Notes from underground

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The Psalm Killer (review)

The Psalm KillerThe Psalm Killer by Chris Petit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twenty years ago I read The Monkey House, where a detective has to try to solve a murder case in the middle of a civil war, where different factions are taking pot shots at one another in war-torn Sarajevo. This one, published about the same time, is very similar, except that it is set in war-torn Belfast about ten years earlier.

In both cases the temptation is not to bother too much, and simply ascribe any unexplained deaths to “sectarian violence” and leave it at that. But of course if they did that there would be no story. But there is also the danger that if the detective solves the crime, the interests and deeds and loyalties of powerful figures might come to light.

In this case, the killer publishes verses from Psalms in newspapers with each killing, almost as if wanting to be found.

The two main detectives in the case, Cross and Westerby, have no first names, or at least the reader is not told them. This calls to mind Inspector Morse of Oxford, whose first name was not known even to his closest colleagues on the force. I’m not sure what the purpose of that is — to depersonalise them? But they are the strongest characters in the book. Perhaps to show that they are puppets, manipulated by forces beyond their control.

Despite a few puzzling plot holes this one is a very good read, and shows how the exercise of trying to find the “good guys” in conflicts like these is almost impossible. There is no “war on terror” here, there are just terrorists against terrorists, with ordinary people as the victims.

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Early Social Media

It was 30 years ago this month that I first encountered online social media.

I borrowed a modem from a friend and used it to access Beltel, which was run by Telkom. The modem was a Saron (perhaps made in Saron in the Western Cape, perhaps not). It is so far lost in the mists of history that a Google search produced no information. A few months later I bought one. There were two gadgets we wanted back then — a modem and a microwave oven. We could not afford both, so we got the microwave oven. But then someone who had upgraded their modem to a faster one advertised a Saron modem second hand, and so I bought it.

Ceefax screen display from the UK. The Beltel display was similar.

Beltel was accessed by a 300/75 baud modem. It would download data at 300 baud, and upload it at 75 baud. “Baud” for those who don’t know, was roughly equivalent to bits per second. The Beltel system was similar to the Prestel and Ceefax system in the UK, and lasted until 1999, when it closed because the software was not Y2K compatible.

The Beltel system produced a 40 character screen display.

One of the features of Beltel was Comnet, which was like a bulletin board, with sections for discussing various topics. It worked a lot like Facebook, except that it had very crude graphics, it was much slower, and because it used 40 characters across the screen, it was easier to read.

There was also a more sophisticated version of Comnet called “The Network” for which one had to pay extra.

Most of the discussion was about computers. The main exception was a couple of right-wing white racists Adrian and Karen Maritz, who used it for racist propaganda. The were supported by someone using the pseudonym “Computer Advisory”, whom I suspect was Henry Martin, who later also posted racist propaganda under his own name. Most of the other users were white middle-class computer geeks, who whatever they may have thought about people of other races, reacted against the very crude racism of the propagandists.

A few years later Adrian Maritz and Henry Martin booby trapped a computer, which they sent to Durban, where it blew up and killed some poor innocent computer tech who was trying to compare it. They were arrested, and made it on to the news when they had a hunger strike in prison. An investigative journalist, Jacques Paauw, followed up the story, and 30 years later he’s still around, still digging up the dirt on politicians and the like. Henry Martin and Adrian Marits scarpered overseas to the UK. Perhaps they are still involved in right-wing politics over there.

Through Beltel I discovered BBSs — Bulletin Board Systems. These could be set up by anyone with a computer, a modem and a telephone line, and could both transmit and receive data at 300 Baud, and quite soon 1200 Baud. Then Baud as a measurement became obsolete, and new modems could transmit and receive at 2400 bits per second, which could not be measured in Baud. But even at 300 Baud, seeing characters appear on my screen and realising that they were coming from another computer 150 km away was an amazing thing. Now I’m typing this and it’s being saved on a computer on the other side of the world and I think nothing of it.

One of the first BBSs I used was Capital ComTech, run by Geoff Dellow from Centurion, which was only a local call away. I visited him one day, and also met the notorious Adrian and Karen Maritz, who were visiting at the same time. Most BBSs were run by computer geeks, and the main thing most of them wanted to talk about was computers. They would make their systems available to those who wanted to talk about other things, but regarded those as irrelevant fluff, and not the really important stuff. That seemed weird to me — like people only wanting to use telephones to talk about telephones (well, since the introduction of cell phones I think many people do want to use telephones to talk about telephones, but back in the 1980s it did seem to be ridiculous). Nevertheless, most BBSs had about 10-20 sections, called “conferences”, for discussing various aspects of computers, and perhaps one or two for non-computer stuff, which most sysops (BBS system operators) regarded as an unnecessary luxury, needed only to keep off-topic stuff out of the computer conferences.

So I wonder how many people are around who remember those early days of social media, who participated in ComNet and The Network on Beltel. Somewhere on my hard disk I’ve still got some conversations saved from those days.

The Big Six (review)

The Big Six (Puffin Books)The Big Six by Arthur Ransome

When I was a child, books by Arthur Ransome were the kind of children’s books that adults thought that children ought to read, but which I found rather boring. Our school library was well stocked with them, so I read a few, but if I’d been on Good Reads back then I’d have given them two stars, three at the most.

I can remember little of what I read, and perhaps I read Coot Club, of which this is a kind of sequel, and I suppose my main memory is knowing what the Norfolk Broads were — the kind of knowledge that comes in useful when watching TV quiz shoes like Pointless, until you’ve seen them so many times that you stop trying to work out the answers, and rather try to remember which question is going to come up next and which of the very familiar contestants gets the right answer. But yes, reading about that di help to me form some kind of picture of the place, which recurs in other books, such as The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers.

I also read Missee Lee, from which I learned that typhus was a serious disease, but when I grew up I found that its cousin typhoid was more common.

Arthur Ransome’s books were great for children who liked messing about in boats, but the closest thing we got to that was paying an exorbitant fee for half an hour rowing round the island in Joburg’s Zoo Lake, or the slightly less crowded Germiston Lake.

The Big Six has boats, lots of them. But it is also a whodunit, and that adds to the interest. I don’t remember reading it as a child. I do remember reading a couple of Enid Blyton‘s Secret Seven series, where a group of children outwit the criminals that have the local police foxed.

In this one it is not difficult to guess the culprit, but the child detectives are themselves accused of the crime, and so in order to exonerate themselves they have to find the real culprits. The crime is casting off moored boats, and stealing some equipment — not major crimes worthy of Interpol, but serious enough in a small village where the children’s fathers are boatbuilders, and a bad reputation could harm their livelihood.

Though it takes a long time for the children to identify the suspects, that is not the main problem. The main problem is to collect evidence that points unambiguously to the perpetrator, because so much of the evidence they do manage to collect is open to different interpretations. So as a children’s whodunit, this one is quite sophisticated. Finding a suspect is one problem, getting enough evidence to convict is another.

In addition to being a whodunit, there is an undercurrent of environmental concern, perhaps of wider concern now than when Ransome wrote it in the 1930s. One is conscious of such concerns throughout the book, that, and the price of things. The idea of a lawyer’s fee being 66c makes the mind boggle.

I don’t think I read this one as a child, but if I had, I wonder if I would have been able to grasp that point at the age of 9 or 10. But as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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The house on Falling Star Hill

The House On Falling Star HillThe House On Falling Star Hill by Michael Molloy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read an earlier book by Michael Molloy, The witch trade, and was not at all impressed. The blurb made this one sound a bit more interesting, and as I had nothing to lose I took it out of the library anyway. I could alwasys dump it after a couple of chapters if it didn’t look interesting.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised tom find that it was a considerable improvement on The witch trade. The characters are more interesting, if somewhat stereotyped.

A boy, Tim Swift, meets a girl, Sarre, from another world, called Tallis. According to the Chronology of the story they are both about 11 years old, Tim and his dog Josh get unexpectedly dragged into Tallis where Tim discovers that Sarra is a Chanter, with special powers. Tallis has some similarities with Earth, and some differences. Jewels are plentiful but flowers are scarce, which makes a lucrative trade for some. There are also power struggles between the king and a would-be usurper., which makes for interesting adventures and excitement, in which Tim and Sarre, as somewhat precocious brats, play a significant part.

There are also hints of a romantic interest, especially on the part of Sarre, which at some points looked as though it might turn it into a rerun of His Dark Materials , but fortunately it didn’t. But while His Dark Materials appeals to adults as much as to children, I think The house on Falling Star Hill will appeal mainly to children, and rather younger ones at that.

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Land: expropriation without compensation

Parliament has just voted to re-examine the clause in the constitution that prohibits arbitrary deprivation of property.

This was introduced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was also the one who oversaw the drafting of the constitution in the first place, so he should know what he’s doing.

I have certain misgivings about this, because the arbitrary deprivation of property that that clause in the constitution prohibits was one of the features of the National Party government from 1948 to 1994, and that is the kind of behaviour that that clause of the constitution is explicitly designed to prohibit.

In the ethnic cleansing that took place under the apartheid policy of the National Party government, thousands of people were arbitrarily deprived of property with little or no compensation. Part of the intention of this clause in the constitution has also been to allow the government to make restitution for those who were arbitrarily deprived of property in the past, and that process has been slow and cumbersome and badly managed. Changing the constitution on this point, we are told, bill improve this process. But will it?

Back in the 1960s I was a member of the Liberal Party, which was hated by the National Party because of this very issue. The NP regime expropriated land owned by people who belonged to the “wrong” ethnic group for a particular area, and wanted to do so with little or no compensation. The Liberal Party opposed this policy and helped many people who were so deprived to take cases to court to obtain better compensation. This, of course, made the ethnic cleansing exercise more expensive, and thus slowed it down.

One example was Khumalosville in Natal, where black people lived on two-acre plots where they kept a few cattle. Khumalosville was declared a “white” area, so the people who lived there were forced to move to Hobsland. They were offered R42.00 in compensation for their two acres in Khumalosville, and were given a “free” half-acre plot in Hobsland, with the option of buying an additional half acre for R110.00. But even if they did pay the extra to have half the land they had previously owned, the smaller plots would not support the same number of animals.

Twenty-two years after the present constitution came into force, have the people of Hobland had restitution of their land in Khumalosville? I have no idea, and many of them are probably dead by now, and their descendants have probably moved away, and no longer have the animals nor the desire to keep them. Expropriation without compensation will not help them, but it will facilitate the kind of abuse that they suffered under the National Party regime.

Of course the ANC will not do this, and we must trust them not to do that kind of thing even when they want to give themselves the power to do so. But nine years under the Zuptas have shown that no government can be trusted. Put not your trust in princes nor in any child of man, for there is no help in them.



Harry Potter meets Terry Pratchett

The Last DragonslayerThe Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second dragon book I’ve read this month. The first was The dragons of Ordinary Farm).

Both books are about the last dragons on earth, and both of them feature an older girl and a younger boy, so they invite comparison. Both satirise commerce and corporate greed. Of the two, I think this one was better. The plot was less repetitious, it had more humour, and the dialogue was a lot less stilted.

But the biggest difference for me was that while in both books the children (a girl in her early teens and a pre-teen boy) had to outwit adult authority, in The Last Dragonslayer the reason and need for doing so was clear, whereas in The Dragons of Ordinary Farm it wasn’t.

Having said that, however, I also don’t think that this is one of Jasper Fforde’s best books. Jennifer Strange and her sidekick Tiger Prawns are running a dying business of managing magic. The owner of the business is missing, and they find themselves looking after a bunch of retired and semi-retired wizards in the Kingdom of Hereford which is about to go to war with the Duchy of Brecon over who gets to control the Dragonlands when the last Dragon dies. In addition to the political aspect, there are commercial interests at stake, with commercial firms vying with individual speculators to grab the biggest and best bits of real estate. The satire on this it a bit heavy-handed in a Mad magazine kind of way.

I found Jasper fforde’s earlier books much better, and this one seems a bit slapstick: Harry Potter meets Terry Pratchett, if you like that kind of thing, but not really as good as either.

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Myths of the world

Myths of the World: A Thematic EncyclopediaMyths of the World: A Thematic Encyclopedia by Michael Jordan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I took this rather pretentiously titled volume out of the library in the hope of finding some interesting or useful information, but was rather disappointed.

I suppose I should have been warned by the slimness of the book; a book that size cannot really be called an “encyclopedia”, and indeed it wasn’t. A more appropriate title might have been “anthology” — a selection of myths that appealed to the author, categorised by particular themes.

Of course it is not possible to do justice to myths of the world in one short volume, but it could easily have been doubled in size without making it too unwieldy.

The accounts of the myths were also less than satisfactory. They were somewhat woodenly told. There were several ancient Greek and Roman “classical” myths, but I felt I learnt more about them from the 3-5 line descriptions in Pears Cyclopaedia. Chinese gods seemed to be a better bet for Chinese mythology.

Michael Jordan also appeared to suffer from a strong anti-Christian bias. He included about 3-4 Christian myths, but lumped them in with gnostic ones, which are utterly different, and the selection seemed pretty unrepresentative too. There was a section on dragon myths, but it did not include the Christian story of St George and the dragon, which is probably one of the most widespread, being popular from England to India, and from Murmansk to Ethiopia. Perhaps he regarded it as a legend rather than a myth, but there are many instances of overlap between them, and I think the story has enough overlap to allow it to be included in a book that claims to be an “encyclopedia” of myths.

The book was published a year or two before Google made web searches so much easier, so most of what the book can tell you can be found more easily and more comprehensively by searching the Web, but a good encyclopedia of myth would still be useful, because the problem with web searches is that you don’t always know what to look for.

The title implies that a reference book, but it is certainly not that. There’s far too much missing.

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Same-sex marriage: one cheer for Bermuda

There have been reports that Bermuda has rescinded a law on same-sex marriage that it passed a year ago, and replaced it with one on domestic partnerships.

Bermuda legalized same-sex marriage a year ago. This week it abolished it. – The Washington Post:

In an unusual move, Bermuda has abolished same-sex marriage less than a year after it was legalized, replacing the same-sex unions with domestic partnerships.

Bermuda Gov. John Rankin signed a bill into law Wednesday that reverses an earlier Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. The new law gives domestic partners in the British island territory similar rights as married couples — but without the legal title.

The reports are short on details, but from what I have read it seems to me to be a step in the right direction, and one step towards something that I proposed in a blog post 12 years ago: The State should get out of the marriage business | Notes from underground. I’d be glad to see if some countries went the whole hog, and left marriage to civil society, rather than making it a government prerogative.

The importance of blog comments

Most bloggers really appreciate comments on their blog posts — provided that they are intelligent, on topic, and not spam.

Now one blogger has been investigating this, and asking bloggers to say what their favourite comments are, and why — Why Reader Comments Are The Cat’s Pajamas | Voxate Writing & Editing:

Although time is scarce and we’re often reading other blogs between other must-do’s on our daily schedule, making the time to comment is important – both for the link it may allow you to include to your own blog or site, and to the blogger.

Speaking for myself now, one of the reasons that I write blog posts is that I have some half-baked ideas floating around, and I’m hoping that others will read them and help me to bake them. So it’s pretty discouraging when there are no comments at all. So please read this article on blog comments, and resolve to write a comment on a blog today, or at least this week.

The dragons of Ordinary Farm

The Dragons of Ordinary Farm (Ordinary Farm Adventures, #1)The Dragons of Ordinary Farm by Tad Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Lucinda and Tyler Jenkins go to spend the summer holidays on their great uncle Gideon’s California farm, but they find it has weird animals and even weirder workers.

The book has some quite interesting ideas, but many of them are hardly developed, and there are too many inconsistencies in the plot, characters and dialogue.

In children’s books, the age of child characters is often quite significant. The story opens with a boy called Colin eavesdropping on his elders. From his behaviour it seems he is about 7-8 years old. The great niece and nephew, we are told, are about his age. But when they arrive, it seems he is much taller than them, and to them he seems almost grown up. So physically his age moves to about 14, but mentally he still seems much younger. Lucinda therefore must be about 12 and her “little” brother about 9 or 10. Except that Tyler, we later discover, was given a watch for his 12th birthday, so that bumps Lucinda up to 14 or so, and Colin to about 16 or 17, especially when he starts pretending to be a businessman.

Lucinda and Tyler later meet three children from a neighbouring farm, the older two are about the same age as them, but the third is younger. But when they appear in the dark, they can’t be adults, because they are small children. In my experience, 14-year-old girls are often as tall as or taller than their mothers. If, as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland growing and shrinking children is part of the plot, fine. But if it isn’t, it’s just a distraction.

The characters are inconsistent in other ways, too, almost manic-depressive (or whatever that is called nowadays). The farm has secrets, like the origin of the weird animals, which the visiting children are supposed to be told some time, but have to discover for themselves, and at times are kept almost as prisoners. Sometimes interesting information is revealed about the characters, in a way that looks as though it is going to be significant for the plot, but it is then never mentioned again.

One of the characters is revealed to be a tutelary spirit, the genius loci of the farm. Lucinda and Tyler do not question this, or ask what it means. Presumably they know already. Perhaps that information was put in for didactic purposes — get the readers to look up “tutelary” in a dictionary, or Google for genius loci. But there’s little point in doing so, because no more information is imparted, and no use of it is made elsewhere in the story.

Another rather annoying thing is that though the book is obviously set in America, the British publishers have rather insensitively and inconsistently changed the language and spelling for British readers — rather as the Harry Potter stories were changed for American readers. So there is lots of schoolkid slang that sounds horribly inauthentic because it has been changed in this way and so belongs to neither one place nor the other. There also references to computer games and the like which will probably make the book appear dated in a very short time. Too much use of contemporary slang can make a book quite unreadable after a few years.

So I can liken the book to a partly complete jigsaw puzzle, which has quite a lot of pieces that belong to a different puzzle altogether — the things, like the genius loci that are introduced in the story, but not subsequently used.

So was it worth reading?

For my purposes, yes.

I’ve been writing a sequel to my children’s novel Of wheels and witches, and am looking for inspiration by reading other children’s books in similar genres to see what works and what doesn’t. So it’s as much an exercise in writing as an exercise in reading.

This one taught me quite a lot about how not to write a book. For one thing, if you are going to write a book like a jigsaw puzzle, then give the reader the pieces, all the pieces and nothing but the pieces. Too many pieces in this book seem to be from a different puzzle, and contribute nothing to the picture in this one, and some seem to have missing surroundings, so they are introduced and then isolated and not mentioned again.

It also taught me to be careful not to let characters become caricatures, collections of characteristics rather than persons, behaving inconsistently from one moment to the next.

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