Notes from underground

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Outcast (book review)

The OutcastThe Outcast by Sadie Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book follows Lewis Aldridge’s life from the age of 7, when his father returns from the Second World War, to the age of 19. He grows up in an upper-middle-class commuter village in Surrey, where the fathers commute to to work in London, and the mothers supervise the servants and occasionally visit each other.

The children of the neighbourhood play and fight with each other. They go out for bike rides. and walk in the woods together, but Lewis feels increasingly cut off from them and from the adult world as well. The only exception is youngest of the neighbouring children, Kit Carmichael, who is four years younger than Lewis, but is secretly in love with him.

While the novel focuses on Lewis as the protagonist, I felt most strongly for Kit, and my heart ached for her. Perhaps that was because she was the same age as me, and I could measure her life against mine, though I think I liked Elvis Presley more than she did, but I could forgive her that. If one can measure the success of a novel by the extent to which readers identify and empathise with the characters, then this one succeeds.

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Where’s the outrage?

Where’s the outrage?

This is a strange rhetorical question that I’ve been seeing with increasing frequency on the Internet. A Google search showed about 259,000 results.

And it seems strange because if you read what people write about it, a lot of them seem to think that outrages are a good thing, and that they are deploring their absence.

Or people will describe an outrage, giving the details of its exact location, and then ask where it is.

“Police shoot unarmed teenager in Gotham City. Where’s the outrage?”

And the answer, of course is right there, in Gotham City. They just said so.

So it seems that people don’t really know what “outrage” means, and seem to think it means the same as “rage”, but is enhanced by adding a prefix — inrage, outrage, uprage, downrage. Just as people think one can enhance “centre” by putting “epi” in front of it, or “record” by putting “track” in front of it, and some even seem to think that “ultimate” can be enhanced by putting “pen” in front of it.

“Outrage” actually means “the forcible denial of others’ rights, sentiments, etc” or “an act of violence”. When police shoot an unarmed person who is not breaking any law, it is the shooting itself that is the outrage, not the emotional reactions of people hearing or reading about it. An outrage is never a good thing.

But even if it is a malapropism, and if people actually mean “rage” when they say “outrage”, is it a good thing? It is something I’ve seen asked on Christian websites and blogs and social media, and there’s quite a good answer here Where’s the Outrage? | ifaqtheology.

Rage is often the cause of outrages; we often read of incidents of “road rage” where an enraged motorist assaults or sometimes murders another. Is that a good thing?

Time magazine cover, May 29, 2017

Recently Time magazine had a cover showing an Orthodox Church descending on the US White House and assimilating it. Some Orthodox Christians were asking “Where’s the outrage?” about that. Well, quite clearly the outrage was on the cover of Time, but I think what they meant was “Why aren’t more people enraged by this outrage?” And the implication was that they thought more people ought to be enraged by it.

But one of the things we are taught as Orthodox Christians is that we should subdue the passions and control them, and anger, rage, is one of the passions. The way to godliness (theosis) is through bringing the passions under control, and the aim is dispassion (apatheia). So why try to provoke passions in others by asking “Where’s the outrage?”

There are many things in the world that tempt us to let our passions rage unrestrained — Facebook, for example, has recently added an “anger” button which you can click if something enrages you. I try to avoid using it, because it is a temptation to indulge in the passion of unrestrained anger.

If you find the Time cover outrageous, by all means say so, but try not to get enraged by it. One can point out that it displays ignorance and is irresponsible journalism, and hope the errors might be corrected. But indulging in emotional outbursts of anger doesn’t achieve anything. I think that Donald Trump is far more influenced by Pseudo-Evangelical Moneytheism than he is by Orthodox Christianity, so the Time cover is misleading, to say the least. But don’t get all worked up about it, and demand that other people get worked up about it too — to do that is simply to indulge the passions.

And do try to use words like “outrage” accurately (yes, I’m an Orthodox language pedant).

 

 

Medium and Niume — what are they?

For some time now I’ve been hearing about web sites called Medium and Niume, and I’ve been urged to join them. The trouble is, I don’t know what they are, or what they are for.

Today I saw an article that gave at least some information about Medium — ‘The Internet Is Broken’: @ev Is Trying to Salvage It – The New York Times:

Medium was supposed to be developing its business around advertising, which would have paid for writers like Ms. Norman and made the site viable. Then it abruptly pivoted in January and laid off a third of the staff, or about 45 people. Advertising was suddenly no longer the solution but the villain.

“Ad-driven systems can only reward attention,” Mr. Williams says. “They can’t reward the right answer. Consumer-paid systems can. They can reward value. The inevitable solution: People will have to pay for quality content.”

But it doesn’t look good.

I went to the Medium site to find out more, but the main menu was unreadable — designed by web designers who firmly believe that illegibility provides an enhanced “user experience”. Holding a magnifying glass up to the screen enabled me to read enough of the low-contrast text to see that there was no “About” page that would tell you about the site and what its purpose was and how it worked. The NY Times article gives some hints at the thinking behind it, but doesn’t actually tell you what “it” is.

Niume is even worse. You have to join it before you can even see if there is an about page and decide whether you want to join it or not. How’s that for buying a pig in a poke? Whatever advantages it might have, that’s enough to put me off right there.

So my question is: Can anyone who has actually used either or both these sites tell us something about what they are and what they are for, and, if they are blog hosting sites, how they compare with other such sites like WordPress or Blogger?

 

 

Twitter, antisocial media, and the zombie apocalypse

Yesterday Twitter said it was going to send me more “relevant” stuff, and said I could go to me “Settings” page and change it, but without much explanation.

I looked at the settings and clicked on “Disable All”, and got warned that I would be seeing less “relevant” tweets and ads. They also claimed that enabling it would give me “more control” over what I saw on Twitter — a bit disingenuous, that, because as far as I can see, it gives me less control, and completes Twitter’s exodus from the social media fold; it has now become an antisocial medium, because enabling those options means that they get to choose what they will show you.

In the old Twitter, you could choose who to follow and who not to follow. If you followed someone, you would see their tweets, and if you unfollowed them you would no longer see their tweets. That’s maximum control in your hands, and that is the essence of social media — interacting with other people.

The new Twitter, however, limits social interaction. You become an isolated individual, and they feed you what they want you to see, based on what web sites you visit, and other things that indicate your preferences. That means that Twitter becomes a kind of narcissistic ego trip, reinforcing your prejudices, isolating you from people who think differently from you, and thus reinforcing the trend for the Internet to lose whatever potential it had for being a global village, and isolating you in a kind of cyber-ghetto where you never have to move out of your comfort zone.

It also makes it rather pointless to post stuff on Twitter, because you can’t assume that your followers will be able to see it. Twitter might not find it “relevant” enough for them. It might be outside their comfort zone. So if you interact on Twitter, you’ll end up talking to yourself. And Twitter will then have completed the transition from a social medium to an antisocial medium, isolating us in little cocoons. You’ve heard of the “nanny state”, welcome to the Nanny Internet..

As it is, when I go to Twitter, I see if there are any notifications. If there are, I read my Twitter feed, but if there are not, I don’t bother, and go to another site, and look for stuff that I find relevant, and not stuff that Twitter has chosen for me. Because if there are no notifications, it means that no one has been reading anything I’ve posted, so why bother?

Now comes the test: if my tweet announcing this post gets at least 10 retweets on Twitter (that’s 0,86% of my Twitter followers), I’ll know that there’s still life on Twitter, and that there’s still some hope for it as a social medium. And if it gets no retweets, then the zombie apocalypse has already overtaken us, because Twitter will have turned us all into zombies.

Brands and mavericks

I’ve read several articles claiming that the word most people hate most is “moist”. The word I hate most is “brands”. Well, one of the words, anyway.

Consider this, for example, 10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts:

Realizing that millions more people are scratching their heads, wondering what to read and where to spend their subscription dollars, here are my top 10 large journalistic brands where I believe you can most often find real, reported facts:

The use of “brand” in that article is the main reason that I don’t trust it. Yes, I agree with the criteria mentioned in the article, but I’m not looking for reliable brands, I’m looking for reliable news.

Do you go into a shop and say “I’m looking for a brand?” or “What brand should I buy?”

And the shopkeeper might say “Brand of what? Screwdrivers, sticky tape or light bulbs?”

The use of “brands” in that article inclines me not to trust it, because it betrays the mentality of the profit motive.

Take a newspaper.

What is the primary purpose of a newspaper?

  1. To make a profit?
  2. To publish and disseminate news?

“Brand” is a marker word for those who take the first attitude — the primary purpose of a newspaper is to make a profit. So when considering whether to publish a story and how much space to give it, the main criterion for the editor is not whether it is true, or whether it will inform, but “How many papers will it sell?”

So when people talk about “brands” instead of newspapers, journals, magazines or broadcast news programmes, I really don’t trust what they are saying, because they are using marketing speak rather than English. “Brands” suggests smoke and mirrors, a con job, all image and no substance. The important thing about brands is always to be polishing their brand image, rather than improving the product.

Which brand do you prefer? Sunlight, Volkswagen, Dulux or All Gold?

Branding cattle

Doesn’t that depend on whether you are buying soap, cars, paint or jam?

Which brand do you recommend?
Try this one sir, it has seven cupholders.
But how well does it spread when you take it out of the fridge?

The word “brand” comes from cattle ranching in unfenced territory.

Cattle keepers would mark their cattle with distinctive brands to show which belonged to them and which to someone else.

An unbranded beast was called a “maverick“, because no one knew who it belonged to.

So which news outlet do I prefer?

The Daily Maverick, of course.

An Orthodox hipster?

A few weeks ago I came across a Facebook group called Ask an Orthodox Hipster.

I’ve always had a yen to be a hipster, but I don’t think I’ve ever made it. I suppose the closest I got was a wannabe.

What is a Hipster?

My Concise Oxford Dictionary c1964 doesn’t have it, though I’d been using the word for at least four years before I bought the thing.

But my Collins English Dictionary (Millennium Edition) has:

  • hipster n 1 slang, now rare 1a an enthusiast of modern jazz 1b an outmoded word for hippy
  • hippy or hippie n, pl -pies (esp. during the 1960s) a person whose behaviour, dress, use of drugs etc., implied a rejection of conventional values.

It also gives hippy as meaning having large hips, which is why I prefer the spelling hippie for the other meaning.

Nowadays, however, hipster seems to have come back into fashion and is no longer outmoded, but probably about ten times as common as hippie.

I suppose the term hipster was first popularised with that meaning by Allen Ginsberg in his poem Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

And after a few weeks as a member of the Ask an Orthodox Hipster group I can see that yes, it is a place for those burning for the ancient heavenly connection to ask questions.

Christian World Liberation Front, Berkeley, California, 1970

And even before the Internet took off, other Orthodox Christians have had a kind of hipster missionary outreach, or started a hipster ministry and then were drawn to Orthodoxy, such as Fr Jack Sparks of the Christian World Liberation Front.

From here on, this gets personal, so quit now if that’s not your thing.

I discovered that the Ask an Orthodox Hipster group differs from other Orthodox groups on Facebook, in that people do not seem to be angry, or attacking each other. If someone asks a question that people can’t answer, they don’t denounce the question as stupid and the questioner as stupid for asking it, they just pass on to the next thing.

I’ve also found that quite a lot of the questions are ones that I have already answered, at least to some extent, in blog posts I’ve written over the last 10-12 years, and if they aren’t, the question is also sometimes a good prompt for a new blog post.

And this perhaps can provide me with a useful occupation for retirement.

Before retiring one thinks of all the things one could do if one had the time, but one does not have time to do when one is working. Many of the things I hoped to do when I retired had to do with Orthodox mission and evangelism, and visiting Orthodox mission congregations and helping them along by teaching and training their leaders and so on. But they are fairly widely scattered, and visiting them costs money. And I think well, I can’t afford to get the car serviced this month, because I have to pay the doctor, or the dentist, so maybe next month. But next month the car not only needs a service, but also a new battery. And the month after that something else is broken, and the price of petrol keeps going up.

But helping people with answers to questions asked on the Internet requires no physical travel, and can actually reach much further, all over the world, in fact. So I think this Orthodox hipster business could be quite fruitful.

We still continue to visit the mission congregations at Atteridgeville (35km west) and Mamelodi (18km East) on alternate Sundays, but travel farther afield will be much more rare physically, but not necessarily electronically.

 

 

Children’s science fiction and more

We met for our literary coffee klatch at Cafe 41, and Tony McGregor arrived almost straight away. David Levey arrived soon afterwards, and we pronounced that we had a quorum.

Dan Dare — pilot of the future

David said he had noticed on my reading list that I had read a lot of children’s fantasy, and said that he had also read quite a lot of Dan Dare comics as a child, and Dan Dare frequently tangled with a fat-headed green Venusian called the Mekon, who was often up to no good.The producer of the Eagle comic was a Christian and tried to incorporate a Christian message in the Dan Dare stories.

I mentioned that I had an Eagle annual at home, featuring Dan Dare and the Mekon at the Interplantary Olympics, which were held on Venus, and I think it involved a terrorist plot to blow up the Olympic stadium when the Olympic torch was brought in. I also now recall that that was the first time I encountered the word “plinth” in the wild. Somewhere, somewhen, within the last two or three years, I encountered an online discussion about the word “plinth”.

The Mekon — Dan Dare;s Nemesis, or was Dan Dare his Nemesis?

I had not read much children’s science fiction when I was young, but I did read a fair bit of “adult” science fiction when I was at school, and two stories from an anthology called Looking Forward had particularly impressed me. One, called “Ultima Thule” was about a spaceship whose hyperdrive went wrong, so it jumped right out of the universe into nothingness, but because the universe is expanding, it expanded to reach the spaceship 17000 years later, and Captain Vanderveen was welcomed back by his descendants many generations hence. I’m reminded of it by the Queen song about the land that our grandchildren knew.

The other story was a kind of anti-colonialist satire called “The Last Monster” by Poul Anderson. It’s about a planet that has been colonised from earth, and the last of the native inhabitants is dying, and in a poetic and tear-jerking ending says “There’ll always be a shadow just beyond the fire.”

David mentioned two children’s science fiction stories he’d read. One was The cave of time by Paul Capon, which was a boy who discovers a cave and falls through a hole which leads to another cave, which comes out in a different time. I found it interesting because I’d just written a scene in a follow-up story to my children’s novel in which a boy head-butts another boy who is bullying his friend, and he disappears. He later says he didn’t mean to do that, he only wanted to butt him into the middle of next week, and one of the others suggests that that might be what had happened.

The other novel David recommended was The Death of Metal by Donald Suddaby, in which space aliens appear who make metal go soft.

Tony McGregor wrote on Facebook:

“She crossed the lawn like some strange memory, and passed statelily towards the water.” Sometimes a sentence in a book just hits home in a rather mysterious way. Don’t you just love the word “statelily”? As for the “strange memory”, well, that is just wonderful. Any guesses as to what I’m reading?

He promised to reveal all at the coffee klatsch, so we asked him and he produced Women in love by D.H. Lawrence. None of us would have guessed. He said he was re-reading D.H. Lawrence, which he liked, but confessed that he had never managed to read more than a couple of pages of The Hobbit. Val suggested that he start with Lord of the Rings as she had.

I recalled recently reading an article (which I now can’t find) about how fiction has changed. Premodern fiction was all about events: this king mustered an army, he sent it out, they won battles, they conquered their enemies. Modern fiction, however is more about the thoughts and emotions of the characters. Tony said he had read a book like that, East of the mountains by David Guterson, where all the events that took place were related to the interior thoughts they sparked in the protagonist’s mind. Val had enjoyed another book by Guterson, Snow falling on cedars, about Japanese interned during the Second World War.

Church and State and religious freedom

A couple of news items that appeared recently have important implications for religious freedom.

Man hauls 6 schools to court over religious teachings in state school | News24:

A Stellenbosch man is taking six schools to court over how far the institutions can go with teaching religion at state schools.

”It has been nine years that I have been on this case,” said small business owner Hans Pietersen on Friday, of a battle rooted in a ”Jesus Week” activity at his triplets’ school when they were still little.

”They wanted everybody to wear armbands for Jesus which immediately exposes everybody who is not part of those efforts,” explained Pietersen.

In contrast with that, I recall that when our daughter was at a church school Grades 1 and 2 were to put on a nativity play. There’s nothing unusual or controversial about that in a church school, but one of the teachers was careful to ask a Muslim pupil if her parents would mind if she took part. “I’ll tell them that they can be thankful I’m not the pig,” she said, and when the play was eventually performed, she played the part of a cow. But she was asked, and was not pressured into participating, unlike the children in the state school who were expected to wear armbands.

A more serious news item, however, is this one New laws to tackle commericalisation of religion in SA: report:

Government plans to introduce legislation to regulate faith-based organisations in South Africa, in an effort to cut down on religious leaders who are making millions of rands through legal loopholes.

According to a report by the Cape Argus, the new legislation will be heard in parliament in June 2017 following an analysis of the public complaints and interviews by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission).

“We are not disputing that there are still some good religious leaders out there, but as a country we are also faced with a challenge of people who run churches like family businesses and no one questions them on how the church’s money is spent,” said Commission chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi- Xaluva.

“We also have those who abuse their power and make congregants do all sort of things like drinking petrol and eating snakes. We can’t have things like that happening but they will continue if the industry remains unregulated.”

The word “industry” used in this connection is interesting. How does the government propose to deal with this?

One way to do it might be to follow the example of Botswana, where religious organisations are registered by the government, and the government has sometimes forced them to change their names. The Apostolic Spiritual Healing Church, for example, was forced to drop “Apostolic” from its name, because, the government said, there were already too many churches with “Apostolic” in their names, and so it was forced to become the “Spiritual Healing Church”, even though it was known as the Apostolic Spiritual Healing Church in Namibia and South Africa.

For many denominations, however, there is nothing they would like more than to register with the government, because this gives them a recognition they otherwise feel they lack.

This is marvellous for church historians trying to disentangle the skeins of South African denominational history. No sooner have two or three gathered in the name of Jesus than one (or more) of them are writing off to Pretoria to be recognised and registered. And for decades civil servants in Pretoria would write back saying that the religions of citizens were no concern of the government and there was no need to register. And the recipients of these letters would promptly put the file number of this correspondence on their letterheads, to show that they were recognised.

The civil servants were being rather disingenuous, of course, because black ministers needed special permits to buy wine for communion before 1962, and they also needed recognition for concession fares on trains. So there was a complex game being played.

In the 1960s, however, the government realised that it could up the stakes in the game by conning the churches into supporting apartheid.

They changed their policy and started officially registering black churches (or saying that they were), provided that the churches concerned had a clause in their constitutions to say that their churches were only for “Bantu” and only “Bantu” could be member or leaders of the church. That conned a lot of church leaders into signing a statement that explicitly stated that their churches supported apartheid.

So the history of government regulation of churches shows that it is not an unmixed blessing, and can have serious implications for religious freedom.

If some churches are doing weird stuff like encouraging people to drink petrol or rat poison, or collecting money in dubious circumstances, then perhaps it might be best to see whether they can be prosecuted under existing laws. After all, the Nationalist government did not have to pass a special law to prosecute John Rees, the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, for fraud.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (Tales of Alderley, #1)The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just been re-reading some Alan Garner books. This time I read them in reverse, starting with The Owl Service, then Elidor followed by The Moon of Gomrath and now The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

I still rate them pretty highly as children’s fantasy novels, but perhaps reading them in reverse order puts them in a different perspective. The first two, the “Alderley” tales, both end in scenes of confused violence. In the case of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen it wasn’t as good as I remembered it, because of that. And I became aware of more of the plot holes. I still give it five stars though.

It’s about two children staying on a farm, and one of them, Susan, has a bracelet with a magic stone that holds the key to the reserve forces of good being held in a cave under a hill. The forces of evil want to get the stone to destroy the reserve force and increase their own power, so they conspire to steal it.

A common feature of quite a lot of children’s fantasy novels is the underground tunnel sequence. Quite a lot of non-fantasy stories also have it. A good many of Enid Blyton‘s “Adventure” and “Secret” series feature underground tunnels and caves. They are present in The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis and in the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. I am sure one could find many other examples. But The Weirdstone of Brisingamen has absolutely, incontrovertibly, the most terrifying, claustrophobic and horrific underground cavern sequence I have ever read.

When I was 11-13 years old, perhaps inspired by reading such stories, I explored stormwater drains. The first ones were the ones that drained the sports fields at our school (St Stithians, Randburg, in case you were wondering). Others had explored them — they emptied into a stream and a small dam, and they had climbed up the round concrete pipes, which, I think, were about 2ft 6in in diameter. The told stories about people getting claustrophobia in there, and having to slap their faces (how? you couldn’t turn round) and encountering a scorpion. So it was with some trepidation that I first climbed up them. You couldn’t crawl on all fours, there wasn’t room for that. Just the thought was scary before I tried it. Alan Garner’s novel is ten times scarier than that. Later I explored the stormwater drains of Sandringham, Johannesburg. The lower broader bits were big enough to ride a bike up, but they got narrower when they reached the Sydenham border, and there we used to sit and frighten pedestrians and cyclists with hollow booming tunnel-amplified voices that came from beneath their feet. And one still occasionally reads news items about kids who were doing that and got downed when a sudden thunderstorm struck and they couldn’t get out in time. Rushing rainwater travels a lot faster than a crawling child. But Alan Garner’s book is much, much scarier than that.

Apart from that there’s a lot of running and hiding and trying to keep the stone out of the hands of the bad guys and a deus ex machina or two.There are quite a lot of allusions to mythology. The blurb’s like to describe this as “Celtic”, but that, I think, is because of the glamour that has been ascribed to the epithet “Celtic” in recent Western culture. In fact a lot of the mythology is Norse. Back when the book was fir5st published there was no Google, and one of the things that seemed to be missing was any explanation of the name Brisingamen. Perhaps Garner was hoping to provoke a generation of school children to be curious enough to find out for themselves, even though the only tool at their disposal was a card cataloge. And perhaps he succeeded in that aim too.

It’s a good tale well told, and well worth reading, I think. One can’t say much more without plot spoilers. But yes, the violence at the end is a bit much.

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The Moon of Gomrath

Moon of GomrathMoon of Gomrath by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having just read it for the 5th (or is it the 6th?) time, I think I notice some flaws I did not spot in earlier readings, but would still give it 5 stars for the tension, the excitement, the facing of strange dangers. Though the blurb describes it as “Celtic”, the Einheriar of the Hearlathing sound pretty Anglo-Saxon to me, and the “old straight track” is anything but old, and was concocted by a 20th century businessman, but it still makes for a good exciting story, not of other worlds far away, but other worlds impinging on this one.

The flaw I noticed this time, however, was the heavy commuter traffic between Alderley Edge and Shining Tor. They rush the 9 miles to Shining Tor, on horseback or sometimes on foot, only to discover that they have to rush back again to consult the wizard Cadellin Silverbrow about something. This shuttling back and forth makes it seem that something is happening, but it isn’t really. It gives it the feel of one of those comedy films or stage shows where people are rushing from room to room in a house looking for someone who is looking for them, each one looking in the rooms that the other has just vacated.

I still like it, though. I think Alan Garner’s first three books are among the best and most exciting fantasy books I have ever read. I like his style, I like the excitement and the tension, I like their link to real places.

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