Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “ubuntu”

Can an android understand ubuntu?

I really wish that software and online service marketers would choose unique names for their products and services, rather than ordinary words.

Three of the worst offenders that come to mind are Ubuntu, Android and Diaspora.

The problem is that these are also ordinary words, and this causes endless problems and confusion when using search engines, and make it very hard to find what you are looking for.

There was a novel published a while ago, Do androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick. But since a cellphone operating system was named Android, I wonder how many people know the real meaning of the term. Perhaps that was why, when the book was made into a film, the title was changed to Blade runner.

Today I wrote a review of the book The elegance of the hedgehog and posted a review of it on my other blog here. I noted in my review that the book gives some valuable insights into the meaning of ubuntu, and announced the posting of the review on Twitter. It was almost immediately (and possibly automatically) retweeted by someone who specialises in Linux documentation. Now I have no objection to Linux fans reading my blog posts, but they might be a little disappointed when they do not find what they were looking for.

Some names are unique and OK. It is very unlikely that anyone will mistake Facebook or Pinterest for anything else. Fortran, Algol and C, C+ and C++ were OK for computer languages, but Pascal, BASIC and Ada were not. Perhaps it would help if search engines were case sensitive by default, so that they could distinguish between Android and android, Ubuntu and ubuntu. But that might not help with “diaspora”, which is often capitalised in normal use as “The Diaspora”. Actually I believe that the Diaspora social networking site has been renamed, which might solve that problem.

Android is one of the worst offenders, because not only the operating system itself, but its various versions have been named with ordinary words, which will no doubt cause confusion to people looking for recipes for making gingerbread. At least the authors of the Ubuntu distro of Linux used improbable noun-adjective combinations for their versions, though it does get me to wondering whether karmic koalas dream of electric sheep, and perhaps tell the time with a clockwork orange.

The Ubuntu disambiguation page on Wikipedia can help to sort out some of the confusion, as can the Android disambiguation page. But that doesn’t help with search engines, and one wonders about the intelligence of the people running Google, one of the most popular search engines, in choosing the name “Android” for their cellphone operating system.

An android is something that resembles an adult male human being, but isn’t. What, I wonder, is something that resembles a sheep and isn’t? Ovoid? No that means eggshaped. Agnoid?

And when it comes to Blade Runner, would Pascal take a wager on a race between electric sheep? Would he have foreseen correctly that Pistorius wouldn’t win an Oscar? And would it have made a difference to Ada’s engine if he had?

Naming computer programs

Why do people have to name computer programs or web services with ordinary words?

I’m referring to things like Ubuntu and Android, and one I heard of just today, a social networking thing called Diaspora.

If you are looking for web sites related to ubuntu, or androids, the search engines spew out many totally irrelevant posts.

Computer programs or web sites with unique made-up names have less danger of ambiguity and confusion, like Linux, Facebook, Orkut and the like. Ok, “twitter” is a word, but it’s not one that people would really want to look up other than the web site.

London’s Burning: A Riot of Goodness

Yesterday news of the London riots prompted some negative thoughts about the British media, in me at least. But just to show that the the media are far from the real spirit of real people, here’s a different side of the picture.

Opinionated Vicar: A Riot of Goodness:

Todays mass cleanups – whose turnout probably exceeds those of the riots by a large margin – have been inspiring. The #riotcleanup and @riotcleanup tags on Twitter have been humming, and when the BBC interviewed a vicar in Ealing earlier today she said that many of the would-be-cleaners had been sent home because there was nothing left for them to do, such was the volume of help.

So London, the city that is host to the 2012 Olympic Games, can show us a thing or two about ubuntu too.

World cup: hospitality and chauvinism

The World Cup is more than halfway over, and more than half the teams have gone home. The USA, England, the top teams from the 2006 World Cup — France and Italy — and many more. Ghana is the only African team left in the running, and many South Africans are supporting them.

But what will the returning teams and fans take with them when they go home? And what lasting effect will it have on South Africa?

Here’s a rather nice article by an American Shari Cohen: South Africa Rolls Out the Ubuntu in Abundance:

So, if South Africa accomplishes nothing more on the playing field, it will still have won as a host country. I am a cynic, no doubt about that. And yet I have to admit, I’m a little teary just writing this because I leave for home next weekend and I will be leaving a little piece of myself here in South Africa. I just hope I have learned enough to bring back a little piece of Ubuntu to my homeland, where perhaps with a little caring and a little water, it will take root as naturally as it does here, in the cradle of civilization. It’s funny, many people in America still ask me, ‘are the people in Africa very primitive?’ Yes, I know, amazing someone could ask that but they do. And when they do, I usually explain that living in a mud hut does not make one primitive, however, allowing kids to sell drugs to other kids and engage in drive-by killings — isn’t that primitive behavior? I think it is. When I think of Ubuntu and my recent experiences here, I think America has much to learn from Africa in general, in terms of living as a larger village; and as human beings who are all interconnected with each other, each of us having an affect on our brothers and sisters.

And remember, just two years ago there was xenophobic violence in many cities in South Africa, where people attacked foreigners. So perhaps the World Cup, and the welcome it encouraged us to give to foreign visitors, might make us a little more welcoming, and we can hope that the ubuntu won’t disappear after the final.

And this will probably also be remembered as the World Cup of the vuvuzela.

But an e-mail has been going around pointing out that it is not so new. The vuvuzela has been annoying people since 1660!

Creeping nihilism

One day at work some years ago there was a reorganisation in our department, and one person Nadia (not her real name) was designated as the “HR person”.

Some time later there was a quarrel between two co-workers that was disrupting the work of the department and it was being discussed at an executive meeting. I suggested that Nadia should deal with it, since “she is, after all, the Human Relations person.”

Everyone looked at me as if I was mad, and the head of department asked me what I meant. I said she had been designated as the “HR” person, which I had taken to mean “Human Relations”. Everyone else said, Oh, no, HR means “human resources”.

I then remembered seeing an advertisement in the Sunday Times a few years before, for the post of “Human Resources Manager”, and I’d even written something about it at the time — that the spirit of capitalist exploitation was entering our language to indoctrinate us. The Nationalist government had been doing it for years in their apartheid policy, of course, trying to dehumanise black workers and job-seekers by referring to them as “labour units”, who could be sent back to the homelands when they were surplus to requirements.

I was quite shocked to discover that such language had crept into a university, and had become so natural and familiar that everyone referred to it by an abbreviation, apparently known to everyone except me. Such dehumanising language seemed to be the very antithesis of the much-vaunted ubuntu, which was supposed be the philosophy of the new South Africa.

I was reminded of this this morning by a discussion on the alt.usage.english newsgroup about the “harvesting” of human organs for transplanting. That too seems crassly insensitive and exploitative.

In that case it is not just me, but several people seem to find it so. One found the term “extremely distasteful”. Another said, “Sounds like you’re going at the body with a scythe, an unfortunate image. Or a grain harvester, even worse, perhaps.”

Another said:

It also sounds as if the donor was cultivated for the purpose, which isn’t impossible in these days.

At any rate, I wouldn’t support required organ donations. There is a big crew of workers who make a great deal of money transplanting organs. Why should any random individual be required to donate free organs to support this business? If it’s a question of requiring donations based on the need of the potential recipient, then shouldn’t the crew of workers be required to donate their efforts free of charge when the recipient doesn’t have insurance coverage?

There was some discussion of alternative words, though most thought they wouldn’t pass the public relations test: “salvage” and “cannibalise”, for example. Cannibalise is used analogously in the motor trade, when one cannibalises a scrap vehicle for spare parts to use on one that it still running.

The last word in that discussion so far is: “To me, the word is disrespectful towards the Grim Reaper.”

But these are just two instances of dehumanising language, words and phrases that become common currency. We may talk all we like about the spirit of ubuntu, but the very structure of our language is driving it out. Creeping nihilism, I call it.

Anthropology – individualism, collectivism or communitarianism

A conservative blog for peace quotes, with apparent approval, an article that denounces communitarians as boring, bossy and fascist.

The mind boggles!

When I hear the word “communitarian” the first person who springs to mind is Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, and anyone less boring, bossy and fascist I cannot imagine.

What is communitarianism?

To quote the Catholic Worker movement

We are working for the Communitarian revolution to oppose both the rugged individualism of the capitalist era, and the collectivism of the Communist revolution. We are working for the Personalist revolution because we believe in the dignity of man, the temple of the Holy Ghost, so beloved by God that He sent His son to take upon Himself our sins and die an ignominious and disgraceful death for us. We are Personalists because we believe that man , a person, a creature of body and soul, is greater than the State, of which as an individual he is a part. We are personalists because we oppose the vesting of all authority in the hands of the state instead of in the hands of Christ the King. We are Personalists because we believe in free will, and not in the economic determinism of the Communist philosophy.

If one sets aside the rather overblown rhetoric, this is not all that much different from the Zulu proverb frequently quoted as an example of ubuntu: “umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu” — a person is a person because of people.

There have been a few reported cases of children who have been separated from their parents at an early age, and raised by wild animals, but in spite of the romantic legend of Romulus and Remus, such children usually find it very difficult to relate to other human beings, and are very deficient in personal development.

This is also similar to Orthodox anthropology — see, for example, the following books, passim:

  • Vlachos, Hierotheos. 1999. The person in the Orthodox tradition. Nafpaktos: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery. ISBN: 960-7070-40-2
  • Yannaras, Christos. 1984. The freedom of morality. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. ISBN: 0-88141-028-4


Dorothy Day -- advocate of communitarianism

Dorothy Day — advocate of communitarianism

The young fogey often advocates libertarianism, as does the author he quotes. As far as I have been able to ascertain, libertarianism is liberalism on steroids, and libertarians are liberals with attitude. In other words, libertarians have turned liberalism from a political idea for governing a country into an ideology and a complete worldview. I must admit, however, that Stanley Fish has attempted to turn liberalism into such an ideology. Even though I can see what he is getting at, I am in fundamental disagreement with his thesis.

Liberals tend to see things in terms of practical politics, rather than a complete worldview. I was, briefly, a member of the Liberal Party of South Africa, at a time when its vision of a nonracial democratic South Africa was under extreme pressure from the government of the day. The Liberal Party had members of just about every racial and religious group in South Africa. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, pagans and Secular Humanists joined together in a common enterprise. Their theology and their anthropology, their understandings of human nature, may have been very different, but in spite of the differences, they were able to join in a common political vision of the kind of society they wanted South Africa to be — with freedom, justice, the rule of law, and a nonracial democracy in which all citizens would have a say in the government of the country.

Libertaranism, on the other hand, if I have correctly understood the article cited by the Young Fogey, seeks to impose a much wider worldview, and one that, as far as I can see, is essentially antithetical to a Christian one, in many ways as much so as the Communist worldview. It is based on a view of man that is fundamentally at odds with Orthodox Christian anthropology.

As Christians we have a model, the Holy Trinity, which is neither individualist nor collectivist. The persons of the Holy Trinity are neither three individuals, nor a collective. But libertarianism begins to look like a heresy.

Health and healing – private profit from public misery

Pickled Bushman reviews Michael Moore’s latest documentary: Sicko (or American refugees in Cuba) showing the ravages wrought by the privatisation mania on the American health-care system, which has slipped from being among the best in the world to 32nd place, just above Slovenia.

The same thing has struck South Africa, since neoliberalism took off in the Reagan/Thatcher years.

Actually the problem is not so much privatisation as commercialisation. One of the things that caused a huge slide in South African health-care services was the nationalisation of all church hospitals in the “homelands” in 1973. This has been documented by Dr Darryl Hackland, who had been Medical Superintendent of Bethesda Hospital (Methodist) in Zululand, and after it was nationalised became a senior official in the KwaZulu Department of Health. The church hospitals were run by “private enterprise”, but the difference was that they were not run for profit.

In the 1980s there was a reprivatisation of health services, but this did not take place in the poorer areas of the country, but in the rich ones. The government at the time (under PW Botha) followed the Reagan/Thatcher ideology, and encouraged the formation of commercial clinics, in which doctors owned shares. It was privatisation for profit.

Medical Aid schemes have been infected as well. They were formerly socialist bodies, owned and run by their members, as a form of mutual aid. Now many of them are owned by outside shareholders. They no longer speak of members, but “customers”. They no longer provide health care, but “products”. They advertise, and refer to themselves as “financial services providers”. Beware of any “financial services provider” that tries to sell you a “product”. Whenever anyone uses the term “product” for a service, financial or otherwise, it is a pretty sure indication that they are simply out to rip you off. They offer “rewards”, like club memberships, and cards that give you discounts in stores — but be sure of one thing, you are paying for these things, even if you don’t use them, and what these frivolities mean is that you get less health care for your money, because your money is being wasted on advertising and promotion and putting money into the pockets of shareholders.

The ANC when it came to power in 1994 has basically continued the policies of the National Party under PW Botha. There have been ritual pronouncements to placate their alliance partners, like Cosatu, but basically nothing has changed.

One thing they could do, for a start, would be to set up a tax structure so that not-for-profit mutual Medical Aid schemes are not taxed, and that commercial ones, making profits for outside shareholders, and ones that run superfluous “incentive” schemes not related to their core business are also taxed. (The same should be done for mutual building societies and life assurance providers.)

Also, “faith-based” and other non-profit private health service providers should be encouraged in a similar way.

I can’t speak for other faiths, but from a Christian point of view, Jesus sent out his disciples to preach and to heal, and said “Freely ye have received, freely give.” Before 1973, when the provincial governments subsidised church hopspitals, they got a better service for their money than they did when the central government nationalised the services, and then later devolved them to the “homeland” governments. Why? Because Christian doctors and nurses went to work in those hospitals, not for the sake of financial gain, but because of a desire to obey the command of Jesus to “heal the sick”. When the government took them over, they found it difficult to get staff willing to work in the mainly rural areas where the church hospitals were to be found, and resorted to using army conscript medical students. Secular doctors were out for money, and only wanted to work in the big cities, where they could specialise in the diseases of the rich.

Doctors in private practice did, of course, have to charge fees in order to make a living. Even healers have to eat. But when they worked on their own, or in small partnerships, they could treat the poor and needy for reduced fees, or even, in hard cases, waive the fees altogether. Where, however, they work for clinics run as for-profit companies, this is much more difficult when the fees are paid to the company, and every reduction of fees for poor patient means a reduced profit for the shareholders.

The Orthodox Church has several saints who were medical doctors, and known as “anargyri” (silverless ones), usually translated into English as “unmercentary doctors”. Among them are three pairs of brothers called Cosmas and Damian, perhaps because the later ones consciously followed the example of the earlier ones.

Until now the ANC government has done little more than try to force mercenary doctors, clinics and medical aid scemes to serve the poor. But it might do better to encourage the unmercenary ones, for example by differential taxes, as suggested above.

Hanging Saddam Hussein and loving enemies

Hanging Saddam Hussein will do as much for Iraq as hanging P.W. Botha would have done for South Africa — see my earlier post: Notes from underground: What to do with old dictators.

Pastor Phil Wyman makes some interesting points on treating people as enemies in his blog Square No More: Those Who Pray Together Slay Together.

In the recent obituaries on Gerald Ford, the former US president, it seems that for many the biggest mistake he made was pardoning Richard Nixon.

St Paul warns us (in Eph 6:10-12) that our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against principalities and powers, against spiritual forces of wickedness. Hanging oppressors does not get rid of oppression. Yet we persist in thinking that we are fighting against flesh and blood, and so the cycle of vengeance continues.

It appears the US president George Bush wants Saddam Hussein to hang — but if Bush is ever brought to trial for his war crimes, will there be any to plead for him to be pardoned?

I have heard that at the war crimes trials of Nazi leaders at Nuremburg one of the difficulties faced by the court was convincing the accused that they were not on trial for losing the war, but for starting it. That Bush would lose the war in Iraq was a foregone conclusion; his crime was starting it in the first place.

PW Botha, so far as I know, went to his death unrepentant. Would hanging him have made things better? Did Jesus make loving enemies conditional on their repentance? It seems to me that in demanding vengeance we demonstrate that we have been infected by the same virus as those we seek to kill. Killing people does not kill the virus, it just causes it to seek a new host. And the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenlies behave very much like viruses in that respect — C.S. Lewis called them “macrobes” rather than “microbes”.

People with secular values find this difficult to understand. They believe it is letting people off the hook, denying responsibility, and letting them get away with it using the excuse “The devil made me do it.” But for Christians that excuse doesn’t wash. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” That is the real spiritual warfare — resisting the devil when he tempts us, and especially when he tempts us with the relatively undemanding exercise of confessing other people’s sins and ignoring our own.

Gnosticism, neognosticism and Orthodoxy

A couple of days ago I caught glimpses of a TV programme on Leonardo da Vinci. It had to do with a picture of two babies kissing, and whether it was by him, and if so, whether it showed that he was influenced by Gnosticism. I didn’t follow the arguments closely as I was doing something else at the time, but it reminded me that there seems to be a growing interest in gnosticism in the media, and I got the impression that the people who made that TV programme thought that gnosticism was cool, and wouldn’t it be cool if it could be shown that Leonardo da Vinci was influenced by gnosticism.

Now I’m no fundi on gnosticism, and I’m not particularly interested in it, but I do find it interesting that there seems to be a social tendency, at least in the West, towards a greater interest in gnosticism.

Some 45 years ago I wrote to my cousin and quoted something from the Nag Hammadi documents, which recorded as a saying of Jesus, “Lift the stone and thou shalt find me; cleave the wood and I am there.” My cousin, who was going through a rather puritanical Baptist phase, wrote back asking if those were gnostic documents, and implying that if they were, there could be nothing good about the saying. There seemed to be a great prejudice against anything that might possibly be tainted by gnosticism.

Now the prejudice seems to be the other way. If it’s gnostic, it must be good. Leonardo da Vinci was a great genius, but if he was a gnostic, his genius must be greater still.

As I said, I make no claim to be a fundi on gnosticism, so I defer to the opinion of one who is an acknowledged expert, Elaine Pagels. And I think she got it right in her description of the difference between gnosticism and Orthodox Christianity, and why Orthodox Christianity rejected gnosticism:

Orthodox Christians were concerned – far more than gnostics – with their relationships with other people. If gnostics insisted that humanity’s original experience of evil involved internal emotional distress, the orthodox dissented. Recalling the story of Adam and Eve, they explained that humanity discovered evil in human violation of the natural order, itself essentially “good.” The orthodox interpreted evil (kakia) primarily in terms of violence against others (thus giving the moral connotation of the term). They revised the Mosaic code, which prohibits physical violation of others – murder, stealing, adultery – in terms of Jesus’ prohibitions against even mental and emotional violence – anger, lust, hatred.

Agreeing that human suffering derives from human guilt, orthodox Christians affirmed the natural order. Earth’s plains, deserts, seas, mountains, stars and trees form an appropriate home for humanity. As part of that “good” creation, the orthodox recognised the processes of human biology: they tended to trust and affirm sexuality (at least in marriage), procreation and human development. The orthodox Christian saw Christ not as one who leads souls out of this world into enlightenment, but as “fullness of God” come down into human experience – into bodily experience – to sacralize it (Pagels 1981:174).

Now, on the fifth day of Christmas, one tends to think of the relationship between God and the material world, and that God so loved the material world as to take human flesh and enter it as a man. This is a stumbling block to Jews, folly to the Greeks and blasphemy to Muslims. But it’s what Christians believe.

Pagels did not get everything right in her book. She had some strange ideas about some of the details, such as Orthodox Christian views of St Mary Magdalene (one of the Myrrh-bearing women and Equal-to-the-Apostles, according to the Orthodox). But she got the big picture right on the difference between Orthodoxy and Gnosticism.

Orthodox Christianity, unlike gnosticism, is characterised by ubuntu, humanity.

Christ is born — glorify Him!
Christ is in our midst — He is and always shall be.

What to do with old dictators

Saddam Hussein is sentenced to death while PW Botha is offered a state funeral and flags fly at half-mast.

Is that the difference between Muslim values and Christian values, or what?

In South Africa there is much talk of the need for moral regeneration, and every now and then there are reports in the media about religious leaders and political leaders, and even sometimes business leaders deploring the “culture of violence” and calling for the teaching of values.

There is a problem in teaching values, say, in schools in a multicultural society, where some are quick to complain about other peoples’ values being forced down their throats. But it is at times like this that one realises that ubuntu is alive and well, and that one of the core Christian values of love of enemies come to the fore, and that projects to promote values, like Heartlines, are not just whistling in the dark.

PW Botha was not in the first rank of dictators of the 20th century. He was not up there with Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. He belonged a bit lower down the list, along with Pinochet of Chile, Franco of Spain, Mussolini of Italy, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and a few others. Unlike many, he did not create the evil system he presided over, he inherited it from his predecessors, and his contribution was to prop it up and prolong it with ever more brutal repression of those who opposed it. There were signs, just before his fall from power, of his willingness to change, when he invited Nelson Mandela, the jailed leader of the opposition, to tea at Tuynhuis, his official residence. But, unlike Adriaan Vlok, his minister of police, he showed no indication of repentance or remorse.

Nevertheless, the South African government, including President Thabo Mbeki, showed the kind of magnanimity that indicates the enormous difference between the values of the new South Africa they are trying to create, and those of the old South Africa that PW Botha was trying to preserve. It’s at times that these that I feel proud to be a South African.

And I wonder what would happen if these values had been (or were to be) applied in the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Iraq, and Israel/Lebanon/Palestine instead of raining down bombs on people?

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