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Highclere Castle - Downton Abbey by griffinstar7

I’ve seen half an hour of Downton Abbey and absolutely nothing of Girls, so don’t think I am recommending either of them. But Anand Giridharadas has a very thoughtful piece about how they represent the shift from the socially-determined self of early 20th century Britain to the chaos of total self-determination experienced by the single women of contemporary New York.

On the surface, all they have in common is their Sunday airtime, at least in the United States. One television show is about English aristocrats, crisp, proper, well-dressed even in bed. The other is about four young women, often lost and very often unclothed, in a setting quite different from Yorkshire: Brooklyn, New York.

But “Downton Abbey” and”Girls”, both hugely popular, sometimes seem to be talking to each other. And it is a conversation of richer importance to our politics and culture than the nudity on one show and the costumes on the other might initially suggest.

On issue after issue, Americans continue to debate the limits of individual freedom — whether to abort a fetus or own a gun or sell stocks or buy drugs. And in different ways, the two television shows address the promise and limitations of the modern, Western emphasis on — even sacralization of — the individual.

“Downton” and “Girls” serve as bookends in an era defined by a growing cult of the self. “Downton” is about the flourishing of selfhood in a rigid, early-20th-century society of roles. “Girls” is about the chaos and exhaustion of selfhood in a fluid, early-21st-century society that says you can be anything but does not show you how.

This is Downton, where people still, just about, know who they are:

Set on a manor in which the hierarchy and fixedness of the country — indeed, of the Empire — are especially concentrated, “Downton” is a world where there is a way to do everything, from cleaning spoons to dressing for dinner. Status has been and still seems immovable, and servants must act at least as convinced of their inferiority as the masters are. Novelty and that great leveler, money, are reflexively suspected.

The drama is this world’s cracking under the pressure of new ideas like individualism. Thus the family driver, believing in equality and marrying for love, runs away with the family daughter; thus the men wear black tie instead of white to dinner one night; thus a new generation of servants is less servile, more willing to question.

Mary McNamara, a television critic at The Los Angeles Times, has described “Downton” as “the tale of an oppressive social and economic system that is finally being called into question.” The drama comes from watching our world slowly, inevitably defeat theirs: “the bondage of social bylaws and expectation, the fear of new technology, the desire to cling to old ways.”

This is Girls:

The daughters of the sexual revolution are depicted without much agency: Far from being conquerors, initiators, even equals, the girls of “Girls” are reactors, giving in to an ex who changes his mind, or a gay man wanting to try something, or a financier seeking a threesome that he manages to upgrade to traditionally twosome marriage.

What begins on “Downton” as a welcome questioning of age and status roles has snowballed by the “Girls” era into grave role confusion: parents who cannot teach their children how to live because they feel guilty about parenting, or want to be friends more than guides, or still dress like teenagers and call their offspring “prude.”

Nowhere is this overshooting truer than with the roles of the sexes. If “Downton” shows a world in which women are starting to claim their own sexuality, “Girls” portrays a sexual dystopia in which those women seem to have negotiated poorly: Men now reliably get what they want, while women must often content themselves with scraps, as when the character Hannah celebrates “almost” satiation in bed as the best she is likely to get…

“Girls” is about atoms that desire in vain to form molecules; about sex lives that breed more confusion than excitement; about people with the liberty to choose every day, on various dimensions, whom to be — and who grow very tired of the choosing.

And this is one of the Girls – Marnie:

I don’t know what the next year of my life is going to be like at all. I don’t know what the next week of my life is going to be like. I don’t even know what I want. Sometimes I just wish someone would tell me, like, ‘This is how you should spend your days, and this is how the rest of your life should look.’

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the end is near By Pedro Moura Pinheiro Pedro Moura Pinheiro

I was a guest blogger at the Tablet this week, writing about New Year’s resolutions:

I spent the last three days of the year helping on a retreat for young people in south London. On New Year’s Eve we had a discussion session, and I put this question to them: If you knew the world was going to end in exactly one hour, what would you do with the time? I was thinking, of course, about the Mayan non-apocalypse of 21 December 2012, when the world was meant to end but didn’t.

I was also remembering a provocative Canadian film from 1998 called Last Night. Here, the coming apocalypse is scheduled for midnight. The film doesn’t explain what form this will take, so instead of this being a disaster movie it’s a psychological study of what people choose to do with their last few hours.

Most people are partying in the streets; a dysfunctional family tries to celebrate a non-dysfunctional Christmas dinner, which of course goes wrong; two lovers form a suicide pact in an attempt to show that their lives will not be taken from them; a young woman who has never known love knocks on the door of a stranger. There is not much faith and not much hope.

What did the young people on retreat choose to do with their last hour? I prodded them a bit, not to give a particular answer, but to think about the question in a particular way. First, to reflect on this in the light of faith: it’s not just about the end of this world, but the beginning of another. How does that affect your answer? Second, it’s not just your own personal end, it’s the knowledge that everyone else is going to meet their own end as well.

What did they say? Well, you can go and read the whole post. But I ought to copy the final paragraph about what this rambling reflection has got to do with New Year’s resolutions:

Here is my advice: think about what you would do, in the light of faith, if you and everyone else only had one hour left. And then resolve to do that soon, or at least in the next year …

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There’s no doubt about it – I get swayed by the user reviews on Amazon or TripAdvisor. If I’m on the edge of booking a hotel, it consoles me to know that the last three ‘normal’ people who stayed there found the rooms clean and the staff helpful. If I’m not sure about buying a book or an album, the fact that 89 out of 100 readers gave it five stars definitely influences me.

But am I just being gullible? How many of these reviews are fake? Are my desires and choices just the result of some marketing scam?

David Streitfeld reports:

As online retailers increasingly depend on reviews as a sales tool, an industry of fibbers and promoters has sprung up to buy and sell raves for a pittance.

“For $5, I will submit two great reviews for your business,” offered one entrepreneur on the help-for-hire site Fiverr, one of a multitude of similar pitches. On another forum, Digital Point, a poster wrote, “I will pay for positive feedback on TripAdvisor.” A Craigslist post proposed this: “If you have an active Yelp account and would like to make very easy money please respond.”

The boundless demand for positive reviews has made the review system an arms race of sorts. As more five-star reviews are handed out, even more five-star reviews are needed. Few want to risk being left behind.

Sandra Parker, a freelance writer who was hired by a review factory this spring to pump out Amazon reviews for $10 each, said her instructions were simple. “We were not asked to provide a five-star review, but would be asked to turn down an assignment if we could not give one,” said Ms. Parker, whose brief notices for a dozen memoirs are stuffed with superlatives like “a must-read” and “a lifetime’s worth of wisdom.”

So what are they doing about it?

Determining the number of fake reviews on the Web is difficult. But it is enough of a problem to attract a team of Cornell researchers, who recently published a paper about creating a computer algorithm for detecting fake reviewers. They were instantly approached by a dozen companies, including Amazon, Hilton, TripAdvisor and several specialist travel sites, all of which have a strong interest in limiting the spread of bogus reviews.

“Any one review could be someone’s best friend, and it’s impossible to tell that in every case,” said Russell Dicker, Amazon’s director of community. “We are continuing to invest in our ability to detect these problems.”

The Cornell researchers tackled what they call deceptive opinion spam by commissioning freelance writers on Mechanical Turk, an Amazon-owned marketplace for workers, to produce 400 positive but fake reviews of Chicago hotels. Then they mixed in 400 positive TripAdvisor reviews that they believed were genuine, and asked three human judges to tell them apart. They could not.

So the team developed an algorithm to distinguish fake from real, which worked about 90 percent of the time. The fakes tended to be a narrative talking about their experience at the hotel using a lot of superlatives, but they were not very good on description. Naturally: They had never been there. Instead, they talked about why they were in Chicago. They also used words like “I” and “me” more frequently, as if to underline their own credibility.

So we can’t tell the difference between real and fake reviews; but a computer can. I’m not sure how consoling that is. We are left depending on the reviews, and trusting that the supercomputer in the background is doing all the necessary screening. Maybe we won’t get any further than that for now. What reassures me is that I do believe its in the best interests of Amazon and TripAdvisor etc. to get this right, and to find some way of preserving only the genuine reviews; because when the trust breaks down, they’ll lose the readers. But am I being naive again?

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I was really disturbed by some of the reactions to the recent report into the 2009 Air France crash, which suggested that it would be far better for someone if they had no warning at all about their impending death.

You probably remember hearing about the tragedy: all 228 people aboard were killed when an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic in June 2009. A preliminary report has been written two years after on the basis of information from the aircraft’s black boxes, which were only recovered last month. There is no clear conclusion about what caused the crash – it was partly to do with faulty instrumental readings. The fall took three and a half minutes.

This is the bit that disturbed me, as reported by Elaine Ganley and Jill Lawless:

Some families of victims who said they were given information in a meeting with the agency said it was possible their loved ones went to their deaths unaware of what was happening because there was apparently no contact between the cockpit and cabin crew in the 3 1 / minutes.

“It seems they did not feel more movements and turbulence than you generally feel in storms,” said Jean-Baptiste Audousset, president of a victims’ solidarity association. “So, we think that until impact they did not realize the situation, which for the family is what they want to hear — they did not suffer.”

It’s true that they may not have had to live through the horror of knowing they were falling to their deaths; and I do understand how a relative can find some consolation in knowing this. But surely there are other considerations involved here as well? It must be frightening to know that you are about to die, and I have sat with many people as they face this knowledge and try to come to terms with it – but would you really prefer not to know?

I’m not just writing as a Christian believer now. Yes, as a person of faith, I would rather have a few minutes to pray, to thank God for my life, to say sorry for anything I have done wrong, to offer my life to the Lord, and generally to prepare for my death. But even if I had no faith in God or in a life after death, my impending death would still be a hugely significant horizon, and those last few minutes of life would surely take on an unimaginable significance. I wouldn’t wish for myself that I were left in ignorance. I’d want to know, in order to try to make sense of it, or simply to make the most of it, or at least not to waste it. And I wouldn’t wish for my loved ones to be denied the possibility of knowing that their end was near.

I’m not romanticising death. I’m certainly not pretending that the fear isn’t very real, especially if the knowledge comes quickly and unexpectedly. I’d just rather know. Fear, sometimes, is what helps us to appreciate the significance of some great truth that lies before us; and there aren’t many truths as significant as death.

A film that played with these themes very creatively was Last Night from 1998 (not the new film with Keira Knightley).

Everyone knows that the world is going to end this evening at midnight, and we see how various characters in Toronto react. Their decisions about how to spend the last few hours of their life generally reflect the concerns and priorities of the life they have already lived, the life they have made. Their fundamental intentions are clarified and crystalised in these last moments.

On the other hand, knowing that time is so short, it gives them a chance to make something different of their life. Not so much a moral conversion (although that is also possible), but a reorientation, a new level of authenticity, a sort of redemption – even if the choices some of them made were thoroughly depressing. It’s well worth seeing.

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Sometimes, especially when I am tired, I can become paralysed in front of the Pret a Manger sandwich displays; utterly incapable of deciding whether my life will be marginally more fulfilled by eating a healthy-looking falafel and humous on seeded-bread or a dolphin-friendly tuna and cucumber baguette or a good old-fashioned cheese and pickle – and that’s without getting even more confused by the sushi and the soup; and the only thing that snaps me out of it is not hunger or the need to get anywhere soon, but the sudden realisation that I have been standing like an Antony Gormley sculpture for what seems like six hours in a public space where it is socially unacceptable to pause for longer than six seconds – a mixture of self-consciousness, shame at this psychological dysfunction, and fear that the police or medics or anti-terrorist squad will be arriving at any moment to carry me away.



In these very limited circumstances (Pret a manger, tiredness, etc. –  now I am feeling defensive and trying to backtrack…) I am what they call an indecider. A recent report from the University of Bristol called ‘Confused Nation’, cleverly sponsored by Confused.com, reveals that many of us feel more confused than we did ten years ago, and 42% of the UK population lie awake at night trying to make decisions.

The report also shows that nearly half of all Brits (47%) confessed even little decisions can be hard to make, largely caused by an overwhelming amount of choices hindering the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently.

The extensive research has also identified a term for this state, dubbed the ‘Indeciders’ – collectively described as “a group of individuals suffering high levels of confusion whilst displaying an inability to be decisive, leading in some cases to depression.”

Professor Harriet Bradley from the University of Bristol comments: “With a constant stream of new media, daily technological advancements and aggressive multimedia advertising, it’s no wonder that over half of Britain thinks life is more confusing for them than it is for their parents. We really are becoming a nation of ‘indeciders’.

It is not only the ‘big’ areas of life that are causing confusion. Although politics is the area people find most confusing, with 65% of the UK reporting confusion over the policies of major political parties, the survey also found 69% of the country failed to understand bankers’ bonuses and interest rates. What to wear at certain occasions, predictive text and flat pack furniture were also identified as key areas of confusion.

The report also revealed:

Women are more prone to confusion than men, with 84% admitting to experiencing confusion, compared with 72% of men;

Those from Northern Ireland are the least confused in the UK, compared with Wales, which is the most confused region;

The most confused person in Britain is likely to be a 17 year old girl living in Cardiff, whereas the least confused person is likely to be a 60 year old man living in Edinburgh.

Let’s hope they don’t have any Pret a Manger outlets in Cardiff.

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Sometimes you hear this argument: Generosity, altruism, and self-giving are really just different forms of selfishness. Even if we are being truly generous, and making a real sacrifice in order to help someone else, the underlying motive will be one of the self-interest. Not because we are sly or manipulative, but simply because we are programmed to do what is ultimately in our best interests. This might include a degree of altruism, of caring for our family or friends, of going out of our way to help others. But deep down we are always thinking about what we will gain — even if that gain is the satisfaction of knowing that we are a noble person, or the pleasure of seeing other people given help.

There is some truth in this. It’s good to acknowledge that even when we do something for others, even when we are acting in a completely selfless manner, there is still an element of ‘myself’ involved. I am still choosing, freely, to do this deed. I am deciding, in some sense, that it is important to me, that I value what I’m doing. I can’t say ‘I don’t care about this’. The very fact that I want to give myself generously shows that I have an interest in giving myself — it matters to me. To this extent, there is no such thing as pure altruism. Put it another way: If I love someone, even by giving up everything for them, it is still because I love them. And if I choose to care for someone I do not love, it is still because I want to care for them.

But it’s not quite true to say that all self-giving is simply another form of selfishness — because it blurs some of the distinctions that we rightly make in ordinary life; distinctions that are crucial in moral thinking and in the choices we make about how to live. We come face to face with moments when we are called to be more generous than we have been, to put others first, to make a sacrifice that costs us some time or energy or personal satisfaction. Now and then we face a fork in the road, and we have to choose between selfishness or self-giving. We know they are not the same.

Yes, the self-giving needs to be a personal choice, it needs to be something I make a commitment to. In this sense it is still part of my own search for meaning and fulfilment. But it is nevertheless a kind of meaning and fulfilment radically different from the selfishness that seeks happiness locked up in one’s own introverted satisfactions. There is a selfishness which limits me and traps me; and there is another kind of self-concern that allows me to go beyond myself, that opens me up to others, and takes me beyond myself.

mother theresa kickin ass by messtiza.

I mention all this because yesterday evening I was in Kilburn with the Missionaries of Charity, the Sisters of Mother Theresa. During Mass in their convent chapel, three of the sisters renewed their religious vows. As well as taking the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Missionaries of Charity take an additional fourth vow. It goes something like this (I’m writing from memory): ‘I promise to give myself in wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor’.

What promise to make! A promise to make of one’s life a pure gift, to give oneself completely to those in most need, to those who will probably be unable to pay anything back. A promise to live for others in love. Of course, this has a religious meaning — it’s to do with knowing the love of Christ, and wanting to share that love with others. But even on a purely human or ‘philosophical’ level, it is a wonderful example of how self-giving is possible for the human person. Not a generosity that denies our own needs, but one which allows us to find a deeper kind of fulfilment in giving our lives joyfully for others. It’s a model not just for religious sisters, but for all of us.

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Beautiful people striving valiantly to save their marriages, their lives, their world, and their pets… That’s really all you need to know about Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster movie 2012. And that the star is my friend John Cusack (well – I was walking through Leicester Square two years ago and saw him stepping out of a car onto a red carpet at the London Film Festival).

IMG_0620 by SpreePiX - Berlin.

There is one interesting moral dilemma, however, within all the syrup and special effects. [Warning: medium-sized plot spoiler follows.] An elite and self-chosen group have the chance to save themselves from the impending cataclysm, and to give hope that in them the human race might survive. But to do this with the greatest chance of success, they need to preserve their resources, and abandon another group of survivors that desperately needs their help. If they do help, they might jeopardise the possibility of anyone surviving. The answer seems obvious. With so much at stake, of course you would abandon the others and go it alone.

But then there is one of those Hollywood speeches, and it’s quite effective. It goes something like:

We may get through this. We may not. But if we do, will we want to look back at this decisive moment in our history and admit that it is a moment of betrayal? Will we want to live with the knowledge that our new civilisation is founded on an act of raw selfishness, of injustice, of cruelty? Perhaps it would be better to risk death together than to walk into a future without them?

I know, it’s a bit cheesy; and I might be hamming it up a little (and mixing metaphors). But it presents a tight non-utilitarian argument in the middle of a disaster movie – an argument that says the end does not necessarily justify the means, the moral cost is too high, the damage done to relationships and to the hearts of the people involved is worse than the loss of life that might follow. And it is more than just the old ‘too many people in a balloon or on a raft’ dilemma, because it brings in this extra element of historical consciousness, of looking back to the present as a time of unique significance. The implicit reference, I assume, is to the way the indigenous peoples of North America were treated in the founding moments of US history. It’s about how a nation’s continuing identity can be scarred by an original sin.

It got me thinking more widely. About how, in a certain sense, every moral dilemma we face becomes a foundation for the rest of our lives, a turning point to which we can look back with shame or gratitude. This doesn’t mean we should become obsessed about over-analysing all our choices; and it certainly doesn’t mean that all choices (moral or otherwise) are of equal weight. But it’s nevertheless true that every moral choice we face is significant, and pushes our life in a certain direction. We can’t pretend that any moral choice is just in the background or at the edge; in some way it will define us, and define our whole future. We are constantly living with the possibility of making our present actions moments of original sin, or of original blessing.

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