Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “culture”

The Midwich cuckoos: dresses and mannequins

We go into Woolworths to buy hummus because tomorrow is Wednesday, and there are two mannequins near the door, with little girls’ dresses. Val says that when she was little girl she would have loved to to have a dress like that. I barely notice the dress, I am struck by the mannequins, which look like something out of a horror movie, the Midwich cuckoos or something.

I stopped to take photos of them. As we leave Val mentions the dresses again, and how she liked them. I said I was so struck by the eyes of the models that I hardly noticed what they were wearing, and she was so struck by the dresses that he did not notice the eyes at all.

We walk down the mall, discussing how people rarely make their own clothes nowadays, and think of our family history research, where the occupation of so many people in 19th-century census records was given as “dressmaker”. Back then it was probably rare to buy clothes off the shelf.

Well, there’s my photo, but the eyes are far less scary in the picture than they were in reality. They look as though they are peacefully sleepwalking, but in the shop the eyes were fiercely glittering. Perhaps I should have turned the flash off.

But it is interesting how people can look at the same things, and yet see something completely different.

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what saw you there?
I saw a little mouse under a chair.

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In a relationship

Nearly 60 years ago a friend, Dale White, tried to explain to me how urban society imposes different kinds of relationships on peope. In small towns and villages, there are people you know — friends and family — and people you don’t know. In urban living, you have many more relationships with people you don’t know. How do you describe them? They are not people completely unknown to you, but you usually only interact with them in one context.

Do you call them acquaintances? Not really, because even acquaintances you might meet in other contexts. These relationships are primarily functional, you meet them solely because they perform a particular function. They are impersonal relationships, rather than personal relationships. Family and friends are personal relationships, and even acquaintances. I call acquaintances people I met at a conference once, perhaps chatted to them over a meal, heard them deliver a paper. Such a relationship is personal rather than functional.

But the cashier at the supermarket till?

That is surely a functional relationship?

In a small village you might meet them in other contexts, at church, or at the hairdressers, or at a sports club, in a pub, or even in another shop where they are also customers. But in the big city, chances are the only time you ever meet them is when they tally your purchases, swipe your card, or take your cash. You are unlikely to meet them in any other context. Sometimes they have a label with their name on it, but I have the uncomfortable feeling that that is mainly there so that dissatisfied customers can complain. And usually it is only their first name so that you don’t even know their surname.

But we have recently learned that two of our neighbourhood supermarkets are to close within the next week or so. The Spar is to become a Pick ‘n Pay, and one of the worries is that we may no longer be able to get fresh bread.

But when we moved here at the end of 1984 there was a branch of Checkers at the Queenswood shopping centre. It was later renovated and became Shoprite, but Shoprite and Checkers are owned by the same company, so it just meant a change in the decor. But now the site is to be redeveloped, and it will close. It will reopen as Checkers again, some time. But then we realised that some of the people who worked there had been there ever since we moved here over 30 years ago. What will happen to them in the mean time?

These are people whom we have seen once a month or more often for the last 30 years and more. Can one really speak of an impersonal, purely functional relationship? We have got used to seeing them, but as a a part of the landscape, but in more than 30 years they should surely be more than merely nameless functionaries. Surely we will miss them?

Samuel Mailula, worked at ShopRite/Checkers in Queenswood for 39 years

So when we went shopping this morning I took my camera along, and we asked where they were going when the shop- closes its doors tomorrow. It turns out that they will be moving to other branches. Two will be going to the Silverton branch, and the third to the Mamelodi branch, which is closer to where he lives, but he only has a couple of years to go until retirement. He is Samuel Mailula, and he has been working for Shoprite/Checkers for 39 years, so practically his entire working life.

Another one is Louisa Molobi. Val remembers her being pregnant several times, and now she is grey-haired, and perhaps one of those babies has now made her a grandmother, and that is how long we have known her. Now she no longer mans the till, but rather goes round to the other cashiers, sorting out their problems.

The third was Wendy Sheshabela, still sitting at the till, and somewhat apprehensive about the changes. The last time the shop was renovated, and made the change from Checkers to Shoprite, it did not close completely, they just closed sections of the store while they were working on it. But this time round the shop will close, and they will all be moved.

Wendy Sheshabela and Louisa Molobi, long-time workers at Shoprite/Checkers in Queenswood, Pretoria

There was a time when I was on the other end of such relationships, when I was a bus conductor in Johannesburg. That was about the time when I had the discussion with Dale White about personal and impersonal relationships, and as a new bus conductor I was a casual, so filled in for other conductors on leave or off sick, so rarely worked the same route twice, or at the same time of day. So I took fares and issued tickets, and passengers were just a sea of faces.

After I’d been there a while we could pick a regular shift in order of seniority, and so I had a regular route, four trips from the Joburg business district to the Turffontein Racecourse early in the morning. The first trip carried few passengers out of town, most were coming in to work, and so I remembered some of the regulars. There was an old night watchman, presumably going home after guarding one of the big dark deserted office blocks. He rather incongruously wore a badge proclaiming him a member of the Pepsodent Youth Club. On the next trip there were a couple of pretty Indian school girls. I only worked on that route for about a year, I only saw them in that context, and I never saw them again. But I still remember them.

It was one of those urban functional relationships, but it was not, surely, entirely impersonal. And when, as in the case of the people at our local supermarket, we have been seeing them regularly for more than 30 years, we probably know them better than our next-door neighbours, whom we hardly see at all, except occasionally driving past in a car, darkly waving behind a window reflecting the sun.

I use a genealogy program called Legacy Family Tree. I’ve been using it since 2002, and in entering information about a person one could tick a box labelled “This individual never married and had no children”. This would then appear on certain reports, so that you could, know that there was no point in looking for possible descendants. I so marked my uncle Willie Growdon, who died in a motorbike accident at the age of 25.

But the newer version of Legacy Family Tree that I am now using has changed the wording, so that it now says that Uncle Willie had “no relationships and no children”. And that looks so very sad. Abandoned by his parents at birth, never knew his siblings, had, no friends, never had a girlfriend, had no acquaintances, no human contact at all. So is our language, and our social networking, devalued.

No, Legacy, you got it wrong. We are most of us in all sorts of relationships, personal and impersona, to varying degrees, but it is only when we are about to lose them that we begin to appreciate them, as we do the staff of the local supermarket, and realise that human relationships are important.

 

 

 

From hipsters to hippies: 50 years

Fifty years ago hipsters got abbreviated to hippies, and the world seemed to change, at least for that generation. Things changed visibly, and sometimes in strange ways. Young people dressed in bright clothes, and the drabness of the postwar years was exchanged for a kind of spring-time exuberance. People spoke of the Prague Spring, but spring was appearing in many places.

Warning: This post is full of boring personal reminiscences of that time, so now’s the time to stop reading if you don’t like that kind of thing.

Steve Hayes at Merstham, August 1967

In August 1967 I was halfway through my studies for a postgraduate diploma in theology at St Chad’s College, Durham, England, and was spending the summer vacation with the family of Mervyn Sweet, who had been the Anglican parish priest when I had been an undergraduate in Pietermaritzburg. They were housesitting a mansion in Merstham, Surrey, for a doctor who was himself on holiday in Spain. The house looked a bit like the house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — the kind of place where anything could happen.

I stayed in a garret at the top of the house, reading and studying for a supplementary church history exam I had to write, and coming down to swim or play tennis or listen to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

We watched top of the pops on television. On 13 August 1967 the cream was on the top: (1) San Francisco, by Scott McKenzie (2) All you need is love, by the Beatles (3) Death of a clown, by the Kinks, and what was underneath was real trash — Tom Jones wailing about something, and Vicki Carr who sang the most incredible mawkish mush about dying because he didn’t phone her. “All you need is love” stayed on top for several weeks and even Mick Jagger was in the audience singing with them, with flowers in his hair.

And on TV (black and white, in those days), a psychologist tried to explain changing styles of dress. As I wrote in my diary on 17 August 1967:

… we watched a television programme on long-haired boys, and a psychologist said why he thought their hair was long and their clothes so colourful — their parents were a hangover from the age when it was fashionable for men to dress like bankers, to show that they could offer security to their wives. Now the state looks after everyone’s security, so there was no longer any need for that.

Also the ratio of boys to girls was increasing, and so boys had to make themselves more attractive to girls by dressing in a more colourful way. They also said the previous generation of Englishmen had had compulsory military training, and so were more likely to fit into society because they felt society needed them, and with the present generation of youth it was not so — an interesting light on South Africa, where more and more whites are being called up for military service and a generation of conformist youth is being bred, and the short back and sides is considered a desirable symbol of young fascist manhood, like at Natal University among the Rhodesians, in whom the process had been more advanced — they were for the most part a close-cropped short back-and-sides rugby-playing type.

They had little to do with girls on a human level, and were happy with their segregated state behind the high wire fence of men’s res. Their attitude to girls was “fuck and forget”. True, they went to more parties and dances than John Aitchison and I ever went to, but meeting the opposite sex in such circumstances is an insulation rather than a catalyst. They only relaxed among males, and so their virility is really a sham. In fact they were afraid of not being able to hold their own in female company, so they relied on the security of that all-male ghetto, William O’Brien Hall. I went to bed and began to read Incognito by Peter Dumitriou.

Whereas in the 1950s the prevailing motif in clothing had been uniformity, especially for males, by the late 1960s diversity prevailed. While The Kinks satirised the “dedicated follower of fashion”, there wasn’t much fashion to follow.

The Beatles 1987

In the December vacation of 1967/68 I spent some time with some Dutch Augustinian friars in Breda and Nijmegen. They thought they were being “with it” by discarding their habits for business suits, and were distressed to find that I didn’t possess this latest item of relevant gear. They sent one of the fathers out with me to the shop to buy me one, and on the way to the shop, trudging through the snow and the slush, I talked him out of it. But on TV a DJ appeared wearing a monastic habit.

Even as a child I hated the idea of business suits, and dreaded the thought of growing up and having to dress like that, and so the “anything goes” freedom of the late 60s was a great relief to me. And it seemed that I was not alone, The hippie spring of 1967 seemed to express the repressed desire of a whole generation. It wasn’t just the Beatles music, they dressed the part as well.

The young Frank Sinatra

Yet this generation seems to be nameless,. People talk about Generation X or Y or Millennial or whatever, but the have no name for this hippie generation, or for the business suit generation that preceded it. But if the Beatles were the musical icon of the hippie generation, the musical icon of the business-suit generation was Frank Sinatra, whose childhood ideal was exactly the opposite of mine. When he was the age at which I dreaded growing up and having to wear a business suit, he was already wearing one by anticipation.

A couple of days ago a college friend from those days, Robert Gallagher, sent me this reminder of what else was going on at that time:

More of 50 years ago, in 1967

  • The number of American troops serving in Vietnam increased to 475,000
  • Peace-rallies and Protests increase
  • The Boxer Muhammad Ali stripped of his Boxing World Championship for refusing to be inducted into the US Army
  • Israel goes to war with Syria, Egypt and Jordan in the Six Day War and occupies more territory
  • Rioting in Detroit with America’s National Guard brought in
  • Charlie Chaplin opens his last film, ‘A Countess From Hong Kong’
  • Twiggy becomes a fashion sensation and mini-skirts became shorter with paper clothing a short lived fashion
  • The Discotheque
  • While The Beatles release ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band’, The Rolling Stones are involved in various drugs’ busts (thanks to ‘The News of The World’) and imprisonments, and release the single ‘We Love You’, with prison-door-slamming sound effects
  • The ‘Summer of Love’ and the birth of the Hippies
  • Donald Campbell killed on Coniston Water
  • Britain’s second Polaris nuclear submarine ‘HMS Renown’ launched at Birkenhead
  • The first North Sea gas pumped ashore
  • The supertanker ‘SS Torrey Canyon’ runs aground off Land’s End and bombed by the RAF
  • Anguillan-born Norwell Roberts the first black officer in London’s Metropolitan Police Force
  • ‘Puppet on a String’ by Sandie Shaw wins the Eurovision Song Contest
  • Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ Old Vic premiere
  • Harold Wilson announces the United Kingdom has decided to apply for EEC membership
  • The Roman Catholic Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King Consecrated
  • Celtic F.C. becomes the first British and Northern European team to reach a European Cup final and win it, beating Inter Milan 2-1 in normal time, with the winning goal scored by Steve Chalmers, in Lisbon, Portugal
  • Francis Chichester arrives in Plymouth after completing his single-handed sailing voyage around the world in his yacht, Gipsy Moth IV, in nine months and one day
  • The first scheduled Colour-television broadcasts on BBC2, with Wimbledon Tennis
  • Parliament decriminalised Consensual Adult Male Homosexuality in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act
  • UK Government announces closing its military bases in Malaysia and Singapore (Australia and United States do not approve)
  • The Welsh Language Act allows the use of Welsh in legal proceedings and official documents in Wales
  • The British Steel Industry is Nationalised
  • Astronomers Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish first to observe a Pulsar
  • The Inquiry into the Aberfan disaster blames the National Coal Board for the collapse of a colliery slag-heap which claimed the lives of 164 people in South Wales in 1966
  • Pink Floyd releases debut album ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
  • Dunsop Valley Lancashire enters the UK Weather Records with the Highest 90-min total rainfall at 117 mm (As of August 2010 this record remains)
  • The ‘RMS Queen Elizabeth 2’ (the QE2) launched at Clydebank by Queen Elizabeth II, using the same pair of gold scissors used by her mother and grandmother to launch the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ and ‘Queen Mary’respectively
  • The Abortion Act, passed in Parliament
  • Charles de Gaulle vetoes British entry into the European Economic Community again – British troops leave Aden, which they had occupied since 1839, enabling the new republic of Yemen
  • Tony O’Connor the first non-white head teacher of a British school appointed head of a primary school in Smethwick, near Birmingham
  • Concorde unveiled in Toulouse, France
  • BBC Radio 4 panel game ‘Just a Minute’, chaired by Nicholas Parsons, first transmitted (still running under the same chairman 50 years later)
  • Ford Cars announces the end of ‘Anglia’ production to be replaced by the ‘Escort’
  • Liverpool poets Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri’s poetry anthology ‘The Mersey Sound’
  • Hilary Annison and Robert Gallagher Marry.

And now?

The last of those who were in their twenties in the Summer of Love will be reaching their seventies and retirement.

Remember the motto?

Don’t trust anyone over 30.

 

 

Random thoughts inspired by Enneagram

This morning Duncan Reyburn spoke about Enneagrams at TGIF, and here are some connected and some disconnected thoughts inspired in part by what he said.

For those who don’t know, Enneagram is one of those personality type thingies, and you can get a sample of it here to find out roughly where you fit in.

If it’s any help, my main type is 5, with 9 and 4 as subsidiaries. And on the Myers-Briggs scale I’m INTP (I find the Myers-Briggs one more helpful, as these things go).

As we sat waiting for Duncan to begin Val recalled that I had been rather disconcerted to find myself labelled as a type back in the 1970s. It was actually a jocular piece written by a journalist in the Sunday Tribune for women who felt the need for a piscine cyclist in their lives.[1] She described varieties of nubile males and what I found disconcerting was that her description of one of the types fitted me right down to the last detail. The detail I remember best was the car I drove — an ancient rust bucket with an empty cold-drink bottle rolling around on the floor (picture here). I think it included a beard and scruffy clothes as well. Actually it was rather flattering, in that she said that was one of the better catches available in the pond, But it was the thought that there were enough of us around to be so closely described that I found disconcerting.

But that was totally unscientific, so back to the Enneagram, and more unscientific thoughts inspired by it.

Duncan spoke about mythology and mythical monsters.: The contrast in Genesis 1 between the forces of chaos and the forces of order, and the notion of mythical dragons symbolising chaos. Duncan cited psychologists like Freud and Jung showing that myths and dreams of dragons represent our unconscious, and that the monsters are not really out there, but in our heads.

Now I may have misunderstood or be misrepresenting Duncan at this point, but I question that assumption. I think that it is a peculiarly white, Western and modernist way of looking at it. This business of seeing things as taking place “in here” in our minds, as opposed to “out there” in the world is very much culturally conditioned. Should we let Western psychologists like Freud and Jung have the last word to say about it?

As J.V. Taylor (1963:44f) puts it, in his book The primal Vision: Christian presence amid African religion:

But though these [dreams, thoughts etc] may infect the body with sickness and delude the senses with hallucinations, we believe them to be rooted within the sufferer’s mind. Dreams are only dreams, for we know their fantasies are confined within the wall of the dreamer’s brain.

We are in danger of forgetting that all this is only a figurative way of speaking. The spatial concepts of inside and outside cannot be used literally of something so elusive and abstract as the self; yet in Europe we have allowed them so to dominate our imagery that we have almost identified the mind with the brain and imprisoned the self within the walls of the skull.

But there have been other ways than ours of picturing this unimaginable Self. Some philosophies, notably the Hindu Upanishads, include on the ‘inside’ much that we can only imagine as being ‘outside’, so that even the transcendent Absolute is to be sought only within the innermost cave of the heart. But in the imagery of primal religion, on the other hand, the self is thought of as spilling out into the world beyond the confines of the experiencing body, and echoing back again from other selves. Africans would assert with St Augustine that ‘we live beyond the limits of our bodies’.

So I think that just as physicists something think of light in terms of waves, and sometimes in terms of particles, so we can sometimes see things as inside, and sometimes as outside our heads. Mythical dragons may refer to things within us, but they can also refer to things outside.

As Anderson (1990:256) puts it:

An experience that a premodern person might have understood as possession by an evil spirit might be understood by a modern psychoanalytic patient as more mischief from the Id, and might be understood by a postmodern individual as a subpersonality making itself heard – might even, if you want to get really postmodern about it, be recognized as all three.

And that’s something I do like to get really postmodern about. I’ve said more on that in this article Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism.

Duncan spoke of films of sea monsters, like Jaws. They give chills to audiences in Pretoria, though they are dry and far from the ocean. Why? Because the monsters represent our Unconscious, which threatens to swallow us. Hence the need to face our monsters, because the monsters are not necessarily evil, but can sometimes take us where we want, or need to go. Jonah, for example, was swallowed by a sea monster, but the monster put him back on track.

St Jonah

Films like Jurassic Park are apparently about land based monsters, but are really about divorce. The external monsters force dysfunctional families to face their internal monsters and become reconciled, and in the end it is the biggest, strongest and most fearsome monster, Tyrranosaurus Rex, which keeps the real threat, the velociraptors, at bay.

And that made me think that yes, it was the Tyrannosaurus Rex of apartheid that kept South African Christians on track before 1994. It was opposition to apartheid that made many Christians and Christian bodies more conscious of their core business. And after 1994, they lost their way, and started floundering, and were caught unawares when the velociraptors of corruption charged in. One evil spirit exorcised, but seven others rush in to take its place. But apartheid was not unconscious, and was not simply in people’s heads. It did not remain within the confines of the skulls of theorists. Apartheid changed the landscape of the country and moved thousands of people from one place to another. It was not simply the Freudian unconscious. So yes, we do need monsters to keep us on track. But monsters and the track are not just inside our skulls.

And Val said that while Duncan was speaking about Jonah, the Ode of Paschal Nocturns was running through her head.

Jonah was caught but not held fast in the belly of the whale. He was a sign of Thee who hast suffered and accepted burial. Coming forth from the beast as from a bridal chamber, he called out to the guard, “By observing vanities and lies you have forsaken your own mercy.”

And it struck me that Duncan had cited someone as saying that Christianity belonged to No 2 on the Enneagram, but really needed to practise the other 8. And I recalled that there are nine odes in the Canon, but we only ever sing eight of them. We never sing Ode 2.

 


Notes and references

[1] The current saying was “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

Black Hats and White Hats: American Stereotyping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How NOT to sell something to someone of my generation

About ten years ago a woman phoned me, and gabbled something so quickly that I couldn’t hear it. I asked her to repeat it, but still could barely hear what she was saying. Eventually I managed to gather that they were doing a health survey in our area, and wanted to know if I’d be willing to answer some questions. I said sure, as a public-spirited citizen, I’d be willing to help with a survey.

A little later the guy who was doing the “health survey” came, and turned out to be a snake oil salesman.

He started wittering on about us not getting enough oxygen because of pollution, and so we needed to replace it with ozone. I tried to recall chemistry lessons from high school, and was sure that ozone was O3 and oxygen was O2, so supplementing oxygen with ozone was a bit like supplementing diamonds with pencil lead. Also, I seemed to remember that ozone was poisonous.

I was getting bored and restless, and wished he’d get on with it, do his survey, and leave. I didn’t want a long and extremely boring lecture about dubious chemical processes.

He went on about ozone therapy, and I could hardly wait for him to leave so I could check Wikipedia for the properties of ozone. Eventually I asked him to get on with it, and tell me what he was selling and how much it was. So he showed a sort of vacuum cleaner contraption and a bathmat, which he said cost R10000. I said there was no way I had that kind of money, and then he said “Do you have a credit card?” and said if I bought it with that I could pay it off over three years at R360 a month, and what could I buy with R360. I said I could fill my car with petrol, and he said “How far will that get you?”

And then I said I was tired of his bullshit and had a lot to do, so I said there was no way I would buy it because I did not have that kind of money and anyway I wasn’t convinced of the benefits, and so he was wasting his time and mine. He packed up his gadgets with a bad grace and left.

He made no effort to hide his annoyance, but he had come to see me under false pretences, and tried to sell me something I didn’t need and couldn’t afford and tried very hard to persuade me to use a credit card to buy it when the price was more than double my monthly pension.

So I think The Oatmeal hits the nail exactly on the head with this.

I may be an old fogey, but I really detest buzzwords like “marketing” “brands”, and “entrepreneurship”, and I’m not really interested in “monetising” my blog.

If you want to sell me something, tell me upfront what it is and what it does and what it costs. Don’t come to my house under false pretences, bore me and waste my time with bullshit lectures, and only then tell me what you’re selling.

Borderliners

BorderlinersBorderliners by Peter Høeg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Borderliners is the second book about “abnormal” children I’ve read this week, the first one being The outcast, so I can’t help comparing them.

The Outcast is about a privileged child from an upper middle-class background, and the action takes place at home, in the school holidays. Borderliners is about an orphan, a ward of the state, with a legal guardian who had more than 200 other children to care for. He has no home to spend holidays in, and the action takes place at the school.

The Outcast (my review here) was about my contemporaries, those who were at school in the 1950s. We had or rebellions, too. I was at Mountain Lodge Preparatory School in Magaliesberg, and when I was 11 the whole school went on strike to protest against an unjust and authoritarian teacher. When the strike ended the headmaster lined us all up outside the classroom and made each of us bend over at the door for two cuts with his cane (I think more for the ringleaders), and once we were all inside he made a little sexist speech about the teacher, saying women were sometimes like that. Even at that age I thought it was sexist. I’d known other female teachers who weren’t authoritarian. But she did not return to the school the following term, so the stiike achieved its purpose.

Borderliners, however, is about those at school in the 1970s, and I remember the 1970s quite well. What do I remember about the 1970s? I saw the film If, which was also about a rebellion in a boarding school. I was on the board of governors of St George’s School in Windhoek. I was manager of several farm schools in Northern Natal. But never did I come across a school that was anything like the one in this book.

Borderliners is set in Denmark. What did I know about Denmark? When I was at school our geography teacher Steyn Krige told us the story of a South African visitor to Denmark who threw an empty packet out of a car window. After driving several miles a traffic cop stopped him and gave him the packet and said “You dropped this.” “Oh I don’t want it,” said the South African. “Denmark doesn’t want it either,” said the traffic cop.

In the 1960s I was a fan of Kierkegaard, and was impressed by the bourgeois morality and dull conformity of people in Denmark that he described. But that was in the 19th century. In the 1970s my impression of Denmark was that it was free. It was the model of the “permissive society”. But Borderliners gives an entirely different impression. Both books reminded me of my own schooldays, but Borderliners impressed me by how regimented it was, far more than any school I attended in the 1950s — especially the lengths they went to to stop pupils talking to each other or having friends, with never-ending surveillance. It was 1984. Could a Danish school in the permissive society really have been like that? No social interaction permitted. Pupils forbidden to talk to each other or even be seen together?

This is never explained in the book. Perhaps for a child at school, it needs no explanation or interpretation, but the book is written from the point of view of an adult looking back and an adult would try to make sense of childhood from the point of view of the wider world. So I’m left wondering why a school in Denmark in the 1970s should be worse, far worse, than a concentration camp. In a concentration camp people are locked away and for the most part forgotten about. The aim is to isolate them so that they can’t influence others. The perimeter is guarded to prevent them from escaping, but there is not, as in this school this constant surveillance, this prohibition on talking to other pupils, a kind of solitary confinement in the company of others.

In the book Peter Høeg links it all to a perception of time. I suppose in any school one becomes aware of time. There is a timetable for classes and other activities, so one’s life is regulated by bells ringing to mark the end of one activity and the commencement of another. But no theory of time can explain the concentration camp character of this school.

So it seemed a very strange book. It also seems to be at least semi-autobiographical, with a good measure of teenage solipsism. That I could identify with. It seems that many people toy with solipsism in their teenage years. Perhaps all do, or perhaps only those who go to boarding schools where time is strictly regulated.

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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.

Liberal genocide

There seems to be a trend, not exactly new, because it’s been going on for several years now, to blame anything that’s perceived to be bad on liberals. Here are a few examples that turned up in my Facebook feed this morning:

Liberal Mom Aghast as Huge Guy Wearing Lakers Jersey Walks Into Ladies’ Room:

A liberal mom got a rude awakening that changed her views about the “bathroom debate” and decided to share her story regardless of what the backlash would be. This is a reality check like no other.

Kristen Quintrall Lavin runs a blog called, The Get Real Mom, in which she exposes the harsh realities of what she calls, “momming.” However, on a recent trip to Disneyland with her young son, Lavin, she was exposed to another harsh reality — the reality of bathroom stalking, which made her question her progressive liberal views on the bathroom debate.

Zille’s Tweets and History’s Miasma | The Con:

In the departure lounge of OR Tambo (taking a break from complaining about the missing TV remote and milk) Helen Zille, the former leader of South Africa’s opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and premier of the Western Cape, casually invoked one of the continued liberal myths of colonisation – that Europeans brought with them medical care to the colonies.

Liberal moms and liberal myths.

My question is, what does the gratuitous insertion of the word “liberal” contribute to either story?

I suspect that the answer is that the not-too-heavily disguised purpose of both articles is to make liberals and liberalism look bad or stupid.

But this kind of devaluation and debasing of the word “liberal” and turning it into a kind of general signal for disapproval tends to make it meaningless.

The main reason that people dislike liberals and liberalism is that they themselves tend to be authoritarian. Authoritarianism can range all the way from mild bossiness through being a control freak to being an absolute dictator, like Hitler or Stalin. But people who diss liberalism do tend to be control freaks of one kind or another.

<SATIRE>

Another trend, also not exactly new, is to devalue terms like “genocide” by applying them to things that are a great deal less than genocide.

If I wanted to follow that trend, I could say that all this anti-liberal propaganda is calculated to provoke liberalophobia (fear and loathing of liberals), in which the next step would be a genocide of liberals.

That wouldn’t be true, of course, because “genocide” means the systematic and planned extermination of an entire race of people, and liberals are not a race (in spite of the attempts of racists to make liberals seem to be a race by prefixing the word “white” to “liberal” when the latter is used as a noun). If it isn’t hate speech, it is at least anti-liberal propaganda.

My daughter recently accused me of mastering the art of clickbait when I reblogged another post recently (the curious can find it here). Well yes, the heading of this post probably may be seen as clickbait, Whether you believed or anyone expected what happened next is up to you.

</satire>

So no, I don’t expect a liberal genocide (but see here), but authoritarian governments do tend to kill off or at least crack down on liberal opposition. And most colonial governments have been authoritarian, at least vis-à-vis the colonised, whatever Helen Zille or Matthew Wilhelm Solomon may say.

Technology addiction?

This morning at TGIF Dr Marlena Kruger spoke on the impact of our technology addiction.

I think she made some useful points, for example that young children learn more from playing with hands-on toys that from playing with simulations of them on a computer screen.

Shape sorting toy

Shape sorting toy

When our kids were small, they had one of these shape sorting toys. It would be possible to design a computer app to match the same shapes to spaces on the screen, but kids learn a lot more by handling the shapes, coordinating their sense of sight with the sense of touch by feeling it, and yes, putting it in their mouths.

So playing with computer apps is no substitute for playing with actual things in the real world.

But the problem with this kind of talk about “technology” is that people seem to get locked into a narrow two-dimensional world like a computer screen. What do we mean by words like “technology”?

Consider, for example, this article, which seems to be making a similar point to that made by Dr Kruger — 10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12 | The Huffington Post:

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics state infants aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to technology, 3-5 years be restricted to one hour per day, and 6-18 years restricted to 2 hours per day (AAP 2001/13, CPS 2010). Children and youth use 4-5 times the recommended amount of technology, with serious and often life threatening consequences (Kaiser Foundation 2010, Active Healthy Kids Canada 2012).

Think about it for a while, especially the heading, because it is an example of tunnel vision — like limiting yourself to the number of pixels on a computer screen, and seeing nothing outside that.

What is a “handheld device”? A pen, a pencil, a crayon, a pair of scissors — all these are handheld devices. All these are technology. Specialists in early childhood education have been saying that children should learn to handle such things long before they start school.

Ah, you say, but those are mechanical devices, and we are talking about electronic devices.

But experts in early childhood education say that listening to music is important for the development of young children. Does that mean you are going to take your toddlers to symphony concerts? No recordings, because playing recordings nowadays usually requires electronic devices — when last did you hear a wind-up gramophone played? No discos, because there they use electronic devices to amplify the music.

I’m not simply being pedantic here. Before making huge generalisations about “technology” and “hand-held devices” we need to see the three-dimensio0nal world beyond the computer screen. When you dig in a garden you are using a hand-held device and a spade is technology. Technology is part of what makes us human. Saying that children under 2 should have no exposure to technology is insane. No cooked food, because cooking uses technology.

huntgathEven hunter-gatherer societies use technology, at least for the “hunter” part. Without technology we would just be gatherers.

So when we talk about being “addicted” to technology, we need to think about the wider meaning of technology, and the extent to which technology has made us human.

And when we speak of a remedy for addiction to technology, we need to think about whether the addiction is to technology, or to something else that the technology is used for.

When television was invented, people learnt how to send images to a cathode-ray screen (later LCD) in a remote location. At first, in television, the image was controlled by the sender. The receivers were passive. They could perhaps choose between images sent by different senders, but they had no control over the content of the images received.

Technophobes lamented the bad influence on children — “the flickering blue parent” was one phrase bandied about.

But it was not the TV that was generating the images. They were being sent by people who decided on what was sent, to serve their own purposes. It was one-way communication, yes, but it was one-communication from one group of people to another. The technology facilitated the communication, and to some extent determined it (yes, I’m old enough to have been influenced by Marshall McLuhan, and maybe I’ll say more about him some other time) but it was still communication from people to people.

For me it was a huge liberation when personal computers came along.

Yes, there I was looking at images on a cathode ray tube (CRT), but they were images that I put there. They were things I could control. For a while the rest of the family thought I was opting out of family life. I was “playing with the computer” instead of being sociable and watching TV with the family. That was tantamount to being accused of being addicted to technology. But it wasn’t. If I wrote a letter on the computer, I was no more addicted to the computer as technology than I was addicted to the typewriter before I had a computer, or addicted to a fountain pen before I had a typewriter.

In every case I was “using technology” to communicate with other people, and what I was doing was not “playing with the computer” any more than a handwritten letter is “playing with a pen”. Yes, I do sometimes play with a pen. I twiddle it, I idly click a ballpoint pen so the tip comes in and out.  But using it for a task is not “playing with it”. Is doodling “playing with” a pen? Idly and absentmindedly drawing little pictures? Is sketching fellow participants at a meeting playing with a pen? Perhaps great art exists because some people were addicted to playing with the technology of paint and paintbrushes.

One of the things Marlena Kruger said was coming home and putting your cell phone down and not touching it. Abstain from using the cellphone, because people are more important than the device.

But on Wednesday night we went to church in Brixton, Johannesburg. On the way home at 9:30 pm, on a badly lit road, with cars with bright lights coming the other way, we hit a pothole which dented the wheel rim so the tyre went flat. It was the first time in 11 years and 250000 km that we had had a flat tyre. Where is the jack? We’ve never had to use it before.

So I phone my son, who is a Toyota mechanic and knows these things. And ask where is the jack (it’s dark, you see). It’s under a plastic cover under the front passenger seat. You’d never find it by feeling for it. And how do you remove the cover, and how do you get it out?

But if he switches off his phone, because he’s not going to be addicted to it, it’s not a mere device. There is a person at the other end of the device. So by switching off the phone, you are switching off the person.

So speaking of “technology addiction” can be a bit simplistic. Your addiction can be to the device, like a cell phone, but more often it is addiction to what you do with the device. A cell phone is mainly used to communicate with other people. And you have the stereotype of a group of people all sitting together, all using their cell phones. Are they addicted to their phones? Not necessarily. What it means is that they prefer to communicate with people elsewhere than communicate with the people they are close to at that moment. The problem is not so much with the device used to communicate, but with human relations, that you would rather communicate with someone other than the people you happen to be with.

I said personal computers were a liberation, and its true. I can store information on my computer and find it much more quickly than if I had written it down on bits of paper. I’m writing an essay or an academic paper or even a blog post, and I need to verify the date of a historical event. Google leads me to that information much more quickly than trying to see if I have a reference book that has it.

E-mail was a liberation too.

I used to hate phoning people, and still do. I don’t know if I will be interrupting them when they are doing something important. If I send them e-mail, then they can read it and reply to it at their convenience.

But the people who liked the one-way, one-to-many model of broadcasting did not like this liberation. They wanted their captive audience. And Microsoft developed Windows 98 which was the first version of Windows to be integrated with the Internet, and the developed “push” technology for it. It was an attempt to re-enslave people that personal computers had liberated — by networking those computers and then pushing stuff at them.

And now cell phones use “push” technology too. My smartphone had “push” notifications for Facebook and Twitter, which drove me mad until I found how to switch them off (they don’t give you a manual, so it’s not easy to find out how to do that). So yes, cell phones are useful, but they can drive you mad. And there’s even a cell phone advertising itself with the slogan “Never miss a moment” — you’ll be so busy not missing moments that you’ll never have a moment to do anything.

But even though this is labelled “push technology”, it is not the technology that is doing the pushing. It is people doing the pushing. Yesterday I downloaded 90 emails and 85 of them were spam, sent to my “junk and suspicious mail” folder and deleted in bulk. They may have been sent by bots, but it was people who programmed the bots to send them.

Then back to TGIF, where technology, even electronic technology, was not absent.

TGIF: technology addiction. Two laptops and a projector

TGIF: technology addiction. Two laptops and a projector

I’m not against using educational technology. At one time I used some quite complicated gadgets to improve students’ reading skills, or at least show them how they could improve their won reading skills. But there is also this: Universities should ban PowerPoint — It makes students stupid and professors boring – Business Insider:

Overreliance on slides has contributed to the absurd belief that expecting and requiring students to read books, attend classes, take notes and do homework is unreasonable.

Courses designed around slides therefore propagate the myth that students can become skilled and knowledgeable without working through dozens of books, hundreds of articles and thousands of problems.

I’m not sure I agree with that article either. A lot depends on the content of what is being taught. Some topics can be enhanced by the use of slides, and others not. I must say that in this morning’s presentation I paid very little attention to the slides, and can remember little of what was on them

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