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Archive for January, 2010

We have had three separate ordinations this month — two men were ordained deacons and one a priest. It’s quite unusual for January.

One of the moments that always strikes people most powerfully is just after the prayer of ordination, when the new deacon or priest is clothed with his new vestments for the first time.

St Edmund in Pontificals

There is a natural human pride in seeing someone finally ‘make it’ to the end of a long journey (and the beginning of another one). But there is something deeper too: The recognition that the ‘office’ of being an ordained minister matters more than the gifts or personality of the individual, that the gift of ordination is much more than what the person deserves in his own right.

Father Dermot Power, a friend and colleague here at the seminary where I work, is often saying that part of the poverty of being a priest, the asceticism, is this anonymity. In quite a touching and telling way, most Catholics know that in a moment of crisis ‘any priest will do’ — as long as he can hear my confession, or come to the hospital at three o’clock in the morning, or celebrate the baptism of my child.

There is no disrespect or lack of love here, and Catholics have a huge well of affection for the priests that they know. It’s simply that the treasure of sacramental ordination is more important than the earthenware vessel that carries it. Or put another way, as von Balthasar said, priests are pygmies in giants’ clothing.

It’s very humbling, as a priest, to be reminded of the enormity of the gift of ordination, and to be reminded that the gifts we share as priests with others — especially the sacraments that we minister — are far beyond what we have to give through our natural abilities.

Of course this doesn’t mean that there is no dignity associated simply with being human, or with the grace of being a Christian. It simply highlights the particular grace that comes with ordination, for which we can all be grateful – whether ordained or not.

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How does your mind work? How do you approach problems? How do you organise ideas? Ben Macintyre summarises Isaiah Berlin’s suggestion that there are two kinds of thinkers: the hedgehog and the fox.

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Hedgehog writers, argued Berlin, see the world through the prism of a single overriding idea, whereas foxes dart hither and thither, gathering inspiration from the widest variety of experiences and sources. Marx, Nietzsche and Plato were hedgehogs; Aristotle, Shakespeare and Berlin himself were foxes.

Richard Serra: The Hedgehog and the Fox by p.joran.

Richard Serra: The Hedgehog and the Fox, sculpture at Princeton University

Macintyre argues that the internet has turned us all into foxes, darting around from one source to another, never really stopping to construct a ‘big idea’.

Today, feasting on the anarchic, ubiquitous, limitless and uncontrolled information cornucopia that is the web, we are all foxes. We browse and scavenge thoughts and influences, picking up what we want, discarding the rest, collecting, linking, hunting and gathering our information, social life and entertainment…

This way of thinking is a direct threat to ideology. Indeed, perhaps the ultimate expression of hedgehog-thinking is totalitarian and fundamentalist, which explains why the regimes in China and Iran are so terrified of the internet. The hedgehogs rightly fear the foxes.

For both better and worse, fox-thinking is dominant. At its worst, it means shorter attention spans, shallower memories, fragmented, unsustained argument, the undermining of intellectual property rights and a tendency to mistake anecdote for fact. At its best, the internet represents an intellectual revolution, fostering free collaboration as never before, with dramatically improved access to boundless information, the great store of the world’s knowledge just a few keystrokes and clicks away.

The nimble internet fox is both an extraordinary time-saver, nipping from one place to another on instant mind-journeys that would once have taken years. But he is also a prodigious time-waster, wandering down distracting avenues of celebrity gossip, pornography, invective and the minutiae of other peoples’ lives.

Reading the web usefully requires a new form of literacy, the ability to sift from the abundance of information what is helpful from what is pointless or merely distracting. Many feel overloaded by the onslaught of information: too many websites, too many messages, a deafening chorus of tweets and texts. Internet thinking is not just about browsing and gathering, but choosing and rejecting. The internet fox knows many things, but while hungrily snarfing up titbits from every corner, he must also know what is indigestible, what is nourishing and what is poisonous.

I’m only half-convinced by this. It’s true that an intellectual revolution has taken place. It’s true that we have to develop these skills of scanning, sifting and sorting. But the paradoxical effect of this information overload is that our core beliefs can remain unchallenged. The mind darts around the web but finds it much harder to settle down and engage deeply – as you have to do when you read a book or enter into a conversation. So the hedgehog that forms our identity can remain untouched. The infinite freedom of the internet makes it a place where it is very easy to reinforce one’s prejudices. Perhaps we are hedgehogs in foxes’ clothing.

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I have a new guru: David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. At first glance, it’s just another self-help/management book, with a lot of sane advice about keeping the desk tidy, looking at your diary at the beginning of the day, and putting in place some kind of reliable filing system. Some of his best tips are simple enough to put on a post-it note. How do you empty your in tray? ‘Do it, delegate it, defer it, or drop it.’

But there is an idea at the heart of Allen’s strategy that I have found enormously helpful and psychologically quite profound. Most of us feel anxious and stressed about the never-ending list of things we have to do. We think that this stress comes from having too much to do, and if only we could get through the list and finish all the jobs, we’d find that peace that we long for on the other side.

Allen takes a different view. He says that most people live within a great cloud of half-acknowledged and ill-defined responsibilities. There is all this ‘stuff’ (a technical term for Allen) that we want to do, or ought to do, or promised to do, or feel pressured into doing. We can’t deal with it all, so we push it to the back of our minds, where it festers. The anxiety and panic come when this stuff forces itself back into consciousness — either because of an internal prompt (a thought, a memory) or an external reminder (a phone call, the discovery of a handwritten note). And even then, when we are staring into these responsibilities, we are still paralysed, because we haven’t worked out how to take things forward, how to act – so we push them into the background again.

The secret, says Allen, is first to acknowledge all these hidden demands, to ‘collect’ them. And you do this by writing them down. Simple! The writing down and the keeping an unmissable note in front of you means that this ‘stuff’ is out of your mind and on the table. Immediately, you feel a bit less stressed and a bit more in control.

Then, you need to decide for each of these responsibilities, big or small, what is the next physical action that will allow you to move this forward just one step: making a phone call, going to the shop, sitting down to think, or whatever. So the stuff on the table in front of you is not just an amorphous cloud of open-ended responsibilities, it is a collection of manageable activities.

You haven’t actually done anything yet! But you know what needs doing, and you know how to begin doing it — one step at a time. And you feel a new peace about what you are not able to do, because you are forced to consciously put it on hold, or to make that hard decision about dropping it completely.

As I write this, it sounds a bit simplistic and a bit artificial. But I have felt a great sense of relief from working through his book. I’ve looked into this ‘cloud’ of things that need doing, and forced myself to make some realistic decisions about what steps I need to take to move them forward. And now, as Allen promised, I am feeling more energised and enthusiastic, not less, about getting things done. Because at heart I do actually enjoy doing things!

Buy the book. And remind me to post about this in two months to see if it has really made a lasting difference.

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I had a magical moment yesterday. I was at the British Museum with some friends. They were there to see the Egyptian mummies, but I was keen to visit the stone tools that have been selected as the first exhibits in a new Radio 4 series: “A history of the world in 100 objects”. [You can listen here].

I walked into the room, and a member of staff had some objects out on the table in front of her: A chopping tool, that would have been used to cut meat and smash bones to extract the marrow, and two handaxes. I assumed they were modern copies. But they were authentic — and we could touch them!

I need to stop myself using too many exclamation marks here. I held in my hand, the same hand that is typing this post, a chopping tool that was about 1.8 million years old, and a handaxe from about 1.2 million years ago — both found in the Olduvai gorge in Tanzania. What a staggering thought, that this object in my hand was crafted and used by some early hominid nearly two million years ago.

The shape of the chopping tool was almost identical to that of a computer mouse. It was long, curved and smooth on the top, to fit the palm of the hand; the bottom was rugged for smashing, but more or less flat; and there were even slight indentations on the two long edges where the the curve met the base (just like a mouse) so the thumb and fingers could get a grip.

Stonehenge HDR Panorama by V for Photography.

I’ve held a Roman coin before, and many years ago as a child (when the site was completely open to the public) I ran my hands along the side of one of the stones at Stonehenge — making that connection, taking me back a few thousand years. But this connection over so many hundreds of thousands of years was something of quite a different order, and I catch my breath just thinking about it.

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Sorry button by ntr23.

Saying sorry has become a political act. In this confessional age, the carefully timed apology, with just the right amount of emotion, can do wonders for a politician’s fortune. But there are deeper and more noble reasons too for a public act of apology on behalf of oneself or of others. James Crabtree documents this cultural development in his article “The Hardest Word“.

Contrition is a counter-intuitive approach to political renewal. Most politicians would more instinctively follow John Wayne’s dictum in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: “Never apologise, and never explain. It’s a sign of weakness.” Apologies are unmanly acts that cede ground to opponents: rule with conviction instead. Given Britain’s adversarial politics, it’s no coincidence that apologies haven’t been offered for many of our biggest mistakes—from appeasement, Suez, and the poll tax to the high-rise towers of the 1960s.

But such a brazen approach now looks old fashioned, not least judged by this year’s bumper crop of apologies. Already both party leaders have said sorry for expenses, while in early December David Cameron also apologised for inaccurately accusing the government of giving school funding to radical Islamists. Gordon Brown notably didn’t apologise to the Chilcott inquiry, but did to 130,000 British orphans deported to Australia between the 1920s and the 1960s. Elsewhere, bankers apologised for their bonuses, Jonathan Ross for lewd phone calls, and comedian Jimmy Carr for joking that the Afghan war would bequeath Britain a world-beating 2012 paralympic team.

Such things might seem commonplace, but they are part of a more profound shift towards a confessional politics. Where once apologies were largely about individual conduct, now they more often involve institutions, even nations. And while the act of apologising in politics has been on the rise throughout the 20th century, it was during the 1990s that the age of the political apology really took off. It was an era that actually began two decades earlier, on 7th December 1970, when West German leader Willy Brandt visited a monument commemorating the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising. Having laid a wreath, he paused, and suddenly knelt on the monument steps. “Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fail them,” he said later. This Warschauer kniefall, an apology without words, flashed round the world’s front pages. The gesture did more to encapsulate Germany’s remorse for Nazism than any official act before or since.

Following Brandt’s lead, both formal state apologies and publicly captured contrition by their leaders became increasingly common. In recent years, Canada and Australia apologised to their aboriginal populations, while the US, Finland, and Japan expressed regrets for the treatment of their indigenous peoples. Tony Blair apologised for the Irish potato famine and the slave trade, Jacques Chirac for the Dreyfus affair, and both Britain and Canada said sorry for shooting deserters. Truth commissions became fashionable. Pope John Paul II apologised for persecuting Galileo and for the crusades. In 2007 a Danish minister even seemed to mock the new practice when he apologised to the people of Ireland for the Vikings.

I’m sure the Vikings, in their turn, are also due an apology from someone.

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A young friend of mine got a Lego kit for Christmas, some spaceship from Star Wars that I vaguely recognised. I’d always thought that they make new pieces for each of these specially designed kits — they look so authentic. But when I expressed this thought around the dining table there were gasps of incredulity.

Let's play Lego Star Wars by Stéfan.

The challenge, apparently, is for the Lego engineers to create a new design without using any new pieces, just by sticking to the back catalogue. This is the heart of the Lego philosophy: To build something amazing from the tools at hand. There is a purity about this. And I began to notice how the hyperspace thrusters (or whatever they are called) looked remarkably like wheel rims; and the probes or guns on the side of the spaceship looked like gear sticks…

This is an example of how a limitation can be a factor in releasing creativity. The rules of a game, the grammar of a language, the size of a canvas, one’s commitment to a relationship — these constraints are often the very conditions that allow the human intellect and imagination to soar.

But of course there are exceptions! And when you hit a brick wall you sometimes need to change the rules. It turns out, I was told, that you can produce a new Lego brick, if there is simply no other solution. This decision falls to a high-priesthood of Lego elders, meeting in committee, who make such a solemn judgment only out of absolute necessity – fully aware that it risks shaking the foundations of the Lego ecosystem.

[While we are on Lego, see this page of "20 Incredible LEGO Artworks by Nathan Sawaya".]

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So what if everyone, everywhere, knows everything about you? What’s the big deal? You’re still you – only now you’re you for everyone else too…

Richard Woods writes about privacy in the digital age. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive of Facebook, has declared (in effect) that privacy is dead: “People have gotten really comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.” He described such lack of privacy as a “social norm”. This comes at the same time as Google is trying to defend its reputation for guarding people’s privacy by pulling away from the tentacles of Chinese hackers.

Yes, it’s an age thing, but there are interviews in the article with people in their teens and 20s who are still wary about what they put online and keen to preserve the distinction between what is private and what is public.

Defining minimum privacy by HORIZON.

I learnt about two new concepts here. ‘Blippy’ is a website that allows everyone to know when, where and how you have spent every penny in your pocket.

Let’s pick a person pretty much at random: Dan Braden of Austin, Texas. I do not know Braden at all, but I can tell you that in the past few days he has spent $373.46 on Louis Vuitton goods, $162.47 at a local grocery store, $20 at a fitness centre and $3.23 on iTunes. He is also a regular at Starbucks, went to a Maudie’s Tex-Mex restaurant last week and spent $717.10 on new tyres.

Is someone spying on Braden or hacking into his bank account? Nope. Instead, he has signed up to Blippy, a new website that puts online every purchase users make with a designated credit card. He is happy to publicise where he goes and what he buys. No privacy worries for him.

If the truth about who you are as a person is revealed above all by what you search for and what you buy (and I think there is much truth in this), then Blippy must be the way forward for those who want to reveal all.

The second concept I came across was that of the ‘spider programme’:

Even if you do try to restrict your profile, the data that remains public can still give away a lot about you. Facebook, for example, has no privacy restrictions on your name, photograph, list of friends and certain other material.

By analysing such data, “spider” programs can draw up social graphs that reveal your sexuality, political beliefs and other characteristics. According to Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, it can be done even if you list as few as eight friends.

So even if you don’t put all your digital pieces together into a tidy personal profile — it’s consoling/terrifying (take your pick) to know that someone else is kindly doing it for you.

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