Sunday, March 27, 2005

Ship of Fools

The Ship of Fools website performs a valuable service in lots of ways - deflating pomposity, pointing out some of the more absurd directions in which "Christianity" is moving, and so on.

However, I would like to quibble about the "mystery worshipper" concept - as it was also found in the Ruth Gledhill column in the Times for a good few years (don't know if it still is). Churches certainly ought to be doing what they can to make visitors welcome. Their meetings ought to be accessible and clear. The teaching should be relevant. It's not the pursuit of these aims that I would take issue with. What I don't like is the thought that, rather than going into a church expecting God to speak to me, the mystery worshipper is going into a church expecting to judge it - and that many of the people reading the reviews are also effectively sitting in judgement over the churches. It rather misses the point that we become part of a church community so that God can speak to us through his Word, and so that we can build one another up and encourage one another. It's all good fun and all that, but the whole idea that church can sit so lightly on me that I can go in, watch what's happening, come out, and jot down a few humourous comments before going to another church next week is a rather damning indictment of the post-modern Christian concept of a church.

Friday, March 25, 2005

In praise of Radio 4

I have been falling in love with BBC Radio 4 again. I flirted with Classic FM but got fed up with only one movement from a longer work, and excessive blocks of time with a mixture of adverts and news. BBC Radio 3 was too heavy-going. Radio 1 was about as much fun as being hit over the head by a smoke machine covered in sweat. Radio 2 - well, sorry, I just couldn't bring myself to listen to it. I'm not dead yet. Magic 105.4 was too middle of the road. Heart 106.2 was too partyish. Virgin was pretty good and we had an on-off relationship for some time.

But Radio 4. Aaaah! The number of times that, as soon as I switch it on, it grabs me by the head and gives me an intellectual kiss. Massive amounts of intelligent programming - the news coverage (the flagship Today programme, World at One, The World Tonight) - classic comedy (Just a Minute, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue) - informative magazine, commentary and journalistic programmes (The Material World, From Our Own Correspondent, VegTalk, In Our Time, Cutting Edge, All in the Mind, The Moral Maze). There just aren't enough hours in the day. And as for the archives of all the excellent programming going back through the last few years - tem saudades!!!.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Trial by jury

A £60 million, 21 month trial, relating to alleged fraud in the Jubilee Line Extension project has collapsed.

It is part of our democratic heritage that people have the right to be tried by jury - that a panel of 12 laypeople can decide whether I have committed a crime or not.

The government has suggested removing this right in some complex cases - and if a way can be found to ensure fairness, I am right behind them. The Liberal party shadow of the Attorney General is strongly committed to trial by jury - and it is certainly the case that the principle of whether somebody has been dishonest or not can be established by a jury of laypeople. However, in technical cases, is it a fair burden to place on a citizen that over a year of their life should have to be set aside, effectively unpaid, for this civic duty? It is all very well for a peer to say that this is part of the democratic structure of the land - but as (presumably) a lawyer beforehand, he was one of the gainers from the UK judicial system.

As with the passenger compensation system that the EU has proposed (see below) the people who benefit from the system of trial by jury are the lawyers. It is very hard to see how society as a whole gains from this system. Courts costs thousands of pounds per hour to run - there must be a better option than this that continues to safeguard democratic freedoms.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Singlehandedly destroying the credibility of Google

If you do a Google UK search on "Alan Davey" "Financial Advice" then one of my pages comes at the top of the list.

That's pretty weird. But even weirder is that somebody who looked at my site had done just that. I assume they must have been most disappointed to get "Another boring weather post". Who are you?! ITWSBT!!!

Friday, March 18, 2005

Tiredness and risk

I'm still playing internet chess. I managed to get my rating over 1200, but for the last couple of days, I have lost just about every match I played (my preference is to play blitz - 2 minutes plus 5-12 seconds per move - for those who understand such things), so my rating dropped back to about 1050.

Now, what was interesting about this was that, due to work, I have been getting up early and getting less than 7 hours sleep per night. One advantage of "being old" is the ability to "step back" and look at what is happening from a more detached perspective (and not take personally a depressing string of defeats!). I was playing people who I ought to be able to beat, but what happened in game after game would be that I would take risks that I hadn't properly thought out - which almost invariably resulted in me losing material and then the game. It didn't matter that I was aware that this was the problem - in the heat of the game, I would look at a position, and think to myself, "How about if I do that?" and then do it - and then lose. About the only game I won out of 10 or so was one where I had made a mistake which should have allowed my opponent to capture my queen, but he didn't see it, and I captured his instead.

I'm sure that research exists that can demonstrate the effect of fatigue on decision making, but it was very interesting to be able to analyse my own experience in this setting - to be a "case study". Hopefully that will inform my perception of myself and my own decision making process in settings that are a bit more critical than an internet chess match.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Search for Alpha and Omega

... that is, the book by Charles Seife. Another good, interesting science book lent to me by a friend with a completely different philosophical slant but a shared interest in science books.

Interesting book. It has probably the weirdest anthropomorphism I have come across.

It begins to fuse helium and then heavier and heavier elements in a desperate attempt to keep itself from collapsing.

In case you are wondering, Seife is actually talking about a star - when all the hydrogen has been fused to make helium, the star shrinks until the greater pressure/temperature causes helium fusion to occur. When the helium is used up, it shrinks a bit more, until lithium fusion starts to occur ... and so on, each step happening more and more quickly, the star gradually shrinking, until it reaches the stage of being entirely iron nuclei, at which point fusion reactions can no longer generate more energy than they need, so fusion can't prevent the star from collapsing under its own weight, and (... er, I think) it becomes a neutron star.

In what sense the star is "attempting" to do something, rather than physics just taking its course, let alone "desperately" attempting to do something, I don't know! But there you go.

Another good science book, nonetheless. As is pretty standard, Seife misrepresents the differences between Galileo and "the church" (a term that is generally kept vague to be as damning as possible to as many Christians as possible), and fails to explore the fact that modern cosmology was founded by people (Newton, Kepler, Copernicus) who had a strong Christian faith (he notes Copernicus' belief, but refers to it as "ironic" rather than realising that there might be a connection between his scientific interest and his faith). He also fails to point out that having a universe with a beginning was more of a problem to people who rejected the idea of a creator than it was to Christians. However, given his philosophical presuppositions, none of this is terribly surprising, and the science content is a lot more interesting and well presented than the philosophy content.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

NHS Agenda for Change

The story is that the NHS (National Health Service) is the world's third largest employer - behind the Indian railway and the Chinese army. That's quite a feat.

Agenda for Change is a national programme of workplace reform, designed to ensure that everybody gets paid the same amount for equivalent jobs, to make things fairer. And hopefully save a bit of money in the process. There are a staggering number of different salary scales, and it must surely reduce bureaucracy and overheads to simplify this. A laudable principle.

However, Agenda for Change is not the way to achieve it. Firstly, it had to be funded - but it must have cost hundreds of millions of pounds to carry out - money which is then not available to spend on anything else. Every aspect of every job has to be analysed, and the rewards that should attach to everything - qualifications, emotional and physical stress, antisocial hours, unpleasant working environments, responsibility - had to be quantified. This was used to produce a baseline of salary scales. Then every single post had to be matched against this list, to determine the amount of money that the person should be entitled to. This is a process that involved every person reviewing their own job description, and then meetings to match each job to bands. This process has overrun in many places.

Also, people's remuneration is to be protected for 5 years anyway. That's important - you can't simply take people's salary away. But what this means is that assessed salary increases are going to cost the NHS more, but there won't be any savings in salary for years. So ... unsurprisingly, hospitals can't afford it. The process has been carried out in at least one place, and the hospital management has then said, "We can't afford it. Do it again, but cheaper." So is there any way in which this can possibly be an objective measurement across the whole NHS?

Monday, March 14, 2005

Democracy in the 21st Century

Do you want to know the reason why there is so much apathy over political matters in the UK? Well, here's one. If the aim is representative democracy, then a multi-party or even worse bi-party system is a hopeless way of achieving it. Once every five years, I get the chance to vote for an MP who basically speaking represents a political party. In most constituencies, the MP that is elected will not represent an overall majority even of those who vote in the election, let alone of the electorate. When elected, the wishes and opinions of his or her constituency are largely irrelevant - the MP will vote in accordance with the wishes and opinions of his or her party. It is technically possible for me to have my individual concerns represented in parliament - but the number of people who achieve this over the course of a year per constituency is probably one or two.

In previous years, perhaps, society was more homogeneous; people were more happy that the large parties effectively represented their own interests. It has become increasingly clear in the last few years that even within political parties there are shades of opinions and factions - they don't even represent themselves properly. So is there an alternative to this anachronistic system?

Let's suppose we continue to have an MP who represents a constituency - in other words, they are elected from a geographical area, by an electorate of between 50000 and 100000. However, although in parliament they are allowed to speak to express their own opinions on any and every matter arising, they are only allowed to vote on any matter in parliament based on a majority vote of their constituents. These votes are electronically posted to the MP by email, text message or whatever other system seems appropriate - they are collated by his "staff" (which may actually just be a logging program), and transmitted to him as he enters the division lobby.

So every vote he cast in parliament would represent the expressed will of his constituency. Surely this must be a more representative form of government.

This pattern obviously looks as though it makes more sense if it relates to only a handful of MP's - if everybody was elected in this way, people will say, "Well, how would policy decisions be made? How would budgets be set? How would you ensure continuity?"

The policy side works OK - direction could be set by an organisation like this divided up into committees (it's how most voluntary societies, boards of governors etc are run - and it's how much of the real business of government is achieved anyway) - and with the assistance of civil servants who understood their role to be servants of government (like a clerk to a board of governors), who could provide the continuity and work with parliament, I'm sure something could be sorted out.

And by taking away all the issues of political point-scoring; new ideas and initiatives for the political ends of the parties; the wasteful party campaigns - I'm sure that government would be slimmed down as well.

But let's face it - how many MP's would vote for this proposal? Or more particularly, how many of the parties?!

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Paul the Apostle vs denominations

This may be a little provocative - will anybody bite?!

I've been working through the first part of 1 Corinthians, and it hadn't struck me before what a large chunk of the book Paul spends talking about the issue of divisions in the church - basically the first four chapters.

The shape this took in Corinth was people identifying themselves with particular Christian leaders - Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter). To try and reduce some of the thoughts in these chapters to a few sentences .... in chapters 1 and 2, Paul says that the message of the gospel (foolishness and weakness in the world's eyes) is undermined by focusing on the wisdom and strengths of Christian leaders. In chapter 3, he shows that the church is one field, one building, and the Christian workers are working for God, not for themselves. In chapter 4, he looks at the impact that following leaders has in the lives of Christians - they become proud and arrogant - again, not where Christians ought to be.

A key line from Paul in chapter 4 is his quote in verse 6 - "Don't go beyond what is written." The basis of our Christianity has to be God's Word - not the words of a Christian leader. Christian leaders only have authority insofar as they are expressing what God has already said.

Christians today are still prepared to line themselves up behind the names of Christian leaders - Luther, Calvin etc. These four chapters really undercut this expression of Christianity. By extension, denominations are effectively the alignment behind different leaders. Paul is quite clear that the basis of Christian co-operation has to be the gospel - in other words, if people don't have that as their foundation, they have already taken themselves "out of the building" - they no longer have the right foundation. But beyond this, if we can accept people as Christian brothers and sisters, what basis do we have for not welcoming them - in biblical terms?

So, rather than organising churches on denominational lines, it would be more appropriate for gospel-declaring churches to co-operate at a local level in whatever way it is possible for the gospel to be made known. Of course we are going to be stuck with the legacy of trust deeds and so on - but as Christians we need to transcend these for the sake of the gospel.

Why I support the House of Lords

It may be a surprise to some people to know that the idea of a democracy is not to ensure that the most popular group has power - it is to prevent too much power being concentrated in the hands of any one group. Churchill talked about democracy being "the worst political system - apart from all the others." The most important aspect of a democracy is a series of checks and balances. In theory you can see this perhaps most clearly in the US - where you have Senate vs Congress, executive vs judiciary and so on. In practice, it can be eroded when the Supreme Court can regard its role of passing out judgements as really being one of defining the law in new ways, but there you go.

In the UK, the democratic balance is preserved centrally by the relationship between the House of Commons - elected body - and the House of Lords - a basically hereditary/appointed/quasi-religious body. The role of the monarchy is now largely symbolic, but might be regarded as leading the Lords. Given the nature of the House of Lords, it has always been very conservative - in large measure defending the status quo, which harks back to an era in which power was basically concentrated in the hands of white, middle-to-upper class males. Because of this, it has always greatly irritated the left wing - regardless of their representation in the lower house, there was a kind of inbuilt majority in the upper house which would always limit what reformation they were able to introduce. Some left wingers have declined recognition - either in the form of life peerages (i.e. being appointed to the House of Lords) or other state "blessings" on the grounds that it represents power wielded by this repressive, reactionary regime ancien.

So with a large majority in the House of Commons - which, frankly, doesn't look like it's going to change much in the next five years either - there has been the odd move to weaken or perhaps even scrap the House of Lords.

It may not come as much as a surprise from the tone of what I have written so far, that I don't think this would be a good idea. The debate relating to the terrorism legislation in the UK shows why. Effectively, the government were seeking the ability to detain people indefinitely without trial, with the say-so of a politician, and with the detainee having no right to know what he was being charged with. I've heard of things like that - behind the Iron Curtain!

We are certainly living in more dangerous times - we have never before had to deal with people prepared to kill themselves simply to kill lots of other people. However you don't defeat monsters by becoming a monster yourself. For the state to take this level of authority for itself is very dangerous - not especially for the cases where it does have intelligence that people may be preparing terrorist acts - but for the occasions in the future when it decides to apply this to other people who the Home Secretary doesn't consider desirable.

If there had been no House of Lords, the huge majority that the Labour party has in the Commons would have allowed it to push through this measure that it could have argued was a popular means of dealing with a terrorist threat. But because the House of Lords was there - with people who don't have to worry about being re-elected in May, who simply want to see the United Kingdom continuing to operate as a free society in the future - the most dangerous aspects of the legislation were opposed and ultimately watered down to an extent that it now looks a lot less repressive.

Of course, one could argue that this leads onto another discussion - why in this era of efficient communication is a multi-party democracy the way in which we run our government? But that will have to wait for another post .....

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Francis Schaeffer - Prophet

Amongst various of my big influences, one of the earliest was Francis Schaeffer. I went to see the "How Should We Then Live?" series of films when I was about 10 with my dad - and they were way over my head. I happened across the book in the public library when I was an undergraduate, and it made loads of sense. I later rented the videos from L'Abri, and then got into his other books - particularly the "Essential Three" - The God who is There, He is There and He is not Silent, Escape From Reason.

Francis Schaeffer has had a vast influence on the shape of intelligent Christianity in the last 40 years - perhaps with C.S.Lewis one of the key Christian thinkers of the 20th Century.

One of his interesting predictions (from the liberal 70's!) is that people would be prepared to sacrifice almost any freedoms for personal peace and prosperity. Thought-provoking in the era of the Patriot Act and the proposals in the UK to strengthen detention without trial.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

School uniform

A Muslim girl has won a legal battle to wear the jilbab - a garment that covers all of her body with the exception of her face and hands - in school, even though it is not the school uniform.

She said: "As a young woman growing up in a post 9/11 Britain, I have witnessed a great deal of bigotry from the media, politicians and legal officials. This bigotry resulted from my choice to wear a piece of cloth, not out of coercion, but out of my faith and belief in Islam. It is amazing that in the so-called free world I have to fight to wear this attire."

Even commenting about this "in a negative manner" means that I am likely to be regarded as Islamophobic, racist, patronising to children and sexist. However, by choosing to make these statements in an adult, public arena, she has invited an adult, public response - and whereas she had the attention of the nation's media, this blog is only likely to command the attention of a few people.

I have no doubt that it is difficult to be a Muslim in the UK. Whilst we don't face racial and cultural prejudice, it isn't even easy being a Christian - and this is supposed to be a Christian country. However, "this bigotry" did not result from her choice to wear the jilbab. It actually resulted from her choice not to wear the school uniform. If any child chose to ignore a school's uniform policy, they could expect to incur a disciplinary procedure.

Hitherto, schools have had the right to establish a uniform as they saw fit - this is a process that involves the whole school community. In the case of the school that this girl attended, it had already shown its cultural sensitivity to Islam by allowing girls to wear shalwar kameez and headscarves.

The contract between the school and individual pupils has, as a consequence of this ruling, been broken down - no wonder the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, Martin Ward, said: "The ruling is not at all clear in what will be expected of schools. It states that schools have a right to uniform policies but students also have a right to disregard them." No wonder that the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, David Hart, said: "This is a legal minefield and heads and governors urgently need guidance from the DfES."

I am governor of a church school. The situation we face is the same but in mirror image. Our uniform demonstrates the Christian nature of the school - but some people - despite accepting a place at the school because they were happy with the education offered there - having started children at the school decide they are not happy with the religious nature, and in some cases ask even to opt out of the school uniform. This ruling would appear to allow them to do so.

I would have thought that a more common-sense ruling would be to conclude that a student accepting a place at a school is accepting the religious ethos of the school - whether it is an essentially secular school, or a faith school - and that if the student or parents are not prepared to accept the religious ethos of the school - however it is expressed - they should seek an alternative school. If the school community as a whole decides it wants to change the religious ethos of the school, then by all means change it - but if the school ethos has the tacit consensus of the school community, then it seems inappropriate to elevate the rights of one person above the rights of the whole community.

The situation is different from the situation in France, where there has been a decision at national level to ban clothing that demonstrates religious identity in all state schools - a decision which I, along with both Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups, believe is a violation of human rights. Whereas in France, the decision is effectively to exclude all religious identity from school pupils, in the UK, such decisions are left to the schools. But to override the rights of the school to have a uniform with the rights of an individual to opt out is legal stupidity - the only gainers will be lawyers. How come they always come out of these things so well??!

I also wanted to react to her comment about the "so-called free world". The existing uniform policy of the school was not to her liking - it did not allow her to express her religious beliefs in the way in which she regarded as appropriate. However, the "so-called free world" in which she finds herself allows her - a female below the age of suffrage, who is receiving free secondary education - to secure legal representation, have this uniform policy written down as unconstitutional, switch to a school in which she was able to express her beliefs as she chose, and air her opinions in the national media. Now, am I imagining it, or does this represent a level of freedom that far exceeds what anybody might expect to have with the exceptions of a handful of the ruling elite in about 80% of the countries of the world? Is it my imagination, or is this a level of freedom that is not enjoyed by most followers of Islam in states where Islam is the national religion - let alone by any followers of other religions?

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Sixpence None the Richer

"Oh, yeah, I've heard of Sixpence None the Richer - they did that song that got in the charts."

By which people generally mean Kiss Me. But there's more to them than that - a Christian band from Texas, U.S. who sound more like an indie band from Wales.

Apparently, the notorious Chris Evans said he was never going to have Christian bands on his breakfast radio show - and it was pointed out to him that the band playing the #1 song at the time was a Christian band.

Apparently, according to the band's bio, which can be found on their website, Leigh even managed to embarrass the ineffably supercilious David Letterman, explaining where the name of the band comes from. (If you don't know, read Mere Christianity by C.S.Lewis. Actually, if you haven't read it, read it anyway.

So what's so good? Well, their self-titled album was the one containing Kiss Me - and also the only other single they released which made any waves in the UK, a cover of The La's There She Goes - are they the first ever Christian band to cover a song about heroin use?! On the strength of those two songs, I bought the album, which is fascinating - most of the songs are by Matt Slocum - the thoughtfulness, introspection and literary-ness partly informed by what seems to be solid Christian faith, partly shaped by the loss of his father when he was younger - and brought to life by the haunting, gentle voice of Leigh Nash.

The next album, Divine Discontent, was barely available in the UK - which grants Christian groups far less access to the mainstream media than they can get in the US (how many people in the UK have even heard of Delirious? ?). But it was even better - beautiful music; thoughtful lyrics - basically, an album of real maturity.

And then they broke up - Leigh and her husband started a family, I believe - don't know what Matt is doing now. Which leaves me only the back catalogue to explore (The Fatherless and the Widow, This Beautiful Mess - which I've just got from the US via eBay for about £6!) and the new Greatest Hits album, plus a stack of other bits and pieces that I'll have to decide whether they would add anything to own at a later stage.

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant - my life would have been the less without them.