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Archive for December, 2011

What if there were another you? I don’t mean just an identical twin or a clone with the exact same genes. I mean someone who was like you in every way, the same body and mind and heart, the same past and experiences and memories, the same thoughts and feelings, the same decisions taken and the same mistakes made, standing in front of you now – but not you.

This is the idea at the heart of the film Another Earth, which jumps straight into my Top Ten films of the year. [Major plot spoilers follow - sorry!]

Another planet appears – just a dot in the night sky. As it comes closer it becomes apparent that this planet is the same size as ours, that it even has the same structure of continents and oceans as ours. Then, in a magical sci-fi moment, as the woman responsible for ‘first contact’ with the new planet speaks on a microphone, she realises that the woman talking to her on the other end is herself. [It's on the trailer here - I've ruined it for you!]

So the synchronicity between the two planets and between each corresponding person is absolute, apart from the fact that it inevitably gets broken by the appearance of the other planet – so the woman is not hearing the same words ‘she’ is speaking on the other planet, but actually having a non-symmetrical conversation with her other-self.

First of all, you are simply in sci-fi territory. I love these films. And in fact this film is really a re-make of another film from the ’70s (I can’t remember its name – brownie points for anyone who can help) where the US sent a spaceship to another planet on the other side of the sun, only to discover that the planet was the same as the earth – apart from everything being a mirror image of this earth. So our astronaut lands on the other planet, and another astronaut from that planet lands on our earth, with everyone thinking that our astronaut has come back early – until he sees that all the writing here is in reverse. Anyway – this is classic sci-fi.

But very quickly it becomes philosophical. Looking at this other earth in the sky above, marvelling that we can behold such a world, you realise that this is exactly what we do whenever we reflect on our experience, or use our imaginations, or question what is going on in our own minds. The remarkable thing about human beings is that we can ‘step back’ from our own experience (inner and outer) and view it; that we can ‘see ourselves’. The strangeness of the film brings to light the strangeness of ordinary human life.

We take this ability to reflect for granted, but it really is the key factor that seems to distinguish us from other animals. No-one today would deny that animals can be incredibly sophisticated and intelligent; and on many measures of intelligence they would beat us. But this power of self-reflection seems to be one of our defining characteristics; and it surely connects, in ways that aren’t always clear, with human freedom – the freedom we have to think and imagine and act in ways that go far beyond the instinctual programming we receive as bodily creatures.

So the wonder that Rhoda Williams feels staring up at this other planet is no more than the wonder we should feel whenever we step back and reflect on ourselves.

Then there is a theological angle too. To cut a long story short: Rhoda unintentionally kills the family of musical conductor John Burroughs in a driving accident, soon after the planet is discovered. He is haunted by the loss of his family, and then receives a ticket to travel to the other planet – a ticket that Rhoda has for herself, but she decides to give it to him. Why would he go? Because if the synchronicity between the two worlds was broken when they started to impact on each other, then perhaps the accident did not happen on the other planet, and ‘his’ family is still alive up there.

I call this a theological idea, because it’s about the possibility of redemption, of putting right something that has gone irredeemably wrong in the past. That in some sense this action might not have happened, or it might be possible to go back and undo the harm that has been done. This is crazy of course – in normal thinking. But if it’s crazy, why do we spend so much time imagining/hoping that somehow we could put right what has gone wrong? I don’t think our almost compulsive inability to stop regretting the mistakes we have made is simply a dysfunctional habit that we can’t let go of; it’s a yearning for forgiveness and redemption, for someone to go back in time and allow us to change things, an echo of a possibility of renewal that we can’t justify at a rational or philosophical level – because the past is completely out of reach. It’s about hope.

Or the film is about conscience – the possibility of imagining an action now, as if it were happening, and asking if we really want this parallel imaginative world to unfold into reality, or if we would regret it. So the work of conscience, and of all conscious deliberation, brings us up against another parallel world that is exactly the same as ours – only we have the power to decide whether it shall come into existence or not.

At the very end of the film, in her backyard, Rhoda meets ‘herself’ – we presume she has come from the other planet, with her own ticket, which she didn’t need to give away, because the accident there didn’t happen. All we see is her catching the gaze of the other woman before her, and recognising her to be herself – but not. Then the film ends immediately. It’s incredibly moving. As if a lifelong search, unacknowledged, is finally over; as if, miraculously, I step away and see myself for who I am, and see myself seeing myself. And that, miraculously, is in fact what happens every time we know ourselves through self-reflection, through self-consciousness. Human beings are not just conscious. We are self-conscious. That’s the idea that the film opens up so well.

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There are lots of these videos floating around that show some aspect of faith or the Christian story through the lens of social media. This is one of my favourites, from Igniter Media. Called ‘Follow’, it shows very simply and very powerfully how the events of Jesus’s life might have been communicated if there had been Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. The immediacy of the messages brought to life for me not just the story itself, but the ordinary humanity of the people involved – people I treat too often as just characters in a book.

It’s not specifically a Christmas video. But anyway: Happy Christmas!

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There is a lovely online debate going on about how best to organise your bookshelves. It falls under that more general heading of ‘cataloguing disputes’ or ‘making lists about lists’.

Here are Stephen Moss’s reflections:

Ah, how to organise one’s bookshelves? One of life’s central questions, and well done Alexander McCall Smith for raising it on Twitter yesterday. Perhaps not everyone would consider this a vital topic, but for me it is. Just as Casaubon in Middlemarch is trying to find “the key to all mythologies” (the title of his unfinished book), so I believe that if I can arrange my library properly, everything will be solved. Who needs the Higgs boson? The real key is where to file The Iliad. Poetry or history?

I have about a dozen categories. Fiction is the largest. It is arranged alphabetically by author and then chronologically where I have several titles by the same writer. There are sections devoted to poetry, memoir, biography, essays, travel writing and plays, all organised alphabetically. Books in these categories have a better chance of surviving than novels, which tend to be culled first. There are smaller sections, more loosely organised, devoted to dictionaries, reference works, art, music, sport and chess. I also have a shelf of foundation texts – the Bible, the Qur’an, the Mahabharata, Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and the modern philosophers. I admit this shelf is very inaccessible.

History is a large section. It begins with general histories, and then takes a predictable course from Sumeria and Egypt to the Third Reich. There is a problem with a book such as Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1972, because I don’t have a separate Irish section and can’t decide whether it should be in general histories or in chronological sequence. For the moment it sits awkwardly in the 17th century, next to Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches. Clearly I need to spend the rest of the day assessing this. One day, when I build my book annexe, all these questions will be resolved. Then, the whole of existence will be mapped, classified, ordered, and I can die happy. George Eliot was unnecessarily cruel to Casaubon. He was definitely on to something.

There are some lovely comments below his piece:

melymnn: I organize my books by publisher and colour and I’m not even ashamed to admit it. Come at me, bro.

Gdhsyerehdjsue: I have colourbetised my books and it looks great.

Mark Barnes: My entire collection is organised by Dewey, and catalogued on LibraryThing.com. Perhaps I need to get out more. That said, not only can I easily find my own books, but I now know exactly where to go in most libraries I visit.

msmlee: The WORST way to organise bookshelves is by an immediately discernible order to the untrained, non-bibliophile eye — you are not running a public library, you are arranging your bookshelves as a means of self expression, why do it so that others could find your books easily without having acquired your particular history of book encounters??? No, the right way to shelve books is not alphabetically, not chronologically, and certainly not by colour. I can stomach somebody’s bookshelves arranged broadly by subject, but that is only elementary level to book organising. You have to organise books in such a way that ONLY YOU know the rhyme and reason for these books being together, and really showed that you have actually READ the books to know what they are about before filing them.

ontheotherhand2010: Not trying to sound aggressive or anything, but… Who cares. Get a life. As long as you can find them, why does it matter? FYI I have mine in about half a dozen fairly broad categories or so (not alphabetical), which is enough for me to know roughly where they are located. I stopped being pedantic with the exact location of my books in my late teens. Maybe you should give it a rest as well…

To this last commentator I’d reply: If you can’t understand why someone wants to catalogue and sort and order and list and arrange and argue and shape and obsess and file and group and re-group and on and on and on, without it having to be explained to you, then you never will. It’s part of being human. Maybe the obsessiveness isn’t, but the impulse is.

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This is how the apparently logical/scientific argument goes: Teenagers keep getting pregnant, and thus having more abortions and unwanted babies. So if we give them more drugs to stop the pregnancies, and include the morning-after pill in the package, the pregnancies will decrease.

This kind of unquestioned argumentation colours many of our opinions, and drives public policy. But it’s not empirically true. It’s bad science.

Morning-after pill for girls aged 16 and under

Marianne Neary explains why. She examines some of the epidemiological or ‘population-based’ evidence:

The morning-after pill was introduced to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies, yet subsequent abortion rates have continued to increase unabated. The morning-after pill was then made available over-the-counter to over 16s in the UK in 2001, again with the rationale that the ease of access would curb unplanned pregnancy. Yet there was still no effect on the ever-increasing abortion rates.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has launched an online campaign this month to make the morning-after pill freely available in advance via the post. Randomised controlled trials investigating whether advance provision of the drug reduces the numbers of unplanned pregnancies have shown no such effect; in fact they show that women increase usage of the morning after pill and some studies even suggest that normal contraception is compromised. A study published earlier this year by Nottingham University found that the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases amongst teens was increased in association with local authorities increasing their access to the drug.

What we see is an effect known as “risk compensation” or “behavioural disinhibition”: where a safety net (a Plan ‘B’) is provided – in the form of abortion and the morning-after pill – “risky” sexual behaviour then increases as a result. We are apparently in a lose-lose situation [...]

Professor David Paton, Nottingham University, reports to ScienceDaily in January 2011: “Our study illustrates how government interventions can sometimes lead to unfortunate unintended consequences. The fact that STI diagnoses increased in areas with Emergency Birth Control schemes [schemes increasing access of the morning-after pill to teenagers] will raise questions over whether these schemes represent the best use of public money.”

Neary also goes beyond the scientific analysis to look at some of the broader cultural issues involved:

Instead of tackling the root of the problem, by promoting fidelity and faithfulness, campaigns brandish the word “sex” in fairy lights, framed by the slogan, “Are you feeling turned on this Christmas?” advertising the online access to the morning after pill (BPAS December 2011). The U.S. is currently in debate whether it should allow underage girls to obtain the pill over-the-counter. I think society owes an apology to the girl who winds up pregnant at 14 when she’s bombarded with adverts trivialising sex, when a boy uses the easy access to the morning-after pill as a persuasive device and when the government makes a public statement that casual sex at any age is normal behaviour.

Reporting to the BBC, Ann Furedi adequately epitomises society’s backward attitude towards unplanned pregnancy: “Unintended pregnancy and abortion will always be facts of life because women want to make sure the time is right for them to take on the important role of becoming a parent. Abortion statistics are reflective of women’s very serious consideration regarding that significant role within their current situation.”

While the voices of “Plan B” advocates are louder, couples are increasingly exposing themselves to sexually transmitted disease by engaging in unprotected sex, more women are taking the morning-after pill (a mega-dose of female hormone) when the long-term health consequences are unknown. Perhaps one of the most pressing issues in the US and UK now with the increased availability of the morning-after pill under scrutiny, is that underage girls could get hold of it without face-to-face contact with their Doctor. The latter serves to flag underlying problems which can be discussed and most importantly, keeping a medical record of who is taking it and how often can potentially flag cases of sexual abuse in underage girls.

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My bedtime reading for the last few weeks, between Teresa of Avila’s Foundations, has been Max Hastings’s All Hell let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945. It’s almost too disturbing to read late at night, which is why I moderate it with some Carmelite spirituality.

No-one would deny how much the Allies suffered in the Second World War, on the front line and at home; but what comes across to me from the global perspective that Hastings offers is the breathtaking scale and unimaginable horror of war on the eastern front, as the Red Army clashed with the Nazis. I was mostly ignorant of this whole reality, and over-influenced by the British/American perspective.

I won’t try to summarise the book. If someone has asked you for a late Christmas present suggestion then get it for yourself. But here are a couple of statistics that made me stop in my tracks about war in the east.

On Sunday, 23 August, the Germans heralded their assault [on Stalingrad] with an air raid by six hundred aircraft: 40,000 civilians are said to have died in the first fourteen hours, almost as many as perished in the entire 1940-41 blitz on Britain [p308].

By the end of 1943, the Soviet Union had suffered 77 per cent of its total casualties in the entire conflict – something approaching twenty million dead [p395]

And to put in perspective the relative Allied losses:

The Soviet Union suffered 65 per cent of all Allied military deaths, China 23 per cent, Yugoslavia 3 per cent, the USA and Britain 2 per cent each, France and Poland 1 per cent each [p324].

Hastings is at pains to explain that you can’t compare one form of suffering with another, and that the knowledge of someone’s tragedy on another side of the globe does not in any way diminish or trivialise your own. But the scale of tragedy on the eastern front almost defies comprehension.

Part of the interest of the book lies in how Hastings manages to weave personal accounts of the war into the overall story, without ruining the flow. So in the midst of a section about grand strategy there are illuminating human passages from a letter sent home from the front line, or a diary found in the rubble of a besieged building.

I don’t know enough about the war to judge his judgments, but it’s a gripping story, and a sobering reminded of the tragedy of war. Despite the stories of heroism and daring, very little romance remains – at least in my own mind.

Here is the blurb from Waterstones, if you need any more persuading:

A magisterial history of the greatest and most terrible event in history, from one of the finest historians of the Second World War. A book which shows the impact of war upon hundreds of millions of people around the world – soldiers, sailors and airmen; housewives, farm workers and children.  Reflecting Max Hastings’s thirty-five years of research on World War II, All Hell Let Loose describes the course of events, but focuses chiefly upon human experience, which varied immensely from campaign to campaign, continent to continent.  The author emphasises the Russian front, where more than 90% of all German soldiers who perished met their fate. He argues that, while Hitler’s army often fought its battles brilliantly well, the Nazis conducted their war effort with ‘stunning incompetence’. He suggests that the Royal Navy and US Navy were their countries’ outstanding fighting services, while the industrial contribution of the United States was much more important to allied victory than that of the US Army. The book ranges across a vast canvas, from the agony of Poland amid the September 1939 Nazi invasion, to the 1943 Bengal famine, in which at least a million people died under British rule – and British neglect. Among many vignettes, there are the RAF’s legendary raid on the Ruhr dams, the horrors of Arctic convoys, desert tank combat, jungle clashes. Some of Hastings’s insights and judgements will surprise students of the conflict, while there are vivid descriptions of the tragedies and triumphs of a host of ordinary people, in uniform and out of it.  ‘The cliche is profoundly true’, he says. ‘The world between 1939 and 1945 saw some human beings plumb the depths of baseness, while others scaled the heights of courage and nobility’. This is ‘everyman’s story’, an attempt to answer the question: ‘What was the Second World War like ?’, and also an overview of the big picture. Max Hastings employs the technique which has made many of his previous books best-sellers, combining top-down analysis and bottom-up testimony to explore the meaning of this vast conflict both for its participants and for posterity.

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Rotten Tomatoes is still my favourite site for film reviews. You get a percentage score for each film, a summary of each review, and – most importantly – a link to the original reviews themselves.

But every now and then it drives me mad. It scores each movie solely on the basis of how many positive reviews it has, but it doesn’t give any weighting to each review. So if 100/100 reviewers quite like a film (and give it say 3 stars out of 5), it gets the same score – 100% – as it would if 100/100 reviewers absolutely adore the film (and give it say 5 stars out of 5). So a bland, unprovocative film that managed to mildly please most critics would get a very high score.

This is what set me off last week: I went to see Moneyball partly on the basis that it got 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. Yes, it’s a well-made and thought-provoking film; but it’s also boring, over-long, and not half as funny or intelligent as it should be. This is what the Rotten Tomatoes scoring system can do.

(Maybe I am unjustifiably taking it out on this innocent website. It still got a staggering 87% on Metacritic. Maybe, in this case, it’s the critics themselves who are almost universally wrong. How can Robbie Collin at the Daily Telegraph call it ‘an accomplished, bracingly intelligent film that scores points on all fronts…’?!)

The solution to this problem? Do what Metacritic does. Instead of just adding up the number of positive reviews a film gets, give a certain weighting to each review according to how positive the reviewer was. They also (I’ve just found out) give some reviewers greater weight – as if they trust their judgment more than others. And, it has to be said, the site is really crisp and beautiful – unlike the Rotten Tomatoes site.

Here is the explanation:

A peek behind the curtain

Creating our proprietary Metascores is a complicated process. We carefully curate a large group of the world’s most respected critics, assign scores to their reviews, and apply a weighted average to summarize the range of their opinions. The result is a single number that captures the essence of critical opinion in one Metascore. Each movie, game, television show and album featured on Metacritic gets a Metascore when we’ve collected at least four critics’ reviews.

Why the term “weighted average” matters

Metascore is a weighted average in that we assign more importance, or weight, to some critics and publications than others, based on their quality and overall stature. In addition, for music and movies, we also normalize the resulting scores (akin to “grading on a curve” in college), which prevents scores from clumping together.

How to interpret a Metascore

Metascores range from 0-100, with higher scores indicating better overall reviews. We highlight Metascores in three colors so that you can instantly compare: green scores for favorable reviews, yellow scores for mixed reviews, and red scores for unfavorable reviews.

Why do I stay with Rotten Tomatoes? Simply because the UK site gives you reviews from the UK press, which Metacritic doesn’t, and lists the films under their UK launch date – so you can see what is out this week. If there were a UK Metacritic I would switch to it immediately. And if I had time I’d set about developing one. Maybe there is some money to be made here…

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I love baseball. I love Aaron Sorkin. I love, at least since the magnificent The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt. So there were high expectations for my trip to see Moneyball last week. What a shame that it disappointed so much. It glided along well, with some sharp Sorkin-dialogue and a few great scenes, but it never really took off; and I was even tempted to look at my watch two-thirds of the way through. (How it gets 95% on Rotten Tomatoes I don’t know. I’ll blog about Rotten Tomatoes soon.)

But the central premise (based on a true story) is interesting. Baseball manager Billy Bean (Brad Pitt) is running a team that can’t afford to compete financially with the bigger teams. Every time one of his players proves himself, he gets offered a multi-million dollar contract by someone else and is gone at the beginning of the next season.

Bean notices that people tend to rate players on a limited number of obvious skills and characteristics – how many runs they score, how good their swing is, how fast and accurately they can pitch, etc.

But not many people are analysing the less obvious statistical data about what actually helps a team to win a single game, and to keep winning consistently over a season. It’s not, as it turns out, simply the showy stuff or the obvious stuff – hits and catches and home runs and strike-outs (or whatever – I’m not sure I understand it all); it’s a combination of much less interesting factors like whether someone can make it to first base or whether they can throw a ball from the outfield.

When you get a team of non-stars who, in combination, can do this boring stuff, they beat a team of all-stars. You just need to analyse systematically what actually works, and find people who can do this.

The moral, if there is one, is that we shouldn’t assume we know what works and what doesn’t – until we have done the statistical analysis. Yes, statistics can distort or even deceive, but if you ask the right questions, they can reveal what really makes something work. It’s too easy for us to think we know what works, to take for granted that our criteria for judging something properly are reliable and proven, when often we are just going on unfounded hunches and prejudices.

This is why I always prefer to do detailed written feedback sheets at the end of a course or programme. I’ve heard people say that they like to sit down with people and hear from them directly; and there is certainly something to be gained from talking and listening. But my experience is that in a group conversation, even when you ask everyone to speak, the conversation will still be dominated by the louder ones, or the ones who feel most strongly about the issue (positively or negatively); and as an organiser you will always be tempted to be influenced too much by those who speak with most conviction.

But when you give everyone a chance, in a quiet moment of written reflection, to say what they think in detail about how something has worked, you get a much better picture, and often a lot of surprises. How to get honest and helpful feedback from people is a great art. I’d like to know more about other ways of getting constructive feedback.

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