Sunday, 21 September 2008

Times for avoiding work

When avoiding work in the past few weeks, I have been reading the New York Times

On chemotherapy for pregnant women with cancer
On real heroes, and fake stories, from September 11th
On memories of containment
On the tyranny of diagnosis
On weeping for the Rosenbergs, even though they were guilty

and David Brooks (one of the NYT's two resident conservatives),
On why experience matters, breaking with Republican message discipline for once, to tell us what he actually thinks before, rather than after, the election.

When avoiding all of the depressing news, I have been watching the muppets sing Danny Boy

Friday, 19 September 2008

Top five fantasy battle-cries

1. "Axes of the Dwarves! The Dwarves are upon you!"
Mentioned in Appendix F.I of The Lord of the Rings. Unlike the other war-cries mentioned here, this one takes itself 100% seriously. The films treated the dwarves as comic, and that's an easy enough step, but there wouldn't have been anything comic at all about a swarm of heavily-armoured men with axes, charging at you shouting this. Even if they were short.

2. "The weak shall perish!"
The battle-cry of Species 8472 in Star Trek: Voyager. If you think the sentiment is alarming, just wait until you see one of these guys in the flesh.

3. "Get away from her you bitch!"
Ellen Ripley, in the great Battle of the Single Mothers scene of Aliens. Fight scenes in science fiction can be formal and a bit bloodless, but this one is satisfyingly visceral. Even after watching it many times, you still feel the danger of it.

4. "Resistance is futile!"
The Borg, in the various newer Star Trek series, passim.

5. "Screw you guys: I'm going home!"
Eric Cartman, in South Park, at more-or-less any provocation.

Plus, special awards:

(i) (children's literature division)
Cited for meeting the challenge of representing non-violent violence, and resolve to carry out the same:

Merriman Lyon, in Susan Cooper's Silver on the Tree:
And whoever shall cut the blossom, at the moment when it opens fully from the bud, shall turn events and have the right to command the Old Magic and the Wild Magic, to drive all rival powers out of the world and out of Time.

(ii) (general division)
Cited for defiance in the face of certain defeat, and for general coolness:

Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor,
as described in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion:
... He passed over Dor-nu-Fauglith like a wind amid the dust, and all the beheld his onset fled in amaze, thinking that Oromë himself was come: for a great madness of rage was upon him, so that his eyes shone like the eyes of the Valar. Thus he came alone to Angband's gates, and he sounded his horn, and smote once more upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth to come forth to single combat. And Morgoth came.

That was the last time in those wars that he passed the doors of his stronghold, and it is said that he took not the challenge willingly: for though his might was greatest of all things in this world, alone of the Valar he knew fear. But he could not now deny the challenge before the face of his captains; for the rocks rang with the shrill music of Fingolfin's horn, and his voice came keen and clear down into the depths of Angband; and Fingolfin named Morgoth craven, and lord of slaves. Therefore Morgoth came climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable unblazoned, cast a shadow over him like a stormcloud. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star ...

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Hope and compromise, or, On not making a better world (2)

... There are, as we have seen, two types of question a moral doctrine may answer: what are the goods we may know within the world? And, what goods are appropriate to forming the right ends-of-action here and now? The kingdom of God is among the answers to the first of these questions. God has shown us his ultimate purpose in Jesus Christ, and will bring in the Kingdom of his Son. But what I have to discern is the concrete thing that is given to me to do in the light of that hope. And when somebody invites me to join in creating a new world free of misunderstanding and suspicion – just sign the petition here! – I know that he or she is bleary-eyed with moral hyperventilation. “Not everything that should be done, should by us be done,” said Paul Ramsey, articulating a basic principle of discriminating action.

That remark, made back in the nineteen sixties, was originally addressed to the need for a responsible foreign policy on the part of the United States. This reminds us that the bad idealist is not always a dreamy and ineffective poet, but can be dangerous. If my bewitchment with an ideal is combined with a great deal of practical energy, the negativity of the ideal will be the hallmark all that I do. Of such mental stuff is ideological tyranny constructed. Ideals must be focussed into practical and concrete conceptions of how we may do good. If a sense of the negative is a precondition for imagination, a sense of the positive reality of God’s good providence is a precondition for turning imagination into action. I ought not to linger among the yawning absences, but press on to the reality of what God does, and makes available to me to do.

This raises in its turn the question of “compromise”. Compromises are the decisions, explicit or implicit, that render ideals practicable. We compromise when we discard certain aspirations as unrealisable – either absolutely or simply in the circumstances... As a model of good compromise we may take lawgiving, which is the fashioning of a community norm that enables a multitude to live together in a disciplined manner to the fullest extent it is collectively capable of... An idealistic law is a vicious law, that requires too much; it has not compromised sufficiently with the practicalities of conformity and enforcement. A demoralised law, on the other hand, has required too little; it has not exploited the ways in which law can help the multitude live better. The well-framed law follows the very difficult line on which sustained attempts to hold one another to what we ought to do are fruitful and effective.

But there can be bad compromises as well as bad ideals, and not every difficulty ought to put us off...
So Oliver O'Donovan, in the third of his 2007 New College Lectures titled “Morally awake? Admiration & resolution in the light of Christian faith.” All three of the lectures were excellent, and very much in O'Donovan's signature style: dense, thoughtful, eirenic, and grounded.

[This material is reprinted with permission from New College: the college at all times retains ownership of the intellectual property rights to all New College lectures material (in printed or electronic form). The lectures are available in PDF and MP3 form at the College website for personal review and study, but may not be retransmitted without express permission.]

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

First beam at the LHC

This afternoon, CERN will attempt to circulate a proton beam in the Large Hadron Collider for the first time, and it's turning into quite a big public event. For further information seeThe event will be covered live in a webcast. The public lecture at Sydney Uni tonight, by my colleague Kevin Varvell and the science communicator Karl Kruszelnicki, has unfortunately (or fortunately!) already sold out.

UPDATE: We got beam all the way (27 km) around the ring. It went quite smoothly, and everyone is pretty stoked. Concerning the potential of the machine, as usual, the report in the New York Times puts it well: speaking about the new physics we hope to see, they write
those discoveries are in the future. If the new collider is a car, then what physicists did today was turn on an engine, that will now sit and warm up for a couple of months before anybody drives it anywhere. The first meaningful collisions, at an energy of 5 trillion electron volts, will not happen until late fall,
meaning of course the Southern Hemisphere's spring. Serious physics running will then follow in 2009.

As for the public lecture in Sydney, I thought Kevin and Karl did a very good job. One drawback, although nothing to do with the physics: it was standing room only at the Footbridge Theatre, and they were turning people away, including folk who'd RSVP'd as they were asked to do. Not good. We can only apologise for it: events have overtaken us and we've been overwhelmed by the interest people have shown. Sorry to those who missed out.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Mal's speech, or, On not making a better world (1)

This report is maybe twelve years old? Parliament buried it, and it remained buried, until River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear. 'Cause there's a whole universe of folk who are going to know it too; they're going to see it.

Somebody has to speak for these people.

You all got on this boat for different reasons, but you've all come to the same place, so now I'm asking more of you than I have before --- maybe all. [Because] sure as I know anything, I know this: they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people ... better. And I do not hold to that.

So no more running. I aim to misbehave.
In the DVD commentary on Serenity, Joss Whedon describes this as Mal's “St Crispin's Day speech”, and it's instructive to compare it against the original. Much as I love both the speech and the film, the comparison is not entirely flattering.

Let us be clear: Whedon holds that schemes to change the human condition are doomed to fail, and that it is wicked to make the attempt; I do not want to complain about this. There was quite enough utopianism last century to last us for ... well ... some time. We are not free of its pull, and there is a certain tendency lurking around the so-called progressive strand in our society that cleaves to the idea that if only we could make this modification, this tweak, then everything would fundamentally change for the better. I am happy for someone in popular culture --- even better, given the topic, for someone in geek-cult culture --- to set up a stall in opposition to this.

But there is more to the speech than resolve against such overreaching folly. I spoke approvingly of Whedon's ethic in an earlier post, but it is not without its own self-indulgence. It is, of course, romantic, and in a wishful-thinking kind of way. Mal and the other Browncoats, the losing side in the War for Independence, are nothing if they are not the Confederacy: courtly, honourable, local, and resistant of the encroaching, homogenising, antiseptic modernism of their opponents. But the Independents are a fantasy of the Confederacy, defeated in an Honourable Cause without slavery or intransigence or any real wickedness of their own. (Cf. the Bajorans in DS9, who were contentious, superstitious, and caste-ridden, as well as being plucky and Unjustly Colonised.) This is having one's cake, and eating it, all at once.

The speech itself contains an indulgence more modern, and in its way more worrisome. Finally, it says, and reluctantly, I have been goaded into action by a decisive and indisputable evil: an evil with a conveniently vast and identifiable roll-call of victims. Now I can, and I should, act; and I will be justified in acting.

Am I wrong to see the image of a certain Western sensibility here? I mean the tendency, at once jaded and enthusiastic, that needs to label some evil as “genocide” before it can be seriously opposed; the demand that any worthy military effort must be assimilable to the fight against the National Socialist Party of Germany. There is a lot of this about, and it will not do: on the one hand, we did not know that the Nazis were going to perform genocide when we (rightly) chose to fight them; on the other hand, we (and I do mean we, i.e. including myself) have at least in the case of Iraq made war recklessly, while in the grip of the view that We Have To Do Something.

The calculus, in having recourse to violence, is just not this binary.