Saturday, February 07, 2009


It's the risingest next thing - growing faster than Facebook, which is growing faster than Myspace, which is growing faster than blogging, which is growing faster than ... well, you get the idea.

I'm not convinced, personally, and I'm certainly not interested at least for now. 140characters - the length of a SMS message, less than the maximum length of a Facebook status - is too restrictive. I want exposition, expression, images .... You can do amazing things with the internet - so why constrain yourself to using no more than 140 text characters? That's not to say that you need to do more than that - and the social networking status messages are pretty similar to Twitter. But to say that you can't do more than that?

As for the fact that celebrities are doing it - well, to be honest, that's a very good reason for staying away. I'm not interested in what famous people say when they get stuck in lifts, or even that they have been stuck in lifts. So what? It happens! I would be interested in what my friends were thinking and feeling, if they get stuck in a lift - but not simply the bare fact that they are stuck.

Expecting flames ....

Friday, February 06, 2009

25 things

25 assorted facts about me. Probably considerably more, if you expand each out into its individual statements. It's actually a copy of a Facebook note, and explained there - I'm probably one of the last people to do this anyway. But if you wish to tag yourself and do this too, feel free.

1. I am verbose. "Paul talked on and on" is a prophetic word, according to my wife. So this may well be somewhat longer than your average "25 Things". Also, they aren't in order. Sorry. Go get a coffee first ....

2. I went to university in Cambridge, but I didn't attend any May Balls (in June), row in any boats, go punting, have any champagne picnics, or get recruited by the KGB. My politics were somewhat right wing at that stage (I didn't see the need to close my account with Barclays just because they were sponsoring the South African government's imprisonment of Nelson Mandela), and our SU never asked the male students to buy women's sanitary products (unlike that of King's College).

3. However, I did join the University Air Squadron. This was excellent - cheap drink (cheaper than Spoons), and a Soc that actually paid you for turning up. In addition to which, they taught me to fly. And didn't kick me out, even though aerobatics made me airsick. And you actually had to put together your own ents, so it was very involving.

4. My most unpleasant experience at Cambridge was being beaten up by a drunk townie. I didn't know how to cope with this casual violence, and this had quite significant psychological consequences.

5. Technically, I am an MA (Cantab). However, I'm not one for letters and stuff, and particularly those ones, since they imply I have done more to deserve them than I have (which is basically stay alive for 3 years after graduating).

6. I didn't have a gap year, but between A-levels and university, I worked on a summer camp in the States, on the Camp America scheme. I didn't have the nerve to apply to be a counsellor, though I'd probably have enjoyed it. Most people ended up in NY or Pennsylvania. I ended up with an eclectic group in Mississippi. There is a little camp in Pinola, Mississippi, and if you look closely, you'll find its Facebook group.

7. After that, I went to Toronto, and from there took the Greyhound bus to Vancouver. In Vancouver, I visited Expo 86, which was also excellent, and gave me a taste for the Expos that hasn't really been sated yet, despite getting to Expo 2000 in Hanover.

8. I met somebody on the bus to Vancouver, and in a parallel life, this would have led to me staying on in Vancouver.

9. I was pretty insufferable as a teenager.

10. My parents didn't want me to go to the secondary school that I was destined to go to. So I didn't go to any of the open days or visits, and when I turned up, and all the children went from the assembly hall to their assigned tutor groups, I was left behind. The school was cool about it, though, and within hours had found me a place in the right tutor group. This may have led to me moving away from premillenialism.

11. There are relatively few things I value that I have "discovered for myself". REM, Sixpence None the Richer, Garrison Keillor, Jostein Gaarder and Francis Schaeffer are some of them. U2 I owe to Suzanne McEwen, though I did rediscover them when "All That You Can't Leave Behind" came out; Talking Heads I owe to my sisters.

12. My interest in literature dates back to the time I was doing a science degree. It irritates me that whilst people apply the term "philistine" to someone with no cultural depth, many people still take pride in their innumeracy, let alone their lack of scientific knowledge. The world would be better for more people having a broader education.

13. On the back of this, I was Literary Editor of GROGGS for a while. GROGGS was a bulletin board, but to be honest it was much closer to a community along the lines of Facebook (for example) than this would suggest - albeit a somewhat geeky one. I picked the handle "Exiled from GROGGS" because I missed it. Then I managed to get back to it, and discovered that it wasn't as satisfying as it had been. The exile is now self-imposed.

14. The first unsolicited writing that I had published was a 100-word review of "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" by Robert Heinlein, a book which started well but drifted away half way through. It was published in "Paperback Inferno", one of the publications of the British Science Fiction Association ("DON'T call it Sci Fi!!"), and you can still find reference to it on the internet, if you know where to look.

15. When I first met Liz, she was going out with somebody else. I met her again when she came to my baptism, just before I started my flying training, and we corresponded intensely for three months, particularly whilst I was in Florida. So when we next saw each other, we knew each other pretty well. I think I knew by then that if I was going to marry anybody, it would be her - knowing who your future wife will be pretty quickly seems to be a fairly common experience amongst the men who I have been close to. We will have been married 17 years in April.

16. I didn't cope well with being the focus of attention, and still find it somewhat unnerving, which is a little odd for a lay preacher, I guess. This led to me having to walk out of our wedding reception during the best man's speech.

17. Talking of walking out, I was part of a group of people that walked out of the first funeral I went to.

18. Flying is amazing. I knew when I left the University Air Squadron that I wouldn't cope with the RAF. But I also knew that I would either have to get somebody to pay me to do it or spend a lot of money I couldn't justify on paying to do it as a hobby. I chose the former, and was fortunate enough to get part of my flying training paid for by British Midland (who became bmi).

19. Oxford Air Training School was a means to an end (ie. getting a professional pilot's licence). But if you think student accommodation is bad, you should see what they offer - and how much they charge for it. And you are treated more like a secondary school pupil than a university student, despite the fact that it is your money that they are spending, and most people going through there have already managed to establish themselves in careers.

20. Back to uni. I was disappointed with a good 2.2 - but the fundamental problem was that I'd not needed to work before going, and thus didn't know how to. Had I got a 2.1, I would probably have ended up in academia, which would have completely changed the shape of my life.

21. I would have called myself a Christian when I was 13, because I had "responded" to an "appeal" of sorts. However, I didn't know how to make sense of it all. That changed around the time I was 21, under the influence of Roy Clements at Eden Baptist Church, Cambridge, the books of Francis Schaeffer, and my now brother in law, who had become the minister at my home church. All of a sudden, I could see how Christianity was not just a "religious" bit of my life, but an entire worldview which made sense, and allowed me intellectual coherence. I am still utterly convinced that Christianity allows me to make sense of the whole universe in a way that no other belief system does. I would be more than happy to speak about this with anybody who has a few hours to spare - in fact, it is one of my favourite activities.

22. Despite my verbosity, I also love listening to people. One of the most amazing things that humans are capable of is getting into somebody else's mind - understanding their desires, motivations, feelings, thoughts. I am so thankful to the people who have permitted/invited me to do that. You know who you are. It makes me teary.

23. Talking of being teary, I am regularly ambushed by small children's books. If I pick up a children's book in a bookshop, there is roughly a 1 in 3 chance I will end up nearly weeping. It made it difficult to read to the children, sometimes. We have three of them, by the way, and I don't read small children's books to any of them any more.

24. Books are very important to me. Our bookshelves are often double stacked. Facebook notwithstanding, a defining feature of my friends will be that they are likely to have had books recommended by me to them. Sorry. You don't have to take it seriously. But they are good books.

25. Life is very short.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

What is the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since Das Kapital?

By bringing together in compact form all of the arts of show business - music, drama, imagery, humour, celebrity - the television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Its principal theorists, even its most prosperous practitioners, believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. If greed was taken to be the fuel of the capitalist engine, then surely rationality was the driver. The theory states, in part, that competition in the marketplace requires that the buyer not only knows what is good for him but also what is good. If the seller produces nothing of value, as determined by a rational marketplace, then he loses out. It is the assumption of rationality among buyers that spurs competitors to become winners, and winners to keep on winning. Where it is assumed that a buyer is unable to make rational decisions, laws are passed to invalidate transactions, as, for example, those which prohibit children from making contracts. In America, there even exists in law a requirement that sellers must tell the truth about their products, for if the buyer has no protection from false claims, rational decision-making is seriously impaired.

Of course, the practice of capitalism has its contradictions.... But television commercials make hash of it. To take the simplest example: to be rationally considered, any claim - commercial or otherwise - must be made in language. More precisely, it must take the form of a proposition, for that is the universe of discourse from which such words as "true" and "false" come. If the universe of discourse is discarded, then the application of empirical tests, logical analysis or any of the other instruments of reason are impotent.

... it was not until the 1950s that the television commercial made linguistic discourse obsolete as the basis for product decisions. By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions. The distance between rationality and advertising is now so wide that it is difficult to remember that there once existed a connection between them.... The truth or falsity of an advertiser's claim is simply not an issue. A McDonald's commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama - a mythology, if you will - of handsome people selling, buying and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.

"Amusing Ourselves to Death", Neil Postman, p.130-131
This was written in 1985!

Monday, February 02, 2009

Snow news

We are injuncted to check Mercury FM to find out about school closures. But the website seems to be down. The last time I tried listening to the station to get the information I wanted, I had reached the stage of wanting to throw the radio out of the window from sheer tedium long before the required information had been imparted. I don't even know whether Mercury still exists, and I have little desire to find out.

The Surrey County Council website would win awards for lack of timely information. It's 8.47 am. They are still reporting no school closures.

Fortunately, something's happened with school websites. Both the primary and secondary school that our children are at reported before 8 am that they would be closed today. Much better decision making and reporting at a local level.

It took a friend about two hours to drive three miles home last night. There is no sign that the main road through Caterham has been cleared overnight. Although we have a school in our road, any snow clearance that has been carried out has been done by residents, not by any authority. There is little evidence of snow clearance even on the A22, which is technically a trunk road.