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Archive for December, 2010

Lots of end-of-year internet usage stats are coming in. For the first time, in the US at least, Facebook surpassed Google as the most visited website.

This is from Reuters (by Jennifer Saba):

The social network site edged out Google.com (GOOG.O) with 8.9 percent of all U.S. visits between January and November 2010, while Google.com ranked second with about 7.2 percent of all visits, according to online measurement service Experian Hitwise.

Facebook’s move to the top spot shows just how quickly the site has grown in popularity. Within the span of six years, Facebook has become the world’s largest Web social network with roughly half a billion users worldwide.

Google.com dominated the top spot as the most visited website in the United States in 2009 and 2008. News Corp’s (NWSA.O) MySpace was the No. 1 visited website in 2007. It is ranked No. 7.

However, when all of Google’s properties are considered — such as YouTube and email, for instance — Google still reigns as the most visited site at 9.9 percent between January and November 2010. Facebook follows at 8.9 percent. Yahoo (YHOO.O) and all of its properties ranked third at 8.1 percent.

So connecting with others has become more important than finding things for oneself. In the language of my previous post about basic human needs and self-determination theory, the need for ‘relatedness’ has triumphed over the need for ‘autonomy’. That’s my vastly over-simplified way of looking at these huge cultural shifts!

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A friend introduced me to a branch of psychology called ‘self-determination theory’. It looks at how human beings grow and mature in the context of their relationships and their social environment.

The theory suggests that there are three basic needs that we all have in our journey towards psychological maturity and well-being: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

‘Autonomy’ is our need to be ourselves, to have a sense of freedom and responsibility for who we are and for the choices we make. ‘Relatedness’ is our need to connect with others, in love and friendship; and the need to belong in wider ways, through different types of community and communication. ‘Competence’ highlights the fact that it is not enough just to discover ourselves or to belong. We also need to have a purpose, a role, a skill, something to contribute to a bigger project. It’s not just that we want to be valued in the subjective eyes of others; we also want to be objectively valuable.

I found this very useful, thinking about the different kinds of social environments I have belonged to in my life, and the subtle motivations and needs that have been in play there: in my family, school, college, workplace, seminary, parish, etc. All three basic needs have been present, jostling with each other, often hardly acknowledged. What happens if one need is not met? If you have lots of personal freedom but no commitment to others? If you give and receive lots of love but have nothing worthwhile to do? If you have much to give but no-one to give it to? 

It struck me that the different needs are represented by our names. I know how much the tradition of naming varies in each culture. Your first name is personal. It’s not unique (there are many Stephens in the world), but it points to your individuality within your own family, to your autonomy. Your surname is your family name; it signifies your relatedness to your family in the present, and to the family as it extends back into the past – but often only on your father’s side! And many surnames used to represent your competence, your social role: Smith, Potter, Thatcher, Fisher, Cook, Bowman, Mason, etc.

And what about middle names? Quite often in Britain a middle name is a way of connecting an individual with a particularly loved relation, e.g. an uncle or aunt, a grandfather and grandmother. Or it’s just another random personal name. The Chinese custom is particularly interesting. You are given a personal name, the same as in Britain. But you are also given a generational name – something we don’t have in the British tradition. It’s a name given to all the males or females in your generation, across the extended family. So if you are a boy, you share this generational name with your brothers and with all your male first cousins. If you are a girl, you share a different name with all your sisters and with all your female first cousins. It shows this extra level of relatedness within the family.

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A bit of fun for the Christmas break: Take a look at these two video clips I’ve been saving up. The first is for all you who are old enough to remember Rubik’s cube. I could never finish it – I got to the first two layers and then the brain gave out. Watch this – it only lasts 15 seconds:

The second clip is so magical I’m not sure whether it’s a spoof or not. Here is the blurb, and then watch the video.

QuestVisual has released an eye-catching iOS app called Word Lens. Word Lens is an augmented reality app for the iPhone and iPod Touch (with video camera) which offers real time translation of text. You simply point your device’s video camera at a sign and the program translates and superimposes the translated text onto the video in real time.

The demo video shows it in action:



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Many of you will already have seen the latest ChurchAds posters over the last couple of weeks in bus stops around the country. The campaign shows an ultrasound scan of a foetus with a halo above its head, and the words “He’s on his way: Christmas starts with Christ”.

Karen McVeigh looks at some of the reactions. She quotes Mike Elms, vice-chair of ChurchAds.net.

We wanted to convey that Christmas starts with Christ. That this baby was on the way. Then we thought that the scan was a way of conveying that: it is modern currency in announcing a modern birth. We put a halo on it because theologians speak of Jesus being fully human and fully divine. People are entitled to talk about it, but when the posters are put up, from the 6 till 20 December, it will be seen in context and its real message will become clear.

Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society isn’t happy:

It is an incredible piece of naivety on their part. If they are hoping to stop the secular drift away from Christmas as a Christian festival, they risk doing the opposite. It gives the impression that it was politically motivated, that they are trying to put across some sort of subliminal message. The image is too specifically associated with pro-lifers to be seen in a benign context. They should go back to angels and cribs.

John Smeaton of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child is more positive:

The advert is saying that Jesus was alive as a person before he was born. They have a halo round his head and you don’t have a halo around the head of a blob of jelly or a cluster of cells. This is not a cluster of cells… It is about the humanity of the unborn. That is a very, very powerful statement that will strike a chord with the general population.

I like the poster, because it makes me think more deeply – about what it means to say that the Word became flesh; that God became a human being, dwelt in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and was born in a particular place and at a particular time in human history. What a staggering mystery. And that if Mary were walking the streets of London today, she would have an ultrasound scan of her baby in her purse to show to her family, and an appointment with the doctor to check for foetal abnormalities, and friends asking her if she was really going to go ahead with the pregnancy in this difficult situation.

I just think it would have been a lot more powerful without the halo, and in fact without the words. As it is, it borders on being twee. I’d prefer it with just the scan. A grainy image of a human being in the womb, on a bus stop, in the last few days before Christmas. Leave us to puzzle out what it means and what it implies. I wonder if Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society would have been happier if the explicit religious message had been taken away. I’m not so sure.

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Yes, a zebra crossing in north London has been granted Grade II status by English Heritage. Six white bands on a stretch of tarmac, which I presume have been painted over any number of times since the Fab Four walked across them in 1969, are now up there in the cultural rankings with some of the finest churches and public buildings in our land. Isn’t it fantastic!

Then

Now

I showed my appreciation for the crossing a few months ago in a post about potholes; and regular readers will know that I have an occasional interest in the niche subjects of traffic management and urban planning. Forgive me for copying from my previous post here:

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

Here is Sam Jones’s account of the recent listing.

The heritage minister John Penrose took the unusual decision to protect the crossing, which provided the cover shot for Abbey Road album, following advice from English Heritage.

Penrose said that while the crossing was “no castle or cathedral”, it had “just as strong a claim as any to be seen as part of our heritage” because of its link to the Beatles. He added: “As such it merits the extra protection that Grade II listing provides.”

Roger Bowdler, head of designation at English Heritage, said: “the crossing continues to possess huge cultural pull — the temptation to recreate that 1969 album cover remains as strong as ever.”

The Abbey Road album was the last to be completed by the Beatles, although Let It Be, which had been recorded earlier, was the last to be issued.

Fans flock to the crossing from every corner of the globe. On the 40th anniversary of the photoshoot on 8 August last year, hundreds of people relived the moment, causing traffic chaos in the area.

Other groups who have copied the pose include Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their homage, used on the front of 1988’s The Abbey Road EP, had more in common with solo-era John Lennon than the original shot: it showed the Californian band crossing the road naked but for four strategically placed white sports socks.

 

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Google is extending its reach ‘upwards’ and ‘backwards’. The ‘upwards’ direction is into ‘the cloud’, as it encourages us to store our data and software offsite on its remote servers, instead of in our homes and offices. The ‘backwards’ direction is into cultural history, as it becomes the market leader in scanning, storing and analysing the trillions of words that have been written since the dawn of history.

"The Cloud"

There are some wonderful possibilities and one or two dangers in all this. Charles Arthur reports on some of the dangers.

Google’s new cloud computing ChromeOS looks like a plan “to push people into careless computing” by forcing them to store their data in the cloud rather than on machines directly under their control, warns Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and creator of the operating system GNU.

Two years ago Stallman, a computing veteran who is a strong advocate of free software via his Free Software Foundation, warned that making extensive use of cloud computing was “worse than stupidity” because it meant a loss of control of data.

Now he says he is increasingly concerned about the release by Google of its ChromeOS operating system, which is based on GNU/Linux and designed to store the minimum possible data locally. Instead it relies on a data connection to link to Google’s “cloud” of servers, which are at unknown locations, to store documents and other information.

The risks include loss of legal rights to data if it is stored on a company’s machine’s rather than your own, Stallman points out: “In the US, you even lose legal rights if you store your data in a company’s machines instead of your own. The police need to present you with a search warrant to get your data from you; but if they are stored in a company’s server, the police can get it without showing you anything. They may not even have to give the company a search warrant.”

“I think that marketers like “cloud computing” because it is devoid of substantive meaning. The term’s meaning is not substance, it’s an attitude: ‘Let any Tom, Dick and Harry hold your data, let any Tom, Dick and Harry do your computing for you (and control it).’ Perhaps the term ‘careless computing’ would suit it better.”

He sees a creeping problem: “I suppose many people will continue moving towards careless computing, because there’s a sucker born every minute. The US government may try to encourage people to place their data where the US government can seize it without showing them a search warrant, rather than in their own property. However, as long as enough of us continue keeping our data under our own control, we can still do so. And we had better do so, or the option may disappear.”

It might sound a bit paranoid, but remember that Amazon recently removed Wikileaks from its cloud computing on the grounds that they had breached its terms and conditions.

Alok Jha, more positively, writes about the new science of ‘culturomics’ that has emerged to analyse the vast databases of newly scanned literature.

How many words in the English language never make it into dictionaries? How has the nature of fame changed in the past 200 years? How do scientists and actors compare in their impact on popular culture?

These are just some of the questions that researchers and members of the public can now answer using a new online tool developed by Google with the help of scientists at Harvard University. The massive searchable database is being hailed as the key to a new era of research in the humanities, linguistics and social sciences that has been dubbed “culturomics”.

The database comprises more than 5m books – both fiction and non-fiction – published between 1800 and 2000, representing around 4% of all the books ever printed. Dr Jean-Baptiste Michel and Dr Erez Lieberman Aiden of Harvard University have developed the search tool, which they say will give researchers the ability to quantify a huge range of cultural trends in history.

“Interest in computational approaches to the humanities and social sciences dates back to the 1950s,” said Michel, a psychologist in Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. “But attempts to introduce quantitative methods into the study of culture have been hampered by the lack of suitable data. We now have a massive dataset, available through an interface that is user-friendly and freely available to anyone.”

What can it actually do? Just take two examples. First, an analysis of the changing nature of fame over the last two centuries.

By looking at the frequency of famous people’s names in literature, they showed that celebrities born in the mid-20th century tended to be younger and more famous than those of the 19th century, but their fame lasted for a shorter period of time. By 1950, celebrities were achieving fame, on average, when they were 29, compared with 43 for celebrities around 1800. “People are getting more famous than ever before,” wrote the researchers, “but are being forgotten more rapidly than ever.”

Another example: tracking censorship across different cultures.

The database can also identify patterns of censorship in the literature of individual countries. The Jewish artist Marc Chagall, for example, was mentioned only once in the entire German literature from 1936 to 1944, even though his appearance in English-language books grew around fivefold in the same period. There is also evidence of censorship in Chinese literature when it comes to Tiananmen Square and in Russian books with regard to Leon Trotsky.

Google will know us better than we know ourselves. Although that is probably already true just from its analysis of what we have searched for over the last few months.

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How do you make sense of a radical commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience in the contemporary world? Is it possible for someone to say: “For love of Jesus Christ, and in answer to his call, I desire to give myself to him, freely and forever, and to devote my whole life to the extension of his Kingdom”?

It was good to be with Sister Cathy Mary of the Holy Spirit on Saturday, as she said these very words and made her final vows in the Congregation of the Religious of the Assumption in their beautifully restored chapel in Kensington. You can see their website here.

I’ve already posted about the renewal of religious life in this country, and one of the many encouraging signs on Saturday was the number of young religious sisters from other congregations who were there to support Sr Cathy.

Fr Matt Blake OCD gave a beautiful homily about the meaning of a lifelong commitment in religious vows. Three thoughts really struck me. First, reflecting on the journey of faith that brings someone to this point, and why the extended period of discernment and initiation is so important, he said:

It takes time for God’s deepest desire for you to become your own deepest desire for yourself.

That’s why, quite often, when we make a heartfelt prayer to God that he would reveal our true vocation, the answer doesn’t always come straight away. It’s not just that we aren’t ready to hear; sometimes we aren’t ready to want what God wants, or to want what he wants us to want.

Second, he spoke about a scene from the film Of Gods and Men, which I haven’t seen yet. One of the monks is agonising about whether he should stay in the Algerian monastery and risk giving his life as a martyr. In response his abbot says something like, ‘But you have already given your life without reservation to God in your monastic vows’. And the monk is overcome with a sense of clarity and peace about his desire to remain where he is – whatever the cost.

Fr Matt drew out from this a profound thought about the nature of commitment: that instead of acting as a restraint, which is what we often fear, it actually gives you a greater freedom. When you make an unconditional ‘yes’ (e.g., to Christ, or to a specific vocation, or to a husband or wife), it means you have already accepted all the future commitments that come along implicitly with this original commitment. Some, of course, will be difficult; some will be unexpected; some will even seem to stretch the meaning of that ‘yes’ in ways that seemed unimaginable at the beginning. But they will all be part of the same decision to give oneself completely.

This gives an enormous freedom and security. There will be incredibly difficult choices to make, but the fundamental one has already been made. And that takes away the existential anguish of constantly having to reconsider whether this purpose, this deepest commitment, is actually worthwhile or not.

The final thought was about the Gospel reading, which was the story of the Annunciation – when the Angel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary and announces that she will give birth to the Son of God. Fr Matt said “I’ve always thought that the most important line in the whole passage is…” – and we all started guessing whether it would be one of Gabriel’s profound words to Mary or Mary’s profound words to Gabriel. But he went on “…the most important line in the whole passage is the last one: And the angel left her.

That threw me. I must have heard this passage a hundred times, but not once have I thought about that last line. It doesn’t mean, said Fr Matt, that God ever abandons anyone, or that the gift of his Holy Spirit is ever taken away from those who are trying to be faithful to Christ in their vocation. But the glory that surrounds the event, even the clarity and inspiration that made the commitment possible – these can fade and sometimes disappear. What endures is the commitment itself. We don’t know if the Virgin Mary ever saw the angel again in her lifetime, but she treasured his memory and clung to the truth that he had revealed.

I don’t think Fr Matt was being pessimistic about Sr Cathy’s future by drawing attention to this line. He was just speaking from his experience of religious life, and in his own way he was offering encouragement: You’ve had a wonderful day professing your final vows, now you can get on with the business of living them.

PS: These thoughts came from silvana rscj in the comments:

Following on from your reflections on the angel… in PierPaolo Pasolini’s film the Gospel According to St Matthew, Mary does meet the angel again, 33 years later at the tomb of her son, now risen from the dead. There is a lovely look of recognition on her face, and, finally, understanding of everything the angel had told her all those years ago.

Maybe that’s how it will be for us too: many years and events later, we will eventually come to understand the promises God has made to us, and, like Mary, enter into a deeper, closer relationship with Jesus…

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How much time do you ‘waste’ at work doing one of the following: making tea or coffee for yourself; drinking tea or coffee; offering to make tea or coffee for others; actually making tea or coffee for others; talking to others in the place where you make tea or coffee without actually making any tea or coffee?

Tom de Castella asks these profound questions, and many more, in a recent article. It seems that British workers ‘lose’ an average of 24 minutes per day getting tea or coffee. But the real question is whether this benefits personal well-being, office harmony, and general productivity; or whether it’s just a way of skiving off work.

Four in 10 workers make a hot drink for more than one colleague every day, while the under 30s get their caffeine hit from runs to coffee chains like Starbucks and Costa. The average adult spends 24 minutes a day on fetching and drinking hot drinks, costing their employer £400 a year in lost man hours, says T6, who conducted the survey of 1,000 people. It estimates that over a lifetime the tea run accounts for nearly 190 days of lost productivity.

So is all this slurping of warm beverages a good use of employees’ time? Bill Gorman, chairman of the UK Tea Council, says the research ignores the “kindness” of the tea break. “Tea drinkers are very sociable. It’s a caring thing to know how your colleagues take their tea. What are the pollsters saying? That we should just keep working at our desks with a glass of water beside us?”

Occupational psychologist Cary Cooper agrees, saying breaks are an essential part of coping with sedentary office life. “Nowadays we sit in front of screens not communicating eyeball to eyeball and even e-mail people in the same building,” says the professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School. “We need to make people more active and see other people. The coffee break is one way of doing this.”

Companies should organise morning breaks twice a week, where people are encouraged to leave their desks to chat over free hot drinks, suggests Prof Cooper. Not everyone likes tea or coffee of course. People who don’t drink caffeine should have other options like apples or herbal infusions, so as not to feel “alienated”, he adds.

Indeed – it’s hugely important not to make apple-eaters feel alienated…

What are your own tea/coffee routines at work – and what do they mean? Has the kitchenette or coffee machine become the real boardroom or hearth or even altar at your workplace – the place where deals are done and relationships managed and souls soothed? Or would we be better just taking in a Thermos flask each morning and getting on with the job at hand?

If you want to read more about the supposed effects not just of the ‘making the tea/coffee ritual’ but of the consumption of caffeine itself, then see the full article here.

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How much do you drink? Per day? Per week? I don’t mean cappuccinos and milkshakes. I mean units of alcohol.

I’m not assuming you are middle-class, but middle-class drinking is the focus of Robert Crampton’s article about the increasing acceptance of moderate-to-heavy alcohol consumption as part of an ordinary British lifestyle. [The Times Magazine, 12 Dec 2010; subscription only]

Over the last few years, alcohol consumption has actually fallen slightly, but not for everyone:

Among the middle-aged and older, and the more affluent, it has continued to rise. And because measuring consumption in the home is harder, and middle-class people tend to drink in their own and each other’s homes, the rise is likely to be higher than recorded.

Anecdotally, certainly, the evidence is clear. Most of my friends drink pretty much every day; the norm is none or one dry day each week. They sink maybe two or three beers or a half a bottle of wine, plus maybe a Scotch or a gin each night, sometimes more, in the week; then more, sometimes a lot more, at weekends. And then you’ve got holidays, special occasions, obviously the Christmas party season, already well under way.

We’ve come a long way from when we were kids in the Seventies and the booze stayed in the sideboard, a luxury that came out with the best crockery two or three times a year. To be middle class in Britain now is to drink, often rather a lot.

What’s the effect of all this drinking?

You get fat: I put on half a stone just in August. You sleep badly, either not enough or far too much. After a big, marquee night, a 20-unit extravaganza, you can lose a whole day to a hangover. Even at 11am, your wife is shushing the children because daddy’s not feeling well.

You make bad decisions. You get grumpy. You slur. You fall off your bike late at night. You have conversations with strangers you then can’t remember – the conversation or the stranger. Some people take advantage of your drunken generosity. You send e-mails and texts you probably shouldn’t send. And it costs you, what? Depending on where and what you’re drinking, 50 quid a week? Eighty quid? One hundred quid?

Why do people drink more? Everyone will have their own personal story, but Crampton thinks the bigger cultural changes have had a significant influence.

I grew up thinking heavy drinking was like gambling, something some idle rich people did and some deluded poor people did, not something those of us in the middle did. Or if we did do it, we felt bad about it. I think that was the way of it for most middle-class people my age, irrespective of religion or politics.

My parents had grown up in a mid-20th-century Britain constrained by war, rationing, lack of money and the residual influence of church or chapel. In mid-century, the country drank less than one third of what it had drunk in 1900, and just over one third of what it would drink in 2000. But even as I imbibed the idea that regular, let alone heavy drinking was at best strange, at worst sinful, the reality on the ground was shifting. By the time I turned 16 in 1980, the country was drinking twice as much as it had when my dad had turned 18 in 1950. And for the first time, a significant measure – about 15 per cent – in the national cocktail was wine, the middle-class tipple.

In the 30 years between my 16th birthday in 1980 and my 46th this August (three champagnes, two white wines, two margaritas, one red wine, one pint of Guinness) we have got richer and booze has got cheaper. Any religious restriction on drinking has all but evaporated. Foreign travel – and thus access both to even cheaper booze and an agreeable, vinocentric culture – is routine. Working hours are more flexible. Food is about 100 times better: there is far more incentive to combine a bottle of wine with what we eat in 2010 than with what we ate in 1980. The middle class has all but abandoned one vice, smoking, and adopted another, alcohol, in partial replacement.

I think something else has changed in Britain in those years, too, something less tangible. The middle class – even the strait-laced section I hail from – has learnt to value sensual pleasure in a way that would have seemed almost immoral to many even 30 years ago. And what more easily available sensual pleasure is there than drink?

Thirty years ago, at some level, we thought drinking, not just heavy drinking, was wrong. We don’t think that way any more. But maybe we should. Not all the time, four or five days out of seven would do the trick.

Crampton is not a puritan – that’s what makes his article so interesting. He just wishes we could find some balance and moderation. He wants us to recognise that there is a downside to our increasing dependence on alcohol. And he wants us to be more honest about the desires and needs that drive us to drink in the first place, and to ask whether we could meet them in other ways that would be equally fulfilling.

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Just a few weeks ago, on 31st October 2010, at 01:59 and 59 seconds in the morning, millions of us in Britain, and many millions more throughout Europe, travelled back in time by one hour, and found ourselves in the same position in the same bed, but now – instantaneously – at exactly the same time we were one hour before. I wanted to say this took place at exactly 2 o’clock in the morning, but that’s the point: this particular 2 o’clock in the morning never arrives, it doesn’t exist; it’s lost in an alternative universe, and we have to wait another hour for another 2 o’clock, when the new time pretends it has caught up with the old.

This isn’t science fiction, it’s the twilight zone of moving from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time, when the clocks change each autumn. An event so ordinary and yet so mysterious that we hardly think about it. Or dream about it. I’ve never been awake when the clock actually changes – and I have one of those digital radio clocks by my bed, so in theory I would see it change before my eyes.

We can just change time. How staggering! Or is it just a great act of make-believe? Most of us are so disconnected from the natural rhythms of the world that we don’t notice whether this ‘conventional’ time fits in with ‘real’ time or not.

One of my obsessions when I was studying philosophy was the notion of ‘measure’, and how important it is that we have rival and non-standard units of measurement, to remind us that a unit is simply a convention, that there is no intrinsic truth to any one way of mapping the world, and that each form of measurement allows us to see the world in a particular way. Thank goodness that in Britain we still have both metres and yards, litres and pints, kilogrammes and pounds.

My only sadness, in the context of this post, is that we don’t have alternative ways of measuring time. Or do we? ‘Noon’, possibly, means ‘when the sun is at its height’, and not necessarily 12.00 – which no longer has any natural connection with the height of the sun. It’s a miracle that we haven’t got metric time – that we still stick to units of 24, 12, 60, etc. Although we have creeping metricisation (is that a word?) with the millisecond.

I started all these thoughts about the clocks because we are now one small step closer to tinkering with time even further, and keeping British Summer Time throughout the winter too. Which would mean darker mornings and brighter evenings in the winter.

What’s not to like? The Independent gives the arguments for:

Almost unheralded, the question of daylight saving is back on to the agenda – and a very good thing that is, too. A Private Member’s Bill, which passed its second reading [on 4 Dec], would require the Government to open an inquiry into the benefits of keeping British Summer Time throughout the year.

There is, of course, a nostalgia issue here. In some ways it would be a pity to lose Greenwich Mean Time, which has such resonance both in Britain and around the world. This, however, is a detail compared with the many advantages that would accrue from a switch to year-round BST. Road safety groups say that 100 road deaths could be prevented every year. There would be significant economies on energy consumption, as the daylight hours would match most people’s waking and working hours more closely than they do in winter at present. And organisations as diverse as the Football Association, green groups and tourist concerns are also in favour. An additional plus is psychological: it would eliminate the damper that early darkness puts on the national mood each autumn.

The Daily Mail gives the arguments against. And instead of calling it ‘Year Long British Summer Time’ it prefers ‘Berlin Time’.

Britain has been warned that switching to Berlin Time could have a damaging effect on health, education, energy consumption and commerce.

As MPs prepare to vote on the proposal this week, warning bells were sounded in Portugal, which went through a disastrous four-year experiment with Berlin Time in the Nineties.

The official line in Portugal was that moving the clocks forward by one hour would create jobs, reduce road deaths and encourage participation in sport. But the opposite proved to be the case and the government had to heed public opinion and return to GMT.

Opponents [to the British plan] point out that millions more people all over Britain would have to go to work and school in the dark.

London would be in semi-darkness at 9am on the shortest day of the year, December 21, and the sun would not appear in Carlisle on that day until 9.34am.

There is also concern that the longer summer evenings could lead to more outdoor drinking and anti-social behaviour. Sunset in Glasgow on the longest day of the year, June 21, would not take place until 11.06pm, while in Nottingham it would be at 10.34pm and in Dover it would be at 10.14pm.

The Portuguese found that changing to Berlin Time – officially known as Continental Time – led to poorer exam results as children could not get to sleep because of the lighter evenings and were therefore tired at school the following day.

There was also an increase in stress levels, insomnia and consumption of sleeping pills. More road accidents occurred during the darker winter mornings and energy bills rose because households used more electricity.

I’m for it. Longer evenings. That’s the clincher. What do you think?

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Very rarely does an advert on a billboard make me stop and think. This one did.

In case you can’t see the image well, the poster reads:

You are not stuck in traffic.

You are traffic.

Well, I was driving along the A41 at 50 mph, so I didn’t stop. But the mental processes were interrupted for a moment, and I found myself thinking about all the times that I distance myself from the people or events around me, treating them as ‘other’, when they are really me, and I am them.

Traffic jam in Bangkok

 

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What is the MacGuffin? You have to read to the end to find out!

In my last post I wrote about the psychology of desire and projection in the experience of cinemagoing. It’s not this particular object that matters to the person watching the film (the treasure, the secret files, the briefcase) – it’s the fact that this object becomes a symbolic representation of a deeper longing. The plot, if it’s a good one, allows us both to acknowledge that longing, and to have a sense of moving towards its fulfilment.

Searching for the hidden treasure!

Alfred Hitchcock is the master in this regard. He doesn’t just create ‘suspense’ (a very weak work); he opens up the hidden currents of longing that lie within the human soul – and attaches them to the most ordinary and sometimes absurd objects.

How? With the MacGuffin! What’s the MacGuffin? This is his answer from an interview he gave with Oriana Fallaci in 1963:

You must know that when I’m making a movie, the story isn’t important to me. What’s important is how I tell the story. For example, in a movie about espionage what the spy is looking for isn’t important, it’s how he looks for it. Yet I have to say what he’s looking for. It doesn’t matter to me, but it matters a great deal to the public, and most of all it matters to the character of the movie. Why should the character go to so much trouble? Why does the government pay him to go to so much trouble? Is he looking for a bomb, a secret? This secret, this bomb, is for me the MacGuffin, a word that comes from an old Scottish story. Should I tell you the story? Is there enough tape?

Well, two men are traveling in a train, and one says to the other, “What’s that parcel on the luggage rack?” “That? It’s the MacGuffin,” says the other. “And what’s the MacGuffin?” asks the first man. “The MacGuffin is a device for catching lions in Scotland,” the other replies. “But there aren’t any lions in Scotland,” says the first man. “Then it isn’t the MacGuffin,” answers the other…

[From Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews, Ed. Sidney Gottlieb, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2003, p62]

And in the formal structure of this blog-post itself, in the plot of these few hundred words, what is the MacGuffin? It’s the answer to the question “What is the MacGuffin?”

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Monsters is a slight but beautiful film. It’s not really about alien invasions – it’s a road movie, a love story, and almost a political parable. The photography is stunning. The two main characters are just quirky and wounded enough to be interesting. You can see the trailer here (which pretends that it really is a film about alien invasions).

[WARNING: Minor plot spoilers follow]

The aliens are more than just wallpaper. They give the initial momentum to the plot, one or two small scares on the way (don’t worry – the film is only a 12A rating), and a slightly strained epiphany at the end; but that’s about it.

In a road movie you need to be running away or running home or both. But it doesn’t really matter what you’re running from. It could be a tyrannosaurus rex or a band of vigilantes or a wicked stepmother. It could be your past, or even your future.

The key is wanting to be somewhere else; and sometimes wanting to be someone else. That’s why we can identify with it even if we are not at this particular moment being threatened by aliens ourselves.

And in a love story, to the extent that we identify with one of the protagonists, we think we are longing for love. But it’s deeper than that. We project our own longing onto the story, whatever that longing is, and whatever the story is. And in fact the deepest longing is not a longing for this or for that, it’s a longing for the idea of fulfilment in itself – the ‘happy ever after’ of a fairytale or a romantic comedy.

It’s almost a longing to long for its own sake; a yearning that doesn’t actually want to latch onto anything concrete, because then it would limit itself. The road movie and the love story allow us to admit not just that we want more than we have, but that we want more than we want – and we don’t know what to do with that extra wanting. But to deny it would be to deny something fundamental about ourselves.

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"St John the Baptist Preaching" by Rodin

I don’t want to turn this blog into an archive of Sunday sermons, but here is one thought from a recent Advent homily – about procrastination and the difficulty of doing what we really want to do.

I’ve spent the twenty-five years of my life as an adult telling myself that next week I will start flossing my teeth. Tonight, I’ll stand in front of the bathroom mirror, as I always do, with the same excuses: “I’m tired. It’s been a long day. I need to sleep. But next week, definitely, absolutely, I’ll begin.”

What’s dental hygiene got to do with Advent? Nothing at all. But my personal struggles in this area are an example of how easy it is for us to put things off. Little things. Big things. Life changing things. There’s always a tomorrow; and we always think we have more time.

John the Baptist is the patron saint of ‘not putting things off’. He bursts onto the pages of the gospels like someone from another world. And meeting him is not a comfortable experience.

You know when you are sitting on the top deck of a bus, and someone slightly deranged gets on, talking to no-one in particular, staggering around – and everyone freezes, uncertain where this is going to go, self-conscious, and slightly frightened.

Or when you’re driving the car, lost in a day-dream, and something jolts you awake, and you realise you were within an inch of a terrible accident; and in those moments afterwards your experience a strange mix of alertness, gratitude, vulnerability and delayed terror. These are some of the feelings aroused today when John the Baptist starts to preach.

You can put his message into one word. “Now!” Now is the time to repent. Now is the time to bear fruit. Now the axe is about to strike the root.

Think of anything important in your life that you have been putting off. Anything good and worthwhile. And John says: If it is really important, then just do it. Now. There may not be another chance.

Is there a promise you haven’t kept? A responsibility you haven’t fulfilled? Is there someone you need to love more, or see more, or avoid seeing? Is there someone you need to forgive, or say sorry to? Is there a decision you’ve been putting off, an opportunity you’ve been afraid to seize, a holy ambition you haven’t pursued, or a vocation you’ve been running away from? Is there a tiny change in your habits or lifestyle or view of the world that would make a huge difference to yourself and to others, that you haven’t made simply because you haven’t got round to it?

What would John the Baptist say? “Now!” Deal with it now. You may never have another chance. And you may spend the rest of your life regretting that you didn’t put things right or take things forward while you had the chance.

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There’s a wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy, running until the end of January. I’d never heard of the Glasgow Boys before, but I was struck by one of the posters on the tube, and found the time to go this week.

These comments are from the Royal Academy website, where you can also find the opening times, etc.

The Royal Academy of Arts presents the first major exhibition in London for over 40 years to celebrate the achievement of the Glasgow Boys, the loosely knit group of young painters who created a stir at home and abroad in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

The exhibition features over 80 oil paintings, watercolours and pastels from public and private collections by such artists as Guthrie, Lavery, Melville, Crawhall, Walton, Henry and Hornel. Together they presented a new art, which had a major impact at home and abroad in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The resultant works were, from c. 1880 to 1900, among the most experimental and ambitious to be produced in the UK.

Taking inspiration from such French Naturalist painters as Bastien-Lepage and also from Whistler, the Glasgow Boys produced some of the most revolutionary painting in Britain, drawing praise in London, Munich, Vienna and further afield. Their symbolist pictures were admired and emulated in secessionist circles in Germany and Austria.

The exhibition maps the Glasgow Boys’ responses in both subject matter and technique to developments in art which were taking place in Paris in the 1870s and 1880s. These artists sought to liberate their art from the staid, dark toned narrative paintings being produced in Glasgow and Edinburgh in order to explore the effects of realist subject matter and the particular effects of light captured through working out of doors, directly in front of the motif.

The themes of the earlier works were certainly naturalistic, but many of the figures had a formality and stillness that reminded me of the paintings of Piero della Francesca.

Here are people caught up in the most ordinary activities (waiting for a ferry, digging potatoes, walking home from the fields), yet somehow involved in a hidden ritual, a carefully choreographed dance – as if their inner poise resulted from an assurance that they had a place in a larger order. Something contemplative about them. I don’t think this is just the artist (or myself) romanticising rural life. I think it’s about a human dignity that has been rendered visually through the individual compositions.

And I loved the colours. As maymay1 commented on the Guardian website (see below): “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many beautiful shades of green.”

There are interesting reviews here from the Guardian, and the Telegraph; and you can see a slide show here of eight of the pictures.

It’s well worth seeing.

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What do men really want? Not (apparently) beautiful women, fast cars, and an endless supply of free beer; but a life of duty, service, and self-sacrifice.

Robert Crampton wonders why the contemporary Western male is not happier than his father or grandfather, when he is ‘richer, safer, healthier, more long-lived, with a huge choice of leisure pursuits, lifestyles and material goods’. The answer, at the risk of oversimplifying, is that he is looking for happiness by seeking pleasure, rather than by cultivating virtue. He is following the path of Epicurus rather than Aristotle. And it isn’t working. ["What really makes men happy?" by Robert Crampton, The Times Magazine, 27/11/10, p54-59]

Live for today, the mantra that dominates our culture, simply does not work for most men. Men want to live for tomorrow. Men need goals, plans, causes, beliefs, structures, direction. Men are not natural Epicureans. Men crave the virtue Aristotle espoused.

That virtue can be found in small, everyday ways. The morning that I came into work to start this article, one of my colleagues, Jo, waylaid me by my desk. “Robert,” she said, “you strike me as a man who might have a screwdriver in his desk.” “I haven’t, I’m afraid,” I had to say. “What do you need a screwdriver for?” “My glasses have gone floppy,” said Jo, holding out her specs, the arms of which had indeed gone floppy. “Give them here,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do.”

I spent the next ten minutes experimenting with various tools attempting to tighten the screw at the side of Jo’s glasses, trying out in succession a penknife, teaspoon and paperclip in lieu of what was actually required, a tiny Phillips screwdriver. Eventually a bent staple fitted the screw head and gained traction. Thirty seconds later, Jo’s glasses were no longer floppy. She was duly grateful, I went back to work in a glow of satisfaction, of wellbeing and, yes, of happiness.

Why did this small action make me happy? Partly, but only partly, because Jo’s a woman and I’m a man. Partly my happiness came from sticking at a slightly awkward task, seeing it through, finding a solution. Partly it came from working with my hands, which I rarely do. And partly – mostly, I think – I derived a degree of pleasure from the fact that they were someone else’s glasses. I’d done a no-strings favour. Jo had asked for my help, I’d been able to oblige. Nothing in it for me. Except, happy as it made me, it turned out there was.

It’s not just about doing little favours and getting a glow of satisfaction from them. It’s about the whole direction of one’s life.

Men have an immense capacity for self-sacrifice. Not just a capacity, I would argue, but a need. Not all men, perhaps. But most. Male self-sacrifice is there in many of the key stories and myths of our culture, from the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae to the Battle of Britain.

For most of human history, what it has meant to be a man has involved self-sacrifice. Not only the patriotic self-sacrifice of war, also the peacetime sacrifice of doing a demanding, possibly dangerous job to provide for others. Or devoting yourself to a political, social or religious cause. Or simply having children and taking full responsibility for their welfare.

But these days, most men don’t dedicate themselves to creating Utopias, and aren’t involved in wars, or mining coal, or deep-sea fishing, or striving to lift their families out of poverty. All of which is a good thing.

A lot of men reach middle age unmarried and without children, which isn’t such a good thing, in my opinion – not for society, not for them. The reason married men are happier than bachelors is not, as in the caricature, because marriage allows husbands to grow lazy while a wife runs around for us. It’s the opposite: we’re happier because we’re almost certainly, to some degree or other, acting for someone’s benefit other than our own. I became a father at 33, which seems young from where I am now. Even so, I wish I’d done it sooner.

And it’s not just that we have lost the plot as individuals. The reason we have lost the individual plot is that we do not have the social networks there to remind us what really matters.

Our fathers and grandfathers had institutions to cultivate their virtue for them: the Church, the Army, early marriage, a lifelong, cumulative career building towards expertise and respect, a trade union, a political cause, an extended family network. Such bonds have either been loosened, or are gone.

In losing their access to these institutions and beliefs, men lost something else, too: the company of other like-minded men. A couple of generations back, men would work and play exclusively with other men. We did that too much. Now we probably don’t do it enough. Many of my contemporaries socialise with their partners or not at all. They have friends, but they are in some way estranged from them.

I like these ideas. But I’m not convinced by Crampton’s solutions. He wants us to live sacrificial lives as if we were living for a higher cause (with all the generosity and virtue that our grandfathers brought to their own causes), even if we are not sure about what the foundations of our own convictions and goals are. In the absence of God he appeals to conscience. It’s certainly better to follow your conscience than not to follow it. But I don’t think you can serve your conscience. It’s your conscience that helps you to serve and give your life to something that is more important than yourself: your family, your friends, your country, your God, those in need, etc. Conscience is a means to an end. But what if you have no identifiable end?

See what you think of Cramptons concluding remarks:

So what is to be done? Join the Army? Downshift to the country and become a lumberjack? Some things you can’t control: you can’t rustle up a morally bombproof cause like the defeat of fascism to fight for. You can’t start believing in a God whom you don’t think exists. You can’t go back to the days when your grandfather dedicated himself to lifting his family out of poverty. But what you can do is take the elements worth preserving from the institutions and activities and beliefs that we have lost and put them to work again.

You don’t have to be a labourer to spend time working with your hands. You don’t have to be a soldier or a sportsman to be fit rather than fat and lazy. You don’t need to be an intellectual to read a decent book. You don’t need to pretend to be thick and crude when you’re not. You don’t need to be a hero to take some responsibility for the world around you. You don’t have to be a revolutionary – it’s better if you’re not – to make that world a better place in small ways. You don’t have to be a monk to spend time alone to work out what you think about something, and what you need to do.

And you don’t, of course, need to be a believer to live according to a moral code. Most surveys conclude that the devout are happier than the faithless. It’s not clear why that is, but it might be because the belief that you are being judged by a higher authority is a superbly moderating influence on male behaviour. You don’t have to call that higher authority God. You can call it conscience. Pretty much everybody has one. When we live in rough accordance with our consciences, we’re happy. When we don’t, we’re not.

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The Catholic Worker Movement was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in New York in 1933. In my last post I wrote about the life and influence of Dorothy Day, so I thought it would interest readers to find out a bit more about the Catholic Worker Movement here.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin

What is it? Let me give a biblical answer, before turning to the history of the movement and it’s philosophy. Read this passage from St Luke’s Gospel, and imagine you are hearing it for the very first time:

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. 

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

Now, having read that, and been moved and inspired by it, imagine something more: just living it – simply, wholeheartedly, unconditionally, without making excuses or explaining it away. Just doing it, as best you can. And failing. And trying again. And failing again. But never giving up on the basic conviction that this is something to be lived and not just dreamt about; and that if you could live it, and everyone else could live it, what a transformation it would bring about in the world.

That’s the Catholic Worker Movement. I know I’m being idealistic – but that’s the point, isn’t it? To let the ideals crash into the difficult reality of ordinary life, instead of keeping them safe in a separate box?

But let me give two other perspectives. One is just to give the history, here in summary form by Jim Forest:

The Catholic Worker movement was founded in 1933 during the Great Depression by Dorothy Day at the urging of Peter Maurin. It is best known for houses of hospitality located in run-down sections of many cities, though a number of Catholic Worker centers exist in rural areas. Food, clothing, shelter and welcome is extended by unpaid volunteers to those in need according to the ability of each household. In 1995 there were 134 Catholic Worker communities, all but three in the United States.

“Our rule is the works of mercy,” said Dorothy Day. “It is the way of sacrifice, worship, a sense of reverence.”

The Catholic Worker is also the name of a newspaper published by the Catholic Worker community in New York City. From 1933 until her death in 1980, the editor was Dorothy Day, a journalist who was received into the Catholic Church in 1927. Writers for the paper have ranged from young volunteers to such notable figures as Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan and Jacques Maritain. (Many Catholic Worker communities publish newsletters or journals chiefly for local distribution.)

Beyond hospitality, Catholic Worker communities are known for activity in support of labor unions, human rights, cooperatives, and the development of a nonviolent culture. Those active in the Catholic Worker are often pacifists people seeking to live an unarmed, nonviolent life. During periods of military conscription, Catholic Workers have been conscientious objectors to miliary service. Many of those active in the Catholic Worker movement have been jailed for acts of protest against racism, unfair labor practices, social injustice and war.

Catholic Worker communities have refused to apply for federal tax exempt status, seeing such official recognition as binding the community to the state and limiting the movement’s freedom.

With its stress on voluntary poverty, the Catholic Worker has much in common with the early Franciscans, while its accent on community, prayer and hospitality has Benedictine overtones.

“We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes,” Dorothy Day explained, “but there is strong faith at work. We pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our prayings and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”

It is unlikely that any religious community was ever less structured than the Catholic Worker. Each community is autonomous. There is no board of directors, no sponsor, no system of governance, no endowment, no pay checks, no pension plans. Since Dorothy Day’s death, there has been no central leader.

And if you are looking for an expression of the contemporary philosophy of the Movement, see their Aims and Means, published in 2008. Here are four practices which are at the heart of the Catholic Worker philosophy:

Nonviolence. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:9) Only through nonviolent action can a personalist revolution come about, one in which one evil will not be replaced simply by another. Thus, we oppose the deliberate taking of human life for any reason, and see every oppression as blasphemy. Jesus taught us to take suffering upon ourselves rather than inflict it upon others, and He calls us to fight against violence with the spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting and noncooperation with evil. Refusal to pay taxes for war, to register for conscription, to comply with any unjust legislation; participation in nonviolent strikes and boycotts, protests or vigils; withdrawal of support for dominant systems, corporate funding or usurious practices are all excellent means to establish peace.

The works of mercy (as found in Matt. 25:31-46) are at the heart of the Gospel and they are clear mandates for our response to “the least of our brothers and sisters.” Houses of hospitality are centers for learning to do the acts of love, so that the poor can receive what is, in justice, theirs, the second coat in our closet, the spare room in our home, a place at our table. Anything beyond what we immediately need belongs to those who go without.

Manual labor, in a society that rejects it as undignified and inferior. “Besides inducing cooperation, besides overcoming barriers and establishing the spirit of sister and brotherhood (besides just getting things done), manual labor enables us to use our bodies as well as our hands, our minds.” (Dorothy Day) The Benedictine motto Ora et Labora reminds us that the work of human hands is a gift for the edification of the world and the glory of God.

Voluntary poverty. “The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge and belief in love.” (Dorothy Day) By embracing voluntary poverty, that is, by casting our lot freely with those whose impoverishment is not a choice, we would ask for the grace to abandon ourselves to the love of God. It would put us on the path to incarnate the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.”

What do you think? Is this too much? Is it unrealistic?

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