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Archive for October, 2010

I’ve been saving this up for a quiet weekend post. These are throwaway comments in the context of a journalistic interview, but there are some serious questions in the background.

Alok Jah reports:

Guy Consolmagno, who is one of the pope’s astronomers, said he would be “delighted” if intelligent life was found among the stars. “But the odds of us finding it, of it being intelligent and us being able to communicate with it – when you add them up it’s probably not a practical question.”

He said that the traditional definition of a soul was to have intelligence, free will, freedom to love and freedom to make decisions. “Any entity – no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul.” Would he baptise an alien? “Only if they asked.”

Meeting intelligent extra-terrestrial life-forms would open up a lot of theological issues. Do they have a spiritual soul? What is our relationship with them? How do they fit into God’s plan of salvation? If they asked me to baptise them my main question would be: Do they need baptism? Any thoughts in the comment boxes please.

Alien baptism was not the focus of the interview. Consolmagno spent much more time talking about the positive relationship that is possible between science and faith.

Consolmagno, who became interested in science through reading science fiction, said that the Vatican was well aware of the latest goings-on in scientific research. “You’d be surprised,” he said.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, of which Stephen Hawking is a member, keeps the senior cardinals and the pope up-to-date with the latest scientific developments. Responding to Hawking’s recent comments that the laws of physics removed the need for God, Consolmagno said: “Steven Hawking is a brilliant physicist and when it comes to theology I can say he’s a brilliant physicist.”

Consolmagno curates the pope’s meteorite collection and is a trained astronomer and planetary scientist at the Vatican’s observatory. He dismissed the ideas of intelligent design – a pseudoscientific version of creationism. “The word has been hijacked by a narrow group of creationist fundamentalists in America to mean something it didn’t originally mean at all. It’s another form of the God of the gaps. It’s bad theology in that it turns God once again into the pagan god of thunder and lightning.”

Consolmagno’s comments came as the pope made his own remarks about science at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham. Speaking to pupils, he encouraged them to look at the bigger picture, over and above the subjects they studied. “The world needs good scientists, but a scientific outlook becomes dangerously narrow if it ignores the religious or ethical dimension of life, just as religion becomes narrow if it rejects the legitimate contribution of science to our understanding of the world,” he said. “We need good historians and philosophers and economists, but if the account they give of human life within their particular field is too narrowly focused, they can lead us seriously astray.”

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“Estamos bien en el refugio los 33,” it read. “We are well in the refuge – the 33″. This is the phrase that was scribbled on a piece of paper, put into a plastic bag, and hoisted up to the surface as evidence that the trapped miners were alive and well.

Martin Fletcher and Laura Dixon write about how the copyright to these words has now been registered by their author:

The note brought joy to Chile but it can no longer be freely reproduced. It has been copyrighted on behalf of Jose Ricardo Ojeda Vidal, the miner who scribbled it in big red letters.

Pablo Huneeus, a well-known Chilean writer, was moved to act after President Pinera kept the note and flaunted it during his foreign travels.

In London on Monday he presented copies to Queen Elizabeth II and British PM David Cameron, and was expected to do the same in meetings with French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, this week.

“I thought ‘That’s just too much’,” said Mr Huneeus, who went to the Civil Registry Office in Santiago, obtained copies of Mr Ojeda’s birth certificate and national insurance number, then paid pounds 5 to register the sentence as the intellectual property of Mr Ojeda at the Directorate of Libraries, Archives and Museums.

“My point is, Ojeda is owner of the phrase … According to our law, copyright for a creation, invention, song, a piece of art, belongs to the author at the moment he creates it,” Mr Huneeus told The Times. “There’s another aspect here. We have a man that was 625 metres below ground, and up above, a billionaire [Mr Pinera], takes his property and pockets it.

“As for the words themselves, I think they are amazing. I can only compare them to the first words of the Bible … It’s a beautiful sentence. As a writer I would love to have been able to write something so precise and concise as that. It’s the most perfect sentence.”

Having copyrighted the sentence and the image of the note, Mr Huneeus then called the miner to tell him that “now no one can use them without asking his permission”.

He said that Mr Ojeda was “very happy about it. He had seen the T-shirts, cups, the posters that have been cropping up all over the world. He is … very much aware of his rights. He knows what justice is.”

Mr Huneeus said that Mr Ojeda also wanted to recover the original note, which Mr Pinera keeps in his office and considers part of the national heritage. “It’s his property and he wants it back.”

The first of several books – Under the Earth: The 33 Miners that Moved the World – is about to be published. The first television re-enactment will be broadcast in December. Three applications have been made for the internet domain name los33mineros.cl and four for estamosbienenelrefugiolos33.cl.

Some people might feel snooty about this, as if the purity of the rescue had been sullied by this commercialisation. I’m not so sure. There is something very human about this – not the commercialisation in itself, but the fact that raw experiences very quickly become objectified. As soon as we experience something, we are able to reflect on it and question it.

We are never just trapped in the moment; we are always at a certain distance – even as something is taking place. This is part of the self-consciousness that characterises human beings. So it doesn’t surprise me that a spontaneous word very quickly becomes a possession and a commodity. What we then do with that possession is another question entirely.

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I gave a talk at the weekend to the Catholic Society of the University of Hertfordshire, which meets for Mass and a social every Sunday evening at St Peter’s parish in Hatfield.

I was asked to speak about ‘the universal call to holiness’, which gave me an excuse to re-read chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium, the document about the Church from the Second Vatican Council.

An anonymous saint

One of the themes touched on there goes to the very heart of the Christian mystery: that holiness is both a sheer, unmerited gift; and also something that we have to choose and strive after. And even the choosing, somehow, is a gift. ‘By God’s gift, [Christians] must hold onto and complete in their lives this holiness they have received.’

It reminded me of that well-known phrase: ‘Act as if everything depended on you; and pray as if everything depended on God’. I’m quoting from memory. Is it St Augustine? But then I read someone else saying that it is equally profound, and challenging in a different way, to reverse the endings: ‘Pray as if everything depended on you; and act as if everything depended on God’.

Meaning (I think): Pray really hard for God’s help, as if your prayers really matter (which they do), and as if the actions about which you are praying will have enormous consequences (which they will). But then act with an inner detachment, even with a sort of ‘holy indifference’ to the consequences, because you know that God alone is guiding the unfolding of events, and God alone can bring true good out of the situation. So the inner resignation brings a kind of serenity to one’s actions, it takes away the sense of panic or despair that can arise with an unhealthy sense of one’s own importance, without taking away from the wholehearted commitment to the task at hand.

I think both versions are helpful.

Here is how paragraph 40 of Lumen Gentium puts it. (You’ll have to look up the footnotes online.)

The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and everyone of His disciples of every condition. He Himself stands as the author and consumator of this holiness of life: “Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect”.(216)(2*) Indeed He sent the Holy Spirit upon all men that He might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength(217) and that they might love each other as Christ loves them.(218) The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God’s gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received. They are warned by the Apostle to live “as becomes saints”,(219) and to put on “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience”,(220) and to possess the fruit of the Spirit in holiness.(221) Since truly we all offend in many things (222) we all need God’s mercies continually and we all must daily pray: “Forgive us our debts”(223)(3*)

Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity;(4*) by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history.

(216 Mt. 5, 48. 217 Cf. Mc. 12, 30. 218 Cf Jn. 13, 34; 15, 12. 219 Eph. 5, 3. 220 Col . 3, 12. 221 Cf. Gal. 5, 22; Rom. 6, 22. 222 Cf. Jas. 3, 2. 223 1 Mt. 6, 12.)

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I won’t apologise for publicising another ‘greatest films of all time’ list. I’ve discovered that I have an extremely rare condition that makes it psychologically and physically impossible for me not to post about lists that contain any or all of the words ‘greatest’, ‘best’ or ‘most popular’ in combination with any or all of the words ‘films’, ‘movies’ and ‘directors’, whether of not they are followed by any or all of the phrases ‘of the decade’ or ‘of all time’ or ‘ever’. I’m feeling strangely liberated by this new piece of self-knowledge.

 

Film director Andrei Tarkovsky

 

The Guardian is in the middle of a film season. Each day for the last week the Guardian/Observer critics have selected their 25 favourites films in seven genres. (I’ve managed to refrain from posting about these each day because my debilitating affliction does not extend to genre lists.)

You can click on each of the links below to see the individual genre lists.

The best romance films
The best horror films
The best crime films
The best comedy films
The best action and war films
The best sci-fi and fantasy films
The best drama and art films

And then from the seven winners in each category, the same critics decided to give the ‘Best Film Ever‘ award to: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Mmm…

I got some small personal satisfaction from having seen and loved every one of the seven contenders (apart from Chinatown, which I saw but didn’t manage to love), which shows how un-arty the selection is compared to most of the lists that have been concocted by critics rather than paying punters.

Here are the seven, in the Guardian/Observer order:

1) Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

=2) Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

=2) Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)

4) Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1976)

5) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

6) Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

7) Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

And here is my revised order:

1) Andrei Rublev

2) Annie Hall

3) 2001: A Space Odyssey

4) Psycho

5) Brief Encounter

6) Apocalypse Now

7) Chinatown

Chinatown definitely comes last.

 

Detail from The Old Testament Trinity by Andrei Rublev

 

Instead of dwelling on Chinatown, here are a few paragraphs from Steve Rose’s reflection on Andrei Rublev:

Viewers and critics always have their personal favourites, but some films achieve a masterpiece status that becomes unanimously agreed upon – something that’s undoubtedly true of Andrei Rublev, even though it’s a film that people often feel they don’t, or won’t get. It is 205 minutes long (in its fullest version), in Russian, and in black and white. Few characters are clearly identified, little actually happens, and what does happen isn’t necessarily in chronological order. Its subject is a 15th-century icon painter and national hero, yet we never see him paint, nor does he do anything heroic. In many of the film’s episodes, he is not present at all, and in the latter stages, he takes a vow of silence. But in a sense, there is nothing to “get” about Andrei Rublev. It is not a film that needs to be processed or even understood, only experienced and wondered at.

From the first scene, following the flight of a rudimentary hot air balloon, we’re whisked away by silken camera moves and stark compositions to a time and place where we’re no less confused, amazed or terrified than Rublev himself. For the next three hours, we’re down in the muck and chaos of medieval Russia, carried along on the tide of history through gruesome Tartar raids, bizarre pagan rituals, famine, torture and physical hardship. We experience life on every scale, from raindrops falling on a river to armies ransacking a town, often within the same, unbroken shot.

With Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky was consciously crafting a language that owed nothing to literature, and it’s a pity so few others followed him. In today’s cinema, we’re still served up linear, cause-and-effect biographies of artists as if, by doing so, we’ll understand the person and be able to make sense of their art. Andrei Rublev operates according to a different understanding of time and history. It asks questions about the relationship between the artist, their society and their spiritual beliefs and doesn’t seek to answer them. “In cinema it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer’s feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought,” wrote Tarkovsky in 1962.

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I came across another thoughtful article by Mary Kenny, this time about how we have lost touch with the importance of feeling sad, and our sensitivity to the different shades of sadness that can come upon us has been dulled.

Prince Hamlet

Depression, thank goodness, is much better understood than it used to be. And we are much more likely than we used to be to express our feelings to others. But our emotional vocabulary has become diminished.

Take the word, “trauma,” which is now frequently and commonly invoked in conversation today. A person who has suffered a bereavement is said to be “in trauma”.

“Trauma” comes from the Greek word for a “wound”, and in a medical sense, it is what happens to the body when a wound delivers a shock.

But bereavement, of which I have much sorrowful experience is, alas, part of the natural course of life’s sad events.

As Shakespeare observes, with Hamlet, his father lost a father, and that father lost a father before him, and so on, ad infinitum, through the hinterland of human history.

Grief is desperately upsetting: it hurts you for ages, and the loss of someone you love is emotionally painful, and can be enduringly so. But why not call it by its proper name: bereavement: grief: loss?

One reason, thinks Mary Kenny, is that we are losing touch with the social rituals that have allowed us to express these feelings.

When I was a young woman in France in the 1960s, you would come across a shop with its blinds drawn, and a notice saying: “Ferme pour deuil”: closed for mourning.

It is still seen in France, and is also a usual response in Italy. Mourning symbols were widespread in all cultures – widows’ weeds, black armbands – and the community was expected to respect those who mourn.

Outward signs of mourning have declined, if not been abolished in more secular societies now: but our sense of sadness and loss endure, and instead of this being called mourning, it is called “trauma”.

And she thinks it would help us if we could recapture some of the wider, non-medical vocabulary for the emotional difficulties we face in the ordinary course of human experience.

Depression may also be melancholy: it may be discouragement, disappointment, abandonment, sadness, sorrow, mourning, rejection, regret, anxiety, grief, obsession, introspection, loss, separation, loneliness, isolation, alienation, guilt, loss of hope, temperamental woe and simple, pure, unhappiness.

It can be forms of low mood now out of date. The Edwardians were very keen on a condition known as “neurasthenia”; Virginia Woolf was diagnosed with it.

It was also known as “nervous debility”, or, in its milder form, being hyper-sensitive and thin-skinned.

“Anomie” was another condition once favoured in the 19th Century by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and from a sociologist, a sociological condition. Anomie was defined as an isolated mood caused by the breakdown of social norms, sense of purpose and rules of conduct.

There was also a spiritual form of depression called “accidie” much brooded on by some of the saints – this was “dryness of the soul”. The writer Malcolm Muggeridge also complained of suffering from it at times.

There are even, I think, some romantic-sounding forms of melancholy: the German idea of weltschmerz – a yearning sense of “world-sorrow” and unfocused sadness for humanity: or the French nostalgie du passé, that bittersweet Proustian condition of longing for the past, with a rueful sense of regret for missed chances and lost opportunities.

I also rather like mal du pays – the exile’s yearning for the country of childhood, and it comes to me in flashes, both in the spring and autumn, when I think of Irish country lanes, and the smell of fields of mown hay. Ah, bonjour tristesse!

No doubt we are better off for shedding much of the stigma surrounding mental illness – but with it, have we lost some of the variety, the dark poetry of the human condition?

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Yesterday, entranced by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook moment,  I was searching for the next Really Big Idea. But someone sent me a link to this interview with Steven Johnson who writes: ‘Eureka moments are very, very rare’.Johnson is the author of the book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. He talks to Oliver Burkeman about how collaboration, rather than a sudden flash of genius, is usually at the root of our most innovative ideas.

“It’s very, very rare to find cases where somebody on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world. And yet there seems to be this bizarre desire to tell the story that way.”

At the core of his alternative history is the notion of the “adjacent possible”, one of those ideas that seems, at first, like common sense, then gradually reveals itself as an entirely new way of looking at almost everything. Coined by the biologist Stuart Kauffman, it refers to the fact that at any given time – in science and technology, but perhaps also in culture and politics – only certain kinds of next steps are feasible. “The history of cultural progress,” Johnson writes, “is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

Think of playing chess: at any point in the game, several ingenious moves may be possible, but countless others won’t be. Likewise with inventions: the printing press was only possible – and perhaps only thinkable – once moveable type, paper and ink all existed. YouTube, when it was launched in 2005, was a brilliant idea; had it been launched in 1995, before broadband and cheap video cameras were widespread, it would have been a terrible one. Or take culture: to 1950s viewers, Johnson argues, complex TV shows such as Lost or The Wire would have been borderline incomprehensible, like some kind of avant-garde art, because certain ways of engaging with the medium hadn’t yet been learned. And all this applies, too, to the most basic innovation: life itself. At some point, back in the primordial soup, a bunch of fatty acids gave rise to a cell membrane, which made possible the simplest organisms, and so on. What those acids couldn’t do was spontaneously form into a fish, or a mouse: it wasn’t part of their adjacent possible.

What does all this mean in practical terms?

The best way to encourage (or to have) new ideas isn’t to fetishise the “spark of genius”, to retreat to a mountain cabin in order to “be creative”, or to blabber interminably about “blue-sky”, “out-of-the-box” thinking. Rather, it’s to expand the range of your possible next moves – the perimeter of your potential – by exposing yourself to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine. This is one way of explaining the creativity generated by cities, by Europe’s 17th-century coffee-houses, and by the internet. Good ideas happen in networks; in one rather brain-bending sense, you could even say that “good ideas are networks”. Or as Johnson also puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”

Another surprising truth about big ideas: even when they seem to be individual flashes of genius, they don’t happen in a flash – though the people who have them often subsequently claim that they did. Charles Darwin always said that the theory of natural selection occurred to him on 28 September 1838 while he was reading Thomas Malthus’s essay on population; suddenly, the mechanism of evolution seemed blindingly straightforward. (“How incredibly stupid not to think of that,” Darwin’s great supporter Thomas Huxley was supposed to have said on first hearing the news.) Yet Darwin’s own notebooks reveal that the theory was forming clearly in his mind more than a year beforehand: it wasn’t a flash of insight, but what Johnson calls a “slow hunch”. And on the morning after his alleged eureka moment, was Darwin feverishly contemplating the implications of his breakthrough? Nope: he busied himself with some largely unconnected ruminations on the sexual curiosity of primates.

A certain kind of businessperson, I suspect, will buy Where Good Ideas Come From in order to learn to how to come up with a killer business idea, bring it to market, and clean up financially. They may find themselves slightly alarmed, therefore, by a sequence of striking graphics in which Johnson demonstrates that the vast majority of major innovations since 1800 have come from outside the free market – from universities and other environments where profit wasn’t the overwhelming motivation. The urge to hoard, protect and directly profit from good ideas can work against the sharing-and-recombining ethos that the adjacent possible demands. And it’s often the case that those who do attain vast wealth have done so by finding ways to exploit the creativity of the non-market world. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is so rich today only because Tim Berners-Lee developed the web as a non-profit venture. (And a non-profit venture, incidentally, that had no eureka moment either. Johnson quotes Berners-Lee as saying that interviewers are always frustrated when he admits he never experienced one.)

I think this means I can come down from my mountain cabin, withdraw all my patent applications, return the billions of dollars my investors have sent me, and start talking to people again. It seems as if I am going to be poorer but much better connected.

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The other theme that came out of the film The Social Network was this: Facebook is not just an inevitable consequence of new technology; it’s a result of someone coming up with a really big and really simple idea that no-one had thought of before.

The technology was already there: the internet, the web, a few algorithms that had been used in other situations before. (What are these ‘algorithms’? They always pop up in stories about geeks taking over the world.) All it took was someone like Mark Zuckerberg to think of something new and wonderful to create with these tools.

As is so often the case, it was the cross-fertilization between two worlds that allowed the hybrid idea to emerge – or at least that’s how it was presented. When you combine the exclusivity and shared intimacy of a college ‘frat’ (a social club), with the real-time communication and computational power of the internet – you get Facebook.

The power of a Really Big Idea. This is why Dragons’ Den is such good TV. It’s not the money; it’s whether an ordinary person can convince a team of savvy investors that they really do have the germ of a decent idea.

Ever since watching the film on Friday evening, I’ve been trying to create a Zuckerberg moment for myself, to come up with that Big Idea that’s going to change the world. It hasn’t happened yet. But you will be the first to hear about it when it comes! (Unless I need to talk to my investors first…)

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