Monday, 21 December 2009

God in the Telegraph

There's a short piece by me in today's Daily Telegraph, on the Higgs Boson, God, science, and religion. Quite a lot to squeeze into 500 words. It's accompanied by a longer piece by George, Cardinal Pell, which I thought rather good: forthright, thorough, and reasonable (albeit uncompromising).

These mini-essays appear as part of a series on religious matters that the Telegraph is running for four days this week.

(For the record, for those who have read my bio in the print version: “top physicist” is a bit strong; and yes I work at the Large Hadron Collider, specifically on the experiment called ATLAS, but I have not played a key role there. The experiment where I've arguably played a key role is called Belle, at the KEK laboratory in Japan.)

UPDATE: The two other pieces (not three, as originally stated) were also double-headers:

Rabbi Raymond Apple and Sheik Hersi Hilole

Prof. Brian Schmidt and Archbishop Peter Jensen

I thought them all reasonable presentations of their respective positions, and reasonable in other ways. I also felt that there was some disparity of standing between these gentlemen and myself.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Le Guin on reasons for action

`Do Mages often beg?' asled Tenar, on the road between green fields, where goats and little spotted cattle grazed.

`Why do you ask?'

`You seemed used to begging. In fact you were good at it.'

`Well, yes. I've begged all my life, if you look at it that way. Wizards don't own much, you know. In fact nothing but their staff and clothing, if they wander. They are received and given food and shelter, by most people, gladly. They do make some return.'

`What return?'

`Well, that woman in the village. I cured her goats.'

`What was wrong with them?'

`They both had infected udders. I used to herd goats when I was a boy.'

`Did you tell her you'd cured them?'

`No. How could I? Why should I?'

After a pause she said, `I see your magic is not good only for large things.'

`Hospitality,' he said, `kindness to a stranger, that's a very large thing. Thanks are enough, of course. But I was sorry for the goats.'
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan, 1971

Saturday, 10 October 2009

(4) soba

Number 4 of “Ten things I love about Japan”.

Soba are not the first, nor even the second kind of noodles that I had in Japan, but they've long since become my favourite. All sorts of things seem wrong to a Westerner, encountering soba for the first time: the noodles are grey; in summer, you eat them cold with a dipping sauce; and why is that guy over there drinking the cooking water with his leftover sauce, as if it were tea, at the end of the meal? One needs to get over each of these things. I took my time about some of them: every one of those days was wasted, in that sense.

So to the basics: the restaurant dishes are soba served in hot flavoured broth, of many different kinds — basically a winter dish, although it's also served in summer — or served cold on a bamboo tray, a bit like a sieve, with a dipping sauce and wasabi and negi (think leek) on the side; the noodles themselves are probably dressed with some nori (dried seaweed). There is nothing like cold soba as a refreshing meal in the seemingly endless, humid summer. There are many variants: my own favourite, and a common one, is tenzaru soba in which a small selection of tempura with its own dipping sauce is provided on the side.

There is yaki-soba as well, where the noodles are fried on a kind of barbeque hotplate, but this is a different sort of thing: food for street-parties, for walking around.

Sit-down soba is subtle. Like some other Japanese foods, texture is a big part of the experience, and the best soba is handmade and a bit rough: you find it in small places in the hills where you can't read the menu, or in homes where people still make it for themselves. The noodles are (usually) thin and long, like (but unlike) spaghetti, and made from a mix of buckwheat and wheat flour; I do not know the proportion. There's a special kind that's green, flavoured with green tea — I have always found it a bit gimmicky — but your basic soba is an uncompromising glistening-when-wet grey. Unlike udon, where you can kid yourself that you're eating a deviant kind of pasta, soba sits there looking alien. You need to learn its language. It is saying “go on, eat me, you will not regret it”. And neither you will.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Le Guin on The Old Powers of Earth

`The thief who wrote the way to enter thought that the treasure was there, in the Undertomb. So I looked there, but I had the feeling that it must be better hidden farther on in the maze. I knew the entrance to the Labyrinth, and when I saw you, I went to it, thinking to hide in the maze and search it. That was a mistake, of course. The Nameless Ones had hold of me already, bewildering my mind. And since then I have grown only weaker and stupider. One must not submit to them, one must resist, keep one's spirits always strong and certain. I learned that a long time ago. But it's hard to do, here, where they are so strong. They are not gods, Tenar. But they are stronger than any man.'

They were both silent for a long time.

`What else did you find in the treasure chests?' she asked dully.

`Rubbish. Gold, jewels, crowns, swords. Nothing to which any man alive has any claim ...'
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan, 1971

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Le Guin on respect

She wanted no more talk of Erreth-Akbe, sensing a danger in the subject. `He was a dragonlord, they say. And you say you're one. Tell me, what is a dragonlord?'

Her tone was always jeering, his answers direct and plain, as if he took her questions in good faith.

`One whom the dragons will speak with,' he said, `that is a dragonlord, or at least that is the centre of the matter. It's not a trick of mastering the dragons, as most people think. Dragons have no masters. The question is always the same, with a dragon: will he talk with you or will he eat you? If you can count upon his doing the former, and not doing the latter, why then you're a dragonlord.'

`Dragons can speak?'

`Surely! In the Eldest Tongue, the language we men learn so hard and use so brokenly, to make our spells of magic and of patterning. No man knows all that language, or a tenth of it. He has not time to learn it. But dragons live a thousand years ... They are worth talking to, as you might guess.'
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan, 1971

Friday, 11 September 2009

Wild Billy's Circus Story

The machinist climbs his ferris wheel like a brave,
And the fire-eater's lying in a pool of sweat, victim of the heatwave,
Behind the tent, the hired hand tightens his legs
on the sword-swallower's blade —
Circus town's on the shortwave.

Well the runway lies ahead like a great false dawn,
Fat Lady, Big Mama, Miss Bimbo sits in her chair and yawns,
And the Man-Beast lies in his cage, sniffing popcorn,
As the midget licks his fingers, and suffers Missy Bimbo's scorn —
And circus town's been born.

Oh and a press roll drummer goes ballerina to and fro,
Cartwheeling up on that tightrope,
With a cannon-blast, lightning-flash,
Moving fast through the tent, Mars-bent,
He's going to miss his fall —
Oh God save the human cannonball!

And the Flying Zambinis watch Marguarita do her neck-twist,
And the ringmaster gets the crowd to count along:
Ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven ...

A ragged suitcase in his hand,
he steals silently away from the circus-ground,
And the highway is haunted by the carnival sounds:
They dance like a great greasepaint ghost on the wind ...
A man in baggy pants, a lonely face, a crazy grin,
Running home to some small Ohio town:
Jesus send some good women to save all your clowns ...

And the circus-boy dances like a monkey on barbed wire,
As the barker romances with a junkie, she's got a flat tire,
And the elephants dance real funky,
and the band plays like a jungle fire —
Circus town's on the live wire —

And the Strong Man Samson lifts the midget little Tiny Tim
way up on his shoulders — way up! —
And carries him home down the midway:
Past the kids,
Past the sailors,
To his dimly lit trailer;
And the ferris wheel turns and turns like it ain't ever going to stop,
And the circus-boss leans over and whispers in the little boy's ear,
“Hey son, you want to try the Big Top?
All aboard! Nebraska's our next stop.”
Wild Billy's Circus Story is the fourth track on The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, Bruce Springsteen's second album. Released thirty-six years ago today, just eight months after his astonishing debut, it's still one of his best albums: it has the madcap zest of Asbury Park, but more discipline; more poetry.

It's not a record afraid of juxtaposing different moods. The exultation of E Street Shuffle leads right into Sandy, an elegiac farewell to life in his home town; the sublime rock of Kitty's Back cedes to the sympathetic freak-show of Circus Story. The second side opens with the nonpareil Incident on 57th Street — an opera of a story told with equal parts joy and ache — and gives over to the celebration of Rosalita. And then the dreaminess of New York City Serenade at the end.

I wrote that there's not a single dull song on Asbury Park: there's not a single song on E Street that's not brilliant, perfect of its kind, with gorgeously written lyrics and music crafted to its mood. When Springsteen released it, he was not quite twenty-four years old. When I discovered it in my suburban teens, courtesy of one of my English teachers, it broke on me like a wave, and while the lives in these songs could not be more different from mine, I've been riding that wave ever since, and probably always will.

[Wild Billy's Circus Story is on YouTube in the album recording, a live version from 1974 (with some great old stills from the road), and a 1990 acoustic version, amongst others.]

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Le Guin on identity

Ged had taken hawk-shape in fierce distress and rage, and when he flew from Osskill there had been but one thought in his mind: to outfly both Stone and shadow, to escape the cold treacherous lands, to go home. The falcon's anger and wildness were like his own, and had become his own, and his will to fly had become the falcon's will. Thus he had passed over Enlad, stooping down to drink at a lonely forest pool, but on the wing again at once, driven by fear of the shadow that came behind him. So he had crossed the great sea-lane called the Jaws of Enlad, and gone on and on, east by south, the hills of Oranéa faint to his right and the hills of Andrad fainter to his left, and before him only the sea; until at last, ahead, there rose up out of the waves one unchanging wave, towering always higher, the white peak of Gont. In all the sunlight and the dark of that great flight he had worn the falcon's wings, and looked through the falcon's eyes, and forgetting his own thoughts he had known at last only what the falcon knows; hunger, the wind, the way he flies.

He flew to the right haven. There were few on Roke and only one on Gont who could have made him back into a man.
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Death, life, choice, and cost

It sounds paradoxical to link the desire for unlimited medical treatment to the desire for physician-assisted suicide. But the idea that there’s a right to the most expensive health care while you want to be alive isn’t all that different, in a sense, from the idea that there’s a right to swiftly die once life doesn’t seem worth living.

In each case, the goal is perfect autonomy, perfect control, and absolute freedom of choice. And in each case, the alternative approach — one that emphasizes the limits of human agency, and the importance of humility in the face of death’s mysteries — doesn’t mesh with our national DNA.
Ross Douthat on physician-assisted suicide and the American polity.

There have been a string of good articles in the last month on such cases, where deeply-held but ultimately untenable positions come up against life's conditions and boundaries:

Tim Kreider on not pursuing happiness.

Eric Zencey on GDP as an instance of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

Douthat again, on on the conservatism of Judd Apatow movies:
More than most Westerners, Americans believe — deeply, madly, truly — in the sanctity of marriage. But we also have some of the most liberal divorce laws in the developed world, and one of the highest divorce rates. We sentimentalize the family, but boast one of the highest rates of unwed births. We’re more pro-life than Europeans, but we tolerate a much more permissive abortion regime than countries like Germany or France. We wring our hands over stem cell research, but our fertility clinics are among the least regulated in the world.

In other words, we’re conservative right up until the moment that it costs us...
Concerning that permissive abortion regime, there's this over at First Things:
Prior to the legalization of abortion in the United States, it was commonly understood that a man should offer a woman marriage in case of pregnancy, and many did so. But with the legalization of abortion, men started to feel that they were not responsible for the birth of children and consequently not under any obligation to marry. In gaining the option of abortion, many women have lost the option of marriage. Liberal abortion laws have thus considerably increased the number of families headed by a single mother, resulting in what some economists call the “feminization of poverty.”
(From Richard Stith's Her Choice, Her Problem: How Abortion Empowers Men.) Back at the Times, RD muses on how the issue might have played differently, if Ted Kennedy had shared some of his sister Eunice's qualms about the practice.

On a happier note, a couple of books reflect, forty years on, on what was special about Woodstock. The answers may surprise you.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Le Guin on wildness and wonder

No creature moved nor voice spoke for a long while on the island, but only the waves beat loudly on the shore. Then Ged was aware that the highest tower slowly changed its shape, bulging out on one side as if it grew an arm. He feared dragon-magic, for old dragons are very powerful and guileful in a sorcery like and unlike the sorcery of men: but a moment more and he saw this was no trick of the dragon, but of his own eyes. What he had taken for a part of the tower was the shoulder of the Dragon Pendor as he uncurled his bulk and lifted himself slowly up.

When he was all afoot his scaled head, spike-crowned and triple-tongued, rose higher than the broken tower's height, and his taloned forefeet rested on the rubble of the town below. His scales were grey-black, catching the daylight like broken stone. Lean as a hound he was and huge as a hill. Ged stared in awe. There was no song or tale could prepare the mind for this sight. Almost he stared into the dragon's eyes and was caught, for one cannot look into a dragon's eyes. He glanced away from the oily green gaze that watched him, and held up before him his staff, that looked now like a splinter, like a twig.

`Eight sons I had, little wizard,' said the great dry voice of the dragon. `Five died, one dies: enough. You will not win my hoard by killing them.'

`I do not want your hoard.'

The yellow smoke hissed from the dragon's nostrils: that was his laughter.

`Would you not like to come ashore and look at it, little wizard? It is worth looking at.'

`No, dragon.' The kinship of dragons is with wind and fire, and they do not fight willingly over the sea. That had been Ged's advantage so far and he kept it; but the strip of seawater between him and the great grey talons did not seem much of an advantage, any more.

It was hard not to look into the green, watching eyes.
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Sense, and nonsense, about US politics

On women in combat roles in Iraq and Afghanistan: a pleasingly realistic, as opposed to ideological, piece of reporting — perhaps because it's being prepared during wartime. However, it must be said that some other articles in this series have been much less reasonable.

Meanwhile Ross Douthat has some sane remarks on the health-care-reform debate in the US, and on agency in US politics.

Speaking of the legislature: in memoriam Ted Kennedy, Gail Collins and David Brooks discuss being boring, building human capital, and getting things done. And I have to agree: it is encouraging to see that someone could find their place so completely, relatively late in life, after such previous failure. How to be a good Senator was something he understood quite early, although it seems to have taken seniority, failure as a Presidential candidate, and his second marriage, to free him to become truly good at it.

The ABC in Sydney, of course, is still tone-deaf. A year ago I complained that it was speaking stupidly about Senator Kennedy's illness, and reactions to it, and tonight's reporting of the memorials was no better. There was no mention — not one — of something that has been unavoidable in American discussion of the late Senator's life: his excellence as a Senator, as a legislator, as someone whose business it was to write, to negotiate, to compromise, and to act in concert with others. And if even a quarter of what is said about him in this area is true, then Teddy was superb at it. No-one else in this era is even mentioned as a rival in effectiveness and influence in the Senate; he was the Democrat with whom Republicans — Republican legislators, so they say, without a single exception — most wished to work.

That so thoroughly liberal a figure (and someone routinely demonised as such) could be so respected by the other side of politics, is worth noting, and worth discussing. It's a reminder that the partisan gridlock of present discussion is not the whole story, and is in some ways a declension from an earlier, more civil state. But to even notice any of this is to accept that Americans are not only different from us, but different from our understanding of them, and different — sometimes, dare I say it, they can be better — than their understanding of themselves.

If you're my age, and especially if you're Australasian, you can't help but think of America's quasi-royal family via the Shona Laing song (Glad I'm) Not a Kennedy, although what the late Senator was good at was the workaday business of government, rather than the inspiration one associates with his brothers. Nonetheless, among the pieces of soaring JFK rhetoric that graced the 80's song, there's one that will serve for Jack's baby brother, redeemed sinner that he was:
When a man's ways please the Lord, the Scriptures tell us, He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.
Proverbs 16:7

Friday, 28 August 2009

Hilary Mantel on 1974

What sort of judgment was the community social worker making when he swore the stepfather was a nice feller? Was he frightened of the man? That was possible; but more likely he wanted to be his mate. The young social workers of the time, coming up through university courses – postgraduate training after a sociology degree – thought it a sin to be judgmental. In fact they were making judgments all the time. Uneasy about their own middle-class backgrounds, and always feeling vaguely uncool, they believed they should not ‘label’ clients or assess ‘working-class’ people by their own middle-class criteria; so they treated them as if they were dogs and cats, not responsible for their actions. They had a whole set of interesting beliefs about the uneducated and the poor. They didn’t see that they were being grossly condescending, while pretending to be the opposite. Aspiration was a middle-class trait, they thought; the working classes preferred to muddle along. The privileged had their ethical standards, but it was unfair to universalise them. The workers had their own amusements, bless them, and should be allowed their vices. Their houses were dirty, but it was petty bourgeois to worry about grime. And if they were drunken or semi-criminal, and beat each other, wasn’t that their culture? These young graduates took as typical the malfunctioning families with whom their case files brought them into contact. Worse, they wanted their clients to like them. They dressed in recidivist chic and roughed up their accents. Their heads were full of Durkheim, their mouths full of glottal stops. They were occupied in creating a moral vacuum; theirs was a world safe for theory but profoundly unsafe for any child who needed them to shape up and go to work.

I wrote down the details of Ruby’s case and put it in the files. Soon after, I left my job. The chest hospital closed its doors in 1982 and, the National Archives says, ‘no records are known to survive.’ I don’t know the end of the story...
Hilary Mantel, from a brief memoir of her time as a social work assistant, in an issue of the London Review of Books from earlier this year.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Jim Webb, on holding one's nose and getting real

Second, the United States needs to develop clearly articulated standards for its relations with the nondemocratic world. Our distinct policies toward different countries amount to a form of situational ethics that does not translate well into clear-headed diplomacy. We must talk to Myanmar’s leaders. This does not mean that we should abandon our aspirations for a free and open Burmese society, but that our goal will be achieved only through a different course of action...

Third, our government leaders should call on China to end its silence about the situation in Myanmar, and to act responsibly, in keeping with its role as an ascending world power. Americans should not hold their collective breaths that China will give up the huge strategic advantage it has gained as a result of our current policies. But such a gesture from our government would hold far more sway in world opinion than has the repeated but predictable condemnation of Myanmar’s military government...
US Senator Jim Webb, following his return from Burma, in an op-ed entitled “We Can’t Afford to Ignore Myanmar”. I suspect this is right as far as it goes, but our public discourse on democracy and rights has become so strident, and so little thought-through — while in many other respects, business goes on as usual — that's it's become hard to imagine what a more consistent approach would actually look like.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Hart, on challenging the question

This has not, obviously, been a book of apologetics, in large part because I still find myself less perturbed by the sanctimonious condescension of many of those who do not believe than by either the gelid dispassion or the shapeless sentimentality of certain of those who do. Neither has it been a book of “technical” or “philosophical” theology, though I have at points touched upon “technical” elements of Christian philosophical tradition (too lightly, I fear, to be entirely convincing and too heavily to be entirely lucid). Much less has it been a book of consolations. Rather, my principal aim has simply been to elucidate — as far as in me lies — what I understand to be the true scriptural account of God's goodness, the shape of redemption, the nature of evil, and the conditions of a fallen world, not to convince anyone of its credibility, but simply to show where many of the arguments of Christianity's antagonists and champions alike fail to address what is most essential to the gospel.
From the conclusion of D.B. Hart's The Doors of the Sea.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Redheads, bugs, the LHC, and all that

In praise of the spleen
On the pain of being a redhead
Olivia Judson on your microbial fellow-travellers
xkcd on intercepting asteroids heading towards Earth

Newspapers have gone pleasingly quiet on the Large Hadron Collider, since the run plan was announced earlier this month. It beat the pessimistic, “if at all” tone of reporting just three days earlier. Given previous loud public statements about scheduling, one could argue that we only have ourselves to blame — but it's pretty hard to take some of the free commentary, such as this piece of farfetching on the connection between the LHC and an abandoned Mayan temple. Really. “And like Xunantunich, the collider these days is silent, if not abandoned,” we are told. Stephen Weinberg's response as quoted in the article, “I don’t see it in quite those apocalyptic terms,” is a marvel of understatement.

Meanwhile, yet another tendentious proposal for peace between science and religion has been launched. It is not noted for its theological insight. “Most scientists and most religious believers refuse to be drafted into the fight,” the writer says. Speaking as a scientist and a Christian, I also refuse to be drafted into this sort of attempt at peacekeeping. One problem with peacekeeping forces is that they can have their own agendas; and they are prone to being tone-deaf.

Finally, a chef writes on making “organic” and other small farms more robust against disease:
Healthy, natural systems abhor uniformity — just as a healthy society does. We need, then, to look to a system of food and agriculture that values and mimics natural diversity. The five-acre monoculture of tomato plants next door might be local, but it’s really no different from the 200-acre one across the country: both have sacrificed the ecological insurance that comes with biodiversity.

What does the resilient farm of the future look like? I saw it the other day. The farmer was growing 30 or so different crops, with several varieties of the same vegetable. Some were heirloom varieties, many weren’t. He showed me where he had pulled out his late blight-infected tomato plants and replaced them with beans and an extra crop of Brussels sprouts for the fall. He won’t make the same profit as he would have from the tomato harvest, but he wasn’t complaining, either...

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Hart, on giving atheism its due

For this reason, the atheist who cannot believe for moral reasons does honor, in an elliptical way, to the Christian God, and so must not be ignored. He demands of us not the surrender of our beliefs but a meticulous recollection on our parts of what those beliefs are, and a definition of divine love that has at least the moral rigor of principled unbelief. This, it turns out, is no simple thing. For sometimes atheism seems to retain elements of “Christianity” within itself that Christians have all too frequently forgotten.
This from David Bentley Hart's 2005 essay The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? which I belatedly read today; various friends have been recommending Hart to me over the last few years — I especially enjoyed his recent reflection on Edward Upward — and it seemed high time to read his celebrated rebuke of theodicy. It's very much written to a Christian audience, and largely concerned with inept and offensive positions held by Christians, but it would be of interest and benefit to at least some other people interested in these issues.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

On becoming a politician

The question — and I have struggled with this myself — is where do you have the most impact, where do you drive most effectively. It is always changing as the world changes. I used to humiliate CEOs, and one needed to be sufficiently emotionally unaware to live with that ethical contradiction — of making leaders look bad in order to get your point across.
So Paul Gilding, former Greenpeace director, as quoted in an article about the Australian singer-turned-politician Peter Garrett [in the SMH's Good Weekend, apparently not online]. It's worth a read, although it's not always so ethically aware: the journalist wants to have his cake and eat it too, issuing cheap shots against Garrett at one remove, or maybe half a remove. The smarmiest of Garrett's critics is Bob Brown, head of the Greens, who has quite a line in moral one-upmanship. Here's a hint, Bob: if you have a former colleage, whom (as you say) you like a great deal, and feel empathy for, and yet you find yourself feeling "a great deal of anxiety for him as a person", pick up the phone, or walk down the corridor to his office, and talk to him personally. Keep your pious concerns out of the press. Or, you know, we might think it had more to do with establishing your own brand by trashing a professional rival.

Garrett on his own situation:
And I think that's the crux of this, you know, `Peter Garrett is not the person he was before. He's become a politician.' Well, yeah, that's right. I did become a politician and I made that step into the discipline of party politics.
Garrett, currently Minister for the Environment, Arts and Heritage, is — and I didn't know this — the second-oldest member of cabinet, which is a disorienting thought. And how he has ever been able to make it through the song Beds Are Burning, given his personal history, boggles the mind.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Leaving behind childish things (and also some things of value)

A.O. Scott has written some excellent pieces recently, on films for teenagers (reflecting on the place of John Hughes' movies), as opposed to the current practice of treating the audience like kids;

a propos of which, Molly Ringwald has written a brief reflection on John Hughes as Peter Pan. It's plausible and, all things considered, rather sad. (I also note that, while she's no prose stylist, Ringwald can actually write.)

Meanwhile, in the world of non-moving pictures, photojournalism is in trouble, if not actually dying.

Re the small screen, I enjoyed this comment in the New Yorker, on The United States of Tara:
Collette is impressively convincing, even though I’m not entirely sure what I’m being convinced of.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Going off-message

On Sarah Palin and her enemies:
A Sarah Palin who stepped down for the sake of her family and her media-swarmed state deserves sympathy even from the millions of Americans who despise her. A Sarah Palin who resigned in the delusional belief that it would give her a better shot at the presidency in 2012 warrants no such kindness.

Either way, though, her 10 months on the national stage have been a dispiriting period for American democracy.

If Palin were exactly what her critics believe she is — the distillation of every right-wing pathology, from anti-intellectualism to apocalyptic Christianity — then she wouldn’t be a terribly interesting figure. But this caricature has always missed the point of the Alaska governor’s appeal ...
Over the last few months I have been enjoying the columns of Ross Douthat, the New York Times' new resident conservative: to give a recent selection, here he is offering a critical take on the US Supreme Court, and on using the Constitution to regulate abortion; giving a sane synopsis of where things stand for America in Iraq; and asserting that the basis of affirmative action (if any) will have to shift from race to class.

Meanwhile the established conservative at the Times, David Brooks — really, as a friend of mine remarked in a nice distinction, the resident Republican — found it in himself to call for Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation two months ago ... a sign of how unsupportable the Republican party line has become over the last year. (The fact that he went off-message and criticised the McCain-Palin ticket during, rather than after last year's election, was an early indicator that the game was up.) This week, less than ten of the GOP senators found it in themselves to agree.

In other off-topic news, Barbara Ehrenreich points out that people who were already poor have been hit by the downturn, even if they're not making the news;

a UN official talks about what's right with Japan;

a reporter presents a good-news story on orphanages in Tanzania;

and Matt Bai writes on Obama's sense of humour.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Reality bites, shoots, and stabs

When we talked about the first reality programs, years ago, we worried about obvious things: that in the environment of these shows, things would be broken that could not be fixed; that sooner or later, someone was going to be raped, or badly hurt; that some already-damaged person might be destroyed. The genius of Series 7 is to see that this was never really the point. The literal horror is taken for granted, and it's sadly true that it doesn't revolt as much as it “should”: people are killed all through this program, but with the exception of a particular lethal beating, none of it makes you wince. But one winces every moment at the loss of shame, of self-respect, and of any kind of restraint, not just by the contenders, but by the relentless, sententious voice-over, and the public that it's co-opted to its perspective.
From my review of the film Series 7, posted over at my Bruce's Reviews side-project. Enough has been said about “reality” radio in Sydney in recent days, but what's saddest is that it took a severe incident involving a child to get the show pulled. As if the basic premise, and the general behaviour of the show, were not bad enough. It put me in mind of a distant time when deliberately contrived dysfunction was still felt as an innovation, and could offend just by being itself. I wrote the review in '03, of an '01 film; the first stabs at reality radio and television in the nineties were still fresh in memory. But as of this writing, children who were born in that period are in high school, and have known no other world.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Abu Ghraib, porn, and Mark Sanford: thinking again about images and openness

In a fascinating article, a military man has described how conversation with Iraqis led him to change his mind about the publication of photographs from Abu Ghraib. It's a good—perhaps even over-neat—example of how listening to a different perspective can lead one not so much to discard one's own perspective as flawed, but to see something that was actually in view all along, but being missed.

It is peculiar, isn't it, the ability of images to obscure and to distract, and the difficulty of thinking clearly about them? It's scarcely a new theme in human thought, but topical at the moment given what seems to be our lack of balance and the weakness of our culture in this area.

A propos of which, I recently ran into Naomi Wolf's oft-quoted article from earlier this decade, The Porn Myth, in which she tried to pinpoint the ways in which the normalisation (and ubiquity) of pornography has damaged the culture. There are insights in it, but this doesn't stop her from being dense, as it were, in passing, such as here:
The reason to turn off the porn might become, to thoughtful people, not a moral one but, in a way, a physical- and emotional-health one; you might want to rethink your constant access to porn in the same way that, if you want to be an athlete, you rethink your smoking. The evidence is in: Greater supply of the stimulant equals diminished capacity.

After all, pornography works in the most basic of ways on the brain: It is Pavlovian...
The tacit assumption here is that moral arguments, and physical- and emotional-health arguments, are separate: that the proposition, “that porn damages people's ability to form and sustain healthy relationships”, is somehow irrelevant to the moral status of the thing. But this is unreal. Moral thought, amongst other things, is about integration; and it is most certainly about the real world.

Our culture doesn't seem to be able to keep these categories in perspective: they're either made completely separate or they're collapsed, so that on the one hand learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all, and one forgives for the sake of one's own emotional health; and on the other hand, calling an argument “moral” is a way of dismissing it as mediaevalising or prurient, even at the hands of people with concerns of their own that are evidently moral in nature.

Along these lines—if some slippage between “moral” and “religious” may be allowed—the New York Times' Room for Debate site has a list of reflections, alternately interesting and obtuse, on God-talk and the Mark Sanford scandal. The inimitable Eve Tushnet has a fun commentary on the reaction to the whole thing. (The link listed under “good people” is also worth a look.)

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

O'Donovan on decision, and creeping non-choice

Professor, you've chosen the metaphor of wakefulness, and of the future that presents itself to you for you for your action or decision, rather than the metaphor of “making decisions”. Which made me think about making decisions. There's this lovely phrase about “creeping non-choice”: how did you come to be in this situation, did you choose it? Well no, it was a kind of creeping non-choice. So, reflecting on the past, for ten years I was never aware of making any particular choice, but I look back on where I was and where I stand, and I find that I have made a choice, I have made a decision. So, given that you're speaking in terms of the future that presents itself to you for action, do you want to say something about discerning what the choices for action actually are, and how you see that?

Yes, yes. And I will say more — this gives me an opportunity to offer a trailer for the third lecture, which I'm very content to do, because this is a matter to which I want to attend more fully on Thursday night. I will consider there a model of making decisions and what they are, which is, as it were, the apple-and-pear model: in my left hand I have an apple, in my right hand I have a pear, and I am in a dilemma because I don't know which to bite into. And there is one understanding of moral decision which understands it always in terms of a kind of “either-or”. I always stand before two ways: two commendable paths, and I have to choose one or the other. I don't think that's a very good model for making decisions, and I want to suggest that our process in reaching decisions is one of increasing clarification: increasing understanding of ourselves, which is far more like bringing something more and more into focus. So, we start with a very blurred picture, a very vague large-scale map of what it is that lies before us, and as we go we are constantly trying to sharpen the focus, to see more detail, until the picture of what is before us and what we can do becomes sharp.

I think that when we make a decision, and particularly our very best decisions, is the moment in which we realise we don't any longer have an alternative. It's not the moment in which we realise that we have two absolutely equal alternatives, and it's absolutely up to our choice as to which we take.

To take an example of this—as I don't include this in the third lecture, I might as well include it now—I remember one occasion, in which I was on one of those committees that universities throw up from time to time, with the duty of appointing a professor to a post. And before the committee had met, a colleague met me in the street and said, “I hear you're on that committee to appoint the chair of such-and-such: You will, of course, appoint Professor Jones.” And I said, “Well, will we?”. “Well, yes,” he said, “you will.” Several months later we appointed Professor Jones. The process had been a very long one. We had naturally looked at some excellent CVs. We had considered a wide variety of alternatives. But what got borne in on us in that whole process, was what was obvious to my colleague from the beginning, namely that Professor Jones was the person who ought to be appointed to that chair.

One doesn't regret that situation, one doesn't say, “Oh this is a terrible situation, here is an outstanding candidate, I have no choice, I have no decision to make.” The decision is recognising the outstanding candidate, hmm? That's what deciding is. Now I think that's a better model for most of our decisions than apples and pears: shall I eat an apple or shall I eat a pear, there's nothing to choose, I'm going to toss a coin, and so on.
This from Oliver O'Donovan's 2007 New College Lectures, in response to my question. Of course I was invoking (not particularly clearly) the famous saying re involuntary childlessness in our culture: something that outsiders may consider a “choice”, but that the person concerned does not experience that way.

It was fascinating to get an answer that put positive things—our very best choices, as OO'D has it—into the same basket. This tends to set the whole issue in a new light. One reason why the description of someone “choosing” childlessness, or singleness, or some other less-than-satisfactory situation—one reason why this description feels wrong, is not that the situation has not been chosen in some sense, but that our typical way of thinking about choice is wrong. Even our “best” or most satisfactory choices are not like that. We speak of choices, good or bad, as if they were acts of a disembodied will, apart from setting and constraint and progress of understanding: but this is unreal. It's no wonder that we struggle to understand choices under constraint, or under lack of viable alternative, because even the happy ideal choice of OO'D's example just isn't an untrammeled act of will like the picture we carry around in our heads.

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

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Seven green things

The Southern Lights (Aurora Australis), with the earth illuminated by moonglow, in an amateur photograph by one of the astronauts on board the shuttle Discovery in 1991: from an article in the NYT Lens blog on photography by astronauts.

On non-high-tech ways of being environmentally responsible:
By modifying cattle feed
By putting succulents on city rooftops
By recycling obsolete electronics
By implementing bus rapid transit systems (if the conditions are right)

However, on the political front, working one step at a time is apparently not good enough for some activists (perhaps this can serve as an effective definition of the term “activist”)

On standards in scientific journals:
Physical Review Letters draws a line in the sand, and not before time

Thursday, 9 July 2009

O'Donovan on compromise

You gave a fairly prominent place to compromise in this evening's lecture—twinned together, I thought very helpfully, with ideals. On my reading, compromise enjoys a dreadful reputation in the Christian community at the moment. And you're also emphasising the need to act together, or with one mind—whereas I picture myself in a room with my brothers and sisters, recommending some course of action, that could be described as a compromise, let alone myself describing it as a compromise, and this seems like the political equivalent of suicide within the community. Are these just the times that we live in? Do you agree with that reading, or is there some way forward from this? Because, as I say, I think compromise has a very bad name, but I agree with you it's necessary, so ...

Thank you for that question, which is rather searching. I'm not sure that I can do more than kind of feel after an answer to it...

I think we distrust compromise because we associate it with a certain kind of temptation, which is a temptation to fall in with what everybody else is doing. To being conformed to this world, as St Paul puts it. That seems to me to be, as a phrase, perfect for summing up the nature of the bad compromise. [We are] rightly concerned about that: rightly on guard against any such concession, and of course, as we all know, it's ferociously easy, even for the most serious-minded of us, simply to fall in with the way other people do things, because it takes so much less effort, and our effort is being seriously required for other tasks ...

We fail to see ... as it were, the other kind of compromise, which perhaps ... perhaps it's a bad thing that we end up with the same word to describe two things, except when words are ambiguous, they warn us against certain very easy mistakes, and the fact that "compromise" is used both, as it were for the good [compromise, the] trying-to-focus-on-the-sheerly-practical-in-the-situation, the actually-bringing-into-shape of what it is that we really can do that will bear witness to God's command and to the object set before us, and [also for the bad compromise:] failing to do this because we fall in with everyone else, warns us that it's easy to mistake the one for the other, and it's easy to mistake the one for the other because discerning what is actually practicable is difficult. And we may think that because everybody disagrees with a course of action that we think right, therefore that course of action is not practicable. And that's one reason why the two types of compromise are so necessary to keep clear.

The question we have to ask is what is the best course of action that is actually available. And both sides of that equation have to be brought together. If we do that, and if we regularly did that, then compromise could lose its bad reputation perhaps.
This from Oliver O'Donovan's 2007 New College Lectures, Morally awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith, in response to my question.

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

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

“We were wrong”

An object lesson in the value and the limitations of intelligence, management disciplines, and analytical skill, Robert S. McNamara, died on Monday in Washington. The New York Times' obituary makes salutary reading, but if one is going to look at only one thing about McNamara, it should be Errol Morris' wonderful documentary The Fog of War.

I have never understood people describing McNamara as unrepentant and cold. To see him in Fog—apparently, if you were in the right meetings, to see him even in 1968—was to see a man haunted by the hubris, miscalculation, folly ... by the sheer wrongness of so much of what America did in Vietnam; of what he did, as Secretary of Defense, first for Kennedy and then for Johnson, in prosecuting the war; even for aspects of his service during WWII, including what he freely describes as war crimes (he was involved in the fire-bombing of Japanese cities).

Apart from the general cultural anger about Vietnam, and against its symbols—the NYT's most reliably angry columnist has predictably chosen to vent on this occasion—I suspect McNamara's reflections attracted such opprobium because they didn't conform to American norms of repentance. There was no religiosity. There was no talk of transformation or renewal. What there was, was a will to understand, and to draw lessons from past failings.

Lord knows, those lessons were painful enough.

There's also an unpleasant piece of generational conflict at work here: a lack of sympathy with the way McNamara's loyalty to his masters stands in conflict with the all-telling, all-denouncing ethic of younger men. Pensioned off from the DoD for losing faith in the war and urging the President to rethink it, McNamara didn't become an anti-war activist. He got on with running the World Bank as best he knew. And when he did turn again to Vietnam, he did it as a civil servant: asking, what did we do wrong; what can we learn from it. There was a dispassion to the analysis, as there should be. It doesn't mean the countless dead didn't keep him awake at night.

At the risk of an obvious statement, McNamara didn't publicly atone for his sins because he couldn't. (Where would one even start?) An unvarnished “we were wrong” should be respected for what it is. Beyond that is between him and God.

UPDATE: Errol Morris has written a fine piece on McNamara in context

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Up on the roof

James Taylor may have a better voice—and his version is certainly better-known—but I have always loved Carole King's interpretation of the song Up on the roof, which she wrote with Gerry Goffin in the early sixties. It's the last track on her rather good, but commercially unsuccessful 1970 album Writer ... soon to be followed by Tapestry, the very definition of commercial success. According to Wikipedia, it remained the top-selling pop solo album until the late Michael Jackson's Thriller.

And so to the song. In this YouTube clip of her performing it in concert (in the late eighties?) the treatment is close to that in Writer: unashamedly romantic, but fresh, and making excellent use of King's big-boned voice—even exploiting the limitations of her range. Apart from the sheer joy of it, it's a good advertisement for the singer-songwriter ideal: that a great writer, even if she's a singer of second rank, might bring something special to her own songs. And since her version of this song is free of the Tapestry hype, I think it makes the point more clearly than the album does.

Update: The 1970 recorded version is also on YouTube here.

Monday, 22 June 2009

On the many different ways of being nice

Sympathy is Crowe's great gift, but it's a kind of weakness as well. He has rightly been criticised for the lack of darkness in his films, and there's clearly no question of them holding up a mirror to all of life. Yet with Lloyd, at least, there's an element of mystery: we have no idea of his relationship with his (absent) parents; his aimlessness hints at trouble ahead. And there's something between confusion and anger that underlies his riffs in conversation, which Crowe and Cusack are wise enough to merely suggest—it's never discussed. It would also seem to undergird his awe of Diane, who is more at peace with herself. When the couple split Lloyd is all at sea, swinging between shattered grief and self-conscious poses of defiance. Whereas Diane, while miserable, still has her prospects and her father ... or so she thinks.
This from my 2002 review of Say Anything ..., which I have rescued from its web oblivion and posted at Bruce's Reviews for the 19th anniversary of the film's release.

“He may be the least cynical director working in Hollywood today,” wrote A.O. Scott in his review of the 2000 film Almost Famous. “What other filmmaker is as devoted to the nuances of decency or as fascinated by the subtle and complicated ways people can be nice to one another?” In a brilliant piece of sympathetic criticism, he put his finger on the limitations of Almost Famous while at the same time being fully, gratefully alive to that film's wonderful strengths.

Scott's concerns were prescient, as Crowe seems to have badly lost his way as a director since then. In revisiting Say Anything ..., surely the best teen romance of its age, I'd like to express the hope that Crowe can find a new way forward.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Engaging with difficulty

A.O. Scott has been making a plea for maturity and engagement, in the form of a moral protest against a recent film:
Really, “Away We Go” is about the flight from adulthood, from engagement, from responsibility, even as it cleverly disguises itself as a search for all those things. But the dream of being left alone in a world of your own making, far from anything sad or icky or difficult, is a child’s fantasy.
Stirring stuff. Likewise concerning topics on which it is difficult to talk sensibly, or well, consider the following:

an insightful and sane essay on the Wikipedia revolution;

a meditation on work and thought in the trades, versus the office;

and a report on the frontline of a change of medical practice in the States.

Concerning health care, one of the avowed goals of the Obama presidency, it is good to see that there has been at least some attempt to learn from past mistakes:
It has been 16 years, in fact, since another young, freshly inaugurated Democratic president with a Democratic Congress tried to remake the architecture of health care, and the catastrophe that followed is generally cited as the main deterrent to thinking big about anything in the capital. The plan Bill Clinton took to Congress then, running to more than 1,000 pages of impenetrable new regulations, wasn’t what you’d call politically savvy, but the strategy used to sell it was even worse. Having been elected as the latest in a series of outsider presidents after Watergate, ex-Governor Clinton seemed to believe he had been sent by the voters to purify the fetid culture of Washington; he installed a boyhood friend as his chief of staff and stocked his White House with loyal Arkansans and campaign aides ready to overrun a fossilized Congress. His wife, the current secretary of state, developed the health care plan largely without taking House and Senate leaders into her confidence, instead dropping it at the doorstep of the Capitol as a fait accompli. Ever jealous of its prerogative, Congress took a long look, yawned and kicked the whole plan to the gutter, where it soon washed away for good — along with much of Clinton’s ambition for his presidency.

The first senator elected directly to the Oval Office since 1960, Obama has an entirely different theory of how to exercise presidential power, and he has consciously designed his administration to avoid Clinton’s fate. After winning the office with the same kind of outsider appeal as his predecessors, he has quietly but methodically assembled the most Congress-centric administration in modern history ... Obama seems to think that the dysfunction in Washington isn’t only about the heightened enmity between the parties; it’s also about the longstanding mistrust between the two branches of government that stare each other down from twin peaks on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
How people continue to regard Obama as a pushover and a mere talker escapes me.

I have also been enjoying, together with the occasional cringe-moment, the president's Cairo address. A well-taken Middle Eastern appreciation, along the lines of “Yes, but ...”, can be found here. David Brooks also has some characteristically tendentious but insightful comments on the tensions in Obama's approach.

Several bloggers, fellow fans of the Archbishop of Canterbury, have been reminding me of his Cairo speech five years ago, on the different but related topic of respectful dialogue between Christians and Muslims on the nature of God: on what is agreed, as well as on the disagreements, and on being careful to distinguish the two.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Second thoughts

Work trips put one behind on reading, and on blogging. Here are some things I've been looking at in the last six weeks or so, concerning, in some way, re-thinking a received position.

From the New York Times:
Mary Beard, on Roman book trade and culture
Looking back on decisions about prisoner interrogation
When “bad advice” is the best advice
On the off-brand presidency
On a recognition Israel doesn't need
On the decline of Christian communities in the Middle East

Web comics:
xkcd on changing the rules
PhD Comics on research topics guaranteed to be picked up by the news media

Byron Smith on dying with dignity
Scot McKnight on justification and the New Perspective on Paul: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and ... [one needs to be patient to do anything more than skim these]

Food for thought:
From an NYT op-ed opposed to the drone-war being fought in Pakistan, a comment with resonance for anyone opposed to extremist behaviour, including myself (let the reader understand):
Governments typically make several mistakes when attempting to separate violent extremists from populations in which they hide. First, they often overestimate the degree to which a population harboring an armed actor can influence that actor’s behavior. People don’t tolerate extremists in their midst because they like them, but rather because the extremists intimidate them. Breaking the power of extremists means removing their power to intimidate — something that strikes cannot do...

And from the LRB, Jenny Diski, in a (subscription-required) article on schooling, reflecting on teaching as a young idealist in the early 70s, in an inner-city comprehensive:
The lack of oversight, and of targets, must send a chill of horror through any modern manager of a school, and with some reason: it was pretty haphazard, and who was to say that only good teaching would or did come of the laissez-faire system? The line between liberty and libertarianism is very indistinct, and the desire to dismantle bureaucracy and social inequity leaves open the possibility of chaos, and creates endless opportunities for individual self-aggrandisement. But it seems to me that the risks were worth taking, now that we've seen the dismal results of our 20-year-long experiments with centralised targets, management echelons and paper-based accountability.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Colour my world

I've called this story a “myth”, not in the vulgar sense that “it didn't really happen”, but in the more technical sense that it's part of the way we think: a story we tell to explain the way the world is, to position ourselves politically and socially, to understand what kinds of action are possible or desirable, and why. The modern myth is a defiantly unfair reading of Genesis 3, which is part of the point of it: it's an alternative vision of the world.

And this is where Pleasantville comes in. The visitors from the 90s bring colour to the world around them, Jennifer by introducing the locals to the life of the body, David (after initial resistance) by opening up the life of the mind ... but they themselves remain stubbornly monochrome. Jennifer is puzzled ...
This from my 2001-02 review of the film Pleasantville, which has been living in an obscure part of the web for years; it's now been uploaded to my new blog of the same name, Bruce's Reviews. More to come over the next little while.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Come down, O Love Divine

Come down, O Love Divine,
Seek thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with thine own ardour glowing.
O Comforter, draw near,
Within my heart appear,
And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

As Luke tells the story, the Spirit of God fell on Jesus' disciples on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, and they went out praising God in many languages, drawing a large, curious, and somewhat sceptical crowd. Peter announced that this was nothing other than the promised renewal of the nation: that Jesus, handed over to the Romans for execution but vindicated by God --- raised from death --- had now been “exalted to the right hand of God” and had commissioned them to be his witnesses. He called on those in the crowd to repent, and to be baptized into Jesus' name for the forgiveness of their sins. Three thousand people were initiated in this way; that day is traditionally understood as the beginning of the church, and has been celebrated ever since.

Lest this all be thought somewhat in-house, Peter's other great task (again, as Luke has it) was to reach beyond the Jewish community and --- in the face of his own customs and purity concerns --- to open the Christian fellowship to people from other nations. The struggle to understand what true unity of differing people meant, and exactly what God's agenda was in the matter, was a huge one for that generation, and the bulk of the occasional letters that comprise the New Testament (together with the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation) engage with the issue in some degree. The particular expression is bound up with concerns of that time and place, and the people involved, but in more abstract terms the questions are perennial: how are background, identity, and behaviour related; what are our obligations; what do we make of human difference?

The basic Christian answer is that one should be baptised into the name of Jesus Christ: but what then follows? The knotted complexity of parts of the New Testament shows that the answers may not be simple, let alone obvious. A classic example from another age is the abolition movement at the end of the eighteenth century: the realisation that slavery had to be renounced --- already implicitly understood in the first century --- tore up lives and institutions and economies over decades. We say we “change our minds” but the process of changing one's mind is messy, and by no means merely mental. Our society makes “Amazing Grace” a song of sentiment, but it was the sentiment of a man converted slowly --- slowly, in fits and starts --- from traffic in human lives.

The favourite Pentecost hymn in my tradition is Come down, O Love Divine by Bianco da Siena (d:1434), as translated by Richard F. Littledale in the 1860s, and most famously set to Ralph Vaughn Williams' tune Down Ampney. The hymn is of a more mystical bent, its perspective that of the inner life before God, compared to what one might call the community focus of the New Testament writers. Of course, the two are related, as the “Amazing Grace” example also shows. But the relationship is not simple.

(It's easy to find cheesy versions of the tune and the hymn on the web, and hard to find good ones. An embellished but dignified rendition is free as an MP3 from Selah Publishing.)

O let it freely burn,
'Til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let thy glorious light
Shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Let holy charity
Mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing.
True lowliness of heart
Which takes the humbler part
And o'er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

And so the yearning strong
With which the soul will long
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace,
'Til he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Beyond consent

Through gritted teeth, and firmly holding my nose, I would like to express some limited sympathy for Matthew Johns, who has been hung out to dry by Channel Nine (and just about everyone) after a years-old group-sex scandal was so thoroughly aired on national television this week.

His pathetic, but I suspect sincere, clinging to the mantra “but she consented”, is the point here. Well yes, maybe she did. If one thinks about the situation, this doesn't really cut it, but our society has spent a few decades pretending that consent (perhaps glossed to mean “informed consent”) provides a sufficient handle on the morality of sexual encounters. (Even some of Johns' critics, as quoted on the TV, are still trying to cut their disgust to fit the Procrustean bed of “consent”.) That pretence has helped blight this decade for the unfortunate girl in the story (one prays, not her whole life); but it has also betrayed Johns and people like him, by making it easier for them to lose moral perspective, and by indulging their boorishness.

Earlier generations of thought approached this problem via honour, an approach rich in double standards, and modern commentators have been quick and strident in their criticism. Accepting all of that criticism, one has to say that older approaches are realistic at one point --- the plain fact that “consent”, meaning what-the-woman-wants-or-says-at-the-time, is not necessarily the main question, and by no means the only question --- on which our society has been systematically stupid. Without mercy, we have pilloried our ancestors for the deficiencies in their thinking ... and yet people in future societies looking back on ours, or people in different societies looking across at us, will probably ask how we could be so blind. The cheap answer will be that we handed over our thinking in this matter to people without daughters, and to people who furthermore did not care about the moral lives of their sons. Doubtless there's more to it than that, but will anyone have enough patience with us to give a more merciful answer?

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Genes, hobbits, plutonium, telescopes, a moon, and an obituary

A view of the planet Neptune, and its giant moon Triton, from a distance of 3.75 billion kilometres, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft, en route to the dwarf planet Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Image details can be found on this page at the NH website.

This image is featured in honour of Venetia Burney Phair, a retired economics and maths teacher, who died recently at the age of 90; and who, as a girl of 11, gave Pluto its name. One of the instruments on New Horizons --- designed, built, and operated by students --- was earlier named in Mrs Phair's honour.

In other space science news, the shuttle Atlantis is due to launch on Monday for the final mission to repair and service the Hubble Telescope. Because of the extra danger in missions to the Hubble, the shuttle Endeavour will be on standby as a rescue vessel, in case anything goes wrong. Some years ago, when NASA tried to rule out such missions because of the danger to the crew, it wasn't just the scientific community that objected: some of the astronauts did too ...

Other articles:

On the genetic analysis of common diseases

On “hobbits”: the black swans of palaeontology ... and their flat feet

On why the Americans are going to make more plutonium 238 (hint: not for bombs), how they will use it more efficiently when they have it, and why Stirling engines are the bees' knees

Sunday, 26 April 2009

On Eve Tushnet and The Gathering Storm

The unclassifiable Eve Tushnet has a couple of posts on the notorious Gathering Storm advertisement on her blog.[1] I'd heard about the ad being objectionable --- and indeed, it is --- so I was surprised to learn that Ms Tushnet actually does some work for NOM, the organisation that produced it. On the one hand I couldn't see how that could work out; on the other, I was fascinated, given my own situation.[2]

Here she is speaking, from a position opposed to gay marriage, about criticisms of that position:
The best counterargument is the same as the best counterargument on all gay-marriage topics: “This isn’t just about gay marriage but about a whole panoply of prior changes, most of which have obvious good qualities as well, so you’re not seeking status quo so much as rollback.” ...

I see the force of that argument, and of course I acknowledge that there’s no way we would be having this conversation without the prior cultural changes which led to e.g. laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation. For that matter, every single day I take advantage of the cultural changes which have made it possible for me to be an out lesbian while facing very limited explicit hostility.

But I still disagree that gay marriage is only a trivial turn of the ratchet (do ratchets turn?? I’m really not the home-improvement kind of dykey!), a mere formality, or something you can only worry about if you also reject all of the prior cultural moves which brought us here. I think prudence can allow you to draw a line, and frankly, gay marriage is a really obvious place for that line. Gay marriage is a big deal for the same reasons given by its supporters!--it is a real change in the culture, a deeply significant change, and a change with far-reaching public implications. I don’t think you can write paeans to marriage as a public and cultural status, then turn around and say that gay marriage will have very limited public effects. Marriage isn’t designed to have limited public effects.
Her other comments ad loc are incisive, quite wide-ranging, and well-taken; and some of the links are fascinating. At the end of the day, though, I'm still confused about how she can reconcile herself to a group running an ad that she herself describes as fearmongering, and as “really, really cheesy”.

Because belonging to a lobby group or a movement is not the same as belonging to a church. I've elsewhere posted in admiration of Ms Tushnet's Catholicism and the resources it gives her, and the home it provides her; and for another example, the USCCB's Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children, also cited by Tushnet, is a good advertisement for the Catholic Church: one could disagree with the position, and still respect the practical advice; one could disagree with the advice, and still admire the humanity and maturity of its conception. I understand how one could disapprove of the church in other ways, but value the tradition that makes this sort of thing possible: I understand that because it's pretty much my own position. A propos of this, a friend pointed out that a church is not meant to be admired from a safe distance ... which is a good point, so let me put it this way: I can see how, being a Catholic, one might choose to stay one; I can see how, having become a Catholic, one might judge it to have been a good choice, any drawbacks apart.

But a lobby group or a movement is not like that. Achieving an effect, pushing a point of view or policy, effecting a particular change in society, is the point of the endeavour. That's what a lobby is about: there is no other “there” there. So when a lobby comes up with a cheesy, fearmongering advertisement, it is reasonable to view it as essentially discrediting, in a way that it's not when a person does something wrong, or a country does something objectionable, or a church says something silly. If a lobby is in the business of saying silly things, or saying things in an objectionable way, isn't it Just Bad?

Which brings me back to my own local concerns. One of my criticisms of the evangelical church, at least in this town, is related: I think it's confused about whether it's a movement or a church --- even worse, whether it's an insurgent movement or The Church, simpliciter. This has all sorts of implications for how one views membership, duty, loyalty, and the ethical position of both individuals and officials: I take a rather different view, for example, of a minister on the one hand, and a cadre of a movement on the other; if they are the same person, there is potentially a serious problem. But that is really a matter for its own post, on another occasion.

[1] I can't seem to link to individual posts there. The ones I mean are from April 2009: scroll down to Wednesday, April 15, and look for "POLITICS AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE" and “'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'I always pay it extra.'".

[2] Short version: I am a conservative Christian, in the Anglican tradition (and happy to be so), I live in Sydney, and while it would be misleading to call me an evangelical I'm probably more like that than anything else; and I was taught and trained by evangelicals, and I have friends in that ministry. And yet I find the public stance of the Sydney Diocese, in particular its official media presence, absolutely unbearable.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

A guilty pleasure

Returning home late last night, I stumbled over a favourite film from my early teens: Firefox, the one where Clint Eastwood steals the Soviet Union's eponymous superplane.

Let's get some important points out of the way first: (1) The film is a shameless, twice-baked piece of Cold War cheese. (2) The idea that in the early Eighties, the Soviets might have been able to surprise the West with a revolutionary-on-all-fronts wonder-weapon, was pretty silly at the time --- although I remember it being taken seriously in the media --- and in retrospect, it's even sillier than the idea that messed-up middle-aged pilot Mitchell Gant might just walk in and fly the plane out of Russia.

Having taken due note of all that, the film is great. The effects are superb, and have not only stood the test of time, but are a pleasant reminder of the days when special effects were just that: occasional, rather than structural. And one can see some of Eastwood's characteristic concerns, both as a star and, in what was a relatively early outing, as a director. (It helps if, as I did, one also reads the book, and can see the changes of content and emphasis.) The ruthlessness of the Western spymasters is downplayed a little, but Gant's ruthlessness is downplayed a lot: in the film he has a code, a respect for others caught up in the events, and a confused-and-weary disdain for his masters and the inhumanity of the conflict.

And the film itself has great sympathy for the professionals among the Soviet officers. Respect for Voskov, the pilot, comes as no surprise, but one finds oneself barracking for the police inspector; for Dmitri Priabin (Oliver Cotton), the 2IC of the KGB team on Gant's trail; and most of all for General Vladimirov (Klaus Löwitsch), head of the effort to recapture the plane. He himself has respect for his adversaries, a hatred of overconfidence and hasty conclusions, and no malice ... and he is very, very good at what he does. The case is oversold by making the First Secretary a buffoon, and such an obvious hindrance to the Soviets' task, but there's great dignity in Löwitsch's performance, and a vision of professionalism-among-the-enemy in the tradition of the great war films.

It's a guilty pleasure of a movie, but a real one.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Two years on

This blog is now two years old, and (I hope) active again after a quiet month.

Well-trafficked posts from the last year, in contrast to the laundry list from the first year, have been completely dominated by the ethics of Joss Whedon:

Mal's speech, or, On not making a better world (1) (2008/09/08)
Simon's speech (2008/05/30)
Top five fantasy battle-cries (2008/09/19)
Updike on neutrinos (2009/01/29)

It was a pleasure to bring a few new readers to Updike's neutrino poem.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Spring readings

Good advice that I'm still struggling with:
On practical ways to end email bankruptcy, and then stay solvent

Interesting articles in the New York Times:
In defense of secrecy
Why imaging should not replace dissection in medical training
On abandoned boats in the US
On the return of wine-on-tap
On earthquake prediction,
and Why young buildings failed in old towns
Why anarchy on land means piracy at sea
The superbug of the moment
Last voyage for the keeper of the Hubble

On blogs:
recently I've been reading Byron Smith on The cost of dying;
discussing church as A good place to doubt, with Michael Jensen;
Christian obedience, work, and rhetoric, with Chris and friends;
and Le Guin, and The Jane Austen Book Club, with Natalie

On freedom of speech and religious freedom:
The US Supreme Court tells people to get real

In the category of news that's too melodramatic for fiction:
Judges plead guilty in scheme to jail youths for profit

(3) spring and sakura

Number 3 of “Ten things I love about Japan”.

Spring is a big deal in Japan, and sakura (the cherry blossom) is a very big deal. Trees have been in flower the last couple of weeks, depending on location, and I've been wishing I was sitting on a blue tarpaulin somewhere with friends, looking at a sea of white flowers.

Because that's what everyone does. Going out to look at flowers has an effeminate feel, to much current Western taste, but there's no such sense in Japan, and well might there not be: the blossoming of the cherry trees strikes any given place like a wave, with a few hints that it's about to arrive, an overwhelming surge for a week as all of the trees bloom together and the world is carpeted in white, a couple of weeks of aftermath --- and then it's gone, moving north through the islands.

That short season of hanami (looking-at-flowers) parties is the peak and the pivot of the year, with the best weather, and everyone out and involved. Picnics are held everywhere, and in cities you can see office girls out early, laying claim to a choice spot laid out with blankets or blue tarp, ready for the whole office to decamp for lunch in the open. This is a country that doesn't do things by halves, and hanami is at least one thing that it's pure pleasure to be a part of.

For more info: Cherry Blossoms (Sakura) at

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Research for America

There's an interesting guest-post on Olivia Judson's blog, proposing a formal mechanism for recruiting fixed-term workers for scientific research,
[following the model of] Teach for America, which harnesses the energy of college graduates who are willing to give a little time before moving to the next stage of their careers... Research for America could serve a similar purpose of giving smart young people a chance to see if research is the right career for them, without committing five or more years to getting a postgraduate degree.
The writers have specifically biomedical research in mind, and (obviously) are thinking about the American situation. That said, they have at least addressed what seems to be a general problem with research at the moment: it needs a lot of workers, far more than can go on to full-fledged research careers of their own, so the academic system of apprenticeship-by-research-degree-and-postdoctoral-work strains to accomodate them. As a result we either create expectations that cannot be met, or damage the apprenticeship system for those that still truly need it, or both ...

A different mechanism, of the kind proposed, would seem to meet a need.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Einstein on intuition in physics

Using as few hypothetical laws as possible, science attempts to explain relations between observable facts, arriving at them in a deductive manner, that is, in a purely logical way. Physics is customarily referred to as an empirical science and it is believed that its fundamental laws are deduced from experiments, so as to indicate how it differs from speculative philosophy. However, in truth the relationship between fundamental laws and facts from experience is not that simple. Indeed, there is no scientific method to deduce inductively these fundamental laws from experimental data. The formulation of a fundamental law is, rather, an act of intuition which can be achieved only by one who watches empirically with the necessary attention and has sufficient empirical understanding of the field in question. The sole criteria for the truth of a fundamental law is only that we can be sure that the relations between observable events can be logically deduced from it. It follows then that a fundamental law can be refuted in a definite manner, but can never be definitely shown to be correct, as one must always bear in mind the possibility of discovering a new phenomenon that contradicts the logical conclusions arising from a fundamental law.

Experience is, therefore, the judge, but not the generator of fundamental laws. The transition from the facts of experience to a fundamental law often requires an act of free creativity from our imagination, as well as an act of creation of concepts and relations; it would not be possible to replace this act with a necessary and conclusive method...
Albert Einstein, Unpublished Opening Lecture for the Course on the Theory of Relativity in Argentina, 1925

(The full lecture is in Science in Context, Vol. 21, issue 3, pp. 451-459 (2008); posted today on the preprint server as arXiv:0903.2401v1 [physics.hist-ph] . © The Hebrew University, Jerusalem.)

Sunday, 15 March 2009

“This was not just about greed”: Rowan Williams on trust, risk, and the material order

The Archbishop of Canterbury in a lecture on Ethics, Economics and Global Justice, takes a polite swipe at too-easy criticisms of contemporary capital, and ventures one or two criticisms of his own. Here he is on time and trust:
The loss of a sense of appropriate time is a major cultural development, which necessarily changes how we think about trust and relationship. Trust is learned gradually, rather than being automatically deliverable according to a set of static conditions laid down. It involves a degree of human judgement, which in turn involves a level of awareness of one's own human character and that of others – a degree of literacy about the signals of trustworthiness; a shared culture of understanding what is said and done in a human society. And this learning entails unavoidable insecurity... And the further away I get from these areas of learning by trial and error, the further away I get from the inevitable risks of living in a material and limited world, the more easily can I persuade myself that I am after all in control.

Although people have spoken of greed as the source of our current problems, I suspect that it goes deeper...
On risk and capitalism:
Ethical behaviour is behaviour that respects what is at risk in the life of another and works on behalf of the other's need. To be an ethical agent is thus to be aware of human frailty, material and mental; and so, by extension, it is to be aware of your own frailty. And for a specifically Christian ethic, the duty of care for the neighbour as for oneself is bound up with the injunction to forgive as one hopes to be forgiven; basic to this whole perspective is the recognition both that I may fail or be wounded and that I may be guilty of error and damage to another.

It's a bit of a paradox, then, to realise that aspects of capitalism are in their origin very profoundly ethical in the sense I've just outlined. The venture capitalism of the early modern period expressed something of the sense of risk by limiting liability and sharing profit ...
and on embodiment:
One of the things most fatal to the sustaining of an ethical perspective on any area of human life, not just economics, is the fantasy that we are not really part of a material order – that we are essentially will or craving, for which the body is a useful organ for fulfilling the purposes of the all-powerful will, rather than being the organ of our connection with the rest of the world. It's been said often enough but it bears repeating, that in some ways – so far from being a materialist culture, we are a culture that is resentful about material reality, hungry for anything and everything that distances us from the constraints of being a physical animal subject to temporal processes, to uncontrollable changes and to sheer accident.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Thinking again, growing up, and being ambivalent

No posts here recently, as my blogging time has been saturated by a couple of discussions over at The Blogging Parson:
  • "Missiological assumptions?", on what was actually going on when (many) churches shifted to informal services, and informality more generally; and

  • "In praise of difficult children", a response to an Adam Phillips piece in the London Review of Books on "truancy", self-betrayal, and self-understanding. (The link to Phillips' essay is here, but you'll need a subscription to read all of it.) If you think this sounds like something that earnest Christian types might have trouble assimilating, then of course you'd be right. The discussion has turned into a dialogue between myself and some others, in which I am I hope with some subtlety, but no doubt at far too great length, arguing that we should get with the program.
Anyone interested in these issues, or in my own related concerns, will find a great deal on them ad loc: the first discussion, on liturgy and more general church practice in this town, has generated a lot of heat; but also some light. A couple of excellent posts by Laurence (known to some readers of this blog) are a case in point.

I read The Blogging Parson very regularly, and participate in discussions there quite often, but remain (as previously mentioned) ambivalent about it. Michael has the gift of making initial posts that are both informed and provocative, and that generate real discussion; but some of that discussion is frankly dismaying. It's a partial answer to point to the grim nature of much online discussion generally, but only a partial answer.

Along related lines Michael is kind enough to hat-tip me for some rather slight help I gave him in thinking through an issue for an article in Southern Cross. I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, people read SC, and Michael is a reasonable man whose opinion I respect, so I'm happy that he is writing for it; on the other, I thoroughly disapprove of the magazine and think my friend is wasting his time or worse. But did I mention the part about me respecting his opinion?