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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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An example from Valladolid - not from this exhibition

I finally got to visit “The Sacred Made Real” today — the exhibition of 17th century religious painting and sculpture from Spain at the National Gallery. There are some beautiful pieces. My favourites were a little statue of St Francis in ecstasy, looking as if he had just stepped out of Lilliput; a bust of the sorrowful Virgin, whose grief seemed to express the grief of the whole world; and a dramatic statue of St Mary Magdalene gazing at a crucifix that could have been made by the contemporary artist Ron Mueck.

Magdalena by Another VLL.

St Mary Magdalene - 17th century (Pedro de Mena)

Ron Mueck - Woman in Bed (10) by Kratzy.

Woman in Bed - 20th century (Ron Mueck)

Ron Mueck - Woman in Bed (17) by Kratzy.

Detail

The central ‘idea’ of the curators is that those who have written the history of Western art have had a blind spot for polychrome sculptures. These masterpieces of wood and paint simply don’t feature in the canon of Western art. They deserve to. Those who produced them were artists of genius — and they were recognised as such by their contemporaries. It’s only now that we in the Anglo-Saxon world are coming to appreciate the power and beauty of these sculptures.

If you are a Catholic, I suppose, this is less of a revelation. You are used to seeing coloured sculptures: in your local church, at Lourdes, in the public processions that take place in many parishes, and perhaps on your mantelpiece. They may not be the most aesthetically pleasing images – but they are attempts to embody the sacred, and to connect daily life with the transcendent.

It was strange walking through the front door when I got home this evening. There, in the lobby of the seminary, is a bust of ‘Blessed Thomas More’ that I hardly ever notice. It’s a painted sculpture, about 3/4 life-size; a little faded, but still very much alive. An example of how this tradition has not faded in Catholic culture.

It’s fascinating to connect the culture of these 17th century Spanish images with our own. The Holy Grail of modern cinema technology is to create a genuine 3D experience – witness the recent attempts of Up and Avatar. However successful this proves, it will always mean us travelling to the cinema and entering into the world of the film. The magic of these polychrome statues, when they are brought out of the museums and into the streets, is that they allow the embodied reality to spill over into our world.

Here is one more beautiful photo of a Ron Mueck statue:

Untitled (boy) by Ron Mueck by voss.

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map — nov 28 by theogeo.

Two fascinating stories about China appeared in the press today – both of them, by coincidence, touching on her relationship with the West and her openness to outsiders.

First, a 400 year-old Chinese map went on display yesterday at the Library of Congress in Washington. It’s the first Chinese map to combine both eastern and western cartography, and hence the first to show China in relation to the Americas. Who was it created by? An Italian Jesuit missionary called Matteo Ricci:

One of the first westerners to live in what is now Beijing in the early 1600s, Ricci was famed for introducing western science to China, where he created the map in 1602 at the request of Emperor Wanli.

Shown publicly for the first time in North America, the map provides an impressively detailed vision of the different regions of the world with pictures and annotations.

Africa is noted as having the world’s highest mountain and longest river, while Florida is identified as “the Land of Flowers”. A description of North America mentions “humped oxen” or bison and wild horses, and there is even a reference to the little-known region of “Ka-na-ta”.

Ricci, revered and buried in his adopted home, provided a brief description of the discovery of the Americas. “In olden days, nobody had ever known that there were such places as North and South America or Magellanica,” he wrote, using a label that early mapmakers gave to Australia and Antarctica. “But a hundred years ago, Europeans came sailing in their ships to parts of the sea coast, and so discovered them.”

Ricci went to China with an open mind and an open heart, deeply sensitive to Chinese culture and sensibilities. At the same time, he was unembarrassed to share his own culture with the Chinese – whether scientific, religious, or cartographical… and the Chinese were remarkably open to this.

The second story is about Google’s recent decision to take the gloves off and remove the censorship it previously imposed on its own Chinese search engine. The fear now is that the Chinese authorities will pull the plug:

Google, the world’s leading search engine, has thrown down the gauntlet to China by saying it is no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese service.

The internet giant said the decision followed a cyber attack it believes was aimed at gathering information on Chinese human rights activists.

The move follows a clampdown on the internet in China over the last year, which has seen sites and social networking services hosted overseas blocked – including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – and the closure of many sites at home. Chinese authorities ­criticised Google for supplying “vulgar” content in results.

Google acknowledged that the decision “may well mean” the closure of Google.cn and its offices in China.

That is an understatement, given that it had to agree to censor sensitive material – such as details of human rights groups and references to the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – to launch Google.cn.

“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”

My great-grandfather (my father’s father’s father) was a Chinese cloth merchant who converted to Christianity when he was on his travels round southern China in the late 1800s. So when my grandfather eventually settled with his family in Sheffield in the 1930s he was already a Christian, and had a bridge between his own culture and the largely Anglican culture into which he arrived. I often wonder who converted my great-grandfather, what kind of Christian community he encountered on his travels, and what the historical roots of their own Christian life were.

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Lake Michigan? Nope a Pothole! by live w mcs.

A random post: I was listening to the Beatles Blue album in the car on Friday – the first time in years – and by chance my route to the M1 took me along Abbey Road, past the famous recording studios, and across the even more famous zebra crossing. I like seeing the crowds of tourists either side waiting to cross in synchronised groups of four, no-one quite sure if the rules of pedestrian crossings are active here or suspended in some kind of nostalgia-museum bubble. It’s a lovely blur of reality and hyper-reality; a magical time-capsule that can’t separate itself from the ordinariness of a London street.

As I drove across I was halfway through the track “A Day in the Life”, wondering about that line ‘four thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire’. The memory would have passed, but I came across this report from the BBC  today saying that because of the cold weather there are now 1.5 million potholes in Britain waiting to be repaired. And last year alone local government filled in 970,000 holes.

Institution of Civil Engineers vice-president Geoff French said the thaw could bring little respite, with drivers having to cope with increasing numbers of potholes. The continuous cycle of freezing and thawing – particularly on roads where long-term maintenance had been neglected – could break up road surfaces, he said. “Water gets into cracks in the road surface, it then freezes and expands the crack. Then more water gets in, it freezes because of the weather cycle we’re in and it steadily gets worse.”

This mind-boggling statistic led me back to John Lennon. Here is Terence Hollingworth’s account of the derrivation of the lyrics:

It was John Lennon’s idea to write this song by combining ideas taken from the newspapers. He and Paul scanned the Daily Mail for Jan 17th. 1967 and their eye caught the following short article: “There are 4000 holes in the road in Blackburn Lancashire, one twenty-sixth of a hole per person, according to a council survey. If Blackburn is typical then there are over two million holes in Britain’s roads and 300 000 in London.” There was no connection between this and another piece about the Albert Hall; it was just their imagination that made the link.

There are loads of other explanations and hypotheses about the Lancashire holes, as well as what it takes to fill the Albert Hall, on this same page. This is not meant to be a deep post (yesterday’s quotations from Umberto Eco will suffice for a few days), but you can find some references here to British culture, the meaning of holes, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead…

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I have a fetish for lists, and anyone following this blog will know that it runs the risk of turning into a compendium of other people’s lists: “Greatest films… best books… tallest buildings…” I regret not buying a book I stumbled upon when I was doing the Christmas shopping called something like The World’s Top Ten. It was a lavishly illustrated hardback, very like the Guinness Book of Records, filled with nothing but lists of the ten biggest, best, smallest, quickest, oldest… whatever. It could have kept me blogging for decades.

757/767 Mechanical Checklist - Takeoff by Fly For Fun.

Mechanical checklist for flying

Anyway. The point of this post is to defend my fascination with lists. Oliver Burkeman has an article about the importance of making checklists – whether in cooking or in heart surgery:

The Checklist Manifesto, by the journalist and medic Atul Gawande, takes as its starting point the astonishing things that happen when hospital doctors are required to tick off items on checklists as they carry out routine but critical procedures. In one trial, the rate of infections from intravenous drips fell from 11% of all patients to zero simply because staff were compelled to work through a checklist of no-brainer items, such as washing their hands. Many doctors grumbled: it was more paperwork, it wasted time and it insulted their professional judgment by implying that they needed reminding of stuff they’d learned in the first month of medical school. But it worked. A more recent study, which included UK hospitals, suggested that wider use of checklists might prevent a staggering 40% of deaths during treatment. Airline pilots, of course, already rely heavily on them, but Gawande suggests checklists might have impressive effects if adopted throughout business, governance and beyond.

Besides, the stepwise structure of checklists has the salutary effect of narrowing your focus to the next action. When it comes to large undertakings, dwelling on the big picture can be paralysing, and a distraction from the next step, which is the only one you can ever actually take. As they say, I’m told, at Alcoholics Anonymous, where they preach it as a survival strategy, all you have to remember is to “do the next right thing”. Then the next, and the next, and the next.

And just to go up an intellectual gear or two, Burkeman himself put me onto this wonderful interview with the Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, who believes that list-making is at the root of all human culture:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.

So I think I am now justified in posting a culturally significant list at least once a week…

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Dante and Sartre made guest appearances on Celebrity Big Brother at the beginning of the week. The layout and decor of the new Big Brother house are inspired, say the producers, by the writings of these luminaries:

Executive Producer Shirley Jones today revealed that the whole series has been inspired by Dante’s Inferno including the decor of the house itself.

She said: “The famous line from Dante’s Inferno is ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’, which has inspired much of what we have done to the house, particularly the entrance which is dark and cavernous with flaming walls. When the celebrities arrive in the house on Sunday night they will definitely wonder what is in store for them, it looks incredibly different from previous years”.

In the living area the Dante’s Inferno theme continues with gilded panels, black walls and furniture in rich reds and dark wood. There are some luxurious touches too such as faux fur pelts draped over the sofas, cushions emblazoned with diamante skulls and ornate wall sconces illuminating macabre sculptures.

Jones continued “As well as Dante we have been hugely influenced by Sartre’s line ‘Hell is other people’, and the house reflects this. Whilst the flames and dark colours might look a bit hellish to some, sometimes your actual hell is the people you’re with so we have removed some of the doors to make everything more open plan, there are very few areas to go to if someone needs to grab five minutes of peace and quiet.”

Just to set the record straight: Sartre didn’t put forward the idea that ‘hell is others’ as a philosophical thesis – he put these words into the mouth of one of his characters in the play Huis Clos. In isolation, this line, which has haunted Sartre, gives the impression that he hated other people and believed that human beings would be happiest cut off from all company. This is nonsense. In the drama of the play, and in the context of his whole philosophy, Sartre is saying something quite different.

In his view, a recurring temptation we face as human beings in society is the desire to live solely in order to please others, to live up to the expectations that others impose on us – expectations that we willingly accept and internalise. So our whole life can become a charade, wearing a mask, doing a dance before the gaze of others. It’s an analysis of the psychology of fame. The more we succeed in living up to their expectations, the happier we seem to be – but it is a trap, and we end up losing our freedom, we become defined by the demands that other people have imposed on us. This is living in ‘bad faith’; there is a lack of authenticity, a lack of honesty. Another more traditional word to describe this human characteristic would be ‘vanity’. So Sartre is not quite as radical or novel as he might appear.

Berlin press pack by Downing Street.

A press pack in Berlin

Sartre doesn’t think that the answer is to escape from all human relationships and responsibilities, or to do what we please without any regard for the opinion of others. This is just pure selfishness – which Sartre never advocated. He thinks we should be more authentic; we should take responsibility for our actions and not pretend that we are completely defined by the external pressures that are put upon us; we should develop relationships, as it were, out of love and freedom and not because of a dysfunctional need to take on a certain appearance in the eyes of others.

I’m not defending his whole outlook here. But there is some truth in this suggestion that we can get trapped in the image of ourselves that we see reflected back to us from others.

The opposite of vanity, one could say, would be a kind of self-possession, an ease with others, a freedom to love without worrying about how that love was being perceived.

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The Power of Prayer by Loci Lenar.I gave a talk recently about vocation and life in the seminary, to a group of people mainly in their 60s and 70s. One of the questions that often comes up with people of this age is whether the present generation of seminarians is more conservative than in the past. My answer is to say that these categories (‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’; ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’) don’t apply any more.

If you are trying to define yourself against other members of your church or religion, then these kinds of categories, however crude, might be necessary. But the key moment of self-definition for young Catholics today is simply whether to continue calling themselves Catholic or not; whether to deepen their Christian faith, or to reject it.

In a thoroughly secular culture, where friends, colleagues, and even family members are formed by secular values, the decision to hold onto a Catholic identity is the crucial one. Having made that radical decision, these young Catholics, quite naturally, want to deepen their interest Catholic teaching, in Catholic worship, in Catholic morality, etc. This is why they seem ‘conservative’. But they’re not really — they are simply Catholic.

Here is my sociological take on all this: Most older Catholics, say in their 60s or 70s, grew up secure in their Christian identity, with a culture that for the most part supported and reaffirmed that identity. The challenge for them was to get out of the ghetto and into the world; to become immersed in a secular culture they hardly knew, in order to influence and enlighten it. The secularisation of religion was perhaps a necessary part of this movement outwards.

But if you grow up in a culture almost completely devoid of any Christian influences, as young people do today, then the challenge for you is to find a Christian identity and lifestyle that will guide and sustain you. This is not about retreating into the ghetto or turning the clock back. It is first of all a matter of preserving your Christian roots, and nourishing your own faith. And then it’s about building up the self-confidence that allows you to engage with the secular culture from which you come (and which you never actually left).

This is why, it seems to me, the priority for young Catholics today is to create a strong Catholic identity and Catholic culture for themselves — which then allows them to dialogue with their peers and engage with the wider culture. They might seem to be conservative, but they are simply trying to be Catholic.

Remember that in darker ages it was the monks who made the best missionaries; it was those who stepped ‘inside’ and showed so much concern for the liturgy and the tradition who were then the ones with the courage to step ‘outside’ and embrace the world.

[After drafting this post I came across an article by John Allen entitled 'The next generation of Catholic leaders'. We seem to be thinking along similar lines...]

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Burj Dubai by Joi.

The Burj Dubai opened yesterday. It is staggeringly tall. Yes, the record for the world’s tallest building is broken every few years, as politicians and engineers try to inch their way ahead of their rivals. But this is not an incremental step, it is a quantum leap. This building is hundreds of metres higher than anything within shouting distance. At 828m it is about twice the height of the Empire State Building, and nearly three times higher than the Eiffel Tower.

Steve Rose captures some of the excitement and ambiguity about its construction:

We’re going to need a new word. The Burj Dubai doesn’t scrape the sky; it pierces it, like a slender silver needle, half a mile high. It’s only because Dubai never has any clouds that we can even see the tower’s top. And, judging by the images released so far, the view is more like looking out of a plane than a building. It has made reality a little less real.

The facts and figures about the tower are equally surreal – like the one about how it could be eight degrees cooler at the top than at the bottom, or the one about how you could watch the sunset at the bottom, then take a lift up to the top and watch it all over again. It’s a new order of tallness, even compared to its nearest rival, Taiwan’s Taipei 101, which it exceeds by more than 300 metres.

But, beyond height, is there anything to celebrate here? From our current perspective, the Burj Dubai symbolises catastrophic excess – of money, confidence, ambition, energy consumption. And the fact that it will most likely stand empty for years to come has been noted with great satisfaction here in the west. But isn’t this how we’ve responded to every tall structure of note, from Babel onwards? And even its many critics have to admit the tower is a rather stunning piece of architecture. Chiefly designed by Adrian Smith, formerly of skyscraper specialists SOM, and engineer Bill Baker, it is beautifully sleek and elegant, rising in a graceful series of silver tubes of different heights. It looks less like a single tower than a cluster of towers, an organic formation rather than a self-consciously iconic object. This is surely the best-looking tall building since New York’s Chrysler and the Empire State in the 1930s.

I remember building towers as a child, out of alphabet bricks, wooden blocks, lego pieces, cardboard boxes – anything at all. And digging holes in the sand on holidays to see how deep I could go: deeper than my own height, deep enough for it to get dangerous. Dad broke my heart by ordering me to cave them in when we left the beach, in case anyone fell in during the night.

Burj Dubai Aerial Shot 103 by Sgt Caboose.

There is something primeval about height and depth (and span…bridges again!). There is a purity about the sense of wonder one experiences within these encounters. I recognise all the social and economic and political ambiguities, but I am still awestruck by this building.

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Murad Ahmed writes about the rise of Google and the rebirth of Apple. No-one could have guessed, ten years ago, that two of the most successful commercial ideas of the decade would be the free availability of information and the beauty of objects once thought to be purely functional.

Google set off with an extraordinarily ambitious mission: to organise the world’s information and make it universally useful. Its approach was revolutionary then, but seems the norm now. It was free. It was open. Anyone could use it.

And Google eventually worked out how to make bags of money. It sold advertising alongside search results. Google became a multibillion-dollar company, a verb, a phenomenon.

Apple took a different route. The company had been in the doldrums for years, but in 2001 it launched the iPod. The key to the device was simplicity. It was easy to use and allowed millions to carry around entire record collections. Today public spaces are filled with people plugged into headphones.

The iPod was also beautiful, setting the standard for design and technological innovation. The only device that had a similar impact was Apple’s own iPhone, launched in 2007. Both became the must-have products of the decade.

The next step for Google is not just to link all digital information, but to digitise all non-digital information so that everything ever known will be available online.

Should one company really control the web's information?? by fabbio.

Robert Darnton has an article about the legal complications for Google of grabbing other people’s copyright. He sums up the vision and the difficulties here:

The terms of the settlement will have a profound effect on the book industry for the foreseeable future. On the positive side, Google will make it possible for consumers to purchase access to millions of copyrighted books currently in print, and to read them on hand-held devices or computer screens, with payment going to authors and publishers as well as Google. Many millions more—books covered by copyright but out of print, at least seven million in all, including untold millions of “orphans” whose rightsholders have not been identified—will be available through subscriptions paid for by institutions such as universities. The database, along with books in the public domain that Google has already digitized, will constitute a gigantic digital library, and it will grow over time so that someday it could be larger than the Library of Congress (which now contains over 21 million catalogued books). By paying a moderate subscription fee, libraries, colleges, and educational institutions of all kinds could have instant access to a whole world of learning and literature.

But will the price be moderate? The negative arguments stress the danger that monopolies tend to charge monopoly prices. Equally important, they warn that Google’s dominance of access to books will reinforce its power over access to other kinds of information, raising concerns about privacy (Google may be able to aggregate data about your reading, e-mail, consumption, housing, travel, employment, and many other activities). The same dominance also raises questions about both competition (the class-action character of the suit could make it impossible for another entrepreneur to digitize orphan works, because only Google will be protected from litigation by rightsholders) and commitment to the public good. As a commercial enterprise, Google’s first duty is to provide a profit for its shareholders, and the settlement leaves no room for representation of libraries, readers, or the public in general.

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Children’s stories can be set in the real world or in a fantasy world. But the best stories, for me, always involved the discovery of an alternative world just at the edge of everyday reality. It was the discovery itself that provided the greatest excitement, and my curiosity and wonder were stirred up above all by point of intersection between the two worlds – the threshold itself.

Classic examples of this are the rabbit hole that takes Alice into her wonderland; the tornado that sweeps Dorothy away to meet the Wizard of Oz; and the wardrobe that leads to Narnia. It’s for the same reason that I continue to love time-travel films.

San Francisco - Mission District: Balmy Alley - The Missing Page from Where the Wild Things Are by wallyg.

One of my favourite books as a child was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. When the new film version was in production I was disappointed to hear that the director Spike Jonze had chosen to alter the crucial ‘threshold’ moment, the moment of transition.

In the book, little Max storms off to his room in a huff, and the bedroom itself gradually dissolves into the Land of the Wild Things. The walls, the ceiling, the bedposts - they slowly transform themselves into the enchanted forest. So the distance between his ordinary reality and this alternative world is felt to be paper-thin.

In the film, Max escapes down the street, through a broken fence (which becomes the symbolic threshold), to a boat waiting on the shore. The new land feels like it is out there rather than just beside or within the strange world we call the real one.

But it’s a beautiful film. More like a poem or a meditation on childhood than a movie. It captures something about the mood of childhood and the hugeness of the questions we face there. It transports you, with Max, back into those primal experiences of the world that never really disappear.

Where the Wild Things Are by Skinned Mink.

I don’t often link to film reviews, because so many of them are disposable – and they give away too much plot. This Empire review, by Dan Jolin, is a thought-provoking meditation in its own right.

I suppose that midnight on New Year’s Eve – and in this case the eve of a new decade – is one of those imaginative thresholds that even we adults can continue to appreciate. And it’s one of the clearest forms of time-travel.

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