on GoodReads before now -- though I remembered reading it, I could not remember enough of the story to write a review. I find that with all the books by Madeleine l'Engle that I have read, though I have not read many, because they do not seem very popular in South Africa, and so they are very hard to find.

The story is set in Manhattan in New York City, where three children pass a junk shop on their way home from school. They pick up an old lamp, and one of them rubs it when challenged to do so, and a genie appears. The girl who rubs it, Emily Gregory, is blind, and makes a wish, that she would be able to see again, at which point a stranger interrupts and says that he wouldn't trust a twentieth-century genie.

It turns out that Emily Gregory, now aged 12, was blinded in a robbery attempt a couple of years earlier. The family of the other children with her, Suzy and Rob Austin, rent part of Emily's father's house, so they live together. The Austin children have an older sister Vicky, and there is an older boy Josiah "Dave" Davidson, who helps Emily with her homework by reading to her from her school books.

"Dave" Davidson's father, whom he doesn't get on with, works as a handyman/maintenance officer at the nearby Episcopalian Cathedral of St John the Divine, and the cathedral itself is almost a character in the story, and some of its clergy are also characters in the story. And that was my main reason for reading it this time.

I've been writing a children's novel which features St Mary's Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg and its clergy, and so I re-read The Young Unicorns to see how Madeleine l'Engle handled such things. I did that partly because in the secular West, where most readers of English children's books live, religion, and especially Christian religion, seems to be a touchy topic, at least in reviews that I've read. 

Plenty of popular adult (as opposed to "Adult") novelists, like Susan Howatch and Ernest Raymond, heirs of Anthony Trollope, have written books full of vicars, canons, prebendaries, deans, bishops, cathedrals and such things, but mentioning them in children's books seems, to judge from some reviews I have read, to be a semi-taboo topic. Synagogues, mosques, gompas and covens are fine. But cathedrals? A bit iffy.

And, having said that, I recalled that the previous time I had read the book, in 1998, I was also writing a children's novel that mentioned St Mary's Cathedral, though more in passing than in the current case. 

On my third reading I was struck by the richness of the description of the settings, which Madeleine l'Engle seemed to do particularly well. The McGuffin is a new device for laser surgery, called a microray, which the father of the Austin children had moved to New York to work on in collaboration with a surgeon, Dr Hyde, with whom, however, he does not get on. This gives a slightly science fictional atmosphere to the story, though it cannot really be classified as science fiction. I had added it to my fantasy shelf on GoodReads, but it isn't really fantasy, in the literary sense, either. It is fantasy in the sense that some of the characters have fantasies about what they will do and achieve with the microray device, but that's about all.

There are hints that the backstory of Dave and Emily, and possibly of the Austin family, are told in other books, though I have never seen or read them, but I enjoyed this one enough to want to read them if I can ever find a copy, and I keep looking in second-hand bookshops for other books by Madeleine l'Engle.

One thing that twenty-first-century readers may find not quite to their taste is that Madeleine l'Engle doesn't adhere very closely to the "show don't tell" rule of fiction. There is quite a lot of telling in the story, especially of the main plot and the denouement.

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11 January 2023

A Real-Life Spy Story

The ANC Spy Bible: Surviving across enemy lines

The ANC Spy Bible: Surviving across enemy lines by Moe Shaik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A real-life spy story that is as gripping and exciting as any novel.

But I very nearly didn't read this book. I picked it off the library shelf and when I saw the name of the author, and immediately a phrase sprang to mind: "a generally corrupt relationship". 

Those were the words of a High Court judge speaking about Schabir Shaik, brother of the author, and his relationship with a prominent politician, Jacob Zuma. I very nearly put the book back on the shelf. I didn't want to read about sleaze, and nothing more could be more sleazy than the dealings of corrupt politicians and businessmen. 

And then I thought, aren't you being prejudiced? Take it out and read it, and if it's too sleazy, you can change it for another book in a fortnight's time -- you're not buying the book. So I took it out, and I'm glad I did. It is well worth reading and raises a lot of interesting and important questions.

Moe Shaik was a member of the African National Congress (ANC) underground in South Africa in the 1980s when the movement was banned and being a member was illegal. He was arrested and detained for questioning about the whereabouts of an ANC courier, and after being tortured by the Special Branch was eventually released, but not before making contact with someone in the Special Branch (SB) who was sympathetic, and after his release began feeding him with information from within the SB.

This resulted in Moe Shaik starting a special intelligence unit within the ANC. Just as the Special Branch tried to collect information on the ANC, so the ANC began collecting information on the SB -- what they knew and what they didn't know, and some of their sources of informatio0n within the ANC. It was dangerous work, and there was always the risk of being caught.

When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, and political prisoners were released, people like Moe Shaik had to continue underground for a while. The National Party politicians might be willing to negotiate with the ANC, but there were many in the security services who continued to fight the war, perhaps in the hope that they could change the minds of their political bosses.

As the new democratic South Africa was born, Moe Shaik and his colleagues were faced with a different question: what was the role of an intelligence and security service in a democratic society?

This is one man's view of events, one man's memoir, but it is just such personal views that make history come alive and be more than a boring chronicle that reads like minutes of a meeting. It gives valuable insights into the history of the period, and if you like spy fiction, you'll probably also enjoy it.

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09 January 2023

Early Days of the Internet in South |Africa

There's an interesting article here on How the Internet got started in South Africa

 I found it particularly interesting as I played a small part in that history.

On 24 October 1988 I attended a Uninet conference. Uninet was the nascent Universities Network of South Africa, much of the work on the founding of which is described in the article linked above. 

The Uninet Conference was held at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria. The plan was apparently to set up a high-speed link between the universities, but it seemed to me that it was a bit like trying to build a freeway without access roads, because the networks within the universities were not sufficiently developed to enable us to gain access to the existing networks, such as SAPONET and the rudimentary Uninet.

I was there representing the Editorial Department of the University of South Africa, and we were concerned to gain access to library and terminology resources as well as being able to consult with colleagues in the field on questions of language and usage. 

But I also participated in amateur BBS (Bulletin Board System) networks of which the main one in South Africa at the time was Fidonet. It was run by a system of private enterprise socialism in which sysops (system operators) of individual BBSs shared their resources with anyone who cared to phone them, and shared the expense of passing messages around the country and around the world over dial-up landlines. All you needed to start a BBS was a computer with the right software (mostly freeware), a modem, and a phone line. People could call in, leave and read messages, and participate in discussion forums, called "conferences", some of which were local to a particular BBS, some national, and some international. Through the ASIAN_LINK conference some of us had first-hand accounts of the Tianamnen Square demos and massacre in China. 

One of the things discussed at the Uninet conference was the difficulty of international communication, including such things as JANet (the Joint Academic Network in the UK) using a different form of domain name addressing to everyone else. Instead of university.ac.uk they used uk.ac.university. But that was a purely theoretical problem if we could not actually connect. 

On the second day of the conference I managed to talk to some interesting people, like Mike van der Linde, of Pretoria University, and Neville Spicer of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and Francois Jacot-Guillarmod of Rhodes University. I suggested that they set up a Fidonet-Uninet gateway, and route international traffic through it. Francois Jacot-Guillarmod took the bait, and within a couple of months had set up a gateway at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, which connected to Randy Bush's BBS in Oregon, USA. He ran the Fidonet Echogate for Africa there.

Fidonet and its members benefited in that Rhodes University paid the phone bills for all the international traffic, both Uninet and Fidonet, that went through their line over a 9600 bps modem. That carried the whole of South Africa's international internet traffic for the next few years.

04 January 2023

The Secret Seven revisited

Good Old Secret Seven

Good Old Secret Seven by Enid Blyton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jack is given a telescope, which he shares with the Secret Seven, who notice strange doings at an old castle up on a hill.

Load shedding at 6:00 am, so I read Good Old Secret Seven, and finished it in an hour and a half before load shedding ended. I'd read a few of the Secret Seven books, but even as a child had not been very impressed with them. My main memory of them was the children's encounter with the village policeman who kept telling them to "Clear orf", but he didn't appear in this one. And the only one who seemed to have any character was Susie, the villain of the sub-plot, and she was far more interesting than the rest of them put together.

Perhaps that is because readers are expected to be familiar with the Secret Seven from reading the earlier books in the series, but, on the other hand, Susie is the sister of Jack, who seems to be one of the more prominent members of the group, so she probably makes an appearance in the other books as well.

Perhaps this is may also be because Enid Blyton's kid whodunits, in which a group of children encounter and outwit a group of criminals or other bad guys, are strictly age age graded. The Secret Seven books seem to be aimed at readers aged about 7-9, the Famous Five at readers aged about 8-9, the "Secret of" series at readers aged about 9-10, and the "of Adventure" series at readers aged about 10-12. The ones for older readers seem to have more definite characters. 


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