Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “society”

Inklings on the Internet

One of my interests is the English literary group of the 1920s to 1940s that called themselves “The Inklings”, and as a number of other people share this interest I’ve tried at various times to find ways of using the Internet to make and maintain contact with such people and share thoughts and opinions and so on.

One way of doing this is through blog posts, many bloggers announce new posts on Twitter. I also discovered a web site called paper.li that produced a digest of tweets on various topics. Some of them seem to be devoted to hash tags, and I succeeded in creating one for missiology (another interest of mine), There were several created by other people on various topics that interested me — on literature, genealogy, family history and more. There’s one for children’s literature, which some of the Inklings wrote,

But there was no such digest devoted to the #inklings hashtag.

So I thought that if I could create one for #missiology, I could create one for #inklings.

Too late. The people at paper.li had stopped doing that very useful thing. Whenever i tried to do it, they created something called “The Steve Hayes Daily”, and I already had one of those. But eventually they fiddled with it to turn it into The Inklings Daily.

The only trouble is that it doesn’t seem to work. Either people are not using the #inklings hashtag, or else when they do use it, The Inklings Daily simply isn’t picking it up. All I see on it most days is either a message that there is no content, or a couple of irrelevant photos. So as a way of following blog posts about the Inklings it has turned out to be pretty useless.

The last straw was when the owners of YahooGroups announced that they were closing that service, and there were a couple of Inklings forums there that would be affected by the closure, and so it was important to let people know, and I blogged about that. But in spite of using the #inklings #hashtag paper.li failed to pick it up in The Inklings Daily.

So I’ll give it a couple more weeks, and see if The Inklings Daily picks up this article, and any others on the Inklings, and if there’s no improvement, I’ll delete The Inklings Daily, as it will obviously be serving no purpose. I’ll rely on my blogroll for picking up who is blogging about the Inklings. And if you’d like to know more about the new Inklings forum, see Inklings Forum Revived, or go directly to Inklings on groups.io.

For what it’s worth, the main members of the Inklings were:

Mailing lists (& newsgroups) versus Facebook Groups

The news that Yahoo! were to close their YahooGroups service (Yahoo! to close mailing lists? | Notes from underground) has provoked a frantic search for alternatives, one of the most popular being Groups.io, which I believe was set up a few years ago when Yahoo! imported a new whizz-kid manager who totally misunderstood the medium, and messed the site up so as to make it unusable.Yahoo made a half-hearted attempt to repair the damage, but now seems to have given up entirely.

YahooGroups and GoogleGroups were the largest public mailing list servers on the Internet, and with YahooGroups closing some have suggested migrating to GoogleGroups, but many more have suggested using Facebook Groups instead. I think that is a very bad idea, and will try to explain that here, rather than having to retype the explanation every time anyone makes such a suggestion. Marshall McLuhan once wrote a book called Understanding Media, and though he never envisaged these media, it is still important to understand these media and what they are good for and, even more important, what they are not good for.

Facebook Groups versus Mailing lists

People who are relatively new to the Internet may not realise what mailing lists are, so I’ll try to explain that first.

A mailing list is run by a list server (sometimes called “listserv” for short). It works by e-mail. You send an e-mail to the list server, and the list server sends it on to all the people who have subscribed to that list. You can reply either to the list, or to the original sender. Off-topic replies are best sent privately, on-topic replies are best sent to the list, then all members of the list will see the replies, as they will show up in their e-mail inbox, to be read or deleted or saved as desired,

The main purpose of a mailing list is discussion. You can see what someone says, and respond to particular points, and others can respond to what you say.

Facebook Groups are not really suited for discussion. I know that people have tried to use them that way, but they are a very poor substitute for mailing lists. Facebook Groups are best suited for announcements and ephemera. Announce a book release, an article, or a blog post in a Facebook group for people who might be interested in knowing about it. Announce an event and publicise things — a church service, a lecture, an art exhibition, a play.  They are OK for news items.

What Facebook Groups  are not good for is discussion.

Why not?

First of all, Facebook has an algorithm that limits what you see. It will show you only certain posts from certain groups and people. If people respond to it, it shows you only certain comments. It may notify you that “So and so commented on a post that you are following in X group”, but it doesn’t tell you the topic of the post. And if you do click on that, half the time you don’t see any comments from so and so, and you have to hunt up and down the page until you see a tiny faint line saying something like “5 more comments”. You click on that, but it has no comments from so and so. You go back and hunt up and down and eventually you find another faint little line somewhere on the page saying “See more comments”. In the midst of all that activity, Facebook of course is busy showing you ads and other stuff to distract you and in the end you forget whose comment you were looking for and what topic it was on.

And then, assuming that Facebook does show you the post, you don’t have time to read it now, and you think you’ll come back to it later. O fatal, fatal error! Because when you try to come back to it later, you’ll never find it again, and spend an hour searching for it, and in the mean time see lots of ads earning lots of lovely lolly for Facebook, and see other interesting things to click on. It’s like looking up words in a dictionary — you spot another interesting word, and look at that, and see an interesting word in its definition and look that up and then forget what word you were looking for when you started. Or, perhaps a more apt analogy, Facebook is like a taxi driver at an airport, who takes the newly arrived tourist on the longest possible route to his destination, pointing out all the scenic attractions, which happen to be not hills and lakes and forests, but billboards, hoardings and tourist trap shops.

So what happens with a mailing list? A message appears in my inbox. If I don’t have time to read it now, as soon as I close my inbox, my mail reader program (which computer nerds like to call a “client”, would that I could bill it!) sorts it into a folder with all other saved messages from that mailing list. I can go back to it in an hour’s time and read and reply to it. Of I can go tomorrow, or next week or next month or next year. If someone asks a question on a mailing list, and I find the answer in three months time, I can go back and give them the answer. Try doing that on Facebook and you’ll spend the next three months looking for it, wasting bandwidth and of course increasing their ad revenue. It usually takes about 30 seconds to find the message on my computer and it uses no Internet bandwidth.

So no, Facebook Groups are no substitute for mailing lists. They were designed to serve a different purpose, and they are good for that. Use the right tool for the job. You can open  tin of peaches with a scewdriver and a rock if you don’t have a tin opener, but if a tin opener is available, why not use it?

A few years ago there was a newsgroup called rec.arts.books (a newsgroup is a little like a mailing list, but not quite — it works on linked news servers rather than a single mailing list server). It had interesting book discussions and reviews. Then someone had a bright idea — let’s move it to a Facebook Group where we can post pretty pictures. So they did, and about half of them moved to the Facebook Group, which they called, appropriately enough, The Prancing Half-Wits. It died, mainly for the reasons described above. Only about 20% of the people would see each post, specially chosen by Facebook’s algorithms, and even fewer saw the comments. And rec.arts.books limps along, because most of the creative and interesting people left for Facebook.

 

Friendship and kinship in the age of social media

Last Sunday was our 45th wedding anniversary.

It’s not a major anniversary like the 25th or 50th. but it seemed worth remembering, and remembering some of the people we have known, both before we were married and in our 45 years together. We didn’t have a big celebration — a cheap cake from the supermarket at teatime sufficed. And we did a few things on social media.

The response to the photo album on Facebook was:

Likes etc from Jethro Hayes, Jenny Aitchison and 46 others
36 comments
2 shares

The response on Facebook to the link to the blog post was:

Likes from Jethro Hayes, Jenny Aitchison and 72 others
27 comments
4 shares

And the response to the blog post itself was:

I also posted “then and now” photos in a photo album on Facebook, but one cannot tell much from responses to those because most people responded to the album itself rather than those particular pictures.

But it was interesting to see who responded and who didn’t, and to think of what it might have been like without social media.

Responses on the blog link on Facebook:

  • 9 from people we have seen face to face within the last 3 years
  • 18 from people we have never met, but have only interacted with on line
  • 5 from close family (2nd cousin or closer)
  • 9 from extended family (more distant than 2nd cousin)

What conclusions can one draw from this?

  • absence makes the heart grow fonder
  • familiarity breeds contempt

The more you see people and the closer you get to them, the less they like you.

Of course this has to be balanced against how many people the social media platforms’ algorithms actually showed them to. I have 926 followers on Twitter, of whom 2 responded. I have 591 “friends” on Facebook, with responses as indicated above, and I suppose 315 views of the blog post isn’t a bad response.

What it seems to show is what most of us already knew — social media, and the Internet generally enable us to keep in touch with friends, family and acquaintances whom we haven’t seen for a long time and who live far away. Quite a lot of the people who responded were actually at our wedding, though we haven’t seen several of them for 40 years or more. Social media have enabled us to reestablish and maintain contact with them.

Facebook seems to do it a lot better than Twitter. In fact Twitter seems to be pretty useless as a social medium. In spite of having nearly twice as many Twitter followers as Facebook friends, the response from Twitter was minimal.

But it also leaves a niggling thought — what about the closer family and the people we’ve seen recently who didn’t respond? Is their lack of response due to social media algorithms or because they are offended with us in some way? So social media can bring people can bring people closer together, but can also sow suspicion and mistrust.

Steve & Val Hayes, 29 September 1974, Durban North

Here, for what it’s worth, are the “then” and “now” photos.

The first was on our wedding day 45 years ago, wearing the wedding garments that Val made (they no longer fit).

Other observations … Val’s hair was wavy then, perhaps because we were living at the coast, and humidity makes for wavy hair. We’ve been living inland for more than 35 years, and that seems to make for straighter hair. .

Steve & Val Hayes, 29 September 2019, Kilner Park, Tshwane

Now, of course, our hair is also grey.

And the cap is in honour of our Subaru station wagon, the best car I ever owned.

And so we carry on, much along the lines of the theme song of the BBC’s New Tricks TV programme:

It’s all right, it’s OK
Doesn’t really matter if you’re old and grey.
It’s all right, it’s OK
Listen to what I say.
It’s all right, doing fine.
Doesn’t really matter if the sun don’t shine.
It’s all right, it’s OK.
Getting to the end of the day.

Baffled by Brexit

For the last three years a lot of my Brit friends have have been debating the issue of the UK leaving the EU. It’s something that keeps cropping up on social media and in blogs but the more the issue is debated, the more opaque it seems to become to outsiders like me.

As far as I’m aware it’s been going on for nearly 60 years. I first became aware of it when the Brits applied to join and General de Gaulle gave a resounding Non! Flanders and Swann made it memorable by writing a song about it: “Eyetie, Benelux, Germany and me, that’s my market recipe.” Eventually the Brits did manage to get in (over de Gaulle’s dead body) and now they want out. But it seems that having decided that they want to go, they want the assurance that they can have their cake and eat it.

I don’t have a dog in this particular fight. It’s no skin off my nose whether they stay or leave. But sixty years!

One blogging friend whose blog I’ve been following for years has just written an article about it in the Church Times, Are the Bishops really listening to Leavers?:

The bishops write: “The levels of fear, uncertainty and marginalisation in society, much of which lies behind the vote for Brexit, but will not be addressed by Brexit . . .” One way in which power is experienced as abusive is when those with power (such as a bishop) say to those without power (a normal voter) that the voter does not know what he or she really wants. To say that there is something that “lies behind the vote for Brexit” is to disparage the desire for Brexit in and of itself, and thus is an exercise in disempowerment.

Leavers have become accustomed to being slighted in this way, to having their understanding and integrity impugned, to being told that we voted for Brexit only because of X, and, if those in power solved X, well, we don’t need Brexit any more, do we? This is not the product of genuine listening: it is the imputation of false consciousness and a rather un-Anglican attempt to “make windows into men’s souls”. It is essential that, if there is to be a reconciliation between the different sides on Brexit, such language is abandoned.

But I suspect you have to have been following the issue closely for the last 60 years to know what he’s on about.

It seems to me, looking from a distance, that the result of the 2016 referendum was pretty close, and they really should have looked for a 2/3 majority before deciding to change. They should also have specified that there should be at least a 55/45% majority in favour of “leave” in each of the four countries of the UK. As it is, England and Wales wanted to leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to remain in the EU. But the fact is that the UK government did decide to leave and set the whole leaving process going.

One of the difficulties this creates is a land border between the EU and the UK in Northern Ireland. Why this creates a special difficulty is rather puzzling, since there are other land borders between the EU and non-EU countries, 23 of them actually. Why not do whatever they do there, since it is simply a matter of adding a 24th land border?

So my question is, why doesn’t the UK opt for one of the following:

  1. England and Wales leave the EU and the UK simultaneously, while the rump UK (Scotland and Northern Ireland) remains in the EU.
  2. The UK leaves the EU and Scotland and Northern Ireland leave the UK and go their separate ways, applying to rejoin the EU if they wish.
  3. Have another referendum stipulating a clear majority (at least 55%-45%) in each country.

Can any of my UK friends explain why the present indecision is better than any of those, or which of those might be better than the present shilly-shalying?

 

 

 

Your 25 friends on Facebook

Many Facebook users are concerned that Facebook only shows them posts from about 25 of their friends. And Facebook will probably only show their posts to about 25 (or fewer) of their freinds unless a lot of those friends “like” them, or react to them in some other way.

One thing that is a bit concerning about this is that Facebook is always nagging me to add new friends by showing “People you may know” prominently — but if I add them, which of my friends will drop off the radar?

Some people have thought the solution is to post things like this:

Fixed my blocked posts …….. I wondered where everybody had been!

This is good to know: It’s ridiculous to have so many friends and only 25 are allowed to see my post.
I ignored this post earlier, because I didn’t think it worked. But…. it WORKS!! I have a whole new news feed. I’m seeing posts from people I haven’t seen in years.

Here’s how to bypass the system FB now has in place that limits posts on your news feed:

Their new algorithm chooses the same few people – about 25 – who will read your posts. Therefore, Hold your finger down anywhere in this post and “copy” will pop up. Click “copy”. Then go your page, start a new post and put your finger anywhere in the blank field. “Paste” will pop up and click paste.

This will bypass the system… I thought I’ll try it and hey presto!

The problem it describes is real, but the proposed solution is not. Copying and pasting text like that will do nothing to change Facebook’s algorithms.

Some have claimed that the “25 Facebook friends” meme is a hoax, but it isn’t. The exact number of 25 may not be accurate, but there is certainly some such limit, and it doesn’t even seem to be affected by “likes” or other reactions.

How do I know this?

Well a couple of years ago Facebook forced me to have two accounts[1]. When I opened the second account I linked to some of my friends so I could still keep in touch with them while my main account was blocked. One of those friends is Koos van der Riet, who is a friend on both accounts. But Facebook never ever shows me his posts on my main account, no matter how many times I “like” them. It always shows me his posts on my secondary account, even though I deliberately refrain from “liking” them or reacting to them in any way. But to see his posts on my main account I have to type his name in the search bar and search for his account, otherwise Facebook never shows me his posts.

This problem will not be solved by copying and pasting a bit of text. It can only be solved by Facebook improving their algorithm. One way of doing that would be to rate every person you link to as a friend, say on a scale of 1 to 10, to show how much you wanted to see their posts.  The algorithm could then add their value for you to your value to them to show how much value to give to posts. It could also introduce a classification of kids of posts, family news, general news, news commentary, to let one indicate which kinds of posts one was most interested in from which people. Such a scheme would take a bit of work and research to develop, but would make it more useful to its users.


Notes

[1] Why I was forced to have two accounts. Facebook blocked my main account on my main computer, and semanded that I download and run some software before it would allow me to see it. I could still, however, see it on my laptop. So I opened a new account. Later I discovered I could still access my main account on my main computer using a different browser. So I use two browsers, one for each account.

Sorry, Twitter. You did something wrong

Update 25 August 2019

This now seems to be fixed, and Twitter is accessible again.

Thanks to the people at Twitter who made it accessible again.


For the last couple of days, almost every time I’ve tried to read Twitter, I get the message:

Sorry! We did something wrong.

It seems that the “new” Twitter has been introduced, and it no longer works on my old computer.

For the moment I can still post links to things on other web sites on Twitter, though perhaps that will soon stop working too. But I can no longer read my Twitter feed on my computer, so I won’t be “liking” or retweeting stuff posted by other people, or seeing the links they post. I won’t be able to search for hashtags dealing with news items that interest me, and get different points of view on the same event.

At least I’ll still be able to look at my daily digest on paper.li, but that is selected for me, and isn’t quite the same thing. And for my literary friends, like the Inklings fans out there, I’ll still ber able to follow in the #Inklings daily digest, provided they use the #Inklings hashtag, which they don’t always remember to do.

It seems that we pensioners who can’t afford to buy the latest and greatest hardware every year are now excluded.

It reminds me of my youth, and the planned obsolescence in the motor industry. Back then South Africa;s roads were filled with small British cars and big American ones, and most of my posh school friends boasted that their parents traded their cars in for a new model every year. Then along came the Japanese, who didn’t believe that it was obligatory for cars to break down, and people started keeping their cars for longer.

My wife’s Toyota Yaris, which is 13 years old and has done nearly 300 000 km, still has its original front brake pads. My mother’s Wolseley 4/44 needed decoking and its valves ground when it was only 2 years old.

Those American cars that were traded in every year, the Dodges and Desotos with their huge tail fins, were snapped up second-hand to become second-class taxis. But the Japanese put a stop to that in 1969 with the Toyota Hi-Ace, which lasted longer, used less fuel, carried more people, and came with two nuns as standard equipment (those who are old enough to remember will understand).

But it seems that social media, like TV sport, are being placed beyond the reach of pensioners like us, and being reserved for the rich who can afford to upgrade their computers every year.

Fake news about fake news

Does fake news exist?

The term “fake news” gets bandied about a lot, but like other terms, such as “political correctness”, “conservative”, “liberal” and “terrorist”, the definition is vague and when you see it in print, it is often not immediately clear what the writer means by it.

Is there such a thing as “fake news” and if there is, does it differ from related terms like “media spin”, “disinformation”, “misinformation” etc?

Some people vehemently deny that there is such a thing as fake news, and insist that it is merely media spin, but reports like this one show some of the characteristics of fake news EXPOSED: The Unisa employee who manufactures fake news to divide SA | News24:

News24’s investigation into the owners of Mzansistorie.com and Allnews.co.za started earlier this year as part of a much broader investigation into the originators, enablers and funders of fake news websites in South Africa.

Ironically, it was the very fact that Ramatseba wanted to make money from his website that revealed his identity. It was also the same social media used by Ramatseba to distribute his fabrications that proved instrumental in identifying him.

In this case the primary characteristic of fake news is the desire to make money. The article gives a detailed picture of how and why fake news is produced and propagated.

I suspect that some popular news tropes, like “white genocide” and “Russian interference in US elections” are based on this. If you want something to attract lots of clicks, post a fabricated or exaggerated story that plays on or feeds people’s fears, and you will get lots of clicks and lots of lovely lolly rolling in.

People often assume that the motive is ideological. “The Russians” are trying to influence US elections, and everyone knows that the Russians are linked to Putin. But perhaps most of it is Russian internet entrepreneurs harvesting clicks and making money by playing on US political rivalries and fears of “the other side”.

In South Africa, the irony is apparent when it turns out that it is black people like William Mahlatse Ramatseba who are seeking to capitalise and make money out of white people’s fears and racism towards black people, and it is White Monopoly Capital organisations like Bell Pottinger that profited by stoking fears of “White Monopoly Capital” among black South Africans, for profit, of course Deal that undid Bell Pottinger: inside story of the South Africa scandal | Media | The Guardian:

Bell Pottinger was accused of stirring up anger about “white monopoly capital” in South Africa. Material including a video interview with Ajay Gupta, which had never been publicly circulated, was leaked onto South African media.

Bell Pottinger was accused of inciting racial tension, and operating fake Twitter accounts to mount racially driven campaigns.

Fake news certainly does exist, and it is different from old-fashioned media spin.

But fake news does sometimes get mixed up with media spin. Take the News24 headline above: The Unisa employee who manufactures fake news to divide SA. The words “to divide SA” are misleading, because they don’t quite fit with what the rest of the article says. If we read the body of the article “to make money” would have been a more accurate reflection of the content, but in a society where making money is seen as a good activity, and dividing people as bad, “to divide SA” might attract more readers (and thus make more money), than using a more accurate description. It’s true that the overall effect would be to divide people, so it’s not exactly fake news. But the spin is to create the impression that that was the intention, while the body of the article shows that the intention was to make money. See how complicated it gets?

And in a country where some people are talking of making “entrepreneurship” a school subject, nobody wants to call William Mahlatse Ramatseba what he is, an entrepreneur.

Concerning the “white genocide” trope, one finds things like this:

But clicking on it reveals that there is no such site. Perhaps it is a fake news site that has since been taken down, but I saw that site referred to in an an answer on the Quora website that  got 68 upvotes. Fake News works because there are people who want to believe it.

Having said all this can one make some tentative definitions of these terms?

Here is my attempt:

  • Fake News — articles purporting to be news that are completely or partly made up. Their main purpose is clickbait, with the primary aim opf making money for those who post them. Those who promote fake news don’t care whether those who read them believe the stories or not. The important thing is that they click on the links to bring revenue to the fake news vendors.
  • Disinformation — articles purporting to be news, but which, like fake news, are completely or partly made up. But unlike fake news, where the intention is to make money, in the case of disinformation, the intention is to get people to believe the false story. So Fake News stories manufactured as clickbait may be propagated as disinformation by those who want others to to believe them. The primary intention in disinformation is to deceive.
  • Misinformation — false information that is spread unintentionally by people who do not know it is false. This may be either fake news or disinformation that is passed on by those who believe it, or simply something that was misheard or misunderstood.
  • Spin — genuine information that is presented in such a way as to create a false impression, or to manipulate people’s opinions about it.

Thoughts? Comments? Can anyone think of better definitions?

 

CounterPunch goes over to the Dark Side

For several years now I’ve followed the web site CounterPunch on Twitter.

CounterPunch claims that it is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas, and I’ve sometimes found it a useful antidote to the blandness and cover-ups of the “mainstream” media.

But today it announced that it had gone over to the Dark Side when it published an article In Defense of the Satanic.

The word “satan” means “accuser”.

The primary meaning of “satanic” is the making of false accusations.

In Christian mythology, the satan is a jumped up public prosecutor who wants to take over the judge’s job because he thinks the judge is too soft on criminals (see Zechariah 3). He is typologically mirrored in the earthly prosecutors who judge their success not by justice, but by their conviction rate, whose motto is that “it is better that the innocent should suffer than that the guilty should escape”.

If you want a picture of an ideal satanic world, read The Trial by Franz Kafka. Is that is the kind of world that CounterPunch is choosing to advocate and defend? Thanks, but no thanks. I’m unfollowing. What were they thinking?

The satanic world is the world of the Gestapo, of the KGB, of the Special Branch, Some of us remember the darkness from which we have come, and some of my own memories are here and here: Tales from Dystopia XVI: The SB | Khanya. That is the Kafkaesque world of the secret police who send secret accusations to those in power against which there is no defence. That is the essence of satanic — and CounterPunch is defending it, thereby taking the side of injustice and oppression.

Darkness suspended, a novel by Jurie Schoeman

Darkness SuspendedDarkness Suspended by Jurie Schoeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was an absorbing read, at least for me.

Perhaps one of the reasons I found it so absorbing is that it was in a familiar setting. It is set in Pretoria about 15 years ago, 2004-2005, and so a lot of the scenes are familiar. I’ve had coffee and been to the bookshop in Brooklyn Mall, and also at Greenfields in Hatfield (alas, no more!). We’ve many times taken visitors sightseeing on the road past Fort Klapperkop and looked across to the Union Buildings and then gone there.

Was it just its familiarity that made it interesting?

No, I think it’s more than that. The characters are interesting too, and so one sympathises with them in their ups and downs. It’s a crime novel and a romance novel, a love story. And the crime is true to life. It’s not a whodunit. You know who did it, but you see how crime affects the perpetrators and the victims.

The protagonist is the Revd Nigel Jones, the youth pastor of a Baptist Church in the well-to-do eastern suburbs of Pretoria. His closest friends are a fairly wealthy doctor and the manager of a security company — the latter is his running partner, and they take their running seriously, entering marathons and the like.

The things that happen to them test Nigel’s faith, and that of his friends. And that is perhaps the most realistic part of the book. I’ve read many crime novels, but the crimes that take place in them are remote. I don’t know anyone who has experienced anything like that. The crimes and passions and temptations and sins and setbacks experienced in this novel come much closer to home.

So the picture the book draws of life in the “rainbow nation”, or at least the middle-class part of it, in 2005, is absolutely authentic. And that makes it worth a read.

The book has some flaws, too.

It is self-published, and was obviously prepared for publication with a word processor designed for business reports, and it is formatted more like a business report than a novel. The prose could have been tightened up with more editing, and some of the word choices could have been improved — “staunch”, for example, is not a good description of a facial expression.

But those errors were minor and did not get in the way of a good story.

View all my reviews

One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been aware of Ken Kesey for a long time, since I’ve read books by or about people he associated with, like Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. I’ve also been aware of this book for a long time, and knew it was set in a lunatic asylum, but had never read it before.

But though I have known about it for a long time, it was not long enough. I should have read it in my late teens or early twenties, which was when I was most concerned about the boundaries between sanity and madness. That was when I most appreciated Ginsberg’s poem Howl, written for his friend Carl Solomon, who had the electric shock therapy that was then a fashionable treatment for certain kinds of mental illness.

Most of the action in the book takes place in a ward of a mental hospital, presided over by a tyrannical nurse, whose measure of her patients’ progress is how amenable and cooperative they are with her arbitrary rules. Her rule is threatened by a new patient, McMurphy, who questions the rules and the values behind them, and keeps demanding changes, while the nurse keeps threatening him with electric shock therapy.

The book was written in 1960 and published in 1962, and that is when I should have read it. Like Ken Kesey, I was too late for the Beat Generation and too early for the hippies. Americans seem to have names or letters for all sorts of generations, but no one mentions ours, the Beat-Hip Generation.

In 1960 I was studying Sociology I at Wits University. The Sociology Department was presided over by Professor G.K. Engelbrecht, a disciple of the functionalist school, whose mantra was “youth must adjust”. The function of social institutions, like schools, churches, universities, families and all the rest was to facilitate the adjustment process.  Those who failed to adjust were dysfunctional members of society, and, in extreme cases, were labelled as mentally ill, and that is what the book is about. Mental illness carried a stigma, the stigma of failure to adjust.

It is no longer mental illness, but mental health that carries a stigma

All that has changed. Psychology in the 1960s was all about -phrenias and -pathys, which have all but disappeared. Today it is no longer mental illness, but mental health that carries a stigma.

Halfway through my year of Sociology I with Prof G.K. Engelbrecht I went to a student conference where an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, read a paper on Pilgrims of the Absolute, which pointed out how countercultural Christianity really was, and characterised “adjustment” as the selling of one’s heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world. As for one’s mental balance, the devil take it, and indeed he took it long ago. What happened at the Fall? The whole world lost its balance; why should I be concerned about keeping mine?

So in the book McMurphy is a disruptive influence in the ward, at least in the eyes of the nurse, but he manages to secure a brief respite for some of the patients when he organises a deep-sea fishing trip away from the hospital, and they have to cope with all kinds of obstacles that threaten to scupper it. Are the loonies managing to function in a sane society, or are they in fact the only sane ones in a mad society where everyone seems out to get them and make their lives miserable?

In some ways McMurphy is a secular version of the Fool for Christ. He plays the part of the silly fool, and the English word “silly” is derived from the Greek saloi, which means blessed.

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