Saturday, October 30, 2010

Exam, cats and dogs, correct views

Exam at 9.30 this morning. Enough said.

I think my head must be so full of 'stuff' for the exam at the moment that even though it was rather scary, I found I couldn't remember the name of one of my grandchildren this morning when I woke. There was this odd 'hole' in my brain where the name should have been. Having had two blood relatives who had Alzheimer's, it made me a bit uneasy.

I've been reading some of Alister McGrath's Mere Theology. In the book he mentions a writer Leszek Kolakowski, who was a Marxist but now writes from a much more philosophical point of view, as far as I can gather. (I must admit to having read this book with a little less than concentration, but I'll come back to it when I've got more time.)

The title of one of Kolakowski's books appealed to me greatly: My Correct Views on Everything. That's the way to go. It has some connections with the subtitle of this blog....

We now have a cat and a dog in the house, as I've no doubt mentioned before. I think we had that picture of the lion lying down with the lamb. Not quite. At first the cat was very wary of the dog (she'd arrived first as well), and he wanted to play...and chase!

Then there seemed to be a patch of mutual respect (it helped perhaps that the cat had cuffed the dog sharply enough to make him squeal.) They'll kind of circle each other, neither sure who's going to make the first move. And the cat has to be hoisted up and out of the dog's way on more than one occasion in order to 'rescue' her (although we don't use that word; she'd find it insulting). In time they may come to be mates. It isn't looking like it'll happen tomorrow.

Friday, October 29, 2010

To bet or not to bet

I think there's something in most of us that fancies the idea of getting rich quickly, even when we know that being well-off isn't necessarily as great as it's cut out to be. And I guess it's something that often comes to mind when we're worse off than usual; we may not want to be a millionaire, but a few extra dollars a week wouldn't go amiss. And yes, I know Jesus tells us to be content with what we have and seek the kingdom first, and generally speaking I aim to be content, and seek. Nevertheless there are days when....

Anyway, there have been a couple of times in my life when I've thought that I'd found the right scheme for betting on the horses. I've come across a few people who apparently live comfortably enough by successfully betting on the nags, but from what I can understand it's actually something you need to treat as a job, not a hobby. Doing it casually won't get the results. However, I wasn't planning on giving up my job at that point...

In general I don't go in for sports betting, but something about the horses has always intrigued me, and I actually enjoy going to the races once in a while. So when schemes that didn't seem to require too much effort came my way, I went for them. Yup, foolish.

There was one that required you to get hold of the weekly racebook, and by checking through the statistics figure out which horses fitted the category of ones you could bet on. There would be a disappointing number to bet on each week, I found. People who treat the thing as a hobby are inclined to expect to be able to bet on virtually anything with four legs. Nope, you don't.

I did try this method for a while, though not by actually using any real hard cash. Either I wasn't checking the stats correctly, or the horses decided that losing was better than winning. Anyway, I would have been a pauper if I'd continued on with this system (and used real money).

The other system I remember thinking very seriously about was a computer programme. All the stats were already entered in for you for all the horses through the country, and all you had to do was update these as the next lot of races came along. It looked foolproof. Hmm. It also cost quite a bit to get started on, and again, after great initial enthusiasm, I let it go.

Occasionally when I've been at the races I've had good days - doubling my $2 bet, for instance - but such days are few and far between (as are the days I actually go to the races). Still, there's something about the atmosphere at a race meeting; you see people you never seem to come across in your ordinary day. It's as if the city suddenly produced a pile of people were never walked the streets at any other time.

Somewhat off the subject of betting, but still on the subject of race meetings, I remember going to one particularly striking meeting. Halfway through the afternoon, huge black clouds came up over the hills. A chilly wind swept through the stands, and within minutes there was such a downpour that the gutters on the grandstand roof couldn't cope and the water was pouring off the roof like a constant sheet in front of the spectators. There was thunder and lightning and general weather mayhem.

Some people stood out in the rain - I suppose that's an experience in itself. The rest of us retreated away from the front of the stand, waited until Nature had done her dash, and then dashed ourselves for the cars, over some of the most sodden ground you've ever come across.

The photo is by Kirsten

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Quit yer whining!

When you get good at whining, you start noticing evidence that makes your whining more true. So you amplify that and immerse yourself in it, thus creating more evidence, more stuff worth complaining about.

If you spent the same time prattling on about how optimistic you are, you'd have to work hard to make that true...

Seth Godin: two problems with whining.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The exam looms

The strange thing about doing a subject at University that's not part of an ongoing course (like medicine, or dentistry) is that it's very easy on the day after the exam or the end of the course to cease to have any interest in the subject. It's almost as if all that stuff you've crammed into your head has been more than enough for the time being and you just want a holiday from anything related to the topic.

When I was reading stuff by the mile for the Christianity in New Zealand paper (the exam is on Saturday) I kept saying, I'll come back and read this book thoroughly, and enjoy reading it; enjoy in the sense that I won't be consciously thinking, I have to remember all this stuff. And I meant it. But the incentive is less, and this is a pity.

I got so interested in the books on conscientious objectors during the two major wars of the 20th century, for instance, that I thought about writing a play on the subject. And there's a whole heap of stuff in this course that I've actually lived through; it isn't entirely 'history' to me.

But just as payday advances each week, the exam looms, and whether I'll go back so enthusiastically to these topics is a question I can't quite answer at this point. There are other books sitting on my shelf nearby that I haven't even started, books I've bought while the course was running. And there's the music for the musical to write.

On the other hand, having the pressure off of having to read the stuff and think about it, may be a bonus. Maybe I'll sit and spend the holidays reading and re-reading the things that interested me.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

There is no average person

Seth Godin rants in a recent post entitled 'Deliberately uninformed, relentlessly so' about those people who choose to get their opinions from shallow TV shows rather than taking the effort to read the news, or informative (and formational) non-fiction books.

It's possible Seth was having one of his rare bad hair days (quite an achievement for him), particularly when he goes on to say: Hal Varian at Google reports that the average person online spends seventy seconds a day reading online news. Ouch.

I'm guessing that he's quoting the following sentences from a piece Varian wrote back in March this year where he says: However, visitors to online newspaper sites don't spend a lot of time there. The average amount of time looking at online news is about 70 seconds a day, while the average amount of time spent reading the physical newspaper is about 25 minutes a day.

It's a bit of a surprise to see Seth talking about the 'average person.' As he's pointed out on more than one occasion (and I'm working from memory here, so I can't link to a specific blog post), there is no average person. [My italics, incidentally.]

The people who read online news don't equally spend 70 seconds each day. It does seem to indicate that a large number of them spend a small amount of time reading the news online, but we don't know, since we have no indication of how large a number of people this is altogether, or where this statistic comes from. Nevertheless, in order to get that average figure we would have to have a number of people who read the news online for a good number of minutes, maybe more than those who 'on average' read the newspaper for 25 minutes a day, as well as having a good number of people who read the online news for less than 70 seconds a day.

But we just don't know: 'Mr or Ms Average 70 secs' is a non-existent person, and should never be invited to anyone's party, not Seth's, nor Hal Varian's - not even mine.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Kettles Count

I watched a superb scene from an old Ma and Pa Kettle film the other day. I can't even tell you which of their films it was, but the scene began with a man telling them that dividing some fund of money - it amounted to 25% of the total - would give each of the five family members 5%. However, Pa insisted that dividing 25 by 5 would result in 14, and proceeded to prove it. The man insisted he was wrong and showed Pa first how to divide in the usual way (5 into 25 is 5) and then how 5 times 5 was 25. Each time Pa showed him how the answer was actually 14. And then Ma Kettle got in on the act.

The whole thing is done at a whizz bang speed, and leaves you scratching your head at the way in which the sums are worked out. Just wonderful. If you've got Math Questions you couldn't do better than get Ma and Pa Kettle to help you out - especially if you wanted to make your share increase!

Actually, if you're really stuck for help there are now an increasing number of online places that can give you tutoring in anything from prime numbers to linear equations. I was reading just today how there's now concern that soon Universities won't be doing very much teaching at all; everything you need to make sense of all manner of subjects will be online. This is the equivalent in the newspaper business of big newspapers going under because so much news is available online (usually for free).

For instance, while I know what algebra equations are, having done them in the past at school and later as an adult, I'm not entirely sure what pre algebra is (some kind of historic period, like pre-Triassic?) or what standard form is. But these things are all on the Net, carefully explained.

These explanations, though helpful, aren't quite as much fun as Ma and Pa Kettle's maths....they really rock.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Old and poor

True of the USA, true of NZ and very relevant to my own situation:

“More and more people who are approaching retirement age now kind of know that retirement in prosperity will likely not be an option for them. They’ll have to keep working in a techno-society full of preferential options for the young. Many will be stuck with the indignity of downward mobility combined with increasing frailty or general vulnerability. We can say that older voters this time know enough to know that government can’t really promise them security, and that policies that promote general prosperity are most likely to benefit them. The great Founder of modern liberalism–John Locke–said that in a free country you’d better be rich if you’re going to get old, and, unfortunately in some ways, that’s probably more true and more difficult than ever.”

The Tea Party and the Old Folks: Our Conservative Coalition » Postmodern Conservative | A First Things Blog

Monday, October 18, 2010

Herpes, exams, haircuts

Don't you just love statements like this: A cure for herpes has not yet been developed. Once infected, the virus remains in the body for life.

Doesn't that just make your day? Well, it could be worse. In most people the herpes is at least controllable, and often it becomes asymptomatic - that is, it ceases to show any symptoms, like cold sores. It just hides inside you....for life. It's a bit like Alien.

Herpes isn't exactly the topic I intended discussing, even in the small amount written so far. But the Internet being what it is, and my curiosity being what it is, here I am writing about it and discovering the exciting fact that herpes simplex 1 is a fancy name for cold sores or fever blisters - and also for the nasty herpes associated with the genitals. Incidentally, here's something else that'll impress you: herpes means creeping.

Okay, not impressed? Never mind. Let's consider something else that's not so pleasant: I have to do an exam on Saturday week, the first exam I've done in about a hundred years, and while I'm not exactly quaking in my boots, I can't say I'm looking forward to it much either. Never mind, at least the kindly lecturer has indicated the likely subject matter for the exam, so it's possible to focus revision and further study on certain topics. I'd be much happier writing another couple of essays, though.

And I'm feeling distracted from study because I've written the music for the first two scenes of the musical, and have a good deal of the music for the third. And of course, that stuff keeps going around in my head, taking up room that's needed for study.

I'm just reminded by the fact that our dog is running back and forth between my wife and me -we're in separate rooms -he's probably checking to see if we're both behaving ourselves; I'm reminded, I say, that we gave the dog his first hair cut yesterday. Initially we started out at a friend's place; she's cut her own dog's hair frequently, and her parents' dog's hair as well. (Parents' dog's hair? confusing.)

Anyway, she got us started, showing us how to go about it, and we then went to my daughter's (she's done hairdressing) and finished off the job. Now the bundle of fluff, the furball that was running around the place has turned into an elegant looking specimen of caninity. The fur over his paws got shorn, amongst other things, and now he looks as though he has tiddly feet. I used to like the little paw gloves he wore previously. No doubt they'll grow again.

So there, how to get from herpes to hair cuts in three easy steps.

Recalcitrant facts

...A recalcitrant fact is one that is obstinately unco-operative in light of attempts to handle it by some theory. A theory may explain some facts quite nicely. But a recalcitrant fact doggedly resists explanation by a theory. No matter what a theory’s advocate does, the recalcitrant fact just sits there and is not easily incorporated into the theory. In this case, the recalcitrant fact provides falsifying evidence for the theor.

J P Morland, quoting from his own book, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: human persons and the failure of Naturalism.


Brad Greenburg opens a recent post with these words:

I make no secret of the fact that I prefer the written word to the spoken word.

Sure, I’m a talker. But I’m not a remarkably articulate speaker. The words just never seem to come out as neatly as they do on paper (though just how neatly they come out on paper is up for debate). And there are few things that frighten me, as a reporter, more than radio appearances. I’m always convinced that the interview to follow will be the one that ends my journalism career. Why? Because I need a filter, and real-time lacks the luxury.

This resonates greatly with me - not that I've ever done much in the way of radio interviews - though many years ago, when I was managing the bookshop, for a brief few months, perhaps, I used to get rung up by someone on Radio Rhema to do a short interview. Don't ask me now what these were about, nor why I was chosen for them. Anyway, I didn't enjoy them; my tongue would instantly knot up, and even if I prepared some material, it would all evaporate as soon as the interview started.

But ask me to write something, and I'll get a first draft done before you've finished asking, and will often have it all sussed and sorted before the deadline. Words seem to pour out of the fingers far more readily than out of the mouth....

Friday, October 15, 2010

Hal Lewis resigns

There's a news story doing the rounds of the Internet that says that Hal Lewis, a highly respected physicist, an 'elder statesman' scientist, has resigned because he can no longer stand the hypocrisy surrounding 'global warming.' He calls it pseudo-science and a scam.

Curiously the story doesn't seem to have hit the big newspapers (I could be wrong) though there are articles in relation to it elsewhere. (No, wait, I've just found a piece in the Daily Express - does that count as a big newspaper?)

So yet another person throws out the 'reality' of global warming. (At this rate scientists will begin to take up banking careers - the blokes in the suits seem to survive fraud without too much hassle.)

One of Lewis' concerns is that too many scientists are doing what the 'money' tells them: 'the money flood has become the raison d’ĂȘtre of much physics research, the vital sustenance of much more, and it provides the support for untold numbers of professional jobs.'

I guess these scientists are hoping if they do what they're told, they'll keep their jobs. Haven't they seen the movies? The scientist who keeps his head down and does what the baddie tells him is always the one whose head rolls a couple of scenes before the end of the movie. I'm sure it's not quite like that in real life...but

Stop drinking bottled water

Today is Blog Action Day 2010 - at least in this part of the world, since we're well ahead of much of the world - and the focus is on WATER.

One of the things that has amazed me over the last twenty years is the way in which bottled water has become the In Thing for so many Westerners. Someone managed to convince 'us' that tap water wasn't clean enough, or healthy enough, or safe enough, and then produced bottled water - which, if truth be told, is, in many cases, no different to the water that comes out of your tap.

It's a fad!

I wonder how singers used to manage in the days before bottled water. You never saw them running around with a bottle of water as though this was essential to their survival.

It's a fad!

I wonder how athletes used to manage in the past without their constant bottles of water. But they did! They're buying into a fad!

The idea that we need to hydrate ourselves constantly isn't a medical fact, it's a medical fiction. Of course we need some water during the course of the day, but a good deal of that already comes in the form of coffees, teas, fruit and even vegetables. We're not exactly starved of water in our diet.

This theory that we need to drink several litres of water alone each day is just another part of the machinery of making sure we buy more bottled water. I had a prostate operation a couple of years ago, and the insistence on my drinking water constantly was huge. It was as if my whole system would suddenly seize up without all this water (in fact, when I wearing a catheter for two or three months, all that wonderful water was just passing straight through and into the catheter bag - I might just as well have poured all that water straight down the toilet).

This huge over-intake of water is just another part of our Western assumption that we should have more access to the world's goods than people in Third World countries. (And let's not even get started on the waste of plastic involved in all this bottled water - that's a nightmare on its own, far worse than the use of plastic bags.)

Anyway, if you don't believe what I'm saying, check out this excellent video by Annie Leonard. She's very convincing - and it's good to have what I already knew confirmed by her.

Photo by Udit Kulshrestha

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Nature, green in tooth and claw

Ever wondered what that Biblical expression about the lion lying down with the lamb might look like in real life, and just how wonderful it would be to see a video in which 'nature, red in tooth and claw' wasn't the modus operandi? Have a look at this ad, which comes surprisingly close to achieving just such a concept.

Blasphemy is a tribute to God

Michael Gerson reminds us that : British author G.K. Chesterton argued that every act of blasphemy is a kind of tribute to God, because it is based on belief. "If anyone doubts this," he wrote, "let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor."

If all else fails, quote Chesterton. He'll back you up every time. Gerson's article is called, What Atheists Can't Answer, and was published in the pages of the Washington Post. This is what he's discussing:

Proving God's existence in 750 words or fewer would daunt even Thomas Aquinas. And I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn. So I merely want to pose a question: If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?

So who's Michael Gerson? Well, I didn't know either, but here's the bio the Post helpfully provides:

Michael Gerson writes about politics, global health and development, religion and foreign policy. His column appears on Wednesdays and Fridays. He also contributes to PostPartisan.

Gerson is senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement's Center on Faith & International Affairs. He served as a policy adviser and chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush from 2000 to 2006. Before that, he was a senior editor covering politics at U.S. News & World Report. His book "Heroic Conservatism" was published by HarperOne in 2007.

Tomorrow is the 15th: Blog Action Day

Tomorrow,New Zealand time, is the 15th October, which is Blog Action Day. Here's a sneak preview of what the subject matter of this year's Blog Action Day will be:

Blog Action Day 2010: Water from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.

Oh dear

The following notes are adapted from a report on the Out of Ur site.

This week the largest atheist organization in the USA gathered in Los Angeles for a conference. It was a conference marked by schism and disunity. The Council for Secular Humanism (that most tolerant of groups) met to pour out contempt upon Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Religious faith was called “nonsense,” “superstition,” and adherents were described as “ignorant” and “stupid.”

But that wasn't enough for them. A conflict erupted between two camps within the atheist movement. On one side were the “new atheists” who believe in open confrontation with religious believers. Rather than a “live and let live” approach, they believe religion must be called out for the sham that it is.

On the other side are the “accommodationists.” These more moderate atheists don’t believe direct confrontation with the religious is warranted. They even advocate partnering with religious people to advance issues of mutual concern.

One 'new atheist’s' response to an accommodationist’s comment was “nearly physical.”

Oh, dear. And I thought it was only Christians who couldn't get along with each other....

The Insatiable Moon

The Insatiable Moon is a film that needs to be seen twice. First time around you're trying to take in the way things work in this particular world, and how the story all fits together. A second viewing gives you more time to reflect.

Arthur (played by Rawiri Paratene) believes he's the 'second son of God.' He lives in a boarding house with a bunch of other people with mental health issues, and is by far the most outgoing and positive of them all. The story explores whether his ability to discern other people's inner turmoils, his belief that God is benevolent to his children, his prophetic words and other insights, are truly charismatic gifts, or merely part of his brain dysfunctions. It challenges us to believe in miracles, in the need for a true belief in God and not just a religious one, and of course, most of all, it challenges us to see people with mental health issues as people loved by God.

The 'villains' of the piece might be a bit too black and white, but they're mostly minor characters: the really interesting people in this movie are those who have a sense of the spiritual and are willing to follow it even if it causes them pain, or requires them to change long-held attitudes.

The scene towards the end, when the suburb of Ponsonby rallies for and against having a boarding house for people with mental health problems in its midst, is the climax, but the more important scene comes earlier, at the funeral of one of the boarding house residents. This is where Arthur comes into his own as a prophetic voice, a man who speaks the words of (first) Son of God.

The other interesting character is the man - Bob - who runs the boarding house: foul-mouthed and short-fused, he nevertheless cares deeply for the men he feeds and cleans up for (seemingly single-handed). This is a vocation for him, rather than a job, although it's unlikely he regards himself as a spiritual man. The 'spiritual' man in the story, the Anglican priest, is at odds with himself and his spiritual life, and seems rather wet by comparison with Bob. It's not that he's meant to represent institutional religion; that would be too simplistic. Rather he's a man in the wrong job, and wisely, by the end of the movie, he's realised it.

Mike Riddell, the author of the original book and the scriptwriter for the movie, doesn't give us all the answers - although he teases us with possible answers at times. His seven years of effort (along with a host of other supporters, including his wife, who directed the movie after the original director had to pull out) in getting this movie off the ground have borne good fruit.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Three positions

Matthew Taylor from RSA (not the Returned Services Association, which is what we in New Zealand usually associate this acronym with) wrote in a blog post:

...while the rich and their banks were unwilling to allow middle and poorer workers to be paid more (over the last three decades wages for all but the rich have stagnated in the US), they were more than happy to encourage the poor to borrow money. Of the 1.5 trillion dollars that flowed up in wealth, a trillion then flowed down in borrowing, much of it, from the point of view of the borrower, very ill-advised. This was the cause of the bubble and the bust.

He also says:

I see a new political space opening up which combines three positions which have not traditionally cohered:

- Opposition to extreme, unmerited and destructive levels of inequality: ‘fairness does matter;’

- Scepticism about the central state as a direct agent of social change and a preference for models which are driven bottom up by citizen initiative and community action; ‘a big society not a big state;’

- Recognition of the importance to human functioning both of values such as respect, virtue, thrift, moderation and of the norms and institutions which embody these values: ‘enlightened social conservatism’. if only these could come together we might see greed put in its place, and humanity given a chance to prove it can care for more than Number One.

RSA stands for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.


A number of years ago I read a book on Blasphemy -I've still got it, but I'm not at home at the moment, so I can't remember the name or the proper title.

Even at that stage the writer was protesting the fact that Christian images, symbols and the like can be treated by artists as something they can use alongside sexual images, or other offensive material, and this is apparently okay. When Christians protest about these they immediately branded as non-art people who just don't get it. (The fact that the 'message' is almost always supposed to be a Christian protest in itself is often hard to see.)

But do anything in a similar fashion regarding Muhammad and the Muslim world goes crazy. He's not allowed to be blasphemed in any way, he's not allowed to be depicted in any humorous fashion, he's not allowed to be insulted in the teeniest weeniest degree.

Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is obviously a lot tougher. He can be insulted as much as people like and those who protest will always be demeaned in some way.

Terry Mattingly offers an alternate 'news report' on the topic over on Get - the point he makes is perfectly valid, but check out what at least one of the commenters writes; he just can't get what Mattingly is trying to say.

There's one law for them and a different one for us....

Monday, October 11, 2010

Writing about writing

It sometimes seems that writers like to take the joy out of writing and make it sound like an unbearably miserable process. As a writer I know the feeling of not having got the words right, and that no amount of rethinking, reshuffling, editing, adding, and re-punctuating will actually elicit what was in the mind originally. The same applies to writing music: the dream I have in my head of something that zips along with elan gets lost in the very difficult process of writing notes on a page.

Nevertheless, in spite of what gloomy writers tell you, writing (or composing) is one of the great joys of life; it can be so absorbing you lose all track of time, it can be interrupted again and again and still survive, and still come out at the end making some sense. It can be reworked (something that's difficult with conversation) and remade; it can be thrown out and rediscovered.

A writer who says there's no joy in writing is a fool. He or she has become so concerned about the difficulties and despairs that he/she has forgotten why writing is such an exciting process. And such a joyful one when things come right. (As they do.)

Anyway, all this by way of introduction to an interesting post by Ben Myers on the Faith and Theology blog. He presents 13 theses relating to writing. Make sure you get past the first particularly gloomy one. And if you have time check out the related posts at the bottom of this post; there's some good stuff there too, especially Flannery O'Connor's acid response.

How to put yourself inside of a coat

Allie Brosch is a cartoonist with an absurd sense of humour. Her cartoons often run on in a sequence for what would be the equivalent of pages, and become increasingly manic. In this video, however, she is manic is a much quieter way. This won't be everyone's cup of tea in terms of sense of humour, but I found it great. Mad, but....great.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Police work

This year some 14 young people have died on NZ roads as a result of high speed car chases - with a police car as the one that's doing the chasing.

Young people don't understand - or so it seems to me - that if you do something dangerous in real life you may wind up dead. And dead is for good. Young people have a sense that they're bullet-proof, indestructible. After all that's what it's like when they're playing video or computer games, so that's what it must be like in real life, isn't it?

But it seems to me that the police aren't much better. They might get some specific training in relation to high speed chases, but when it comes down to it, they're taking just as much of a risk as the youngsters. And don't expect any security if you're on the same road as either of them when there's a high speed chase involved. An older couple, still fit and active, were killed after a youngster drove into their car during one of these chases in Christchurch. A grandmother in the North Island was killed in a similar way.

I understand the police have a duty to try and stop dangerous drivers, but plainly this isn't a method that's working well. It seems to me there's a good deal less danger involved if the police pull back from the chase; there's no 'fun' for the young people if no one's chasing them.

Which brings me to the issue of stun guns or tasers as they're generally called here. At the moment they're the kind of substitute for real guns for the police working in the ordinary course of duties (as opposed to those who are trained in high risk armed offenders situations). Once again they're pushing the limits of what NZ police need to do. I understand that stun guns/tasers have a certain value - in the general course of events no one gets killed and that's a plus - but we've already seen some iffy use of them (especially in one overseas news report where a policeman kept on firing his taser at a perpetrator, even though the man had obviously got the message.

And now there's talk of ordinary everyday policemen being able to carry firearms on a more regular basis. Is this what we want for New Zealand? We' ve survived all this time without armed constabulary. Do we want to go down that road?

Friday, October 08, 2010

Norman Wisdom

I've been reading some New Zealand history recently, and more than once have come across the phrase, 'from the cradle to the grave,' Michael Joseph Savage's slogan relating to Government assistance to people during all stages of life. Unlike the States, where it can be quite hard for people get to the money they're due if they have a disability, and where they may have to make a
disability appeal, people with disabilities in New Zealand, in general, have an easier time of it. (No doubt someone will come along and tell me I'm wrong about this, but it's my impression in general.)

It seems there are even companies in the States that help you get the right sort of disability allowance when you've come up against the bureaucracy. And talking of coming up against the bureaucracy, I've just been watching a series of film clips from the movies of Norman Wisdom.

Norman made movies that came out when I was a child, mostly, and invariably played the little feller trying to make his way against pomposity and bombast. He was ordinary, short, always wore a suit that was a couple of sizes too small for him (except in one clip where he has trousers that are much too long because he spends most of the scene on stilts - until one comes loose and he limps across the floor, one leg much longer than the other) and constantly misunderstood the things that middle-class people take for granted.

I remember my mother, with whom I went to movie after movie as a child, didn't much care for him, but looking back at these clips you can see he had a superb gift for comedy in the best tradition of Chaplin, Keaton and the like. Of course, he was seldom silent - his tongue gets him into trouble time and again - and he could put lines across with the best of great actors, and several of the scenes involve him in ridiculous repartee with one of the marvellous character actors from British movies of the fifties and sixties.

Wisdom died just recently, and you can see several clips on The Guardian website in a tribute they've written for him. There are some wonderful laugh-out-loud moments, lots of pratfalls, familiar faces everywhere, high nonsense, and even Wisdom singing - something I'd forgotten about.

Wisdom had vascular dementia in the last period of his life, which reminds me about another article I read this last week, in which we were told about a group who read poetry to people with dementia. These are part of a major charity called The Reader, volunteers who make the value of reading aloud available to all sorts of groups.

Anyone who's ever been read to as a child, will know how soothing being read to is; in fact tapes and CDs of stories are extremely appealing to people who are incapacitated in any way. My wife listens to them a great deal (even though she's not incapacitated!); it must be soothing because she often falls asleep to a story, and then has to go back listen again to catch up. Sometimes I don't think it's the story itself that's the important thing, but being read to and having a human voice, like music, working its way into your inner ears...

Out of his own mouth

For those who still think Barack Obama is a Muslim (as do a number of Americans, apparently) are some words from his own mouth. First from the God Blog June 2008

Well, look, obviously as a Christian I believe in the values that are laid out in Scripture. I reflect on them often. I reflect on the lessons of Scripture as I’m going through the day. I pray frequently. I wrestle with doubts and try to figure out whether I’m doing the right thing, am I operating in an honest and moral way that is true to my religious precepts? Sometimes I may falter. So I guess the point is, I approach my work or I guess my faith is part of everything that I do. And I don’t think there’s a clear separation between my faith and how I try to live my life. And I certainly think that part of my motivation in the work that I do is a belief in what I consider the core precept of Christianity in addition to Christ dying for your sins and that is treating your brothers and sisters as you would have them treat you. A sense of empathy and a belief in the golden rule. And that’s what I try to apply to my work and what I do every day.

Second from the same source in Sept 2010

“I’m a Christian by choice,” the president said. “My family, frankly, they weren’t folks who went to church every week. My mother was one of the most spiritual people I knew but she didn’t raise me in the church, so I came to my Christian faith later in life and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead. Being my brothers and sisters’ keeper, treating others as they would treat me, and I think also understanding that Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings, that we’re sinful and we’re flawed and we make mistakes and we achieve salvation through the grace of God.”

Mr. Obama went on: “But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace. That’s what I strive to do, that’s what I pray to do every day.’’ Yet he said that as president, he also “deeply believes that part of the bedrock strength of this country is that it embraces people of many faiths and of no faith.’’

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The myth of secularization

After the foundations [of anthropological study] were laid by Frazer, Durkheim, and Malinowski, anthropologists long accepted the myth of scientific objectivity as their guiding principle for studying "primitive" societies—while at the same time proceeding as if the Christian heritage of the West was an intellectual and moral incubus to be subverted as a routine matter of course. Self-consciousness about the fraudulence of this posture (never adequate even in terms of the evolution of anthropology as a discipline) has grown gradually, with a major boost from the work of Mary Douglas, who used her Catholic faith to heighten anthropological acumen, and with a host of more recent figures who have subjected the scientistic myths of inevitable secularization to withering scrutiny.

from Anthropologists Discover the Bible, by Mark Noll (from Books & Culture)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Things seen at the speed of sound

The ‘colour sculptures’ in following video were created by stretching a balloon over a speaker to form a membrane. A few drops of paint were then placed in the centre of the balloon and a single sharp note was played through the speaker, causing the paint to erupt for just a fraction of a second. Just a few centimetres high, the sculptures are ordinarily invisible to the human eye. However, when filmed in HD with macro lenses at 5,400 frames per second, the physical sound wave is captured in intricate detail.

This video, and still photo advertising, is part of an advertising campaign for the PIXMA colour printer in the UK. [Thanks to Duncan McLeod of the Inspiration Room for pointing me towards this - he's also 'unearthed' of a number of other videos we've put on this blog.]

Slow down...

We've got this fascinating present we're living in, and we can't seem to be present in it. We're so worried about either not having lived the last moment well or not living the next moment well that we end up missing the current moment entirely.

Peter Bregman: Not Enough Time? Try Doing Nothing (Read the whole article Even if you don't agree with the idea of meditation - and Bregman's version of it is extremely low-key - what he has to say about breathing instead of reacting is worth picking up on.)

And another of my favourite writers, Seth Godin, on Demonstrating strength.

He provides nothing more than a list - 54 words in total. It sounds suspiciously like the Christian way to live, as much as the way a marketer should behave....!

Here are the first two lines:
Defer to others...

Second thoughts

Everyone should sometimes write with pen/pencil, to recall what it’s like to have 2nd thoughts before the 1st ones are complete.

Alan Jacobs, in a tweet on the 4th Oct, US time.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Advantages of walking a dog

One of the advantages of a dog is that you rediscover your neighbourhood while taking him out of a walk. When my children were small we used to spend a lot of time walking up and down the hilly streets where we live, and finding all sorts of interesting stuff on the way.

Things haven't changed all that much in the intervening twenty-five years; most of the house that were there when the kids were young are still there, most of the cracks in walls, most of the stony driveways that have never been paved over, some of the houses that have never been painted, and much more. Only the people have come and gone.

And that's another interesting thing: I met a man last Saturday whom I hadn't seen for several years. Turns out he's been living down the road for at least five of those years, has married and is just about to have his second child. This evening, while out walking before the evening meal, we met two children (they were cousins, they told me) who asked if my dog was friendly. Someone on Facebook called him a furball the other day, and that's pretty much what he is - badly in need of having his first haircut, in fact. So the last thing he looks is unfriendly. But I assured the kids he was perfectly friendly, and they patted him and chatted in a way that you hardly come across in the neighbourhood these days.

And further up the road I came across a man wearing a t-shirt with 'Speaking in tongues,' 'Holy Spirit' and the like on the back. You'd think someone willing to wear that would be a pretty ardent Christian, but he told me he hadn't been to church for quite a few years. The t-shirt (and several others in different colours that he still owned) were made when he was attending a Revival church in Australia.

Dogs are great conversation starters - it wasn't until my dog stopped outside this man's house (he was unloading his van) that I noticed the t-shirt.

These sort of things have never happened with any of the cats we've owned....!

Islam and the world

In his recent newsletter, Rowland Croucher asks the question: Does Islam have a plan to take over the world?

That might sound like conspiracy theory stuff or the edge of paranoia, but what follows in the article is rather scary stuff. Where Muslims are a small percentage of the population - under 2% - they appear as moderate, peace-loving people. Above this level they begin to proselytize, (attempting to convert people to Islam) - often encouraging people in jails to become Muslims. (This has happened on a very small scale here in NZ already.)

Gradually, as their percentage of the population increases, they begin to force change, including political change: this is happening in England. Once they're above 10% of the population, small-scale terrorism increases. Above 20% there is terrorism against people of other religions. And if Peter Hammond's stats in the article are to be believed, you don't want to be in a nation where Muslims are above 40%; these nations experience widespread massacres, chronic terror attacks, and ongoing militia warfare. Bosnia (40% Muslim), Chad 53.1%, Lebanon 59.7% are examples.

Things get worse as the percentages increase. The irony is that once a nation becomes fully Islamic, it doesn't bring peace - as promised all along the line by those promoting Islam. Then the extremists begin to kill the moderates.

At the moment in Europe, and in some other Western countries, the Muslim population is increasing through Muslim couples having more babies than the local inhabitants. This is a quieter form of revolution, but effective nevertheless.

Anyway, you don't have to believe me - and you can call me anti-Muslim if you like. You can remind me that it's the Christian's duty to love everyone, neighbours and enemies...and Muslims. Unfortunately, if Rowland and his two experts are to be believed, this may not be the wisest move - unless, of course, all the Muslims you know convert to Christianity.

Reading, writing, translating

A brief extract from a great essay by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours and other books, including By Nightfall.

Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.

But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.

The essay is primarily about the art of translation, but it also takes in what readers bring to a book, and the music of writing and a variety of other things...all in a fairly short span.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Practising the piano

I have this distant memory of reading (or hearing) about Beethoven and practice and that his idea was that you shouldn't practise stuff that was there just for the sake of practicing, you should practice with 'real' music. I'm probably paraphrasing it all wrong, and it might not have been Beethoven (!), but anyway, I've just begun reading the biography of Mike Nock that's come out, and on page 201 it says this:

Regular practise and playing was how Nock developed his facility and touch on the piano, and regular practise was something he had done since he first began playing: "You need to practise a lot so that your hands will work. It's a certain mania - music is a mean mistress..." Nock's piano practise was focussed on music-making rather than facility for its own sake however, and his days of playing Hanon and Czerny were long past:
"The whole purpose of practising is to expand. Scales are a waste of time, which is why I say each pianist has to come up with his or her own exercises. Why should you play through Hanon? Playing stuff like that has a certain value, but it is also very negative in that you are not playing music. At least if you play some challenging patterns or licks of your own, you might be using these in your music. There are people who do use Hanon when they play jazz, but they sound like they do. I never do more than a few minutes of technical exercises."

Now I'd agree that scales after you reach a certain level of attainment are probably a waste of time, but in the intial stages of learning to play, they're valuable. In later years, the work put into them means that your hands naturally follow certain paths without your brain having to think it through all the time.

On the other hand, I know what he's saying about Hanon and Czerny. Their exercises are mind-numblingly boring; they take a movement on the keyboard and hammer it to death up and down the scale. Instead of making their exercises interesting, which they could well have done, they went for the most obvious approach, and have probably put off more young pianists than any other composers. And what are they both remembered for now? Being the writers of tedious exercises; any other achievement they may have made are forgotten (for instance, the fact that Czerny published at least a 1000 works for all kinds of instruments).

The book about Mike Nock is called, Serious Fun: the life and music of Mike Nock. It's written by Norman Meehan, who's also a pianist and composer.