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Archive for March, 2011

It’s not a great film. And, despite what the reviewers say, the 3D cinematography doesn’t work – the images lose their sharpness, the focus of the eyes never quite stabilises, and you constantly feel that you are in a cinema struggling to see the screen rather than in a French cave dancing with your paleolithic ancestors. (See my previous rant about 3D cinema and the decline of human civilisation.)

But Werner Herzog’s new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is still a wonderful way of experiencing the Chauvet paintings ‘at first hand’. I think I’ve seen reproductions of them before (although perhaps I’m muddling them up with the images from Lascaux). They are astonishingly beautiful. The YouTube trailer above gives you some good glimpses of the main walls – and without the 3D!

What struck me in the film was their size. They are huge! The fact that there was no space to hide the film crew actually helped, because you kept being reminded of the scale of the paintings – the sound man bobbing in and out of the images with his boom like the stone-age hunters with their spears.

In one sense it’s breathtaking that the images are so old. That’s what makes them interesting - beyond their artistic merit alone. This is just one manifestation of ‘the cognitive leap’, when modern human beings ‘emerged’ (whatever that means) onto the scene, and began to paint, decorate, adorn themselves, make musical instruments, honour their dead, and carve those well-known Venus figurines.

Yet in another sense, why should it astonish us? It seems to be the beginnings of what we would call civilisation, or modern human culture, but as far as we know these Cro-Magnons, these Early Modern Humans, were just like us – the same species, the same human nature. And human beings paint.

So the fact that you walk into a cave hidden for 30,000 years and discover a painting of a horse that looks just like one of Franz Marc’s (one of my favourite painters) shouldn’t surprise us. But it does. And they are astonishing. As is Franz Marc.

Children's interpretations of Franz Marc

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Last night I filled in the 2011 Census form. It was a fairly quick and boring procedure, punctuated with one or two unexpected moments of existential and theological crisis.

Question 15. Not ‘What is your national identity?’ but ‘How would you describe your national identity?’ I automatically filled in British rather than English, not because I feel more British than English, but because I’m used to filling in forms that want to know the objective/legal answer, i.e. what is on your passport. But then I realised when I checked over the whole form at the end that it said Tick all that apply (it made all the double-checking I’ve ever done in my life worth it!) So it now says English plus British; but the psychoanalysts and sociologists interpreting my input will never know which I ticked first – which is the most telling point – unless they are reading this blog.

Question 16. ‘What is your ethnic group?’ rather than ‘How would you describe your ethnic group’ – as if national identity (Q15) is something subjective and self-chosen but ethnicity (Q16) is something more objective. Again, I struggled here. I’m 1/4 English, 1/4 Scottish and 1/2 Chinese in terms of ethnic roots. The only given box I could tick was B#3 White and Asian – but the Chinese element is important to me (subjectively) and makes me quite distinct from someone from India or Japan (objectively).

So I ticked B#4 Any other Mixed/multiple ethnic background, and wrote in ‘White and Chinese’. But then I realised I could equally have put ‘Chinese and White’ in that box, or I could have gone onto box C#4 instead (Any other Asian background) and written the same answer there (‘Chinese and White’). And objectively speaking I am just as much Chinese and White as White and Chinese.

I’m torn here. I want to give both answers, to show that I am not giving more objective weight to the Chinese or White – in terms of ethnicity. But I am only allowed to choose one section. And if I tick both, as a sort of existential protest about the limitations being imposed on my self-understanding, then will I have to pay the fine, or do the whole form again?

Question 20. ‘What is your religion?’ A voluntary question, that has only one box for ‘Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)’. I understand how it’s a good thing, sociologically and theologically, not to treat these Christian groups as different religions; but it would have been interesting to know the details for C of E, Catholic, Protestant, etc – if you are going to do this kind of question; or to add an extra line to say ‘What Christian group (or church or denomination…) do you belong to?’ or whatever.

Question 35. Now we move into theology proper. Q34 was easy – I put ‘Roman Catholic priest’ as my job title. Even though it is much more than a job (it’s a vocation, a calling, a part of who I am) – I think this is a fair stab at what they are asking. But Q35 asks Briefly describe what you do in your main job. How do you do that in 34 characters? That’s characters not words! I wanted to get some great theological summary of the priestly ministry in here, but in the end I copped out and put ‘pastoral ministry’. Now, after reflection, I think I should have put ‘priestly ministry’, because many laity are involved in pastoral ministry; but it’s too late.

Question 37. This is the one that brought me to a state of existential and theological paralysis (you can tell it was quite a traumatic evening). ‘What is the main activity of your employer or business?’ Saving souls? Heaven? Proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord? Sanctification? Building the Kingdom? Filling the pews? 

Instead, I ducked, and gave a bureaucratic answer, as if to address the slightly different question of ‘what kind of “business” is your employer involved in?’ – and I wrote ‘Religion’. I know. It’s weak. It’s a lost opportunity for witness. And it’s not really true. The Church isn’t about ‘doing’ religion; it’s about faith, hope, charity; adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication; justice, peace and love; the worship of God and the witness of life; the renewal and recapitulation of all things in Christ; and many, many other beautiful things – none of which made my census form.

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Why should we keep the Sabbath? I know, because it’s there in the Bible; and it’s not just a throwaway line, it’s one of the Ten Commandments. But what is the reason given there for keeping the Sabbath?

It hadn’t struck me until morning meditation in the chapel yesterday that the two accounts of the giving of the Decalogue in the Old Testament offer two quite different explanations of why we should keep the Sabbath.

First, in the book of Exodus (Ch. 20), it’s about God and creation:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. [But why?] For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Then, in the book of Deuteronomy (Ch. 5), it’s about the Jewish people and their liberation from slavery in Egypt:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. [But why?] Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

So there are two different but complimentary meanings presented here. First, the day of rest tells us something about the nature of God himself. He is not just the creator, busying himself with his activity on behalf of the world – represented by the Six Days of Creation. He is not just defined in terms of his relationship with creation in general, or with us human beings in particular. He is also a God of rest, who exists in himself, and – as it were –  for himself. His being, his self-sufficiency, comes ‘before’ his activity; and in the creation story his being, his resting, is the climax and fulfilment of that activity – although in God himself ‘being’ and ‘activity’ are all one, because there is a fundamental simplicity at the heart of everything that God is and does.

So the Sabbath, the day of rest, builds into the very rhythm of our week, and so into the structure of our very existence, a proper understanding of God. It shows us that his nature, and our ultimate destiny as sharing in that nature, is something completely beyond time, beyond temporal activity, beyond all the striving that we associate with a purposeful life.

But second, the day of rest, as presented in Deuteronomy, tells us something about our own nature as human beings – in so far as the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt points to a more universal truth about the human condition. In this context, the Sabbath is a reminder that whatever freedom we have now is actually a gift – whether this freedom is social, political, moral, spiritual, religious, etc. We are free because God’s goodness, his mighty hand and outstretched arm, have given us this freedom – by creating us in the first place, and then by stepping into history to renew it. And it is our duty not just to remember this with thanksgiving, but also to use that freedom for good, and in a way that ultimately leads us back to the God who called us into freedom into the first place.

So the Sabbath ‘forces’ us to remember that we don’t belong to ourselves or completely determine the meaning of our own lives. Our life is given. Our freedom, to the extent that we can discover and live it, is given. That weekly moment of rest and letting go is in one sense a restriction, because we can’t do everything we would like to do; but in another sense it is the very foundation of all our activity and striving, because it helps us remember that this freedom is not something we can create for ourselves. There are many ways of making the Sabbath holy, but the primary meaning of the Sabbath lies in ‘consecrating’ the whole day, in setting it apart from the rest of the week.

Of course there are many other meanings to the Sabbath, many other ways in which it must be kept holy; and for Christians it is given a radical new meaning in the light of the Resurrection. These thoughts arise just from reflecting on the explanations given in the Decalogue. The Sabbath is about God and about us as human beings. It’s both a theology and an anthropology. We lay hold of all this simply by the discipline of letting go – as far as possible – of work and shopping for one day a week…

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The Guardian’s comment is free turned five last week. It’s a good site to bookmark if you haven’t come across it before; there is always something interesting or surprising. And even though the readers’ comments at the bottom can be a bit predictable, there is enough variety in the subject matter to keep it fresh.

But then the whole point of the site is to allow not just comment, but comment on the comment. So it was a delight to find this piece, by Joe Moran, on the topic of marginalia – the original form of the comment box.

I am almost neurotically law-abiding, but there is one area of life where I am an outlaw, beyond the pale, a fugitive from justice. I only do it in pencil, and sometimes I remember to rub it out, but … I write in library books. Those spaces down the sides of the page seem so inviting that the impulse to anoint them with scribbles is irresistible. History is on my side: until the 19th century books were often used as scrap paper, and few people had qualms about scrawling on a pristine copy. No jury in the land would convict me. Books are meant to be written on.

Is such annotation a dying art in our online era? Most ebook readers allow you to highlight text and take notes, but there isn’t the same aesthetic of columns of alluring white space. On the other hand the web has whetted our appetite for sharing reading experiences. Amazon has just introduced a facility for the Kindle which posts your marginalia online so others can read it. Social reading websites like BookGlutton, where you can attach notes for other readers of the same book, have been around for a while.

You could argue that this impulse is really a return to the great age of marginalia, which the literary scholar HJ Jackson identifies as lasting from about 1750 to 1820. The practice then was widespread and communal. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the word “marginalia”, wrote his own marginal comments with an audience in mind – and even published some of them. “You will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a Relic,” he wrote, a little smugly, in one of Charles Lamb’s books. Many of today’s social networking sites similarly create a kind of ongoing collective commentary – not just on books, but on the world in general.

And yet there is something missing from this electronic marginalia. First, it seems so ephemeral. Pencil marks left on a page will last several lifetimes, perhaps as long as the paper itself. Public Notes, on Kindle, are less tangible and, even if someone is archiving them, are likely to be unreadable in future because of hardware or software changes. The most basic motive for writing marginalia is surely to create a sense of ownership: children often write their names over and over again in books. You can’t do that with a Kindle.

Second, this public note-taking seems too much like performance. For the last two centuries, marginalia has been semi-private, almost furtive, a silent communion with the author or the unknown reader who might pick up the book, secondhand, a generation later. Marginalia is, by definition, something on the margins – undervalued, overlooked.

Do you write in your own books? Do you write in other people’s books? Is it the same putting notes on your Kindle?

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If you are looking for online resources in bioethics, here are a couple of useful sites (following on from my recent post about the distortion of language in bioethical reporting).

Dolly the Cloned Sheep

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a bioethics page with links to various articles and downloadable pamphlets. The topics include: stem cell research, cloning, genetic enhancement, IVF, eugenics, human dignity, reproductive technology, etc.

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre is the main Christian bioethics institute in Britain. The resources are here (articles, publications, newsletters, etc); and there is a big list of articles and links here at their old Linacre Centre site (I’m not sure if all these articles have been moved over yet).

I also happened to come across this very informative blog last week called Mary Meets Dolly, “A Catholic’s Guide to Genetics, Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology”. The author, Rebecca Taylor, has her own page of links (I can’t recommend them all as I haven’t looked at them all yet…). And this is from her ‘About’ page:

My name is Rebecca Taylor.  I am a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and more importantly, a practicing Catholic. I have been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years. I have been interviewed on EWTN radio on topics from stem cell research and cloning to voting pro-life.

All of this began several years ago when I was discussing stem cells and cloning with an older gentleman at a family party.  He was very knowledgeable about biotechnology, but was surprised about many little-known and quite misleading facts.  He asked where I had gathered those facts, and I told him I was reading every pertinent scientific reference I could get my hands on. He looked me in the eye and said, “Young lady, it is not good enough to read, you must do something!”  I found out later he was a former U.S. congressman from California.

Indeed, I began to notice a general lack of understanding about contemporary issues in genetics, genetic engineering, and reproductive technology, issues that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the future of humanity, for good or ill.  I work with professionals whose business is medical genetics, and even they are confused about the pragmatics, not to mention the ethics, surrounding cloning, stem cells, and recent advances in genetic engineering.  If professionals could be confused, I feared that the average Catholic would feel lost amidst the scientific jargon and, unfortunately, the hype.

I decided to start marymeetsdolly.com to try and provide Catholics with solid, pertinent resources and clear, plain commentary so they could be more conversant with the issues proffered by the newest of the “brave new world” movements.

With this website, I hope to take what I have learned (through months of studying the technologies and ethical stances involved) and explain the advances and the issues in terms the person-on-the-street can understand.  With the help of my father, a theologian, I hope to juxtapose and illuminate today’s genetic research and engineering with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life.

At this site, Catholics can find information to better understand stem cell research, therapeutic and reproductive cloning, genetic testing, and much more.  The Topics section has articles covering various technologies; what is moral, what is immoral.  It also has articles on pertinent topics by other authors.  The Books section has a reading list for those who want to do their own research.  The Links page has a list of websites through which one can keep up to date in this rapidly changing field.  The Glossary page lists important terms and their definitions.  The Church Teaching page has official Catholic Church teaching on reproductive issues and the sanctity of human life.  The Blog has my daily thoughts on new developments and a chance for you to respond.  And my favorite, the Quotes section, has all the verbal gems I have found that say it all.  

On the question of language, see her post about whether our understanding of when human life begins is a matter of belief or of knowledge.

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There is a long interview in last week’s Observer with Woody Allen by Carole Cadwalladr. The reviews of his latest film are so bad that I don’t think I’ll bother seeing it (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). [Warning: Minor plot spoilers follow]


One of the themes that comes up in the interview, yet again, is Allen’s atheism. I’ve always admired his honesty, and the way he won’t sidestep the starkness implicit in a Godless universe, he won’t offer any facile consolations. Here are his latest reflections, framed by Cadwalladr’s comments:

They are all here [in the film], the familiar subjects of Allen-esque despair. The feeling, as Alvy Singer explains at the beginning of Annie Hall, that life is nasty, brutish and cruel. But also too short. That death dominates life. And that nothing works out, ever. It’s not a film a young man could have made. “No. I wouldn’t have thought of it when I was young. It requires years of disillusionment, this is true,” he says. The only happy characters in the film are the deluded ones, and the more powerfully deluded they are, the happier they seem. Helena, who takes up with a fortune teller and dabbles with the occult, is grinning like a loon by the end of the film.

“But then I’ve always felt that if the delusion works, it’s great. I always think that people who have religious faith are always happier than people who do not. The problem is that it’s not something you can adopt. It has to come naturally.”

There’s a brilliant sequence, which afterwards I think is the possibly the least romantic moment in any film ever, in which Sally, played by Naomi Watts, young, beautiful and trapped in an unhappy marriage, has a moment with her sexy, Spanish boss, Antonio Banderas. He obviously has feelings for her, as she does for him, and if she were a character in any other film, they’d eventually be together. Or maybe apart, but in a doomed, romantic way. Not here, though. It just doesn’t happen, and they end up not together in the most banal of ways: the timing’s off. She hesitates, and he falls in love with her friend instead. She takes consolation in her career but then that’s thwarted too. It’s a level of realism, the everyday realism of everyday life, that rarely reaches the screen.

In Woody Allen’s universe there is no reason why some things happen and others not. His atheism allows no delusions of that kind, but what about age, I ask him? Do you, like Alfie, resist hearing that you’re old?

“I do, I resist. I feel the only way you can get through life is distraction. And you can distract yourself in a million different ways, from turning on the television set and seeing who wins the meaningless soccer game, to going to the movies or listening to music. They’re tricks that I’ve done and that many people do. You create problems in your life and it seems to the outside observer that you are self-destructive and it’s foolish. But you’re creating them because they’re not mortal problems. They are problems that can be solved, or they can’t be solved, and they’re a little painful, perhaps, but they are not going to take your life away.”

“Life is so much luck. And people are so frightened to admit that. They want to think that they control their life. They think ‘I make my luck’. And you want to keep telling yourself that you’re in control, but you’re not in control. Ninety-nine per cent of it is luck, the luck of the genes, the luck of the draw, what happens during the day, the bomb that goes off on the other guy’s bus.”

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‘Activism’, in the Catholic spiritual tradition, doesn’t refer to a political commitment or to an energetic involvement in a particular project. It’s about the danger, psychologically and spiritually, of getting over-invested in the work that we are doing, of work becoming a compulsion, of forgetting the larger purposes of the work at hand and the larger meaning of life that brings us to do this particular work.

We talk about someone being ‘driven’. It can be an attractive virtue if it points to a certain purposefulness and energy; but it literally means that someone is no longer in the driving seat, they have lost hold of the steering wheel; and the car – the goal, the project, the activity – is doing the driving itself. Another word for this is workaholism.

I’ve just finished re-reading one of the spiritual books that has helped me most in my life, The Soul of the Apostolate, by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, OCSO. It’s first of all a book of theology, about how any apostolic work needs to be rooted in Christ, and how easy it is for a feverish activism to displace one’s spiritual life.

The ‘heresy of good works’ is not the idea that good works are important, it’s the habit of trying to work for the Lord without depending on prayer and the grace of God. It’s when the exterior life is so all-consuming that the interior life is pushed to the side, or squeezed out completely.

But the book is also full of much wisdom at the purely practical/psychological level, about how to keep a work-life balance, the importance of having an inner-detachment from what we are doing, etc. It’s a kind of early self-help/management guru book.

Chautard quotes Geoffrey of Auxerre writing about his master, St Bernard:

Totus primum sibi et sic totus omnibus

Meaning, more or less:

He belonged, first of all, entirely to himself, and thus he belonged entirely to all people

And then he quotes St Bernard himself, writing to Pope Eugenius III.

I do not tell you to withdraw completely from secular occupations. I only exhort you not to throw yourself entirely into them. If you are a man belonging to everyone, belong also to yourself. Otherwise what good would it do you to save everybody else, if you were to be lost yourself? Keep something, then, for yourself, and if everyone comes to drink at your fountain, do not deprive yourself of drinking there too. What! Must you alone go thirsty? Always begin with the consideration of yourself. It would be vain for you to lavish care upon others, and neglect yourself. May all your reflections, then, begin with yourself and end also with yourself. [p42]

This apparent focus on oneself is not a call to selfishness but to the kind of interior recollection and self-awareness that allows you to be truly selfless and at the service of others, because you are not driven but actively giving yourself to the work and to others, and actually having something of yourself to give.

I’ve got an old Tan copy of the book, which is reprinted by St Benedict Press and available at Amazon.

There is a book called Inner Strength for Active Apostles by Chautard published by Sophia Press, which I think is a slightly simplified and modernised version of the same book – on Amazon here. I haven’t read it, but seen it in a bookshop. From what I know of other Sophia Press books it should be very good, and perhaps slightly more accessible than the original version (just because some of the theological language is quite heavy).

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An article about bioethics in the Times gives a frightening example of the way language can be distorted to misrepresent the truth and skew an ethical argument (last Friday, 11 March, page 3). It makes you wonder whether it’s just lazy journalism, or whether the Times has some particular interest in slanting the ethical debate in these areas.

 

Painting by David S. Goodsell - mitochondria at top right

The article is about a new ‘therapy’ designed to cure mitochondrial failure, which can cause fatal conditions that affect about 100 children in Britain each year. These are the facts, reported in a ‘How it works’ box at the side, and sifted from the body of the article: two embryos are created, both from the father’s sperm, but one from the mother’s egg, and one from a donor’s egg. Two pronuclei are taken from the ‘mother/father’ embryo, which is then discarded. These are then placed in the ‘donor/father’ embryo (from which the pronuclei have been removed), which has healthy mitochondria. This newly ‘created’ embryo is implanted in the mother’s womb and allowed to gestate.

So let’s be clear: an embryo is harvested (I can’t find a better work) of its pronuclei, then discarded, and another embryo is given new pronuclei and allowed to grow. It’s embryos we are talking about. Leave aside for the moment what you think about the personhood of embryos, or their dignity or worth, or whether they have a soul, etc. The scientific point that no biologist would deny is that an embryo is a human life in its very earliest states; a new creature, at the beginning of its life, biologically/genetically distinct from the life of its parents.

Mark Henderson, Science Editor in the Times, does explain all this. But he peppers the article with ambiguous phrases about what is actually happening. First, in the main article, he writes that ‘the treatment involves merging DNA from two fertilised eggs, one from the mother, the other from a donor’ [my italics here and below]. This is strictly true, but it’s a strange way of referring to embryos. It would be much more natural to talk about two embryos rather than two fertilised eggs, and the suspicion is that this is a way of drawing attention away from the reality that embryos are being harvested and discarded.

Second, in a Commentary box also written by Henderson, he writes, ‘The notion of creating a baby with a small genetic contribution from a third parent is bound to strike some people as controversial’. This is a misleading. The mitochondrial DNA in the new embryo will have been indirectly inherited from the donor – in this limited sense the donor makes a ‘contribution’; but it is actually taken from the embryo that has been created from the donor’s egg and father’s sperm. The ‘small genetic contribution’ is not taken from a third parent (which sounds like a benign piece of information), it is taken from a newly created human embryo.

Notice how Henderson is comfortable calling the finally created healthy embryo a ‘baby’, but never refers to the discarded embryo that has had its two nuclei removed as a baby.

Henderson goes on to say in his Commentary that the new procedure adds a fresh dimension to issues of surrogacy and egg donation ‘because a third person will also contribute a small amount of DNA to the baby’. I presume he is trying to say that the third person contributing the DNA is the donor. Once again, it’s true that the mitochondrial DNA is indirectly inherited from the donor, but the ‘contribution’ is made directly by the embryo not the donor.

Then, in the caption underneath the photograph of a baby’s foot held in an adult’s hand, we read that ‘The technique replaces faulty mitochondria from the mother with a healthy form from a second egg‘. This is completely untrue. The healthy mitochondria do not come from an egg, they come from a newly created embryo, which has its pronuclei replaced with the pronuclei from another embryo.

The ‘How it works’ box is both honest and dishonest at the same time: the text says ‘These [pronuclei] are injected into a healthy embryo‘; yet the caption right beside it, under the illustration, says ‘Egg with healthy mitochondria‘. Perhaps Henderson was not responsible for these captions and boxes.

You may think I’m being obsessive about language. It just frightens me how language can be manipulated in a reputable newspaper to distort the truth and mask both the scientific and ethical reality of one of the most serious issues facing our culture. It makes you wonder whether the Times is seeking to promote a controversial scientific procedure rather than just report it and let the facts speak for themselves.

Here is the full Commentary [subscription required]:

The notion of creating a baby with a small genetic contribution from a third parent is bound to strike some people as controversial.

Yet Professor Turnbull’s team, which has developed the new IVF technique, is driven by the noblest of ethical motives: the desire to help families affected by a devastating burden of disease.

If the procedure is approved by Andrew Lansley, it stands to help women like Sharon Bernardi, from Sunderland, who has seen six children die in infancy because they inherited mitochondrial disorder.

When Professor Turnbull published promising results a year ago, she posed for photographs with her son Edward, then 20, who had a mitochondrial condition called Leigh’s disease.

Mr Bernardi died last week. As scientists began to consider whether the therapy should be used on patients, his death serves to illustrate the terrible impact these disorders can have — and the need for prevention.

When weighing the advice they will give to Mr Lansley, the expert panel he has convened will consider the safety and effectiveness of Professor Turnbull’s procedure.

They will want to see evidence that human embryos created this way appear to be normal, as well as the results of animal studies.

The medical benefits will need to outweigh the risks that are always involved when techniques like this move from laboratory and animal experiments into human reproduction. There are also ethical issues to be considered.

The principle that more than two parents can contribute biologically to the birth of a child is already recognised in Britain, as egg donation and surrogacy are legal. The new procedure adds a fresh dimension, however, because a third person will also contribute a small amount of DNA to the baby.

Embryo-rights groups will oppose the technique, because it involves merging two embryos, one of which is destroyed. It will also concern some people who object to manipulating DNA in irreversible ways, even if there is a medical benefit, or who feel it is wrong to subject a potential child to a procedure to which it cannot consent.

Mr Lansley could approve the work himself, but given its controversial nature he is more likely to give MPs a free vote. This would provide the first test of this Parliament’s attitude towards bio-ethics. David Cameron, whose disabled son Ivan died in 2009, is understood to be privately supportive.

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With a title like ‘Plagiarism and the internet’, you are expecting me to write about how plagiarism is infinitely easier and infinitely more common than it was before the advent of the internet. Well it is. But it’s also true that the internet has made it a lot easier to discover whether someone is plagiarising, and where they are getting their materials from.

Jimmy Wales, one of the Wikipedia founders, explains all.

The German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has announced his resignation after admitting that he had plagiarised parts of his PhD from the University of Bayreuth. Online tools played a big role in exposing his methods: for almost two weeks a group worked to identify the specific sections from his thesis that were lifted straight from other sources. When they realised that Google Docs – although a useful tool for small group collaboration – wasn’t the right platform for mass participation in the project, they created a “wiki” (a site for collaborative works) named PlagiPedia to handle the effort.

In just a few days the wiki went into overdrive: from no page views on 16 February to nearly 2m on 18 February. A university investigation – culminating in a decision described by Debora Weber–Wulff, a professor of media and computing at Berlin university, as the fastest by a German academic institution in 400 years – resulted in the revocation of Zu Guttenberg’s doctorate. To date, the wiki has received 40,000 comments and 15,000 Facebook “likes”, and there are 1,224 pages on it exploring the details of the accusations of plagiarism against him.

Last week a second wiki was launched to explore whether Saif Gaddafi’s PhD thesis from the London School of Economics included plagiarism. A few days later Britain’s Media Standards Trust unveiled a website called churnalism.com which helps expose plagiarism in the media. By pasting press releases into a “churn engine” readers can discover the extent to which they have been recycled, verbatim, in online news articles. The internet is thought to have fostered a cut-and-paste culture of uncritical plagiarism: schoolteachers and university lecturers in particular regularly complain about coursework lifted straight off the site that I run, Wikipedia. But, if nothing else, sites like Plagipedia and churnalism.com show us that the internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies.

Of course Saif Gaddafi is guilty of far worse than plagiarism. But his history with the LSE is a black mark for the institution, and in particular for the examiners, such as Lord Desai, who approved his thesis. We may be able to forgive them some aspects of this – plagiarism is sometimes notoriously difficult to detect, particularly when you have only a small committee of experts doing the examining.

In the open-source software world we have a saying: “Many eyeballs make all bugs shallow.” Similarly, many people working together to look for plagiarism can be dramatically more effective than only a few.

The key internet rule now is not to avoid copying, but to admit it when you do.

The text on the image reads:

You go on YouTube for example and you post a video clip…within hours you’ll have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people doing variations of your act….It used to be that if you were in the realm of popular culture, you would be inspired by an earlier performance, by an earlier style, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, for example. But that would really be incumbent upon you to create an original style, a trademark style. That’s what you were known by. Now the important thing is to copy. It’s a copy culture. [Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob]

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Many discussions about freedom try to push you to an extreme position: you are either completely determined and in denial about this, or radically free to determine what you will do and who you will become. [WARNING: minor plot-spoilers coming up]

The film The Adjustment Bureau, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, has a nice take on this. The visible, historical world – our ordinary reality – is watched over by members of the Adjustment Bureau. Their job is to make sure that the Plan unfolds as it should – a Plan for human civilisation as a whole, and for each individual. But instead of pulling every string, like Ed Harris sitting in his control room in The Truman Show, they let things take their own course, and step in every now and then to make minor ‘adjustments’, carefully planned interventions that nudge our lives in one direction or another, without causing too many ‘ripples’ that might cause us to think we are in hands of a higher power. We experience these adjustments as accidents or chance events, but they are the workings of an invisible fate giving shape to our lives. The plot turns on a wonderful scene when one member of the Bureau misses his cue, and someone doesn’t spill a cup of coffee as they are meant to, so that the Plan unravels.

The film illustrates a simple truth: that the whole course of our lives depends on chance events and unplanned encounters. It takes up these themes from those wonderful films Wings of Desire and Run Lola Run. We think we are, to a certain extent, in control of our lives; yet we are not in control of the insignificant happenings that have most significance for our lives. Is it Fate? Providence? Chance?

It’s a light-hearted thriller-cum-comedy-romance, beautifully executed, with one or two weighty ideas from Dick. It has the feel of a Magritte painting come to life. If you like sci-fi, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, or casual musings about human freedom, you’ll enjoy it. And if you like all four, as I do, you’ll have a ball.

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Last Saturday saw the first ever World Book Night, when a million books were given away across the UK. The Guardian had the wonderful idea of asking writers which books they most often give as gifts, and which they’ve been most pleased to receive. Take a look here – it gives you so many new ideas about what to read.

This, as an example, is Margaret Atwood’s entry:

The book I most often give as a gift is The Gift, by Lewis Hyde (Canongate). I keep four or five copies around the house at all times, for swift giving to people who need them. Most often they are artists of one kind or another, and are worrying about the disconnect between what they do and how hard they work, and how little money they make. Hyde’s book explains the differences between the money economy in which we think we live, and the gift economy, in which we also live. Gifts – including artistic gifts – travel in mysterious ways, but travel they must, or else they die. The Gift is essential reading for anyone who has embarked on this journey. (It also inspired the creators of World Book Night. That is one of its gifts.)

Twenty-five titles were chosen to be given away. How? The World Book Night website explains that they “were selected by a committee of people committed to books, based on recommendations from publishers, booksellers and others”.

I’ve copied the covers below. If you click on the title-links it takes you to the World Book Night comments on the book. (I can’t get all the titles and covers to line up nicely – oh well!)

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Perhaps I’m overstating it in the title, but new research from the States shows that the Catholic Church there is much better at retaining old members than it is recruiting new ones. Or more precisely, it is not losing members any faster than any other mainstream Christian body; the problem is that it is not gaining them very effectively. As John Allen says: “To put all that into crass capitalistic terms, in America’s highly competitive religious marketplace, the real Catholic problem isn’t customer service but new sales.”

St Patrick's Cathedral, New York

 

Here is his analysis of the 2008 “Religious Landscape Survey” from the Pew Forum. You can read his interview with the people at the Pew Forum here.

Try as we might to remind ourselves that the Catholic church isn’t Microsoft and that quantitative measures of success or failure don’t always correspond to the logic of the Gospel, most of us take that lesson to heart only selectively. Some Catholics can’t resist touting the huge crowds at World Youth Day as an endorsement of their version of orthodoxy; others cite polling majorities in favor of reform on birth control and other issues as proof of the sensus fidelium.

The most powerful recent instance of that temptation has been Catholic reaction to the 2008 “Religious Landscape Survey” from the Pew Forum, which documented a remarkable fluidity in religious affiliation in America — almost half of American adults have either switched religions or dropped their ties to religion altogether.

For Catholicism, the banner headline was that there are now 22 million ex-Catholics in America, by far the greatest net loss for any religious body. One in three Americans raised Catholic have left the church. Were it not for immigration, Catholicism in America would be contracting dramatically: for every one member the church adds, it loses four. On the other hand, the study also found that the Catholic church has a higher retention rate than other major Christian denominations, and that 2.6 percent of the adult population is composed of converts to Catholicism, representing a pool of nearly six million new Catholics.

Naturally, critics of various aspects of Catholic life, such as the sexual abuse crisis or what some see as an overly conservative ideological drift, see the defections as proof of malaise. (A prominent American theologian recently claimed the Pew data reveal a “mass exodus” from the church, which he linked to a preoccupation by some bishops with the culture wars.) Equally predictably, Catholics content with the status quo play up the good news.

Given the disparities in interpretation, I turned to the director of the Pew Forum, Luis Lugo, to try to understand what the data really have to say. I spoke to Lugo by phone Thursday morning, and we were joined by Pew senior researcher Greg Smith.

Here’s the bottom line: In comparison with other religious groups in America, the Catholic church’s struggles aren’t really with pastoral care, but missionary muscle. Overall, Catholicism serves existing members fairly well, as measured by the share that chooses to stick around; what it doesn’t do nearly as well is to evangelize. The data do not reflect widespread dissatisfaction in the pews, at least to any greater extent than other religious bodies face. Instead, they reveal a problem with getting people into the pews in the first place.

To put all that into crass capitalistic terms, in America’s highly competitive religious marketplace, the real Catholic problem isn’t customer service but new sales.

Even if one were to focus just on defections, it’s not clear which ideological camp in today’s church could claim vindication. While many former Catholics object to church teachings on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, one in ten Protestant Evangelicals in America today is also an ex-Catholic, many of whom deserted Catholicism because it wasn’t conservative enough. Finally, there’s a clear plug for youth ministry implied in the Pew data: Roughly two-thirds of those who abandon Catholicism do so before they’re 23, which means the make-or-break period is adolescence and early adulthood.

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I’m just back from a night in Chester – two hours from Euston on the train. In fact the hotel I stayed in was just over the Welsh border;so I wasn’t just out of London, I was out of England.

It’s good to be reminded that London is not ordinary life for everyone in Britain. I expected the “it’s too big, too busy, too brash” attitude. One man I met, brought up in Chester, reflected on a recent trip to London, and told me how he was amazed that you had to stand on the right-hand side of the escalators so that other people could rush past you on the other side. Why not just take your time and let the escalator do the work? Why not indeed.

I remembered that just this week I was standing on an escalator behind two people who were talking to each other – a very ordinary and beautiful thing to do – but they were on the same step, and so one of them was standing on the left-hand side! And I was thinking at the time ‘are you crazy, just standing there blocking the clear line of the fast lane?’ When someone came racing down and wanted to pass, he moved out of the way immediately, but then he went back to his position on the left!

You can tell how mad my stream-of-consciousness thinking has become in the apparent normality of this London madness. And how right the good people of Chester are to be bemused and a little concerned by all this.

But the other conversation I had about my home city surprised and heartened me a lot. When I was talking about the escalator conversation later in the evening, someone else said that they had visited London recently with friends, and they had all commented, reflecting on their different experiences, that London seemed a friendlier place than it had been a few years ago – for them as visitors. People were more helpful, more willing to talk, happier to engage.

If it’s true, isn’t that great? And if it’s true, I wonder why? Is it because London is more multicultural, so the natural English reserve has given way to the openness that perhaps comes more easily to people brought up in different cultures? Is it because customers have higher expectations about how they should be treated in shops and restaurants and entertainment venues, and businesses are better at training staff and responding to these expectations? Or is it because of some deeper shift in the zeitgeist? I’m not sure. But it warmed my heart to think that one or two random people from outside London had gone home with good impressions of the city and of those of us who live here, despite our obsession with standing on the right of the escalators.

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There has been a lot of comment about the role of Facebook and other social media in publicising and facilitating the uprisings in the Arab world and beyond. Lawrence Pintak writes about the indispensable role played by Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite TV channel.

As darkness fell on Tahrir Square the night of Feb. 1, a giant makeshift TV screen broadcast Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the Egyptian uprising to the enthusiastic crowd. The channel would later transmit Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s speech, in which he announced that he would not stand for reelection but would stay in office for the remainder of his term; below the screen, the protesters chanted their displeasure at what they viewed as this insufficient concession.

It was a moment that spoke volumes about the unique link between the Qatar-based channel, the uprising in Egypt, and the Tunisian revolution that was its inspiration.

It also underscored the new reality facing Arab regimes: They no longer control the message.

Since Jan. 28, Al Jazeera has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Mubarak regime, which knocked it off the government-controlled Nilesat satellite, shut its bureau, seized its transmission equipment, and arrested some of its staff.

But over the weekend, at least 10 other satellite broadcasters in the region began replacing their own programming with Al Jazeera’s feed, foiling the Egyptian regime’s efforts to prevent its citizens from watching the channel that has become its chief nemesis.

“We have been working round the clock to make sure we are broadcasting on alternative frequencies,” Al Jazeera said in a statement on its website. “Clearly there are powers that do not want our important images pushing for democracy and reform to be seen by the public.”

And therein lies the reason Al Jazeera has emerged as such a central player in the drama now unfolding in the region. Unlike the bland, state-owned Egyptian station, or its more conservative, Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera has captured the hopes of the crowds gathering on the streets of Cairo.

“The genius of Arab satellite TV,” Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, once told me, “is that it [has] captured a deep-seated common existential pain called Arab sensibility and turned it into a picture narrative that speaks to something very deep in the Arab psyche.”

Put another way: There is no chance that the world would be watching these extraordinary events play out in Egypt if Egyptians had not watched the Tunisian revolution play out in their living rooms and coffee shops on Al Jazeera.

If you don’t know the history of the channel, Pintak fills in the gaps here:

Change was Al Jazeera’s raison d’être from the day 15 years ago when the upstart ruler of the tiny emirate of Qatar founded the channel, which he called Al Jazeera (“The Peninsula,” named for the tiny thumb of desert that comprised his Gulf fiefdom). He hired a bunch of out-of-work Arab journalists who had lost their jobs with the BBC and gave them a mandate: Make his rival autocrats uncomfortable — and boost his political juice throughout the region in the process…

That is not to say the Arab media is a monolith or that Al Jazeera is without its critics in the Arab world. Just as Fox and MSNBC attract partisans in the United States, Arabs turn to Al Jazeera, its Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya or various other channels, depending on their politics. Many claim Al Jazeera supports the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, a notion bolstered by its recent WikiLeaks-style release of secret documents from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which has undermined the Palestinian Authority. And there has long been a perception that the Qatar-based channel is anti-Mubarak. Whether that is a good or bad thing lies in the eye of the beholder.

Among many other things, it shows you the continued significance of television, even in an age of digital communication and social media. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at the English language 24-hour news channel here. I’m not clued-up enough to know where it sits in terms of politics, bias, etc; but it certainly gives you a different perspective from the usual UK channels.

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