Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Did you know about the Mandela Effect?

I was quite puzzled by many references I found on the Internet to something called “the Mandela Effect”. It popped up in questions about Nelson Mandela on the Quora web site.

At first I thought it must be another term for the “Madiba Factor”, which referred to the fact (or perception) that if President Nelson Mandela was physically present at a sporting event, the South African team would win, or at least do well. This started from the day of his inauguration on 10 May 1994, when immediately after his inauguration he went to the FNB Stadium, where the South African football team beat Zambia in a friendly match.

The notion of the Madiba Factor was reinforced when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996.

The Madiba Factor: 3 Feb 1996: The captain of the winners of the African Cup of Nations Final Neil Tovey of South Africa holds the cup aloft after President Mandela presented it to him. South Africa won 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Mark Thompson/ALLSPORT. And we were there, so not a false memory.

But it seems that the Mandela Effect was something else entirely.

The Mandela effect term was coined by Paranormal researcher named Fiona Broome after the the phenomenon of thousands remembering Nelson Mandela passing away in Prison in the 1980’s however the Same Nelson Mandela lived clear until 2013. He was the President of South Africa. Some have no memory of the prison situation and others only know of him being the President of South Africa. (Answers to “What is the Mandela Effect” on Quora).

But it’s funny — I don’t recall ever thinking that Nelson Mandela died in 1980, nor did I know of anyone else who thought so. So when I first heard about “the Mandela Effect” a couple of years ago it struck me as very weird indeed.

So I’m asking my friends and anyone who reads this — had you ever heard of the “Mandela Effect” before reading this? Did you ever, at any time, think that Nelson Mandela had died in the 1980s? I’m wondering if the belief that many people thought that Nelson Mandela died in the 1980s might itself be a false memory, and perhaps it should be called the Broome Effect rather than the Mandela Effect.

Tulku (book review)

TulkuTulku by Peter Dickinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just read it for the third time. Perhaps that should make me an expert on the book, but reading it at intervals of 19 years meant that I don’t remember much from one reading to the next.

Theodore Tewker, orphaned 13-year-old son of an American missionary in China, meets up with an Englishwoman who is collecting botanical specimens. They travel together to Tibet (which at that time was independent of China) and spend some time at a Buddhist monastery. That much I remember from two readings, and I could have learnt it from the blurb. So it was like reading it for the first time.

I’ve read other books by Peter Dickinson, and as with this one, I find it had to remember the plot. The others were children’s books, and I remember that one of them was about Merlin, and that it reminded me a bit of That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, which I have also read several times, but in that case I remember the plot pretty well. So that is an interesting phenomenon. I re-read C.S. Lewis’s books, even though I am familiar with the plot, for the small details and nuances that I may have missed on previous readings. One such in That Hideous Strength was a passing reference to Cecil Rhodes — see That hideous strength and Rhodes must fall | Khanya.

But Tulku I re-read not for the finer details, but because I had forgotten the broad outlines of the plot. I would like to re-read some of Dickinson’s other children’s books, but neither bookshop nor library seems to have them.

Tulku isn’t exactly a children’s book, though the protagonist, Theodore, is a child bang in the middle of puberty. At least it doesn’t feel like a children’s book. If my recollections of being that age are accurate, then I suppose my thought processes were pretty similar to Theodore’s, but I didn’t really take much time to reflect on my thought processes, and reading this book at age 13 would lay on me the demand that I did.

The other day a 13-year-old asked a question on the question-and-answer web site Quora, saying that he preferred to read adult books and found children’s books boring. And I dare say he might have found Tulku boring too. When I was 13 I read an “adult” book, The Wages of Fear by Georges Arnaud. I found it was gripping stuff, and made me think I wanted to be a lorry driver when I grew up. I wanted to see the film, but it had an age restriction — no persons 4-16 — but I persuaded my mother to take me to see it, and pretended I was 16. It wasn’t quite as thrilling as the book, and I was mystified by the age restriction. But my comment to the 13-year-old who found children’s books boring was that he might enjoy them more when he was older. And I suspect that that may be the case with Tulku.

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Some books we read in 2019

At our first literary coffee klatsch of 2020 we listed some of the books we had read towards the end of 2019, and there was quite a variety. I mentioned Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch, which Janneke Weidema had mentioned at an earlier meeting, and that had got me interested. She said she had liked the story of Solly Mahlangu using the government’s rand-for-rand scheme to provide better schools in KwaNdebele.

I mentioned some of the other books I had been reading recently, most of which were covered in reviews on my blogs — see here:

The last of these, Be born in us today by Anglican bishop John Davies was designed to be used by parish study groups on the meaning of Christmas, and I had been reading it as a Christmas book. Janneke said she had been reading What Quakers believe, but after reading it she still wasn’t sure that she knew any more about what Quakers believe. She said they might be using it for a study group in their Quaker meeting.


Johnnie Aukamp mentioned and recommended The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, which deals with Nazi tyranny. He also mentioned a book called The Cheese and the Worms, but I forgot to note the author, so I am not sure if it was this one or this one. He had also read The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein.

On of the first books I have started reading this year is one by Johnnie Aukamp himself, though I’m not sure whether I should mention the title, as he wrote it under a pseudonym. But one of the interesting features of this book is that it mentioned a fictitious ancient manuscript which was an important key to the story.

The fictitious ancient document is quite a common trope in fantasy literature, and one of the ones that springs to mind for me is the De Angelis of Marcellus Victorinus of Bologna, published in the year 1514. at Paris, and dedicated to Leo X. Someone has tagged it in the linked catalogue entry as “practical joke”.

The De Angelis is mentioned in The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams, where it appears to be a commentary on a commentary on The Celestial Hierarchy by Dionysius of the Areopagite. In it, Williams seems to throw considerable light on the role of eagles in the writings of his fellow-Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien, though it was actually first published in 1931, before The Hobbit, so perhaps Tolkien was influenced by Williams in his use of eagles.

Val recalled that our son Simon, like one of the characters in The Place of the Lion, used to work in a bookshop, and one day a man came into the shop and asked for a copy of a book by Professor Robert Langdon. It may have been The Symbology of Secret Sects, or possibly The Art of the Illuminati, which was cited in The da Vinci code by Dan Brown. But whatever the title was, Simon pointed out that it was a fictitious book. The customer got quite angry, and pointed at the mention of it in The da Vinci code. Simon pointed out that The da Vinci code was itself a work of fiction, and just because a book was mentioned there did not mean that the book actually existed.

Something similar happened a few years earlier: Professor Irving Hexham, of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary said something similar had happened in connection with H.P. Lovecraft’s fictitious work, the Necronomicon, and some had even built a new religious movement on it. For more on that see C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft and me | Khanya.

Val and I had both read and enjoyed Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a science fiction book about a time-travelling history student — more in my review at Time travelling historian gets stuck in the past | Khanya.

We also discussed reading in general, and changes in language and the meaning of words. Most of us had enjoyed books by authors like Enid Blyton as children, and though she was not a brilliant author and her writing had many flaws, her books instilled in us a love of reading, and I recalled a lot of things I had learnt from them that I had not realised I had learnt, like some commonly used idiomatic phrases like “the coast is clear”. For a fuller list of such idioms see The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton) | Notes from underground.

Be born in us today

Be Born in Us Today: the Message of the Incarnation TodayBe Born in Us Today: the Message of the Incarnation Today by John Davies
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have known John Davies for 60 years. Back in 1959 he was a parish priest of a somewhat distant, largely rural parish in the Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg, and he came a couple of times to speak to students at Wits Univeresity. On one of those occasions he spoke about Christian art, but I have forgotten the other. A couple of years later he spoke to students from all over South Africa on the topic of Religion versus God, and I remember quite a lot of what he said then, as it had an enormous influence on my theological understanding. It was reinforced seven years later by reading For the life of the world by Father Alexander Schmemann.

That makes it a bit difficult to review a book he has written, since his thinking has influenced my own thinking to such an extent that it is difficult to be objective and critical. So let the reader beware.

This book, as the title suggests, is about Christmas, the Nativity of Jesus Christ, and the meaning of the Incarnation. What do we mean when we say that Jesus Christ is both God and Man, both divine and human? The book is intended to be used by parish study groups, and so is divided into chapters with a scripture passage relating to the birth of Christ, intended to be read aloud by several voices,. a brief meditation on the passage, and suggestions for discussion and activities at the end.

But at the beginning there is an introduction, where John Davies describes his first Christmas as a parish priest, which shaped the understanding that lies behind the book, and is perhaps the most useful part to concentrate on in a review.

The parish was in what is now Mpumalanga, and in it there was a gold mine, and the Christmas service was in the hostel for black miners. They normally held the service in a classroom, but it was locked up with many people being away for Christmas, so they had it in the miners’ common room, which was also occupied by some of the fowls the miners kept. Davies writes:

My most abiding memory of that Christmas is of a candle-lit congregation singing the praises of the coming of Christ in half-a-dozen different languages, accompanied by the intermittent complaints of poultry whose sleep-pattern had been so strangely disturbed,

He notes some of the things that struck him about that service, which helped to shape his understanding of the scriptural texts (I can only give a much abbreviated version here).

  • It happened in a borrowed room, an annexe to a public meeting place.
  • It was a hidden event, not publicized much in advance.
  • It happened in the dark. Few people saw or understood what was happening; most were asleep.
  • It happened in the company of farmyard creatures, humanity’s close companions.
  • It happened among people who were poor and voteless non-citizens. They were not “simple” or “ordinary” people; most of them were people of valuable skill and courage in the gold-mining industry, but they were people of no status within the systems controlled by the political and economic dominances of the day.
  • It was an occasion which affirmed the value of material things; bread and alcoholic drink could both be sources of argument and fighting and killing; but here they were being claimed as ways for God to be present among people.

There are many other parallels that Davies notes. He notes that they are all history, but they are slanted history. They are selective, and were written down forty years after the event, just as the gospel stories of the Nartivity were themselves written down about 40 years after the events themselves. The details he notes are not recorded anywhere else.

There will be no reference to that Christmas gathering in the archives of the mine administration, or in those of the Magisterial District of Bethal in the Transvaal. There are all sorts of assumptions in what I have written… I have recorded the event because of its meaning to me. I cannot be sure that my understanding of the regulations concerning the use of mine property is correct, or that I have remembered accurately the conditions on which non-mine-employees were allowed on the site. I cannot even be sure what sorts of bread and wine were used or what the sermon was about. But my purpose is not to give a specimen of the social history of the mine, but to give an account of what I believe to have been an example of God’s presence in the world. On that basis, and only on that basis, judge my story. Similarly, we do not go to Luke to get details of the Roman taxation system, or to Matthew to get astronomical information. We go to find something concerning the meaning and manner of God’s presence in the world.

And that is what this book is about.

Theology, science, alternative history, literature

In our literary coffee klatch this month we discussed a fairly wide range of books, some of which I have blogged about separately in a discussion of teaching theology and literature in a Bible college or seminary.

David Levey had been reading nonfiction for a change and kicked off with a book about Galileo, science and religion, written by a Wits professor of astronomy, God and Galileo by David L. Block. It was based on an old letter in the Vatican archives that few people had looked at, and threw new light on debates about science and religion.

I too have been reading nonfiction — currently The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. I should have read it 50 years ago, but only saw it in the library this week. I had always thought it was fiction, and indeed it was in the fiction shelves of the library, but I then discovered that Tom Wolfe had written his first fiction work about 20 years later, and this was in fact a kind of journalistic look at the hippie drug scene of the late 1960s. The other nonfiction book I am reading is Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch, from which I have been learning a great deal. I’ll comment more on these when I’ve finished reading them. We had discussed Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch at one of our earlier gatherings, and David mentioned another book that dealt with lives of sharecroppers in South Africa. These books throw a lot of light on current debates about land.

Val has been re-reading historical novels, especially ones by C.J. Sansom, dealing with the period of the English Reformation and the reign of King Henry VIII. The first of the series is called Dissolution, and deals with the dissolution of the monasteries (my review here)..Sansom wrote a series featuring hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, but has also written historical novels set in other periods, such as the Spanish Civil War, and also, in a slightly different  genre, Alternative History, or the historical might have beens, Dominion, predicated on a successful German invasion of Britain in World War II (my review here)..

While discussing the alternative history genre David mentioned SS-GB by Len Deighton, and we had both recently read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, which we had both found disappointing (my review here). David said that the second volume of that series was coming out soon, and promised better things. It is The Secret Commonwealth. We mentioned other books where sequels had proved disappointing, like the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen Donaldson, and William Horwood’s Duncton series, where everything after the first book was disappointing. That one, and many of the others, seemed like cases of a publisher pushing a reluctant author who had run out of inspiration. And for those who like Alternative History, David recommended the What might have been series by Gregory Benford.

For the rest of what we discussed, see here.

 

An open letter to Telkom

This should really have been sent as an e-mail to Telkom, but Telkom play “hard to get” with their subscribers (or “customers” as they like to call them in these days of neoliberalism) and the e-mail address they give on their web site is invalid.

It is also an instance of the kind of occasion in which e-mail is a better form of communication than a voice phone call — see Millennials hate phone calls — and they have a point, so in what follows I shall try to point out why that is so, and some other more general observations which I would not normally include in an e-mail to Telkom, but which the people at Telkom probably ought to know.

Telkom provide us with a fixed line voice phone service, which also includes ADSL for linking to the Internet, and Telkom is also our ISP, so we use their services for e-mail, the Web and other Internet services. We recently signed a new contract with Telkom for a higher-speed connection by fibre-optic cable when the physical infrastructure becomes available (they are still digging trenches for the cables in our neighbourhood).

On Tuesday 3rd September I could not access my e-mail. I reported this to Telkom by e-mail to support@telkomsa.net, and included a copy of the error message I received when I tried to download e-mail:

02:00:52.125: >> +OK
<< 0015 PASS XXXXXXXX
02:00:55.203: >>
-ERR login failed

The aim of this was to give them specific information to help them to detect and fix the problem.

There was no response from Telkom, and I repeated the fault report the following day. I tested and found that outgoing e-mail was working, it was just incoming pop3 mail I could not get.

The next day, the entire ADSL system stopped working. Not only could I not download e-mail, I couldn’t conntect to the web, or send e-mail.

At that point, I used Telkom’s SMS reporting system to report the fault, which is not specific, and only allows vague specification of the fault. I indicated that the voice service was working, but ADSL was not.

On 7 September I got an SMS from Telkom saying fault Ref 2991487 has been restored.

I tested it, and it had not been restored, so I reported it to them again.

7 Sep 2019 06:28 AM — received another SMS from Telkom giving new reference 2992412.

On 11 September there was still no Internet service.

On 12 September a technician arrived, sent by Telkom.

Before he had even looked at any equpment, he asked how old our contract was, and then said that the problem was our ADSL modem, because the contract was more than two years old. After your contract is 2 years old, he siad, you must get a new modem.

He then connected his modem, and it didn’t work either. It looked considerably older than ours, so why didn’t he have a new one, I wondered.

He then phoned someone, and asked them to reset the ADSL password. After that, he entered the new password in his modem, and it connected to ADSL. He then tried to fiddle with my e-mail program, but was obviusly totally unfamiliar with it, and got frustrated, took his modem and left. I asked him to stay long enough to see if our modem would work with the new password, but he would not. Fortunately I had written it down, or he would have just taken it off with his modem.

When he had gone, I entered the new password in our modem, and it worked, in spite of the contract being more than two years old.

But e-mail still did not work.

Eventually, two days later, I managed to phone through to a human being at Telkom after several attempts at pushing numbers on an SMS to try to let them know that the technician they had sent had failed to fix the problem.

The human reset my e-mail password, and then I was able to download my e-mail, but all e-mail between 3rd September and 11th September had been lost.

The next thing was that we were billed for an unnecessary call-out for the incompetent technician who had come and failed to fix the problem. We went to the nearest Telkom office with the bill to query it. But all they did was press a button so that someone would call on a cell phone.

Eventually, after waiting half a day for a call that never came we tried again an managed after several attempts to get through to a human being. And I tried to explain all that is written above, which the person at the other end was trying to type out as I spoke, and I wondered what sort of garbled version was getting written there.

Meanwhile, if Telkom had responded to my first e-mail, which had a detailed description of the problem, they could have reset my e-mail password within 10 minutes, without, on their own initiative, not at my request,unnecessarily sending an incompetent and rude technican, and then wanting to charge for an unnecessary call out.

Everyone’s time was wasted because they wanted to use voice calls or button-pushing instead of e-mail, and they are too incompetent even to put their own e-mail address correctly on their web site.

Telkom try to encourage people to use the debit order system, but when they add contestable items like “unnecessary call outs” to the bill one can hardly trust them enough for that. And when they threaten their subscribers with dire action for unpaid bills that the subscribers have not yet received, no wonder people are looking for other service providers than Telkom.

Not The Shack

Waking LazarusWaking Lazarus by T.L. Hines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I saw this book in the library the blurb looked quite interesting and I was in a hurry so I grabbed it. When I got home and began to read it, I began to have misgivings. A “Christian” book about abducted children from an evangelical publisher… was it going to be a re-run of The Shack. To my relief, it wasn’t. I found The Shack utterly twee and cringeworthy, a novel, ostensibly for adults, written in the style of Enid Blyton.

But it turned out to be quite readable, with some nice plot twists, a whodunit that keep the reader guessing, and with some strong elements of fantasy, and not too preachy. .

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Ghost stories by authors surnamed James

The House on Cold Hill (House on Cold Hill, #1)The House on Cold Hill by Peter James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently read a book of ghost stories by Henry James (see my review here) and was somewhat less than impressed. I had previously read one of the stories, “The Turn of the Screw”, and found the style convoluted and almost unreadable. It wasn’t improved on a second reading. I was in the library looking for ghost stories by Montague James, whose stories are said to be better, but they didn’t have any, but next to Henry James on the shelf was Peter James, and so I took out The House on Cold Hill.

I know Peter James primarily as a writer of detective stories featuring detective Roy Grace in Brighton in the south of England. I’d read a couple of Peter James’s non-detective stories before, and had not been very impressed. I thought he would do better to stick to crime fiction. But The House on Cold Hill is different. And I was not disappointed. When it comes to authors surnamed “James”, Peter undoubtedly writes better ghost stories than Henry. For a start they are written in plain English, where you don’t have to read every sentence three times to try to puzzle out the author’s meaning.

I suppose they could also be classified as horror. Not all ghost stories are scary. Some are meant to be scary but fail; this one succeeds. I was reminded of Phil Rickman, who began writing stories in the supernatural horror genre and gradually shifted to writing crime stories. Perhaps Peter James is on the opposite route — having started writing whodunits, he is now writing ghost stories like the early Phil Rickman. I’ll be looking out for more like this. I won’t say that Peter James is the new Phil Rickman, but perhaps he’s the old one revived, like an old ghost.

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Thoughts on the 2019 Rugby World Cup

Yesterday South Africa won the Rugby World Cup (RWC), beating England 32-12.

It was quite a big deal. It’s one of the few sporting fields where South Africa has excelled, though most seem to have been unaware that we won the African Netball Chamionship in 2019 as well, but perhaps for a macho nation that isn’t so important because netball is played by women.

I watched the first half of the RWC on TV, but at halftime I had to go to fetch my wife Val from hospital where she had just had a knee operation. There was very little traffic on the roads — it seemed that everyone was at home watching it on TV. Listening on the radio was a bit confusing, because the commentators mentioned the names of the players, but not which teams they were playing for, so unless it was an obviously South African name one wasn’t sure which team was getting the ball.

We were permitted to watch the final, but for most South Africans the route by which South Africa got to the final was obscure, because only the rich were permitted to watch it on TV, as it was on the most expensive pay channel, and so probably most South Africans who watched the final were seeing the team in action for the first time. They didn’t know who the players were, and their faces were unfamiliar.

The net effect of this is that rugby will remain an elite sport. For most young people their sporting heroes will not be rugby players, but players of sports that the hoi polloi are permitted to watch regularly. I recall how much soccer increased in popularity after the whole of the 1990 Soccer World Cup was broadcast in South Africa in 1990 for the first time. But rugby seems to be condemned to obscurity. A pity, because South Africa has won the Rugby World cup three times, but has never won the world cup in soccer or cricket, the other popular team sports.

On the question and answer site Quora someone asked:

What does South Africa’s 2019 Rugby World Cup mean to its citizens? What are some of the social implications of their triumph on the pitch?

And my answer was that it was cheering, to those who might have been worried when one of those ratings agencies pronounced South Africa’s economic prospects to be “negative”. So it was nice to have some good news for a change. We may have high unemployment, but at least we play rugby better than anyone else in the world.

Many pictures have been posted on social media to illustrate South Africa’s reaction to winning the Rugby World Cup for the third time in 24 years, but I think the two photos here sum up the reaction best.

 

 

 

 

The Müller-Fokker Effect

The Müller-Fokker EffectThe Müller-Fokker Effect by John Sladek

A couple of weeks ago I read Singularity, which is about a hypotheitcal moment when computers surpass human intelligence and human consciousness. That reminded me of this book, which I read 45 years ago, since it is also about digitising human consciousness. So I thought I would re-read this one to remind me what it was about, and to compare it with the kind of things people are saying about “the Singularity”

In this book Bob Shairp works for National Arsenamid, and is transferred to a different branch where his new task is to be the guinea-pig in an experiment to see if it is possible to back up a human being on tape. The recording process is under way when some white supremacists break into the lab, convinced that it is an attempt to transplant a nigger brain into a white man, so they kill Bob, and the tapes are dispersed. One of them falls into the hands of an evangelist, who captures himself on it and programs an android to preach for him when he is ill or would rather be doing something else. Another falls into the hands of the military.

Bob’s son, Spot, is sent to a military school where he is desperately unhappy, and his mother goes into advertising, where she meets a salesman for a process of freezing people. Bob Shairp has a series of bizarre adventures in his taped form, as do most of the other characters, though for the most part in their actual bodies rather than on tape.

It’s an extended satire on 1970s America, sending up manufacturing, advertising, the military and militarism, journalism (notably Playboy), politics and ideologies, especially white supremacy and fanatical anti-communist conspiracy theorists.

Concerning the last, one can read it as a send-up of The Da Vinci Code, as the conspiracy theorists decipher codes that are more and more complex. A nice touch, satirising a book before it is published. Of course it’s not the only one to have done that. Umberto Eco, the author of Foucault’s Pendulum, insisted that Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci code, was a character in one of his novels.  In that respect it anticipates several books. It also predicts that Ronald Reagan would become US president (Nixon was president at the time it was written).

After 45 years I’d forgotten how funny it was (in parts, anyway), and in retrospect it also throws light on some subsequent developments, technical (the Singularity), cultural and political.

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