Monday, March 27, 2017

50 Shades of Sex

What are you?
I'm a man.
Is that why you beat your wife?
I beat her to teach her the value of discipline; discipline is good.
Is that why you also rape her?
She is my wife: sex is good; I don't want her to lose out.

What are you?
I'm a man.
Is that why you beat your daughter?
I beat her to teach her the value of discipline; discipline is good.
Is that why you also rape her?
Is that why you rape her?

I'm a man...

This  text appeared as the leading comment of the Times of Swaziland Sunday on 13th August 2006, under the subheading A disintegrating society... but it could have been published yesterday. We're eleven years on and seemingly no progress has been made as far as gender abuse is concerned. In fact, even a cursory glance at a week's newspapers and the social media for a single day suggests that things have even got worse since then. 

What does this tell us about the level of violence in our society? We don't even need to talk about terrorism in the world--what goes on in our homes? 

At the same time, sex is everywhere and in the open. It didn't used to be.  In the pre-AIDS era, people didn't practice safe sex but equally they didn't talk about it either. Now condoms, circumcision, safe sex and even gay, lesbian, and bisexual are words that people use freely. This new-found freedom of speech is perhaps a good thing, but it accompanies a widespread acceptance of porn, which isn't. Porn is everywhere: it's certainly on a cellphone near you. Porn is most usually associated with violence. Consider, for example, the massive commercial success of 50 Shades of Grey, with its million-selling books and box-office winning film. Whether it's porn or not, it's definitely sex plus violence. And it's not only tolerated, it's imitated.

At this moment in our lives, music streams like Channel O routinely screen soft porn while  stronger videos of sex and violence are whizzing around the webverse from cellphone to cellphone via social media and from laptop to laptop via flashdrives. One of the current viral videos is of an underage girl and boy in South Africa. The video has already brought untold anguish upon those involved. There were some loud voices saying how sad and how shocking this video was. But there were many more clamouring to get themselves a copy so they could see it for themselves.

If we are going to leave anything worth leaving for our children and children's children, then we have to do more than admit there is a problem. We have to act.

One way to act is through legislation. Legislation works by giving a clear message about what is considered acceptable and what is not. At the end of last year it was widely anticipated that a new Sexual Offences Bill would be passed this year. That hope has begun to fade, with reports implying that the Bill has been deliberately stalled and will remain unimplemented. This is a tragedy that will merely accelerate the downward spiral that we're already in. Legislation would be a public way of admitting that we have a serious problem.

Another public way would be for the churches--and there are so many of them--to also campaign for change in this area. Sadly, that also looks unlikely to happen.

The best way then is to do what wisdom tells us we should do: begin the change within ourselves. We could do worse than choosing the words of the apostle Paul, who also lived in such a time as this:

In the end, all change must begin with us.



Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Google fast-forwards... to the past

They say that history repeats itself. That certainly seems to be the case with social media, which is all about communication. On the one hand, many posts are mostly emotional--whether it's posting selfies to get more self-love or posting a diss to burn an old flame. On the other hand, words are somehow too wordy and are being replaced by emoticons and emojis.

This is definitely a reworking of our ancestral past. Emojis were what we used before we invented words. Richard A Firmage, in his interesting book The Alphabet Abecedarium writes:

Pictographic or Iconographic writing was the first actual writing. A simple picture designated an object... the earliest known examples are Sumerian from about 4000 BC.

 This picture language was at first very simple. In fact it was rather basic. Some of this Sumerian language is shown above, with the pictures on the left and their meanings on the right. You can see that the images for man and woman are images of genitalia. Below the image for woman is the image for land. Combine woman and land and you get female slave. 

Where would we be without our whatsapp icon set? We're so used to using these images in our texting that it's hard to remember a time when we didn't have them. They seem so natural, and of course they are--pictographs and images are no doubt coded into our very cells.

Both Facebook and Google realise this and have been paying attention to the emoji side of texting.

Here are Facebook's new reaction emojis.

And below is Google's approach via a new app called Supersonic. Supersonic converts your voice text into a text-and-emoji message on the fly. What, I think, is particularly interesting is that both approaches are dynamic. We've already had entire novels written in whatsapp-speak. At present it seems unlikely that anyone could write an entire book using only emojis. But I suspect that time is not far off.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

This genius created modern fantasy but no-one has heard of him

A long time before JRR Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings, well before he even wrote The Hobbit, William Morris wrote and self-published his first fantasy novel set in a totally invented world, The Wood Beyond The World (left). It was 1895.
   Morris was famous at the time, a protean figure in Victorian England. He was an active socialist, painter, designer, and owner of the Kelmscott Press.
   But almost no-one knew that he had just invented a new genre, fantasy, that would spawn in later generations the work of such diverse creators as Tolkein, CS Lewis, JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman and George Lucas. He followed Wood  with The Well at the World's End (1896) and The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897). Most likely he would have written more if death hadn't intervened.
   No-one knows why he wrote these late novels. Well is considered his masterpiece, and at the time was one of the longest stories ever written (228, 000 words). Tolkein's Lord is twice as long, but that was published as a trilogy. I've reread Well more times than I've reread Lord. It's a book to get lost in, full of characters and wonder. It's easy to see where it inspired Tolkein. In fact in one small section it includes a character called Gandolf, who does some magic... I also love his Wood and earlier The Story of the Glittering Plain. Lewis and Tolkein were members of a small literary club of professors and writers called The Inklings. They would get together and talk about literature and whatever they were working on at the time. Undoubtedly they discussed Morris. Lewis once said that after he discovered Morris he "got all the Morris he could get". You can get some here.

Whatsapp listens. Now we have the old text statuses and the new snapchat ones.

 In a recent blogpost I mentioned that the new whatsapp statuses were hugely unpopular here in southern Africa and that the change was an attempt by facebook (whatsapp's owner) to replicate snapchat (which facebook failed to buy). I then--as I'm sure did thousands of others--complained to whatsapp about the change through their beta app.

Well, now we have the old text statuses back as well as the new snapchat ones. if you go to your own Settings you can set your own text status just as before; and if you check your friends' View Contact you can see their status under the heading About and phone number. According to reports the company says that Android updates that reflect the statuses change will roll out next week; Apple updates will follow after that.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why 'The Richest Man in Babylon' is one of the best financial books of all time

George S Clason's 1926 The Richest Man in Babylon has currently 505828 ratings and 2277 reviews on GoodReads and millions of copies in print. Clason originally composed it in parts, as a series of short pamphlets dispensing practical financial advice. Long hailed as a classic for all generations, it has been of inspiration and value to many many people. 
   But why is it so good? Yes, it offers practical and helpful advice; but so do many other books and they aren't as well-read or so famous. Is it that the advice is radically different from other books? No. In fact, some would say Clason's advice is homely and commonsensical rather than especially insightful. So what made it stand out and become viral in an age of print?
   Indeed, what makes this book still so special and so different from other books on similar themes? 
Quite simply, it's the power of story. Clason wasn't a brilliant financial advisor with insights unknown to others; he was a brilliant storyteller. This was his genius. The Richest Man in Babylon harnesses the potency of story
   We all of us love to hear and tell stories. If we didn't we wouldn't be human. Storytelling is primal.
   Consider the following books: 

  •  The Alchemist
  • The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari
  • Harry Potter
  • The Lord of the Rings
   and film and TV series like:

  • Star Wars
  • Star Trek
  • Game of Thrones

These are all fables and myths for a generation that grew up without fables and myths. Ancient Greece is considered the cradle of modern education as well as the foundation of our modern world, but do you know what the Athenian youth studied at school? They studied the Homerian myths--the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey. These stories were more than just stories; they taught morality and character too. The Romans had the stories of Romulus and Remus, and the legend of Aeneas. The Jews had the stories compiled in Genesis, the Exodus, and the Judges.
   Here, in The Richest Man in Babylon, Clason creates a classic financial myth through careful and detailed elaboration of setting and skillful differentiation of character. He uses the powerful device of dialogue to share his ideas. Dialogue helps create character and thus personalises the teaching. Much of the dialogue uses question-and-answer (think Quora and Google) and throughout Clason understands how certain words and phrases trigger the reader's response to the text. Indeed, the storytelling techniques in this book are the same that drive our current social media and clickbait world.
   In short, The Richest Man in Babylon is a story with power because of the way it is told. It works like the telling of a good joke and is likely to endure for a long time to come.

Kenneth Rowley 2017

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Whatsapp Statuses and the Coming Empire

I use whatsapp beta, so I get the crap good stuff first...                      

Here in southern Africa many households don't, and have never had, landlines but cellphone use is part of everyone's life. I surprised myself and most of my friends by buying a cellphone almost as soon as they became available (back in 1998). It was a Siemens handset. Despite the predictions of the so-called experts, MTN, Vodacom and the rest took off like rockets. In some African countries cellphone saturation is now running at over 80%.
    That's amazing, but it's very costly and there are many who argue that the introduction of cellphones compounded the already dire poverty situation in many countries.
   Anyway, I thought whatsapp was great until recently. See, I tried out whatsapp as soon as I heard about it circa 2011. At the time we were all using Mxit because we didn't want to pay through the nose using MTN. Of course once we started with Mxit we got hooked on Mxit's little red hearts that flashed and winked and glowed as we sat up chatting late into the dark, and the app's sounds and pix. Mxit was a cool app. But whatsapp had the potential to be cooler and we didn't have to ditch the emoticons either.
   As with all of these apps, the takeup at first was slow--you can't chat with your friends until they're using the app as well. At first we android users all had BBM envy; but whatsapp arrived at the right time. (When BBM was finally made available for non-blackberry users it was too late.) .
  Then facebook recently bought whatsapp. We feared for the worst; we liked our whatsapp the way it was. Facebook tried to buy snapchat but failed. So whatsapp statuses have become snapchat-like. At the same time, facebook's messenger now wants to take over your standard sms stuff in addition to the already popular facebook messaging.                      
We are being encouraged to send a facebook message instead of a standard sms instead of sending a standard sms, use whatsapp for snapchatting, and whatsapp for calling: an integrated solution to all our needs, and relatively inexpensive. In fact a boon to end users. But why? Is facebook trying to muscle cellular networks aside?
   In a sense, yes. Both facebook and google want the world to have free Wi-Fi so that they can grow the world's biggest consumer base--which will be their own users, i.e., us. It's a smart plan, and working so far.  It is obviously a plan for empire-building.
   Why should we be worried? (Apart from having no private identities, that is.) Are we under threat?
   Not directly no. Not at this moment. It's not average people who are threatened but every traditional status quo, including governments. Why are cellular networks so expensive? Because 'esteemed investors' can harvest money from them. That is under direct threat. For example, MTN's biggest money harvester in Africa has always been sms messaging. With the Internet they are now trying to mine it from data; wi-fi is cheaper but few have access to wi-fi as compared to cellular. It's all about money. Cellular networks get it directly. Data uploads as well as downloads, so streaming of media, especially youtube videos, consumes a lot of data. People don't think they're downloading, because it goes into a temporary file,  but they are. Facebook can do it cheaper and at the moment we're tempted to think they're actually on our side.


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