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Archive for October, 2009

You have probably seen plenty of ‘word-clouds’ before. But just in case you haven’t yet discovered the addictive Wordle website, here it is: http://www.wordle.net/  You go to the ‘create’ page, paste some text into the box, and out comes your own cloud. The programme analyses your text, counts the number of times you use any word, takes out the ordinary words that everyone uses (‘the’, ‘and’, ‘but’, etc.), and then makes the size of the word in the cloud dependent on the number of times you have used it relative to the other words. So you can see in a flash what thoughts are coming up again and again, what ideas obsess you, and what verbal ticks you have picked up.

I’ve been blogging for just over two months now, so I copied the text from all my posts into Wordle (15,881 words so far!), and this is what came out. I’m not sure what to make of my own thoughts:

Untitled-1 copy from http://www.wordle.net/

It’s a poor person’s form of psychoanalysis: You just speak, or write, and the computer tells you what is really in your heart – or at least what buzzes around in your head. Or you could just be lying…

You can then spend hours pressing the ‘randomize’ button, which gives you a new cloud with the same words:

Untitled-2

Or you can manually adjust the settings and choose your own font, colours, alignment, etc.:

Untitled-3 copy by http://www.wordle.net/

Try it yourself – with those poems you wrote as a teenager, with that half-finished novel under your bed, or simply with the last few emails you have sent. You can also paste in a web address and have it analyse the text on that webpage.

Hours of fun, and wasted time, together with a tiny gain in self-knowledge.

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General Electric Color TV, 1960's by Roadsidepictures.The debate continues about whether allowing young children to watch TV harms their cognitive development or not. It flared up a couple of weeks ago when a report commissioned by the Australian government recommended that children under 2 should be banned from watching TV and electronic media such as computer games. So this is about freedom, censorship, the relationship between the personal and the political, the nanny state, etc., as much as it is about child development.

An article by Patrick Barkham looks at some of the scientific and political issues involved. At the centre of everything is the extraordinary way in which the human brain develops. (I prefer the word ‘mind’ to ‘brain’, because ‘mind’ allows us to appreciate that our cognitive relationship with the world is dependent on much more than the neurological condition of the brain. But the brain certainly plays its part.) Barkham reports the findings of Dr Michael Rich, director of the influential Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital:

Humans have the most sophisticated brain on the planet because it is relatively unformed when we are born. Our brains triple in volume in the first 24 months. We build our brains ourselves, by responding to the environment around us. The biggest part of this is a process called pruning, says Rich, whereby we learn what is significant – our mother’s voice, for instance – and what is not. “TV killing off neurons and the synaptic connections that are made in order to discriminate signals from ‘noise’,” he says.

Experts in child development have found that three things optimise brain development: face-to-face interaction with parents or carers; learning to interact with or manipulate the physical world; and creative problem-solving play. Electronic screens do not provide any of this. At the most basic level, then, time spent watching TV has a displacement effect and stops children spending time on other, more valuable brain-building activities.

Scientists concede that they do not yet know precisely how TV affects the cognitive development, not just in terms of understanding the inner workings of the brain but because the way we use television and other electronic screens is changing so rapidly that we do not know how it will affect people by the time their brains stop developing in their mid-20s. But the weight of evidence about the deleterious impact of TV on child’s ability to learn is alarming…

A more recent article by Helen Rumbelow steps back and looks at the way theories of child development have changed over the last couple of generations. The 1990s was the decade in which we discovered the importance of the first 24 months, and the idea that the right stimulation could boost your child’s chances. This led to playing Mozart to the child in the womb, flashcards as soon as they popped out, and Baby Einstein videos when they could sit up. Now the tide has turned.

Waching too much TV is bad for your eyes by | spoon |.

I’m not taking sides here – I don’t know enough, and I don’t have children, and I’ve seen plenty of happy and healthy children grow up with a bit of TV. But for all those anxious parents tortured with guilt and uncertainty, Rumbelow provides some consolation with a quote from Dr Martin Ward-Platt. The evidence, he says, is still too equivocal:

 The farther you get away from deprived populations, the less TV gets watched, and the more parental controls there are, so it is hard to disentangle this stuff.

Of course, the thing that really makes the difference for a baby is interaction with a caregiver and there is nothing we can invent as a people substitute. But if a child watches some TV and is exposed to people for the rest of the time, they will do fine. What we don’t know is where the limit is, where you start to hold children back.

If there is no strong evidence either way, we think it’s much better to say we don’t know, and what’s right for you is probably the best thing for your family.

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Writing is hard – for most of us. I remember reading a biography of the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Whenever he went on holiday he would take a huge pile of books with him to review. Most days he would get through one of these substantial works and dash off an article of two or three thousand words without notes or pause for thought.

Writing words.. by _StaR_DusT_.

At the other end of the scale is Don DeLillo, one of my favourite novelists. He is so meticulous in the process of writing that he gives every paragraph its own sheet of paper, as if to say: You are important; I’m going to take you seriously; I’m going to give you space to breathe. I’ve always wanted to try it…

I mention all this because I’ve just come across Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘Ten Commandments of Good Writing’, a summary of some of the advice the renowned historian would give to his young students to foster their clarity of expression. I’m not sure if it is in copyright or not – the printed copy I have says that it had formerly been circulated only in samizdat. You can see the whole version online here. Here are the first four commandments – and the ones I need to remember most often:

(1) Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it, and shalt not digress nor deviate from it without the knowledge and consent of the reader, whom at all times thou shalt lead at a pace which he can follow and by a route which is made clear to him as he goeth.

(2) Thou shalt respect the autonomy of the paragraph, as commanded by the authority and example of the prophet Edward Gibbon, for it is the essential unit in the chain of argument. Therefore thou shalt keep it pure and self-contained, each paragraph having within it a single central point to which all other observations in it shall be exactly subordinated by the proper use of the particles and inflections given to us for this purpose.

(3) Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinated, remembering the words of the prophet commandant Black, “clarté prime, longueur secondaire.” To this end thou shalt strive that no sentence be syntactically capable of any unintended meaning, and that no reader be obliged to read any sentence twice to be sure of its true meaning. To this end also thou shalt not fear to repeat thyself, if clarity require it, nor to state facts which thou thinkest as well known to others as to thyself, for it is better to remind the learned than to leave the unlearned in perplexity.

(4) Thou shalt keep the structure of thy sentences clear, preferring short sentences to long and simple structures to complex, lest the reader lose his way in a labyrinth of subordinate clauses; and, in particular, thou shalt not enclose one relative clause in another, for this both betrays crudity of expression and is a fertile source of ambiguity.

And the last one can’t be left out:

(10) Thou shalt carefully expunge from thy writing all consciously written purple passages, lest they rise up to shame thee in thine old age.

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Internet Forever - Back Cover by hotdiggitydogs.

This coming week, the internet turns 40. On 29th October 1969 Leonard Kleinrock and some colleagues crowded round a computer terminal somewhere in California and logged into another one several hundred miles away. It was the particular type of remote connection that proved significant. It was only partially successful. The system crashed two letters into the first word – which was meant to be ‘LOGIN'; and so the first utterance sent across the net was the biblical ‘Lo…’

To choose a moment like this is somewhat arbitrary. There are many other technological shifts of huge significance that could be noted. But this is the one Oliver Burkeman opts for in his fascinating article about the history and implications of the internet. Arpanet, as this first system was called, was funded by US government money that had been released by Eisenhower in the panic after Sputnik. So it was, indirectly, a result of the space race.

Burkeman takes us through the first academic net, early email, the world wide web, search, the generativity of Web 2.0, and then speculates about where it will be in 4 years. He doesn’t dare to go further than that time frame, because change (not just growth) has been exponential, and you would be a fool to imagine you could see much further. It’s fun to reminisce, but it provokes deeper thoughts about how radically the world has changed, together with our ideas about knowledge, community, the self etc…

WiFi + 17mpbs Internet by Don Solo.

One nice quotation is from a science fiction story by Murray Leinster, written in 1946. Everyone has a tabletop box called a ‘logic’  that links them to the rest of the world. Look at how prescient it is:

You got a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it’s got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get . . . you punch ‘Sally Hancock’s Phone’ an’ the screen blinks an’ sputters an’ you’re hooked up with the logic in her house an’ if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast [or] who was mistress of the White House durin’ Garfield’s administration . . . that comes on the screen too. The relays in the tank do it. The tank is a big buildin’ full of all the facts in creation . . . hooked in with all the other tanks all over the country . . . The only thing it won’t do is tell you exactly what your wife meant when she said, ‘Oh, you think so, do you?’ in that peculiar kinda voice.

Another article by Tom Meltzer and Sarah Phillips gives a nostalgia trip through various internet firsts: first browser, smiley, search engine, item sold on eBay, youtube video etc. My favourite entry is the well-known first webcam, which was primed on a coffee machine in Cambridge University’s computer lab so that people at the end of the corridor could get live updates on whether it was worth making the journey away from the desk or not.

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I didn’t know much about Michael Oakeshott before reading this short piece by Timothy Fuller. The subject is conservatism with a small ‘c’, and its influence on politics, lawmaking, social theory, etc. 

He thought that to be of a conservative disposition was to enjoy the possibilities of the present moment without excessive anxiety for what we had been or what we imagined we were going to be. He thought that maturity meant to live in the present, neither in a state of guilt nor of heroic aspiration. Heroic aspiration he thought was proper to the individual striking out on his own to seek his fortune, but was not an attitude for governments to impose on the polity as a whole. 

We should, he said, “attend to” the arrangements that had brought us together by chance or choice. Living in the present did not mean to him living self-indulgently, but rather living to the highest possible degree without the distraction of an endlessly regretted past or a wished-for but illusory future liberation from all our problems. He understood that many of our “problems” were recurrent predicaments that we had to manage but from which there would be no permanent liberation.

It can sound complacent. But in this way of thinking, the conservative disposition is to affirm the values and traditions that have guided a concrete society, instead of trying to re-build a society on the foundation of abstract ideals. It doesn’t mean that everything from the past is necessarily good and beyond questioning. Nor does it mean that new ideals are incapable of provoking radical transformations. It just means that the instinct, the default position, is to trust first in that framework of habits and institutions and values that have made a particular way of life possible – however imperfect. And then to wonder how these could be built upon. This might sound dull; it’s certainly pragmatic. But it’s not without ideals – it just requires that these ideals are rooted in contemporary realities. You could say that they have to grow ‘organically’ out of the present.

Revolution by Blakes Seven.

Oakeshott’s conservatism is a fear that revolution, or even an apparently purifying return to the sources, might do more harm than good. It’s a suspicion of ideology, encapsulated in the adage ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’. This connects with contemporary discussions in theology about the importance of preserving a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ whenever you are assessing a doctrinal or liturgical development.

I’ve no idea whether I agree with Oakeshott’s philosophy – I need to read some of his own writings! But I do believe, to put it in a slightly different way, that any worthwhile reform needs to be accompanied by some sense of gratitude for who you are and what you have received from the tradition to which you belong.

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Do the ideas of ‘solitude’ and ‘silence’ have any meaning for those of us who live in the madness of the city, who are haunted by the endless demands of modern life? 

genèse, errance et solitude de la consommation by TisseurDeToile -[*].

I’m just back from a talk about Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the foundress of Madonna House, and the woman who introduced the concept of ‘poustinia’ to the West. Here is just one paragraph from a wonderful website about her life and works:

In response to the deepening dilemmas of the Western world, Catherine offered the spirituality of her Russian past. She introduced the concept of poustinia, which was totally unknown in the West in the 1960’s, but has since become recognized in much of the world. Poustinia is the Russian word for “desert,” which in its spiritual context is a place where a person meets God through solitude, prayer and fasting. Catherine’s vision and practical way of living the Gospel in ordinary life became recognized as a remedy to the depersonalizing effects of modern technology. In response to the rampant individualism of our century, she called Madonna House to sobornost, a Russian word meaning deep unity of heart and mind in the Holy Trinity—a unity beyond purely human capacity.

And here are her own words from the seminal book Poustinia, Chapter XV: “The Poustinia of the Heart”:

Well, we have arrived at the end of this book on the poustinia. I myself have always been attracted to the silence and solitude of God. When it became obvious that my vocation was not to be physical silence and solitude, when I was thrown into the noisiest marketplaces in the world, God showed me how to live out the poustinia ideal. The heart of it is that the poustinia is not a place at all—and yet it is. It is a state, a vocation, belonging to all Christians by baptism. It is the vocation to be a contemplative.

The essence of the poustinia is that it is a place within oneself, a result of baptism, where each of us contemplates the Trinity. Within my heart, within me, I am constantly in the presence of God. The poustinia is this inner solitude, this inner immersion in the silence of God.

“This is the poustinia I have been trying to talk about. This is the poustinia I so passionately want to give to everyone. I know that in the poustinia lies the answer that the world is seeking today. If we lived in the poustinia of our hearts then love would enter the world through us. We could speak God’s word to the world. It is the poustinia of the heart that I believe is the answer for the modern world.

Chinese Hut by Falconne007.

And finally, the distillation of the Gospel that Catherine put together in her ‘Little Mandate’, which forms the heart of the spirituality of Madonna House today:

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.

Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.

Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.

Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.

Love… love… love, never counting the cost.

Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.

Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.

Pray always. I will be your rest.

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I don’t like the concrete worms and the piles of pigment, but it’s worth paying the entrance fee at the Royal Academy just to see four of the installations at the Anish Kapoor exhibition.

Madness: A huge, fetishistic cannon, like something out of a Terry Gilliam film, fires twenty pound shells of red wax across an exhibition space into the next room. The wax gloops down the wall and creates its own work of art below. The crowd waits in anticipation for the next explosion – the hiss of compressed air reminds us of roadworks and operating theatres. Then the bang; the brief moment of after-silence; and the gasps and giggles and conversations. It is just great, mad fun. It feels slightly anarchic, teenage. Then you realise that the antique-looking door-frame through which the pellets fly is a false one put in to protect the real one behind; they couldn’t take the risk of blowing up the real Royal Academy. The disappointment and the simultaneous delight in discovering that it is all a sham. The same as realising that Doris Salcedo’s crack in Tate Modern’s concrete floor was really a construction in an artificial platform.

Anish Kapoor by gerard@neogejo.

Magic: A mirror – nothing more. 20 feet long, 8 feet high, slightly curved. But curved so cleverly, and polished so lovingly. If you stand 12 feet away, you are upside down; but you can see all those at 8 feet, who are the right way up. Walk closer, and you invert. If you stand 20 feet away, and look at someone just 3 feet from the surface, their face is so large and clear you feel you could reach out and touch it. Every shift in posture or position brings a new image, a new perspective. Everyone is looking at everyone else, without self-consciousness. Smiling. Frowning. Shuffling along to get the effect, even dancing. Where else do you dance with strangers in the clear light of day?

Mysticism: A wall, hollowed out and painted yellow – nothing more. But the precise curves and pigments, and the lack of definition, make it impossible to focus on anything properly. It’s not just the uncertainty of whether it is concave or convex. It’s the fact that you seem to be looking, at one and the same time, into a place of infinite distance, and into a presence that is just before your eyes, even a part of you. It suggests the mystery of knowledge, of what it is to know anything – which brings into your own experience what is really apart from you. It hints at a deeper mystery, a mysticism, of how something or someone Absolutely Other can remain other and still approach us in our physicality, our humanity.

Anish Kapoor by huhuguy.Something of all three: And the showpiece and central folly manages to combine some madness, some magic, and also something of the mystical. A vast block of red wax, thirty tonnes, the size of a railway carriage, moves almost imperceptibly along a track laid across five rooms; gets to the end; and then turns around. Of course it’s mad. There is a lot of magic too. Not just in the questions raised (how does it move? is anyone controlling it? will it collapse?), but also in the visual experience of trying to track the movement of an object that seems not to be moving – like the Millennium Wheel. The mysticism took me by surprise – and it was in the attitude of others rather than my own personal response. As the wax got near the final room, scores of people were there waiting. The innocent excitement of the hall of mirrors had disappeared, and there was a solemnity in the air. It was like waiting for a God to arrive. A sense of religious awe – even homage. As if we were investing an event with meaning even though we had no understanding of what it meant. Fascinating and disconcerting.

Yes, you should go and see the exhibition. And if you don’t want to pay just go for the reflective spheres in the courtyard.

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