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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