Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Maths" problem

Dunno where this came from, but it's quite fun.
Three men go into a hotel looking for a room for the night. The receptionist tells them that the rate is £30. They pay £10 each, and are given the key.

A while later, the receptionist realises he should have only charged them £25. So he gives the bellboy £5 to refund to the men.

The bellboy can't work out how to divide the £5 between the three men. So he refunds them £1 each and keeps £2.

So the men each paid £9 for the room - total £27 - and the bellboy kept £2 - taking the total to £29.

What happened to the other £1?
Try and work it out before reading the comment.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Why "The Golden Compass" fails to kill God (and misses the target altogether)

Philip Pullman has reportedly said that the "His Dark Materials" trilogy were about killing God. The Magisterium in the film of "The Golden Compass" is noticeably a more overtly religious organisation than is apparent in the first of Philip Pullman's books, "Northern Lights". But whilst the film makes it more clear that it is directed against the control of religious organisations, anything more than casual reflection simply highlights the fact that Pullman has missed his target.

"All truth but its own"
The Magisterium wishes to repress the truth about the nature of the universe and the authority. In our world, there is no single entity that is in a position to assert its own ideas across the whole world. There are countries where religions are trying to do this. But the countries which have been by far the most successful at "thought control" have been those built upon a humanistic worldview.

Furthermore, in the postmodern Western world of today, with its marketplace of ideas, a strong case can be made that it is secular humanism that is the most intolerant of alternatives. In the US, all religious discourse within public institutions is opposed not on the basis of its truth or otherwise, but supposedly on the basis of the constitutional requirement to separate church and state. That wasn't the intention of the First Amendment - it wasn't supposed to eliminate the possibility of such discourse: it was simply to protect the rights of minority religions, by granting none an established position. That is a laudable aim. Now the opposite is happening. Minority worldviews are being excluded from the public arena because the established position is humanism. Yes, I know that the majority of people in the US are Christians - but the fact is that the constitution is being used to shout "We don't do God" far more loudly than the spin doctors in the UK.

Again, at the moment, there is no worldview that has the ability to overrule. But from where have come the calls to bar dissenting undergraduates from university? From where have come the assertions that you must be a fool to have beliefs that contradict the mainstream? From where have come the calls to prevent people with particular worldviews teaching children?

And, like the Magisterium, most times we are told that humanism thinks this "for the good of the children" - and those people who are so ignorant that they must be told what to think. "In a nice way," of course ....

"Connecting them all is dust"
The Magisterium and the Authority are regarded as contingent parts of Pullman's multiverse. Dust is regarded as the absolute which links all consciousness.

Now I'm not sure about this - even having read all the books, it's not entirely clear. But I think I'm right in saying that dust somehow knows the truth - it is linked with the alethiometer. Dust is the agency through which prophesies about Lyra are made. Dust is the context in which the human virtues - loyalty, friendship, compassion - make sense. The Authority is weak, and the Magisterium is solely concerned with its own survival.

So most of what Christians identify as being expressions of divine nature are viewed by Pullman as being the product of dust, rather than the product of his Authority. There is still such things as absolute truth, virtues - but their source isn't in what has hitherto been called God - it is in some transcendent, all-knowing, omni-present, virtue-filled entity.

Well, that sounds to me remarkably like ... God. Perhaps the real problem is that the thing that Pullman thought of as God in the first place wasn't actually God at all.

And that turns out to be the case. If you read this interview in "Third Way", you will discover about how Pullman learnt about what he calls "God" -
My grandfather was a clergyman and so every Sunday I went to Sunday school and church. I was confirmed, I was a member of the choir, all that sort of stuff.

We still had the Authorised Version of the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient and Modern – all those old forms of worship that had given comfort and joy to generations were still there for me to enjoy. Nowadays it’s all been swept away, and if ever I go into a church and look at the dreadful, barren language that disfigures the forms of service they have now, I am very thankful that I grew up at a time when it was possible for me to go to Matins and sing the Psalms in the old versions.
That ineffectual, traditional religious upbringing has little in common with the life-transforming agency which changed the life of heroes like Martin Luther, or Martin Luther King.

When you read Pullman's books, or see the film, it isn't the Authority in which divinity can be seen. It is dust. Pullman can't get away without the transcendent, absolute other - he knows it is there. It's just he doesn't realise that this is actually the God he is looking for.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Bible as literature

Interesting article here:
Last spring, I took a Bible as Literature course through the University of Washington's English department and received a thorough eye-opening. This was the most convincing experience that affirmed the benefits of teaching the Bible in a non-religious setting....

In the class I took, the morality of the text was not allowed to be taught, so as to honor the separation of church and state our country so wisely requires. As a result, I was able to read almost the entire Bible cover to cover and learn about its major themes in a non-confrontational manner.

Having taken this class, I have learned two important things.

It is always preferable to read the source material rather than rely on other people's explanation of the text. A religious service doesn't appeal to me, but I found several books in the Bible that did, including Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes...

Secondly, having read the Bible, I realize just how influential to Western culture this text is. Our daily lives are filled with Biblical allusions. More importantly, perhaps, the classes that students are expected to take in high school are filled with references to the Bible. The number of examples of this is overwhelming and undeniable.
One of the things that particularly interested me was the statement the morality of the text was not allowed to be taught, so as to honor the separation of church and state our country so wisely requires. Firstly, is it really possible to detach the content of a text from its purported message?

Secondly, talking about the American context, given that it is evidently permissible to at least acknowledge the existence of a significant cultural text, with its religious claims (even if those religious claims themselves aren't considered), what does that signify about the exclusion of intelligent design from state universities supposedly because of its vague religious claims? Supposing that a specific religious inference is suggested by proponents of intelligent design - something which they deny, and which given the weakness of the logical inferences that can be drawn from ID, I find very hard to accept. Given that it is apparently acceptable to consider not only empirical evidence but something which is claimed to be scripture itself within an English class, at least as an intellectual exercise, doesn't this contradict the conclusion that an intelligent design perspective has to be considered unconstitutional?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Jack McManus

A cracking debut album. Here's my Amazon review.
I enjoyed this. It's silly labelling somebody as "the next big thing" - because by next week, they'll be "the last big thing". But McManus is an old-school musician, who has put a lot of work into the songs on this album to give them an "artlessly simple" feel, when in fact there's quite a lot going on. If he can continue to work as hard, then he should be able to build a willing audience for his songs.

His songs are a bit like Robbie Williams, but without so much "whine" - so much of Williams' desperation to be liked. Lyrically, they are clever; the melodies are catchy, and do unexpected things with rhythm and harmony enough to make him sound unique, but not so much that it sounds contrived. The range of expression is pretty good. The arrangements and instrumentation are conservative - reminiscent of 70's bands - but imaginative within that framework. This is an excellent, workmanlike product, and one which I'll come back to regularly.
I gave it four stars - but it's grown on me, and it's heading towards five stars. I listened to the first part of the CD in the car this afternoon, and every one of the first seven tracks is quality music.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

David Byrne on Objective Truth

From here.
It should be obvious that all documentary filmmakers have an agenda they hope to put forward. I’m not talking about Michael Moore and Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Smartest Guys in the Room) who obviously have a polemic to deliver, but about the countless docs, TV shows, news reports and educational pieces that evince a style that says, “We don’t have a point of view. We’re simply recording what’s in front of the camera and you make up your own mind.”

These ostensibly objective works invoke specific filmic devices that audiences have come to accept and recognize as indicators of truth telling and impartiality. Upon examining these “unbiased” films, we may sense their deep, inherent agendas, but for the most part, the style masks the filmmakers’ underlying prejudices, and we buy into it.
A profound observation - but not surprising that Byrne should "get it", since he has been playing so deliberately for so long with that perception - see the Talking Heads film "True Stories" for a whole film exploring this. The post also explores other serious questions, and is worth a read.

Does that mean, then, that there is no such thing as objective truth? Well ... (to be continued)

Monday, May 05, 2008

Coca Cola Zero presents ...

... life as it should be - so the advert says.

A fizzy drink with flavourings and no nutritional value. Ho hum.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Another small irony in Middle-Eastern politics

The US invaded Iraq (so many people have thought) to ensure that its oil reserves were in friendly hands, and reduce its economic vulnerability. But now, it is the "friendly hands" of Saudi Arabia who are bringing Western economies to a standstill.

The price of oil is heading towards $120 a barrel, and some people suggest it could continue rising towards $200. According to a report yesterday in The Independent, on at least two occasions in the last few months, the price of oil has looked as though it was about to soften. The Saudi government - which controls 10% of the world reserves, and which is the only oil supplier who isn't pretty much running at capacity - has immediately cut production, to keep the price of oil high.

This isn't simply a supply issue - in fact, it isn't one at all. At least for now, there is sufficient oil for everybody. The price is actually being driven up by the market, which (as I've pointed out before) is far from being a tame animal. People are selling (weak) dollars, and buying oil, because they think it will get them a better return. The economics of oil production have hardly changed in the last three years. But the price of oil has more than doubled. However, the combination of market speculation and the vested interest of the suppliers (knowing that they can get a buyer for their oil at almost whatever price) is what is causing so much pain to Western countries. Official inflation figures may look good - but the price of energy and food (which, when push comes to shove, are actually the essentials) seem to be going up pretty steeply. Airlines are going out of business each week, and even the most profitable have been issuing warnings about how the price of fuel is going to affect their bottom line. Houses around us haven't been selling well for over a year, and where people need more room, they are generally extending rather than moving (the fact that thanks to stamp duty and so on, it will cost a family around here £20,000 or thereabouts just to move, before they can think of getting more space, also has a bearing).

I say "Western economies". Over the last couple of decades, the Chinese government has built up massive foreign currency reserves, due to its huge trade surplus with the rest of the world. So they can keep their economy going - at least for the medium term, they are better able to deal with high oil prices.

At least for now, China needs the West as a market - if there aren't people to buy Chinese manufactured goods, their economy will stall as well. So I can't see Western economies disintegrating whilst China thrives - at least for now. But with as many potential consumers in China as there are in the whole of North America and Europe, this isn't guaranteed indefinitely into the future.