Archive for October, 2008

apologies for absence

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

I have been starting a site at the Guardian, and just too busy to post here, or even to think. I have never in my life had anything like the quantity and virulence of hatemail that I’m getting there. I think the most egregious example was this, sent to me personally at my graun address.:

your book on Sweden and (allegedly) fly fishing.

What a depressing piece of badly written rubbish! Were you not a journo, you would never have had it published. I’m pleased to say I read it AFTER a delightful few weeks in that happy, cheerful country – it went in the bin of course, and I almost feel sorry for you in your clearly depressive state.
Iain Wilson.

This is not much compared to the hatred poured out on that site at Christians, or women. It’s not just upsetting, but really odd. Where does all this bile and self-righteousness come from? (in the quoted case, it comes from a vanity domain, After a long day reading that kind of crap I feel as some people did after the 7/7 bombings, as if complete strangers might explode beside me in the tube; except instead of semtex, they would just burst from the force of their own corrosive intestinal festerings. It’s probably related to the Ross/ Brand kind of bullying, too.

Ah well, tomorrow I am in Oxford for most of the day, and working on trains when I am not lecturing. But I will try to keep this site going. I like the comments here, for one thing.

Make this man a bishop!

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

From the comments received at Third Way magazine on their interview with Peter Akinola.

Archdeacon Dennis Onyekuru Owerri: In all times God provides for Himself a representative, a mouth piece. This is to show the world His sovereignty, that He is ever present, all powerful and so on. The entire world is ever grateful to Archbishop, His Grace Most Rev Peter Akinola for making himself available for this. He is expressing our minds to a decaying world whether they will hear or not the truth it is better said than keeping silent.
Why is this man only an archdeacon, when his talents clearly fit him for a place very close to the archiepiscopal chair, if not immediately beneath it?

The shock of Apostasy

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

I seem to have picked up another fan. A C Grayling, in comments to one of my Guardian blog pieces, says:

Andrew; perhaps meditating what tendentiousness you could muster in response to the extraordinary courage of some dozens of people there who had chosen to think for themselves and free themselves from the superstitions that oppress so many of their ex-coreligionists - and at considerable personal risk to themselves. You are a perfect example of a person whose zeal to defend fairy stories makes you dishonest and mean-minded. Once upon a time your sort did to those who think for themselves what the mullahs would like to do to the brave men and women at that conference: confined now to snideries, your essential poverty of outlook is on magnificent display here.

Now, obviously I thought about retaliating in kind, but I am above such things.1 But there is an instructive point, too: what seems to have driven Grayling into this frenzy was that I committed two offences very like blasphemy and apostasy. I went to this meeting and failed to see in it what he saw. What’s more, his tribe was treated – in the Guardian of all places – without much respect. For him the meeting was a celebration of almost unimaginably brave people who had escaped from a terrible tyranny, and should be reported as if we had gathered in 1943 to hear speeches from members of the French Resistance. For me, the audience was a bunch of old-fashioned lefty freethinkers who were on some deep level confused as to whether America or Iran was a greater threat to civilisation, while the panel was also divided and not going anywhere much. I don’t think I was anything like that rude in my piece and it would have been wrong to do so but to see the meeting as I did was something like seeing the Eucharistic Host is “just a cracker”: Grayling and I don’t actually disagree much about the accidents of the meeting2 but I deny the real presence of enlightenment there.

So much for blasphemy.

The apostasy comes because this appeared in the Guardian, written by a self-proclaimed atheist, or certainly someone who doesn’t believe in the truth of the Creeds, the divine inspiration of the Qur’an or anything else along those lines. I don’t know if he was expecting news coverage for the meeting – but I presume there was an assumption that all the paper’s comment would be respectful.

The interesting point, of course, is that all this excitement strengthens a secular, psychologising analysis of religion. It suggests that some of the cognitive and emotional reactions of believers are indeed deeply emotionally rooted and quite unsusceptible to rational argument. Unfortunately for the National Secular Society, it doesn’t do anything to map irrational group think neatly onto theological or supernaturalist belief.

1. Right.

2. Yes, the ex-Muslims were a small minority of the audience; yes there was a disagreement about Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Yes, the audience was about 300. There is videotape of all this, anyway. This does matter a bit, because if there had been 30 long-standing members of the BHA in an audience of 300 ex-Muslims, it would have been a very different story.

Greatest google maps mashup I’ve seen

Monday, October 13th, 2008

Hey, what’s that?. Generates a panoramic view with a crib from anywhere in the continental US, and possibly outside it. Awe-inspiring.

The street finds its own uses

Monday, October 13th, 2008
<!– @page { size: 21cm 29.7cm; margin: 2cm } P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm } –>

It turns out that modern graphics cards are so powerful that they can be used to crack the passwords which secure wireless networks more or less in real time. So the unassuming Russian gent playing with his laptop in the car park outside a merchant bank is having more fun than you can possibly imagine.


Sunday, October 12th, 2008

On Friday I put up a piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free about the hideous philistinism of Andy Burnham, the minister for “Culture, Media and Sport” who wants to turn libraries into community centres, with coffee bars, music, mobile phones, and so on. It got a lot of comments cheering it on on general principle, and one or two from librarians saying that Burnham wasn’t proposing anything new, but merely driving on what is already happening. The saddest of these came from a commentator signing herself Mswoman. Here is an excerpt.

The city centre library where I’ve worked for the last 5 or so years already allows mobile phones, hot drinks, snacks, and all the other philistine anti-learning activities that Andrew Brown references in this piece. Staff are not allowed to ask customers to keep the noise down, and they’re not allowed to eject people from the premises except in very exceptional circumstances (and by that I mean you’d practically have to start a riot before any of us would be allowed to do anything about your anti-social behaviour). Oh yes, and we play dvds all day long on a large plasma screen near the library entrance, with the sound on, to help advertise our dvd collection…..and to keep the kids entertained.

The library was deliberately designed and built with no specific quiet/study area, and there is no separate reference section – all the reference books are inter-shelved with the lending stock. Having a quiet area and/or a reference section was deemed to be too elitist and contrary to the ethos of inclusiveness the authority wanted to promote.

However, and this is the bit that will annoy everyone here. The library is a huge success. It’s the busiest library in the country, and while other libraries are experiencing falling visitor numbers and falling loans, our figures have been going up year on year. I suspect we’ve set the standard, and other authorities, along with Andy Burnham, are looking at ways to replicate that success across the board. Sorry about that folks!

Predictably my authority plays down the downside of all this, and only boasts of their successes, so you don’t get to hear about the hordes of teenagers making everyone’s lives, both staff and customers alike, a complete misery, or the fact that, having decided uniformed staff were intimidating and not the image the library wanted to present to the world, and thus redeploying our security staff to other roles, the authority has now been forced to employ the services of a private security company to keep staff and customers safe on Saturdays and during the evenings, as well as debt collectors to chase down missing stock and unpaid fines.

You don’t get to hear about the punch ups, the anti-social behaviour, the ever-present handbag thieves, the customer who didn’t want to give up his computer when he needed the loo and who resorted to peeing into an empty coffee cup while he remained seated at his desk, the couple I caught engaged in oral sex in the children’s toilets, the pensioner who kicked a 2 year old who was lying on the floor having a tantrum, and who was banned for 6 months but not reported to the police for assault, or any of the other incidents that occur on an almost daily basis. Or of the staff who are too intimidated to speak out, and who are so worn down from being told it’s all their own fault ‘cos they just don’t understand young people and they need to learn to be more tolerant, that they can’t be bothered trying to do anything about these things anymore.

I would almost rather have libraries censored by Sarah Palin if they were orderly. I suspect that kind of reasoning will increase as the slump takes hold. There is a reason for the popularity of authoritarianism at some times, and it is not just the personality defects of authoritarians.


Friday, October 3rd, 2008

The ultimate breakup cookbook, written by a Serb.

When not cooking or eating testicles, or helping others to do so, he now runs a company involved in the maintenance of medical and dental equipment.

Just in case you felt this blog only ever discussed works of theology.

Jonathan Raban on Sarah Palin

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008
What is most striking about her is that she seems perfectly untroubled by either curiosity or the usual processes of thought. When answering questions, both Obama and Joe Biden have an unfortunate tendency to think on their feet and thereby tie themselves in knots: Palin never thinks. Instead, she relies on a limited stock of facts, bright generalities and pokerwork maxims, all as familiar and well-worn as old pennies. Given any question, she reaches into her bag for the readymade sentence that sounds most nearly proximate to an answer, and, rather than speaking it, recites it, in the upsy-downsy voice of a middle-schooler pronouncing the letters of a word in a spelling bee. She then fixes her lips in a terminal smile.
From the latest issue, which I found when searching for the previous quote, which is not online if you don’t subscribe, and is not even online if, like me, you subscribe, but throw away the wrapper and so lose your subscriber number.

From the department of wtf

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008
The victorious powers [in 1945] were not imperialist, as in 1918, but anti-imperialist: the US and the Soviet Union.
This sentence occurs in the LRB review of Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire. It is written by the newly appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge.

Wonderful fanmail

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

I think this is the best response I could possibly have had to the Worm book:

Hi Andrew
We read of your book in the FT about Sweden being great Swedophiles – it was a great book capturing lots of details about Sweden – that you can see but don’t really understand. Its still my favourite country.
Anyway that led to your Worm book – which started all these questions whirring in my mind – which in a space of two months has led me back to University. I have started an MSc course on Structural Molecular Biology – its just so fascinating and has rejuvenated me. Hopefully,  I’ll be able to keep up with my daughter now!

Isn’t that what pop science books are meant to do?