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A tale of another dystopia

29 March 2017

The Red Coffin (Inspector Pekkala #2)The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book only three years ago, and could not remember it at all. It was like reading a completely new book. The only scene that triggered any memory at all; was right at the very end.

So what can I say about such an unmemorable book? That I enjoyed reading it the scond time because I can’t remember what I thought the first time? I won’t try to review it, but will just comment on what i thought was one of the saddest scenes in the whole book. Inspector Pekkala is a member of Stalin’s secret police, and the only one who has the trust of Stalin. Twenty years earlier he was an equally-trusted secret policeman of the Tsar. The sad scene has little to do with the unfolding of the plot, but has a great deal to say about the contradictions of living in a totalitarian state.

It is the story of Talia, the little girl whose parents were taken away to the Gulag, though they were good communists. So she lives with her grandmother in the same building as Pekkala, Stalin’s special investigator. Talia comes to call Pekkala to have tea with her grandmother, wearing her Young Pioneers uniform, which she still wears, even through her membership was revoked when her parents were arrested. That is the saddest story in the book.

And Pekkala goes to have tea with Babayaga, and finds her cutting up newspapers, or rather cutting out small pieces, with nail scissors. She was planning to use the newspaper as toilet paper. She said she is cutting out Stalin’s name, because she heard about a man who used old newspaper for toilet paper, and when the police came to search his house they found some in the toilet, and arrested him because it had Stalin’s name on it. That she should happily tell this to Stalin’s own special investigator is one of the most self-authenticating parts in the book.

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“Capitalism as religion”

27 March 2017

The Society of Sacramental Socialists

“A religion may be discerned in capitalism — that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers… In the first place, capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed. In capitalism, things have a meaning only in their relationship to the cult; capitalism has no specific body of dogma, no theology. It is from this point of view that utilitarianism acquires its religious overtones. This concretization of cult is connected with a second feature of capitalism: the permanence of the cult. Capitalism is the celebration of a cult sans rêve et sans merci (without dream or mercy). There are no “weekdays.” There is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us; each day commands the utter fealty of each worshipper…

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An Embarrassing Confession: I Liked The Shack | A Pilgrim in Narnia

22 March 2017

One of my fellow bloggers, Brenton Dickieson, writes that he liked The Shack. I thought his post was an ideal opportunity to practise Audi alteram partem (no, it’s got nothing to do with your vorsprung durch Technik, you know, it simply means “Hear the other side”). So here’s how he began, with a link to his post, so you can see what he’s leading up to. .

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I have an allergy to evangelical pop culture art. It is not anaphylactic, but if I get too close to the fiction section in a Christian bookstore, I tend to break out in hives. If someone changes the car radio station to one of those generic, fill-in-the-blank pop worship song Christian cheese fests, I can feel my glands swelling and my breathing starts to constrict. If I were to walk into a house decorated with “Christian” art supplemented with motivational sayings–because the best art of history needed the point driven home, after all–I have to take an antihistamine and have a little lie-down.I don’t do well with what North American evangelicals insist in calling “art,” and this is especially true of the genre I know best: storytelling.

Source: An Embarrassing Confession: I Liked The Shack | A Pilgrim in Narnia

As for me, I didn’t like The Shack, and my contrary review is here. In fact the opening paragraph of his review, quoted above, is a pretty good description of how I felt when I tried to read it.

And my reaction to The Shack was stronger than it was to the other literature in that genre. I read a few books by Frank Peretti, and they weren’t a patch on Charles Williams — again, like The Shack, there was that crude materialism and anthropomorphism. But I’d still give Frank Peretti’s books two stars on Good Reads, and I only gave one star to The Shack.

So the only thing I can say now is read it for yourself. You may love it, you may hate it, or you may just find it boring.


Novelty and innovation

17 March 2017

This morning at TGIF Duncan Reyburn spoke on novelty and innovation, and how people respond to this.

As often happens in lectures, my mind wandered to think of examples, and my own responses to what he was saying.

One of the things that Duncan was saying was that Hegelian dialectic was an example of innovation.

Thesis –> Antithesis –> Synthesis

The Antithesis is the innovation, and the Synthesis is the response to the innovation, which, even though it may reject the innovation, is nevertheless changed by it. It cannot simply go back to what it was before.

An example that occurred to me was the Ecumenical Counciils. They did not simply convene to establish doctrines. There was a Thesis — the Gospel, an Antithesis — Heresy, and a Synthesis, formulated doctrine, which though it rejected the heresy, did not simply go back to the status quo ante.

Duncan himself, as a Chesterton scholar, gave the example of Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy, where Chesterton said he was trying to invent a new heresy, but found it was Orthodoxy all along.

I recalled a discussion on Facebook a few days earlier, on the difference between Gospel and Canon, part of it reproduced below:

Tim Fawcett: The Gospel is the core message of Christ. The creeds are more about establishing theological orthodoxy. Fundamentally the creeds are about narrowing the gate to heaven and setting the church that establishes them up as gatekeeper. Creeds are about keeping people out of the Kingdom not letting them in.

Steve Hayes: The Gospel is the good news of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. The creeds were formulated to counter specific distortions of the Gospel. Before those distortions appeared there was little need for creeds. The distortions were mostly about who Jesus Christ was,, and what he was, and this in turn altered what people thought he did.

I simply cannot understand Tim Fawcett’s point, which seems utterly remote from the Ecumenical Councils, and seems stuck in siome 19th century Western time warp. But then my response was expressed in terms of Hegelian dialectic, which is also a product of 19th century Western thought.

But still, if one is thinking of innovation and response to it in terms of Hegelian dialectic, I think the Ecumenical Councils are a good example, and perhaps explain the rather confused response to the Pan-Orthodox gathering held last year in Crete. It didn’t seem to be Hegelian enough, in that it wasn’t called to deal with a specific heresy.

Another thread of thought that was sparked off by Duncan’s paper on innovation was my own response to electronic computers, which appeared in my lifetime. Computing has evolved quite a lot since I got my first microcomputer 35 years ago, back in 1982. Which innovations did I welcome, and which did I ignore or resist?

My first encounter with computers was when I went into the office of the United Building Society in Pietermaritzburg in 1969, after having been overseas for a couple of years, and instead of the machine that entered transactions in my passbook and duplicating them on a physical ledger card, it contacted a remote computer and entered the three years of interest as well. I was fascinated by this device in which you could enter information, and recall it again at will. I wanted one. But only an institution the size of a building society could afford a computer.

This was what Duncan Reyburn had described as a link between stage magic and innovation, also comparable to dialectic.

Something –> the Turn –> the Prestige

The beginning is where the magician shows you a canary in a cage. The Turn is where the canary disappears. The Prestige is when it reappears.

And so it was with the computer in the building society — the data disappeared into a machine, and the device regurgitated it as if by magic, even if it was in a completely different branch of the building society. Previously you could only transact at the branch that held the phyical ledger card,

Then I read about the Atex Publishing System, installed in one of the Durban newspapers. One of the journalists wrote about it, and I wanted one. The thought of being able to store information and find it again sounded marvellous. But I wasn’t a newspaper publisher either, so it seemed out of reach.

NewBrain micro-computer, 1982

Then in 1981 I saw a computer magazine at the newsagent’s, and I bought one. There were descriptions of micro-computers one could use at home. I went, with some others, to an exhibition of educational technology, Instructa ’82, in Johannesburg. There was, on display, an Atari home computer, with BASIC in ROM. I played with it. I typed on the keyboard, pressed the enter key, and that was the Turn. I typed “Print X” and lo, the Prestige! What I had typed appeared, as if by magic, on the screen. So I ordered a NewBrain micro-computer, which was delivered to us in Melmoth in October 1982. It has 32K of RAM, (an enormous amount in those days) but there were no programs written for it, so it couldn’t do what I wanted. And so I eagerly awaited the next innovation.

So from 1982 to 1987 I was what the sociologists called an “Early Adopter”. I was eagerly awaiting every innovation that would make computers more useful. And after 5 years that point was reached. We got an MS-DOS computer, and there were lots of shareware programs available. One of them was a family history app, which allowed us to store genealogical information and spit it out at will.

By then I was working in the Editorial Department at Unisa, which used the Atex Publishing System I had coveted so much 7 years earlier. It had disk drives the size of a small washing machine. And saving a file and getting back to the same place could take several minutes, or sometimes long enough to go down to the canteen for coffee. Some of the developers of Atex ported it to micro-computers as the XyWrite word processor, which was much more efficient and faster than Atex, and could do everything I wanted in a word processor.

And from that point on I became suspicious of innovation.

One innovation was the “enhanced” (ie ergonomically crippled) keyboard, with function keys along the top instead of on the left. It slowed down typing and editing, and operations that had previously required two fingers now required two hands. Innovation meant that instead of doing things the quick and easy way, one now had to do them the slow and difficult way. People said that this was progress, and that we should stop complaining and “move on”.

But I stopped being an “early adopter”. People said that MS-Word and Wordperfect were the word processors to beat, and we should switch to them, but XyWrite could do everything they could do and a lot they couldn’t do, and a lot faster too.

Now I fear that my 32-bit computer will die and have to be replaced, and I’ll only be able to get one with a 64-bit operating system, and I know that half the programs I use every day will not run on them.

So I’m ambivalent about technical innovation. Will it make my life easier, or more difficult? Will this new computer do everything that my old one does, or will it drop a lot of functionality in the name of “Progress”?

Innovation that lets me do what I want to do is good; innovation that stops me doing what I want to do is bad.

Duncan also said that novelty is tied up with loss of identity, or fear of losing one’s identity. Does that mean that I gained a new identity 30 years ago, when I became quite dependent on computers swallowing data and spitting out again, like a stage magician with a canary in a cage?

Val said she had a different train of thought about that.

About 20 years ago there was an advertisement hoarding in Bramley in Johannesburg on the M1 North. We used to pass it a couple of times a week coming home from church. It was advertising 702 radio, and had a picture of the Statue of Liberty, with the text “News from a broad”.

On one occasion we had a visiting American priest with us, who was doing a locum for the priest in our parish, and he was terribly upset by it. For us it was just a mildly amusing pun, but he experienced it as an attack on his identity.

Where does innovation come into that?

Well Duncan explained that jokes, like stage magic, were also examples of innovation.

Vaccination polemics in a post-truth world

11 March 2017

For the last couple of years I have been vaguely aware of some sort of controversy over vaccination in the USA. I didn’t pay much attention to it because, as far as I was aware, it wasn’t controversial here, and most people (with some exceptions I’ll refer to later) accepted vaccination as a normal health precaution for certain diseases. It seemed to me that people who were raising vociferous objections to it were creating the proverbial storm in a tea cup.

But today I read something written by an Orthodox priest who said that he had recently discovered that one of his parishioners had applied for exemption from vaccination on “religious” grounds. The priest asked if there was anything, such as an authoritative statement by Orthodox bishops, to indicate what those “religious grounds” were.

In reply someone posted a link to this article — NY court lets woman refuse vaccine made with aborted baby tissue / OrthoChristian.Com:

An Orthodox Christian woman has won the right to refuse a vaccine developed using aborted babies’ tissue, based on her religious beliefs.

The vaccine is for measles/mumps/rubella and is required by New York City law for all schoolchildren. It was developed from fetal tissue procured from abortions, hence the moral dilemma for practicing Christians.

The woman, who remains anonymous, said her Christian beliefs against abortion compel her to have nothing to do with vaccines made using aborted fetal tissue.

That put a different complexion on the issue. It seemed to me that it wasn’t a simple Yes/No issue, but there were several shades of grey. Apart from anything else, it was news to me that some vaccines were made from aborted human babies.

I thought I needed to verify that claim. The article was from a source that cited another source. The intermediate source is a polemical site with an axe to grind, and so I wanted to find something more impartial. But it turned out that that was easier said than done. The headline spoke of a court, but the body of the article did not name a judge, but an official of the education department.

So I did a web search to see if I could find an article that could verify the story. I found an article on a site called “Science-based Medicine” which I hoped could either verify or refute the story, but it turned out to have far more intemperate polemical ranting that the other site, and was anything but scientific — “Aborted fetal tissue” and vaccines: Combining pseudoscience and religion to demonize vaccines – Science-Based Medicine:

Overall, the view that somehow vaccines whose virus strains are grown in these two cell lines are the product of pure evil seems to rely on a magical thinking that an evil (in the view of those who oppose abortion) from over 50 years ago continues to taint these cell lines over hundreds of passages seems rather like the law of contagion in sympathetic magic, more than anything else.

That’s not science, it’s ideology.

So the Google search was to no avail; all I could find was ideological rhetoric, on both sides.

So I post this here in the hope that someone reading it might be able to point me to some factual information about the assertion that some vaccines are made from aborted fetuses, preferably without the partisan polemical rants from either side.

I said at the beginning that vaccination was uncontroversial in South Africa, with some exceptions. I am one of the exceptions, as I was never vaccinated as a child. My father was a conscientious objector to vaccination, what the Americans call an “antivaxxer”,and he got whatever authorisations and exemptions were needed so that I could go to school without being vaccinated. He never discussed his reasons for this with me, but I do know that he was a convinced atheist and something of a health fanatic. He was a biochemist by profession, and used to read me bedtime stories out of his biology textbooks, where the illustrations of sea urchins and liver flukes looked far more fantastic than any mere human conception of extraterrestrial alien life. My own theory, looking back, is that my father was a bit of a Darwinist. If you got the diseases that the vaccines were supposed to protect you from, your immune system was there to overcome them, and needed to be exercised by overcoming them. If it failed to so so, then you weren’t among the fittest who survived.

I never saw the exemption certificate, and in any case it was not recognised by any government beyond the borders of South Africa, and when, in the middle of 1964, it became necessary to have a passport to travel to Lesotho, and proof of a smallpox vaccination, I got myself vaccinated, since I did not know the reasons for my father’s objections, and had none of my own. Because I had not been vaccinated before, I had to go back after 10 days to make sure it had “taken” before they gave me a certificate. In the mean time, as a result of not having been vaccinated before, I was sick as a dog, and spent several days in bed. Cowpox, I suppose.

When I was 13 our school holidays were extended by a week because of a polio epidemic, and I knew several people who had had polio and had to walk with the aid of leg braces. A few months later a vaccine for polio was developed, too late for those already crippled by the disease, but one heard of no more epidemics.I was never vaccinated against it myself, but our children were.

Almost every year we get circulars from our medical aid urging us to get vaccinated against influenza. I can understand their reasoning — the vaccination, which you can get at the chemist, is cheaper than the cost of a doctor’s consultation. But I suppose I’m enough of my father’s son to be sceptical of the efficacy of such things. Unlike things like polio and smallpox, influenza viruses seem to mutate so rapidly that a vaccine against one strain doesn’t seem to be very effective against another.

So when it comes to vaccination, I’m neither excessively pro- nor obsessively anti, in principle. It’s the kind of thing one needs to be able to make informed decisions about, but, because of the fanatical pro- and anti- views in the USA, it seems to be very difficult to get the information one needs to make informed decisions, because all the information is so wrapped up in propaganda that it is very difficult to distinguish facts from polemics.



Veil of Darkness

8 March 2017

Veil of DarknessVeil of Darkness by Gillian White
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’d finished all my library books and was looking at the bookshelves for some bedtime reading and my eye lit on Veil of Darkness, just as the protagonist’s eye in the story had lit on a book on a shelf, a book called Magdalene. Veil of Darkness had sat on our shelves for 16 years, and I had never read it. We bought it at a sale for R20.00, shelved it and forgot it.

Kirsty Hoskins, fleeing from an abusive husband, gets a summer job as a chambermaid in a Devon hotel. On her way down there on the train she meets two other women who are hoping to forget males who have hassled them, Avril, whose ne’er-do-well brother is about to be released from prison, and Bernadette Kavanagh, trying to get over being jilted by a posh boyfriend, whose parents thought she wasn’t good enough for him. They all end up sharing a room in the staff quarters of the hotel.

The thing that frist got me about this book so far was that it could so nearly have been an alternative story of my life. When I arrived in England in 1966 as a penniless student without a work permit in 1966, someone said that foreigners could easily get jobs in the catering industry, and I had one lined up as a kitchen boy in a Devon hotel at £7 a week all found, and the man was pressing a rail voucher on me, and just in time I got offered one driving buses for London Transport. It was so close.

So as I read I kept thinking, so this is what it would have been like.

And then Kirsty discovers The Book…

I’d also just posted something about the 2017 Reading Challenge Meme | Notes from underground, and I was thinking of including this book as “a book in a genre you usually avoid”.

From the beginning it seems to be chicklit, or women’s fiction, a genre in the GoodReads “Compare Books” function that always comes up blank for me. Three women trying to escape from obnoxious males — that surely fits, doesn’t it?

But then Kirsty discovers The Book…

The Book seems to be a classic Gothic horror novel, featuring a nun who plots revenge. And that is about as much as we are ever told about it. After Kirsty reads it she and her roommates start having thoughts of revenge and standing up to their persecutors. So perhaps it’s not chicklit, but a Gothic horror novel, and that’s not a genre I usually avoid.

Having finished it, I shift its genre again. It is “a book about books or reading”. The book featured in the story, Magdalene is a Gothic horror novel, certainly, but Veil of Darkness isn’t. Or is it a Ruth Rendell-type whydunit psychological crime novel?

After reading The Book Kirsty gets the idea of doing a rewrite job on it, and publishing it under her own name. Avril, the typist at the hotel’s reception office, agrees to type it up, and when Kirsty realises, almost too late, that she can’t publish it under her own name because then her husband might find her, Bernadette agrees to take the public and publicity role.

And that is where it becomes unconvincing, and drops from three stars to two. The idea that Kirsty, who has only ever read Mills & Boon, could do a rewrite job on an old out of print book and turn it into a literary masterpiece is way too far-fetched.

What happens next would be too much of a spoiler, but I found it had more plot holes than The da Vinci Code. It falls a long way short of Ruth Rendell‘s psychological crime novels, where every event seems to lead inexorably and inevitably to the next, sliding down into the commission of a crime. This seems more like a series of random events with only the vaguest hint of causation.

It had enough interest to keep me reading to the end just to see what happened (and not just, like The da Vinci Code and Interview with the Vampire, so that I could say I had actually read them to people who might say “But you can’t criticise a book you haven’t read”). This one wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t all that good either.

And I’m still not sure what genre it belongs in.

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South African Orthodox Liturgical texts and music

4 March 2017

The following Orthodox liturgical texts and music are available for download from my Dropbox public folder until 15 March 2017.

On 15 March Dropbox is again reducing its functionality, and the public folders will no longer be public, so if you think you might find these things useful, please get them now.

Please note that these links will no longer work after 15 March 2017. If possible, please “like” or “share” this page on Facebook, Twitter, etc, even if you yourself maight not have any use for these texts, so that as many people as possible who are interested can know about them

For more information about the Obednitsa service, see here.

Pascha in Mamelodi 2010

Pascha in Mamelodi 2010 — some of the  people who sang in the recording