Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Hiatus in Holland

Fifty years ago I had a kind of gap week between working and going to college. I had finished my job with London Transport, and Brother Roger, an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection (CR), invited me to join him in a visit to a couple of middle-aged Dutch ladies who had invited him to stay with them.

They stayed in Bergen, North Holland, and their names were Wieta Monquil and Ank Schoen. Their backyard had a couple of self-catering flats which they let to summer visitors, but summer was now almost over, and the last visitors were some German deaconesses, with a couple of their elderly relatives.

Wieta Monquil, Ank Schoen, Bropther Roger, CR and one of the German Deaconesses. Bergen N-H, September 1966

Wieta Monquil, Ank Schoen, Brother Roger, CR, and one of the German Deaconesses. Bergen N-H, September 1966

Brother Roger said that he had met Ank and Wieta quite by chance. He had been with another CR Brother, Brother Zach, who was from Bermuda, and they had got chatting in a park. And that had led to the present invitation.

Dieudonne, the home of Wieta Monquil and Ank Schoen in Bergen, North Holland

Dieudonne, the home of Wieta Monquil and Ank Schoen in Bergen, North Holland

On Sunday we went to church with Ank and Wieta, to a small Dutch Reformed Church in a country village some distance away.

Church in a small village somewhere in North Holland

Church in a small village somewhere in North Holland

The church building was very old and square in shape. The pulpit was very high, and in front of it was a brass windmill, forming the top of an arch over the rail around the pulpit. The dominee was very young, but preached rather well, and spoke quite slowly, so I could understand most of what he said. All the children sat on the left, and four of them were given presents, as they were now 11 years old and would be leaving the Sunday School.

After church Brother Roger and I rode into the village on bicycles and looked at an old railway locomotive there, which had once pulled trains between Alkmaar and Bergen-on-Sea, but the line had long since been abandoned. Around the town there were lots of children on bicycles, most of them very rude, and giving hostile looks at us. They didn’t seem to like foreigners.

In the afternoon two friends of Ank and Wieta, Peter de Kleer and Evert van Kuik, who lived in a nearby town, came to lunch, and then we went with them and two of the German deaconeses to see the Afsluitdijk between the Ijsselmeer and the North Sea. We crossed over miles of flat country that had once been twenty feet below sea level, and was land reclaimed from the old Zuiderzee. Evert said it had been flooded by the Germans at the end of the war. We rode along the dijk to the middle, where there was a monument to mark the spot where it had finally been closed, at the 12th attempt. We climbed the tower that stood there, and looked out over the grey expanse of the North Sea, and over to the north-east was Friesland, and to the south-west was West Friesland, from which we had come, though really it was part of North Holland. Down below someone was fishing in the Ijsselmeer, and there were gulls swimming and flying around the nets.

Afsluitdijk, separating the North Sea from the Ijsselmeer.

Afsluitdijk, separating the North Sea from the Ijsselmeer.

We went back in the car to the island of Weeringen, which was now no longer an island, having been surrounded by polders long ago. We went to the town of Den Oewer, and an old man on a bicycle showed us the way to a house where Crown Prince Wilhelm, son of the last German Emperor, had lived. I found that I could understand what the old man was talking about far more easily than I could understand Ank or Wieta. I found their accent very difficult to follow, and when I talked to them in Afrikaans they would say “Dat is leuk!” (That’s so cute). The old man said the Kaiser’s son’s old house was now the dominee’s house. The church there was also a very old thing (according to him). We then went on, passing many houses with their roofs made of tiles, and with the tiles partly thatched over. Peter said that the Dutch called any single-storeyed house a “bungalow” — which accounts for some confusion when I had asked the way to places, for we only used the words to describe barrack-huts and things like that.

After that we went back home, and had a big and jolly supper time with the German Deaconesses and their mother, which was really like a Tower of Babel, because so many languages were being spoken.

Brother Roger cycling from Bergen to Alkmaar, 27 September 1966

Brother Roger cycling from Bergen to Alkmaar, 27 September 1966

Ank went to work during the week and Wieta stayed home and looked after the house and the guests, not that they needed much. She was the nervous and talkative one, and was worried that she worried so much and could not be gentle and calm and patient like Ank.

On Tuesday 27 September 1966, fifty years ago today,  Brother Roger and I went into Alkmaar on the bicycles. It was again a rather dull day, but the town of Alkmaar made up for any dullness in the weather. We went to look at the church, an enormous Gothic affair, and to get inside one had to go round to the office and pay 25c. That we did, and they gave us a guide leaflet, only when we got inside we found it was written in German, so we went and asked for another one, and Brother Roger explained that he was English and I was South African, and then said “Thank you” in French. “We are very international, aren’t we?” observed the girl who gave it to us, and when we were back inside the church Brother Roger said they seemed much more pleasant and friendly when they knew we weren’t German.

Organ in the church at Alkmaar.

Organ in the church at Alkmaar.

It seemed that there were lots of German visitors in this area in the summer, and some of them were old soldiers who come to show their families where they were during the war.

The church was built before the Reformation, between 1470 and 1520, but was now the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk, and the pulpit was halfway down the nave. At the end, in what had once been the sanctuary, were thrones for the 24 elders. The organ was a beautiful rococco thing, and the transept arches, built in bricks, were also very beautiful. When we left the girl at the door also mixed up her languages, as Brother Roger did sometimes as well. She finally said “Auf wiedersehen” as we were leaving, and I said “Totsiens” to her. I think the general sentiment was clear, however.

We then rode off down Lange Straat, a busy main street, and were almost run over many times, and turned off, and eventually we came out into the Waag-plein, where the cheese sales were held. There we went into a cafe, the Cafe de Waag, and had lunch. The lunch was soup with meatballs in, and lemon gin, and cheese and bread. The tables, as in all Dutch cafes, were covered with carpets, and there were two billiard tables, without pockets, and a kaaskop with glasses and a serious expression was practising while we ate. The object seemed to be to hit one ball so that it hit two others, but he never seemed to manage it.

Cafe de Waag in Alkmaar. 27 September 1966

Cafe de Waag in Alkmaar. 27 September 1966

After lunch we crossed the square and rode down a couple of narrow streets, and came to one with a house, or rather several houses, built onto a canal, one of which, with a lot of cheap trinkets in the windows, was described as “Huis met de Kogel 16e eeuw; gotische houten gevel (met kanonskogel uit het beleg van Alkmaar, 1573)” We rode alongside the canal, and a little further along saw a swingbridge open to let a boat through, and then a man walked out of the front door of his house, with a fishing net in his hands, dipped it into the canal, and walked back to his house with a bucket full of fish. The road we were on ended on the Noord-Hollandse Kanal, and we turned right, and went up Verdronkenoord, a similar street to the last one, with a canal down the middle, and beautiful old houses on each side.

Alkmaar, Noord-Holland

Alkmaar, Noord-Holland

We went along the Oude Gracht, which had been pumped dry while canal and road were being repaired. The road menders gave us a friendly greeting, and said something about a “joy ride”. A friendly greeting is somewhat rare. Most of the natives of the country seemed to be hostile to foreigners, perhaps, as Brother Roger said, because they thought we were German, though a little further on, when passing through a park, we heard an old man telling two youngsters that we were Russian.

The following day we visited a Benedictine monastery at Egmond, and Fr Hoff, the sacristan, showed us some of the vestments which they sold there. Brother Roger bought a set of white ones, which was very beautiful, and cost fl190.00, about R38.00, which he said was cheap. We had a look at the chapel, which
was austere, and almost bare of any ornament, and then walked back to wait for the bus, up an avenue lined with chestnut trees, with the leaves all yellow and brown, so it really was autumn now.

After getting back to Bergen we cycled in to the town and had a look at a bookshop there, which was very good for such a small town. I bought a copy of Wachtend op Godot. It was actually the complete plays of Samuel Beckett. We had a drink at a cafe, with tables covered with the inevitable carpets. Brother Roger said that the Dutch, unlike the English, tended to look down on that. The English, being sociable, would go down to the pub for a drink, but the Dutch, or at least the respectable ones, would drink at home, with the curtains open, of course. But I rather liked the atmosphere of the Dutch cafes, with their carpet-covered tables, and they seemed much more quiet and respectable than an English pub.

After supper we said Evensong together, for the Eve of St Michael and all Angels, and I told Brother Roger about my theology of angels, and he did not agree with it. Then Wieta came along, and we read the Bible with her, the Psalms for Compline.

We also cycled to Kamperduin, on the coast, through pine trees and over the dunes. I believe that Camperdown in KZN was named after it.

Cycling to Kamperduin

Cycling to Kamperduin

For Michaelmas we went to Mass at the local Roman Catholic Church, and had supper with the priest. He said he had been an Anglican until four years ago, and had been a curate in Australia when he “poped”, as he put it. He had been trained at Kelham, spoke five languages, and was the youngest parish priest in Holland. He had a European parish, and had services in Dutch, French and German every Sunday. He had an interesting coffee-table book on the German occupation in the war. One chapter dealt with a strike and protest against persecution of the Jews, and in it was a reproduction of a document as follows” “Noot voor de redacties. Noot no 265. Niet voor publikatie. Amsterdam, 25 Februarie – Over stakinen t Amsterdam en over den algemeen toestand in deze stad mag niets worden gepublicieerd. Hoofredaktie. ANP. Niet voor publicatie.” Amsterdam in 1942, but it could just as easily have been Johannesburg or Salisbury in 1966.

That evening Peter and Evert came again, and we sat with the German deaconesses, and came, and we sat with the German deaconesses and talked. Brother Roger told us how he went home to England for a holiday once, and the superior asked him where he wanted to go, and he said to the Civil War in Spain, and so he did, with a group of Quakers to look after children. And in the town where he was a convent was suspected of harbouring traitors, so the Republicans blew it up, and the neighbouring church as well. But when they went into the church to blow it up they took off their caps and put out their cigarettes. There was also in the church at that time a statue of St James, reputed to work miracles, and they held a revolver to the head of the statue and said, “If you work a miracle tonight, we’ll blow your brains out.” — and that was said in all seriousness.

Before we went to bed I read Wieta an Afrikaans poem which she had, “Die vlakte”, by Celliers, and it delighted her. She said Afrikaans sounds so innocent and earthy. It is one of my favourite poems, apparently inspired by Shelley’s “Ode to the west Wind”, but much better than Shelley.

I went back to the UK, and began my studies at St Chad’s College, Durham, but in April 1967 my mother and a friend came for a holiday, and we hired a car in Amsterdam and toured round Europe, and on our return spent more time with Wieta Monquil and Ank Schoen. And I again spent a few days with them on my way home to South Africa in 1968. So they had become good friends.

As for Brother Roger, that was the longest time I had spent with him. He was my spiritual father, my guru, in many ways, and not just in theology. When I was 19 years old he plied me with books to read from the Community’s library in Rosettenville, and so was a kind of mentor in English literature as well. He turned me on to Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Charles Williams and many other authors, and talking to him seemed to me far more interesting and useful than three years of English study at university (I passed English I 3 times at two different universities, and none of them made literature seem as interesting and exciting as Brother Roger did).




A traveller’s history of India

A Traveller's History of India (2nd ed)A Traveller’s History of India by Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I added this book to Good Reads, and discovered it was my 1000th book, a figure that seemed to deserved some sort of notice.

As the title suggests, it’s a traveller’s history, a compact book intended to be read by foreigners travelling to India, and taken along for reference when there. It has a gazetteer of historic towns mentioned in the text, with indications of what can be found there, in addition to a brief outline of Indian history. I’m unlikely to visit India in my lifetime, so it won’t serve its purpose for me, but I nevertheless found it an interesting account.

It did, however leave me with some questions. Though the author is himself a foreigner (Sri Lankan) and so sees India with an outsider’s eye, he seems to adopt a north India point of view, and the south is only mentioned in connection with attempts by the north to conquer it.

He mentions the Aryan invasions (which many Hindu nationalists dispute) but says little about the people that the Aryans found when they invaded, other than that they tended to become members of the lower castes as Hinduism developed. It would have been interesting to know how this worked out in the south, where the Aryans barely penetrated.

There are also gaps in the story of the development of languages and religion. It appears that Sanskrit was brought by the Aryan invaders, but the Buddhist scriptures were mostly written in Pali, and won wonders where that came from, and somehow both got replaced by Hindi somewhere along the line.

Obviously one can’t fit everything into a small book, but a few extra paragraphs on these topics would only have added about 5-1o pages to the book.

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The Deplorable Word

Quite a controversy seems to have been generated by reports that US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton referred to supporters of one of her rivals, Donald Trump, as a “basket of deplorables”.

I first became aware of this when a Facebook friend, Ed Unneland, asked, “My question is why she regrets saying “half?” Should she not be regretting the word “deplorable?” I am not supporting Trump, but since when did we start excommunicating people from the body politic for voting for another major party?”

dword1And my response was, “It is deplorable to call people deplorable. Words can be deplorable. Political policies can be deplorable. But people? No.

I would have been content to leave it at that, but then other people started discussing it on Facebook and elsewhere. Political discussions often lead to ad hominem arguments, and one of the boring things about Facebook nowadays is the frequency with which my Facebook friends post ad hominem attacks on the US presidential candidates they don’t like. I usually ignore them and pass  on to something more interesting.

But what was interesting about this one was that the target of this attack was not a politician, but it was a politician attacking the supporters of a political rival. And what bothered me was that some of my Christian friends on Facebook were defending this and saying it was OK.

I think it is decidedly unChristian to call people deplorable.

In South Africa we have recently had a controversy about some US “pastor” who appeared to believe that homosexuals were deplorable, and I was amazed at the amount of free and unsolicited publicity that the media gave him.

Words can be deplorable, ideas can be deplorable. political policies can be deplorable, but calling people deplorable is the first step on a slippery slope that leads to genocide.

Our Lord Jesus Christ did not draw the line at anyone, and if we draw the line at anyone, he will be on the far side of that line and not on ours.

Our Lord Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

So if there is any basket of deplorables, I’m right in there with them.




BookCrossing: First capture

I’ve been a member of BookCrossing for about 14 years, and was chuffed that for the first time ever I’ve had a message that someone has “captured” a book I released into the wild, and has bothered to mention it on the BookCrossing web site:

Journal Entry 3 by NKR-Reader at Augrabies, Northern Cape South Africa on Wednesday, September 07, 2016

I love reading and found the book in a cottage at Quiver Tree Guest House outside the town of Augrabies. First time I have ever come across Bookcrossing. What an exciting way to share ones books. Looking forward to reading the book and then passing it on.

For those who don’t know, BookCrossing is a scheme for circulating books and sharing them with other readers. Each book is given a number, with a note asking the person who finds the book to pass it on, and note on the web site where they found it, and where they rereleased it.

It seems that I muddled up the places where we left the books during our holiday trip a year ago — we didn’t have Internet access till we got to Cape Town, and so I muddled the order of the places in which we left the books when entering them a week later. But we enjoyed our stay at the Quiver Tree Guiest House, and are glad they left the book available for someone to find. We’ve sometimes wondered whether the books we have left are found by cleaning staff and tossed in the rubbish as just useless stuff that some guest has forgotten.

Quiver Tree Guest House, Augrabies -- where we left a BookCrossing book

Quiver Tree Guest House, Augrabies — where we left a BookCrossing book

BookCrossing is an interesting form of social networking, especially if you get to hear what has happened to books you have left lying around. You don’t have to leave them in hotels and guesthouses, they can be left in any public place, or even passed on privately. So if you haven’t joined yet, please consider doing so.

Quiver Tree Guest House. on the road to Augrabies Falls

Quiver Tree Guest House. on the road to Augrabies Falls


Social networking and social media

Over the last 30 years or so we’ve seen a tremendous increase in electronic communication by computer networking. Thirty years ago I mainly communicated with distant friends and family by snail mail. Now I mainly use email, if I have their email address. And there are social networking web sites like Facebook and Twitter where you can find friends and family even if you’ve lost touch with them.

But though the internet in general, and social networking sites in particular, make communication easier, the owners of the sites seem to go to great lengths to place obstacles in the way, so that the potential of the internet for communication is never fully realised. One of the most notorious examples was when Facebook, without telling its users, changed every user’s email address in its directory to a Facebook address, and hid mail sent to that address in a place where no one could find it.

I’d like to make some suggestions for improving the utility of social networking to the users. They probably won’t be tried, because there is a huge clash of interests, so Facebook is perpetually fighting its users in order to manipulate them and sell them, offering them the minimum of what they want in order to keep stringing them along.

Other social networking sites have been less successful at this. They start offering something that people find useful, and gain a lot of users. They then sell the site to a big company that announces that they are going to improve the site, and remove the very thing that attracted users in the first place. Yahoo! was notorious for buying up such sites and killing them — for example Geocities, BlogLog and WebRing.

When BlogLog went, there was another similar site called BlogCatalog, but they tried making “improvements” that crippled the main thing that attracted users.

Yet another was Technorati, which was a very useful tool for finding blog posts on similar subjects by means of tags. It also showed a list of trending topics in blog posts, some of which I did not understand at all, but curiosity made me investigate some of them, and so I leant something about popular culture, and the meaning of words like Beyonce, Pokemon and Paris Hilton (no, not the hotel, the daughter of its owner). And one of the things that trended was Twitter. I didn’t see much point in Twitter at first, but when Technorati abandoned its main function, Twitter became a less satisfactory substitute.

friendsWhenever I link to a new blog from one of my WordPress blogs, there is a kind of social networking questionnaire. It’s an idea that’s been around for a long time, and I’ve filled in the information in the hope that someone will find a use for it one day. It’s called XFN, or the XHTML friends network, and you can read more about it here.

The rationale behind XFN’s categories of relationship is given here. While I don’t agree with all their decisions and categories, I think that it is a pretty good starting point, and that social networking sites like Facebook would be immensely improved if they instituted something like that.

In terms of XFN categories, all these are obviously "met". But otherwise, from left to right -- (1) friend kin colleague; (2) kin, friend; (3) me; (4) acquaintance (5) friend, colleague.

In terms of XFN categories, all these are obviously “met”. But otherwise, from left to right — (1) friend kin colleague; (2) kin, friend; (3) me; (4) acquaintance (5) friend, colleague.

The only thing I would add for a site like Facebook would be the time dimension — the “met” category can mean last week or 40 years ago. I find Facebook most useful for contacting old friends and far-away friends.

But the use of categories like the XFN ones could enable Facebook to improve their algorithms of what they show to users. At the moment Facebook shows me lots of stuff from some people in the “contact” category, people I have never met.

Allowing users to categorise posts would also help. Some categories might be family news, general news, professional news, humour, trivia, etc. And possibly an importance rating — I don’t want to learn of a death in the family after the funeral has taken place (as happened in a couple of cases recently), while a new bird seen in the garden might be of less importance.

Does anyone else think any of this would be useful if implemented by Facebook or some other social networking sites?

Inside Quatro: ANC and Swapo prison camps

Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPOInside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO by Paul Trewhela
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s taken me nearly six years to read this book. It’s about prison camps run by the ANC and Swapo, mostly in Angola and Zambia, in which party dissidents were detained without trial, and sometimes tortured. The book consists mainly of essays reprinted from a publication called Searchlight South Africa edited by the author, Paul Trewhela, and his colleague Baruch Hirson, both of whom had been jailed for anti-apartheid activities in South Africa.

The articles, it seemed to me, varied greatly in quality, and that was one reason it took me so long to read it. Another reason was that there seemed to be no way of verifying the claims that are made, and so I didn’t really feel competent to write a review — so let anyone reading this review beware.

Some of the articles seemed factual, and thus believable, while others seemed to be much more tendentuious. The title, too, is misleading. It is not the exile history of the ANC and Swapo — that has yet to be written, or maybe it has been, but I haven’t seen it. There were some things I knew a bit more about — churches in Namibia, for example — but Trewhela dealt with a period after I had been deported from Namibia, and so was out of touch. But again, it did seem to be very patchy and incomplete. In part that is because of the nature of the material.The articles were all topical articles in a magazine, and so could not really be expected to provide a comprehensive history.

I was initially put off be a couple of the early articles, which had “Stalinist” in almost every paragraph, to describe the ANC. Paul Trewhela had been a member of the South African Communist Party, which was inclined to be Stalinist. He left it and became a Trotskyist, and I had read somewhere that many of the American Neocons who had pushed the US into war in the early years of the century had originally been Trotskyists, and some of the early essays seemed to lend support to that thesis. They seemed to be the kind of thing the National Party government would say to try to discredit the ANC and Swapo as “communist”. So I put the book aside, and only picked it up occasionally to read another of the essays.

The later ones generally seem better than the earlier ones, but there is no way of determining how accurate they are without a great deal of historical research, and that is the kind of research that I would prefer to leave to others. I’m interested in writing about periods that I do know something about, where I have at least some first-hand knowledge.

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It’s a good thing that no one is reading this

… so why do I bother to write it?

Pointless, my favourite TV show

Pointless, my favourite TV show

It seems that when I post a link to a blog post on Facebook lots of people comment on Facebook (never on the blog itself) and haven’t read the post anyway. It sometimes worried me and made me think sometimes that blogging was a pointless activity.

Here was I taking all this trouble to write something, but nobody was reading it. And anyway the people whose opinions I was seeking never responded because Facebook never showed it to them. Facebook’s algorithms seem pretty pointless too. I have something like 470 friends on FB, and Facebook only shows me stuff from about 15 of them. I become friends with someone on FB, and Facebook shows me their posts for 3 days and then stops. So what’s the point?

But then I read this (from a link from Twitter), and thought I’d better stop worrying about it Why it’s a very good sign that people don’t read your content:

When I started out as a blogger, I had no idea what I was doing. I was working so hard, and creating content that was pretty darn good. And yet, nobody was reading my posts, commenting, or sharing. I was frustrated.

Pointless-3But if it’s all pointless anyway, what does it matter?

As that article points (oops!) out, it doesn’t matter whether people read it or not, so why bother to try to write anything coherent when no one is going to read it anyway just random stream of consciousness stuff will do and writing a blog post will be like a dog scratching itself to get rid of flees but why is my doing still scratching himself when I just put Frontline tick stuff on him three days ago? Ah, Frontline there’s a brand, and brands are the most important thing nowadays. Content is nothing, brands are all. I’ve seen web sites that ask you what you’re interested in and one of the important things to be interested in is brands not brands of anything — cars, shampoo, antitick stuff for dogs it doesn’t matter the important thing is brands. Not art literature books or anything just brands.

TelkomQuotaActually I haven’t been reading many links on Facebook myself lately either. I “like” it or not based on the headline, because if I go to the article itself this will happen –>

And waiting for web pages to load becomes like watching paint dry. Telkom does have a thing where you can buy more bandwidth and speed it up again, but it hasn’t been working for a week now, which makes Telkom Internet pretty pointless too.

So I’m not reading your content and you’re not reading my content, but that’s a good thing, according to the quoted article, which I bet you haven’t read either.

And so life is reduced to pointless click bait.


What should we wear?

The recent controversy in France about what one is permitted to wear on certain beaches is not so much about dress codes as it is about religious freedom. Secularism is a kind of civil religion in France, and secularists can be just as intolerant as the followers of any other religion when their religion is allied to state power. The laws that prevented Muslim women from wearing a burkini applied just as much to Christian or Buddhist monastics, Sikh turban wearers, and perhaps Hindu loin-cloth wearers as they did to Muslim women. Fortunately a higher court has found such laws to be ultra vires, so they may soon be scrapped.

Matt Stone asks a more general question about dress codes on his blog — Where do you draw boundaries on dress codes? (Curious Christian):

What would a universally acceptable dress code even look like? In some (sub)cultures full body coverings including face coverings are mandatory for all. In some (sub)cultures clothing is optional. Two extremes on a spectrum. In my own culture jeans and shirts are the norm, with bearing shoulders and midriff common in summer in informal settings. Head coverings are acceptable but face coverings of any sort are seen as subversive and banned in high security areas.

Concerning face coverings, in Western culture there is, of course, the stereotype of the masked bandit, so people who cover their faces must be up to no good. But this does not apply to the French “burkini bans”, because in those garments the face is not covered.

helmetBut Western culture also has the tradition of the masked ball, and there are people who wear celebrity masks in public, which cover their faces and make them look like someone else. Are those illegal or frowned upon in Australia? And don’t American kids wear masks at Hallowe’en?

So where do you draw the line about face coverings?

In some circumstances they are permissible, but in others there is the assumption that someone who covers their face in a way that makes recognition difficult is suspected of having criminal intentions.

anonymousAnd even when they are not regarded as criminal, sometimes masks can be seen as subversive.

So should all face coverings be banned? Or just criminal ones? Or just religious ones?

Though face coverings may be part of a dress code, they are also a special case, and perhaps one should separate the question of dress codes from the question of face coverings.

It is also important to make a distinction between secular and secularist.

Secular is a descriptive adjective, while secularism is an ideology with religious overtones.

A secular society is one in the law does not impose any religious or theological view on people. The law is neutral in matters of religion. Thus a secular society can allow freedom in matters of religion. A secularist society, on the other hand, will seek to suppress religion, and curtail religious freedom.

The French towns that have sought to restrict the kind of clothing that can be worn on beaches have done so in the name of the ideology of secularism. The reason they give for this is that the wearing of clothing that reveals the religious views of the wearer could lead to public disturbances.

I thijnk these are sisters of the Community of the Holy Name, whom I knew in Zululand. If certain French mayors had their way, they would niot be permitted to do this in France

I think these are sisters of the Community of the Holy Name (CHN), whom I knew in Zululand. If certain French mayors had their way, they would not be permitted to do this in France

As is seen in the picture above, recently posted on Facebook, some Christian monastics wear distinctive dress. And many monastics also have dress codes and other restrictions for people who visit their monasteries. A secular society would respect such codes, but a secularist society might not. People can often be hypocritical in demanding that “freedom of expression” be allowed in other societies and cultures, which they would not allow in their own — see Pussy Riot, freedom of expression and Western hypocrisy | Khanya.

Is a dress code imposed by a monastery on its visitors comparable to the code imposed by municipal authorities on visitors to a public beach? Is there a difference between public and private spaces, and if so, what is it?

And this by no means exhausts the question of dress codes and their significance. For a different aspect, see Izikhothane: a new word for an old fashion? | Khanya.




Networking and consciousness

A blogging friend recently drew my attention to an article about scientists’ attempts to understand consciousness — World’s Smartest Physicist Thinks Science Can’t Crack Consciousness – Scientific American Blog Network: The chemist Ash Jogalekar, who blogs as “The Curious Wavefunction,” wrote about Witten’s speech and transcribed the relevant section. (Thanks, Ash.) Here is an excerpt:

I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that’s what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness…

Now I’m no scientist. I haven’t gone beyond high school physics and that was more than 50 years ago, and string theory wasn’t around then, so if you think that what follows is the insane ramblings of a lunatic, you’d better stop reading now. Check the right-hand column for something else to read, or close this window.

My picture of consciousness or an analogy for consciousness is that it arises out of the complexity of networks, and in this case the networks of neurons in the human brain.

This idea was suggested to me by a science fiction short story called A subway named Möbius. “When the MBTA (Boston’s Public Transportation authority) introduces a new line, the topology of the network become so complex that a train vanishes…lost in some fourth dimensional properties of the network.”

The Boston T

The Boston T

I read the story in 1962, when I was 21. There was no Google in those days, so I had to go searching among mathematical texts in the library to discover what topology was. The story mentioned a Möbius strip, which had one side and one edge, which the author described as a “singularity”. It also mentioned a Klein bottle, which managed to be inside itself, and had two singularities. The mathematical texts that I found explained and illustrated these, so at least I could form a mental picture of them, and for a while I enjoyed making Möbius strips and astounding my friends by demonstrating that they had one side and one edge. In the story a mathematician, Roger Tupelo, explains the disappearance of the train referring to the topological qualities of the network. It is a closed system, so the train must be somewhere on the system, but it has no real “where”.

The story suggested to me how it might be possible to have infinity in a finite space. It gripped my imagination, and I wondered if that was what consciousness was. Could this be an analogy to the link between the metaphysical mind and the physical brain? That the network of our brains was so complex that our thoughts jumped into another dimension?

A few years later I came across a play by N.F. Simpson called A resounding tinkle. At one point in the play a radio is playing in the background, and something resembling Anglican Evensong was playing, with dialogue something like this:

Versicle: Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality.
Response: Which is an illusion caused by mescaline deficiency.

V: At sanity
R: Which is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency.

V: At thought.
R: which is an illusion caused by certain electrochemical changes in the human brain structure which, had they been otherwise, what is now commonplace would be beyond our wildest imaginings, and what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would be commonplace.

And the connection between brain and mind would be as much beyond our wildest imaginings as that.

Of course this is all completely unscientific, being based on science fiction and the Theatre of the Absurd, but I rather liked the idea that the topological qualities of a network could make the whole network greater than the sum of its parts, and the brain as a neural network is a lot more complicated than an underground railway. I’ve always liked visible networks, like railways, and prefer trolley buses to oil buses, partly because their network is more visible.

When I actually visited Boston, I was rather disappointed to discover that the MBTA network was not nearly as complex as the story suggested, and in that respect did not compare well with the Moscow or London networks.

The Boston T -- August 1995

The Boston T — August 1995

I mentioned this theory of consciousness in passing in another blog post, where I suggested that it could also be used as an analogy for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body — that God has us all backed up on tape or some kind of super DVD, and that on the last day we’ll all be rebooted into new and better hardware.

The idea of egregores allows one to extend the analogy, or the metaphor, even further. If the human mind is greater than the sum of the parts of the human brain, then an aggregate of human minds working together could be greater than the sum of the brains that compose it. According to the modern nation, an egregore is a kind of group mind which is created when people consciously come together for a common purpose. Each of us belong to several of these groups. The process is unconscious. There also are drawbacks, some disturbing psychic influences in many cases, and a restriction of freedom. It is impossible to free oneself from certain egregores, for example the egregores of the country you live in.

The egregores of the country one lives in bear a strong resemblance to the angels of the nations referred to in the Old Testament, and the Greek word egrigori (watchers) is sometimes used to refer to them.

Consciousness is sometimes described by scientists as being comparable to both waves and particles. So could not the angels of the peoples be both a kind of group mind, and also bodiless powers?

I’m not proposing a new doctrine here, it is just a theologoumenon. But it might provide a useful analogy.

Race and identity: what is “coloured”?

Why is it that, more than 20 years after the “end of apartheid” we seem to be getting more obsessed with “race”? After Wayde van Niekerk won the 400-metre event at the Olympic Games the term “coloured” suddenly started trending on Twitter.

Why Wayde’s gold is a win for coloured identity | IOL:

The term “coloured” began trending on Monday morning and my immediate reaction was: “But why? Let this boy bask in his well-deserved glory, at least for a day.” But almost as soon as I thought that, I realised what Wayde’s win could do for the coloured narrative in South Africa. Now see, I have recently started proudly identifying myself as coloured. This was something I fought for many, many years. I was taught to resist society’s attempts to box me, to resist feeling defeated when asked “What are you?” every day for as long as I can remember. If I was to identify myself racially, it should be black, as was always the case with my family during apartheid. But then, particularly over the last two years, I began self-identifying as coloured for a number of reasons. You begin feeling marginalised, excluded from the South African narrative, called upon only when the Democratic Alliance and ANC needs your coloured vote in the Cape. You’re not white enough or black enough.

Back in the days of apartheid even the apartheid theorists had problems with the “coloured”
race classifications, they divided it into sub-categories, including “Other Coloured” for those  who didn’t fir neatly into their scheme. Also back then, most of my “Coloured” friends, when using that term to describe themselves, would use air quotes while saying “so-called coloured”.

Page from apartheid-eria ID book

Page from apartheid-era ID book

But someone recently tweeted:

If someone can be proudly Zulu for instance …. Someone should equally be able to be proudly, Coloured.

And this begs the question of what is “coloured identity”.

Comparing “coloured” with Zulu implies a cultural identity, and from the article quoted about Wayde van Niekerk that implies that “coloured” means “Cape Coloured” in terms of the old apartheid ID numbers.

We lost the old apartheid ID numbers over 20 years ago, when everyone, regardless of previous classification, was given an 08 number, and so race classifications lost some of their rigidity. But we are still asked to specify our race for things like census returns. The article quoted seems to assume some of the apartheid “own people” thinking in discussing coloured identity, as if it were simply a cultural category, like Zulu.

But a few years ago I knew a child who was born in South Africa of a Nigerian father and a Ukrainian mother. In terms of the old apartheid classification system she would be “other coloured”, but who would her “own people” be now? How should she appear on the census? Isn’t talk of a “coloured identity” marginalising people like her?



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