Another encounter with a philosopher

I climbed from the bottom of the lecture theatre in the Law building in Cambridge to find at the top of the stairs, Professor Dennett, who engaged my companion in conversation. He was, he said, working on a research project to interview in depth and anonymously six atheist ministers of religion about the difficulties of their lives.The pressure they were under to conceal or distort their opinions was immense. They were so brave …

I broke in at this stage to say that I didn’t think it was particularly brave of them to make their livings denying what they believe to be true.

Oh, he said. But they are so brave to talk to us.

In any case, I tried to get him to write for the Graun about “belief in belief” next week. I imagine I have failed, but will in any case send an email.

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The second time as farce

I would imagine Jesus was a kind of Jewish reformer. If you were looking for an equivalent to the figure you dimly perceive through the gospels it would probably be a Richard Dawkins.
A C Grayling.

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on being told by PZ to fuck off

PZ posted a tremendous rant about me and Michael Ruse last week, which concluded with a heartfelt exhortation to both of us to “fuck off” (his emphasis). The cause was a piece I did on the grauniad site about Ruse’s visit to a creation museum in which he experienced, for a moment, “a Kuhnian flash” that it might all be true. Never mind that this was a momentary feeling. It was unmistakable evidence of heresy, or commerce with the devil God which demanded anathematisation and commination, which it duly got.

What follows is a rather long-winded argument that there is no need for me to respond that PZ can go fuck himself. Portions may later appear on the belief site, but at least here I can operate a consistent policy of banning bores and fools so there is some hope of an enjoyable conversation.
Continue reading

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Granny on a mobile

I found through the extremely eccentric google news alerts a lovely clip of a wolf in western Finland, where is was discovered by a couple of schoolboys out for a walk. Being modern Finns, they did not pull out their rifles but their mobile phone and filmed it slouching briskly down the forest track. Being Finns, of course the film is silent.

The report is undated, but judging by the comments the incident took place in the middle of March this year. Hence the snow.

And, thank you Ollie. The hangover has abated. I am just feeling rather overworked.

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Consolations of a hangover

Well, Fishing in Utopia did win the Orwell prize. This is delicious and wonderful. I knew a couple of the judges liked it. I also knew – or at least strongly suspected – that one didn’t. I knew Tony Judt was also on the list, and thought he was a shoo-in. While faffing about yesterday morning, the FWB said to me, “look at it it this way: either you’re beaten by Tony Judt or you’re beaten with him. Neither of these things are a humiliation.” And she was right, and I felt greatly lightened. I still didn’t think I’d win, though, until about half way through Ferdy Mount’s speech, which was a long and generous appreciation of all the books, and three more that were on the longlist. But it wasn’t in any discernible order: not alphabetical, nor reversed alphabetical. So, I thought, the winner will be the last one he names and with every book from then on a bubble of hope grew inside me until it burst and left me almost speechless when my book came last and I had won.

Afterwards Francis Wheen tried to persuade me that I would have to make another speech at the end of the dinner. He turned out to be the fourth or fifth friend who had won it before me: Neal Ascherson, Tim Garton Ash, Brian Cathcart … the party afterwards is blurring already in my memory.

There were three Nick Cohen jokes in the speeches, but the man himself was not there.

Also the paperback is now out: publication was brought forward to coincide with this. Hurry, and you can have one of the collectors’ edition which has “Shortlisted for the Orwell Prize” on the back. The next run will say “Winner”.

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undiscriminating reads

on trains in and out of London

Ken MacLeod, the Night Sessions: very good and tightly imagined account of what a war on religion would actually mean; and what a secular Scotland would be like. Written with great sympathy for the villains; also I am extremely glad of the idea that the last best Calvinists in the world turn out to be robots. The best of his I have read to date.

Charlie Stross, Merchant Princes, books one two and three: ought to be really enjoyable fluff, and almost is. But in the end the mashup of chicklit, thriller and Marxism doesn’t work. The heroine is not exactly a Mary Sue, but she is too self-consciously meant as a a figure for readers to identify with. Either that, or the feisty, sexy, divorcee is this century’s answer to the carved white Victorian angel, and every bit as life-like.

Thomas Jackson, Darwin’s Error: very interesting book by an ex-Catholic with the subtitle “the poet who died”. Not about the science at all, but about the philosophy and the prose. I didn’t have room to squeeze it into my “big” New Statesman review,1 but should blog about it next week.

Nick Spencer, Darwin’s God, which, unlike Jackson’s, is actually about religion. A scrupulous account of the development of Darwin’s irreligious opinions.

And, since it is Easter Day, I throw in for free the news that a church in Västerås has, after two years’ work, and the collection of 30,000 white bricks, unveiled their life-size Lego Jesus.

1 I was sent a total of sixteen books, to be reviewed in 1400 words

Posted in God, Journalism, Literature, Sweden | 8 Comments

Auden at press conferences

I don’t often go to press conferences nowadays, but whenever I do, I think that Auden had been there too, on both sides. In my edition of the Collected Shorter Poems, the pertinent observations face each other across pages 190-191. First, the view from the floor:

When Statesmen gravely say ‘We must be realistic’,
The chances are they’re weak and, therefore, pacifistic,
But when they speak of Principles, look out: perhaps
Their generals are already poring over maps.

And then the view down from the podium, at us:

Those public men who seem so to enjoy their dominion,
With their ruined faces and their voices treble with hate,
Are no less martyrs because unaware of their fetters:
What would you be like, were you never allowed to create
Or reflect, but compelled to give an immediate opinion,
Condemned to destroy or distribute the works of your betters?
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When life gives you lemons

The fatality rate on the roads goes down. No, Honest. Science proves it.

Thanks to Jeremy for the link

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I should have posted this earlier, but Fishing in Utopia has now made the shortlist for the Orwell Prize. Soon there will be copies to buy again, as the paperback is reprinted with a lovely cover and quotes.

I need to start work on the next one.

Posted in Literature, Sweden | 1 Comment

Creative destruction

You know that feeling when you are sitting on the floor by the dusty disassembled guts of a computer and nothing works at all? It won’t even give a healthy cheep on startup? And then, slowly, it all comes together, until everything works, except, perhaps, sound, and you change something to fix that, and then nothing works at all again: you’re back in the smell of dust and silence and you can’t undo?

You will swear, when you finally recover, never to upgrade anything again. Yet you will. And I don’t know why, or didn’t, until I stumbled on a lovely passage in Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine, still the best book I know about the psychology of nerding.

I’m upset, so I’m taking apart my computers. If I were a poet, I’d get drunk and yell at the people I love. As it is, I’m gutting my machines.

My computers are not broken, but at times like these I like the look of delicate circuit boards open to the naked air. Several hours ago, in a fit of restlessness, I decided to install a pre-release version of a new operating system. Then there seemed to be problems with some of the internal devices. So I took them out, one after the other. Now they lie all around me—cards, wires, memory modules, screws—all in a jumble. To test components, I do what I’m absolutely not supposed to do: run the machines with the covers off. I’m supposed to discharge static electricity before touching anything. But I scuff around on the carpets, grab things with two hands, hold metal to metal. I recognize the nastiness of this mood, reckless and rebellious, like I could get away with breaking the laws of physics.

There’s a perverse comfort in broken machinery.

Reading this, I realised that the rage is itself an attractive part of the process because it feels so good when it is over, and everything dissolves into order. There is something in this process of destruction and recreation that resembles the state that long articles and still more radio programmes get into, just before they get right: everything is spread out in ways that look chaotic to everyone except me, and even I can’t quite explain how they will go back together. I can only show, if I keep my concentration. The element of risk makes it far more attractive than the times when everything goes smoothly and by routine. You feel you have discovered a hidden order to the universe. Alternatively, as sometimes happens, you take it all apart and it never ever goes back together properly. All you are left with is a heap of broken junk. But that’s more common with words than with computers.

Posted in Literature, nördig | 5 Comments