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Archive for April, 2010

David Bond has an article in yesterday’s Evening Standard about the extent of surveillance in Britain at the moment.

He goes through the usual list of governmental and commercial tracking that goes on, often unacknowledged, from the low-level surveillance of supermarket loyalty cards and freely shared social networking information, through the new NHS database, to the 250 CCTV cameras that populate his neighbourhood in Hoxton, London.

London has been the world’s test bench for a range of tracking gadgets. We have more CCTV than any other city – there are 250 cameras alone within a mile of my house in Hoxton. Again, convenience was at the heart of the sales pitch, this time to the police. Imagine, no more trudging the cold streets. Sit in comfort and watch the crimes unfold. You only need to get out there when there is a problem. And to citizens, the systems are sold by fear. Crime is too widespread to catch on foot, we were told. We need to use the all-seeing eye. So why did the recent House of Lords report conclude that CCTV has had little or no effect in preventing or detecting crime? The massive industry that sells CCTV to government had a ready answer — because it is not really good enough yet. The images are too blurry. There are not enough cameras. Or perhaps they need to be fitted with more advanced software (now being installed in central London stations) that can recognise your face, or even how you walk. Once the technology is perfected, then it will really start to improve our lives. Or will it?

What made the article particular interesting was that he went underground, tried to live a hidden life away from the tracking technology, and hired a firm of private investigators to see how long it would take them to find him from publically available information.

I wanted to know what other people can know about me. What is out there in the public domain? Can it be used to profile me to the extent that a determined investigator, identity thief or stalker, could know what I am likely to do in the future — and catch me?

Within an hour of searching for me (all they had to start with was my name and a recent photo) the private investigators had ordered my wife’s, my own and my daughter’s birth certificates, and my parents’ and my marriage certificates.

They ran my name through a number of profiling systems to give them my credit rating, details of property I owned and my employment history. They also ran a quick profile of me on social networking sites. I had tried to remove myself from Facebook (you can never really remove yourself from Facebook) but they were able to find a good crop of my friends. I am not particularly vulnerable, by the way, anyone could do the same to you.

Before running away, I wanted to find out what data is out there about me as an average Londoner. I compiled a list of 80 organisations — companies, government agencies, social networks — that know about me. I made subject access requests under the Data Protection Act to all of them.

The results were staggering. My desk disappeared under a mountain of paper. It turns out that the DVLA still had records of a driving offence I committed in my late teens. I am 38 and they are supposed to be deleted after 10 years. Amazon provided 120 pages of orders, friends to whom I send presents and even things that I might be interested in, based on my previous browsing.

Transport for London reluctantly sent me a terrifying log of every crossing in and out of the congestion charge zone I have ever made. I had bought a low-emission car to avoid the charge, but they track it anyway. When I called them to ask why, the bemused manager said that the police might need it if I got myself in trouble in the future. “It’s not a police state or anything,” he reassured me.

My bank sent me records of my phone calls. It had lost a cheque in 1997, and the transcript read like a Stasi file. “Mr Bond seems angry. His voice is raised. And he is considering leaving the bank.” Tesco knows what food I like. I suppose that’s not a surprise. But it also has me pegged as, among other things, a new dad, who buys beer on a Friday, and sometimes a little more than average …

In itself, this data was unsettling but what really gave me the fear was when I called these people back and asked them to delete the data. “Do what?” was the standard response. “Delete it, please.” “Oh no, we don’t do that.”

And the penny dropped. Knowledge is power. For governments, this means control, for companies, profit. Once we give this stuff up, we are never getting it back and it sits around forever.

You can see the TV documentary on More4 at 10pm on Tuesday. And look at the website here.

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If my greatest films of all time list had gone up to twenty, I would have added Annie Hall. Rev Robert E. Lauder is a Catholic priest and professor of philosophy in the States who is an ardent admirer of Woody Allen. He’s also written a book I haven’t come across that looks very interesting: Magnetized by God: Religious Encounters through Film, Theater, Literature, and Paintings (Resurrection Press).

Last month Fr Lauder got the chance to interview Woody Allen. He spent much of the time fishing for religious ideas, hoping that Allen would give at least a hint of reaching for the transcendent through his cinematic artistry. No such luck. Allen’s take on life is remorselessly bleak, despite the humour:

RL: When Ingmar Bergman died, you said even if you made a film as great as one of his, what would it matter? It doesn’t gain you salvation. So you had to ask yourself why do you continue to make films. Could you just say something about what you meant by “salvation”?

WA: Well, you know, you want some kind of relief from the agony and terror of human existence. Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament? That is what interests me the most. I continue to make the films because the problem obsesses me all the time and it’s consistently on my mind and I’m consistently trying to alleviate the problem, and I think by making films as frequently as I do I get a chance to vent the problems. There is some relief. I have said this before in a facetious way, but it is not so facetious: I am a whiner. I do get a certain amount of solace from whining.

RL: Are you saying the humor in your films is a relief for you? Or are you sort of saying to the audience, “Here is an oasis, a couple of laughs”?

WA: I think what I’m saying is that I’m really impotent against the overwhelming bleakness of the universe and that the only thing I can do is my little gift and do it the best I can, and that is about the best I can do, which is cold comfort.

RL: At one point in Hannah and Her Sisters, your character, Mickey, is very disillusioned. He is thinking about becoming a Catholic and he sees Duck Soup. He seems to think, “Maybe in a world where there are the Marx Brothers and humor, maybe there is a God. Who knows.” And maybe Mickey can live with that. Am I interpreting this correctly?

WA: No. I think it should be interpreted to mean that there are these oases, and life is horrible, but it is not relentlessly black from wire to wire. You can sit down and hear a Mozart symphony, or you can watch the Marx Brothers, and this will give you a pleasant escape for a while. And that is about the best that you can do…. I feel that one can come up with all these rationalizations and seemingly astute observations, but I think I said it well at the end of Deconstructing Harry: we all know the same truth; our lives consist of how we choose to distort it, and that’s it. Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.

This is so depressing it makes me want to go and watch Annie Hall and a whole clutch of Woody Allen classics to cheer myself up.

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Radio - 92/365 by morberg.

This is so funny I had to post it:

On Good Friday 1930, the journalists on BBC radio news did not know what to put in the evening bulletin. The country was on holiday. The world economy appeared to be recovering after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Few guessed that the revival was a suckers’ rally that heralded a global depression. Europe was quiet — Adolf Hitler was still an obscure opposition politician — and although Britain ruled a great empire, nothing much seemed to be happening there either.

Stumped by a slow news day, the BBC delivered the most honest broadcast in the history of journalism. “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no news tonight,” proclaimed the announcer. “So here is some music.”

There is a serious point to Nick Cohen’s article “Curmudgeons of the world unite“. He is writing about how news stories today have to be reported with the same intensity – whatever the subject. The ‘frame’, quite literally, is always the same (my image not his): the border of the newspaper, the edge of the TV set, the casing of the computer screen. So that every piece is flattened or heightened to the same level, given the same spotlight. [Too many metaphors...]

Deceit in the modern Radio 4 — and in the rest of the media — does not always lie in journalists’ biases. The pretence that there is always news worth reporting can be equally deceptive. Whatever has happened — or rather, whatever has not happened — the Today programme must always run for three hours, the news pages of the press must always be filled and, like Old Man River, the rolling news channels must keep on rolling along.

The result is media without discrimination in which a parochial argument about the allocation of resources in the NHS on one day is put on a par with the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Haiti the next.

Broadcasters deliver every lead story at the same tempo and pitch. However bold they are, you will never hear John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman admit, “We’re leading with this piece because we haven’t got anything better to air. On normal days, we would never have bothered you with such a trivial item.

He goes on to sing the praises of Radio 5 Live for being the only station that is ‘suicidally candid’ enough to tell you that the matter in hand (usually a football game) is abysmally boring and not actually worth listening to. He encourages even those who hate football to tune in so that they can savour this experience of journalism in its purest form.

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I live on the site of St Thomas More’s home in Chelsea. It was here that Holbein drew the sketches for the celebrated More family portrait. The sketches survive; but Holbein’s finished image, sadly, is lost. It was not a canvas or board, but a huge linen wall-hanging, about nine feet high and twelve feet wide.

In the 1590s Rowland Lockey made various copies of this image, with sometimes major adjustments in the composition. The best of these ‘reinterpretations’, from 1593, now hangs at Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire.

Margaret, Thomas’s favourite daughter, sits at the front of this group, holding a book in her lap, with her fingers pointing very precisely to some specific lines. There have been two puzzles. Were these lines present and given such prominence in Holbein’s original (if so, presumably on More’s instructions)? And what would their significance be?

John Guy, in his book A Daughter’s Love that I referred to a few posts ago, thinks he has the answer:

What Margaret holds up to view is no less than Seneca’s classic defence of the ‘middle way’ or unambitious life, the passage in which he counterpoints the security of a lack of ambition with the dangers of a public career.

His message is about the relationship of human beings and fate. No one can predict what will happen to those who enter the counsels of princes. Fate is an irrevocable series of causes and effects with which not even the gods can interfere. Rather than urge an honest man to take the plunge, Seneca points out to him the perils of high office and the inevitability of fate.

Using Plato’s metaphor in The Republic of the ship of state, he says if he were left to his own devices, he would trim his sails to the light westerly winds: ‘May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along; may life bear me on safely, running in middle course.’

Most compellingly, Seneca cites the example of Icarus who, attempting to escape from prison with his father, Daedalus, flew too close to the sun so that the wax melted on his wings and he fell into the sea, where he drowned. And it is to the very line in which Seneca describes how Icarus ‘madly sought the stars’ that Margaret points with her finger. [175]

I’m not discouraging people from going into politics – far from it! But it is fascinating to discover the coded warnings given by someone as astute and involved as More to those who seek high office.

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No-one would pretend that religious life in Britain is booming. Religious congregations are greying; most of them are closing individual houses here and there; and many are winding up their presence in this country altogether, unable to sustain the numbers to keep a province going. This is true for both enclosed and apostolic religious life.

None of this negates the amazing witness and work of religious brothers and sisters in recent generations, but it raises questions about the meaning of religious life and its place in Christian culture.

So it was particularly inspiring to be at the profession of a young sister at the weekend. Despite the travel chaos that kept a number of guests away, Sister Clare Ruvarashe of the Cross made her final profession in the Poor Clare community at Arundel.

Assisi -  Italien - Italy - Monastery - Kirche - Church - "Franz von Assisi" by Ela2007.

Assisi and the Basilica of St Clare

What made her join? Well, it’s not my job to speak for her, you can read her story here. For a shortened explanation, she chose to have these words from the prophet Jeremiah printed on the back of her booklet:

O Lord, You have seduced me, and I have let myself be seduced. Your word in my heart is like a consuming fire burning deep within my bones. [Jer 20:7]

It made me reflect on all the positive signs of religious life in Britain, and how it is not all one tidy story of ageing and exile. Just in my own random experience as a priest over the last few years I have known young women, in this country, who are in formation as Poor Clares, apostolic Franciscans, Benedictines, Assumptionists, Missionaries of Charity, Sisters of the Gospel of Life, Carmelites, the Community of Lady of Walsingham, and as three different ‘types’ of Dominicans. And young men in formation as Franciscans, Benedictines, Dominicans, Salvatorians, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Norbertines, Carmelites, Fransalians, Jesuits, as two ‘types’ of Augustinians, and as Oratorians (not strictly ‘religious’). I’m sure there are many others who have slipped my mind, and I know there are many other congregations and communities with new members that I just don’t happen to know.

It’s not an avalanche, but it shows the continuing attraction of religious life for many young people, and it must be an encouragement to all those religious men and women who have been so faithful to their vocation over the years, and given so much to the Church in this country.

Here are the questions that Sister Clare was asked on Saturday by Bishop Kieran Conry. It’s poweful stuff!

By baptism you have been consecrated to God. Following St Clare, do you wish ‘to love Him totally who gave Himself totally for your love’?

Do you wish to follow the way set out by Clare – ‘to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own and in chastity’?

Clare said to her sisters: ‘Love one another with the love with which Christ has loved you, so that all the sisters may always grow in love for God and for each other’. Do you wish to open your heart to the whole world in this way?

Clare wrote to her friend Sister Agnes in Prague: ‘As a Poor Sister, embrace the poor and crucified Christ, gaze at Him, think about Him and desire to imitate Him’. Do you, by renouncing every kind of possession and privilege, wish to talk along the way of poverty by living with nothing of your own?

Clare says in her Rule: ‘May the sisters desire above all else to possess the Spirit of the Lord, and to pray always to Him with a pure heart’. Do you wish to welcome our Saviour in prayer and silence?

And to each question Sister Clare answered:

Yes, by the grace of God and with the help of my sisters.

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Beneath the election froth, there is a genuine debate going on within British politics about the role of government, and particularly about the distinction between the state and civil society.

It’s not just David Cameron’s pitch for a ‘Big Society’. It connects with recent discussions about faith schools, adoption agencies, universities, the right of government to impose a particular form of sex education, and much more.

Is the government responsible, top-down, for every form of social provision? Is the relationship between government and the institutions of civil society one of ‘contracting out’ services that it cannot itself provide? Or are these civil institutions constitutive parts of society with their own particular motivations, purposes and values?

This is what the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales wrote in their recent document Choosing the Common Good:

Have we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the myth that social problems are for the government to deal with? Politics are important but there are always limits to what any government can achieve. No government can solve every problem, nor make us more generous or responsive to need. The growth of regulations, targets and league tables, which are tools designed to make public services accountable, are no substitute for actions done as a free gift because the needs of a neighbour have to be met.

Acts of willing generosity to help others are not taken because the rules and regulations say so, or because money can be made out of them. Both regulation by law and market forces have a role in modern society. But what has been increasingly overlooked is this third form of motivation, the offer of time, energy and possessions out of the spirit of good citizenship and genuine neighbourliness. If we are to have a society worth living in, this third form of motivation is crucial. Local institutions expressing good citizenship and neighbourliness, which are not beholden to the government, form a vital part of civil society. Without solidarity and the friendships that express it, many of those living alone – now Britain’s most common form of household – become still more lonely and isolated.

Many factors lie behind the decline in this spirit of solidarity of one with another, without which society starts to break down and life becomes intolerable. An excessive emphasis on each person simply pursuing their own interests is no doubt one such factor. This flows from a limited understanding of ourselves as human beings. Far from being self-contained individuals, we are, in truth, always mutually dependent. We are made for one another. This is verified by the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction we experience when we act in generosity and solidarity with those in need. We are not isolated individuals who happen to live side by side, but people really dependent on one another, whose fulfilment lies in the quality of our relationships. [p.7]

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Given that cinema is the highest form of art and the very summit of human civilisation, I have a bit of a blind spot for opera. But ever since I saw the film Koyaanisqatsi as a teenager I have had a love for the music of Philip Glass, who wrote the soundtrack.

So it was Philip Glass who drew me to the ENO a couple of weeks ago to see Satyagraha, his opera about Gandhi’s formative years in South Africa.

Much of the opera is about Gandhi’s particular form of non-violence, which is described in an article in the programme by Mark Kulansky.

Nonviolence is not the same thing as pacifism, for which there are many words. Pacifism is treated almost as a psychological condition. It is a state of mind. Pacifism is passive; but nonviolence is active. Pacifism is harmless and therefore easier to accept than nonviolence, which is dangerous.

When Jesus Christ said that a victim should turn the other cheek, he was preaching pacifism. But when he said that an enemy should be won over through the power of love, he was preaching nonviolence.

Nonviolence, exactly like violence, is a means of persuasion, a technique for political activism, a recipe for prevailing. It requires a great deal more imagination to devise nonviolent means — boycotts, sit-ins, strikes, street theatre, demonstrations — then to use force.

And there is not always agreement on what constitutes violence. Some advocates of nonviolence believe that boycotts and embargoes that cause hunger and deprivation are a form of violence. Some believe that using less lethal means of force, rock throwing or rubber bullets, is a form of nonviolence.

But the central belief is that forms of persuasion that do not use physical force, do not cause suffering, are more effective; and while there is often a moral argument for nonviolence, the core of the belief is political: that nonviolence is more effective than violence, that violence does not work.

Mohandas Gandhi invented a word for it, satyagraha, from satya, meaning truth. Satyagraha, according to Gandhi, literally means ‘holding on to truth’ or ‘truth force’. Interestingly, although Gandhi’s teachings and techniques have had a huge impact on political activists around the world, his word for it, satyagraha, has never caught on.

3-D MANIAC MAHATMA GANDHI -- Sitting Around Looking at Stereoviews....of Pretty Japanese Geisha Girls ??? by Okinawa Soba.

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