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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, December 31, 2007

My Favourite TV: My So-Called Life

Telling the story of growing pains and teenage angst this was, in my opinion, one of the best TV shows of 1994/95. Told from the viewpoint of 15 year old Angela Chase played superbly by the then 15 year old Claire Danes the series moved through various interlocking storylines involving Angela, her friends, her first relationships and her family.

I’ve just finished watching this on DVD and was pleased to find that I still loved it after more than a ten year gap. Claire Danes gives I think her best ever performance as the somewhat dreamy outsider Angela. She makes the role her own and gives powerfully realistic performances on what seemed like a weekly basis. Amazingly only 19 episodes of this series were ever made leaving to story in mid air and mid plot – which actually in some ways added to its mystique. If you get a chance to see it, or if you remember it from its first showing, I’m sure that you will be as impressed as I was by the ability of the young actors in portraying teenage life in the modern world. I guess that this was one of the biggest selling points of the show – its realism. I certainly identified with more than one of the characters on more than one occasion.

Strangely I caught a music video recently as my brother channel hopped through the music channels. I thought that I recognised Jared Leto (Angela’s love interest) as lead singer of a band called 30 Seconds From Mars. I checked later on IMdb and found that it was indeed him. I thought he had a good voice from a song he did in the series.

Anyway, check it out if you can. It’s worth the time and effort.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Even More Good Quotes

Man is the religious animal. He is the only religious animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion -— several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat, if his theology isn't straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven. Mark Twain

My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others. Bertrand Russell, Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization? (1930)

On the surface, [holy scriptures] may appear to have been composed as conscientious history. In depth they reveal themselves to have been conceived as myths: poetic readings of the mysteries of life from a certain interested point of view. But to read a poem as a chronicle of fact is -- to say the least -- to miss the point. To say a little more, it is to prove oneself a dolt. Joseph Campbell

Friday, December 28, 2007

Just Finished Reading: A Meeting at Corvallis by S M Stirling
In the tenth year after the mysterious event known as The Change, which made all technology useless and precipitation the collapse of civilisation, the survivors are on the brink of war. Oregon is divided into competing enclaves reduced to versions of feudalism and the warlord of Portland has expansionist ideas. But standing in his way are the Bearkillers and the Mackenzie Clan. It’s only a question of where the hammer will fall and how long they can fight against the massed knights of the Portland Protective Society. Arrows will fly, armoured knights will charge and many will die before the war is over.

This is the third book in this series following Dies the Fire and The Protector’s War. Based on the awesomely ridiculous premise that human civilisation would totally disintegrate without present technology to support it and that billions would die in a matter of a few years and that the few survivors would descend into a feudal state it actually turns out to be a compellingly well told story. Despite its many faults (and I do mean many) I have actually found all three books so far – there’s a fourth out in hardback – difficult if not impossible to put down. I rampaged through the 622 pages in just under a week which is about twice my normal reading speed. To enjoy them though you really need an iron grip on your sense of disbelief, you just have to ignore the casual way the author disposed of 90%+ of the human population and you really have to ignore the very convenient coincidences littering the pages. Huge pinches of salt should be held ready to help you swallow the plot. Just put your brain in neutral and enjoy the ride. Its fun – just as long as you resist the need to actually think about the world Stirling has produced. I’m not sure that I shall be investing in the fourth book but I suspect that I’ll be dragged back to Oregon kicking and screaming when it comes out in paperback.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams

In the far future at least a thousand years after the destruction of the original Earth and the deaths of over 8 billion people human civilisation has reached a plateau of virtual perfection. Ruled by a small elite cadre of men an women who are the best – Atristoi – that humanity can produce life is good for the many billions of people scattered amongst several hundred star systems. But some of the Aristocracy believe that humanity is stagnating and so a conspiracy develops to find another path towards perfection – a conspiracy that requires the death of those sworn to protect civilisation itself.

This was a very interesting (and fairly fast) read. The book was brimming with ideas many of which had been used before but Williams managed to employ them in interesting nuanced ways that made them seem fresh. Virtual reality, nanotechnology, Tachyon communications, brain implants, genetic engineering and much else besides have become staples in SF but Williams used these as mere backdrops to the story itself. They were tools used by the characters to show both the technological superiority of their society and (at least in some ways) its cultural or moral superiority too.

But as with all utopias each Eden must have a serpent. The novel was basically an old tale of Good versus Evil, of Freedom versus Manipulation and of Virtue versus Vice (in this case Pride). It was a tale of political intrigue and political philosophy and had some very interesting ideas of how minds work which I will have to follow up at a later date as well as thoughts on posture and gesture which I will definitely have to research further.

The second half of the book – where the conspiracy was uncovered and the main characters thrown into jeopardy – was a little too blatant a critique of modern society generally lacking in subtlety. The end, when it came, I felt was too rushed and rather too contrived. However, even saying that, I found the book to be quite a page turner with good characterisation, a very visual ‘feel’ as well as much food for thought. Although not his best book in my opinion I did find it very entertaining and mentally stimulating. Recommended.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The last word on Parting

Every parting gives a foretaste of death - Schopenhauer

AC Grayling for The Guardian

Saturday May 25, 2002

Partings might be endings, or new beginnings; they might be too temporary for the sweet sorrow they are poetically identified with, or - as always in the case of a collapsed domestic arrangement where one party has not yet finished being in love - they might leave wounds that either take too long to heal, or never do.

The idea of a parting of the ways (in the literal sense of a fork in the road) offers the following conundrum. You come to the parting, and do not know which road to take in order to reach your destination. Two people are stationed there, and you know that one is consistently veracious, the other an invariable liar. You do not know which is which, yet you are allowed only one question. What do you ask?

No matter what the circumstances, to part from anything of value, whether people or things, places or occupations, is to forfeit something of oneself. It is as if the other entity had grown into one, sending a tentacle under the skin, suggesting the reason for describing oneself as attached to them. In a frozen food warehouse once I saw a workman leave the palm of his hand on the surface of a box; he had made the mistake of taking off his glove. In "Rondel de l'adieu" Edmond Haraucourt expresses the metaphorical version of this, associating it with the Schopenhauerian idea of thereby tasting a fraction of mortality, in a verse from which a well-known song takes a line: "To leave is to die a little;/ It is to die to what one loves;/ One leaves behind a little of oneself/At any hour, any place."

A test of Bruno Bettelheim's view that fairy tales offer children preparations for life - seeing parental death, or perhaps just adulthood, allegorised in Hansel's and Gretel's abandonment in a wood; and obviously, sexual awakening in the prince's buss on Sleeping Beauty's lips - would be to see how many of them concern partings. Both of these are about partings (from childhood, from innocence) and since every progression through life is a parting from what went before, they are a good augury that Bettelheim's thesis stands up. Such canticles of parting teach that to gain you have to give up, that to be alive is to change, and change involves the death of things so that they can become the past. Consider the tale of the Seven Ravens, who are brothers metamorphosed by a curse. Their sister leaves home to look for them, and cuts off a finger to serve as a key to unlock the door of the Glass Mountain where they live. In this tale a sequence of partings makes a homecoming - which no doubt all the best do.

André Gide was of the optimistic tendency that sees a fresh start in every parting, while a more sardonic Italian proverb has it that too many starts make for few endings. In fact, rather few partings are endings, despite the truth in the opening flourish above; when Ruskin wrote "God alone can finish", he was not being pious, but succinct: paintings, like poems, are never finished, only abandoned, so when the maker of them parts from them, it is not because they have come to an end, but because more than half of all art is knowing when to stop.

The answer to the conundrum of the forked road is: you ask one of the men (it does not matter which) to point out the road that the other man would say is your route. And then, since the pointed-out road will be the wrong one, you take the other road. For the liar will lie about which road the truth-teller would indicate, and the truth-teller will indicate the liar's choice; so both will point at the wrong road. This happily mimics life: the right road is usually clear to anyone who will give some thought to the puzzle of which, among so many wrong roads, is the right one, for truth and falsehood combine to give truth whenever ways reach a parting.


Friday, December 14, 2007

Enough religion.

Carol Sarler for The Times

September 13, 2007

Our attention was demanded yesterday by headline “news” that, thousands of miles away in Zimbabwe, Archbishop Pius Ncube has tendered his resignation to the Pope after rumours of sexual derrings-do – even though, in his case, his alleged partner was adult, female and consensual; hardly, therefore, an earth-shattering story except, possibly, to the small minority of Britons who are Roman Catholics. The previous day, we had been similarly commanded to turn our thoughts to the pros and cons of subjecting Muslim faith schools, beloved of an even smaller minority, to state control. Last week conservative religious leaders of all stripes were handed ample airtime to condemn embryo research; for three straight months we have been daily reminded, amid all else, of the beliefs of the family McCann.

It is a peculiar reversal of social logic that the decline in the practice of religion should be met with such a rise in reference to it. Consider: if as many as 6.3 per cent of the population attend church (hold tight; we’ll nit-pick the figures in a moment) and if it would be fair to say that easily half of those don’t give a fig whether the bloke in the robes at the front is gay or not – why is it that the remaining 97 per cent of unconcerned people are being relentlessly subjected to the quibbling about it? Of course, it might not be exactly 6.3 per cent; this happens to come from the religious think-tank Christian Research, but religion and statistics are notoriously awkward bedfellows. Census results have been criticised for the phrasing of the question “Which religion are you?”, which produced twice as many “Christians” as another survey found believers in God. The Catholic Church, enjoying something of a boost from Polish and other migrant workers, claims more than 900,000 Mass attendances per week – which sounds healthy until you ask how many of the devout go more than once a week.

Our Muslim population is 1.6 million, but considerably more than half of those are children, while the Jewish population is believed to be alone in undercalculating its size, given an understandable reluctance – especially among older Jews of Eastern European origin – to tick boxes marked “Jewish”. Nobody, however, sensibly denies the overall decline in religious practice. Even the top-up provided by ethnic minority immigration does not help; in London, black churchgoers now outnumber whites, but declining churches are still losing more people than growing churches are gaining. And yet, our pal from Mars, dropping by for his first visit in a generation, would be hard pressed to believe it. Last time he called, the British enjoyed a comfy relationship with their religions, whereby more people worshipped but far fewer mentioned it. Weeks would go by without religious reference in the media beyond Thought for the Day and Songs of Praise; these days, by contrast, it is routinely the stuff of front pages.

When I was a child, archbishops were kindly, benign coves, wheeled out on big occasions; they didn’t, by and large, jump into newsprint to tackle “issues” in the name of their cloth. Even half a generation ago, Ann Widdecombe’s sincerely held religious commitment, one which must have informed her work as a minister, was regarded as just part of an amiable eccentricity that elevated her to a national treasure; today, Ruth Kelly’s comparable commitment has become her defining characteristic. This is not to say that the tenets of religion have opened to greater debate: indeed, if only. Good manners today disallow the questioning of a man’s belief as sternly as they disallow jokes about it and to offend by either means may be, at least, a sacking offence or, at most, a matter of law. It has become a sine qua non of courteous interaction that those of us without a religious bone in our bodies must defer to those who have, and even determined antitheists are to hush our mouths lest we “cause offence” (in vain might we cry of the offence that we often feel).

The more liberal the person or the institution, the more likely it is that they accommodate the illiberal – as long as it comes in religious guise. Take, for instance, schools; all progressive schools worth their label will, these days, boast of their efforts to teach children about each other’s “cultures”. In fact, they lie. What they are teaching is each other’s religions. If they really meant culture, it would involve song, dance, art, literature, dress, drink and food; all we actually get, in most cases, are religious festivals – and if food gets mentioned, it is only to explain that the reason child X cannot eat the meal as enjoyed by child Y is because child X has a god who says he must not. It cannot be coincidence that this deference towards religion in general has paralleled the muddled, if well-meaning, response specifically to the growth of Islam. Muddled because of a confusion between ethnicity and religion; well-meaning because it was the same commendable urge to show respect for ethnicity that widened to insist upon respect for the religion that often came with it. And if endless news bulletins bowed to “From a Muslim point of view . . .”, it is hardly surprising that, in the name of all things equal, every other small minority possessed of a deity has demanded prominence too.

It does not, however, make it any less absurd. At the moment, there are in Britain more practising anglers than practising Anglicans – but it is unimaginable, is it not, that in an effort to give properly representative nods to similarly consuming passions we might afford the same attentions to the sexuality of a carp that we give to a priest’s? Nobody should seek to deny the right to worship. Whatever gets you through the night and all that. But a sense of proportion is running overdue; the interests of a minority are, by definition, a minority interest and deserve no more, if no less, consideration than any other. Certainly not out of fear of “causing offence”, when secular sense is there to remind us that nobody, ever, has the right not to be offended. God-given or otherwise.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Finally finished Reading: The Feast of All Saints by Anne Rice.

Taking place in pre-Civil War New Orleans this was a tale of brooding tragedy played out in the precarious world of the Free People of Colour. Often having been Free for generations these descendants of slaves have carved out rich lives for themselves but know in their hearts that everything they have is based on an illusion. This illusion, that they are in anyway equal in the eyes of the dominant white culture, hangs over even the wealthiest of families. When Marcel’s particular illusion is cruelly shattered on the death of his white father the lives of those around him are thrown into chaos, tragedy and death. In this society reality not only bites but demands its pound of flesh.

I’m not exactly sure why but it has taken me the best part of six weeks to read this book. Possibly it’s because it was so different to what I had expected from the author after enjoying her vampire novels so much. Possibly I’m going through one of my periodic ‘not fussed about reading’ phases. In any case I have finally come to the end of this 600+ page family saga. As you may have guessed from my previous reviews sagas aren’t really my thing. It’s true that I’ve been reading quite a bit of historical literature lately but not really this sort of tale. However, after spending so long with this particular book I can honestly say that I loved it. Almost from the very first page I fell in love with the rich use of language and was seduced into a world until recently I had no idea even existed.

I can’t remember ever reading such well constructed and amazingly believable characters as the ‘teenagers’ (not that such a concept existed at that time) Marcel, his sister Marie, Richard her future lover and Anna-Bella as well as the adults Christophe, Phillipe (Marcel’s white father) and Vincent. All were as real to me as people I see every day. When their situations spiralled out of control I could have wept tears in sympathy. I actually wanted them all to do well and hoped that Rice would allow them some hope of happiness. This book was so far out of my ‘comfort’ zone that I was rather surprised that I ended up liking it so much. Maybe I should ‘push the envelope’ more in future. It’s certainly turned out to be rewarding in this case. One of the best books I’ve read in ages. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Religion causes harm, says poll

By Richard Brooks for The Sunday Times

September 2, 2007

NEARLY half the British think that religion is harmful, according to a poll carried out by YouGov. Yet more than half also believe in God “or something”. The YouGov poll commissioned by John Humphrys, the broadcaster and writer, found that 42% of the 2,200 people taking part considered religion had a harmful effect.

“One reason might be the publicity attracted by a handful of mad mullahs and their hate-filled rhetoric,” writes Humphrys in his new book, In God We Doubt, an extract of which appears in today’s Sunday Times News Review. Only 16% of those polled called themselves atheists; 28% believed in God; 26% believed in “something” but were not sure what; and 9% regarded themselves as agnostics - like Humphrys himself, who had a religious upbringing in Wales but calls himself a “doubter”.

He writes: “Even though the dominant faith - by a massive margin – is Christianity, only 17% thought the influence of religion was beneficial. That is even fewer than those who claim that they believe in a personal God. And yet when we asked which of the main religions was ‘most effective’ in getting its message across, most thought it was Christianity. Only 10% cited Islam compared with 32% who said Christianity.” In the survey 43% said they never prayed, 31% hardly prayed, and 10% prayed every night. “More than half of those who say they believe in a personal God cannot be bothered to pray to him every night,” writes Humphrys.

[As with most of these polls what this one shows is that we’re confused by what we believe in. I know some people who believe in God – though their ideas of what God represents differ, I know some people who are dismissive of the whole idea and I know others who have a vague feeling that there “must be something else”. But I actually don’t think that religion crosses most people’s minds most of the time (at least in the UK). People might think about things at the usual big events in their lives – births, marriages and deaths – but beyond that? To most people on this side of the pond at least, religion is something they see enacted out in other countries for both good and evil – though usually for evil. I don’t honestly think its going to fade away anytime soon but I do hope (though I don’t pray) that it does happen sooner rather then later. The world, I think, will be a better place without it.]

Thursday, December 06, 2007

7 (fairly) Random Things about Me.

Karlo over @ Swerve Left has tagged me with this meme. Please visit his Blog site for lots of interesting left-leaning discussions surrounding events of the day.


1) I have never owned a car. This is hardly surprising seeing that I have never driven a car (more than a few hundred yards) nor leant how to drive. I quite like cars in a non petrol-head sort of way but I’m far from fascinated with them

2) I love cats but like dogs very much too. When I retire to the country I intend to get a big dog (or two) in the wolfhound – Great Dane size range.

3) I have been single for the majority of my adult life. It used to bother me a great deal but I’ve managed to learn to live with it (mostly). I am more than happy being by myself so don’t miss the company. Actually the thought of living with someone for years on end is close to my idea of hell. I don’t even miss the sex that much (mostly) but I do miss the level of intimacy you can have with a lover.

4) When I think about it enough I come to realise that my scepticism about the world has no real boundaries. This is not simply a philosophical pose to make me seem more windswept and interesting.

5) Italy is probably my favourite place in the entire world. The art, the architecture, the food and the women all take my breath away.

6) After 35 years of doing so I am convinced that I shall never tire of reading Science Fiction.

7) I really like the fact that I have grey hair and look forward to the day when it’s completely white.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Focus on values as churchgoers become scarcer and older

David Leask for The Scottish Herald

August 27 2007

Christians have never been scarcer - or older. There were fewer than 500,000 regular churchgoers in Scotland in 2005 and their average age was 47. In the last quarter of a century there has been a drop of nearly 70% in the number of children under 15 going to Sunday services. For the churches, the clear and unrelenting decline in Christian worship means we should have more religion in schools. For the secularists, it means we should have less.

Cue a debate, not just on how schools teach their only compulsory subject, RE, but on what, if any, prominence should be given to Christian values and doctrines in other classrooms. The Roman Catholic Church, now Scotland's biggest by attendance, believes the country's proposed new curriculum should stress the importance of common values such as compassion, mercy, integrity, tolerance and justice. Crucially, it also believes schools should stress the Christian origin of those values. It has produced a new school pack, Values for Life, which it hopes will spark a national conversation. Secularists are baffled by why values have to be Christian in an increasingly unchristian nation. Most of the values in the Catholic pack, they argue, long predate Christianity. The church, they say, has "no copyright" on goodness.

"Church attendance and religious belief for young people is very low and even Christian statisticians acknowledge that the precipitous decline of recent decades is set to continue," said Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society. "This explains the churches' anxiousness to increase their presence in schools, where pupils are a captive audience." John Haldane, professor of philosophy at St Andrew's University, welcomed the stress on values. "The conversation," he said, "is due and timely." Alternative versions of morality, he said, had failed to rival Christianity's "ennobling conception of the human condition".

[We should indeed be having a much more public and much more structured debate on morality in an increasingly Secular Europe. With the apparent terminal decline in religious observance in most European countries we need something to replace the ‘command morality’ so long imposed by the Church in its various incarnations. What that ‘something’ turns out to be will be up for a Secular society to decide. Let the debate begin.]