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Archive for April, 2011

It’s fifty years since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin escaped the clutches of gravity and completed a single orbit of the earth. The Telegraph reports:

Fifty years ago [yesterday], an air force pilot named Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space – taking the Soviet Union’s own giant leap for mankind and spurring a humiliated America to race for the moon. The flight was limited to a single orbit due to concerns over how a human would cope with space travel, but despite the risks, competition for the mission was strong among the 20 young pilots on the short list.

Just three days before blastoff from what would later be known as the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin was told that he was chosen for the mission.

In a letter to his wife, Valentina, he asked her to raise their daughters “not as little princesses, but as real people,” and to feel free to remarry if his mission proved fatal.

Gagarin’s rocket lifted off as scheduled on 12 April 1961, at 9:07am Moscow time (6:07 GMT).

The flight was fraught with drama. At one point the control room lost data transmission and problems involving the antennae put the shuttle into a much higher and riskier orbit than planned.

On re-entry, a glitch caused the ship to rotate swiftly and the landing capsule was slow to detach from the service module.

But Gagarin bailed out as planned, and parachuted onto a field near the Volga River about 450 miles southeast of Moscow

The 27-year-old cosmonaut’s mission lasted just 108 minutes in total and made him a national hero.

On 14 April Gagarin was flown to Moscow, where he was greeted by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and driven into town on a highway lined with cheering Russians.

It was not until John Glenn’s flight on 20 February 1962, that an American managed to emulate Gagarin’s earth-obiting feat.

It surprises me that space travel and extra-terrestrial colonisation don’t figure very much in the collective imagination. Why are they the preserve of science fiction enthusiasts instead of being on the horizon of our everyday dreams and adventures? If there is nowhere else to go but up and away, and if we are only at the very beginning of this scientific and historical journey, why are so few people interested in it? Even raising the question makes me feel slightly geeky.

The Economist has a slideshow entitled ‘The space-age future that never happened‘.

[Yesterday marked] 50 years since Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. The dizzying pace of developments in aerospace technology—just 58 years separated the Wright Brothers’ first demonstration of powered flight from Gagarin’s trip into orbit—inspired plenty of optimistic speculation about what humanity’s future as a space-faring species might look like. This slideshow takes a look back at a future that was thought, in some quarters at least, to be just around the corner, and compares it with the reality of space exploration half a century after Gagarin’s flight.

Take a look here.

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One of my Lenten books this year is The Path of Prayer by St Theophan the Recluse. The language and ideas are very accessible, because it started life as four sermons to ordinary people.

One of the key themes is that the great heights of prayer, the great depths of mystical intimacy with God, can be found simply by saying our ordinary prayers with devotion and attention. The everyday prayers that we say (the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Psalms, etc) should be the ordinary means of discovering that union with God that we are searching for. I like this because it undermines the idea that there is some kind of split between ordinary vocal prayer, popular devotion, and contemplative prayer. They should all be, at heart, our standing in the presence of God, with hearts and minds recollected and open to him.

Here is just one passage from the first sermon. He is explaining how we should pray our ordinary daily prayers.

Simply enter into every word, then bring the meaning of each word down into your heart. That is, understand what you say, and then become aware of what you have understood. No further rules are necessary. These two, understanding and feeling – if they are properly carried out – ornament every offering of prayer with the highest quality, and this makes it fruitful and effective. For example, when you recite ‘and cleanse us from all impurities’, experience with feeling your impurity, desire to become pure, and pray to God in hope for it.

A ‘feeling’, in this Orthodox spiritual tradition, is not a fleeting emotion or mood (which we can’t control and which wouldn’t have much significance for our prayer) – it is one’s willingness to enter into the personal meaning of the truth that is being expressed in the words, to embrace this meaning with the whole heart and mind, instead of just keeping it at a distance as an abstract truth or a string of sounds at the very edge of consciousness.

St Theophan was one of the great Russian ‘starets’ of the nineteenth century, a theologian and bishop who became a monk and spent the last twenty years of his life in solitude as a hermit within his community. He is one of the masters of the spiritual life.

It seems that the book is out of print, but there is a big selection of passages from St Theophan about prayer here at the Orthodox Christian Information Society.

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If you are in a Cold War, worried that your enemy is going to destroy your military headquarters, including your main information hub, what do you do? Design an alternative information technology in which knowledge is diffused around the whole system and accessed through many different portals.

Paul Baran, who died a fortnight ago, was one of the two inventors of packet switching, without which we wouldn’t have the internet. Martin Campbell-Kelly explains:

In 1959 he joined Rand, which had been established in 1946 to do military research for the US Air Force. By the late 1950s, it was at the centre of nuclear politics and strategy. An issue of great concern at this time was the vulnerability of US military communications to a nuclear strike from Russia. If the command-and-control network was destroyed, the ability of the US to retaliate would be threatened.

Baran invented a futuristic solution to this problem in the form of a network held together by scores of small computers. Messages would be passed (“like a hot potato”) from one computer to the next towards its destination. Even if the network was massively damaged, the message would still get through. Another innovation was to chop all messages into small blocks so that they would not be delayed by long messages clogging the network. The blocks would arrive at their destination in a random order via different routes, and the computer at the destination end would reconstitute the original messages from the individual blocks.

Baran’s digital network proposal was at the cutting edge of computer technology and would have been hugely expensive to build. Numerous technical objections were raised by senior engineers steeped in the old analogue technology. In order to answer his critics, over the next few years Baran compiled a series of 11 reports. These were never secret, because it was believed that resilient networks were needed by friend and foe alike to resolve an escalating nuclear standoff. In the end, Baran failed to gain support for his proposal and, in 1968, with two other Rand alumni, he established the non-profit Institute for the Future, where he became an authority on the emerging digital networks.

Around this time Arpa was designing the Arpanet, the prototype of the internet, and their attention was drawn to the work of both Baran and the British computer scientist Donald Davies, who had developed similar ideas at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex. Davies (who was unaware of Baran’s work) called his system “packet switching”, and that name stuck, although the underlying concepts were the same in both proposals. Most importantly, both Baran and Davies had conducted and published detailed studies which established packet switching as a viable technology rather than just a bright idea. This enabled Arpa to commit to the system, and it remains the underlying technology of the internet.

It makes one reflect on how knowledge is stored and shared in other systems – in academia, in politics, in family life, in religions, etc.

Baran seems to have been very humble about his achievements, and keen to acknowledge the work of many others in building the internet. Katie Hafner writes:

In recent years, the origins of the Internet have been subject to claims and counterclaims of precedence, and Mr. Baran was an outspoken proponent of distributing credit widely.

“The Internet is really the work of a thousand people,” he said in an interview in 2001.

“The process of technological developments is like building a cathedral,” he said in an interview in 1990. “Over the course of several hundred years, new people come along and each lays down a block on top of the old foundations, each saying, ‘I built a cathedral.’

“Next month another block is placed atop the previous one. Then comes along an historian who asks, ‘Well, who built the cathedral?’ Peter added some stones here, and Paul added a few more. If you are not careful you can con yourself into believing that you did the most important part. But the reality is that each contribution has to follow onto previous work. Everything is tied to everything else.”

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Upmarket agony-aunt Sally Brampton gives advice in yesterday’s Sunday Times to a woman who is having an affair with her therapist [the article is subscription only]. First of all she takes issue with the behaviour of the therapist himself.

If he really wanted to help, he would have maintained his position as an objective counsel, building your confidence, guiding you to emotional independence and establishing firm boundaries to keep you safe from bullies such as your husband and, indeed, controlling and manipulative men like him. Instead, he has increased your dependency by making you so reliant on him that you believe that you can’t cope on your own.

Then she gives a bit of psychological background to what’s going on.

It is not unusual for people to project their emotional needs and desires (known as transference) onto a therapist and develop something of a crush. That’s why it’s essential that therapists establish clear boundaries and encourage clients to do the same.

And this is the soundbite that really struck me, a quotation from Phillip Hodson of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy:

The boundaries are the therapy.

What a powerful thought, put very simply. In other words, in psychotherapy, and I presume in many other relationships that have an element of counselling or pastoral support, it’s the establishing of a healthy and non-dysfunctional relationship that is itself part of the healing. It’s not just what takes place within the relationship (the conversations, the advice, the support, the honesty). Nor is it just what takes place within the mind or heart of the client (the breakthroughs, the insights, the epiphanies, the decisions, the moments of self-realisation – invaluable though these may be).

It’s above all the fact that someone is simply in a relationship of some normality (albeit a professional one), being who they are, without some of the games and deceptions that might have damaged their relationships up to this point. Or perhaps it would be better to say: still, inevitably, with many of the same games and deceptions, but now in a way that they do not define or derail the relationship and the people involved. So the professional boundaries, which seem to be a means to an end, are part of the end itself – which is the healing of oneself through the healing of relationships.

I don’t know much about psychotherapy, so please do add any comments or corrections – but the phrase struck me: The boundaries are the therapy.

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Speaking of stone-age tribes and their cultures, take a look at this aerial video of an uncontacted tribe in the remote Amazonian rainforest.



Here is the blurb from the BBC:

An isolated tribe living in the Amazon rainforest on the Brazil-Peru border has been filmed for the first time.

Jose Carlos Meirelles, of Funai, said his government agency needs proof of the existence of “uncontacted” Indian communities in Brazil due to the threat posed by illegal logging and mining. They are known as “uncontacted” because they have only limited dealings with the outside world.

The BBC was allowed to film from 1km away using a stabilised zoom lens.

The pictures here are even more stunning – close-ups of the tribes-people; but I can’t reproduce them because of copyright.

It raises so many moral/philosophical questions. Is it right to contact them and ‘interfere’ with their way of life, and open their culture up to exploitation, alien diseases, etc? Is it right not to contact them, and hold them in a kind of cultural bubble? The shots of Meirelles flying over the village remind me of Ed Harris in The Truman Show, sitting in his control room overlooking the artificially constructed town in which Jim Carrey is brought up and observed, like an unknowing contestant in Big Brother.



Harris is far more sinister, because Carrey is literally imprisoned in this artificial world, unaware that the rest of the world is looking in through the hidden TV cameras. But when Meirelles speaks about preserving their freedom I’m not sure if he is truly liberating them or imposing on them a kind of cultural imprisonment. He says:

It’s important for humanity that these people exist. They remind us it’s possible to live in a different way. They’re the last free people on the planet.

I feel very ambivalent. There is a genuine care being expressed for the tribes-people and their way of life, and behind this the knowledge that the often ruthless logging industry is ready to roll in and flatten their entire culture. But the language reveals the mind of a scientist and anthropologist considering what the preservation of this pristine culture offers to us, the rest of humanity; making God-like decisions, literally ‘from on high’, about how to ‘protect’ a people and preserve them in isolation. I’m not judging – I’m genuinely ambivalent about what would be the best course of action.

On the other hand, at the Uncontacted Tribes website, the debate is framed in the terms not of enforced isolation, but of protecting the land from despoliation and of respecting the right of tribes-people to relate to outside cultures on their own terms:

TV presenter Bruce Parry of hit TV series Tribe said, ‘Protecting the land where uncontacted tribes live is of global importance. We have consistently failed to introduce them to our world without inflicting terrible traumas. It is for them to decide when they want to join our world. Not us.’

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said today, ‘The illegal loggers will destroy this tribe. It’s vital that the Peruvian government stop them before time runs out. The people in these photos are self-evidently healthy and thriving. What they need from us is their territory protected, so that they can make their own choices about their future.

‘But this area is now at real risk, and if the wave of illegal logging isn’t stopped fast, their future will be taken out of their hands. This isn’t just a possibility: it’s irrefutable history, rewritten on the graves of countless tribes for the last five centuries.’

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