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Archive for October, 2012

Go and see Ruby Sparks. I nearly walked out after fifteen minutes, because it seemed like the most saccharine and cliché-ridden romantic comedy. But then she appears – the writer’s dream becomes his reality – and you realise that under the guise of a good-natured rom-com there lies a dark and disturbing psycho-drama and a clever philosophical meditation on love, power, freedom and identity. It’s one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen this year.

Minor plot-spoilers follow, but not much more than is in the trailer. He is a writer; he starts writing about a woman who has appeared in his dreams, and he creates the perfect woman who will fill his lonely heart. Then she appears, for real, and after the slapstick scenes of him and his brother coming to terms with that, he has to get on with the business of really knowing and loving her.

And of course the person he has created stops fitting into his model. So he breaks his self-imposed rule, and starts re-writing who she is, even as he is in the middle of the relationship. It goes funny, and pear-shaped, and self-defeating, and then very, very dark, before the inevitable (and I thought quite beautiful) light-filled resolution.

Like any good fairy-tale or parable, it presents in an outlandish form something that is so normal we have stopped seeing it. In this case, that we are attracted to people (not just romantically) because they match what we find attractive, what we hope to find in another; and that – often – we subtly and not-so-subtly pressure and manipulate people to conform to our expectations of what the relationship should be about.

So there is a joy in discovering ‘the other’, but the other is objectified and can become a projection of our own hopes. Then we realise that they are more than the person we want them to be – they are the person they want to be, and a person we may never appreciate or even understand.

Is the first kind of attraction inherently narcissistic and manipulative? Is all love, at least at the beginning, a form of fantasy? How do we keep the delight in finding someone who fits with our dreams at the same time as giving them the space to surprise and unsettle and disturb? We objectify someone, but we can’t live with an object for very long.

And if, to take the questioning much further, the person begins to realise that they have in some sense been created by another, where does that leave them? How do we set them free, without losing everything? How do they set themselves free? This isn’t such a fantasy: think of the myriad ways in which we have all been ‘created’, formed, by others – by parents, teachers, friends, culture, society…

I’m being very heavy, because I came away with my head spinning. It’s not as heavy as I have made it out – in fact it feels like a bit of fluff. That’s what makes it so clever, it’s a breezy romcom that reads, afterwards, like a lecture in philosophy or psychology. It’s intriguing and great fun.

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TV time should be limited for children, and under-threes should be kept away from television altogether – writes Sarah Boseley.

These are the conclusions of a recent report.

A review of the evidence in the Archives Of Disease in Childhood says children’s obsession with TV, computers and screen games is causing developmental damage as well as long-term physical harm. Doctors at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which co-owns the journal with the British Medical Journal group, say they are concerned. Guidelines in the US, Canada and Australia already urge limits on children’s screen time, but there are none yet in Britain.

The review was written by psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, author of a book on the subject, following a speech he gave to the RCPCH’s annual conference. On average, he says, a British teenager spends six hours a day looking at screens at home – not including any time at school. In North America, it is nearer eight hours. But, says Sigman, negative effects on health kick in after about two hours of sitting still, with increased long-term risks of obesity and heart problems.

The critical time for brain growth is the first three years of life, he says. That is when babies and small children need to interact with their parents, eye to eye, and not with a screen.

Prof Mitch Blair, officer for health promotion at the college, said: “Whether it’s mobile phones, games consoles, TVs or laptops, advances in technology mean children are exposed to screens for longer amounts of time than ever before. We are becoming increasingly concerned, as are paediatricians in several other countries, as to how this affects the rapidly developing brain in children and young people.”

The US department of health and human services now specifically cites the reduction of screen time as a health priority, aiming “to increase the proportion of children aged 0 to two years who view no television or videos on an average weekday” and increase the proportion of older children up to 18 who have no more than two hours’ screen time a day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also issued guidance, saying “media – both foreground and background – have potentially negative effects and no known positive effects for children younger than 2 years”. The Canadian Paediatric Society says no child should be allowed to have a television, computer or video game equipment in his or her bedroom.

Sigman goes further, suggesting no screen time for the under-threes, rising gradually to a maximum of two hours for the over-16s. Parents should “encourage” no screens in the bedroom, he says, and be aware that their own viewing habits will influence their children.

But what can you do?

The RCPH’s Professor Blair said there were some simple steps parents could take, “such as limiting toddler exposure as much as possible, keeping TVs and computers out of children’s bedrooms, restricting prolonged periods of screen time (we would recommend less than two hours a day) and choosing programmes that have an educational element.”

But Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet, said it was hard for parents to compete with technology. “It would be great if someone could invent a lock that could automatically ensure a daily shut down of all the different devices in and around the home after a designated period. Until such a thing is invented, it’s going to be an ongoing battle to keep on top of everything,” she said.

Any thoughts from parents? Is the no TV ideal possible? Is it realistic? Is it even desirable?

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Remember all the fuss about embryonic stem cells? About how the only way to offer hope to millions of people suffering from a plethora of diseases and medical conditions was to harvest stem cells from embryonic human life? About how the destruction of the human embryo was a sad but necessary price to pay for the incalculable advances that could be achieved? Remember the accusations that were hurled against those who opposed this utilitarian reasoning on ethical grounds, and dared to suggest that there might be an alternative and ethically acceptable route to medical progress?

It has just been announced that Sir John Gurdon of Cambridge University shares this year’s Nobel prize for physiology or medicine with Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka. Why? Because they have been at the forefront of research proving that adult cells can be reprogrammed and grown into different bodily tissues.

Sir John Gurdon on the right

Ian Sample reports. This is the ethical perspective from the end of the article:

For Julian Savulescu, Uehiro professor of practical ethics at Oxford University, the researchers’ work deserved particular praise because reprogrammed cells overcome the moral concerns that surrounded research on embryonic stem cells.

“This is not only a giant leap for science, it is a giant leap for mankind. Yamanaka and Gurdon have shown how science can be done ethically. Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research and modified the trajectory of research into a path that is acceptable for all. He deserves not only a Nobel prize for medicine, but a Nobel prize for ethics.”

And here is some of the scientific background:

The groundbreaking work has given scientists fresh insights into how cells and organisms develop, and may pave the way for radical advances in medicine that allow damaged or diseased tissues to be regenerated in the lab, or even inside patients’ bodies…

Prior to the duo’s research, many scientists believed adult cells were committed irreversibly to their specialist role, for example, as skin, brain or beating heart cells. Gurdon showed that essentially all cells contained the same genes, and so held all the information needed to make any tissue.

Building on Gurdon’s work, Yamanaka developed a chemical cocktail to reprogram adult cells into more youthful states, from which they could grow into many other tissue types.

In a statement, the Nobel Assembly at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute in Sweden, said the scientists had “revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop”…

Gurdon’s breakthrough came in 1962 at Oxford University, when he plucked the nucleus from an adult intestine cell and placed it in a frog’s egg that had had its own nucleus removed. The modified egg grew into a healthy tadpole, suggesting the mature cell had all the genetic information needed to make every cell in a frog. Previously, scientists had wondered whether different cells held different gene sets.

Yamanaka, who was born in the year of Gurdon’s discovery, reported in 2006 how mature cells from mice could be reprogrammed into immature stem cells, which can develop into many different types of cell in the body. The cells are known as iPS cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells

Some researchers in the field hope to turn patients’ skin cells into healthy replacement tissues for diseased or aged organs…

Interesting that one of the scientists who missed out this year was James Thompson. He was a pioneer in human embryonic stem cells, being the first to isolate them in the lab in 1998. And more recently, Thompson has shown that mature human body cells could be reprogrammed into stem cells.

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I’ve had great fun experimenting with “Logos 4”, the latest edition of the Logos Bible Software. It does everything you’d expect, and much more.

Just take my last search as an example. I wanted to look up Hebrews Chapter 12, so I just typed “Heb 12” into the search box on the home page. Immediately, as a default setting, it opens up a set of windows displaying a vast array of tools and information to help you make sense of the scriptural passage: the English text in five different translations (there are many more to choose from), the Greek text together with all its variants (with an option of transliteration if your Greek is getting rusty), links from every Greek and English word to a set of dictionaries and concordances, numerous cross-references, biblical commentaries on the passage, handouts to photocopy for bible study groups, illustrations, and even a Wordle-style word-cloud to highlight which themes are coming up most consistently in these chosen lines. This is all before you have customised the page or used the drop down menus to link the scripture with your own preferred theological resources.

The danger, of course, is that you spend all your time racing down every exegetical rabbit hole you discover instead of reflecting on the Word of God itself, just as you can get lost in the footnotes and cross-referencing system of any printed bible. But this is a risk with any tool: that we become fascinated by what it is in itself rather than what purpose it is built to serve.

Here is the demo:

There is a profusion of bible software available today – some of it online, some of it downloadable. I can’t give an honest comparison of Logos with all the other packages, simply because I haven’t used many of them. My ordinary practice of bible study and sermon preparation still involves sitting down with pen and paper, an interlinear bible, and a pile of printed dictionaries and commentaries. It’s very old-school and pre-internet. But from my limited time spent with Logos I can say that it is attractively designed, easy to use, and delivers a huge amount in terms of everyday bible study and exegesis.

The other plus is that there is now a set of Catholic texts to supplement the largely Protestant cross-referencing system that Logos was designed for. So you can call up Catholic bible commentaries and Catholic translations (e.g. the Catholic edition of the RSV) to link with the scriptural texts, and you can also explore these texts in their own right using the same software. So you have a library of Catholic theology and some very sophisticated tools to explore it with.

The best example here is the Catechism. Open this and you have the text itself. Click on a scripture reference in the footnotes, and it opens a set of windows at the side with all the biblical tools to study that passage in context. Click on another quotation in the footnote, and it gives you the whole passage (and usually the whole sermon or book) from which the quotation is taken. It links to patristic sources, magisterial documents, writings of the saints, etc. – all there in front of you without having to go to the bookshelf or search the net. Just as one example: I was reading paragraph 1371 of the Catechism about how one aspect of the Eucharistic sacrifice is that it is offered for the souls of the faithful departed, and it quotes St Monica’s request to her son St Augustine that he remember her at the Lord’s altar after her death. And with a single click you open up in the box below Book 9 Chapter 11 of Augustine’s confessions with the whole quotation in context.

I am sure there is a lot more here that I haven’t discovered, but this gives you a feel for what the software can do. The downside is the price. I’m lucky enough to be using a review copy, but the basic Catholic software package is $249.95 (see exactly what’s included here) – which must be about £150 at the moment. It’s a lot for an individual user. But if you think of what it costs to buy a decent set of biblical texts and commentaries over a number of years, then it sounds a lot less. You are buying a library rather than just a piece of software. (The other plus is that you can use it on your iPad or mobile. This doesn’t help me much because – despite my high-tech credentials – I am still getting used to texting…)

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I was at Blackfriars in Cambridge for Mass last week, which is the novice house for the Dominican Friars of England and Scotland. It was a joy to meet the four new novices over coffee afterwards, just a couple of weeks after they had arrived and exchanged their everyday clothes for the Dominican habit.

And a few days before I happened to be visiting the Carmelite sisters in the monastery at Notting Hill, London. Three women have begun their postulancy here over the last few months, with another due to join them this autumn.

So that’s eight new religious vocations this year in just two random houses! Something is certainly stirring in vocational terms in this country at the moment.

Something is speaking to people: about the value of religious life, the beauty of the evangelical vows (of poverty, consecrated celibacy, and obedience), the importance of prayer and community, the urgency of mission (whether the mission of apostolic work or of monastic prayer), and the adventure of giving your life without reservation to Christ in these particular ways.

Religious life, of course, is not the only way of giving your life to Christ; but to those who are called it becomes a way of living their faith and embracing the radicalism of the Gospel that seems to make sense of everything they have believed and desired before.

If you want to learn a bit more about the Dominicans or Carmelites, I’ve copied a few paragraphs below.

First of all, take a look at this video from the English Dominicans:

This is from the Irish Dominican website:

Dominican friars are engaged in an incredible spiritual adventure: living from the passion for the salvation of souls which, eight centuries ago, set fire to the heart of St Dominic and to the hearts of his first companions. This haste to announce the Gospel in truth produces three characteristics in a Dominican friar.

Men of the Word

A primordial taste for the Word of God marks Dominican friars. The Word demands to be meditated ceaselessly and lived without compromise. Never satisfied, the brothers take every opportunity to promote and engage in the study of the Word of God.

Compassion

Concern for the poorest found in the compassion of St Dominic and of his brothers a never ending response. No element of human existence is foreign to Dominicans. Mercy is the path, the tone and the mystery of the friar preacher. When making his commitment to live as a Dominican friar, a brother’s reply to the question “What do you seek?” is “God’s mercy and yours”.

Proclamation of Christ’s Good News in poverty

The original preaching of St Dominic while in contact with Catharism impressed upon the friars that the proclamation of the Gospel could be done only through authentically evangelical means (see the Gospel according to Mark, chapter six, beginning at verse seven). Joining others and understanding them imposes a lifestyle like that of the apostle: a life that is lived in common and one that is itinerant.

In practice, such a lifestyle is lived as a “religious life” with its own essential characteristics: the four elements particular to the friars preachers.

Conventual Life

Animated by the rule of St Augustine, the friars live together the same call coming from the one person who calls: Christ. Living as brothers, they strive to love each other, to forgive each other and to live the Gospel in community before living it outside the community.

To pass on to others what we have contemplated

Preaching finds its vitality in a life of prayer which is both personal and in common. Preaching, when at its best, is a truly contemplative act. The brothers are called to be simultaneously contemplative and fundamentally missionary.

The vows

Poverty, obedience and chastity make us men who try to consecrate ourselves for the adventure of the Kingdom of God.

Study

All our personal, community, intellectual and spiritual energy makes us useful for the souls of others, whether they be near to us or far away: useful by our word and by our example

We are consecrated for the proclamation of the Word of God, proclamation which is done using all the means available to us: preaching, confession, teaching, publishing, spiritual accompaniment, humble presence… Preaching animates what we do or what we live, to the point that our communities (“priories” or “convents”) have been called the “holy preaching”.

And this is from the Notting Hill Carmel website:

The mission of the Carmelite is to enter, by the total gift of herself, into the saving mission of Christ, who gave himself for us that we might come to a fuller life in God, and who said: Love one another as I have loved you.

The Carmelite is one with all people, everywhere, those who believe, those who search and those who do not know that they are searching, and she identifies with all that is great and worthy of humanity’s endeavour. Yet she is called to a way of life that is in many ways counter-cultural: to live quietly, against the background noise of the city; to live simply and sparingly in an increasingly wasteful age; to live hidden and unnoticed in a competitive society; above all, to live lovingly and generously in an aggressive and violent world.

In her contemplative prayer, the Carmelite carries the needs and hopes of every person before God, lifting the face of humanity to the Father and opening her heart to be a channel of his outpouring love for all.

Carmelite spirituality is profoundly contemplative, born in the hermit tradition and nurtured by the two famous Spanish mystics, St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross. It is rooted in the word of God, having had its beginnings in the land of the bible. The earliest Rule instructs us: “In all you do, have the Lord’s word for accompaniment”. The biblical figures of Mary and Elijah are our first inspiration. The prophetic message of Elijah encourages us to proclaim in our own times: “He is alive! The Lord God in whose presence I stand”; and Mary teaches us how to make ourselves fully available to God.

The Church’s liturgy creates the framework of our lives. Seven times a day we come together to pray the psalms, hear the word of God and intercede for the manifold needs of the world, especially for those intentions that have been entrusted to our prayer.

Prayer is Carmel’s particular form of service to the church. We spend an hour each morning and each evening in silent prayer. These times of special openness to God nourish an entire life of prayer that tends towards God in everything.

The measure of silence and solitude necessary for a sustained life of prayer is balanced by the demands of building real community, so that this biblical, contemplative, ecclesial, Marian spirituality becomes also a spirituality of communion.

For the followers of the great Carmelite teachers, the essence of prayer is relationship. This means intimate, personal relationship with God, honest relationship with oneself, and an inclusive, all-embracing relationship with the whole community and the whole wide world.

These are just two examples of religious life in this country. Let’s hope that these houses, and many others, can continue to grow and flourish.

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In my recent post about Web 3.0 I used the phrase layered reality to describe the way that information from the virtual world is becoming embedded in our experience of the real world in real-time. Instead of stopping the car, looking at a physical map, memorising the directions, and then starting off again; now you see a virtual map on your sat nav that matches and enhances the physical reality in front of you. It adds another layer. The next step – part of Web 3.0 – is that the technology that delivers the layer is wearable and invisible, so that the layering is seamless. We have had mobile conversations via earpieces for years now.

The best example of this is the Google Glass. Messages and information that up to now would appear on your computer screen or mobile phone now appear on the lens of your glasses as part of your visual panorama. Fighter pilots have had information appearing on their visors for a long time, so that they can read instruments without having to take their eyes off the scene ahead. The Google Glass is just the domestic equivalent of this.

Take a look at this wonderful video demo:

Claire Beale explains more about the implications for mobile technology:

Ever since Tom Cruise showed us in Minority Report a future where reality is a multi-layered experience, gadget geeks have been waiting for technology to deliver on Hollywood’s promise.

Now virtual reality is about to become an actual reality for anyone with the right sort of mobile phone after Telefonica, the parent company of O2, signed a revolutionary deal last week with the tech company Aurasma.

Aurasma has developed a virtual reality platform that recognises images and objects in the real world and responds by layering new information on top. So if Aurasma’s technology is embedded into your mobile phone, when you point your phone at an image it can recognise, it will automatically unlock relevant interactive digital content.

For brands, this type of kit has some pretty significant implications. It means that commercial messages can now live in the ether around us, waiting to be activated by our mobiles. If your phone registers a recognised image such as a building, a poster or a promotional sticker in a store, say, it will play out videos, 3D animations or money-off coupons to entice you to buy.

See this video demo from Layar:

You don’t just see, you see as others see, you understand what others understand, it’s almost like sharing in a universal consciousness. That’s part of the wonder of this new augmented reality, and also the danger; because it all depends on trusting the source, the provider. Who controls the layers?

But the idea of layering reality is not really new, in fact ‘layered reality’ could almost be a definition of human culture. Culture is the fact that we don’t just experience reality neat, we experience it filtered through the accumulated interpretations of previous generations. The primordial example of culture as a layering of reality is language: we speak about what we see, and cover every experience with a layer of language – before, during and after the experience itself.

And writing is literally putting a layer of human interpretation on top of the physical reality before you: carving some cuneiform script into a Sumerian brick; painting a Chinese character onto a piece of parchment; printing the newspaper in the early hours of the morning. Endless layers that stretch back almost to the beginning of human consciousness.

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