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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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When I was thinking about starting this blog, I wanted to call it Borderlands and Bridges. I’d just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s Borderlands trilogy – which had blown me away. I liked the image of the threshold – a place between other places. Not just somewhere you pass through, or pass over, but a place where unexpected things happen; where you get lost or even trapped; where worlds collide; where your identity is in question. In the end, the blog title was simply too long for a manageable web-address, so I went off at a tangent instead…

There was an experience of the ‘borderland’ this week in central London. The relics of St Thérèse were in Westminster Cathedral for four days. It was an extraordinary experience for all those who came – many with a deep faith hoping that it would be renewed, some hardly knowing why they were there. But what made it so interesting was the threshold between the religious space of the Cathedral and the secular space of the city.

Westminster Cathedral by Reigh LeBlanc.

The queuing took place in the piazza in front of the Cathedral. Thousands of people winding their way patiently through the labyrinth of metal barriers. A huge screen broadcasting the services from inside. A fish and chips kiosk set up on the street by the Cathedral authorities. McDonalds on one corner. Clarke’s shoe shop on the other. And many more thousands of people passing along Victoria Street – shopping, working, drifting – wondering what it was all about.

It wasn’t just the carnival atmosphere (which is felt at any street party or sporting event). It was the fact that this witness of faith flowed out from the confines of the religious building into the streets, and this allowed people to wonder, to show a natural human interest, and even to ask deeper questions about life that might not come to the surface otherwise. The public expression of faith in the piazza gave people permission to reflect on the place of faith in their lives – not just the committed and the devout, but those who were full of doubts or simply passing by.

Not everyone wants to visit relics or stand around in Victoria Street for two hours. But there is a public aspect to Christian faith that was expressed here in a particularly powerful way. Catholics were happy to show that they were Catholics, to talk about what was important to them. Not in a showy or arrogant way, but in a way that was simple, natural, honest, uninhibited.

It doesn’t mean that Christianity wants to impose itself on a pluralistic culture. But it hopes to have a place in that culture. Why? Above all, so that the culture is set free to discover human and spiritual depths that might otherwise be forgotten.

[To get a glimpse of what has been happening with the tour of the relics over the last five weeks see the excellent official blog of the visit.]

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Pushy parents magazine by paulmorriss.

Marianne Kavanagh writes about the perils of modern parenting, and the particular pressure there is on parents today to obsess about whether they are making the correct choices as they bring their children up. The art of muddling through has been replaced by the science of seeking perfection.

Should you let your eight year-old out to play, risking abduction and getting run over, or should you keep him safely at home and worry instead about square eyes and obesity? Should you rush your daughter from violin to ballet, exposing her to a wealth of opportunity, or should you stop being so pushy and let her daydream?

Breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, staying at home versus going out to work – there’s argument and counter-argument and a feeling that you’re going around in circles. “The only thing you know for certain,” says one mother gloomily, “is that whatever you’re doing is wrong.”

There is a wonderful photo with the original article [not the photo now on the Telegraph web article] of an innocent toddler crouching beside a huge pile of parenting books. She is reaching for a book entitled What every parent needs to know, with the suggestion that she wants to invert the roles and educate her parents in the knowledge they need to bring her up well. But the real message is that she is about to be crushed under the weight of books when the tottering pile falls over. 

Where has all this anxiety come from? “I always clean the lavatory before the health visitor comes,” says my friend Jane, “in case she thinks we’re slovenly.” We compare ourselves to other parents and find ourselves wanting. We see pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and really, really hope that they too feed their children rubbish food. We panic in case our actions harm our children for life – “I hate football,” says the father of three small boys, “but I have to pretend I like it in case I’m being a pathetic role model” – and spend all our time worrying about additives, knife crime and omega 3. As Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the university of Kent, points out in his book Paranoid Parenting (Continuum, £10.99), we seem to have lost our nerve completely.

Maybe it is a big, bad world out there. But you have to wonder why our anxiety has reached such mammoth proportions. Perhaps it’s because we tend to have our children later in life these days – since 2004, women in Britain have been more likely to have babies in their thirties than their twenties – and so treat child-rearing like a job, with targets, multiskilling and 360-degree reviews. Or perhaps, with the pressure for both parents to work long hours, we’ve lost the art of muddling through. You could argue, after all, that routinely spending all your waking hours with a three year-old induces the kind of benign boredom that knocks anxiety on the head. Others believe that our growing insecurity comes from isolation. Few of us these days have aunts, cousins and grandmothers living nearby.

It doesn’t mean all the advice is unwelcome or unhelpful. I know parents who have found real wisdom in some of these books. But it makes you wish that all parents had the human support of friends and family to say to them: “You are doing OK! More than that – what you are doing is amazing!”

I remember a talk when I was studying at seminary about all the psychological problems that you can inherit from your parents. But at the end the speaker said: “But don’t worry. Most of our parents did good enough. And good enough is pretty good”.

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I’ve just finished the novel Home by Marilynne Robinson. It’s about the simplest of relationships – being a son, a daughter, a father – and all the heartbreaking complexities that arise within them. It’s about not understanding someone, and still loving them. It’s about not understanding oneself.

I nearly gave up halfway. The atmosphere of sadness almost overwhelmed me. And it’s so slow, clocking the hours as Jack Boughton tries to connect with his family after a twenty year absence. But this is the point. That in the monotony of domestic life, as people circle round each other – wary, uncertain – the small moments of tenderness and self-revelation are startling.

Grace is almost tangible. A natural grace that dignifies even those human hearts that seem most broken. And by the end, without any tidy resolutions, it makes you believe that hope is possible even when there is no sense of how that hope might be fulfilled.

I can’t recommend this novel, together with Robinson’s Gilead, highly enough.

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Chinese mosque by ninjawil.

Two out of three Muslims are Asian, reports Peter Beaumont (witness the Chinese mosque above). A new survey – Mapping the Global Muslim Population - reminds us that Islam is not to be identified with the Arab world, and the Arab world is not to be identified with Islam. Fifty demographers and social scientists have analysed thousands of sources and given the most accurate picture to date of Islam’s global distribution.

The world’s Muslim population stands at 1.57 billion, meaning that nearly one in four people practise Islam, according to the US Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which published the survey. This compares to 2.25 billion Christians.

The top five Muslim countries in the world include only one in the Middle East ‑ Egypt ‑ behind Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, in that order. Russia, the survey shows, has more Muslims than the populations of Libya and Jordan combined. Germany has more Muslims than Lebanon. China has a bigger Muslim population than Syria…

Brian Grim, one of the researchers, said: “We started on this work because the estimates for the number of the world’s Muslims ranged so widely, from 1 billion to 1.8 billion. For people who do this kind of work, perhaps the figures are not surprising but there are a lot of highly educated people who do not know that one in four are Muslim.”

A similar survey is planned by the Pew Forum on the distribution of Christians.

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You wire yourself up. You switch the computer on. You lie back in your leather recliner. And then your ‘surrogate’ steps out of the closet and steps into the world. This is a sophisticated robot that looks and sounds like you – without the wrinkles. Everything the surrogate experiences you also experience. Everything you choose to ‘do’ in your own mind is actually done through the surrogate in the real world. You have all of the experience without any of the risks: no disease, no knife crime, no car crashes; or rather, when the crashes happen you just get another surrogate.

tin robot by Dirty Bunny.

This is the premise of the latest Bruce Willis film Surrogates, which is far more entertaining and intriguing than most reviews let on. The special effects are unimpressive; the production values are not very high; the acting is almost non-existent. But it’s a very tightly constructed plot that keeps you thinking through every scene; and the twist at the end brings a kind of epiphany about what it is to be human that moved me far more than I expected.

The idea of living through a surrogate is a clever one. We hear so much today about the attractions and dangers of living in a ‘virtual’ world – when we ‘leave’ our physical environment and get lost in a digital reality that seems quite divorced from the real world. But this film is about something more subtle: living ‘virtually’ in the real world.

Of course we do this all the time. We show a certain face, we project a certain image. We choose our clothes, our hairstyle, the frames for our glasses. We walk and talk in a certain way. I choose a title and a banner photo for my blog! These are all good things. And we would be naive to think that people become more truly themselves if they are simply stripped of the external expressions of their personality. The very word ‘person’ means ‘mask’ in Greek – as if our innermost being is inseparable from the outward expressions of who we are.

Mask by liber.

But there is always the question of how much this mask helps someone to know me, and how much it hides me; whether it allows authenticity or stifles it. Bruce Willis faces a crisis when he realises that he and his wife are only capable of communicating with each other through their surrogates (I won’t give any more plot away…). I don’t think we should just abandon all the social habits we have adopted over the years – it’s these concrete aspects of culture that make us human. But it would be good to ask more often what is really helping us to communicate with others, and what is getting in the way.

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New Security Measures by andreaweckerle.Every week or two in London you come across a band of bright young things in matching T-shirts, usually clustered round a van or a portable kiosk, giving out freebies. I tend to arc around them full of suspicion, wondering what the catch is. Do I have to sign something? Or take part in a poll? It’s usually a health bar or an energy drink. My most recent catch (I think it was at Victoria Station) was a mini-deodorant. This was one of the few times I’ve hovered around innocently in order to get a second gift – I was so delighted to get my hands on a spray-can small enough to take through airport security in the hand-luggage.

Free gifts. With no strings attached.

I went to a talk about the sacraments yesterday by Dr Clare Watkins, and halfway through she spent five minutes going through a Latin dictionary. Pretty boring, you might think. The reason, however, was to show that in Latin there is a single word, munus, that can mean both “gift/present” and “responsibility/duty”. One word; both meanings. She went on to explain that every gift we receive brings with it a call to responsibility. She said we should reflect more on the gifts that God has given us, and the gifts that others share with us, and see whether we are aware of the huge responsibilities that go with them.

I don’t think this means, in a cynical way, that every gift is really a bribe in disguise. Not at all. And in fact the duty to respond in some way, to appreciate and honour the gift in some way, is not about paying something back to the one who gave it. When a gift is freely given, out of a pure love and an unfeigned generosity – it’s exactly then that we realise how unworthy we are to receive anything at all, and how privileged we are to be able to put that gift at the service of others.

Free Hugs by an untrained eye.

This is even more true when the gift is the gift of oneself – when I give myself to another in friendship or love, in marriage or family life. Then, if the gift is freely given (“without reservation” as the marriage vows go), the sense of responsibility is of another order. It’s not about obligation or paying back a debt; it’s the sheer wonder of standing before another human being, unguarded, knowing that they have given their own heart, and the desire to care for them as much as one cares for oneself.

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A new generation of lie detectors is being developed (see Prospect, Oct 09, Lie Detection by Ian Leslie, p66). Remember the scene in Meet the Parents when Robert De Niro wires up his future son-in-law in the basement and interrogates him. This was the old-fashioned polygraph, which works by monitoring stress levels – blood pressure, heart-rate, etc.

wewilltestyourlies by sugarfreak.

The new models work by scanning the brain. When we tell a lie, even if we keep the stress levels down, an extra burst of mental energy is required. This energy is released in the areas of the brain responsible for reasoning and self-control. So if the scanner suddenly spots us thinking hard and carefully as we answer a progression of simple yes or no questions, then we are probably lying.

It could be bunkum. Many neuroscientists question its effectiveness. And a woman in India who was convicted of murder on the basis of evidence from such a lie detection test had her case overturned because there was no material evidence connecting her to the crime.

Supreme Two by YaniG.Why is the thought of an infallible lie detector so unsettling? It’s not because we are all inveterate liars terrified of being exposed. It’s because it makes us appreciate that the truth of another person is not just something that can be ripped out of them and put on display for all to see. Knowledge, when it has to do with another human being, can’t be separated from a relationship.

In ordinary friendships, it is the journey of coming to know someone that is more important than the actual knowledge we come to possess. As I heard in a recent film, the words ‘I’ve never told anyone that before’ are even more important than what was actually told. 

We let someone in gradually. We choose how much to share, and when to share it; and this depends on how much we trust someone, and how much they trust us, and how far along the road we have come together. It’s not that anyone has a right to lie. But we do all have a right to disclose ourselves gradually, on our own terms. Discretion and reticence are the background virtues that allow intimacy and friendship to have any meaning.

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