Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Review of “Cell” by Stephen King

CellCell by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Clayton Riddell was having a good day. He had travelled to Boston and just sold some of his art work for a publication, and was on his way back to his hotel when disaster struck. An electro-magnetic pulse sent through the cell phone networks scrambled the brains of all cell phone users, and most of them became mindlessly violent. Cars crashed, and when drivers not using cell phones phoned to explain that they’d been in an accident or were held up by one, they lost their minds too.

Clayton Riddell’s main desire then is to get back to his estranged wife and 12-year-old son in Kent Pond, Maine, to see that they are OK, and sets out with a couple of companions to make the journey on foot — the roads are blocked with crashed vehicles. They soon discover that the phone-crazies as they call them, are active during the day, but not at night, so much of their travelling has to be done at night. The book describes their journey, and the difficulties they face, dominated by Clay Riddell’s search for his son.

I find Stephen King one of the most unpredictable. His books range from very good (Needful Things) to very bad (The Tommyknockers). I’ve generally found his spooky books to be better than his science fiction ones, but this one, though science fiction, seemed to be one of the better ones. I was thinking of giving it four stars until about three-quarters of the way though, when he jumped the shark by introducing levitation, which didn’t seem to contribute to the plot at all. And I didn’t like the abrupt ending.

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Timol inquest deja vu

So yesterday there was this SB fuzz bloke giving evidence at the Timol inquest on eNCA Harrowing evidence at Timol inquest:

A former security branch officer has admitted he was part of a strategic unit tasked with spreading apartheid government propaganda.

Paul Francis Erasmus was stationed at the notorious John Vorster Square police station at the time activist Ahmed Timol died in custody.

And I’m like Wow, we knew all that was going on, but they would never admit it, even at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Pau Erusmus, former SB man, giving evidence at the Timol inquest yesterday

One of the things he explained was how the police used equipment for giving electric shocks to people they were interrogating. They would wrap the electrodes in wet cotton wool and stick them in the detainees’ ears, and turn the handle to give them shocks. They referred to this as “listening to Radio Moscow.”

And my mind went back to Windhoek, Namibia, in the winter of 1971.

On 21 June 1971 the World Court gave a ruling that South Africa’s occupation of Namibia was illegal.

On 18th July, about four weeks later, the Lutheran Churches (the biggest denominations in the country) sent an open letter to B.J. Vorster, the South African Prime Minister, saying that they basically agreed with the World Court decision, and included a list of several of the bad things the South African government had done in Namibia. They also sent a pastoral letter to be read in all Lutheran Churches that day, explaining what they had done and why they had done it.

This was even more of a shock to the South African government than the World Court decision itself, because it was totally unexpected. The Lutheran Church was not seen by them as a “political” church, like the Anglicans or Methodists or Roman Catholics. It was a “good” church, which minded its own (spiritual) business and kept its nose out of politics.

So Vorster came to Windhoek to meet the Lutheran leaders and bring them back into line.

After the meeting one of the German missionaries serving with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Pastor Hans-Ludwig Althaus, invited a number of people from other denominations to listen to a tape of the meeting of the Lutheran leaders with Vorster. Vorster did not know it was being recorded, and if the SB (Security Police) had been aware of the existence of the recording they would no doubt have confiscated it.

So we went, like Nicodemus, by night, secretly for fear of the SB, to Pastor Althaus’s house and listened to the tape.

The tape was quite fascinating, and very revealing. Vorster berated them for saying that the police were torturing people in Ovamboland, saying that this was a general accusation, and they should give him specific instances, so that he could deal with the rogue policemen concerned. Bishop Auala then named an
example, and Vorster said, “But that’s an isolated case.” Then Pastor Rieh, another German missionary,  astounded me by saying that they were not talking about isolated cases, but an apparatus, with which police stations were equipped, for giving electric shocks. Vorster rapidly changed the subject. I was surprised at Rieh saying this, and boldly too, because had previously struck me as a government yes man.

That was in October 1971. In December 1971 Pastor Althaus and his family were deported from Namibia, and returned to Germany. I think that was the first time a Lutheran leader had been deported from Namibia.

The Althaus family, deported from Namibia in December 1971

And, back to the present, here is this ex-SB man telling in open court, and broadcast on TV, about this apparatus, and how it was used  And he told us how they dealt with the “rogue policemen” that Vorster spoke of — they had a “sweeper”, someone whose job it was to make sure that these policemen never got into trouble.

And when he described John Vorster Square, the SB Joburg headquarters,  that was more deja vu. Actually his description left out some of the things that struck me most when I was called to see Lieutenant Jordaan in Auguat 1968. I had had an appointment to see a Detective Sergeant van den Heever at the SB headquarters at The Grays in 1966, but got on a plane to England instead, and so did not keep the appointment. The SB had moved, however, to its new purpose-built offices in John Vorster Square, where Ahmed Timol was held.

So I went to this new building in Commissioner Street, next to the new freeway bridge, and just up the road from the JMT bus garage. I went into the building, and looked at the lifts in the foyer, but they did not seem to go to the floor I needed to get to. I asked at the counter, and they told me to go down a little narrow passageway at the side, and there was another lift there, a small one. And it too did not seem to go to the floor I needed to be at, but they had said at the counter that I must go there anyway. So I pressed the button and the lift went up to the 9th floor, and when the door opened there was a bloke at a desk. He asked me who I wanted to see, and if I had an appointment, and he phoned and checked, and then said I must get back in the lift, and he would send me up to the 11th floor. So I got back in the lift,
and got sent up two floors — there was no way of getting there from inside the lift, it was controlled from outside.

There were more checks and I went down a passage with three hefty strongroom doors, and eventually I met Lieutenant Jordaan. He had my file on his desk, and it was about 8-9 inches thick. He asked me questions about where I lived, and who had access, and all the rest of the questions to be asked of a person for whom a banning order was required.

At one point he left me alone in the room whole he went out, and I wondered if they were watching on CCTV to see if I would try to open the file or do something with it, so I didn’t, but I did read the heading on the form he was filling in with my answers.

And zip back to the present, and from what this Erasmus bloke said in court yesterday, I’m pretty sure Lieutenant Jordaan did deliberately leave me alone in the room to see what I would do when his back was turned. So now, nearly 50 years later, we catch glimpses of what was going on backstage during the apartheid dog and pony show.

Thabo Mbeki: Now it can be told

I’ve just been spending a very interesting hour watching the recording of the interview of Thabo Mbeki on Power FM, and he told lots of “now it can be told stories”. I think this link may lead to a recording of it, if you can afford the bandwidth. WATCH: In conversation with Thabo Mbeki:

Former President Thabo Mbeki sat down with Power FM chairman Given Mkhari for an interview.

Mbeki has warned against the term white monopoly capital.

“Let’s understand properly what is happening to the SA capitalist economy so that we can intervene to do the right thing.

“Because if we misdiagnose the problem, the cure is going to be wrong,” he said.

It was all quite fascinating, and because he was no longer in a position of power, or vying for support, he could cut the political obfuscation and tell it like it is.

He was asked how he could have had friendly relations with so many different world leaders, like Bush, Blair, Castro, Gaddafi and others. He said that it was in the interest of South Africa to remain on good terms with other countries even when we didn’t agree with them. He gave the example of George Bush phoning him before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and saying that he didn’t want to invade, because he didn’t want to tell American families that their children had been killed over there, and he needed to be sure that Iraq didn’t have WMD. Thabo told him that South African teams had be there and submitted reports saying there were no WMD there, and Bush asked for assurance, and he promised to ensure that he got the report.

He then phoned Tony Blair, and asked him to ensure that Bush got the reports, but later found that Tony Blair had not done so, which suggests that the push for war was really coming from Blair, not Bush. Blair was not Bush’s poodle, it was the other way round. That was something we didn’t know at the time.

Juju Malema then mentioned that there were two things the EFF thought were important, corruption and land. The minority owned most of the land and something had to be done about that. And Thabo Mbeki said that it was important that we debate the issue, but he did not agree with the EFF’s view. He said that the Freedom Charter said that the land should belong to those who worked it, and who worked the land? He himself did not work the land, he lived in the city. Those who worked the land were farm workers, farm owners and and people living on communal land in the rural areas. He said he asked his mother why great tracts of land around the place where he grew up were lying fallow, and she said that they would need a tractor to plough it, but people could not afford a tractor or a plough. Also, even if they did plough it, back in the old days young boys used to herd the cattle to keep them away from the gardens, but now they were all in school, so the land would have to be fenced, and they could not afford that either.

Former President Thabo Mbeki

He mentioned Archbishop Thabo Makgoba’s autobiography, where he mentioned that the people had been driven off their ancestral land at Magoebaskloof in the 19th century, and there had been some land restitution, but the people simply fought over it, and eventually his own family had left the area. So it was important to discuss the question, but all these things needed to be considered.

He also gave a lesson in economics. Tagging “white” on to monopoly capital, as people in the ANC were currently doing, was meaningless. He said that if there were a thousand small enterprises, they would not be able to influence the market, but as capital tended to accumulate in fewer hands, and when the thousand were reduced to six, they would be able to influence the market, and that was monopoly capital. It was not necessarily everything in the hands of one company, even though that was what the word “monopoly” means, but a few companies big enough to influence the market. But if you looked at the JSE, how much of the investment could be described as “white”? Much was investment by pension funds for all workers, black and white.

As he was speaking I was thinking of IT firms like Google, Microsoft and Facebook, which are good examples of monopoly capital, and booksellers like Amazon.

It was good to hear him speak freed from the constraints of political office.The interviewer asked him, now that he is 75 years old, what advice he would give his 52-year-old self, taking office in 1994, and what mistakes were to be avoided. One of the most important piece of advice, he said, was to be more watchful for those who wanted political office for personal gain rather than to serve the people.

When he was president I thought we were lucky to have such a president. When I looked at the leaders of other countries — Tony Blair, George Bush, Vladimir Putin, Robert Mugabe and others — I thought we were much better off. And most of the present-day leaders are unspeakable, so I won’t mention their names.

The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton)

I’ve just reread yet another Enid Blyton story from my childhood. I’d already read The Enid Blyton Story, about her life and work, and reread The Secret of Killimooin (the first Enid Blyton novel I read), and, as I noted there, while there are some children’s books that adults enjoy reading, Enid Blyton’s books are not generally among them.

So should kids read Enid Blyton? I say yes, because her books can encourage a love of reading.

A blogging friend, Clarissa, recently asked about something related to this. She quotes someone as saying:

If I were to stand up in a faculty meeting and say “The really good students are the ones who read Dickens [or the equivalent in whatever language you were educated in] for pleasure when they were young” I’d be called elitist. Maybe even racist.  American anti-intellectualism spans the spectrum from (literal) know-nothing conservatives to touchy-feely egalitarian leftists.

Clarissa goes on to ask if this is true, because she might be inclined to say the same thing.

I’m not sure if it is true that the really good students were the ones who read Dickens as children, but I am fairly sure that the really good students I’ve had to teach were the ones who read books as children, because they were the ones who were able to make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. An important stage in that transition is reading for pleasure.

Our middle child (who is now 30-something) wanted to go to school and learn to read because he desperately wanted to read The Lord of the Rings for himself instead of having it read to him. He was rather disappointed that he wasn’t able to do so after his first day of school.

Some years ago I was responsible for training self-supporting clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. They came to the training centre for one weekend a month, and then for 10 days at the beginning of each year. Their previous education levels varied tremendously — from four years of primary school to university graduates. Because they were part-time students, much of the training was based on reading, and I soon discovered that many had not made the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. About half of them sere school teachers, and their reading skills were the poorest of all the occupations represented. A grade 7 Maths teacher, for example, had a Grade 6 reading level.

We got some reading training equipment and spent part of each training session in trying to improve reading skills, but also moved the emphasis of the training from book study to other forms of instruction, which put them on a more equal footing. Those who could not read well were not stupid. They could talk just as intelligently as the readers. So yes, I could say that thinking that students who read Dickens were the best students could be elitist.

So how would it have helped them if they had all read books like The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield as children? (Both books have donkeys in them).

The Mountain of AdventureThe Mountain of Adventure by Enid Blyton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first book by Enid Blyton that I actually owned. It was given to me as a birthday or Christmas present when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and I loved it. It featured children riding donkeys in the mountains, a mountain with caves and secret passageways, a mad scientist conducting sinister experiments, and a helicopter. I read it several times.

I also read several other books in Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series, but none were as interesting or exciting as this one. The Valley of Adventure came close, but didn’t quite make it, though it did teach me about stalactites and stalagmites and the difference between them.

Now I’ve just reread The Mountain of Adventure as an adult, and several things stand out, including many of the same faults that I had noted in The Secret of Killimooin. There was the over-use of exclamations (What a surprise!) in both the text and the dialogue. The food porn. The constant pointing out of the obvious.

Yet, for all its faults, to my 10-year-old self the story was interesting and exciting.

I notice some other things in reading it as an adult, however. One of its effects on me as a child was that if familiarised me with idioms that could probably be called literary cliches. They are things that people rarely say in real life, but often say in books, and they came with a flash of recognition — so that’s where I learnt that phrase!

Here are some of them:

  • you’ll come to a bad end
  • the coast is clear
  • while the going’s good
  • it will be the worse for you
  • beside himself with rage
  • taste of their own medicine
  • a coward, like all bullies
  • if looks could have killed
  • smell a very large rat
  • spilt the beans

I was aware of all those idioms, but it was in rereading The Mountain of Adventure I became aware of where I had learnt them.

So would the self-supporting ministry trainees have benefited from reading The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield, and would either have made them elitist?


One of the criticisms of Enid Blyton is that she was elitist, and her characters were all middle class.

I think of Wilson Mthembu, one of the Zululand self-supporting ministry trainees. I know nothing of his childhood or where he went to school, but he had got as far as Standard 2 (Grade 4), and he was a shopkeeper. How well could he identify with four middle-class English school children in the book?

Well, the children are not at home in the suburbs, but on holiday at a Welsh mountain farm, where the life is not all that dissimilar to rural Zululand, where there are donkeys, like those the children ride. And having some people speak English and some speak Welsh is not all that different from the English-Zulu divide in Zululand. And, as a shopkeeper, Wilson Mthembu is a member of the bourgeoisie.

The mad scientist might be a bit out of place, but that’s the essence of adventures — strange things happening.

Then there’s the helicopter.

And I recall that around the time that Wilson Mthembu was attending the training course, they were filming Zulu Dawn not far away. One of the stars, Burt Lancaster, broke his arm, and was taken by helicopter to the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital to have it strapped up. He got out of the helicopter and there was a crowd of kids rushing towards the famous film star, but they ran straight past him and went to look at the helicopter.

And David Copperfield? Well he may have ended up as middle class, but he didn’t really start off that way. So I don’t think that is very elitist either.

A friend gave me a copy of David Copperfield for my 12th birthday. I think he’d told his parents that I liked reading, so they thought I’d like that. But I put it on a shelf and carried on reading Biggles (I’d graduated to that from Enid Blyton by then), and only read David Copperfield years later.

What’s the difference between Blyton and Dickens?

Most 10-year-olds can appreciate Enid Blyton because she tells a simple story. But Dickens is more complex, and it is not the books that are difficult so much as the understanding of human nature. Reading Dickens requires children to have an understanding of adult human nature which most children do not have. It is not reading difficulty, but experience of life that makes the difference. Blyton’s adult characters are crude and over-simplified, but they are fairly easy for children to interpret with their experience of adult behaviour. Dickens’s characters are much more complex, even though they do sometimes seem to have exaggerated characteristics, almost like caricatures. But it is easy for children to miss the irony

When I was at university one of our English set works was Northanger Abbey. I had not a clue what it was about, and missed the whole point. I read it again later, after having read a few books in the genre that Jane Austen was satirising, and only then did it make sense. It was like reading it for the first time, because that was after I had read Melmoth the Wanderer.

So no, I don’t really think it’s elitist to think that students who had enjoyed Dickens as children might be better students. But I think they might also be better students if they had read Enid Blyton.

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PR firms: igniting the fires of ethnic hatred

The public relations firm of Bell Pottinger have just apologised for fanning the flames of racial hatred in South Africa, for money. Bell Pottinger’s full, unequivocal, absolute apology for selling Gupta lies – BizNews.com:

LONDON — Here’s a very big win for the good guys. The £100 000 a month London agency which promoted the Gupta agenda in South Africa – including instigating a threat to use the UK courts to close down Biznews – has suddenly seen the error of its ways. After steadfastly denying any wrongdoing by his company and claiming its clients were innocent victims, Bell Pottinger’s owner and CEO James Henderson today issued a grovelling apology: “full, unequivocal and absolute” to quote from the statement. News like this takes time to digest. Nice. But given the damage this firm’s dark media arts has created in South Africa, and the personal attacks and despicable social media deeds conducted under its instruction, I’m pretty sure this doesn’t close matter. But perhaps, to paraphrase Churchill, it is the end of the beginning. – Alec Hogg

That’s all very well. It’s fine for the arsonist to apologise for starting the fire, but the flames are still burning, and the apology does not put them out.

This is also not the first time that a PR firm has made a handsome profit from fanning the flames of ethnic hatred, and it probably won’t be the last. But to my knowledge it is the first time that a PR firm has apologised for its role in this.

Victoria Geoghegan, MD Financial and Corporate at Bell Pottinger.

The secret to PR spin is not to tell absolute lies, but to put a spin on the truth.

To put it crudely, what Bell Pottinger were paid to do was to bring about “radical economic transformation” in South Africa by promoting the replacement of White Monopoly Capital by Indian Monopoly Capital (the latter represented by the Gupta family).

Some might think that “radical economic transformation” should begin by questioning the role of monopoly capital in the economy, regardless of the race, ethnicity or nationality of the capitalists. The truth that is at the basis of the spin is that historically there has been white monopoly capital in South Africa, and part of the “white privilege” narrative is that it has had sufficient clout to fight back and wrest a public apology from Bell Pottinger.

Those who don’t have that kind of clout aren’t so lucky.

I’ve yet to see an apology from the firm of Ruder Finn for their role in fanning the flames of ethnic hatred that led to the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession, for example. Ruder Finn’s work for Croatia – SourceWatch:

On 12 August 1991, the Croatian government hired the American public relations firm Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs to “develop and carry out strategies and tactics for communication with members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate as well as with officials of the U.S. government including the State Department, the National Security Council and other relevant agencies and departments of the U.S. government as well as with American and international news media”. On 12 November 1991, Ruder Finn’s contract was renewed to include lobbying in relation to diplomatic recognition, sanctions, and embargoes, as well as briefings for officials of the first Bush administration and preparation of special background material, press releases, both reactive and proactive articles and letters to the editors to appear in major newspapers, briefings for journalists, columnists, and commentators. In January and February 1992, Ruder Finn organized trips to Croatia for U.S. Congressmen. The United States recognized Croatia as an independent state on 7 April 1992.

Truth is the first casualty in PR offensive | The Independent:

The Ruder Finn strategy has been to build a congressional and Senate coalition in the US in support of Croatia. The strategy has included mobilising the 2.5 million Croats in the US to lobby their own representatives in Congress.

Central to all this activity was equating the Serbian forces with Communism and the Croats with Western freedom and democracy.

In October 1992, Ruder Finn took up the job of public relations for the ethnic Albanian separatists in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Bell Pottinger’s work in South Africa hasn’t yet led to death and destruction on that scale, but the story isn’t over yet, and the flames fanned by Bell Pottinger are still burning.

 

The Secret of Killimooin

The Secret Of Killimooin (Enid Blyton's Secret Island Series)The Secret Of Killimooin by Enid Blyton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are some children’s books that adults enjoy as much as, or even more than children do. But Enid Blyton’s books are not among them. I’ve just finished reading The Enid Blyton story, which examines her life and work, and it also makes this point. Most children love her books, and most adults don’t. So I thought I’d re-read a couple of books by Enid Blyton to refresh my memory.

This one is the first Enid Blyton book I ever read, at the age of about 8 or 9 or so, and I’ve always thought it was one of her best, though when reading it again as an adult it looks somewhat different. One of the first things that one notices about many Enid Blyton books is what is nowadays called “food porn”. She goes into ecstatic descriptions of food. But then so does C.S. Lewis in Prince Caspian and in some of the other Narnia books. But Lewis is usually making a point about feasts being associated with celebration and community. In his descriptions of feasts there is usually some element of that, so that most of them have overtones of a Messianic banquet. In Blyton there is less of that. It is more food for the same of food.

Many books of advice to would-be authors of children’s books say that one should not “write down” to children. But Enid Blyton does “write down” to children. In The Secret of Killimooin almost every second sentence ends with an exclamation mark. She writes in exclamations: “…he had a surprise that was most unexpected!” Adults tend to notice such redundancies and to be rather annoyed by them, but children don’t.

In her dialogues Blyton even sometimes makes characters speak in exclamations, which real children rarely do — Oh, I say!… What a marvellous surprise!… golly, it will be grand! — yet real children also don’t seem to notice it much.

Yet I also have some vague and rather disturbing memories –that when I was younger and read a lot of these books I thought that perhaps I ought to speak like that, because that was the way proper children spoke, especially those who were destined to have adventures. Or is that just “false memory syndrome”? Or perhaps another grey moment.

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Guptas’ troll armies trying to infiltrate Orthodoxy?

Some time ago I started a Facebook group for Orthodox Christians in South Africa to share news of events and happenings, so that people could learn about things that were happening in parishes other than their own.

Last week there was a flurry of requests from people wanting to join the group. Most of them were from outside South Africa, though they appeared to belong to several other Orthodox groups on Facebook.

Eventually I posted a request in some of those other groups asking that people not ask to join the Orthodoxy in South Africa group unless they had personal connections with the Church in South Africa, otherwise the South Africans in the group would soon be outnumbered by people from other places. There are plenty of worldwide groups they could join.

Some people from other places have joined the Orthodoxy in South Africa group and then post little devotional articles, which you then see several times a day, so that every Orthodox group on Facebook looks just the same, and you can’t see the real news for the padding, and eventually no one bothers to put any real news up at all.

For example, I heard rumours of a monastery being started in South Africa, but nobody said anything, even though several members of the group probably knew about it. That was real news, so why did no one in the group see fit fit to mention it? Why didn’t anyone post photos of it? Yet people post photos of monasteries on the other side of the world.

But something more sinister than devotional spammers has come up. On one of the groups where I pleaded with people not to ask to join the South African group unless they had real South African connections someone suggested that I Google “Putin’s troll army”

I Googled it and this came up — Invasion of the troll armies: ‘Social media where the war goes on’ | Media | The Guardian:

You can hire your own troll army if you have the cash. In 2011 the PR firm Bell Pottinger told undercover journalists that they could “create and maintain third-party blogs”, and spruce up Wikipedia profiles and Google search rankings. Indeed marketing has a rich history of so-called “astroturfing”, which is laying down fake grassroots. Take Forest, “the voice and friend of the smoker”, which at least admits in nearly invisible small print that it is paid for by the tobacco industry.

It’s that ubiquitous PR firm of Bell Pottinger again. PR firm Bell Pottinger ‘exposed’ as masterminding Gupta plots | The Citizen:

The extraordinary emails released on Sunday by both the Sunday Times and City Press have once again cast a light on the role played by British PR firm Bell Pottinger.

The firm dropped the family as clients last month in the wake of protests against their company for allegedly driving the attempt to repair the Gupta family’s image in South Africa.

Could it be that Gupta’s troll armies are trying to infiltrate our Orthodoxy in South Africa group? You’ve got to wonder when someone who asks to join says they live in Venezuela and come from Arizona, and belong to several Orthodox groups and 679 other groups on Facebook.

No one who joins that many Facebook groups can be legit, and I’m sure they don’t want to join the Orthodoxy in South Africa group- because they want to know about Benoni parish’s panigyri or the open day at Saheti School. It does make me wonder why they are members of all those other Orthodox groups as well.

Remember the 1990s TV series Pinky and the Brain, where in every episode they were planning to take over the world? Maybe Bell Pottinger have already taken over the world. Maybe they planted these trolls in all those other Orthodox groups on Facebook as well.

In South Africa Bell Pottinger came up with the phrase “white monopoly capital” as a diversionary tactic to try to take people’s minds off the dangers of Indian monopoly capital, where the Gupta family had their fingers in every pie. The ran a campaign of promoting naked racism, deliberately trying to stir up racial hatred in South Africa because they were paid by the Guptas to do so.

Maybe all this is turning me into a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but never forget the old adage: just because you’re paranoid it doesn’r mean that they aren’t out to get you.

Gilgamesh: it’s a long way to home

GilgameshGilgamesh by Joan London
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frank Clark, an Australian soldier, wounded in the First World War, marries Ada, an English orphan, and takes her back to Australia with him. They try farming in south-western Australia, but life is hard, and their two daughters grow up, one helping on the farm, and the other working as a maid in a nearby hotel. A visit from an English cousin and his friend leaves the younger daughter, Edith, pregnant, and she sets out to find the father of her child in Armenia, just before the Second World War breaks out.

It is a book about travel, about friendship and loss, and about the way in which peoples lives connect for a while, and are then parted and they never see each other again, or sometimes met again in unexpected ways. In that way it seems similar to real life, where the twists and turns of the story are not driven by plot, but often by chance, or spur-of-the-moment decisions. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that truth is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the human mind and therefore congenial to it. And so this story has a ring of truth, and seems close to real life.

Yet it also has a dream-like quality. I don’t know about other people but many of my dreams involve preparing and planning for things that never seem to happen, because something else intervenes and turns things aside at the last minute.

It is this combination of realism and dream that made the book interesting to me, wanting to see what happens in the end, because one never knows what to expect. The characters read The Epic of Gilgamesh, who, like them, travelled a long way from home. In some ways home is where you are, and in others, it is always somewhere else.

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Black Hats and White Hats: American Stereotyping

Nearly 50 years ago I had an American friend, Dave Trumbull, whose father, Howard Trumbull, a missionary, was the treasurer of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, and came to a youth meeting to represent his son, who couldn’t be there on that occasion. Before the meeting he asked me who were the black hats and who were the white hats.

Seeing my bemused expression he explained that in Western movies (in the pre-spaghetti Western days) it was a convention that all the “good guys” wore white hats, and all the “bad guys” wore black hats. Audiences apparently needed these cues as to who were the heroes and who were the villains.

He said (in a rather ironic self-deprecating way) that it was something Americans always wanted to know about every situation they were involved in.

And I said that in the particular situation we were facing, it was not an easy distinction to make. It was rather a matter of good guys making bad decisions. He made some comment to the effect that Americans didn’t like messy situations like that.

I was reminded of him and his comments last week when I posted some links to a blog post and a few newspaper articles on Facebook, and the response of American commenters on them was immediately to look for the “black hats” and put the blame on them.

One of the articles was on my other blog, on The Death of Liberalism in the West, which was mainly about the leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party in the UK feeling compelled to resign because he thought his faith was not accepted in the UK political arena. Two American friends responded with comments on Facebook rather than on the blog post (so I don’t know if either of them actually read the blog post, much less the statement by Tim Farron, the Lib-Dem leader). One identified the Black Hats as right-wing bullies, and the other identified them as left-wing bullies.

I was rather disappointed, as I was trying to understand a phenomenon, rather than looking for scapegoats.

The other thing was that I posted links to some articles about a recent fire in a block of flats in London, in which many people had lost their homes and some had lost their lives. One thing that was clear from the articles was that there had been a lot of bad decisions by various people and organisations, including commercial firms, political parties and and local authorities. But some American commenters were specifically trying to pin the blame on particular people or firms. But not only is the jury still out — it hasn’t been summoned yet to hear the evidence. All the reports show is that there is prima facie evidence of the need for some sort of judicial enquiry. Yet Americans seem to feel an immediate need to pin the blame on someone, to identify the black hats.

I mentioned this to Val on the way to church this morning, and she said, but isn’t that typical of Americans — they love to identify the “bad guys”, and sooner or later go in and bomb them. They did it in the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession in the 1990s, where there were no good guys. The Americans appointed the bad guys, put black hats on them, and then bombed them. A few years later they did it in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, and then in Libya. Now they are doing it to Syria and Russia.

This legalistic American tendency to look for scapegoats and find them before the evidence is available is probably the biggest threat to world peace, and has been for the last 60 years.

It’s more than 50 years since the publication of The Ugly American, which dealt with this phenomenon, but it was so effective that most people don’t realise that the eponymous ugly American was the good guy. He was the guy in the white hat.

A few years after my conversation with Howard Trumbull a couple of friends of mine met a US foreign policy boffin by the name of George Kennan. He had the reputation of being one of their biggest fundis on foreign affairs. They came back from lunch with him thinking that he was so naive that it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. He asked them who the good guys and bad guys in Namibia in the early 1970s were, and seemed to believe that a flick of a switch in the depths of the Pentagon would eliminate the bad guys and solve all the problems.

But most of the American I’ve met have been like the ugly American in the story. I’ve met them outside America, because they don’t have this binary opposition attitude. Many of them, like Howard Trumbull, are, or have been, Christian missionaries. So not all Americans are evil scapegoaters.

So, in conclusion, I think that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t, and there are even some Americans in the latter category.

 

Firefox is Bloatware

I’ve just reloaded Firefox for the sixth time this morning.

It crashed three times, but each time I restarted it it tried to reload all the stuff that had made it crash in the first place, so I had to close it and restart it again.

I remember when Mozilla’s flagship browser was Netscape. It was what I used when I first started exploring the Web, 21 years ago. But it became bloated and cumbersome, and so they wisely decided to split it — the browser part became Firefox, and the mail and news reader became Thunderbird, and they were lean, mean and fast.

Now, however, Firefox has become as bloated and clunky as the old Netscape.

I first began to notice a serious slowdown when I tried to download a PDF file, and instead of downloading it, Firefox opened and displayed it. I wasted quite a lot of time and bandwidth trying to discover how to download the file in order to have it for future reference. It seems that Firefox had added its own PDF reader, which made its memory footprint bigger, and slowed it down quite a lot.

Then it seems to have added something called “Pocket”, which it tells me is better than bookmarks (how?), and that seems to have slowed it down even more. It’s costing me a lot in coffee.

Why? Because when I’m working on something, and want to check a fact on the web, the date of a monarch, or the spelling of a word, I go to make a cup of coffee while waiting for the page to load.

They say they don’t want to develop Firefox for Windows XP any more, because it’s too much hassle to put all these bells and whistles into it.

Well that’s OK, just go back to a version that had fewer bells and whistles and more pistons and cylinders, and re-release that. Then you can go back to playing around producing bloatware for those who can  afford to keep up with the Joneses by buying a new computer every year with more and more memory.

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