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Archive for May, 2010

A few weeks ago I posted about the largest work of art in the world – a project in the Nevada desert by Jim Denevan. I just came across Denevan’s own website, which has a beautiful set of photos of some of his finest sand art – caught on camera before the sea washed them away.

I love this most primitive form of graffiti on such a huge scale – carving into sand, earth, ice or rock. One of the best scenes in Ridley Scott’s disappointing film Robin Hood was an aerial shot of the English forces coming together at one of the white horses carved into a southern hillside. For a moment the mythology of Robin Hood became part of something deeper and more mysterious – the urge to create, the desire to leave our mark.

You can see a short documentary about Denevan’s work here:

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A new fad is sweeping France: tea-parties at which children between the ages of about 7 and 13 sit down to discuss philosophy and the big questions of life. Adam Sage explains:

Les goûters philos — philosophical teas — have become a craze among families who are convinced that children as young as 6 should start grappling with issues that taxed the likes of Socrates and Thomas Aquinas.

Although some may dismiss it as further proof of their pretentiousness, the French see it as an attempt to give children a handle on an increasingly complex world.

Proponents of les goûters philos argue that the subject needs to be broached at an early age when children start asking existential questions.

The parties are held in cafés, public libraries and at home and involve food, drink … and debate.

Some are led by intellectuals who are steeped in the study of philosophy and others by parents who are struggling to tell Nietzsche and Sartre apart. Many are organised by the children themselves.

This fits with my experience of working with families and in schools and parishes over the years. I’ve always found that the best ages for deep reflection are about 3 and 10.

At 3, the most basic questions about reality, life and death come up. Then you attempt an answer, and the question comes back at you in a different form. It’s the ‘But why…?’ stage of life.

After Van Morrison's "The Philosopher's Stone"

At 10, the same questions come up, but in a more considered way. There is a new intelligence and maturity, a new curiosity, still with a certain innocence, but without the hormones and herd mentality that seem to close down the possibility of thought during much of adolescence.

The most thoughtful and open discussions I’ve had about philosophy and religion have been with children in Year 5 in the British system – ages 9 to 10. That’s why it’s such a good age for religious catechesis. And why I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to move all the preparation for First Confession, First Holy Communion and Confirmation to Year 5. (Discuss…)

If you want to start a philosophical tea party for children, here are the tips that came with the article:

• Not more than ten people

• Bring food and drink; fruit juice and cakes are best

• Sit on the floor with the food and drink in the middle

• One person proposes several topics

• Everyone votes on the topic they prefer

• The discussion lasts one hour

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Everyone thinks they are too busy. Most people admit that communications technologies and the internet have increased the pressures on them to perform and respond and race ahead. Not many people have any suggestions about how to find spiritual peace or mindfulness in this wired world.

David Gelles writes about the recent “Wisdom 2.0 Summit”, which tried to bridge the gap between our hunger for enlightenment and the frenetic reality of our working lives:

This was the first Wisdom 2.0 summit, which convened a few hundred spiritually minded technologists – everyone from Buddhist nuns to yogic computer scientists – for two days of panels and presentations on consciousness and computers. The goal: to share tips on how to stay sane amid the tweets, blips, drops and pings of modern life. The temple: the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, a stone’s throw from the Googleplex. Attendees took in panels on “Living Consciously and Effectively in a Connected World” and “Awareness and Wisdom in the Age of Technology”.

“The problem with the kind of jobs we have is that there is no knob to dial down,” said Gopi Kallayil, an Indian-born marketing manager for Google who studied yoga at an ashram when he was younger. He spoke for many of the participants who professed a deep frustration with their inability to find serenity in an increasingly wired modern world. “If you get on the bandwagon you have to operate at a certain pace or not all.”

Mr Kallayil and others discussed how to squeeze a bit of quietude into the day. Suggestions included meditating before meetings.

Yet a nagging duality overshadowed every conversation. It seemed that almost everyone believed that our constant web surfing, no matter how noble its intent, is not conducive to the spiritual life. “As much as we’re connected, it seems like we’re very disconnected,” said Soren Gordhamer, the conference organiser. “These technologies are awesome, but what does it mean to use them consciously?”

Greg Pass, Twitter’s technology officer, teaches Tai Chi in the company’s office, and exhorts incoming employees to ‘pay attention’ and live in the present moment. Leah Pearlman took a 6-month sabbatical from her Facebook job and now composes all her Friday emails in haiku form:

Ms Pearlman was an example of someone who has successfully integrated a bit of wisdom into work. But a more fundamental question lingered: if spiritual success is more important than worldly gains, why toil away in offices at all? “When the time comes and we’re on our deathbed and we’re saying goodbye to our body and bank account and Facebook account and Twitter account, what’s really going to matter?” asked Mr Gordhamer. If there is an answer, it probably will not be found through a Google search.

And despite technology’s distractions, there was no sense that the crowd was set to abandon Facebook or Twitter. Even those devoted to the spiritual path were committed to keeping their status updated. “I’m extremely grateful for the world of the computer,” said Roshi Joan Halifax, a Zen Buddhist nun. “When I was introduced to the computer, I thought I had gone to heaven.”

Our answer here in the seminary is to have 45 minutes in the chapel each morning – of silence, personal meditation, and communal prayer. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are all able to maintain our inner peace throughout the next  sixteen hours, but it certainly helps.

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Tesco Mobile carried out a survey of 4,000 consumers recently to find out what people think are the greatest inventions of all time. No, the lightbulb didn’t come top – but I loved this image.

The wheel was voted as the most important invention in history, with the aeroplane in second place, the lightbulb third, the worldwide web fourth and computers fifth.

Other inventions to make the top ten included Graham Bell’s telephone in sixth place, followed by Sir Alexander Flemming’s discovery of Penicillin.

The iPhone came eighth, while Thomas Crapper’s flushing toilet was ninth. The internal combustion engine came tenth.

Central heating (13th), painkillers (15th) and the steam engine (16th) also made the grade, while spectacles finished off the top 20.  

I’ve pasted the complete results below. What would you put at number 1? What would you add to the list of one hundred?

1. Wheel 2. Aeroplane 3. Light bulb 4. Internet 5. PCs 6. Telephone 7. Penicillin 8. iPhone 9. Flushing toilet 10. Combustion engine 11. Contraceptive pill 12. Washing machine 13. Central heating 14. Fridge 15. Pain killers 16. Steam engine 17. Freezer 18. Camera 19. Cars 20. Spectacles 21. Mobile phones 22. Toilet paper 23. Hoover 24. Trains 25. Google 26. Microwave 27. Email 28. The pen 29. Hot water 30. Shoe 31. Compass 32. Ibuprofen 33. Toothbrush 34. Hair straighteners 35. Laptops 36. Knife and fork 37. Scissors 38. Paper 39. Space travel 40. Kettle 41. Calculator 42. Bed 43. Remote control 44. Roof 45. Air conditioning 46. SAT NAV 47. Wi-Fi 48. Cats-eyes 49. Matches 50. Power steering 51. Tumble dryer 52. Bicycle 53. Sky+ 54. Tea bags 55. Umbrella 56. iPod 57. Taps 58. Crash helmet 59. Wristwatch 60. eBay 61. DVD player 62. Nappies 63. Ladder 64. Sun tan lotion 65. Lawnmower 66. Make-up 67. Chairs 68. Sunglasses 69. The game of football 70. Sliced bread 71. Sofa 72. Razor blades 73. Screwdriver 74. Motorways 75. Head/ear phones 76. Towels 77. Push-up bra 78. Binoculars 79. WD40 80. Mascara 81. Hair dryer 82. Facebook 83. Escalator 84. Hair dye 85. Wellington boots 86. Spell check 87. Calendars 88. Cheese grater 89. Buses 90. Post-it notes 91. Gloves 92. Satellite discs 93. Pedestrian crossing 94. Baby’s dummy 95. Curtains 96. Bottle opener 97. Food blender 98. Dustpan and brush 99. Desks 100. Clothes peg

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The seminary community went on a visit recently to the Carmelite sisters in Ware. We had some extra time this year and used it to drive up the A10 to St Edmund’s College. This was the site of the seminary before we moved to central London in 1975.

Learning about the history of the college reminded me that some of the most significant projects of renewal within the Church have taken place in times of difficulty, and that they have sprung up precisely in response to these difficulties.

The arms of Cardinal William Allen (1532-94), who was an alumnus of Oriel College Oxford, in the Hall of that college, and drawn by Sir Ninian Comper. His arms feature three rabbits or conies.

When Catholics were being persecuted in the 1560s in England, William Allen decided that rather than putting his head in the sand and just hoping that things would improve, it was time to do something creative to preserve and build up the life of the Church. His dream was to have a centre of learning that would nourish the religious and intellectual life of Catholic laity and future priests.

Instead of complaining that this wouldn’t be possible on English soil, he used some lateral thinking and founded a college in a place where it would be possible: Douai, in northern France.

It’s remarkable to see the Douai Diaries on display in the museum at St Edmund’s. You can read Allen’s own handwritten accounts of those first years at the College. Volume One was open at the first page, with the year 1568 inscribed in the margin. Who could have known, at that early stage, that it would prove to be such a source of renewal for the Church – the education of the laity, and the building up of the priesthood for mission at home. And that five hundred years later two seminaries (Ushaw outside Durham, and Allen Hall in London) would still be continuing the tradition it started.

All of this because the Church refused to be disheartened by the difficulties it faced, and decided to do something bold and creative.

What kind of boldness and creativity do we need today?

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Jemima Kiss writes about how quickly and willingly we surrender our digital privacy. I’m not a campaigner for privacy issues. What interests me most is how our understanding of ‘the self’ is subtly transformed whenever some aspect of our personal identity becomes public property.

If everyone knows (and in some sense ‘possesses’) everything about me that I myself know, does that make me less free? Or does it just limit the scope of my freedom to the interior space that I manage to keep private? Or is it an invitation to identify even more fully with the public self that is available to others, and to recreate that self with abandon?

It’s helpful to remember that the word ‘personality’ comes from the Latin persona, which has the literal meaning of ‘mask’. I take from this the conclusion that it is not so easy or desirable to completely separate the inner self from the outer face that we present to the world. The one that is now pasted over the whole digital world.

Here are some of Jemima Kiss’s observations:

Five years ago a pseudonym was de rigueur, yet now we share the minutiae of what we’re reading and thinking, and who we’re seeing. We are all sliding up the adoption curve to a future where this behaviour will only become even more extensive, more normal. How did our perception of what is an appropriate public identity shift so far, so quickly?

Assuming none of us this side of the digital divide are willing to disenfranchise ourselves socially and professionally by giving up the internet altogether, we have to be prepared to give up something. The free lunch is over; we pay with money, time or behavioural data. There is a benefit, too, because sharing information about ourselves opens the door to the semantic web; the powerful, personalised internet of the future.

Already, from your internet connection to the sites you use, everything you share, search, comment, email, read and watch – every social signal you make – is recorded. The only rule you need to protect yourself online is to commit something to the web only if you would be happy for anyone to read it.

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Perfect freedom is being able to step off the back of a London bus whenever you want, whatever the reason, and walk into the sunset without a bus-stop in sight.

Apologies for this second London-centric piece of trivia, but the city is abuzz with the news that Boris’s new Routemaster will be hitting the streets soon. Well, five prototypes will be designed and built for £7.8m.

Matthew Taylor reports:

The original Routemaster was withdrawn from regular service in December 2005 by Ken Livingstone, while he was London’s mayor, though some still run on a limited basis on two “heritage routes”. The new buses, which were a key part of Johnson’s 2008 election manifesto, will have two doors as well as a shuttered platform, which will allow passengers to hop on and off.

A spokesman for the mayor said the initial cost of the buses included design and development, research, prototypes and testing. He added that the cost was expected to drop to about £300,000 per bus as “hundreds” came into use in the coming years.

However, Darren Johnson, a Green party member on the London assembly, claimed the mayor had underestimated the cost of the new buses at every stage. “Development costs have more than doubled since Boris said the budget was only £3m, and that the rest would be borne by the industry. In September he was saying each bus would cost less than £250,000, now it is £300,000. We still haven’t got clear answers from him about the extra costs of running these buses with the conductor and the ‘hop on, fall off’ insurance premium.

The new buses will have two staircases and be made of lightweight materials. The mayor’s office said this meant they would be 15% more fuel-efficient than existing hybrid buses and 40% more efficient than conventional diesel double-deckers.

At today’s launch Johnson dismissed his critics. “This iconic new part of our transport system is not only beautiful but also has a green heart beating beneath its stylish, swooshing exterior. It will cut emissions and give Londoners a bus they can be proud of, complete with cutting-edge design and the freedom of an open platform. I expect to eventually have hundreds of these on London’s roads, and for cities around the globe to be beside themselves with envy for our stunning red emblem of 21st-century London.”

For me, the rear platform of the Routemaster is another magical example of liminality, like bridges and tangents and waiting rooms and wardrobes. You are on but not on. You can go or stay. You are inside and outside at the same time. You can jump.

The other public transport example of liminality (and danger) that springs to mind is the paternoster lift. Are they still legal? The ones where there are no doors and the lift platforms simply move without stopping – and you have to step on, at your own peril, at just the right moment. Which is easy, compared with the stepping off. I had a friend at Sheffield University in the ’80s and I’d take a detour just to jump on the paternoster in the huge arts faculty building. The last functioning one I found was at Northwick Park hospital – closed to the public, but I was able to use it as ‘a member of staff’ (a visiting priest on a sick call). Is it still there? Health and safety have probably closed it down. I’d love to read a study of paternoster lifts…

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I was coming home on the bus past Green Park and saw a line of multi-coloured elephants over the fence. What a beautiful sight!

Elephant Parade is a conservation campaign that shines a multi-coloured spotlight on the urgent crisis faced by the endangered Asian elephant. Brought to you by www.elephantfamily.org, the event sees over 250 brightly painted life-size elephants located over central London this summer.

Each decorated by a different artist or celebrity, the elephants brighten and beautify the city, enhancing every park, street corner and building they grace. Running from May to July 2010, this is London’s biggest outdoor art event on record. With an estimated audience of 25 million, we aim to raise £2 million for the Asian elephant and benefit 20 UK conservation charities.

All of our elephants are for sale by auction and every bid you place is a bid for habitat. Mini elephants are available at Selfridges, 80 Regent St, 36 Carnaby St and Greenwich Central Market or at the elephant parade online shop. Happy elephant spotting!

You can see a slideshow of some of the more interesting designs here. There is a routemap here. And here are some photos:

 

 

 

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I might as well post the second half of the sermon, which has its own distinctive theme: the need for all those working in the media to witness to the truth, however difficult that may be.

But there is a broader truth to the Decem Rationes controversy. It’s not just that Christians should use the media to witness to Christian truth, it’s that the very purpose of the communications media is to witness to truth. Not just Christian truth, any truth, the truth of whatever is at hand. You might dismiss this as a romantic fantasy. I’m like Toby Young in his book ‘How to lose friends and alienate people’. He crossed the Atlantic in search of these heroic New York newspapermen, whose only concern was to speak truth to power. He ended up working on the gossip column at Vanity Fair. 

It’s easy to be cynical. But my impression of people in the media is that they are still full of idealism. It’s just that the ideals get suffocated by other influences. There are the long-term pressures that you might call ‘cultural’ or ‘political’: to turn the news media into an arm of the entertainment industry; to manipulate the media for political or commercial ends, etc. But for you as individuals working in the media the challenges are probably more short term and personal: worries about contracts, budgets, deadlines; editorial pressures from above; tensions between colleagues; worrying about the present project or the future career; the pressure to dumb down, to oversimplify, to sensationalise.

The pressure to frame the story in a way that betrays its essential meaning, or to follow a story you know is trivial just because others are following it. All of this makes it difficult on a day-to-day basis to hold on to the ideals that brought you here in the first place. Difficult even to keep to the most basic principle in media ethics: to tell the truth.

It’s the same for the church, especially for her leaders and representatives. We are called to witness to the truth. Not just the truth of Christian faith, but also the truth of the present situation – including our failures and mistakes. Nothing can be gained from hiding the truth. It’s only a love of truth, even of difficult truths, that will save us, and will help others to trust us.

So what can we do? Well, here are two thoughts from the Scriptures. First, let’s keep our integrity. It doesn’t mean we will avoid every compromise, or live up to every one of our ideals. But at the very least let us not go against our conscience in the workplace, and let us make sure that we don’t cross that fundamental ethical line of speaking or writing what is not true. St Stephen was killed simply because he told others what he had seen: ‘I see the Son of Man Standing at the Right Hand of God’. He was killed for telling the truth. We may not seek martyrdom, but we can still seek the truth in the highly pressured circumstances of our work.

Second, let’s preserve our Christian faith. St Stephen only managed to endure this ordeal because he was filled with the Holy Spirit and because his gaze was fixed on Heaven. I don’t mean that you should fall on your knees and gaze into the heavens whenever you have a tense moment in the newsroom. But you need to be rooted in something deeper than the immediate demands being made on you each day. You need to be rooted in your faith. This involves the simplest of decisions: to practice your faith, to pray each day, to speak about your Christian faith with others — if the moment arises: that you are a Christian, that you are a Catholic, that it matters to you. These aren’t obligations or burdens, they are the foundations that make it possible for you to stay steady during all the madness of the working week. They are the same foundations that gave St Edmund Campion the passion he needed to print his illicit text, and the courage to endure his martyrdom.

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I gave a sermon recently for World Communications Day. Here is the first section about whether the Church uses the media to good effect or not:

In the Spring of 1581, Edmund Campion had been in England as a Jesuit missionary for just over a year. Fifteen years earlier he had preached before Queen Elizabeth in Oxford, and now he was in Lancashire on the run from government spies. Between illicit sermons and undercover Masses Campion was writing a Latin treatise called Decem Rationes, Ten Reasons, in which he set forth the Catholic faith and challenged his compatriots to debate with him.

Kathleen Jones desribes what happened when the manuscript was finished: “It was extremely difficult to get this work printed. Eventually the work was carried out on a secret press at the house of Dame Cecilia Stonor in Stonor Park, Berkshire. Lady Stonor was later to die in prison for her part in this enterprise. Owing to a shortage of type, the treatise had to be set one page at a time, and it took half a dozen typesetters (dressed as gentlemen to disarm suspicion) nine weeks to set it. On Oxford’s Commemoration Sunday, 27 June 1581, four hundred copies were found distributed on the benches of the university church. The publication of Decem Rationes caused a tremendous sensation, and efforts to capture Campion were redoubled” (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition, Liturgical Press, 2000, 12:3).

You can guess why I wanted to re-tell this well-known story today. We’ve come here to celebrate World Communications Day, and by chance we are doing this on the feast of the Martyrs of England and Wales. It provides a wonderful opportunity to connect these two themes of Christian witness and social communication.

The story of Edmund Campion shows us that any Christian who wants to witness to their faith beyond their immediate circle of family and friends will need to use the communications media. Not just to use them reluctantly, but to embrace them with a passion. For Campion, this meant the printing press. I love the historical detail that they didn’t have enough movable type to set the whole book. Can you imagine the frustration, and the consequent dedication that was required: to set one page, to print it; then to reshuffle type, and print the next page. Six men holed away in a Berkshire manor house for two months. And then the audacity of smuggling the printed texts into Oxford.

Are we, as the Church today, completely engaged with the communications media? Are we realising its potential for good? Are we putting our energy and intelligence into using the media effectively? Our time and people and money? What would Edmund Campion be doing today to communicate his Ten Reasons?

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It opened yesterday. One day, when I’m film critic for a national paper (I’ll still be a priest – surely you can write a review in a couple of hours on your day off), I’ll get to the Cannes Film Festival with an expense account and a press pass. But not this year. 

Here is my festival career to date:

  • 1987, Venice. I was a student travelling round Italy and the festival happened to be in full swing when I arrived. We got tickets to an obscure and very boring film by Ermano Olmi (can anyone help with the title?). But it was such a thrill just to be there, and to see a film outside on a balmy Venetian evening.
  • 2002, Cambridge. Spellbound. One of the best documentaries I’ve seen – about spelling competitions in the States.
  • 2007, London. Sean Penn’s Into the Wild in Leicester Square.

Pretty lame really, but as I say, I’m just waiting for that call from a national paper…

Sukhdev Sandhu gives the history and describes some of the excitement:

Ever since 1946, when a casino was converted into an 850-seater movie theatre, Cannes has helped to define, reward and incubate important cinematic movements. When, at that first festival, it awarded a top prize to Roberto Rossellini for Rome, Open City, it effectively drew the world’s attention to the neo-realist aesthetic that would go on to inspire and influence the likes of Satyajit Ray, Iranian geniuses Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and much-feted contemporary American directors such as Kelly (Old Joy) Reichardt.

In the late Fifties, the reception it gave to early films by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard made the French Nouvelle Vague internationally famous and changed the viewing habits of a generation of young filmgoers. But it didn’t just champion new talents; it honoured the work of directors Luis Buñuel and Orson Welles who had fallen out of fashion elsewhere.

A decade later, in 1968, when Truffaut, backed by many other judges, decided to protest against the government-backed dismissal of Henri Langlois as head of the French Cinémathèque and to support student demonstrations across the country, it stoked fierce debates about the relationship between art and politics.

Throughout the Seventies, Cannes jurors backed American directors such as Altman, Scorsese and Coppola who, sometimes in the face of Hollywood hostility, were trying to introduce grittier directorial visions into the studio system. Over the following decades, they also championed maverick spirits such as Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and, in 1989, an earnest unknown called Steven Soderbergh.

In recent years, even though Cannes has played an important part in promoting cinema from the Middle East, Asia and even the Arctic Circle, it has become increasingly common to deride the festival for becoming a trade fair, a mere marketplace. Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro served as a juror in 1994 and recalls: “People would often ask me – in the elevator, in the library, at the bar – they’d say, ‘So are you selling or are you buying?’ If I said, ‘No, I’m a jury member’ their face would just go blank “

Of course, Cannes is about business. Cinema itself is an unstable and seductive marriage of art and commerce, aesthetics and entrepreneurialism. Cannes and Hollywood, though they each claim to represent different outlooks – the former positions itself against the crass globalism of the latter, while the latter derides the elitism of the former – need each other: Hollywood gives Cannes star power and global reach; Cannes gives Hollywood class and an intellectual fillip.

There are those who argue that Cannes has become less important since the rise in the number of film festivals. Venice, Berlin, Rotterdam and Pusan are all major players. But Cannes is not only still the grandest, it upholds the same values as its rivals: a commitment to directors rather than genres, to creating a non-national platform for filmmakers, to showcasing a challenging work.

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Is medicine only about healing and restoration? Or is it also about restructuring human nature so that it is capable of doing far more than it could left to itself?

This debate about the relationship between therapy and enhancement is going to become more and more important. “Transhumanism” is the label given to the work of clinicians and bioethicists who believe that science should be used to transform the human condition and not just to heal it. Remember Lee Majors and the Six Million Dollar Man?

The 2002 version of the Transhumanist Declaration states:

Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.

This is from an article by E. Christian Brugger:

Transhumanism is really a set of ideas that has developed in response to the rapid advance of biotechnology in the past 20 years (that is, technology capable of and aimed at manipulating the physical, mental and emotional condition of human beings). Conventional medicine has traditionally aimed at overcoming disorders that afflict the human condition; it has prescribed leeching, cauterizing, amputating, medicating, operating and relocating to dryer climates, all in order to facilitate health and militate against disease and degeneration; in other words, the purpose has been to heal (i.e., has been broadly therapeutic).

Technology is now making possible interventions that in addition to a therapeutic aim are intended to augment healthy human capacities. There is a gradual but steady enlargement taking place in medical ideals from simply healing to healing and enhancement. We are all too familiar with “performance enhancing drugs” in professional sports. But biotechnology promises to make possible forms of enhancement that go far beyond muscle augmentation.

Germ-line gene therapy, for example, still in its infancy, aims to genetically modify human “germ cells” (i.e., sperm and eggs) in order to introduce desirable intellectual, physical and emotional characteristics and exclude undesirable ones. Since the modifications are made to cells in the “germ line,” the traits would be heritable and passed on to subsequent generations. Drugs to improve mental function such as Ritalin and Adderall are increasingly being used by the healthy in order to enhance cognitive abilities. One study has shown that close to 7% of students at U.S. universities have used prescription stimulants for enhancement purposes. That number appears only to be increasing.

Research is rapidly progressing on advanced technologies such as direct brain-computer interfacing (BCI), micromechanical implants, nanotechnologies, retinal, neuromuscular and cortical prostheses, and so-called “telepathy chips.” While it is true that each of these technologies may play a role in transforming the lives of disabled patients to enable them better to communicate, manipulate computers, see, walk, move their limbs and recover from degenerative diseases; transhumanism sees them as potential instruments for transforming human nature.

Their most radical proposal is to overcome death. Although the aim sounds fanciful, there are influential scientists and philosophers committed to it. The prominent transhumanist scientist and inventor, Dr. Ray Kurzweil, argues that for most of human history death was tolerated because there was nothing we could do about it. But a time is rapidly approaching where we will be able to isolate the genes and proteins that cause our cells to degenerate and reprogram them. The assumption of death’s inevitability is no longer credible and ought to be retired.

Brugger is uneasy about these developments:

I fear that the only thing presently preventing wide-scale affirmation of the transhumanist imperative is an emotional “yuck” factor, which we can be sure will gradually subside under the gentle and inexorable prodding of secular opinion. When it does, our rationality insulated by this extreme notion of autonomy will find itself helpless against the technological imperative which says: if we can design our perfect child, if we can be smarter, stronger, and more beautiful, if we can extend human life indefinitely, then we should do it. If embryos are sacrificed through the experimental process required to perfect this technology, or if inequalities are introduced to the advantage of some and disadvantage of others; these are the costs of progress!

I’m certainly against the exploitation of human embryos in any form, and the creation of designed children. But I’m not convinced that you can argue against transhumanism by referring to the inequalities it will create, as these already arise through ordinary medicine. Is it wrong to improve the physical and mental functioning of someone who already exists through medical interventions? In itself, I don’t think so. But there are deeper issues floating around, and I don’t think I’ve puzzled out what they are yet.

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Sometimes a single factoid can change the way you look at the world. Here was a recent one for me, quoted in this month’s Prospect, and originating from Geoff Mulgan of the Young Foundation:

One third of British citizens live within five miles of their birthplace.

I tend to imagine that we live in a culture defined by movement and change; that people are being constantly uprooted; that our sense of belonging (whether for a place, a tradition, or a set of values) is becoming weaker and weaker. There must be some truth to this, distorted by my own prejudices and the experience of living in a metropolis like London.

But there is the factoid: twenty million of us Brits live within walking distance of where we were born. We may not feel very rooted, and we may have been somewhere else in between – but that is where we have planted ourselves now. Belonging is more powerful than I thought, whether it is through a lifestyle choice or through harsh economic or social necessity.

It was only a few seconds later, after wondering about all these ‘other people’ who lived so locally, that I realised it was true for me too – born in Tottenham Court Road and now living in Chelsea, about three miles as the crow flies. I’ve ended up pretty near ‘home’ (the maternity ward at the old University College Hospital), with a few detours on the way.

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I don’t use Twitter much, but my marvellous WordPress blogging platform automatically tweets my new posts as soon as they are published. It’s been working for a few weeks now but I keep forgetting to publicise it. So, if it’s easier for you to follow this blog via Twitter, you can click here to sign up.

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The magazine section of BBC Online did a piece on celibacy recently. On the day it was posted it was the ‘most read’ story on the whole BBC site for a few hours, perhaps because the editors were clever enough to give it the title “What is a life without sex like?”

I helped with the article, and they posted my own reflections in full on a separate page, which I have copied here:

On 13 July 1997 I made a lifelong commitment to celibacy. In a chapel overlooking Lake Albano on the outskirts of Rome I promised to remain unmarried ‘for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind’.

I had a real sense of peace that day, but a few months earlier I had been in turmoil. I knew all the theory: Catholic priests were following the example of Christ; celibacy gave you a freedom to serve others, etc. But it hadn’t become real for me.

I was wrestling with all this one afternoon that spring. I realised that I had been seeing celibacy in negative terms: ‘No’ to marriage, ‘No’ to sex, ‘No’ to children – when in reality it was a profound ‘Yes’. It was a way of putting Christ at the centre of your life, of giving your whole heart to those you would serve as a priest. It was a way of loving others with a generosity that wouldn’t be possible if you were a husband and father. Celibacy wasn’t a negation or a denial – it was a gift of love, a giving of oneself, just as much as marriage could be.

My experience over the years has confirmed this. Yes, there are practical aspects to celibacy. You’ve got more time for other people, and more time for prayer. You can get up at three in the morning to visit someone in hospital without worrying about how this will affect your marriage. You can move to a bleak estate in a rough part of town without thinking about how this will impact on your children’s schooling.

But celibacy is something much deeper as well. There is a place in your heart, in your very being, that you have given to Christ and to the people you meet as a priest. You are not just serving them, you are loving them as if they were the very centre of your life – which they are. I think Catholics sense this. They know that you are there for them with an undivided heart, and it gives your relationship with them a particular quality.

It’s true that you can’t speak from experience about every aspect of human life. But you gain an awful lot of understanding from sharing in people’s lives over the years. Husbands and wives will confide in a sympathetic priest. You end up drawing on this experience as you preach and counsel people. Besides, people want a priest because he will show them the love of Christ, and not because he has lived through all ups and downs that they live through.

There are struggles. Times of loneliness; sexual desires; dreams about what marriage and fatherhood would be like. I don’t think most of this is about celibacy – it’s about being human. The husbands I know struggle with the same things, only they dream about what it would be like to have married someone else! What matters is trying to be faithful, instead of pretending that another way of life would be easy.

You need balance in your life, you can’t be giving all the time – this was emphasised in our training. You need affection and human intimacy. I’ve got some wonderful friends. I get home to see my family every couple of weeks. I escape to the cinema now and then. And I pray. Not to fill the gaps, because some of them can never be filled, but because the love of Christ is something very real and very consoling.

I’ve been incredibly happy as a priest over these twelve years. I don’t think about celibacy a lot now – it’s just part of my life. But I’m aware that it gives me a freedom of heart that is a unique gift. It helps me stay close to Christ, and draws me closer to the people I meet each day.

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The Guardian has scanned the front pages of fourteen newspapers today.

You can see the wildly different ways in which the election of a lifetime is being presented: from the Sun’s Obamaesque picture of David Cameron, ‘OUR ONLY HOPE’, to the Mirror’s ‘PRIME MINISTER? REALLY?’ splashed across a grim-looking photo of the same man. You could do a whole degree in media studies analysing the different presentations.

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The first grown-up book I ever read as a teenager (you can’t say ‘adult book’ anymore) was All the President’s Men. Since then, like many Brits, I’ve had a fascination with American politics, and an obsession with The West Wing. I spent most of January ploughing through Richard Ben Cramer’s gigantic What it Takes, an enthralling look at the personalities and politics of the 1988 presidential campaign (and of the primaries that preceded it).

It’s good to look at things in reverse, and to see how a US journalist sees British politics, and especially how our election campaign strikes the eyes of someone from across the Atlantic. You can read Jacob Weisberg’s take on the three main candidates here, but these are his more general comments on our strangely muted electoral process:

Since arriving in London last week for a hack’s holiday, I have been asked several times: do Americans care about the British election? The truthful answer is that no, we don’t, mainly because we haven’t developed a relationship with any of the candidates. Unlike during the Blair-Clinton years, there is no fraternal bond between New Labour and the Democrats. Unlike during the Blair-Bush years, there’s no prayerful union between PM and president.

What’s more, it’s difficult to argue that America should care who wins. To one who lived here in the late Thatcher era, the range of policies proposed by the three parties is surprisingly narrow. What differences exist have few implications for the United States. It might give pause in Washington that Nick Clegg failed in the debates to respond to Gordon Brown’s charge of anti-Americanism, but no one has yet registered a meaningful threat to the special relationship.

Nonetheless, the British election compels American attention, for two reasons. The first is simply as sport. However small the stakes for us, this has turned into a fine drama, with an uncertain outcome on 6 May and the uncharted possibility of a hung parliament thereafter. The second is what we have to learn from the way elections are still conducted here. Our American campaigns have gone decadent, becoming spectacles of horrifying length and expense, characterised by 30-second attack ads, a class of parasitic professionals and a running media freakshow.

Yours feel, by contrast, pure. They are swift (four weeks!), substantive, and not entirely driven by fundraising. Spouses are treated as human beings and allowed their own lives. The electorate is informed and engaged. The candidates are more spontaneous and accessible.

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Yes, it’s just an advert for John Lewis. Yes, it’s just an audacious example of product placement. Yes, it’s a particularly unreconstructed fantasy of middle-class domestic life. But it’s beautiful.

To see a human life glide past you in less than two minutes – from the baby being lifted out of the cot, right through to the grandmother walking through the park with her elderly husband and grandchildren. With so many significant moments in between, choreographed and edited so that it seems to be a single movement, a single breath. (I just think they lost their nerve at the end by not showing one final scene in the hospital ward.)

It makes you realise how astonishing and beautiful and fleeting life is. It makes you wonder what it all adds up to, what it means, when the very things that seem to give it meaning race past so quickly and soon become lost in the past.

And of course none of this would work without that soundtrack…

If you haven’t seen it, do take a look. Don’t miss the first three seconds in the struggle to adjust the screen:

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In my previous post I used a photo of some London graffiti by Banksy to illustrate the theme of surveillance. It’s of a child painting an enormous political slogan about Big Brother society on a wall that is being scanned by a real CCTV camera! (See the images below.)

This is how he did it:

Banksy pulled off an audacious stunt to produce what is believed to be his biggest work yet in central London.

The secretive graffiti artist managed to erect three storeys of scaffolding behind a security fence despite being watched by a CCTV camera.

Then, during darkness and hidden behind a sheet of polythene, he painted this comment on ‘Big Brother’ society.

Yesterday the scaffolding gang returned to remove all evidence – again without the camera operator stopping them.

The work, above a Post Office yard in Newman Street near Oxford Circus, shows a small boy, watched by a security guard, painting the words: ‘One nation under CCTV.’

Andrew Newman, 35, a businessman from Dulwich, who works locally, said: ‘It was only on Sunday morning that the Post Offices guys realised what had happened.’

One nation under CCTV by David Boyle.

And then, of course, it got removed, and the camera could get on with its business again:

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