Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

The crystal skull

2012: The Crystal Skull2012: The Crystal Skull by Manda Scott
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Perhaps this would have been more interesting if I had read it before 21 December 2012, when, according to the author and several other people, the world was supposed to end. It’s set in two different periods, the 16th century and the 21st century. In the earlier period the possessor of a crystal skull hides it in a cave, and in the later one someone discovers it in the cave, and has the task of taking it to its proper place in preparation for 21 December 2012, when it will combine forces with 12 similar skulls in different parts of the world to create a magical dragon or worm, the Ouroboros, which will either save or destroy the world.

The theme of legendary artefacts playing a part in a current adventure is quite common, and this particular one, of the crystal skulls, also featured in one of the Indiana Jones films. The notion that crystal skulls were ancient Mayan artefacts has been refuted, but that should not get in the way of a good story. As a McGuffin a crystal skull is as good as any. but the problem with this book does not lie in the choice of McGuffin, but rather in the characters and plot.

The 21st-century characters are followed to the cave where the skull lies hidden by someone sinister whose who attacks them, but whose identity and motives are only revealed at the end. But the behaviour is unexplained and the motives ring hollow. Much is made of the injuries and medical treatment of the victims of the mysterious attacker, but the role of this villain seems to be tacked on as an afterthought. In an Indiana Jones-type scenario, there must be villains, so the villains pop up at intervals, but just when they have done their worst the scene jumps to the other century, and by the time one gets back to the aftermath of the attack, the details have been forgotten. What was it that happened that this character ended up in hospital? Oh, a fire? Or was it a fall in a cave?

The 16th-century characters are even more confusing. They fear being arrested and charged with “heresy”, but just what that heresy might have been is not clear. They are given hospitality by a Jesuit missionary who is portrayed as both welcoming and a threat, and this ambiguity is never resolved. They are pursued by Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster, for clear reasons that are irrelevant to the plot, and the relevant reasons are unclear.

So one is left with the impression that the crystal skull is the protagonist, and the human characters are mere props. But at least that fits with the title of the book.

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I heard the old men say

I Heard The Old Men SayI Heard The Old Men Say by Lawrence G. Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished a long leisurely read through of this book by Lawrence G. Green. I classify it as history because he explores some historical byways of the Cape Peninsula, but more as a journalist than as a historian. As a journalist he must have kept copious notebooks, and draws on some of this material in his writing, but this particular book was sparked off by his purchase of a second-hand guide to the city of Cape Town, published in 1904.

He goes well beyond the guide book, however, telling stories about old people and houses of the city, its trees and flowers, its hotels and restaurants, its vaults and kramats, its churches and their bells. He is always on the lookout for forgotten mysteries, secrets that can be told when all the people involved have died, and so on. In these mysteries he is more inclined to titillate the reader than to be strictly historically accurate, so what he writes always needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Green claims to have solved three historical mysteries.

(1) Was Governor Simon van der Stel a coloured man.
(2) Was George Rex of Knysna an illegitimate son of King George III?
(3) Was a certain cottage the place where Dutch troops signed articles of surrender to the British in 1806?

Green concludes that Simon van der Stel was coloured, that George Rex was probably an illegitimate son of George III, and that the treaty was signed at the cottage.

I’m not sure about (1) and (3), but I have my doubts about (2). Green ignores all the historical evidence and reaches his conclusion on the Rex royal descent based on the supposed physical resemblances between George Rex’s family and that of George III.

My wife Val’s Green family has a similar legend of royal descent of her ancesttor William John Green, which Lawrence G. Green (no relation) has also dealt with in two of his other books, Thunder on the Blaauberg and Lords of the last frontier. A lot of the stories about that are also based on supposed physical resemblances, but the legend has been pretty conclusively refuted — a man could not be the father of a child born in Quebec if he only arrived there in the year following the child’s birth.

But even if Lawrence Green’s conclusion was off, not everything he wrote about those events was untrue, and his accounts contained a lot of useful family information that might have been lost if he had not preserved it. You can read more about our royal legend here Mystery cousins and royal legends | Hayes & Greene family history.

Zonnebloem College today

In this book Green also reveals more of his own political and social opinions than he does in most of his other books. In most of his books he seems to be studiously apolitical, perhaps to avoid offendi9ng the racist sentiments of at least some of his readers. But this one is more revealing. In his chapter on places of execution in Cape Town he emphasises how strongly opposed he is to capital pinishment. And he also notes that at the beginning of the 20th century Zonnebloem College was a beacon of nonracial education. That was at the height of the New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa, when racism was at its height of approval, and so I was rather surprised to read it.

I think what Green Green (1964:185) has to say about Zonnebloem is worth quoting:

Zonnebloem, on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, a wine farm early in the eighteenth century, has survived because it was bought by Bishop Gray and used for the education of the sons of native chiefs. The wine cellar became a chapel. Girl boarders now occupy the old slave quarters.

White students attended Zonnebloem for many years, and one who left in 1906 wrote as follows, “Zonnebloem has peculiar characteristics of its own. Among these is the unrivalled opportunity it gives for becoming acquainted with a variety of people, habits and characters. How cosmopolitan Zonnebloem has always been! There have always been representatives of many peoples — Zulus, Xosas, Pondos, Basutos, Barotses, Bechuanas, Balolongs, Matabeles, Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Dutchmen from Holland as well as from the Transvaal and a host of others. Yet there is never discord, but perfect unity between all, each respecting the other.”

Perhaps it is appropriate to recall this now, as Zonnebloem College has just celebrated its 160th anniversary.

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Racism and Race Relations in South Africa

Earlier this morning someone asked a question on Quora, which I found interesting, and thought it worth trying to answer. I’ve posted the question here, but have expanded my answer a bit, because I think it is an important issue, amnd it has been bothering me recently.

How has the race relations in South Africa been? And how is it now? And where does it seem like it’s heading? Are there any pressing issues not covered in the general media?

Steve Hayes
Steve Hayes, former Senior editor and junior lecturer at University of South Africa (1986-1999)

And here’s my answer, modified and expanded for this blog post.

You can click this link to Quora to see my original answer.

After the first democratic elections in 1994 race relations improved, as the ANC sought to establish its goal of a democratic non-racial society. White people who had been taught to despise and fear black people discovered that the sky did not fall if they socialised with black people. One saw black and white children playing in the streets, or socialising in malls, which would have been unthinkable in the apartheid time. The importance of race gradually diminished in many people’s minds.

After about 2005, however, things changed again. There was a gradual increase in racial rhetoric, some of it imported from the USA. During apartheid race was seen to be very important, and after a drop between 1994 and 1999 it began to pick up again. Some white people, influenced by current thinking in the USA, began emphasising “whiteness” again, and promoted “whiteness studies”. They denigrated the ANC goal of non-racial democracy, and promoted racism while claiming to be anti-racist.

During the apartheid people white people were indoctrinated by the government with the idea that whiteness was the most important thing about them, and after 1994 many white people were being disabused of that notion. It therefore seemed very odd to me when people who called themselves “antiracist” began trying to resuscitate that decaying corpse. See here for more.

At about the same time, or soon afterwards, a different group gained control of the ANC, which had lost the vision of the struggle leaders, who were old and retiring from public life or had already died — people like Oliver and Adelaide Tambo , Walter and Albertina Sisulu, and Nelson Mandela. There was a new generation, led by Jacob Zuma, who were more interested in what their country could do for them than in what they could do for their country (to misquote J.F. Kennedy).

They teamed up with some crooked businessmen, the Guptas, who hired a British public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, to promote their cause, and Bell Pottinger’s strategy was a massive campaign to increase racist rhetoric by promoting anti-white racist slogans on social media. They paid large numbers of people to propagate these racist messages with an effectiveness that the Nat propagandists of the 1950s probably never even dreamed of.

Right-wing white organisations like Afriforum have run similar racist propaganda campaigns to promote the narrative of white victimhood, with stories of “white genocide” which they promote all over the world. Again, the theme of “whiteness” comes to the fore. When a farmer is murdered in an armed robbery, it is the whiteness of the farmer that is the most important thing in the message. Whiteness is everything. The obsession with whiteness is like a dog returning to its vomit.

And then there is this op-ed piece by Mondli Makhanya in last Sunday’s City Press, about how black people too are becoming Obsessed with Whiteness.

Along with this, we’ve been exposed to a lot of talk about “white privilege”, though I’m not sure what the point of it is. The place where we associate most with white people is a thing called TGIF, which happens early on Friday mornings. Someone speaks about a topic for 45 minutes, there are 15 minutes for questions and discussion, and it’s over by 7:30 so people have time to get to work. We enjoy it because we usually find the talks stimulating and its a way of being exposed to different ideas in one’s retirement. But quite a lot of the talks have been about “white privilege”.

I suppose I first became aware of white privilege at the age of 7, when the Nats came to power and apartheid was nothing more than an election promise that had yet to be implemented. My father, a chemist, got a new job in Germiston, which entailed a move. We had sold our house in Westville, near Durban, and so my mother and I spent two months at a hotel at Ingogo, about midway between, until we could find somewhere to live. As a result, I missed two months of School. I was in Standard 1 (Grade 3). The hotel was run by a cousin of my father’s, and their daughter Gillian was 8. I don’t know why she wasn’t at school, but we wandered the countryside and fished in the river. There is more about that in another blog post here.

On a few occasions Gillian and I visited a farm school held in a rusty corrugated iron church about a mile from the hotel. All the kids were black, and were probably children of farm labourers. The teacher welcomed us, but she was teaching several different classes in the same room. She asked questions, and my cousin and I were first with the answers.Why? White privilege.

When we lived at Westville I went to kindergarten. It wasn’t just any kindergartend; one of the neighbours had a governess for their daughter, Annabelle Dougal, and several other kids were invited to join her for lessons. As a result when, in the following year, I went to Class I at Westville Government School I was there for a month or two, and then promoted to Class II, which had a different teacher. White children had separate well-equipped classrooms with a teacher for each class, the black children at the farm school had Grades 1-5 in the same room, taught by the same teacher, with poor equipment. And if they reached Grade 5 most of them would go no further. So naturally we white kids knew the answers to questions we were asked in our own language, while the black kids were having to answer in a language they were still trying to learn. The sums the teacher was writing on the board were things I had learned two years earlier from Annabelle Dougal’s governess.

At the age of 7 some aspects of white privilege were obvious to me, others were not. The poorly equipped classroom, the teacher having to deal with different classes were obvious. That these were reasons that we white kids could answer questions more promptly only became apparent later. And what I only became aware of much later still was the class factor — that the children of chemists are likely to have better educational opportunities than the children of farm labourers.

How did my father become a chemist? He went to Durban High School and Natal Technicon, where he studied organic chermistry. His father, my grandfather, was a stockbroker and a mine secretary. My grandfather’s father was a builder and later a hotel keeper. My great grandfather’s father was a carpenter and then became a building contractor. And his father was… a farm labourer. The class privilege built up over six generations. The race factor was superficial and obvious, the class factor less so.

So what good does the obsession with whiteness and white privilege do? I can’t go back 70 years, and tell my parents no, I’m not going to the Witwatersrand with you, I’m staying here in Ingogo, and will complete my education at this farm school. Yes, I do believe that history is important. If we can understand where we have come from we can plot a different course for the future. And in 1948 the Nats had just come to power and immediately revved up the obsession with race. We know what that led to, so why are we doing it all over again? When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president he said “Never again” and he’s hardly been in his grave for five years and here we are doing it all over again.

But 70 years seems to be a kind of magic figure. In 1906 Alfred Lord Milner was trying to force Afrikaans-speaking children to learn in English after the Anglo-Boer War, and 70 years later Andries Treurnicht and Ferdi Hartzenberg, who were surely not unaware of the toxic resentment that that had caused, tried to do exactly the same thing by forcing black kids to learn in Afrikaans. Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But twenty years after Milner, Afrikaans became an official language of South Africa.

And 20 years after apartheid began Christian theologians rejected it as a heresy and a false gospel when they said,

… we are being taught that our racial identity is the final and all important determining factor in the lives of men. As a result of this faith in racial identity, a tragic insecurity and helplessness afflicts those whose racial classification is in doubt. Without racial identity, it appears, we can do nothing: he who has racial identity has life; he who has not racial identity has not life. This amounts to a denial of the central statements of the Gospel. It is opposed to the Christian understanding of man and community. It, in practice, severely restricts the ability of Christian brothers to serve and know each other, and even to give each other simple hospitality. It arbitrarily limits the ability of a person to obey the Gospel’s command to love his neighbour as himself.[1]

We we still persist in talking about race as if racial identity was the most important thing about us.

We are not alone in this obsession with race, however.

When I look at questions on Quora, about half of them seem to be about race, and about two-thirds of those seem to make racist assumptions.

So racist rhetoric seems to be making a comeback, driven by different sectors of society with different agendas, but the same general goal — to promote racism. And to some extent they seem to be succeeding.

Where it will lead to, who knows? But I think South Africa will be a lot more racist in 2019 than it was in 1999.

Notes and References

[1] A Message to the People of South Africa published by the South African Council of Churches and the Christian Institute of South Africa, August 1968.

A Tolkien bestiary

A Tolkien BestiaryA Tolkien Bestiary by David Day
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth introduces us to all kinds of creatures that are unfamiliar to us. Some we may have encountered in other stories — elves, dwarves and goblins are found in many different fairy stories and fantasy novels, but hobbits, ents and balrogs are not. But even the ones whose names we know play a different role in Tolkien’s stories. They have their own history, culture and languages.

This book is a kind of encyclopaedia of such creatures.

I’ve returned it to the library now, but I rather wish i had it for reference. Tolkien’s books are full of allusions to tales, myths and legends of his world, but paging through other stories to find them can be quite challenging. Here they are all packed between the same covers.

Do you want to know the history of elves, and which ones saw the light of the two trees and which ones didn’t? A quick lookup in this book will tell you.

Do you want to know about the relationship between Shelob and Ungoliant? It’s all here.

And I found that just reading through it as if each entry was a chapter in a book helped me to recall some of the stories. It’s a kind of mental map to the peoples and creatures of middle earth.

I just can’t remember whether it said balrogs have wings or not. That’s why I’d like my own copy.

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Conflicted about Trump

This last week has seen lots of controversy involving US President Donald Trump. He has been accused of disrespecting world leaders at the G7 summit. Very undiplomatic.

So there are all these cartoons and photos showing Trump as being immature and childish, and how bad it will be for the USA if he annoys these important world leaders who are supposed to be US Allies.

And then I recall that in the past when these G(numeral) summits have been held there have been massive protest demonstrations at the summit venues, which have tended to be very disrespectful towards the gathered world leaders. I don’t recall reading about such demonstrations this time. Perhaps they were there, but if they were, the media didn’t report on them much. According to the media reports, the one carrying the anti-globalisation flag this time was none other than the much-despised Donald Trump.

Now Trump is meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

And on TV there is this bloke complaining bitterly that Trump is not going to demand that North Korea give up nuclear weapons totally and unconditionally  Not that he expects that the US would offer to give up nuclear weapons unconditionally itself as a quid pro quo. That seems to be quite unthinkable in the eyes of the media pontificators. Previous US presidents were criticised for being too imperialistic, but now Donald Trump is being criticised for not being imperialist enough.

So if a world leader like Donald Trump does the right thing for the wrong reasons, is he any worse than his predecessors who did the wrong thing for the “right” reasons — like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair with their “humanitarian” wars?


Between mountains

Between MountainsBetween Mountains by Maggie Helwig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one level this is a love story. Daniel is a journalist who has been reporting on the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. He meets Ljilja, who is an interpreter at the war crimes tribunal at the Hague. One of her professional obligations is confidentiality, she should not speak to journalists about anything she hears. And Daniel’s obligation as a journalist is to report what happens, while protecting his sources. They are attracted to each other, but their professional obligations are in conflict.

Once a month a small group of us meet at a cafe for informal discussions of Christianity and literature and when we met last week my wife Val mentioned this book, which she had just finished reading. I’ve already mentioned some of the things that struck her in a report on that gathering here Neoinklings: alienation and otherness | Khanya. One of the bits she read out at the gathering was about the Orthodox monks at Decani in Kosovo, who gave asylum to those fleeing from the violence, and urging people to talk instead of fighting.

And that is really what the book is about — the inability to communicate, which breaks down into violence.

One of the things that struck me, and which is alluded to in the book in passing, is that at the very time when South Africa was turning from violent confrontation to talking, and abandoning apartheid, much of Eastern Europe was going in the opposite direction. I’ve also dealt with this more fully in this article Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, which I think also gives some of the background story for this novel. And so the book rings true.

I recall a member of our church, a school teacher who originally came from Dubrovnik, whose father was an Orthodox priest, saying that people she had grown up with and gone to school with, whom she had regarded as friends and neighbours, would no longer talk to her, no longer answer her letters, because of the hatred being fostered between different ethnic groups.

And the descriptions of those rising ethnic barriers captured for me the essence of the spirit of apartheid. Yugoslavia was entering a nightmare that we were just leaving. One of the characters, accused of war crimes and awaiting trial…

He had felt the cold clear satisfaction of a job done well, the decisive pleasure of colours shifting on a map, the weight of a gun at his waist. But only because it had to happen, there was a force of history behind him, if it had not been him it would have been someone else, anyone else, history would have its way.

And I could picture the apartheid apparatchik in his office in Pretoria, looking at his map with satisfaction on receiving a report of these people moved from that area, those people moved to this place, as the territory and its population changed to conform to the Platonic ideal of a map in his office.

And again the same character in the novel, echoing the same faceless bureaucrat in Pretoria:

To be able to say, I will draw this line here, and these people will be on the other side of it. Apart from us. So that we can be alone, and pure and safe, and these people will be the darkness of the other side. No one who has not had this chance could understand the sweep of it. The exaltation.

And there it is again, the essence of the unclean spirit of apartheid, exorcised from South Africa, moving to the Balkans, but not excluding the possibility of returning. No, not at all.

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The witch hunts of Papua New Guinea

Last night I watched a BBC TV programme on The witch hunts of Papua New Guinea – BBC News, and was struck by the similarity with witch hunts that have taken place in South Africa in the last 25 years or so.

The programme had interviews with people who had been accused of witchcraft, and with some of the accusers, and there were many similarities. You can also read more about the Papua New Guinea witch hunts here: Malum Nalu: Papua New Guinea has a witch hunt problem.

I don’t know if there were any attempts by Christian groups to deal with the problem in Papua New Guinea, but in South Africa there was a reluctance to discuss it in missiological circles. The only Christian groups that seemed to have come up with a way of dealing with it were some Zionists, and most Zionists don’t have an academic bent, so not much has been written about it.I did write one journal article, which you can read here: Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery, but there has not been much response to it.

Hooked on Quora

Quora is a web site where people ask stupid questions which sometimes people try to give sensible answers to.

Well, not altogether, but that was my first impression.

I discovered Quora when someone suggested it as a suitable site to promote my book.

I had a look at it, and saw no way that it could be used to promote a book, at least not the kind of books I’ve written. But if you scroll down through all the stupid questions, perhaps one in 20 is one that can be answered, and one in 40 is one I could answer. Everyone knows something about something, and so if you go on Quora you’ll probably find something you can answer. I haven’t thought of many questions I’d like to ask. But when it’s 15 minutes till supper time, and I’m not cooking, or even if I am, I fill in the time with a quick look at Quora, to see if there is anything I can answer. some only need one-line answers, so it fills the time in nicely before I have to go and stir a pot or something.

Q: My physics teacher is a flat-earther, what can I do?
A: Be thankful that it’s your physics teacher and not your geography teacher.

There are a few problems about the site. For one thing, it stopped me answering questions on my desktop computer. Something they tweaked on their software, I think, and that’s were I usually am working just before supper. It still works on my laptop though.

Also, it asks a question I know something about, like the main differences between Christianity and Islam, and suddenly it regards me as an expert on Islam, and shows me lots of questions about the most abstruse Islamic theological terms.

And occasionally one can have fun with some of the strange questions.

Q: Why does a tracksuit look bad on a Caucasian?

The answer I should perhaps have given was “Just Google ‘Caucasian national dress'” and click on “Images”.

I mean, do you really think anyone, and not just a Caucasian, would look better in a tracksuit than in this?

If you want to look really cool, dress like a Caucasian.

Apart from the sartorial tastes of Caucasians, one sometimes finds questions that are clearly school or college assignments, and someone is trying to get someone else to do their homework for them,

Some questions already have lots of answers, and I look at them, and “upvote” the best of them, and don’t bother to write my own answer unless the others are all bad. And so far all my answers have got upvotes, and none have got downvotes.

And some answers don’t answer the question, but go into a long analysis of why the questioner asked the question.

Q: What system of government did South Africa have under apartheid?
My Answer: A race oligarchy.

But someone else had answered that apartheid wasn’t as bad as everyone said it was and a long apologia for apartheid. But the question wasn’t whether it was good or bad, but what the system of government was. Apartheid was not a system of government, it was an ideology that gave rise to a policy. A system of government is something else.

Well, I go to the site, and the first question I see is:

Q: Why are white people so aesthetic?

Can you answer that?

Rugby, race, and privilege

For the last few days I’ve been seeing a lot of comments about something that happened recently in the rugby world.

There have been posts on Facebook and tweets on Twitter and people are apparently taking sides and arguing about what happened and the rights and wrongs of the affair.

I haven’t had anything to say about it because I don’t know what happened, other than that someone walked out of a TV studio (“Don’t touch me on my studio!”), but from what I’ve seen everyone is expected to have an opinion about it, whether they know what happened or not.

Perhaps the people who think that everyone should have an opinion about it should reflect on the fact that they are the privileged few, and the debate is taking place among the privileged few.

Rugby is a sport that you can only watch on TV if you are rich enough to afford dsTV Premium, and most South Africans cant afford it, so rugby is likely remain in its privileged niche for the foreseeable future. The hoi polloi aren’t going to get a look in.

Some one once said that rugby is a ruffians’ game played by gentlemen, while soccer is a gentlemen’s game played by ruffians.

And if dsTV (or is it DStv?) have their way, it’s going to stay like that.

So this particular storm in a teacup is strictly a gentlemen’s affair — the privileged talking to the privileged.

Don’t expect the rest of us to have an opinion.



Stuff you don’t see any more: 3×5 index cards and the metrication blues

The other day I wandered into the CNA (a local newsagent/bookseller/stationery chain) in search of 3×5 index cards, and a couple of other things. There were no index cards there. A sign of changing times, perhaps — people use computers for that sort of stuff nowadays.  But I’ve been using computers to store data for more than 30 years, and I’ve still been able to buy index cards.

Talking of computers reminds me of something else you don’t see any more — computer magazines. I started buying those 35 years ago, before I even had computer. At one time there used to be a large selection, and I would browse through them to see which had the most interesting articles that month, and buy that. Then they started to come with disks (and later discs) with free or shareware software and other good stuff. I then started buying the ones for the most interesting software selection, rather than the most interesting articles. But there was only one in the CNA this month — Linux Format.

This morning I went to a different branch of the CNA hoping to find index cards. I couldn’t see any. They did have the same computer magazine, so, rather rashly, I bought it. I do have Linux on my computer, but I don’t use it much, mainly because it doesn’t run the software I use most of the time (and please don’t tell me, as some people are wont to do, that I could find another program that does something similar and use that and “move on”. Thinking that having your programs in one operating system and your data in another is a good idea is really not a sign of intelligence).

But this other CNA branch did have index cards — in A6 and A7 sizes.

Just think of it — 47 years after South Africa switched to the metric system, and it was illegal to sell rulers marked in inches or milk measured in pints, they suddenly decide it’s time to switch index cards to metric sizes. For 47 years we’ve being buying cards (and boxes to store them in) that are 3×5 inches (76.2 by 127.0 mm), and now we need to replace them by “metric” cards that are 74 by 105 mm. They can’t easily be stored together, so it would mean you can’t easily add new cards to an existing file — you’d have to copy all the existing cards to the new size.

But why use index cards when you can use a computer?

Computers are much more efficient at searching and sorting information than a card system. You can search and sort in different ways and on different fields, while cards can only be sorted one way, and searched on one field. It’s a no brainer, isn’t it?

Well, not quite.

Computers are very good at storing, searching and sorting information, What they are not so good at is displaying it in a way that makes it easy for human beings to interpret it.

When you have index cards, you can lay them out on a table cloth (or even a carpet or bedspread), move them around, lay them out in patterns and change the patterns to look at the information in different ways. Two or three people can look at the information and discuss it while they are doing so. One of my mentors, Professor David Bosch, used to recommend this as a research method for masters and doctoral students.

There was a time when computer programmers used to think that everyone knew about index cards, and used icons of card indexes on their screens, and some programmers even used to make their input screens look like index cards. But they had grasped the wrong end of the stick. Index cards were useless at the input end, but very few programmers grasped that that they might be very useful at the output end. Very few wrote their programs with the option of producing index cards as printed output, yet that would have been a far better use of computing power.

There were a few exceptions.

There used to be a genealogy program called Personal Ancestral File (PAF). It stored genealogical information, and produced reports. In the 1990s various people produced supplementary programs that accessed the PAF database and did more things with it. I have two of those supplementary programs on my computer. One prints reports on 3×5 index cards, and the other produces them on 6×4 index cards. The down side is that the PAF program they work with was not Y2K compatible, and so does not accept dates after 31 December 1999. And no one else has seen fit to include such reporting facilities in more up-to-date programs (or apps, as people like to call them nowadays).

My main use for index cards now is as bookmarks. While I’m reading a book, I record significant passages, and then later use them to find the places in the book and make notes on the computer. I don’t usually read books while sitting at the computer so I can make notes as I go along. When used as bookmarks, I use one card per book, but if the computer could spit out one card per note it might improve considerably on David Bosch’s research method.

But at least part of this story ends well — after failing to find 3×5 index cards at the CNA I went round the corner to Archneer Stationers, and they had 3×5 and 6×4 index cards in stock. And no A6 and A7 ones at all.

There are lots of other things you don’t see any more, like gooseberry jam, quince jelly, tinned mutton breyani, real peanut butter, 8mm film projectors, Beta video tape players, and many more.

But 3×5 index cards are the ones I’d really miss.



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