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Archive for February, 2010

Quite a few friends of mine have done online dating; some with great success.

It gives you a bigger pool of people to meet; and it allows you to check them out through the all-important profile: age, work, interests, where you live, religion, background, favourite film, favourite band, etc. And of course it allows you to create your own online persona through your own profile.

But, according to some new statistics from one such site, it’s still the photograph that matters. There’s a New York Times article here; and some quotes from Jonathan Richards here:

Men should show off their abs (if they have them), make no eye contact, and not to be drinking. Women should look flirtatiously at the camera… possibly be doing something interesting such as playing a guitar, and under no circumstance have their pet to hand. Those would be some of the lessons for singletons mulling what type of picture of themselves to post on a dating website.

Leading US-based dating site OkCupid.com examined the profile pictures of 7000 of its users aged between 18 and 32 and assessed them according to a range of criteria, such as ‘basic look’ (Was the subject of making eye contact? Smiling?) and context (Were they showing off any flesh? Indoors or outdoors?). The site then gauged the photo’s ‘performance’ by measuring, among other things, how many times the subject was contacted, and what kind of response rate they’d had.

Sam Yagan, one of OkCupid’s co-founders, said that many of the rules about dating in the real world applied online: ‘A girl might find a man staring straight at her intimidating, so the ‘look away’ profile shot softens him a little’. Meanwhile, intimidation for guys, it seems, comes in the form of a woman holding a drink or, worse still, a cat. [TheTimesMagazine, 7 Feb 2010]

This is all to be taken with a pinch of salt. But I couldn’t help smiling at the idea that women with pets receive 24% fewer contacts from men, but men with an animal meet 50% more women. What does it all mean?

Rudy's Dream (pet portrait) by The Lone Beader.

And it’s interesting that at least in this unscientific survey men are attracted to women who look at them, but women are attracted to men who are looking somewhere else. Perhaps this is something to do with the Mars-Venus stuff…

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Not many people would know that there is an enclosed monastery of contemplative nuns in a fashionable district of west London. Michael Whyte has just finished a documentary film about life in Notting Hill Carmel and, remarkably, it is getting a national cinematic release in April. You can visit the monastery site here; and the site of the film here (with some beautiful images, and an online trailer).

After ten years of correspondence, Michael Whyte was given unprecedented access to the monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, in London’s Notting Hill. The monastery, which was founded in 1878, is home to the Discalced Order of Carmelite Nuns. The nuns lead a cloistered life dedicated to prayer and contemplation, rarely leaving the monastery except to visit a doctor or dentist. Silence is maintained throughout the day with the exception of two periods of recreation.

No Greater Love gives a unique insight into this closed world where the modern world’s materialism is rejected; they have no television, radio or newspapers. The film interweaves a year in the life of the monastery with the daily rhythms of Divine Office and work. Centred in Holy Week, it follows a year in which a novice is professed and one of the senior nuns dies. Though mainly an observational film there are several interviews, which offer insights into their life, faith, moments of doubt and their belief in the power of prayer in the heart of the community.

I was lucky enough to go to a screening this week. I’ve known the community for a few years because they have links with the seminary where I work. A key part of the Carmelite vocation is to pray for priests, and the sisters at Notting Hill pray each day for the priests and seminarians of Westminster Diocese. We visit them once a year in small groups, and chat in the ‘parlour’. So it was a real eye-opener to see what goes on ‘behind-the-scenes’ after all this time.

St Therese in  Notting Hill Carmel by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

Some of the sisters (at the visit of the relics in October)

I was struck, perhaps inevitably, by the silence; but also by the noises that emerge from this silence. One of the sisters explained that they don’t feel disconnected from the city, because they are there to pray for the city, and to live at its heart. And you could see and hear these very connections in the background: the sound of a siren, of a train pulling out of Paddington Station; the sight of a police helicopter flying over, seen above the arms of a wooden crucifix in the garden.

Some of the sisters talked about their vocations, and about the struggles of prayer. It was very real. Moments of joy; moments of darkness and boredom — sometimes lasting for years. You had a sense, throughout the film, that they knew who they were and what they were doing. Simple things: cooking, cleaning, gardening, caring for the sick, swapping news and stories (in the time of recreation each evening), kneeling in the chapel. Simple things that add up to a huge commitment of life.

One sister took evident delight in taking a chainsaw to an overgrown tree; and the director seemed to take an equal delight in cutting abruptly to this scene from the silence of the Chapel.

The final shot was breathtaking. Only at the very end, after following the sisters within the confines of the monastery walls for what amounted to a year, did the director use an aerial shot and pan back from the monastery to the surrounding streets and housing estates — and to the whole of west London. You realised that this monastery, so hidden away and unacknowledged, is truly part of the beating heart of London.

I’ll post again when I hear details about when and where the film is showing.

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I went to my first proper poetry reading this week. The editor of the magazine ‘Poetry Wales’ introduced a number of poets she has published recently, including an old friend of mine, Samantha Rhydderch. You can see her website here.

It was a dingy basement in a west London cafe (the Troubadour), full of atmosphere and history. It became an unexpected pilgrimage from me, as three of my teenage heroes had played within these very walls: Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix. There were faded photos to prove it.

The whole event felt countercultural, even subversive. A group of wonderful, talented people, who could have shared their words with two billion people over the internet, simply by recording themselves at home and posting to YouTube. Instead of that, they chose to travel six hours on a train from Wales so that a tiny audience (50 at the most) could actually hear the sounds of the words as they came from their mouths, feel their breath, see them in the flesh, and taste the experience face to face.

magnetic poetry by surrealmuse.

Paper publishing itself is almost an anachronism. But the editor gave a lovely speech about how the printed word, above all for poetry, gives you a stillness and space in which to hold the words, that is simply not possible in any digital medium.

My favourite first line of the evening: ‘Every crashed marriage has its own black-box…’ (I’m writing from memory; and I apologise that I can’t remember the writer’s name – perhaps he can post his poem here…) My favourite newly discovered fact: That the lettuce was a sacred object in ancient Egypt.

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There was lots of talk last week about football and morality, and the old question of whether sporting heroes need to be perfect role models when they are off the pitch and back in the real world. It brought to mind a much more interesting question raised by Simon Barnes as he was looking over the sporting scandals that erupted last year: when does a cheat become a ‘gate’? When, in other words, do the failures and weaknesses of individuals morph into an institutional conspiracy that merits the suffix ‘-gate’?

Watergate Complex from TR Bridge by dbking.

The original Watergate complex

For me, the interest lies not only in the analysis of modern sport, but in the way it illustrates how corruption can grow within any community or institution — if the pressures are strong enough, and if the individuals involved are without firm moral principles.

When does a cheat become a gate? It’s the most important question of the sporting year. There’ve been an awful lot of cheats in the course of the past 12 months, but only three gates. All the same, it is three more gates than sport needs. Liegate was followed by Bloodgate which was followed by Crashgate. When taken together, they ask a series of devastating questions about sport.

Cheats are much less important. The affair of Thierry Henry’s handball didn’t become Handgate or Henrygate, because it didn’t have the stuff a gate needs. It was a flagrant piece of cheating, but it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time. The only reason it gained such notoriety was because the consequences were greater: Henry’s balloon-bipping double-tap meant that France, rather than Ireland, qualified for the World Cup finals in South Africa next year.

No one within the sport condemned Henry for his lack of morals. Everyone took that for granted. No, the problem was felt to be one of officiating. We can’t expect players to be honest, so we must do something about catching them at it. But then Fifa decided that football was a better game when cheats are given a fair run, and so we move on…

Bloodgate had elements of farce. Harlequins were playing Leinster in a Heineken Cup quarter-final. It was an ultra-tight game of rugby, and they wanted to bring on a talented kicker, Nick Evans, to go for a dropped goal. Alas, they had already used all the tactical replacements they were allowed. So they made a substitution instead. This is permitted in the event of a blood injury — wise precaution in these Aids-conscious times. Evans came on, had his chance for a dropped goal, but missed.

Harlequins were able to make this substitution because Tom Williams used a capsule of fake blood (piquant detail: it was bought in a joke shop near Clapham Junction) to simulate the injury. It was given to him by his team management. He was instructed to burst it and fake an injury. Subsequently, Williams was cut in the mouth with a scalpel to aid conviction.

All this was rumbled. The cover-up was uncovered. Williams decided to come clean. The Harlequins director of rugby, Dean Richards, was banned from the sport for three years, the club were fined £258,000…

In all three of these events, a request — or a demand — for cheating came from people who held positions of authority. This wasn’t a bit of casual skulduggery, this was organised. This was cold-blooded. This was cheating as a matter of official policy.

This is not a crime of passion, this was premeditated plotting. And that changes everything. It’s not naughty boys cheating during the exam, it’s the school-teachers supplying the crib-sheets. The teachers are not just helping their boys to get a result, they are destroying the examination system.

You can argue whether or not that is a good thing — you can’t argue that it is destructive. The system that McLaren, Harlequins and Renault are destroying is called sport.

This kind of organised cheating not only destroys the spectacle of sport, it destroys the meaning of sport. Why watch the races, if every race is fixed?

Sport can’t exist without faith. We know that modern athletes will cheat in hot blood. That’s disappointing, but we are learning to live with it. But when we know that cheating is also fixed, authorised, formalised and institutionalised, our faith is broken. Institutional cheating is not just a scandal. It is the gate to sport’s grave.

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We have just begun the second semester at the seminary, and I started teaching a new course entitled ‘philosophical anthropology’. It’s about the nature of the human person – not from the perspective of faith (that comes later), but just from the perspective of philosophy, reason, science, experience, etc.

I start with Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2):

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god – the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!

But then I go on to explain how difficult it is today to justify this classical view that the human being has these unique qualities. The thrust of so much science and philosophy is to prove that there is simply a sliding scale of natural skills, and that the differences between human beings and other animals are differences of degree and not of kind.

Dolphins in the Red Sea by Tom Weilenmann.

As an example of this type of thinking I brought out an article by Jonathan Leake and Georgia Warren from the Sunday Times from a couple of weeks ago, giving evidence of human-like traits in the animal kingdom. Here are some quotes:

In the past few years researchers have been finding similar examples of sentience and self-awareness across the animal kingdom in species ranging from elephants and dolphins to crows and parrots. Even sheep, cows and pigs appear to be far more self-aware and to lead more emotionally charged lives than we have previously understood.

It means that humans, used to regarding ourselves as unique in our ability to think and feel, are not so special. Increasingly scientists believe we are merely at the top of a spectrum of intelligence across the animal kingdom, rather than standing apart from it. We may be better at thinking and more able to articulate our feelings — but animals can do all the same things…

Last year that was topped by Alex Kacelnik, a professor of behavioural ecology at Oxford, who discovered that crows are capable of using multiple tools in complex sequences, the first time such behaviour had been observed in non-humans. In an experiment seven crows successfully reeled in a piece of food placed out of reach using three different lengths of stick.

Crucially, they were able to complete the task without any special training, suggesting the birds were capable of a level of abstract reasoning and creativity normally associated only with humans.

Last week it emerged that researchers from Padua University in Italy had found that birds were able to read numbers from left to right, as humans do, and count to four even when the line of numbers was moved from vertical to horizontal. They also showed that birds performed better in tests after a good night’s sleep.

All this is powerful evidence against the idea that people are unique and, some argue, also undermines the idea that humans should have “dominion” over animals, as the Bible puts it.

This has traditionally been the justification for the exploitation and abuse of animals in many different ways, the most emotive of which is animal experimentation, particularly involving primates…

Such ideas suggest that the cognitive abilities of animals and humans lie on a spectrum. The skills of humans may be at the top end but they are no different in kind from those of many animal species.

Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, believes that some animals are bright enough to merit human rights. He suggests that hunting dolphins or capturing them for aquariums is “roughly the same thing whites were doing to blacks 200 years ago in the slave trade”.

This is the question of whether there are non-human persons. 

So I have the next eleven weeks to explain how much of this is true, but that there are still some unique qualities about human reason, freedom and moral conscience that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

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BIGBANKGIRLBALOON by David Boyle.There is a wonderful exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum called ‘Fakes and Forgeries‘. I’m sorry to be recommending it so late in the day – it finishes this Sunday (7th Feb).

The exhibits ‘belong’ not to some rich collector or charitable foundation, but to the Metropolitan Police, and they are all items that have been used as evidence in recent forgery trials.

In the first room there are some masterpieces by de Staël, Chagall and Giacometti – but they are really by John Myatt, one of the greatest forgers of the late 20th century. And as an example of changing fashions within the art market there is a ‘Balloon Girl’ stencil print in the style of Banksy, the contemporary graffiti artist.

It raises so many questions. If John Myatt can paint as well as de Staël, Chagall and Giacometti, does that mean he is the greater artistic genius (because unlike them he is not trapped within a certain style)? Why should the price of a luminous painting crash just because the certificate of authenticity is shown to be worthless? (I know, because it’s a market, and we are paying for the connection with the artist and for the investment).

A lovely twist arises from the fact that some of Myatt’s paintings are now becoming collectors’ items in their own right because of his fame and the notoriety of the cases.

I learnt some legal definitions. A ‘fake’ is an ‘innocent’ object that is later tampered with, e.g. by adding a fake signature. A ‘forgery’ is an object that is ‘guilty’ from the start – it was created in order to deceive someone. A ‘copy’ is a replica of a work of art that is created without any intention to deceive. A beautiful ‘Matisse’ is displayed here, even with his signature copied in the corner – but this is perfectly legal, because no-one was trying to pretend that it was really a Matisse.

blatant forgery by Yersinia.

Much of the skill lies in creating a false provenance: fake letters of authentication, false stories about how the work passed from the artist’s studio to the present-day, even tampering with archives in order to create the impression that a non-existent work really did exist in the documented history.

I know forgery is wrong, but the exhibition had all the fascination of a good heist film, and I couldn’t help admiring – not the dishonesty of the forgers, but their artistic skill and ingenuity.

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World Youth Day 2008 Concert (#458) by Christopher Chan.

World Youth Day - Sydney, 2008

I did a recent post about the religious identity of young Catholics and their desire for a sense of belonging and purpose. John Allen explains how the emergence of a certain brand of ‘evangelical Catholicism’ reflects a broader sociological reality that can be seen across different religions. He draws on the work of the French sociologist Olivier Roy:

It’s not just Catholics passing through an evangelical phase. In fact, the revival of traditional identity and the push to proclaim that identity in public is a defining feature of religion generally in the early 21st century.

In Europe, Roy points to the vigorous defense of the public display of crucifixes by Catholics, the insistence of Muslim women upon wearing veils, and a trend among younger Jewish men to wear the kippah at school and in the workplace. On the Christian side of the ledger, he also includes the massive crowds drawn by the World Youth Days instituted under Pope John Paul II, and the more recent “Christian Pride” festivals organized in some European cities as a self-conscious response to “Gay Pride” rallies. Globally, Roy notes the explosive growth of Evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Christianity, the success of Salafism, Tablighi Jamaat and neo-Sufism within Islam, the comeback of the Lubavich movement inside Judaism, as well as the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and the popularity of Sri Lankan theravada Buddhism.

Though highly distinct, Roy argues that these evangelical strains within the world’s major religions share certain defining features: “The individualization of faith, anti‐intellectualism, a stress on salvation and realization of the self, [and] rejection of the surrounding culture as pagan.”

One can debate the merits of certain items on that list, but in the main Roy’s observation is indisputable: The reassertion of traditional markers of religious identity, interpreted in a personal and evangelical key, is part of the physiognomy of our times far beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church.

I’m not sure all this works as a description of the sources of renewal I have met within British Catholicism, but there is plenty to think about here.

Interestingly, Roy doesn’t see this as a comeback for religion, but a sign that mainstream religion is becoming more and more detached from the broader cultural and political environment. So it is a sign of the success of secularism.

[It’s] a body blow, or at least a serious challenge, for religions such as Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, which historically have emphasized the integration of religion with cultural, national and ethnic identity. Certainly the heavy losses Catholicism has suffered to Pentecostals in Latin America, and more recently in parts of Africa, seem to lend credence to that view.

But Allen counters that this might be just the moment for Catholics to re-engage with the culture and show the possibility of integrating faith and reason.

One could argue that Catholicism is uniquely positioned to do justice to the legitimate aspiration for identity expressed in today’s evangelical push, while ensuring that it does not become so thoroughly disengaged from, or antagonistic to, the surrounding culture that it ends in the extremist pathologies Roy describes. That seems to be what Benedict XVI has in mind when he talks about contemporary Christianity as a “creative minority” – clear about what makes it different, but aiming to renew the broader culture from within, not forever warring against it.

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