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The Catholic Voices Blog seems to be posting a bit more regularly over the last few weeks. It’s a good source of information and comment on some of the fraught cultural and political issues of the day. You can visit here, and sign up for email feeds in the right-hand column.

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If you liked yesterday’s post about making time for creative projects, see the website it’s from: 99u.com – “Insights on making ideas happen”. It’s got a really good mix of posts about management, creativity, using time well, productivity, self-help, etc.

This is from the About section:

99U is Behance’s research and education arm. Taking its name from Thomas Edison’s famous quote that “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration,” the 99U includes a Webby award-winning web magazine, an annual conference, and the best-selling book Making Ideas Happen. Through articles, tips, videos, and events, we educate creative professionals on best practices for moving beyond idea generation into idea execution.

And this is the blurb for the book:

Making Ideas Happen is the national bestseller from Behance and 99U founder Scott Belsky. Based on hundreds of interviews and years of research, the book chronicles the methods of exceptionally productive creative leaders and teams – companies like Google, IDEO, and Disney, and individuals like author Chris Anderson and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh – that make their ideas happen, time and time again.

See especially the TIPS section here.

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I was using this book a lot in a recent talk I gave: Brandon Vogt’s The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activitsts, and Bishops who Tweet.

Vogt himself writes a helpful introduction (about the way the Church has used different media at the service of the gospel over many centuries) and conclusion (about where it’s all going: some of the possibilities, and some of the dangers).

But most of the book consists of short articles and reflections by cutting-edge practitioners, people who have taken the plunge and got stuck in – perhaps making many mistakes along the way, but learning to see the huge value of using the new media.

There are four main sections that deal with evangelisation, Christian formation, building community, and serving the common good. So it’s not a narrow discussion about blogging and tweeting, but a rich and broad presentation of the multifarious ways that people are using new media to good effect.

There are huge and well-known projects that have already had an international influence, like Fr Robert Barron’s Word on Fire and Shaun Carney’s online pro-life work. But there are also lots of stories about how ordinary parishes can improve their use of digital media by getting involved in social networking or simply learning to connect with their parishioners better through websites and texting. So there are small and practical tips for ordinary Christians as well as big flashes of inspiration for those sensing a call to step out as evangelists.

Lots of information for the uninformed; lots of ideas for those who feel they should be doing something. It’s well worth getting a copy.

See Vogt’s website here. Which has this blurb – full of links if you have nothing else to do for the next hour!

The Church finds herself in the midst of a technological revolution, the biggest communication shift since the advent of the printing press.

The printing press created an information explosion, allowing people to absorb tremendous amounts of knowledge. But this modern, digital revolution brings a new type of communication. It pairs content with dialogue, discussion, and relationship, moving beyond a one-way flow of information.

New tools have burst onto the scene to provide this dual-offering of knowledge and community. Nicknamed “New Media”, these tools include social media, blogs, podcasts, video-casts, mobile media, and interactive websites.

Finding herself in a world that has dramatically embraced these tools, the Church is at a crossroad. If her missions of evangelization, formation, community-building, and social-justice are to continue in future generations, she must harness these tools and utilize them now. Thankfully, many Catholics are doing just that.

The Church and New Media brings together innovators, visionaries, and experts on the relationship between faith and technology, packaging their wisdom into the definitive book on New Media and the Church. It shows not only how the Church can exist in the digital age, but how she can effectively proclaim the Gospel today.

In addition to profiling many New Media innovators and relevant Church teachings, the book features chapters by the following New Media experts:

Foreword
*Cardinal Seán O’Malley*

Introduction / The Digital Continent
*Brandon Vogt*

Part One / Put Out Into the Deep: New Media & Evangelization
Chapter One / The Virtual Areopagus: Digital Dialogue with the Unchurched
*Fr. Robert Barron*
Chapter Two / Into the Light: Sharing the Spiritual Journey
*Jennifer Fulwiler*
Chapter Three / Speaking Their Language: Connecting with Young Adults
*Marcel LeJeune*

Part Two / That the World May Know: New Media & Formation
Chapter Four / Modern Epistles: Blogging the Faith
*Mark Shea*
Chapter Five / New Wineskins: Fresh Presentations of Ancient Tradition
*Taylor Marshall*
Chapter Six / Digital Discourse: The New Apologetics
*Fr. Dwight Longenecker*

Part Three / Fostering the Flock: New Media & Community
Chapter Seven / Innovative Shepherding: New Media in the Diocese
*Scot Landry*
Chapter Eight / High-Tech Community: New Media in the Parish
*Matthew Warner*
Chapter Nine / That They May Be One: Cultivating Online Community
*Lisa Hendey*

Part Four / To the Ends of the Earth: New Media & Mission
Chapter Ten / Changing the World: New Media Activism
*Thomas Peters*
Chapter Eleven / Moving Mountains: Building a Digital Movement
*Shawn Carney (40 Days for Life)*

Conclusion / To Infinity and Beyond: The Future of the Church and New Media
*Brandon Vogt*

Afterword
*Archbishop Timothy Dolan*

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Bridges and Tangents is on the shortlist for the ‘Most Inspiring Leadership Blog’ (!!) at the Christian New Media Awards.

Why not take a look at the other nominees in the various categories below. I know that many of the readers of this blog are Catholic, so it might interest people to see the fascinating things that go on in the largely non-Catholic (I think) new media world represented by these awards.

People’s Choice

- Free Bible Images
The Light Project
Christian Medical Comment
Busbridge and Hambledon Church
CSW – Take Action

Best Christian Blog

- Emma Scrivener
Missing Generation
Threads
What You Think Matters
God and Politics in the UK
EpilogueTV

Best Christian Blog by someone under 25

- Dean Roberts
Miriam’s Fusion Blog
Blogging with Tom
Arianne Winslow
Becca is Learning

Most Inspiring Leadership Blog

- benleney
Learning and Growing
Biblical Preaching
Bridges and Tangents
Rev’d Matthew Porter

Best Newcomer Blog

- Flame Creative Children’s Ministry
Believer’s Brain
Ed’s Slipper
Blogging with Tom
God and Politics in the UK

Micro-Blogger of the Year

- OneVoice
Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove
Restored
Richard Littledale
The Church Mouse

Best Christian Organisation Website

- Sunday Night Live
Wazala
SGM Lifewords
Relationship Central
Green Pastures Housing

I hope to go to the Christian New Media Conference which takes place the day after the awards on 20 Oct 2012, and try to do some serious (and fun) thinking about faith and the new media. It looks as though it will be a good day. Details copied here:

The Christian New Media Conference 2012

Date: 20th October 2012
Time: 9.15am Registration, 10am Start and 5.20pm Finish
Venue: King’s College London, Waterloo Campus, Franklin-Wilkins Building, Stamford Street, London SE1 8WA Directions
Tickets:   £30   Book Now!

If you want to make a greater impact in the digital world, to get to grips with new media technologies, or simply tweet, pin and post better, then the Christian New Media Conference 2012 is the place to be. It will inspire you, equip you and connect you with like-minded people – whatever your level of experience.

Now in its third year, the conference has moved to a new venue with more space, four new seminar streams and 25 expert speakers ready to give practical help and an opportunity to delve deeper.

Whether you come as an individual, a church, charity or business, you’ll be spoilt for choice with 20 breakout sessions available.

The Theme for 2012

The digital revolution has transformed the art of story-telling, bringing it once more to the fore. If you think about it, much of what we are engaged with online is story-telling. We might be telling our story, our church or organisation’s story – but ultimately, as Christians, we are telling God’s story. This will be the theme of the main sessions this year and will have a dedicated seminar stream.

This year’s Theology stream will look at the concept of ‘Depixelating God’ – exploring how we as Christians can help make the image of God clearer to people in the online space.

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I can’t believe it – this is my 500th post! (I’m not counting, but by chance I saw the ‘499’ pop up on the last one). 500 scintillating insights; 500 pieces of finely wrought prose, where ‘every phrase and every sentence is right’ (almost Eliot); 500 breathtakingly beautiful bridges and unexpectedly daring tangents.

OK, maybe the prose is moving from finely wrought to overwrought; I could also have said: 500 half-formed ideas at the end of the day.

Let’s celebrate with some decent writing, about writing itself – with one of my favourite passages from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start…

And how to celebrate and reflect for this 500th post? Well, we certainly need a magnificent bridge. The banner image you have been looking at for the last three years, at the top of each page, is a shot over New York with Hell Gate Bridge in the background. Here it is in a much better shot:

And in order to allow a little bit of self-analysis for this 500-post celebration, here is the ‘tag cloud’ from these 500 posts. Remember, this doesn’t analyse the words I have used in the writing itself, but the number of times I have chosen to tag a particular post with one of these labels. Anything that has come up twelve times makes the cloud, so the tags with the smallest fonts below represent 12 posts each, and the largest numbers of posts (as you can see below) are about: internet (35), love (37), faith (38) and freedom (44). You can send in your psychoanalytical conclusions on a postcard.

If you want to actually search for these tagged topics, see the proper and updated tag cloud in the right-hand column.

Thanks for your support over these nearly three years, your loyal and devoted reading (or your random ending up here through an accidental search or a false tap on the iPad), your occasional comments. Thanks to all those whose beautiful images I have borrowed (legally I hope, and with due accreditation, usually via creative commons). Apologies that I haven’t always had the time to enter into dialogue properly with all the comments, as they deserve.

I’ve nearly always enjoyed the thinking and writing (and choosing pictures). I’ve sometimes felt the obligation to keep going for consistency’s sake – but soon I’ve been glad that I have. I’ve always wished I had more time to ponder and shape the ideas, and the words themselves.

It’s a strange thing, ‘airing your thoughts’. Strange for being both personal and public; the inner life and the life outside; the quiet of the computer screen as you compose the blog, and the clatter of each post landing on several hundred other screens and phones around the world.

I won’t say ‘Here’s to the next 500 posts’, because I’d hate to make that kind of commitment. But I’ll keep going for the moment.

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Jonathan Watts has been reporting from China for the Guardian for nearly a decade. He has been there officially to report on the environment and development issues, but his journalism has ended up touching on most aspects of Chinese life over these last few years. He gives a summary of his experiences here, which ends up being a reflection on how China has changed over the period, and where it is going.

There are lots of positives; lots of unknowns; and one of the continuing negatives is the lack of freedom for journalists like himself, the authoritarianism, and the inability of the Chinese government to take criticism – both internal and external.

Criticism has rarely been appreciated. All too often, there have been flare-ups of anti-foreign media hostility. Some of my colleagues in other media organisations have received death threats. I never expected China to be an easy place to work as a journalist. For political and cultural reasons, there is a huge difference in expectations of the media. For historical and geo-strategic reasons, there is a lingering distrust of foreign reporters.

Run-ins with the police, local authorities or thugs are depressingly common. I have been detained five times, turned back six times at roadblocks (including during several efforts to visit Tibetan areas) and physically manhandled on a couple of occasions. Members of state security have sometimes followed interviewees and invited my assistants “out for tea”, to question them on who I was meeting and where I planned to visit. Censors have shut down a partner website that translated Guardian articles into Mandarin. Police have twice seized my journalist credentials, most recently on this year’s World Press Freedom Day after I tried to interview the blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng in hospital. When that happened, I debated with another British newspaper reporter who was in the same position about whether to report on the confiscation. He argued that it was against his principles for journalists to become part of the story. I used to believe the same, but after nine years in China, I have seen how coverage is influenced by a lack of access, intimidation of sources and official harassment. I now believe reporters are doing a disservice to their readers if they fail to reveal these limitations on their ability to gather information.

Yes, there is often negative coverage and yes, many of the positive developments in China are underemphasised. But I don’t think it does the country’s international image any favours to clumsily choke access to what is happening on the ground.

Treated like a spy, I have sometimes had to behave like one. At various times, I’ve concealed myself under blankets in a car, hidden in a toilet, waited until dark in a safe house and met sources in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

At other times, it is Chinese journalists and officials who pull the screen of secrecy aside. Take the foot-and-mouth outbreak on the outskirts of Beijing in 2005. I was first alerted to this by a Chinese reporter, who was frustrated that the propaganda department had ordered the domestic media not to run the story.

Foreign ministry officials often tell me China is becoming more open and, indeed, there have been steps in that direction. But restrictions create fertile ground for rumour-mongering. One of the biggest changes in this period has been the spread of ideas through mobile phones and social networks. The 513 million netizens in China (up from 68 million in 2003) have incomparably greater access to information than any previous generation and huge numbers now speak out in ways that might have got them threatened or detained in 2003. Microblogs are perhaps nowhere more influential than in China because there is so little trust of the communist-controlled official media.

It has been fun watching netizens create an ingenious new language to evade restrictions. In this anti-authoritarian world, the heroes are the “grass mud horses” (which, in Chinese, sounds the same as a core banned phrase: “Fuck your mother!”) while the villains are the river crabs (which is pronounced like “harmony” – the favourite excuse of the authorities when they crack down on dissent). But ultimately, a journalist wants to see things for him or herself. I will never forget the epic road trips – across the Tibetan plateau, along the silk road, through the Three Gorges and most memorably from Shangri-la to Xanadu. Along the way, I met remarkable people with extraordinary stories. True to the oft-heard criticism of the foreign media, many were from the “dark side”: a young man in Shaoguan who confessed – as the shadows lengthened on the building site where we had our interview – to killing Uighur co-workers at his toy factory because of a rumour they had raped Han women; a gynaecologist in Yunnan who argued with great conviction that it had once been necessary to tie pregnant women up to carry out abortions; the young boy who found the body of his dead grandmother who killed herself a year after his father – an illegal migrant – phoned her to say he was about to drown in what became known as the Morecambe Bay disaster.

Another thing that struck me in Watts’s report is the total lack of references to religion – absolutely nothing about religion, faith, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc (I did the word-search on the article). I know he is focussing on the environment, but he writes about many other aspects of Chinese life that catch his interest or come to find him as a journalist. Is this a Guardian blind-spot? Maybe I’m being unfair, and he was briefed not to write about religion because someone else in the office is on the case. It’s just striking that someone gives their impressions of a decade of change in China, and the growth in interest in religion isn’t mentioned.

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Jenny McCartney “celebrates” the life of Eugene J Polley, the inventor of the TV remote control, who has recently died. Without him, there would be no such thing as channel-hopping. And who knows, if we hadn’t made the leap from watching to hopping, perhaps we wouldn’t have been psychologically or culturally ready for the next leap from hopping channels to surfing the web.

Polley was an engineer at Zenith, where he worked for 47 years. I put “celebrates” in inverted commas, because McCartney thinks he leaves a dubious legacy.

I am old enough to remember what viewing life was like before the remote control hit the UK, in the days when there were only three channels and you had to make the active decision to haul yourself up from the sofa and press a button to alter them. It was better. If someone wanted to change the channel, etiquette usually demanded that they consult the other people in the room, only moving towards the television once agreement was reached. As a result, you stuck with programmes for longer: since it took a modicum of effort to abandon them, and people are naturally lazy, even slow-burning shows were granted the necessary time to draw you in.

With the arrival of the remote control, the power passed to whoever held the magic gadget in his or her hot little hands. Automatically, the holder of the remote was created king of the living room, and everyone else became either a helpless captive, or an angry dissenter. As the number of channels steadily grew, so did the remote-holder’s temptation to flick between the channels with the compulsively restless air of one seeking an elusive televisual fulfilment that could never be found.

Channel-surfing is a guilty pleasure that should only be practised alone. There is nothing worse than sitting in the same room while someone else relentlessly channel-surfs. It makes you feel as if you are going mad. You hear – in rapid succession – a snatch of song, a scrap of dialogue, a woman trying to sell you a cut-price emerald ring, half a news headline, and an advertising jingle. The moment that something sounds like it might interest you, it disappears. Worse, when you yourself are squeezing the remote, you find that you have now developed the tiny attention span of a hyperactive gnat. Is it any surprise that, now that alternative amusements to the television have emerged, family members are challenging the remote-holder’s solitary rule and decamping to the four corners of the family home with their iPads and laptops?

I know that lamenting the invention of the remote control will – in the eyes of some – put me in the same risibly fuddy-duddy camp as those who once preferred the horse and cart to the motor car, yearned for the days when “we made our own fun”, and said that this email nonsense would never catch on. I don’t care. Listen to me, those of you who cannot imagine life without the zapper: it really was better before.

I think the phrase ‘surfing the web’ is misleading and actually disguises the fragmentary nature of the typical internet experience. If you go surfing (I went once!) you wait patiently and let a lot of inadequate waves pass underneath your board, but as soon as you spot the right wave, ‘your’ wave, you paddle with all your might to meet it properly, leap onto the board, and then ride that wave for as long as you can.

When you find a wave, in other words, you stay with it. You are so with it and trying not to fall off it that it’s inconceivable that you would be looking out of the corner of your eye for a better one. That’s the joy of surfing – the waiting, the finding, and then the 100% commitment to the wave that comes.

That’s why the phrase ‘surfing the web’ doesn’t work for me. The joy of the web, and the danger, is that you can hop off the page at any time, as soon as you see anything else vaguely interesting or distracting. You are half-surfing a particular page, but without any physical or emotional commitment. You can move away to something better or more interesting – that’s the miracle of the web, what it can throw up unexpectedly. But it means that one part of you is always looking over the horizon, into the other field, where to go next; as if non-commitment to the present moment, a kind of existential disengagement, is a psychological precondition of using the internet.

As you know, I am not against the internet. I just wonder what long-term effects it has on us and on our culture. On the internet, everything is provisional. So if we see everything else through the lens of our internet experience, then it all becomes provisional – including, perhaps, even our relationships.

Maybe that’s the word to ponder: ‘provisionality’.

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James Delingpole started blogging about two years ago. He has come to the conclusion that it is:

far more addictive, expensive, energy-sapping and injurious to health than crack cocaine.

Part of the problem is that his Telegraph blog has been enormously successful:

I’m not boasting. It really is popular. Obviously I don’t always get the 1.5 million hits I had when the Climategate story broke. But in an average week the number of hits I get is roughly twice the circulation of The Spectator, and in a good one bigger than those of the Guardian and the Independent put together.

And the reason for this is that… I have a talent for blogging. Admittedly I’m no use for gossip or inside-track Westminster analysis. What I can do though, better than most, is that mix of concentrated rage, flippant wit, irreverence, bile and snarkiness which many blog readers seem to think defines the art.

Again, I say this not at all in order to boast. Discovering in middle age that you have a rare gift for deriding idiocies on the internet is like suddenly finding you’re the world’s most accurate lichen-spotter or first-rate squirrel-juggler or that you can identify aircraft just by looking at the contrails. It’s not something that makes you go, ‘Thanks, God!’

Some may think this ungrateful of me. After all, thanks to my blog, I’m at least ten times more famous than I used to be — with readers all over the world who think I’m just great. But what most people don’t understand (only bloggers do, in fact) is the terrible emotional, physical and financial price you pay for this privilege.

In Delingpole’s eyes, the success and the likelihood of burnout seem to be inseparable, because of the compulsive nature of the effective blogger.

There are only so many really first-class bloggers out there and unless they’re being paid to do it as a full-time job (which only a handful are) then they’re almost bound, as I just have, to retire hurt.

When I looked back at the last 18 months and wondered why I’d got so ill, the answer became pretty self-evident: it’s because every spare scrap of time that had hitherto gone on stuff like pottering in the garden, having the odd game of tennis, taking the kids to school, listening to music, reading, walking and relaxing, had been almost entirely swallowed up by blogging.

And I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy doing it: that’s the problem — it’s an addiction. As a blogger you can’t read a news story without wanting to comment on it. You’re constantly trawling your other favourite blogs to see whose story is worth following up. And when you’re not doing that, you’re busy catching up with the hundreds of comments below your latest post, trying not to be cut up by the hateful ones, while trying to respond encouragingly to the sympathetic ones. I love it. I love my readers (the nice ones anyway). But for the moment I love slightly more the idea of not driving myself to an early grave.

I don’t think I’m at the burnout stage yet.

You can see Delingpole’s website here, and his old Telegraph posts here.

There is a quick online test you can take to see how addicted to blogging you are – try it here. It only takes 30 seconds. The last question, for any blogger, is very funny indeed. I came out at an unimpressive 64%.

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The true spread of people’s blogging motivations is represented more accurately, it seems to me, in this table from jeffbullas than in the Technocrati survey I mentioned yesterday – even though it is based on his own poll of only 492 people.

The top 5 in ranking order are.

  1. Passion
  2. Share with others
  3. Business
  4. Self expression
  5. Put forward new ideas

Not surprisingly the number one reason is “passion” for their topic. In fact of all the top bloggers I know that I have reviewed  and researched, this would have to be the number one reason for posting every day year after year.

Here is the full table. I like the fact that nine people are honest enough to say they blog not to change the world, but to pass the time!

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Why do people blog? A recent report by Technorati doesn’t go into the hidden psychological motivations, it simply asks people. And it gives three main answers: for fun, for money, and for work – whether for the company that employs you, or for yourself as someone who is self-employed.

This doesn’t seem right to me. It leaves out the zillions of people who are blogging to change the world. I can’t think of a better phrase. I mean: to share ideas, to inform, to influence opinion, to speak truth to power, to evangelise, to make the world a more beautiful place, etc.

This is just one small part of Technorati’s recent analysis of the State of the Blogosphere 2010. Part 1 is about WHO: Bloggers, Brands and Consumers. Part 2 is about WHAT: Topics and Trends. Part 3 is about HOW: Technology, Traffic and Revenue.

Here’s the introduction if you are not going to look through the whole report. The blogosphere is all about social networking, mobile blogging, women, mothers, and money – apparently.

The 2010 edition of State of the Blogosphere finds blogs in transition—no longer an upstart community, now with influence on mainstream narratives firmly entrenched, with bloggers still searching for the next steps forward. Bloggers’ use of and engagement with various social media tools is expanding, and the lines between blogs, micro-blogs, and social networks are disappearing. As the blogosphere converges with social media, sharing of blog posts is increasingly done through social networks—even while blogs remain significantly more influential on blog content than social networks are.

The significant growth of mobile blogging is a key trend this year. Though the smartphone and tablet markets are still relatively new and most analysts expect them to grow much larger, 25% of all bloggers are already engaged in mobile blogging. And 40% of bloggers who report blogging from their smartphone or tablet say that it has changed the way they blog, encouraging shorter and more spontaneous posts.

Another important trend is the influence of women and mom bloggers on the blogosphere, mainstream media, and brands. Their impact is perhaps felt most strongly by brands, as the women and mom blogger segment is the most likely of all to blog about brands. In addition to conducting our blogger survey, we interviewed 15 of the most influential women in social media and the blogosphere.

These changes are occurring in the context of great optimism about the medium: over half of respondents plan on blogging more frequently in the future, and 43% plan on expanding the topics that they blog about. Bloggers who get revenue from blogging are generally blogging more this year than they were last year. And 48% of all bloggers believe that more people will be getting their news and entertainment from blogs in the next five years than from the traditional media. We’ve also asked consumers about their trust and attitudes toward blogs and other media: 40% agree with bloggers’ views, and their trust in mainstream media is dropping.

I need to get a smartphone.

The graph about blog topics is fascinating:

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Why is it that some people, especially in the blogs and comment boxes, become so hostile on the internet? Is it the anonymity? The lack of self-censorship that arises when communication is instantaneous? The inability to un-post a spontaneous comment? The tiredness that comes with writing late into the night? Or is it simply that online communication is, in one sense, unmediated: you meet the real person sitting at their computer; you are plugged into their mind – and this is what our minds are like.

Alan Jacobs has a different answer. He thinks it is because we have an over-developed sense of justice, that is not balanced or tempered by the virtues of humility and charity. It’s too simplistic to say that people are just angry or rude or self-righteous. Maybe they are. But this doesn’t explain what drives their anger or rudeness or self-righteousness.

What energises them is a sense of justice: “I’ve seen something that you haven’t, something that matters, something that could be lost.” But this zeal for justice can drown out every other human virtue, especially the virtues that make it possible to communicate that sense of justice to others, or to question whether one’s judgements about this possible injustice are correct.

now-famous cartoon on the xkcd “webcomics” site shows a stick figure typing away at his computer keyboard as a voice from outside the frame says, “Are you coming to bed?” The figure replies: “I can’t. This is important. . . . Someone is wrong on the Internet.” I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.

Late modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in justice. This is especially true of Americans. When we look back over the past century, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women, the defeat of fascism, Brown vs. Board of Education, civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum, you might add the demise of the Soviet empire; if you’re on the other side, you might add the expansion of rights for gays and lesbians. (Or you might add both.) The key point is that all of these are achievements in justice…

As we have come to focus our attention ever more on politics and the arts of public justice, we have increasingly defined our private, familial, and communal lives in similar terms. The pursuit of justice has come to define acts and experiences that once were governed largely by other virtues. It is this particular transformation that Wendell Berry was lamenting when he wrote, “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” That is, it has become a matter of justice rather than of love, an assertion of rights rather than a self-giving.

This same logic governs our responses to one another on the Internet. We clothe ourselves in the manifest justice of our favorite causes, and so clothed we cannot help being righteous (“Someone is wrong on the Internet”). In our online debates, we not only fail to cultivate charity and humility, we come to think of them as vices: forms of weakness that compromise our advocacy. And so we go forth to war with one another.

This comes close to what Thomas Hobbes, writing four centuries ago, famously called the “war of every man against every man.” As he pointed out, such a war may begin in the name of justice, but justice cannot long survive its depredations. In such an environment, “this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. . . . Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”

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Stephanie Sadler runs a lovely blog called Little London Observationist. Her tag-line is a quote from Robert Brault: “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”

She has a series of posts called ‘Listen to a Londoner’, and I was honoured to be the subject of her interview yesterday. Some readers might be interested, although I mustn’t assume everyone is as London-centric as I am. It’s too long to paste in one go. The first half of the interview was about general London living – so let me copy it here. And then I’ll put up the reflections on religion which came at the end.

LLO: As a born and raised Londoner, what are the most noticeable ways the city has evolved in your lifetime?
SW:
 It’s bigger and busier. I remember a study recently about how our walking speed has increased (they secretly time you crossing bridges etc). It’s more culturally and ethnically diverse. Immigration has enriched London immensely. Random landmarks that didn’t exist when I was born in 1966: the Gherkin, the Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, Oyster Cards, sculptures on the fourth plinth, Boris Bikes, Tate Modern, the ubiquitous CCTV camera. Tragic losses: the Routemaster bus.

LLO: Tell us a bit about your background and your blog, Bridges and Tangents.
SW:
 I was born in University College Hospital just off Tottenham Court Road, when my parents were living in Chiswick. I grew up in Harpenden, near St Albans. I’m a Catholic priest and I work in the seminary in Chelsea, where we prepare men for the priesthood. I never imagined I’d start a blog. It happened quite quickly. I was thinking of writing a book, and a friend pointed out that if I really wanted to communicate and share ideas, then a blog would be more immediate and reach far more people. The penny dropped.

LLO: Freedom is your most used tag on your blog. In a recent post, you wrote “Perfect freedom is being able to step off the back of a London bus whenever you want, whatever the reason, and walk into the sunset without a bus-stop in sight.” Are there other London moments that give you a perfect sense of freedom?
SW:
The fact that London is a city for walking around gives me the greatest sense of freedom. Other random moments of exhilaration, freedom and space include: sitting at the front on the top deck of a double-decker bus; looking at the cityscape from the middle of any of London’s beautiful bridges; jaywalking with abandon — in the knowledge that this would be illegal in some countries; walking through the parks; and along the river at South Bank.

LLO: Can you recommend a few places in London to go for a sense of spirituality without stepping foot in a church/temple/mosque, etc?
SW:
 Whenever the next Kieslowski retrospective runs at the British Film Institute; standing over the Greenwich Prime Meridian line, knowing that you are at the still point of the cartographic world; walking round the Serpentine; the Jubilee Line station at Canary Wharf.

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Bridges and Tangents is one year old today. 365 days, 190 posts, 1500 tags, goodness knows how many words. You can read the first post here – about ‘wonder’ in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Amazing how a hesitant step into the unknown future quickly becomes a moment of nostalgia. The exhilarating adventure of ‘being-for-itself’, as Sartre would say, of reaching beyond, easily slips into the familiarity of ‘being-in-itself’ – the world that we know and depend on.

San Francisco, Bay Bridge

I am not seeking comments or accolades here, just letting you know that I intend to keep going, for now. Blogging in this way is simply part of life for me now. I enjoy the excuse to think (if one were needed) and to write; every now and then I’m delighted with a discovery and get huge satisfaction from sharing it; and the rhythm of reflection and writing isn’t too time consuming. The danger is that something once fresh will become staid; I’ll just have to watch out for that, and perhaps circumstances – or some new form of social communication – will take over before then.

Ancient clapper bridge over the East Dart River at Postbridge

The effects are still largely unknown, but it’s good to get feedback and conversation in the comments, and when I bump into people who have come across the blog. Thanks especially to those who have been reading regularly, to those who have recommended the blog to others, and to those who have taken the time to comment.

Tangent by Whatknot

To celebrate, as you can see, I’ve hunted out some beautiful images of bridges and tangents.

Tangents by Seth Anderson

Let’s see how it all develops over the next few months.

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I’m not using Twitter much. My blog posts get tweeted automatically from my account, just as they get sent to my Facebook feed. But for those of you who are still hooked on Twitter, there is now an easy tweet button at the bottom of each of my posts, so that you can re-tweet from your account, and increase the digital cacophony.

Here are the details from WordPress:

For those of you who have been dreaming of an easier way for your readers to share your posts on Twitter, that day has come. We’re pleased to announce that we’ve added an official Tweet Button as an option for all WordPress.com blogs.

How it works: When one of your readers hits the Tweet Button, they will be shown a popup that includes a shortened link to your post. Readers can add in a quick message, and then hit “Tweet” to send the post to their Twitter feed as a tweet — all without leaving your blog.

Additionally, each time a reader tweets your post, you’ll know it: The tool keeps a live tally of tweets, so you’re never in the dark about how your blog posts are performing in the Twittersphere.

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I was on the verge of ending this blog. First, after pouring my heart out in a profound meditation on traffic management the other day, a friend put the following comment on my Facebook page:

You so need to get out more!

(I wouldn’t normally repeat personal comments, but this was already alarmingly public in the first place.)

Second, and much more seriously, I read this article by Todd Gitlin about the effects of using the Internet. Gitlin reviews Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s a challenging thesis. It’s not just that the Internet dumbs information down (it’s easy to respond to this by pointing to the profusion of intelligent content on the net). It’s that the way we read and process ideas on the Internet is actually making us less able to think and reflect in any meaningful way.

So no matter how profound the ideas in this blog, it is just contributing to the cultural malaise of our times. That’s the suggestion. Do you agree? I don’t mean “is this blog in particular contributing to the malaise?” I mean “would we be better just switching off the computers and going to the library?”

It’s worth quoting a few paragraphs.

Carr grabs our lapels to insist that the so-called information society might be more accurately described as the interruption society. It pulverizes attention, the scarcest of all resources, and stuffs the mind with trivia. Our texting, IM-ing, iPhoning, Twittering, computer-assisted selves—or self-assisted computing networks—are so easily diverted that our very mode of everyday thought has changed, changed utterly, degraded from “calm, focused, undistracted” linearity into “a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts.” Google searches, too, break our concentration, which only makes matters worse: “Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction,” Carr writes. Because we are always skimming one surface after another, memories do not consolidate and endure. So we live in a knife-edge present. We turn into what the playwright Richard Foreman called “pancake people—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” We collect bits and the bits collect us.

Worse still, no one has dragooned us into the shallows. Nobody is forcing us from pixel to post. We are our own victimizers, because we crave interruption. When we grow up texting every few minutes, legato—which now feels like an eternity—yields to staccato. Taking a break during the writing of this review, while watching a recent Lakers-Suns playoff game, I observed a couple of women in four-figure courtside seats behind the Suns’ bench working their thumbs on BlackBerries as the camera panned over them. Maybe they were live-blogging, or day-trading on Asian markets.

With so many interruptions so easy to arrange, Carr argues, it is no wonder that we cannot concentrate, or think straight, or even think in continuous arabesques. Where deep reading encourages intricacies of thought, the electronic torrent in which we live—or which lives in us—turns us into Twittering nerve nodes. The more links in our reading, the less we retain. We are what we click on.  We no longer read, we skim. With Wikipedia a click away, are we more knowledgeable? Or even more efficient? Multi-tasking, Carr quotes the neuroscientist David Meyer as saying, “is learning to be skillful at a superficial level.”

After all, the brain that has been re-wired online governs us offline, too. The more we multi-task, the more distractible we are. But aren’t we more sophisticated at “visual-spatial skills”? Sure, but at the price of “a weakening of our capacities for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins ‘mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection,” writes Carr, quoting a Science article that reviewed more than fifty relevant studies.

And so we devolve inexorably into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” These sweet tidbits are rotting our mental teeth. This is so, Carr maintains, because “the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions,” and that consequently, “with the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”

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After all these months of blogging I have a certain brand-loyalty to WordPress, which is the free platform I use. It’s interesting to hear that they have just passed the milestone of 200 million posts published on WordPress.com (so this does not include all the self-hosted blogs using WordPress software).

The news page took me to this WordPress tags page, which shows you the most popular tags used on recent posts. It gives you a snapshot of the areas that interest WordPress bloggers at the moment; and so it is one way of seeing into the mind of the contemporary culture. It shows you not what people are searching for (cf. the stats from Google), but what they are bothering to post about.

Here are the tags this Saturday lunchtime, in order of how many posts are placed in each category:

News Music Life Politics Photography Travel Personal Food Art Family Events Poetry Sports Video Random Books Fashion Writing Entertainment Videos Love Thoughts Reviews Culture Health Movies Technology Education Recipes Media Blog Religion Photos Environment People History Inspiration Friends World Cup Business Film Design Nature Humor Home Musings Philosophy Relationships Football Science Games Work Television Faith Articles 2010 Social Media Miscellaneous Review Spirituality Journal Audio Christianity Economy Pictures] Parenting Quotes Government Announcements Blogging All Publishings Economics Community God Teaching TV Israel Random Thoughts Misc Video Games Fun Updates Marketing World Cup 2010 Rants Law Opinion Islam Fiction Lifestyle Interviews Podcasts Other Literature Photo Sport Children Architecture School Commentary Internet Soccer Beauty Poems Society Stories Shopping All Latest News Cooking Japan Wedding Leadership Fitness Our Family Kids Research Current Events Book Reviews Women Reflections Photo Galleries Europe Status Training Energy Running All Links Obama USA Weddings Gaming My Life Terrorism Bible Animals Creativity Software Anime Sex Me Welcome Dreams Theology English Advertising Daily life Church Featured Funny 

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I don’t use Twitter much, but my marvellous WordPress blogging platform automatically tweets my new posts as soon as they are published. It’s been working for a few weeks now but I keep forgetting to publicise it. So, if it’s easier for you to follow this blog via Twitter, you can click here to sign up.

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It’s six months since I started the blog — so I’ve kept my resolution, and seen this experimental period through to its end.

I won’t give another profound reflection here on the nature of blogging, the transformation of human identity wrought by the internet, the psychology of self-doubt experienced whenever the stats page opens up, etc. This is just to say that I’ve decided to keep going and see where it all ends up.

I thought of changing the name to ‘Bridges, Tangents, and Piers’. I was in Llandudno this morning; a beautiful seaside town on the north Wales coast. It’s got one of those classic British piers, beloved of so many childhood holidays.

Llandudno Pier by Welshdan.

Llandudno pier

As a child, for me, piers were up there with bridges and tangents as objects of fascination and awe. I suppose a pier is quite literally a bridge to nowhere, a tangent caressing the curvature of the earth’s surface. It’s a suspension of disbelief — walking on water, gliding with the seagulls, and for just a moment believing you could keep walking and step out into the beyond.

My first ever screenprint for O-level art was a pier. The first layer of ink created a dark and slightly frightening latticework of pillars and crossbeams reaching down into the waves. And then in the next layer of colour, leaping from the end of the pier, was an Icarus-type figure — his wings splayed behind him like an angel, caught in that split second of uncertainty before he discovers whether he will sink or soar.

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An old friend, Fr Martin Boland, has recently started blogging. Do take a look at his site: The Invisible Province.

Provincetown Harbor horizon just after dusk (folded) by Chris Devers.

I couldn't find an image of The Invisible Province, so here is Provincetown Harbour...

Here is his mission statement (I’m sure he would hate that phrase):

An attempt to map some of the features of the cultural landscape while challenging the current orthodoxy that culture and faith inevitably exist in opposition. The Invisible Province seeks to show that modern culture cannot sever itself from questions of transcendence and faith and nor can faith distance itself from culture. In surveying the fault lines between culture and faith, The Invisible Province reimagines this relationship and suggests avenues for mature dialogue.

Just to give you a taste of his writing, these lines come from his post about fashion designer Alexander McQueen:

But McQueen’s importance will not be based on his preoccupation with mortality or the tragic nature of his own death. His importance will lie in the fact that he could take a roll of fabric and in his mind’s eye, he could see how it might transform the human form: lengthen legs; broaden shoulders; pinch a waist. Combining this interior knowledge with his store of cultural references from history, religion and society made for new levels of creativity. McQueen understood that in societies where the visually crude and crass predominate, a garment of transforming beauty could still seduce us. Fashion, for a brief moment, could make us pause and wonder. His legacy is not death, but beauty.

And here is the opening paragraph of his review of the Chris Ofili exhibition at Tate Britain:

A common criticism levelled at contemporary artists is that they don’t know how to paint. Chris Ofili certainly does. The current retrospective at Tate Britain presents him as the most painterly of painters. His works are all about the sensual layering of paint; the celebration of virtuoso technique; the fusing of colour and pattern that calls to mind the printed textiles of Nigeria, Ofili’s ancestral home. Not content with exuberant brushwork, he decorates his works with an infectious rash of psychedelic ornamentation, a multi-coloured braille. Collaged magazine images and glitter fizz and spark. Images are sampled from popular black culture (the pimps, dealers and prostitutes of blaxploitation films) or religious iconography (the Virgin Mary, the Last Supper) and then mashed up on the canvas. And, somewhere, you will find the unmistakable signature of the artist: a lump of elephant dung elevated to the status of a modern totem. “[Using the dungballs is] a way of raising the paintings up from the ground,” explains Ofili, “and giving them a feeling that they’ve come from the earth rather than simply being hung on a wall.” In Ofili’s hip-hop aesthetic the beautiful and the degrading, the sacred and profane, history and culture bump and grind to a sweaty rhythm.

I think the blog will be well worth following.

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I still hardly use Facebook. If I remember, I copy these posts onto my homepage. And if someone sends me a message, I try to reply. But being ‘the wrong side of 40′ most of my middle-aged friends still prefer email to social networking.

Nokia e61 smartphone by Ziębol.I used to console myself with the idea that Facebook is the past, and something new will soon step over the digital horizon. It seems I was wrong, and Facebook is actually the face of the future.

It’s not just that Facebook growth is still exponential (I don’t just mean large, I mean exponential: it’s rate of growth is going up; the number of active users doubled from 200 million last summer to this month’s 400 million). It’s that our personal identity, and our commercial identity, is becoming defined not by what we consume (shopping), or watch (TV), or search for (Google), but by what we connect with in real-time.

This is why mobile Facebook and all the new smartphone applications will shape the evolution of culture and human consciousness over the next decade. Blogging, by the way, is almost prehistoric by now.

David Rowan explains the background:

What we are witnessing is the ultimate battle for control of the internet. Google, employing the world’s smartest software engineers, has dominated the desktop-internet era for a decade through its unbeatable algorithm-based computing power. But now we’re into the mobile-internet era, Facebook intends to dominate by knowing what we are thinking, doing and intending to spend — wherever we happen to be. As Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg sees it, this “social graph”, built around our friends, family and colleagues, will determine how hundreds of millions of us decide on everything from holidays to cosmetic surgeons. And with Facebook the proprietary gatekeeper — its mobile-phone applications already attracting extraordinary engagement from members — that’s a potential advertiser proposition that Google can only dream of.

It’s not that Mr Zuckerberg is still only 25 and naively arrogant that annoys Google, nor that his company has enticed swaths of senior Google talent. It’s that Facebook’s fast-growing dominance of the “social” internet threatens its rival’s entire business model. If it can sell advertisers access not just to what you’re thinking, but to where you are, who you’re with and what you plan to do, Facebook’s revenues from individually targeted “behavioural” advertising could increase exponentially. And it knows it.

“Google is not representative of the future of technology in any way,” a Facebook veteran boasted to Wired recently. “Facebook is an advanced communications network enabling myriad communication forms. It almost doesn’t make sense to compare them.”

Mr Zuckerberg’s human-powered view of the internet also taps into our yearning, as social creatures, to climb Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to attain self-actualisation: of the 400 million active Facebook users (up from 200 million last summer), half log on in any given day; they share five billion pieces of content a week and upload more than three billion photos each month. On average, they spend more than 55 minutes a day on Facebook. Those who access it via their mobile devices are “twice as active”. Now do you see why the search gurus in Google’s Mountain View headquarters are so anxious?

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It’s been running for a few weeks now, but I haven’t yet highlighted the email subscription option for this blog. It’s in the right-hand column, near the top. Just leave your email address, and each new post gets sent to your inbox.

Inbox Art by 10ch.

This will save you endless worry and heartache about which posts you might be missing, and whether you are reading them hot off the press or not. And the email comes with all the images, links and comment options – so it gives you the full online experience.

Of course I am only suggesting this to those strange people out there who are trying to fill their inboxes rather than empty them.

Inbox 1790 by Tidewater Muse.

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I have a fetish for lists, and anyone following this blog will know that it runs the risk of turning into a compendium of other people’s lists: “Greatest films… best books… tallest buildings…” I regret not buying a book I stumbled upon when I was doing the Christmas shopping called something like The World’s Top Ten. It was a lavishly illustrated hardback, very like the Guinness Book of Records, filled with nothing but lists of the ten biggest, best, smallest, quickest, oldest… whatever. It could have kept me blogging for decades.

757/767 Mechanical Checklist - Takeoff by Fly For Fun.

Mechanical checklist for flying

Anyway. The point of this post is to defend my fascination with lists. Oliver Burkeman has an article about the importance of making checklists – whether in cooking or in heart surgery:

The Checklist Manifesto, by the journalist and medic Atul Gawande, takes as its starting point the astonishing things that happen when hospital doctors are required to tick off items on checklists as they carry out routine but critical procedures. In one trial, the rate of infections from intravenous drips fell from 11% of all patients to zero simply because staff were compelled to work through a checklist of no-brainer items, such as washing their hands. Many doctors grumbled: it was more paperwork, it wasted time and it insulted their professional judgment by implying that they needed reminding of stuff they’d learned in the first month of medical school. But it worked. A more recent study, which included UK hospitals, suggested that wider use of checklists might prevent a staggering 40% of deaths during treatment. Airline pilots, of course, already rely heavily on them, but Gawande suggests checklists might have impressive effects if adopted throughout business, governance and beyond.

Besides, the stepwise structure of checklists has the salutary effect of narrowing your focus to the next action. When it comes to large undertakings, dwelling on the big picture can be paralysing, and a distraction from the next step, which is the only one you can ever actually take. As they say, I’m told, at Alcoholics Anonymous, where they preach it as a survival strategy, all you have to remember is to “do the next right thing”. Then the next, and the next, and the next.

And just to go up an intellectual gear or two, Burkeman himself put me onto this wonderful interview with the Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, who believes that list-making is at the root of all human culture:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.

So I think I am now justified in posting a culturally significant list at least once a week…

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I went to bed the other night convinced that I had invented a new word. I was going to launch it in this blog; then it would go viral; and in a few years’ time people would be referencing me as the originator in all the important dictionaries.

dictionary-1 copy.jpg by TexasT's.

The next morning, of course, I discover that ‘blogfather’ has 92,600 returns on Google, and that someone even merits the title ‘the BlogFather’ (Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, well-known not just for his prominence in the blogosphere but also for the encouragement he has given to many new bloggers).

The Act of Blogging by Michael Borkowsky.Why was I thinking along these lines? Because during a conversation about ideas and writing I encouraged a friend of mine to start blogging — and she did! Take a look at the results here.

I won’t pretend this experience is up there with celebrating a baptism or becoming a real godfather. But there is a quiet satisfaction in seeing something come to light in the virtual world that might otherwise have remained hidden.

You need something to say, of course. And something that is worthwhile — at least to a few people. But sometimes you only discover what there is to say, and whether it is worthwhile, by actually trying to say it.

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Britain Going Blog Crazy - Metro Article by Annie Mole.What makes a good blog? What makes a successful blog? What makes a worthwhile blog? I’ve no idea. (And – it’s worth noting – these are quite different questions.) I ask them because I am celebrating an anniversary today. Not ten years or even a year, but three months of happy blogging. This might seem a bit premature, but I said to myself when I began that I would keep going for six months come what may; so the halfway mark gives a small excuse to take stock.

Mostly, I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m posting about three or four times a week, and the rhythm of writing has forced me to think about the topics at hand, and made me reflect more generally on what is happening around me and in the press. I’m more curious, and a bit braver about trying to express (or at least trying to form) my own opinion. Usually an idea grabs me or annoys me and I scribble it down for an upcoming post. Now and then I’m feeling a bit blank or too busy to think, and I feel the pressure to write (‘what if I fall silent?!’). Then something catches my attention, or I put it off for a day.

Other unexpected effects of starting to blog: I write quicker than three months ago; and once or twice a post has grown into an article that has been published – so the blogging has helped me risk stepping into a more public debate. Hopefully, some of the posts have got people thinking about something they might have missed, and reflecting a bit more deeply. This is the point! And that is what makes me feel as a priest that it is worth wasting a little bit of time on this.

The stats: I get about 100 page hits a day. WordPress doesn’t tell you how many unique visitors you get, and I don’t want to sign up to these statistics websites because with my love of detail I would get drawn into obsessing about the stats. Anyway, if there are a hundred page hits, and each person is clicking on each of the twenty-five posts displayed, then that means four people are reading the blog each day! (I know, it’s possibly slightly more than that…)

But I had one exceptional weekend, just ten days ago. For some reason my post about ‘best movies of the decade’ got picked up and put on the WordPress homepage (they choose a few every day) – this is like getting invited to the Oscars – and I had six thousand hits in three days. Suddenly I was ‘out there’ in this strange world of connections and clicking and commentators; and then, as quickly as the link was taken off the WordPress page, I was back in my office with my four friends… WordPress.com, by the way, has been a fantastic (and free) host.

my brief moment in the blogging stratosphere last weekend

I’m still not sure if the blog has any unity. Friends have called it ‘eclectic’ – I think they mean it is pretty random. This is my concern, that there is no focus or theme to the posts, so readers aren’t quite sure what they are coming to, or why they should come back. Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much. Or perhaps there is a theme developing: Even with all the random posts about film or technology or faith or morality, I feel an underlying thread is the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ I teach a number of courses in philosophy and theology, and most of the posts here would provide food for thought in the course called ‘Philosophical Anthropology’ – the philosophy of the human person.

So another three months lie ahead. To any regular readers: Now is the time for feedback. I’m not fishing for compliments, just genuinely wanting to know how you are finding the blog. What have you enjoyed most? What isn’t working? What would make it more interesting for you? Any concrete advice about the topics that could be considered, the frequency of posts, the length of posts, the use of images, etc. In a nutshell, what has your experience been?! (As they say…)

Do post any of your thoughts in the comments box below. And that is another matter itself – how do you encourage people to comment and interact more?

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Astroturf Couture by {platinum}.Does the internet expand the possibilities for political freedom? Or does it actually allow oppressive regimes to take more and more control of the flow of information in society?

I learnt a new verb yesterday: to astroturf. This means, apparently, to add comments onto blogs and social networking sites, in the hope of influencing the discussions and the whole cultural environment – all the time disguising your real identity and subversive intentions. I presume the reference is to the inherent fakery of getting rid of your real mulchy soil and grass and replacing it with plastic turf.

Bryan Appleyard writes about all this in the Sunday Times. Here are the key passages that recount the progressive ways in which the internet can become hijacked by those in power:

There have been three phases of state control of the internet. First came the “great firewall” of China. You simply block access to sites regarded as sensitive. But everybody knows you’re doing it.

So phase two involves selective blocking — known as “just in time attacks”. A site may go down as a protest is being organised. It’s a network problem, claim your goons. Also in phase two are vague regulations that allow your police to press charges no one quite understands. And there’s the blackmailing of internet companies — basically you push them out of business unless they block sites or hand over information. More crudely, as in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, there is the threat of prison.

Now, it’s phase three, which is much more sinister. In China this phase is represented by the so-called 50 cent army — people who, for a tiny sum of money, go out and “astroturf” blogs or Twitter.

Astroturfing means placing comments while concealing who is behind them. So pro-Chinese comments and posts are frequently placed by government proxies. The freedom of the internet is used against itself. Even in liberal democracies this means internet content may turn out to be pure propaganda. It cannot be a replacement for old-fashioned politics.

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You have probably seen plenty of ‘word-clouds’ before. But just in case you haven’t yet discovered the addictive Wordle website, here it is: http://www.wordle.net/  You go to the ‘create’ page, paste some text into the box, and out comes your own cloud. The programme analyses your text, counts the number of times you use any word, takes out the ordinary words that everyone uses (‘the’, ‘and’, ‘but’, etc.), and then makes the size of the word in the cloud dependent on the number of times you have used it relative to the other words. So you can see in a flash what thoughts are coming up again and again, what ideas obsess you, and what verbal ticks you have picked up.

I’ve been blogging for just over two months now, so I copied the text from all my posts into Wordle (15,881 words so far!), and this is what came out. I’m not sure what to make of my own thoughts:

Untitled-1 copy from http://www.wordle.net/

It’s a poor person’s form of psychoanalysis: You just speak, or write, and the computer tells you what is really in your heart – or at least what buzzes around in your head. Or you could just be lying…

You can then spend hours pressing the ‘randomize’ button, which gives you a new cloud with the same words:

Untitled-2

Or you can manually adjust the settings and choose your own font, colours, alignment, etc.:

Untitled-3 copy by http://www.wordle.net/

Try it yourself – with those poems you wrote as a teenager, with that half-finished novel under your bed, or simply with the last few emails you have sent. You can also paste in a web address and have it analyse the text on that webpage.

Hours of fun, and wasted time, together with a tiny gain in self-knowledge.

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