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Archive for January, 2011

What are the classic albums of the seventies? I just stumbled across a box of CDs I’d packed away years ago and forgotten about, so I’ve begun listening to them in the car for the last few days. It’s a pure nostalgia trip, and it’s hard for me to tell the difference between what means a lot to me because of all the memories and associations, and what is true musical greatness. I don’t have the objectivity I need to assess these treasured albums. But surely, even without the element of nostalgia, Carole King’s Tapestry deserves classic status.

There are some lines that should have been left on the cutting floor (‘Snow is cold and rain is wet…’), and some tracks that reflect the inane optimism of hippie culture (‘You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face, and show the world all the love in your heart’). But it has the perfect mix of longing and love, of everyday poetry and easy melody.

Here is James Taylor’s live version of ‘You’ve Got a Friend':

I’m not sure that this is my top album of that decade (I’ll have to think about that…) What’s your own ‘greatest album of the seventies’? You can leave any thoughts in the comment box below.

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Cyber-scepticism: not that we are actually unplugging and switching off, but that more and more people are questioning whether our frantic social networking is really helping us to connect, to deepen our relationships, to share our lives.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle is one of many people wondering where we are really going in the information age. Her new book is appropriately titled Alone Together. Paul Harris reports:

Turkle’s book, published in the UK next month, has caused a sensation in America, which is usually more obsessed with the merits of social networking. She appeared last week on Stephen Colbert’s late-night comedy show, The Colbert Report. When Turkle said she had been at funerals where people checked their iPhones, Colbert quipped: “We all say goodbye in our own way.”

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

But Turkle’s book is far from the only work of its kind. An intellectual backlash in America is calling for a rejection of some of the values and methods of modern communications. “It is a huge backlash. The different kinds of communication that people are using have become something that scares people,” said Professor William Kist, an education expert at Kent State University, Ohio.

The list of attacks on social media is a long one and comes from all corners of academia and popular culture. A recent bestseller in the US, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, suggested that use of the internet was altering the way we think to make us less capable of digesting large and complex amounts of information, such as books and magazine articles. The book was based on an essay that Carr wrote in the Atlantic magazine. It was just as emphatic and was headlined: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Another strand of thought in the field of cyber-scepticism is found in The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. He argues that social media has bred a generation of “slacktivists”. It has made people lazy and enshrined the illusion that clicking a mouse is a form of activism equal to real world donations of money and time.

Other books include The Dumbest Generation by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein – in which he claims “the intellectual future of the US looks dim”– and We Have Met the Enemy by Daniel Akst, which describes the problems of self-control in the modern world, of which the proliferation of communication tools is a key component.

Turkle’s book, however, has sparked the most debate so far. It is a cri de coeur for putting down the BlackBerry, ignoring Facebook and shunning Twitter. “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us,” she writes.

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I’ve just had an article published about the New Evangelisation in the Catholic Church. Here is the opening section about the importance of conviction for those involved in this work:

A quarter of a million people pass through Leicester Square in central London every day. By some kind of miracle, the four Catholic parishes in the area received permission from Westminster City Council to take over the square for a Saturday last summer under the banner ‘Spirit in the City’.

The event involved a stage with non-stop music and talks; a line of stalls promoting various Catholic charities, movements and religious orders; a series of workshops about every aspect of Christian faith; a team of street evangelists greeting people and handing out prayer cards; a makeshift confessional with a rota of priests; and a suitably dignified tent-cum-chapel with the Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration and personal prayer.

It was the strangest experience to emerge from Burger King and then kneel before the Lord in the centre of Leicester Square – a sanctuary of silence in the madness of the city.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the recently established Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation, has a magnificent desk and a blank piece of paper. He has been charged by Pope Benedict with re-evangelising the West in an age of secularism and moral relativism and talks himself of the West living “in a cultural crisis” (see ‘Taking on the world’, The Tablet, 8 January).

He could do worse than pay a visit to Britain for some inspiration. It’s striking how many evangelisation initiatives have sprung up over the last few years, from small parish projects to national programmes, many of them focused on young people. And while they don’t all fit neatly into one model, there are some common ideas at the heart of them.

Those who are committed to evangelisation have a real love for Christ and for the Church, as many Catholics do. But they also have a conviction that the Christian faith is something too precious to be kept to oneself. The Sion Community is the largest ‘home mission’ organisation in the UK. It’s involved in parish missions, youth ministry, residential training, and in forming others for the task of evangelisation.

I recently led a study day about Christian motivation at their centre in Brentwood. At the end of the morning session someone asked, ‘And how can this help us share the Gospel more effectively with the people we meet?’ They simply wanted to connect my topic with their deepest concern – which was helping others to know Christ. And the way this question instinctively arose helped me to see how focussed the community is on the explicit work of proclaiming and communicating the Gospel.

This approach is in sharp contrast to a reticence still felt by many Catholics about the very idea of evangelisation. I think there are different reasons for this, not all of them negative: a desire to witness unobtrusively through one’s personal example; a respect for the presence of God in people of other faiths or of no faith; a fear of appearing triumphalistic, arrogant or judgemental.

But the reticence can also reflect a subtle relativism that sometimes casts its spell, persuading Catholics that all beliefs are equally true, or that all truths are equally important. Many people aren’t convinced that evangelisation is ‘the primary service which the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity’ (Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul). But at the Sion Community, they believe in the importance of moving from ‘witness’ to ‘proclamation’. [The Tablet, 22 Jan 2011, p10]

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A few months ago I wrote about the possibility of discovering alien intelligence, and the whole SETI project. New research suggests that the planets close enough for us to investigate have environments that would be extremely inhospitable to life – at least to life as we know it.

Sophie Borland writes about Howard Smith’s recent findings.

Still waiting for little green men to make contact? Don’t hold your breath. A leading astronomer has concluded there probably aren’t any aliens out there – meaning we are entirely alone in the universe.

Even though there may be tens of thousands of other distant planets similar in size to Earth, the conditions on them are likely to be too hostile to support life-forms such as ET.

Dr Howard Smith, a senior astrophysicist at Harvard University, believes there is very little hope of discovering aliens and, even if we did, it would be almost impossible to make contact.

So far astronomers have discovered a total of 500 planets in distant solar systems – known as extrasolar systems – although they believe billions of others exist. But Dr Smith points out that many of these planets are either too close to their sun or too far away, meaning their surface temperatures are so extreme they could not support life.

Others have unusual orbits which cause vast temperature variations making it impossible for water to exist as a liquid – an essential element for life. Dr Smith said: ‘We have found that most other planets and solar systems are wildly different from our own. They are very hostile to life as we know it.’

‘The new information we are getting suggests we could effectively be alone in the universe. There are very few solar systems or planets like ours. It means it is highly unlikely there are any planets with intelligent life close enough for us to make contact.’

Not everyone agrees.

Only last month Professor Stephen Hawking said the fact that there are billions of galaxies out there made it perfectly rational to assume there were other life-forms in the universe.

Researchers from the University of London have recently suggested that aliens could be living on as many as 40,000 other planets.

But Dr Smith suggests that such estimates are optimistic.

He said: ‘Any hope of contact has to be limited to a relatively tiny bubble of space around the Earth, reaching maybe 1,250 light years out from our planet, where aliens might be able to pick up our signals or send us their own. But communicating would still take decades or centuries.’

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Take a look at this great optical illusion. Stay with it for a few moments, and then there is a wonderful ‘aaaah…’ moment.

I don’t want to turn this into a philosophical treatise, but it shows – as all optical illusions do – how wrong our first impressions can be, and how there can be a completely different way of looking at things that hasn’t occurred to us. On the other hand, it shows how the ‘solution’, the truth of the situation, is usually something that makes complete sense to us in the terms of the knowledge that we previously had – otherwise it wouldn’t actually be a solution for us.

So an illusion like this momentarily undermines our hold on truth, and yet reinforces the hold that truth has on us. The experience of being deluded or mistaken isn’t actually an argument for scepticism, because you can only know you are mistaken if you have some new purchase on the truth.

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This is a late plug for Oliver Burkeman’s new year resolutions, which include (with copious references to the scientific research behind the advice): stop looking for your soulmate; reject positive thinking; make something and work with your hands; befriend your friends’ friends; and get a standing desk!

Here is his suggestion for all you internet and social networking addicts:

We’ve been worrying about information overload for millennia. “The abundance of books is distraction,” complained Seneca, who never had to worry about his Facebook privacy options (although he was ordered to commit ritual suicide by bleeding himself to death, so it’s swings and roundabouts). But it’s been a year of unprecedentedly panicky pronouncements on what round-the-clock digital connectedness might be doing to our brains – matched only by the ferocity with which the internet’s defenders fight back.

Yet as one team of neuroscientists pointed out, writing in the journal Neuron, we’ve been talking in misleading generalities. “Technology” isn’t good or bad for us, per se; neither is “the web”. Just as television can have positive or negative effects – Dora The Explorer seems to aid children’s literacy and numeracy, a study has suggested, while Teletubbies seems not to – what may well matter more is what we’re consuming online. The medium isn’t the only message.

The best way to impose some quality control on your digital life isn’t to quit Twitter, Facebook and the rest in a fit of renunciation, but to break the spell they cast. Email, social networking and blogs all resemble Pavlovian conditioning experiments on animals: we click compulsively because there might or might not be a reward – a new email, a new blog post – waiting for us. If you can schedule your email checking or web surfing to specific times of day, that uncertainty will vanish: new stuff will have accumulated, so there will almost always be a “reward” in store, and the compulsiveness should fade. Or use software such as the Firefox add-in Leechblock , which limit you to fixed-time visits to the sites you’re most addicted to.

Can you, as the blogger Paul Roetzer suggests, make it a habit to unplug for four hours a day? Three? Two? What matters most isn’t the amount of time, but who’s calling the shots: the ceaseless data stream, or you. Decide when to be connected, then decide to disconnect. Alternative metaphor: it’s a one-on-one fistfight between you and Mark Zuckerberg for control of your brain. Make sure you win.

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At the time of the Pope’s visit to Britain, you had the impression that any meaningful dialogue between Catholics and secular humanists about anything beyond the weather would have been unthinkable. Paul Sims writes at the New Humanist website about his experience of  trying to cross the great divide and actually enter into a conversation with Catholics.

I’ll be honest. Discussing gay adoption and condoms with Benedictine monks and spokesmen for Opus Dei is not something I normally find myself doing on a Tuesday evening. But there I was, at the invitation of Alan Palmer of the Central London Humanist Group, who had responded to a post I had written on the New Humanist blog, in which I’d recorded my concerns over the tone of the debate during the Pope’s UK visit. There are crucial disagreements between the Catholic Church and its opponents over issues such as AIDS, gay rights and child abuse, but, I asked, was the opportunity to debate these in danger of being buried beneath the headlines and protest slogans?

In my blog I’d mentioned by way of example the behaviour of sections of the audience at a pre-visit debate at London’s Conway Hall, when the Catholic speakers were frequently drowned out by rowdy heckling. Palmer, the organiser of that debate, read my post and invited me to a smaller discussion between Catholics and humanists, with the aim of discussing some of our key disagreements without the bellicose tone. I agreed.

Which is how a group of 25 of us, evenly balanced between faithful and faithless, came to meet in a room rented from the University of London near Euston. After brief introductions, the three main Catholic speakers – Austen Ivereigh, a journalist and former press secretary to the Archbishop of Westminster, Jack Valero, press officer for Opus Dei, and Fr Christopher Jamison, a Benedictine monk who featured in the BBC series The Monastery, together the founders of Catholic Voices, a group formed to speak up for the Catholic side in the media during the Papal visit – put forward their arguments on gay adoption, condoms and faith schools. The humanists then challenged them in an open discussion. In what felt like a particularly useful exercise, one of the humanists had to sum up the Catholic arguments, and one of the Catholics did the same for the humanist case.

As my first foray into the world of “inter-faith dialogue” (if we extend the definition to include the godless) I thought the meeting had been a good one. As you might expect, there was strong disagreement between the two sides, and I doubt anyone went home with their mind changed on any of the issues. But, while people had expressed strong opinions, the debate was conducted in a manner that meant it could continue over a drink afterwards. Given the way Catholics and humanists were portrayed in some of the press coverage of the Pope’s visit, that’s something you might have thought as likely as West Ham and Milwall fans enjoying a pre-match pint together on derby day. With the religious and non-religious often talking past each other in the public square, it felt constructive for a group to meet and discuss their differences in an amiable fashion. For me, it served as a reminder that you can still get on with someone even if you disagree. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is easily forgotten amid the belligerent tone of the religion debate. And if we can find a way to talk calmly about our disagreements, perhaps it would be possible to find some common ground where we could agree.

Read the rest of his article to see how unhappy some of his secularist friends were about this whole project.

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