Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for September, 2010

Some glorious images in this exhibition of aerial photographs of Britain now showing in Bath.

This isn't from the exhibition!

I haven’t been able to see it myself, but you can just spend five minutes watching this beautiful slideshow with commentary from the BBC website.

From glacier-carved mountain valleys to jagged saw-toothed coastlines, the UK’s diverse physical and human geography – as seen from above – is being celebrated in a new street exhibition in Bath. More than 100 colourful aerial images – showing Britain’s natural and human landscapes – are being showcased in Bath city centre. Take a look here with the Director of The Royal Geographical Society, Dr Rita Gardner.

Read Full Post »

Back in May I posted about the 100 greatest inventions of all time. I’ve just read an article by Alice Rawsthorn about an exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany with the title “Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things”.

The focus here is not just on inventiveness or novelty, but the way a simple idea, when combined with a good design, can become a central part of ordinary life that we couldn’t imagine living without.

We don’t reflect enough on the genius of these objects: the corkscrew, paper clip, clothes pin, rubber band, egg carton, shipping container; together with the thirty other useful and familiar objects contained in this exhibition. It’s only when something as mundane as a paper clip is put in a display cabinet in a museum that you appreciate it’s value and beauty.

“They’re the sort of products that every designer dreams of making — very simple, very ingenious items that we use on a daily basis,” said Jochen Eisenbrand, who curated the exhibition. “They’ve continued to exist for decades without changing very much, because they haven’t needed to.”

Some of the objects in the show were devised by amateur inventors like the hapless Mr. Henshall. One is the glass preserving jar, a forerunner of the tin can, which was dreamed up in 1809 by a Paris chef, Nicolas Appert, as the winning entry of a competition launched by Napoleon Bonaparte to improve the French Army’s food. Another is the clothes hanger, which dates back to 1903 when Albert J. Parkhouse arrived for work at a lampshade frame factory in Jackson, Michigan, only to find that all of the coat hooks were taken. He made something to hang his coat on by bending a piece of wire into an elongated triangle and twisting the ends into a hook.

Other “Hidden Heroes” stemmed from sudden flashes of inspiration. The German pharmacist Maximilian Negwer hit upon his 1907 idea of cushioning wax ear plugs with cotton wool when reading Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Untangling burrs from his dog’s fur after an Alpine hunting trip prompted the Swiss engineer George de Mestral to develop Velcro fabric fastener in the 1940s and 1950s.

Air bubble film, or bubble wrap, was conceived in the 1950s after a Swiss inventor, Marc Chavannes, noticed how the clouds seemed to cushion an airplane as it descended, and realized that a similar effect could be achieved in packaging by sealing air inside plastic film. An American scientist, Art Fry, dreamed up the Post-it note in the late 1970s when singing in a church choir. He couldn’t find the right page in his hymn book because the paper bookmark kept slipping out.

The modesty of the “Hidden Heroes” is particularly appealing at a time when we’ve become bored by the brashness of what’s been called “Design-with-a-capital-D.” (Remember the lamp mounted on an 18-karat-gold-plated Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle by the French designer, Philippe Starck? That was the peak/nadir of “Design.”) Designers, the thoughtful ones, at least, are increasingly absorbed by the ontology of objects, or the abstract qualities that define them, rather than aesthetics.

Read Full Post »

Nothing to do with the Papal visit: I just came across this article about how attendance at Christian services in Britain has not been declining over the last five years or so, and in one or two areas has actually been increasing.

The ‘not declining’ tag might seem rather negative and un-newsworthy, but it is quite a powerful news story when you set it against the common journalistic assumption that Christianity is on the back foot and is unlikely to exist as a significant part of British life a generation from now.

Benita Hewitt from Christian Research gives some of the figures here:

It’s time to believe that the church in this country is no longer in decline. The latest statistics coming from various denominations are clearly showing stability in church attendance and even signs of growth. This news may come as a surprise to many people who believe that the church is a dying institution.

But the news is no surprise to us at Christian Research. We’ve been watching the church adapt and change over recent years, and have been collecting statistics for some time which suggest that the church in this country is in reasonably good health. There is now enough combined evidence to state confidently that the decline is over.

The long term decline in weekly Mass attendance in the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales ended in 2005 and the figures have been broadly stable since. In 2008 there were 918,844 attending Mass, an increase from 915,556 the year before.

The Church of England has seen fairly steady attendance over the last ten years, with 1.67m attending services each month in 2008, compared with 1.71m in 2001. An important point to note is that the statistics over the past decade include all worship during the week, and not just Sunday morning services. One of the most significant changes we have been monitoring in the church is the growth in mid-week worship, which is an indication of how the church has been adapting and changing over recent years.

The Baptist Union of Great Britain has seen attendance rise from 148,835 a week in 2002 to 153,714 in 2008, with particular growth in the contact with young people aged 13 to 18 – up from 34,095 in 2002 to 41,392 in 2008.

In July of this year Christian Research conducted 1000 interviews in the streets of 44 locations in England and Wales with a representative sample of the population. 63% think of themselves as Christian, 14% said they attended church at least once a month and 29% at least once a year. Those are significant proportions of the population. The research also shows that 41% of adults agree “The Bible is an influence for good in society”. Just last week there was also research published which showed that two in three adults agree “British Society should retain its Christian culture”.

All of this paints a picture of the church as living movement rather than a dying institution. And it is a living movement which is generally recognised as a good influence in society, one which many people do not wish to see decline and die. It is time to stop talking about the decline of church and start facing up to the fact that it is here to stay.

Read Full Post »

Every now and then you experience something completely new, a window into another world that you hadn’t anticipated, but one that may well become ordinary in a year or two. I’ve just been watching The Wilderness Downtown, an interactive and personalised ‘video’ that takes you back to the place you were born.

thewildernessdowntown.com

You type in your address or postcode and it weaves together music, film, animation and graphics with video images of your childhood home. It’s fantastic. (You need Google Chrome as a browser – it won’t work with Internet Explorer. Chrome is pretty good – I’ve been using it for a few months on my laptop; and it’s very easy to download.)

Still from Arcade Fire's viral video The Wilderness Downtown

Jemima Kiss explains:

It keeps crashing on me, but I’ve had enough of a blast to be inspired – it’s the heavenly Arcade Fire video built in collaboration with Google and director Chris Milk.

The Wilderness Downtown combines Arcade Fire’s We Used To Wait with some beautiful animation and footage – courtesy of Street View – of your childhood home – made all the more poignant for me because it was bulldozed a few years ago.

Thomas Gayno from Google’s Creative Labs described it on the Chrome Blog: “It features a mash-up of Google Maps and Google Street View withHTML5 canvas, HTML5 audio and video, an interactive drawing tool, and choreographed windows that dance around the screen. These modern web technologies have helped us craft an experience that is personalised and unique for each viewer, as you virtually run through the streets where you grew up.”

The Chrome Experiments blog explains each technique, including the flock of birds that respond to the music and mouse movements, created with the HTML5 Canvas 3D engine, film clips played in windows at custom sizes, thanks to HTML5, and various colour correction, drawing and animation techniques.

I’ve watched thousands of videos thanks to the curse of the viral video chart and nothing has come close to this for originality, imagination and for that inspired piece of personalised storytelling.

There’s plenty more inspiration on the Chrome Experiments blog; Bomomo is pretty slick, and Canopy is hypnotic.

Read Full Post »

Sometimes, especially when I am tired, I can become paralysed in front of the Pret a Manger sandwich displays; utterly incapable of deciding whether my life will be marginally more fulfilled by eating a healthy-looking falafel and humous on seeded-bread or a dolphin-friendly tuna and cucumber baguette or a good old-fashioned cheese and pickle – and that’s without getting even more confused by the sushi and the soup; and the only thing that snaps me out of it is not hunger or the need to get anywhere soon, but the sudden realisation that I have been standing like an Antony Gormley sculpture for what seems like six hours in a public space where it is socially unacceptable to pause for longer than six seconds – a mixture of self-consciousness, shame at this psychological dysfunction, and fear that the police or medics or anti-terrorist squad will be arriving at any moment to carry me away.



In these very limited circumstances (Pret a manger, tiredness, etc. –  now I am feeling defensive and trying to backtrack…) I am what they call an indecider. A recent report from the University of Bristol called ‘Confused Nation’, cleverly sponsored by Confused.com, reveals that many of us feel more confused than we did ten years ago, and 42% of the UK population lie awake at night trying to make decisions.

The report also shows that nearly half of all Brits (47%) confessed even little decisions can be hard to make, largely caused by an overwhelming amount of choices hindering the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently.

The extensive research has also identified a term for this state, dubbed the ‘Indeciders’ – collectively described as “a group of individuals suffering high levels of confusion whilst displaying an inability to be decisive, leading in some cases to depression.”

Professor Harriet Bradley from the University of Bristol comments: “With a constant stream of new media, daily technological advancements and aggressive multimedia advertising, it’s no wonder that over half of Britain thinks life is more confusing for them than it is for their parents. We really are becoming a nation of ‘indeciders’.

It is not only the ‘big’ areas of life that are causing confusion. Although politics is the area people find most confusing, with 65% of the UK reporting confusion over the policies of major political parties, the survey also found 69% of the country failed to understand bankers’ bonuses and interest rates. What to wear at certain occasions, predictive text and flat pack furniture were also identified as key areas of confusion.

The report also revealed:

Women are more prone to confusion than men, with 84% admitting to experiencing confusion, compared with 72% of men;

Those from Northern Ireland are the least confused in the UK, compared with Wales, which is the most confused region;

The most confused person in Britain is likely to be a 17 year old girl living in Cardiff, whereas the least confused person is likely to be a 60 year old man living in Edinburgh.

Let’s hope they don’t have any Pret a Manger outlets in Cardiff.

Read Full Post »

They are tracking you – if you are a toddler being cared for at a certain Parisian crèche. This centre is planning to monitor the movements of the children placed in its care by placing a tracking chip inside their clothing. It’s the first time this technology has been used in Europe.

What’s your gut reaction to hearing this? Horror? Indifference? Relief? Is it any different from tying a rope round your toddler’s wrist? Is it any more intrusive than the tracking that’s already taking place through your Oyster card or your mobile phone? If you could surgically implant a tiny tracking chip into your child for just a few pounds – would you do it?

Lizzy Davies interviews some of those involved, and gets some reactions:

“The experiment … aims to prove the effectiveness of the system from the perspective of child safety,” said Patrick Givanovitch of Lyberta, a Toulouse-based technology company. “Thanks to the chip carried by each child, it will be possible to know immediately if one of them has left the crèche. The management of the crèche, and the parents, will be alerted straight away by text messages on their mobile phones.”

The plan by the crèche, which is privately run, has provoked criticism from the French childcare industry, with experts warning the measure is both pointless and potentially damaging.

“Shutting children inside a virtual cage will create feelings of futile suspicion and anxiety because of a non-existent danger,” Dominique Ratia-Armengol, chairman of the association of young children’s psychologists, told Le Parisien. She said the introduction of the chips could also loosen ties between the children and the adults “trained to educate and build a relationship of trust with them.”

Some critics say it is more about cost-cutting than child-safety; others that it’s simply unnecessary – given the fact that the closed environments of these childcare centres are nearly always safe and secure.

The most extreme critics accused the Lyberta scheme of starting France on the slippery slope towards a generalised surveillance society. “Chips in crèches take us a step closer to this hellish world where Big Brother reigns,” commented a blogger by the name of Victorayoli on the Mediapart website.

Givanovitch, however, dismisses these accusations as wholly disproportionate. “In this way, we know the child is inside the school or we also know he could be outside the school. It stops there,” he told French radio, referring to the use of chips on older children. “We do not track, we do not follow, we do not pinpoint children. We are just there to say, ‘he is in a safe area or he is not in a safe area’.”

Read Full Post »

After spending the whole of yesterday at Westminster, seeing the Popemobile drive past the excited crowds, and later on managing to see him emerge from Westminster Abbey, it’s hard not to blog about the Papal Visit.

The speeches of the last two days have been really powerful. (You can read them all here.) All the headlines have been about how the Pope has been attacking the ‘aggressive secularism’ that is sweeping through Britain. But this misses the main point, which is how Pope Benedict’s first thought has been to praise British history and British values. It’s not flattery; it’s genuine, heartfelt appreciation – for the values and the people who (amongst many other great achievements) created modern democracy, ended the slave trade, and fought valiantly against the Nazis. Britain has emerged as:

a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.

Then come the questions: How are you going to hold onto these values? What has been their foundation in the past? What will serve to secure and sustain these noble values for the future? How will you do this without some sense of an objective moral order, a transcendent meaning, a loving creator, and an ultimate purpose? The hard questions that he does ask, the challenges to ‘aggressive secularism’, only arise because he actually cares for this British culture and worries that it is in danger of undoing itself.

Here are some of my favourite passages from today. The first, about sanctity and the search for happiness, from his address to children this morning at the ‘Big Assembly':

I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.

Perhaps some of you have never thought about this before. Perhaps some of you think being a saint is not for you. Let me explain what I mean. When we are young, we can usually think of people that we look up to, people we admire, people we want to be like. It could be someone we meet in our daily lives that we hold in great esteem. Or it could be someone famous. We live in a celebrity culture, and young people are often encouraged to model themselves on figures from the world of sport or entertainment. My question for you is this: what are the qualities you see in others that you would most like to have yourselves? What kind of person would you really like to be?

When I invite you to become saints, I am asking you not to be content with second best. I am asking you not to pursue one limited goal and ignore all the others. Having money makes it possible to be generous and to do good in the world, but on its own, it is not enough to make us happy. Being highly skilled in some activity or profession is good, but it will not satisfy us unless we aim for something greater still. It might make us famous, but it will not make us happy. Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places. The key to it is very simple – true happiness is to be found in God. We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success, or in our relationships with others, but in God. Only he can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts.

Not only does God love us with a depth and an intensity that we can scarcely begin to comprehend, but he invites us to respond to that love. You all know what it is like when you meet someone interesting and attractive, and you want to be that person’s friend. You always hope they will find you interesting and attractive, and want to be your friend. God wants your friendship. And once you enter into friendship with God, everything in your life begins to change. As you come to know him better, you find you want to reflect something of his infinite goodness in your own life. You are attracted to the practice of virtue. You begin to see greed and selfishness and all the other sins for what they really are, destructive and dangerous tendencies that cause deep suffering and do great damage, and you want to avoid falling into that trap yourselves. You begin to feel compassion for people in difficulties and you are eager to do something to help them. You want to come to the aid of the poor and the hungry, you want to comfort the sorrowful, you want to be kind and generous. And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on the way to becoming saints.

The second passages are from his speech at Westminster Hall:

Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large. Your common law tradition serves as the basis of legal systems in many parts of the world, and your particular vision of the respective rights and duties of the state and the individual, and of the separation of powers, remains an inspiration to many across the globe.

As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose “good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.

This country’s Parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in your history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation’s political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process, Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.

And yet the fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore. A positive illustration of this is found in one of the British Parliament’s particularly notable achievements – the abolition of the slave trade. The campaign that led to this landmark legislation was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law, and it has made a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud.

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

And finally, for a bit of fun, for those of you have made it to the bottom of the post, here is me inspecting the Popemobile for CNN.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,201 other followers

%d bloggers like this: