Monday, May 30, 2005

Why doesn't God make us be good?

If God is omnipotent, then why didn't he make people who couldn't sin? This is quite often considered to be an argument against the existence of God. However, I happened upon this, in Isaac Asimov's "Second Foundation":
They feared him and obeyed him and, perhaps, even respected him - from a goodly distance. But who could look at him without contempt? Only those he had Converted. And of what value was their artificial loyalty? It lacked flavor. He might have adopted titles, and enforced ritual, and invented elaborations, but even that would have changed nothing. Better - or at least, no worse - to be simply the FIrst Citizen - and to hide himself.

This is a perspective from the Mule - a mutant, who is able to control people's emotions - to the extent that he needs no security, because even people that approach him to assassinate him end up feeling completely loyal to him.

The point is, from the perspective of this passage, that compelled loyalty has no reward. The Mule is conscious of the fact that without the freely-given respect of people, it counts for little. Further (as it turns out in the story) it limits their independent creativity.

I believe the same applies to God, from the perspective of the Bible. Why doesn't God compel us to love him? Because love that is our own response to him is better than constrained love. But then why allow us to sin? Why have that in his purposes? Because if we know God not only as creator and redeemer - if we know more about his character, and experience more of his love for us in this way that angels can't understand - our love for him will be all the greater.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Going to the dogs

It is kind of inevitable that "the older generation" will have a whine about the shape taken by "the younger generation". There were several articles in today's "Independent" which made me want to put pen to paper - or finger to keyboard, if you prefer.

The trigger was the report that the health service in Ghana is being stripped of many of its workers because the doctors and nurses are being offered more lucrative work in the UK. The population of Ghana is a third that of the UK, but it has a sixtieth the number of doctors. Despite this, there is a steady drain of doctors from there to here. Similarly with nurses. We have experience of this in our church as well - nurses are coming from the Philippines to work in the UK. But the health service in the UK is already vastly more effective in terms of health care than in either of these countries - as can be seen by comparing infant mortality, life expectancy and so on.

So what? If there is a skills shortage in the UK, isn't it reasonable to import skills from elsewhere? Surely that is just the free market at work?

Well, the next question is: why is there a skills shortage in the UK? We supposedly have an increasingly well-educated workforce - the government is aiming for 50% of people to have degrees. The problem is that these degrees are basically rubbish. To what extent is there a need for degrees in travel and tourism? The travel and tourism industry works very well, thank you very much - are thousands of graduates really going to make a difference to it, or are they just going to push up costs because of higher expected salaries? What about media studies? Again, there is plenty of talent which is already running a vast media industry - but what the industry is really lacking is people with the critical skills to analyse and comment thoughtfully and insightfully on what is happening in the world, not people who understand media for its own sake. What about sports management? Is it really necessary? Even given the explosion of health clubs, do we need a group of people who have specialist, supposedly degree-level qualifications, in how to run a sports business?

But where is the shortage? In nursing and medicine. In dentistry. In the trades like carpentry, electrics, plumbing, general construction - have you tried getting hold of a plumber recently?

There are two processes at work here. The first is the fact that young people aren't being brought up to work. They are being brought up being told to "be what they want to be". In many cases, the aspirations of young people are pathetic. They have no desire to change the world. They just want to do something that would be fun. So I talked to somebody the other day: one of her children wanted to do something in "fashion journalism" (!!!), and the other was doing a degree in sports management. Somebody else I know had two children - one was a model, and one wanted to be a golf professional. Now these were professional, middle class families. What a waste of the undoubtedly good quality education that the parents had secured their children! For older age groups, TV programmes about making millions from property sales, selling stuff in the attic, owning houses abroad and books about making money on eBay are increasingly popular. Nobody wants to do any work!! Everybody wants to make millions from doing nothing at all. It's understandable. Who wants to be a nurse? It's physical, unpleasant, and you have to work shifts, so can't go out every Friday and Saturday night. There are huge swathes of the population whose idea of doing something with their life means being associated with the fashion industry, the travel industry or running a sports club. That's all well and good - but these are very much tertiary industries. The number of people who are actually producing anything that people use, rather than moving money around a large financial system, is increasingly small. So because so few British people can actually be bothered to do any work, we ship in people who are prepared to work for a living.

The second process is the fact that, since nobody is actually producing anything, all this is being funded by borrowing. The level of national indebtedness now runs to over a trillion pounds (that's a 1 followed by twelve 0's - around £20,000 per man, woman and child). Householders borrow to buy houses. Students borrow against the future to pay for degrees. People borrow against credit cards to afford the lifestyle they want. But I really don't see how all this borrowing can be paid off - because nobody is actually doing anything that makes money.

All this leads to a nation of "B-Ark" people, to use an illustration from Douglas Adams (that, incidentally, didn't make it into the film of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). A planet managed to get rid of an entire useless third of its population by convincing them that the planet was doomed, and that the entire population would be shipped off to colonise another planet. In the "A-Ark" were the leaders, geniuses, great artists and so on. In the "C-Ark" were the people who did all the useful, necessary things - one can imagine, in this context, the nurses, teachers, farmers, people working in manufacturing. In the "B-Ark" were all the middlemen - the hairdressers, travel agents, telephone sanitisers, health club managers. They were sent off first, convinced of the importance of this through a variety of excuses, and the rest of the population simply stayed where they were. Ironically, the rest of the population was wiped out from a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone.

What are the prospects for the UK? Is it too much to see comparisons with the Roman empire before it fell apart? A nation obsessed with its own decadent and self-indulgent pursuits, ripe to fall before other nations who still realise that people have to work to live.

The seeds are already there. I have serious problems with what is happening to human rights in China, but have a look at how much of the stuff you own is made there. If you are a parent, can you find any toys in your house that aren't made there? Or India - how many jobs have travelled to the sub-continent in the last 20 years? Their GDP is increasing by a large single digit percentage every year (6% rings a bell - can you imagine that in a country with a population of a billion?!); we are increasing by around 2%.

Traditionally, the UK would have looked at this as an opportunity - well, if their income is increasing by that amount, then it is a market for our products. But in fact, we don't have any products - we have nothing to sell them, except sports clubs, fashion magazines and crap TV channels. And by the time they are rich enough to want them, they will be more than able to produce their own, and sell them back to us.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Five best rock groups

For no particular reason, other than to fill up a few minutes.


Sixpence None The Richer (now disbanded)

Talking Heads (now disbanded - the website is the top link from Google)


Bruce Hornsby and the Range (now only Bruce Hornsby)

Other honourable mentions: Genesis, Pink Floyd, the Kinks, Abba. Oh, all right then, the Beatles.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Comments and trackback

Through a link with Haloscan, I have added the ability to Trackback to this blog, and add comments. New posts will not have the option of adding blogger comments, if I understand how to program the template properly (which I am not convinced I do). Old posts will keep existing comments, and again, if I understand how to program it properly, they should continue to be viewable.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Evolution of Behaviour

Here is the definition of a species from Wikipedia. Now, whilst a species can be defined in terms of its appearance/characteristics, and its ability to reproduce only with other members of the species, the behaviour of a species can also be characteristic. There are certainly many behaviours that are “instinctive” - that don’t appear to be taught – although there are others that are taught. Courtship behaviour, for example, is “instinctive”, whereas I understand hawks teach their young to hunt prey (though presumably this teaching of the young is “instinctive” - simply regressing one level – nobody comes along and tells the mother hawk it’s time that the children learnt how to feed themselves)

The issue: is this species-characteristic behaviour part of the genetic heritage of the species? The answer to this question leads to further lines of questioning.

If no, then where did it come from originally? How is it passed on from generation to generation? How is it modified as, in evolutionary terms, a species changes over time?

If yes, then given that we have inherited genetic material from ancestors, we ought to have inherited their behaviour as well. There has been some discussion about the fact that there are genes that are no longer expressed in higher organisms that were more important to their ancestors. Are there genes that would have controlled the instinctive behaviour of these ancestors? If not, then how come they have been discarded through evolution? If so, then what would be the effect of these genes being expressed in a higher organism?

I have kicked off a thread on the ARN bulletin board with this posting.

DALI computer language

This may be on the windy side of the law for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this material isn't original - it was written by a guy called mathew, who was actually called Shane Murphy when he wrote this - SMM12 on the university mainframe. Secondly, there is now a computer language called DALI that is completely different (according to references in Google). However, since I did a degree in Computer Science, this has always made me giggle, and I hope it's OK with mathew (wherever he is now) and the makers of the modern DALI if I put this here. It dates back to the late Eighties - well before Delphi 1.0 had appeared ....

Preliminary details on the new language DALI 1.0
Although Pascal is a very popular language for computer programming, it has frequently been criticised for its fussy syntax and emphasis on clear and logical structure; many people have claimed that this makes it intuitively difficult to use.
DALI suffers from no such problems. It is designed to work in exactly the way that the human mind works - thus greatly reducing coding time.

The full spec of DALI 1.0 will be available shortly, but in the meantime here are some extracts from the preliminary copy of the system user guide.

Variable types
All existing Pascal types are supported. Additional types include:

string - a variable of unknown length; attempts to discern the length of a piece of a string also return errors. Not to be confused with the BASIC type of the same name.

surreal - an extension to reals, which allows the processing of variables or constants of different types. For example:
p := 6 + "melted clock";

could produce any output from '42' to 'banana'.

mindboggling - This type has not yet been fully defined, but its preliminary definition is: "A seventeen-dimensional array of complex numbers, which point to secondary arrays, containing strings and also pointers to the first array."

zen - A sub-class of boolean; expressions of this type do not return values but indicate in some subtle way that they have understood your intentions.

stack - a purpose-defined stack type, to supplement arrays.

mess - like a stack, but the elements are 'pulled' in a random order from the top, bottom or middle of the stack.

pile - also similar to a stack, except that the element you want is always at the bottom where it cannot be 'pulled'.

desk - a random array of messes and piles.

More to follow sometime ....

"Some, two, three, fourteen" redux

You may remember a while ago I wrote a post querying why Bono at the start of "Vertigo" should count like this.

I just undertook some research, and came across this spine-tingling theory here -

let me offer a new theory on the count off...

"unos" is latin for "about", "dos" refers to the 2nd book of the bible - exodus, and 3,14 is the chapter and verse. bono begins by saying this album is "about exodus 3:14" - "god said to moses, "i am who i am."

the album also ends with yahweh. everything begins and ends with "i am".
There was always more to them than met the eye - theistic subliminal messages ???!!!

Also found this interview with Bono on U2station about what rock music is for.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Hitchhiker's Guide and philosophy

I want to start another post now, because I would like to kick around something that occurred to me watching the film of HHGG. Douglas Adams was a neodarwinist by conviction, and a close friend of Richard Dawkins. It would be really interesting to explore the connections between HHGG - conscious or otherwise - and the philosophy of neodarwinianism. The earth would be the belief that there is a God (for Adams, as for most modernists, the fact that God is dead doesn't mean that he was once alive, it means that he never existed, so the earth is only a belief in a God, not a God). But the earth is destroyed, which leaves Arthur and Trillian with their "tendrils of guilt" flapping around in space. The things that provide the ground for our belief are taken away.

(Spoiler coming up here - look away if you don't want to know what happens in the film) So in the film, when the earth is put back just like it was before it was destroyed, the script writers were doing something that Douglas Adams possibly would never have done in earlier days. The whole point about Arthur and Trillian is that they are radically disconnected from their foundation - there is no way back for them in the radio series. Neither in the books - when substitutes for earth all turn out to be less satisfying than the original.

Even if there are sequels, Arthur and Trillian have the security of the fact that the Earth has been restored, and that although they have chosen to go elsewhere, then if things get too bad, they can always go back to ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha. This wasn't an option in earlier versions of the story, and in those earlier versions, the difficulties that Arthur has with his lifestyle are in large measure down to the fact that there is nowhere else he can go - there is no "second planet", as the Vogon processor asks Trillian shortly before her death sentence is imposed. This is a fundamental difference in the worldview of the films and where they might go now, and the other versions.

And it isn't an option for a neodarwinian, despite the twisting and turning of Richard Dawkins. If we destroy the possibility of anything absolute from which we can derive our significance - if all we have is ourselves - then even if our genes allow us to discover our true nature, then we still can't escape from the system. We are still no more than our genes. Some people can live with this - I have a friend (at least, I count her as my friend!!) who finds it reassuring to believe that at the end of her life, she will just return to dust. Arguably, Douglas Adams thought the same - what's important? Be reasonable. Have fun. Have a nice cup of tea.

There were various other things that were frankly cinematic cliches rather than being faithful to Adams' original vision. For example, in the books and radio version, Marvin manages to get a terribly beweaponed but stupid robot to destroy himself with no weapon at all. The "Point of View Gun" is conceptually the sort of idea that Adams would love, I imagine. However, having the light in Marvin's eyes go out, and then come back on again was Disney cliche - the last time I saw it (I think) was in Ice Age. Also, the love interest between Trillian and Arthur, whilst really nice (yes, from the point of view of the storyline, I genuinely wanted them to get together) is a resolution that Adams didn't have in the original story. Again, I think it is inevitable in the medium - in a film, you aren't playing for gags in the same way that you are in a 28 minute radio episode. The extra depth to relationships has to be there probably to sustain interest over an hour and 50 minutes.

I thought the Ford character was great. Zaphod started well but seemed to spend just about the whole of the second half of the film effectively stoned - perhaps a consequence of (SPOILER AGAIN?) having half of his brain removed. However, he just lacked the driven-ness of the radio series - in which there was more to his motivation - it was for more than fame that he stole the Heart of Gold, although this only became apparent right at the end of the Secondary Phase.

In terms of sets and so on, the visualisation was all pretty good - the Vogon ship suitably grotty, the heart of gold suitably gleaming (though I would really, really like to see more made of the robots on board - "Share and Enjoy"), the planet Vogsphere suitably officious and unpleasant. It was always going to be uneasy in this medium, and the story really has more in common with fantasy than science fiction, but I enjoyed the film, and hope to see sequels. I am, however, disappointed that more wasn't made of Adams' original material.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Having mentioned it below, we went to see it yesterday. £3.90 for two tickets, thanks to Orange Wednesday and going early. Lots of food for thought, which may well take several posts, but let's see how it goes.

I got into HHGG shortly after a friend of mine played me the tapes of what turned out to be the second radio series recorded off Radio 4 (inevitably). I didn't understand all the humour, but the brainy anarchy hit a nerve, and it wasn't long before I was able to recite large chunks of the dialogue (the radio scripts were only published in book format some years later), and we were attempting to produce our own material in a similar style.

I never watched the TV version, but my friend ended up directing performances of the stage version in sixth form, and I rattled through the five books in the trilogy as they appeared (though I only actually own one of them, which is unusual - there are so many books in my house that it should follow from the Uncertainty Principle that at least two should be part of that series).

I still think the radio series are the strongest, though again through one of those odd quirks of fate, I have only heard the first two series. I was particularly disappointed that the whole nutrimatic cup/Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth/Lintilla/Man at the end of the universe thing wasn't taken any further in any of the other media - perhaps it was a dead end, but it was a section that really worked well.

So it was inevitable that I'd want to see the film. The first comment I would like to make is that film as a media damages originals. This struck me really strongly with the "Series of Unfortunate Events" film - in which, whilst the film was very good, had likeable child heroes and a suitably dastardly villain and henchmen, the unremittingly doom-laden black humour of the books has to be replaced (by virtue of the medium) with a level of "closure" - perhaps otherwise, people simply wouldn't know that the film had finished. Also with the films of "The Lord of the Rings". Again, stunning cinematic feats. But the relationship between Eowyn and Aragorn? The neat conclusions to the first and second films out of the narrative sequence? They may have been inevitable from a cinematic point of view - but this just underlines the fact that film can't translate literature - it is a very separate medium.

So also with HHGG. The radio series could simply leave things unresolved and open - the film had to tie things off neatly. So at the end of the Secondary Phase, we are left with Arthur making his own way somewhere else and Ford and Zaphod stranded on a planet - simply wondering, "Where do we go from here?" At the end of the Primary Phase (if I remember right) we don't even know if the characters have survived. At the end of the film - well, I have to be careful not to spoil it too much - but the characters have a lot more choice in where they end up and what they do.

Monday, May 16, 2005

What the internet is all about ....

Here are my "definitive sites" which make the internet the amazing thing that it is ...

Google - the surface area of the earth is, tracked down with the assistance of Google, about 200 million square miles. Imagine trying to find something within one of those square miles. You need a map - a good one. The internet has 8000 million pages. You need a map - and Google is the best one I have found.

Amazon - this has saved hours of shopping, miles of walking. There are other shops, and you can't get everything from Amazon. But you can get a lot. The only problem: will it be the right colour in real life?!

The BBC - the definitive media organisation. Yeah, £120 is a lot to have a TV - but to be quite honest, the BBC is so good, I'd be inclined to pay them that even if I didn't have a TV. Reliable, informative, innovative. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

Wikipedia - an open-source encyclopaedia. This will become the definitive repository of knowledge for the human race within the next ten years - more flexible, more updatable, more provocative than any printed version. If it could be compressed onto a PDA, it would be the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Earth.

Blogger - does for opinions what Wikipedia does for knowledge - democratises communication - at least until Google becomes more "useful" - i.e. more specific. Probably, by discouraging people whining at home, it has done more to stabilise relationships than anything since marriage guidance counselling.

And the almost-definitives?

ebay - brilliant, but just too flawed - too self-absolving.

There must be more. I'll have a think.

Colours of spring again

On a bright spring day, the bluebells can give the wood under the canopy an indigo glow that is an echo of the sky above. Posted by Hello

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Data, information and so on

I have promised my wife that this will only take 10 minutes - not much time to capture the convergence of ideas and abstraction, but here we go!

I am often asked (well, actually, to be more precise, I would like to be asked one day) where the caption in the heading ("Data is not information etc") comes from. Somebody did a search on the phrase, and visited my site, so I suppose there's a possibility that somebody else might. I first came across "Data isn't information. Information isn't knowledge. Knowledge isn't wisdom." in a newspaper article that was talking about the internet several years ago, before it had the influence it has now (I'm not sure I even had email at the time). The "Wisdom is not truth" I added myself.

The thinking behind this is something like as follows. When I was studying computer science, one of the professors had a means of solving computer problems that was basically "adding a level of indirection" - that is, describing the data at the next higher level. This is in effect what this series of clauses does. Data is (are?) basically just numbers. To understand data, you need context, which is what information is - you move from just numbers to organised numbers. Knowledge adds yet another level of indirection - categorising information - and wisdom a further one - categorising knowledge, understanding its context.

In Bible terms, I think that's basically as far as humans can go - and the Bible values wisdom. Proper wisdom relates this knowledge to God, and it is the focus of the "wisdom" literature of the Old Testament. However, we haven't arrived at "truth" - which was the clause I added above. Truth, I would argue, is something that only God can reveal. Even with "wisdom" - using brains that are capable of remarkable levels of abstraction - we aren't able to arrive at something we know to be objective. However, if there is an external absolute who has chosen to reveal objective truth, then we can at least have a subjective appreciation of this objective truth. The relevance of extending this clause is that we will not discover truth from all humanity's ponderings on the internet - only if an external absolute has spoken.

The convergent thing about this was the fact that apparently, according to Timescommentary, Google has patented software that will allow its search engine to evaluate the veracity/reliability of the pages that it references. The article was leaning towards the opinion that this would make Google almost "God"-like. However, using this means of evaluation, it is possible to see that Google is operating on the "data/information/knowledge/wisdom" realm, not the "truth" realm. It is behaving in a human way in evaluation the information it assesses, but it still is only organising and meta-organising data. The truth isn't "out there" in the collective knowledge of humanity. If we want to know the truth - even though we can only know it subjectively - we need to start from an external objective. So Google isn't "God-like" - even with these enhancements, it is still only "human-like".

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Garrison Keillor

A World in your Ear had an interview with Garrison Keillor - muse of the Prairie Home Companion - this week (sorry, the first link may well no longer relate to that programme by the time you look at this). It reminded me of how highly I esteem Keillor's work.

I first happened across it when we started a reading group before I left home. I picked Lake Wobegon Days up almost by chance, and loved it. I worked my way through all of his books that I could find - particularly enjoying the ones that had spun off from the Prairie Home Companion. I then tried to get hold of his books when they came out, but I have to confess I was a little disappointed with Radio Romance. Whereas the writing (and speaking) for PHC and Lake Wobegon Days seemed to be pastiche, the influences of his prairie upbringing seemed to be heading more towards parody, and the liberal influences of the big city and the university seemed more desirable. (As characters might say in Lake Wobegon, "Who do you think you are?")

With Wobegon Boy, Keillor seemed to return to his roots - the book was more positive about small town upbringing, and the "real people".

I was particularly engaged by Keillor's portrayal of life within a small group of brethren (a fairly exclusive Christian denomination). Having been brought up within a non-conformist evangelical church, and also having come into contact with strict strict baptists, a lot of the remarks he made about the tensions within the group in LWD were uncomfortably close to the truth - as well as being very funny. One of the other images from the books that stands out in my mind is, in Leaving Home the Lutheran Ministers' barbeque on a boat on the lake, which ends up with all the ministers standing in the lake, looking around expectantly as though this is just the next part of the entertainment ....

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Intelligent design - a theory or not?

The anti-ID community has been very scathing about whether Intelligent Design is actually a theory, or whether it makes any testable assertions, or whether it has published any papers. This article, on the ID - The Future blogsite, is a useful antidote.

Incidentally, it now has at least three theories to my knowledge - Specified Complexity, Irreducible Complexity and the Privileged Planet.

Monday, May 09, 2005

E-day plus 4 - the case for electoral reform

Various anachronisms became even more visible as a result of the election. Perhaps most obviously, the Labour party were elected with a significant absolute majority, despite only polling about 36% of the votes. Given that only just over 60% of the electorate voted (despite my optimistic perception, see below) this means that they are in power with a mandate from less than a quarter of the total electorate.

There are various factors that lead to this. One is the "first past the post" system - where the person who gathers the largest number of votes in the constituency is elected the MP, and the party with the largest number of MP's is the governing party. This is like throwing away the votes of everybody in a constituency who didn't vote for the elected candidate - their opinions simply become irrelevant from then on.

The nature of this system also discourages turn-out, and distorts the election campaign. In most constituencies, there is no chance of the majority of the incumbent being overturned. So why bother voting, if it's not going to count for anything? Also, more so than in any previous campaign, the focus of the two main political parties has been on marginal constituencies - the 10-20% of seats where the majority was smallest - because if a party were able to get more control of these seats, then they would most likely be able to swing what happens in parliament. So the concerns of 80-90% of the electorate become irrelevant to the main political parties.

The net result was that many people felt that there was little to choose between the parties in terms of their opinions being represented, and many people, lacking a candidate who they felt represented them, ended up voting for somebody they thought was the "least worst".

Finally, because in excess of 50% of votes are irrelevant after polling day, there is a vast variation in the number of votes cast per MP returned between the political parties. On this blogsite, somebody has done the calculations:
lab 25968 votes per mp
con 50347 votes per mp
ld 92554 votes per mp

But once again, how is electoral reform likely to happen? The current system ensures a disproportionate level of power to both the dominant political parties. Are they really likely to have any desire to change the system?

See the Make My Vote Count website here

Colours of spring

I just love the bright greens and blues after the browns and greys of winter. Posted by Hello

Sunday, May 08, 2005

NCSE and "Icons of Evolution"

If your money is being used to support the work of NCSE - the National Center for Science Education - then I would ask for a refund. This post, on the "He Lives!" blogsite, challenges this "resource". In my opinion, the blogger could have gone a lot further in pulling apart their response.

In their response relating to Miller-Urey, NCSE say that this was "first successful attempt to show how organic molecules might have been produced on the early Earth". However, given that it has since been concluded that this was not the environment in which organic molecules might have been produced, books referring to Miller-Urey ought to make it clear that this experiment doesn't actually tell us anything about evolution - it isn't a stepping stone towards understanding how life first appeared.

In their response to the question about the "Tree of Life", their answer misses the point. The point is that groups appear in fossil record with their characteristics already present. In some cases, evolutionary biology assumes that certain organisms are transitional between groups/phyla. For example, is it the case that coelacanth was once assumed to be transitional between reptiles and fish - until one was discovered, and it wasn't transitional, but completely fish.

Exam boost for pupils

This story, from the BBC, talks about the fact that there are various bonuses that are available for children taking GCSE's or A-levels if they experience a life trauma in the run-up to the exam.

A couple of thoughts spring to mind.

1) Are the bonuses cumulative? If so, would it be possible to pass the exam without actually sitting the paper? Would it be possible to get more than 100%? Will the bonuses available following the death of distant relatives mean that researching family trees will become even more popular? I think we should be told.

2) There must be a business opportunity here - selling nearly-dead pets to school-age children in the run-up to exams. Hamsters fight each other if they are in the same cage - how about buying about 10 old hamsters a couple of days before an exam, and keeping them in one cage? Would that count?

Reporting these stories is all very well, but the BBC is failing to ask the questions that we all want to know answers to.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

E-day plus 2 - the Irish Question

When I first became aware of the Irish Question - the rather euphemistic way of referring to the fact that there is a religious/political divide in the community of Northern Ireland/Ulster (the two sides don't even agree on what to call the place) - the extremes in the community consisted of active paramilitary units, but the bulk of the community was represented by moderate political parties - the moderate nationalist/Catholic SDLP, and the moderate loyalist/Protestant Ulster Unionist Party. There was even a fairly strong Alliance party, that sought to represent both communities.

Since then, the Good Friday Agreement and other steps towards peace have resulted in an end to publicised terrorist acts (although the violent elements in the communities are still there), but the different communities have become more polarized. In this election, the strongly Republican Sinn Fein party took one additional seat in parliament (particularly remarkable given the fact that its reputation had been severely tarnished by recent acts of violence which were handled in a way which seemed to show that Sinn Fein didn't really understand how to work in a peaceful way) and the strongly loyalist Democratic Unionist Party took several more. The moderate UUP - with its Nobel Prize winning leader John Trimble - were pretty much electorally wiped out - they have just one seat in parliament.

It is safe to say that this is not going to make easier any political settlement to accommodate the aspirations of both communities - tricky since they are basically diametrically opposed. In the meantime, before yet another person talks about how much trouble religion causes, it is worth reflecting upon how far removed both sides are from Christianity. Christianity is about placing other people's needs before mine; it is about submitting to human authorities; it is about loving my neighbour, who turns out to be the person I might have least in common with. This is not achieved by marching around the province to celebrate the battles in which the other community was beaten. There might be a higher concentration of evangelical Christians in Ulster than there is anywhere else in the UK (according to Operation World) - but their way of life is not always a good testimony to the power of the gospel. Unfortunately, this has its clearest expression in the publically-expressed attitudes of Rev. Ian Paisley, who has now effectively become the undisputed leader of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. Neither is Christianity demonstrated by intimidation, setting up an "alternative" to the legal system, and seeking the (if necessary) violent overthrow of an existing power.

Friday, May 06, 2005

E-day plus 1

As it happened, the Labour party reached the point of an overall majority just as I was getting up to go to work - about 4.30 am. They are looking at a majority that is almost exactly what the exit polls predicted - the tool has become a lot more precise since it confidently predicted that the Conservatives were going to lose (1992?), only to see them returned to power for a third term.

Oddly enough, the atmosphere amongst the generally enlightened population at the time of that result (stunned gloom) doesn't seem to be a million miles from the reaction to this result. If it is any encouragement to the liberal establishment, Tony Blair seems to have found the experience of the election campaign chastening - particularly the level of animosity directed at him personally - and with a majority that couldn't withstand the scale of backbench rebellion that was seen over some issues in the last couple of years, the new government will have to act in a more conciliatory manner. The US Republicans may have been strengthened by last autumn's elections, but I don't think there's any question of Britain being taken into another war behind GWB.

As far as the parties are concerned; whilst I have a lot of time for the conscience of the Liberal party - more so than that of Labour or the Conservatives, I was and am unhappy about the more ... er, liberal ... end of their social agenda, particularly where it starts to impact areas of individual morality. Michael Howard seemed to have a fairly solid agenda - but I can't help feeling that the underlying divisions over the nature of the economy and Europe have been papered over. It's all very well when you are lining up behind one strong leader - but behind a weak leader, it would be a different matter - the divisions that undermined Ian Duncan-Smith and William Hague haven't been dealt with, and I think they will only ultimately be dealt with if either a euro-sceptic or pro-europe faction breaks away. As for the Labour party, I am frustrated with the huge bureaucratic government animal that they continue to feed - which absorbs what feel like record level of tax income whilst producing nothing much other than bureaucracy-poo.

(Remember, you read that word here first!)

So who did I vote for? Well, it was one of the above - but it was a hard choice!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Election day

BBC exit polls suggest a Labour majority of 66 seats - about 10% - down by 100 seats. A better parliament, but not good enough. I wasn't the only person hoping for a hung parliament - sure they are unstable and don't last, but the idea that decisions would have to be made by securing an element of consensus rather than simply on the back of a majority that could even put up with a serious backbench revolt was very appealing.

More people seem to have taken seriously the need to vote this year - perhaps it's just the people I talk to, but most people have talked about the fact that the rights of citizens in a democracy are valuable, and not to be disdained.

Anyway, I have an early start, so I won't be watching the great BBC "swingometer" - see the BBC News website for more details. By the time I go to work tomorrow morning, I expect the fat lady to be well into her aria.

Politician visits school shock!!!

Our daughter came home from school a couple of weeks ago saying that the local MP had visited the school. It all sounded pretty low key, so we wondered whether that was really what had happened, and didn't think any more of it.

Anyway, it turns out that he really did visit the school. Two weeks before being due for re-election (THAT'S TODAY! HAVE YOU VOTED YET?) - with no press, no photographer, just to talk to schoolchildren in various classes about the political process. He gave them plenty of food for thought, and hopefully did more to encourage their involvement in politics than weeks of TV/newspaper coverage.

He won't get any praise for doing this from anywhere possibly, except here. So let it be here recorded that Peter Ainsworth (Conservative) did something positive for politics in the UK with no expectation of getting anything back.

OK, there wasn't much at stake - this must be one of the safest conservative seats in the UK. But well done, anyway.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The internet and serendipity

I assume that most people who write blogs are keen to have lots of other people reading what they have written. Google claims to know about 8 billion pages. There are obviously substantially fewer users of the internet than this - let's guess on a ceiling of 800 million. The average number of pages that the average user looks at in a day is - let's say - of the order of 10 or so which means that in theory the total number of page views per day is probably of the same order of magnitude as the total number of pages.

However, the page views will:
a) largely be confined to pages that the user knows about - the "favourites" that he or she goes back to every day;
b) in the event of the user searching for something specific using an engine, likely to gravitate to a relatively small subset of sites;
c) in the event of the user searching for something by typing in domain names "blind" (does anybody still do that?), likely to end up at predictable domain names.

So pages that are off the beaten track will not attract many viewers. Is there any likelihood of a user just happening to come across a page with an unlikely domain name - say this one? Not really - which is why if a page is to get any traffic, it needs links in from places where people are likely to be. So blogs need links from other blogs, or sites that have a related subject matter, if the objective is for them to be read. But the link needs to be one of not too many, otherwise statistically it won't help much - although lots of links back and forth improve the site's visibility to search engines. The blog can be listed as the "homepage" when the user participates on discussion forums and bulletin boards and the like, which means that if somebody is interested in what that person says, they might just go and see what else they have to say.

So basically, the likelihood of serendipitous traffic is pretty small.

And yet ....

One day, not long ago, I got about 20 hits in the space of a few hours. I don't know why - though it was when I wrote a post that mentioned Google, who sponsor this site through advertising and also own Was this relevant? Does a new post mean that I feature in some list of new postings somewhere? Well, there is, but I don't know - it's hard to imagine how one post might be visible on such a long list. If so, how come the other posts haven't evoked the same response? If anybody would care to speculate on these issues, they are welcome to do so. However, on the basis of the number of hits I get, it is somewhat more likely that nobody will read this at all ....

Monday, May 02, 2005

A message for anybody from the UK who reads this before Thursday


People have sacrificed a lot so that you can!

Sexual morality

Christians are often portrayed as being particularly anti-homosexual. Sometimes we conform to this stereotype, and it is particularly useful to people who want to discredit Christianity, which can be portrayed as intolerant/discriminating/prejudiced against homosexuals and lacking in political correctness.

However, Christian sexual morality isn't particularly anti-gay - it should be anti-sin. The basis of Christian sexual morality predates the OT law, including the ten commandments - it is what men and women were created to know - as written in Genesis 2:24 -
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
In other words, Christian sexual morality is that sexual relationships ought to exist as part of a lifelong, heterosexual, monogamous relationship. This is the foundation for everything that is said about sex in the whole Bible. Sexual relationships outside this pattern are sin - that is, they deviate from God's original intention.

Furthermore, Jesus extended the concept of sexual relationships from sexual acts - in Matthew 5, Jesus says:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.'But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
So sexually immoral behaviour is thought as well as action.

Notice that all three of the adjectives are inherent in sexually moral behaviour. A sexual relationship should be part of a lifelong relationship - in other words, the standard is that a couple should already be committed to one another for life before their relationship becomes sexual. This is probably the most radical break with the sexual morality of Western society today - because it is so different, it is what Christians feel most self-conscious about. However, research shows that this is the best pattern for human relationships.

The truth of the matter is that, if this is the foundation of sexual morality, then we find ourselves all to be guilty. Nobody has conformed perfectly to this pattern of sexual morality.

But we all have a built-in tendency to justify ourselves. We are willing to condemn sexually immoral behaviour in other people - but what we discover from what the Bible says is that we are all sinners - we have all failed to live up to God's standards. The Christian approach should rather be to acknowledge that we are sinful as well - I have failed to live up to God's standards. I am not going to condemn a homosexual - because I know that I have sinned - deviated from God's standards - sexually as in every other area, and deserve God's judgement as well.

But the good news is that if we accept that we have sinned - that although society might think our behaviour okay, our lives are immoral in God's sight - then God can forgive us. He has forgiven me - not through anything good or praiseworthy about me - not because I was a moral person - but because of his grace. If we come to him, then he will dwell within us and help us to live sexually moral lives.

PS I love the "Recover post" option!!!

Sunday, May 01, 2005


Horses are beautiful creatures. Elegant, powerful, efficient - a testimony to their Designer.

Ironic that, every Sunday, we should get stuck behind horses being moved around the country in horseboxes. Ugly, underpowered, obstructive - almost completely un-horselike.