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Archive for February, 2011

It was interesting to note that two megastars from the secular worlds of football and film/TV – Carlo Ancelotti and Martin Sheen – were both happy to talk about their Christian faith in public in London last week. I don’t think it was a coordinated plan of evangelisation, but it might be a small sign that it’s becoming slightly more acceptable to ‘do God’ in public these days.

Martin Sheen playing President Bartlet in The West Wing

First, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, gave this interview with Simon Johnson in the Evening Standard:

Still, at times like these one wonders how the 51-year-old continues to cope living under such intense scrutiny.

Some cynics will look at his £6million-a-year salary as motivation enough, yet the Italian has found greater comfort in his religious beliefs rather than his bank balance.

“I am a Catholic, like 99 per cent of people from Italy, and I think my faith has helped keep me strong,” he tells me. “Sometimes religion helps you. I don’t have time to go to church but I pray every day.

“I get comfort from praying. Obviously I don’t pray because I want Chelsea to win. This is not the reason to pray. I think God has to think to other things in this world, not Chelsea.

“Religion has been in my life since I was a boy and my parents would always take me to church.

“Also at school there were some hours spent every week to teach the children to understand religion and the Bible.

“But my strength also comes from the experience I have had in my career. I know that things can’t be okay every time and sometimes you have to work through the difficulties.”

And Martin Sheen, star of Apocalypse Now and The West Wing, was in London to promote his new film The Way. He speaks here about his concern for his son Charlie Sheen:

The West Wing star said the actor, who has fought a well-documented battle with drugs and checked into rehab last month, had the backing of his family.

When asked how he was supporting his son, Sheen replied: “With prayer. We lift him up and we ask everyone who cares about him to lift him up, and lift up all those who are in the grip of drug and alcohol abuse, because they are looking for transcendence.”

Speaking at the UK premiere of his new pilgrimage film The Way at London’s British Film Institute, the 70-year-old – who acted alongside Charlie in the 1987 film Wall Street – said he would be happy to work with him in the future.

“That would be another miracle and we’d look forward to it, very much so,” he said.

In the film – directed by another of his three sons Emilio Estevez – Sheen plays Tom, an American doctor who embarks on the 500-mile Camino de Santiago walk to collect the remains of his dead son.

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Did you know that one of the 6,404 people who vote for the Oscars is a Roman Catholic nun? Dolores Hart, who stole a kiss from Elvis Presley in the 1957 film Loving You, retired from the film business and became a nun at the Benedictine abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut – but not before she had entered the inner sanctum and won the right to vote. She’s now 72, and continues to vote when the review copies are sent to her monastery each year.

In case you are not sure, it's Woody Allen

I’d never quite understood who gets to vote for the Oscars, and how the whole process works. Tom Shone explains everything:

There are 6,404 of them, mostly living in the Los Angeles area, with further pockets in northern California, New York City and London. They are, by a small majority, male. Their average age is about 57. Rupert Murdoch is one, as are Pedro Almódovar and Sasha Baron Cohen. George Lucas, Woody Allen and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are not. And on 27 February they will announce to an audience of more than 30 million people the results of a secret ballot that will determine the course of careers, cause corporate stock prices to rocket, and induce howls of outrage in office pools and viewing parties around the world.

“They”, of course, are the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group of entertainment industry professionals responsible for handing out the Oscars every year. The Academy’s headquarters are housed in an impassive, mirrored-glass structure on Wilshire Boulevard, suggestive of the fact that Ampas does not like to reveal much about its inner workings. Membership is by invitation only, requiring sponsorship by two existing members and the approval of a board of governors; but once in, you’re in for life, a fact that has been used by the organisation’s critics to conjure up an image of doddering retirees, too entangled in their oxygen tanks to fill out their ballots. When Henry Fonda and James Garner admitted their wives filled out their ballots for them, there was uproar.

Ann Thompson is a columnist with the Indiewire website, who recently attended the governor’s ball thrown by the Academy in honour of Jean-Luc Godard. “One of the things I noticed is there’s a huge bubble of baby boomers at the Academy. They’re all very knowledgeable. They’re very liberal. They’re over 50 for the most part, but it’s a fairly hip demo[graphic]. It’s that group of people who grew up in the 70s and were shaped by a film-maker like Godard. They voted for Silence of the Lambs for best picture, they voted for Traffic, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But it’s not a monolithic body. You can almost track the fate of any one film by tracking its course through the different branches.”

The Academy comprises 15 branches, of which the biggest and most powerful voting bloc is the actors, with 1,205 members, 22% of the total; they are the ones who ensured a win for The Hurt Locker last year, after they remained unconvinced the blue people in Avatar were delivering real performances. They are closely followed by the producers (452 members) and executives (437) who, together with the publicists (368), says Thompson, trend “a little more to the mainstream, for movies such as The Green Mile, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat. They’re the group Harvey Weinstein knows how to play to.”

Finally you have the various crafts guilds – sound, effects, sets, costumes and so on – who tend to get more male and red-blooded the further down the credits you go. Thompson calls them the “steak-eaters”: the set-builders and property-masters who are attracted to “large-scale solid narratives such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, The Town, True Grit. Even Inception plays to the steak-eaters. It’s a big group. It probably describes most of the Academy.” It’s this group that bailed on Ang Lee’s gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain in 2006, thus ensuring a win for Crash – one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history – and this year helped keep the nominations for Lisa Cholodenko’s same-sex marriage drama, The Kids Are All Right, down to a minimum.

“The steak-eaters are the reason Annette Bening keeps losing,” says Jeffrey Wells, who runs the Hollywood Elsewhere website. “Call it the steak-eater vote, call it the old geezer vote, call it the babe vote. They always vote for the babes.” More recently, though, Wells has detected signs of a fresher breeze sweeping through the Academy’s ranks. “For most of the history of the Academy, going back to 1927, the film that wins best picture tends to be the one that makes you cry. That gets you where you live. It says something that’s true and recognisable about the state of our lives that gets you on an emotional level. But [Ampas president] Tom Sherak has been aggressively bringing in newer members, and over the last few years the emotional gut-punch movies have not been winning. Except when Brokeback Mountain lost: that was the last surge, the last stand of what I call the ‘geezer vote’. That was basically the people like Tony Curtis, the 70-plus crowd who couldn’t abide the idea of two sheep-herders getting it on. That was the last time.”

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I was teaching philosophical ethics yesterday and came across these quotations I’d saved up about the possibility of human freedom.

Isaiah Berlin

The first, from Thomas Nagel, simply describes what a hard-core version of determinism looks like:

Some people have thought that it is never possible for us to do anything different from what we actually do, in the absolute sense. They acknowledge that what we do depends on our choices, decisions, and wants, and that we make different choices in different circumstances: we’re not like the earth rotating on its axis with monotonous regularity. But the claim is that, in each case, the circumstances that exist before we act determine our actions and make them inevitable. The sum total of a person’s experiences, desires and knowledge, his or her hereditary constitution, the social circumstances and the nature of the choice facing them, together with other factors that we may not know about, all combine to make a particular acting in the circumstances inevitable. This view is called determinism… [quoted in Alban McCoy, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Christian Ethics, 34-35]

The second quotation, from Isaiah Berlin, is about how freedom is in fact a presupposition of ordinary personal and social life, whether we like to admit it philosophically or not:

The whole of our common morality, in which we speak of obligation and duty, right and wrong, moral praise and blame – the way in which people are praised or condemned, rewarded or punished, for behaving in a way in which they were not forced to behave, when they could have behaved otherwise – this network of beliefs and practices, on which all current morality seems to me to depend, presupposes the notion of responsibility, and responsibility entails the ability to choose between black and white, right and wrong, pleasure and duty; as well as, in a wider sense, between forms of life, forms of government, and the whole constellations of moral values in terms of which most people, however much they may or may not be aware of it, do in fact live. [Liberty, 324]

If you want to follow all this up, you can read Alban McCoy’s very helpful chapter about determinism here on Google Books.

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I was staying at my parents’ home last week and didn’t have a bible, so I went searching through the bookshelves to see what I could find. I came across a dusty copy of the King James Bible, which was the one given to me at my baptism by my Great Uncle Ernest and Great Aunt Sybil – the dedication was there on the inside front cover.

First edition of the King James Bible

It’s a pocket edition with about 20 full-page colour illustrations. Looking at the images of Noah and King David and Jesus took me right back to my childhood. I don’t remember reading it very often, but it was there! And I certainly looked at the pictures.

I was looking for the readings from the Mass for the day, which happened to be the story of Noah in Genesis Chapter 8. I don’t think these are particularly well-known passages, in terms of the language, but it is just one random example of the beauty of the translation.

[6] And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made:
[7] And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.
[8] Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground;
[9] But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark.
[10] And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark;
[11] And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.
[12] And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more.
[13] And it came to pass in the six hundredth and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from off the earth: and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and, behold, the face of the ground was dry.

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Take a look at this interactive guide to the year’s best picture nominees for the Oscars from the Guardian website. It gives you reviews, interviews, videos, news, etc., for each of the ten nominated films. And there are some great films here!

Here is the list:

Black Swan
The Fighter
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
Inception
The Kids Are Alright
127 Hours
True Grit
Winter’s Bone
Toy Story 3

My choice? I liked The King’s Speech and The Social Network a lot, but the winner has to be Toy Story 3 or The Fighter – and I can’t decide which.

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I had the pleasure of meeting Vincent Aubin last week, a French philosopher who works in Paris and Marseilles. He writes a WordPress blog called L’esprit de l’escalier: philosophie, politique, religion – an infinitely more cultured and reflective version of Bridges and Tangents! If you have a little French, do take a look.

By way of a taster, this is the introduction to his latest post, about the nature of totalitarianism:

Décrire le totalitarisme comme une religion séculière est une idée qui doit sa fortune, en France du moins, à Raymond Aron. Il était frappé, comme quelques autres esprits clairvoyants, par le fait que le long déclin de la religion en Occident, à partir du XVIIIe siècle, n’amenait pas tant la disparition du sacré que son déplacement et, bien souvent, moins l’avènement de la raison que celui de nouvelles mythologies.

L’idée de « religion séculière » est à première vue très séduisante. Si elle est une forme de « religion séculière », on comprend que l’idéologie totalitaire se présente comme une « voie de salut » dans l’immanence – de la race ou de la société sans classe ; qu’elle soit polarisée par la lutte entre « le bien » et « le mal » ; qu’elle adopte si volontiers le style messianique ou apocalyptique ; qu’elle mette en place des liturgies glorifiant « le peuple » ou « la race », qu’elle instaure le « culte » du chef, etc.

You can keep reading here.

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Fr Ronald Rolheiser writes about our addiction to being digitally connected:

And so we are, daily, becoming more enslaved to and more compulsive in our use of mobile phones and the Internet. For many of us it is now existentially impossible to take off a day, let alone several weeks, and be on a genuine holiday. Rather, the pressure is on us to constantly check for texts, e-mails, phone messages and the like. The expectation from our families, friends, and colleagues is precisely that we are checking these regularly. The sin du jour is to be, at any time, unavailable, unreachable or non-communicative.

He quotes some friends who work in Christian ministry on Sunday mornings, but then begin to celebrate their own digital sabbath in the late afternoon on Sunday:

We start our celebration of the Sabbath at 4 PM on Sunday and we begin it symbolically by unplugging our computers, turning of our mobile phones, disconnecting our hour phone and turning off every information gadget that we own. For the next 29 hours we don’t receive any calls and we don’t make any. We are on a cyber-fast, non-contactable, of the wheel, unavailable.

At 9 PM on Monday night we end our Sabbath as we began it, symbolically. We break our cyber-fast and fire up again our phones and our computers and begin answering our messages. We get back on the wheel for another week.

Sometimes making ourselves unavailable like this irritates our families and friends, but if we are to celebrate Sabbath, given our pressured lives, this pulling away is the most important single thing that we have to do.

He ends the article with this wonderful quotation from the mystic poet Rumi:

I have lived too long where I can be reached!

[The Catholic Herald, 18 Feb, p 20]

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No-one doubts, after Egypt, that you can organise a revolution on Facebook. The question for those of us not presently caught up in this kind of political activism is: can you truly socialise there? 

Aaron Sorkin, creator of the West Wing and scriptwriter of The Social Network, was asked in a recent interview what he thought of the way Facebook is changing the nature of our relationships.

I’ve copied the full answer below, but let me highlight the thought-provoking analogy he makes, which is reason for a post in itself:

Socialising on the internet is to socialising what reality TV is to reality.

Here’s the context:

Q: How to you feel about the way Facebook is changing how people relate?

A: I have a 10-year-old daughter who has never really known a world without Facebook, but we’re going to have to wait a generation or two to find out the results of this experiment. I’m very pessimistic. There’s an insincerity to it. Socialising on the internet is to socialising what reality TV is to reality. We’re kind of acting for an audience: we’re creating a pretend version of ourselves. We’re counting the number of friends that we have instead of cultivating the depth of a relationship. I don’t find it appealing. [Playlist, 12-18 Feb, p12]

But aren’t we always acting for an audience? (If you want some thoughts on this go and read Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.) And what if the distinctions between reality TV and ‘non-reality’ TV (whatever that was/is) and non-TV reality were lost a long time ago?

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What’s wrong with a bit of harmless gossip? So what if I use the odd half-truth to spice up a bit of conversation? Or pass on an unsubstantiated rumour? Isn’t it important that I know what’s going on, or what might be going on, or what could in theory in some alternative universe be going on? And that you know it too?

Laura Barton ponders these issues after seeing Lillian Helman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour, that deals with the fall-out from a malicious accusation made against two teachers in a girls’ boarding school in New England.

‘Gossip,” the grande dame of rumourmongers, Liz Smith, once noted, “is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.”

Few of us are immune to the lure of celebrity gossip. Like many women I know, I find even a casual visit to the Daily Mail website is akin to falling down a rabbit-hole: hours lost in the trials and tribulations of the Kardashian sisters, or the wardrobe choices of Kelly Brook, or in riveting accounts of Britney Spears paying an afternoon visit to Starbucks. And my conclusion is that the mud does stick: I can tell you with some accuracy, for example, the romantic history of Shia LaBoeuf, or the fitness regime of weather-girl Claire Nasir, and I have a working knowledge of the US television series Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, without ever once having seen it.

Gossip has always been deemed a largely female preserve, and there have been numerous studies of women’s relationships with hearsay and tattle, of the way it builds our social networks, cements our relationships, of the way we revel in its endless narrative – the weight gained, lost and gained once again; the bikini shots; the red-carpet outfits; the marriages; the births; the infidelities – in much the same way that many men (and, yes, women too) relish the rise and fall of a football team and its players.

But these days gossip seems to have outdone itself: its magazines (chiefly aimed at a female audience) flourish in a flagging market, while websites such as TMZ broadcast endless videos of Lindsey Lohan buying shoes or Justin Bieber inspecting his nails, and with this increased exposure we have come to believe these are things we have a right to know…

And this is what I fear we are in danger of forgetting: that gossip is harmful. And it is harmful not just to those who are gossiped about; it is harmful, too, to those of us who relentlessly consume it.

Nearly 50 years ago, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, in which she spoke of the widespread unhappiness and lack of fulfilment of women in the 50s and 60s. “The problem that has no name” was what she called it, and she defined it as “simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities”. It was, she said, “taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease”.

Times are different now. Women have greater access to education, to careers, to intellectual fulfilment than ever before. And yet now we choose to dumb ourselves down, to subdue our own minds by sedating ourselves with online visits to the Daily Mail and buying gossip weeklies at the newsstand. “The feminine mystique has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive,” Friedan wrote in 1963, and there are times when I fear we are doing no better – burying ourselves alive in a mire of half-true tales about Sienna Miller.

We need to nourish our minds, we need to recognise that if we continue to feed ourselves with this bilge, this drivel, then we are imprisoning ourselves. Isn’t it time we became less about the red satin dress and more about the news?

Is it really predominantly a ‘women’s issue’? And if so – why?

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This reading from St Ephraem comes up in the Liturgy of the Hours every year. It’s about how to approach the Sacred Scriptures, but it can be applied to any great text. It’s about the humility that we should have before these texts, how we should be grateful for any understanding we are able to gain from them, and unperturbed by the knowledge that there will be great depths of wisdom we will simply be unable to fathom at any given moment.

Lord who can grasp all the wealth of just one of your words?  What we understand is much less than we leave behind; like thirsty people who drink from a fountain.  For your word, Lord, has many shades of meaning just as those who study it have many different points of view.  The Lord has coloured his word with many hues so that each person who studies it can see in it what he loves.  He has hidden many treasures in his word so that each of us is enriched as we meditate on it. 

The word of God is a tree of life that from all its parts offers you fruit that is blessed.  It is like that rock opened in the desert that from all its parts gave forth a spiritual drink.  He who comes into contact with some share of its treasure should not think that the only thing contained in the word is what he himself has found. He should realize that he has only been able to find that one thing from among many others.  Nor, because only that one part has become his, should he say that the word is void and empty and look down on it.  But because he could not exhaust it, he should give thanks for its riches. 

Be glad that you are overcome and do not be sad that it overcame you.  The thirsty man rejoices when he drinks and he is not downcast because he cannot empty the fountain.  Rather let the fountain quench your thirst than have your thirst quench the fountain. Because if your thirst is quenched and the fountain is not exhausted, you can drink from it again whenever you are thirsty.  But if when your thirst is quenched and the fountain is also dried up, your victory will bode evil for you. 

So be grateful for what you have received and don’t grumble about the abundance left behind.  What you have received and what you have reached is your share.  What remains is your heritage.  What at one time you were unable to receive because of your weakness, you will be able to receive at other times if you persevere.  Do not have the presumption to try to take in one draught what cannot be taken in one draught and do not abandon out of laziness what can only be taken little by little.

[From the commentary of St Ephraem on the Diatessaron, Office of Readings, Week 6 of the Year, Sunday]

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How do you represent evil in literature, art or film? Is it possible to get beyond the surface effects of evil to the malevolent heart, where choices are made and the fundamental moral drama is played out?

I’ve just finished reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. (No, I haven’t seen the film yet – I was desperate to read the novel before seeing the film, so I’d come at it fresh and without knowing the ending.) It’s meant to be a study of evil, in the person of Pinkie, the teenage protagonist - but I’m not sure it works. [Minor plot spoilers follow]

Brighton Rock

He certainly does some terrible things, but he comes across to me more like a trapped animal than a moral agent. He’s heartless, he knows he’s doing wrong, but he doesn’t really know what the moral alternatives are as practical possibilities. He’s a bully, living off the strategies he learnt in the school playground. He’s constantly reacting, often with much cunning and forethought, but only once or twice does an almost metaphysical abyss open up before him, and the feint possibility of freedom become a reality.

This is from J.M. Coetzee’s introduction to the Vintage edition:

[In the person of Ida Arnold Greene creates] a stout ideological antagonist to the Catholic axis of Pinkie and Rose. Pinkie and Rose believe in Good and Evil; Ida believes in more down-to-earth Right and Wrong, in law and order, though with a bit of fun on the side. Pinkie and Rose believe in salvation and damnation, particularly the latter; in Ida the religious impulse is tamed, trivialised, and confined to the ouija board.

In the scenes in which Ida, full of motherly concern, tries to wean Rose away from her demonic lover, we see the rudiments of two world-views, the one eschatological, the other secular and materialist, uncomprehendingly confronting each other…

Rose’s faith in her lover never wavers. To the end she identifies Ida, not Pinkie, as the subtle seducer, the evil one. ‘She ought to be damned… She doesn’t know about love.’ If the worst comes to the worst, she would rather suffer in hell with Pinkie than be saved with Ida.

This last point is the most interesting aspect of the book: how love (however ambiguous) might bring you to want to be with someone in the depths of hell, rather than deny that love and lose them. But, in hell, wouldn’t you lose each other too? And are you really doing someone a favour by joining them on that road? Rose is worried that by choosing something ‘right’ (in Ida’s terms) it would be a betrayal of her relationship with Pinkie, of her faithfulness to him. It reminds me of Simone Weil, and her worry that to accept baptism would alienate her from all those who were not baptised.

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Take at look at this YouTube demo for Google’s Art Project, which uses high-definition photography and Street View technology to allow you to walk around some of the world’s great galleries and put your nose right up against the pictures. You can see the detail better than you could with your unaided natural sight.

Jonathan Jones blogs about the project here:

This is a revolutionary age. New innovations change the way we communicate, think and live, and at breakneck speed. What happens to history in such a time? The Google Art Project offers a glorious and exhilarating answer: in this century, it seems, high art will be more accessible and more beautifully available to more people than ever before.

For this virtual tour of great museum collections, contemporary work can be seen among world art treasures – all photographed in magical detail…

You can home in on Seurat’s paintings in New York’s Museum of Modern Art so closely that you can study the dots that create his dappled effects in colossal focus. Only a visit to the museum itself would give a comparable intimacy – and even then you might need to take a magnifying glass.

If it is the high-definition photography of paintings that makes this such a radical moment in the history of art reproduction, the project’s Google Street View-style tours of galleries are not to be sniffed at either. I was able to stroll, on screen, through the rooms of the Uffizi gallery as if I were there in Florence, then focus on favourite pictures – getting a powerful sense of their physical reality, their frames and their scale – before switching to the macroscopic pictures of isolated works…

Google’s Art Project is a profoundly enriching encounter, one that really starts to break down the difference between viewing a reproduction and seeing it in the flesh. It deserves to succeed.

You see everything, but somehow you don’t see all that you wish you could. It’s mysterious – what is it that’s missing on the screen even when you can see more than you could see if you were there yourself? Perhaps it’s a question of monitor size. If I had a 2 metre high-definition monitor on my wall I might feel differently. I’m not sure.

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If you are looking for something intelligent and thought-provoking to read on the net, and haven’t yet discovered it, then visit Arts & Letters Daily - an ‘aggregator’ that collects the best articles in the fields of:

Philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, gossip.

Dennis Dutton, it’s founder, died a few weeks ago. This is from an obituary by Margarit Fox.

Professor Dutton was perhaps best known to the public for Arts & Letters Daily, which he founded in 1998. The site is a Web aggregator, linking to a spate of online articles about literature, art, science, politics and much else, for which he wrote engaging teasers. (“Can dogs talk? Kind of, says the latest scientific research. But they tend to have very poor pronunciation,” read his lead-in to a 2009 Scientific American article.)

Long before aggregators were commonplace, Arts & Letters Daily had developed an ardent following. A vast, labyrinthine funnel, the site revels in profusion, diversion, digression and, ultimately, the interconnectedness of human endeavor of nearly every sort, a “Tristram Shandy” for the digital age.

As one of the first people to recognize the power of the Web to facilitate intellectual discourse, Professor Dutton was hailed as being among “the most influential media personalities in the world,” as Time magazine described him in 2005.

Arts & Letters Daily, which was acquired by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, currently receives about three million page views a month. The site is expected to continue publishing, Phil Semas, The Chronicle’s president and editor in chief, said in a statement on Tuesday.

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Here is one more passage from my recent article on evangelisation, this time about how  those involved in the New Evangelisation often have a strong interest in deepening their understanding of faith and sharing that understanding with others:

St Patrick's Church, Soho Square, home of St Patrick's Evangelisation School

St Patrick’s Evangelisation School in Soho takes in a dozen young people every year. They live an intense community life together, pray for an hour each day before the Blessed Sacrament, serve food to the homeless, run a prayer-line, and go into the streets every Friday night – in a not too salubrious area – to meet people, share their faith, and offer spiritual support to those who seek it.

And they study. Fifteen hours a week of philosophy, theology, spirituality and psychology, focussed on preparing for a Diploma in the Catechism from the Maryvale Institute. There is a profound conviction that the Catholic faith is a gift to be understood and shared.

The emphasis on orthodox Catholic teaching seems to be an essential aspect of the New Evangelisation. Those involved want to proclaim the basic message of Christianity, to explain the core teachings of the Scriptures and of the Church, and to apply these teachings to everyday life. They are not arrogant, or unaware of the nuances and disputed questions within Catholic thought; but they are more interested in helping people to understand the settled faith of the Church than in exploring the boundaries. Their experience is that people are actually longing to learn more.

There is a hunger for truth in contemporary society, and a desire in many Catholic circles to share it. The intention is not to proselytise, in the sense of targeting people from other religions, but it is certainly to share this Christian vision with anyone who is attracted to it.

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This story, from Andrew McLaughlin, illustrates both the political power of the internet to discomfort governments, and the enduring power of governments to shut down the internet when it suits them.

As recently as a week ago, Egypt‘s internet was extraordinary in the Arab world for its freedom. For more than a decade, the regime has adhered to a hands-off policy, leaving unblocked everything from rumours about President Hosni Mubarak’s health to videos of police beatings. Unlike most of its regional neighbours and other authoritarian regimes, Egypt’s government never built or required sophisticated technical infrastructures of censorship. (Of course, the country has hardly been a paradise of free expression: the state security forces have vigorously suppressed dissent through surveillance, arbitrary detentions and relentless intimidation of writers and editors.)

Partly as a result of its liberal policies, Egypt became a hub for internet and mobile network investment, home to a thriving and competitive communications sector that pioneered free dial-up services, achieved impressive rates of access and use, and offered speedy wireless and broadband networks at relatively low prices. Indeed, Egypt is today one of the major crossing points for the underwater fibre-optic cables that interconnect the regions of the globe.

But last Thursday, the Mubarak regime shattered a decade’s worth of accomplishment by issuing the order to shut down the mobile networks and internet links. Since the internet age dawned in the early 90s, no widely connected country had disconnected itself entirely. The starkness and suddenness of Egypt’s reversal – from unrestricted to unreachable – marks one of the many tragedies of the Mubarak regime’s brutal and hamfisted response to last week’s emergence of citizen protests.

The internet cutoff shows how the details of infrastructure matter. Despite having no large-scale or centralised censorship apparatus, Egypt was still able to shut down its communications in a matter of minutes. This was possible because Egypt permitted only three wireless carriers to operate, and required all internet service providers (ISPs) to funnel their traffic through a handful of international links. Confronted with mass demonstrations and fearful about a populace able to organise itself, the government had to order fewer than a dozen companies to shut down their networks and disconnect their routers from the global internet.

The blackout has proved increasingly ineffective. A handful of networks have remained connected, including one independent ISP, the country’s academic and research network, and a few major banks, businesses and government institutions. Whether these reflect deliberate defiance, privileged connections, or tactical exceptions –one might imagine, for example, that members of Mubarak’s family and inner circle would want to have Internet access to move money, buy tickets, or make hotel reservations abroad — is as yet unknown.

Moreover, innovative Egyptians are finding ways to overcome the block. They are relaying information by voice, exploiting small and unnoticed openings in the digital firewall, and dusting off old modems to tap foreign dial-up services.

For democracies, one lesson here is clear: diversity and complexity in our network architectures is a very good thing. Likewise, enforcement of public policies such as network neutrality – the principle that access providers should not be permitted to control what their customers can do online – are important to prevent networks from installing tools and capabilities that could be abused in moments of crisis. For dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, however, the lesson will be quite the opposite.

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