Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Derek Nimmo returns from the grave (Rev.)


Let's start with the positives:
- context is realistic, and being an ex-East End vicar myself it was great to see some familiar locations being explored;
- Tom Hollander can act;
- it did make me chuckle a good deal, and I'm sure I'll watch the whole thing.

BUT

Why oh why did we have to endure yet another presentation of a vicar as a downtrodden and browbeaten big girl's blouse? When I was first called to the ministry I resisted the call for as long as humanly possible (two days of arguing directly with God; yes I am that stubborn) and that was simply because I had absolutely no desire to be a Derek Nimmo. He still represents for me all that is most spineless and useless about the church (the established church in particular) - the reduction of ministry to social work, to - in one of the sharpest moments of the programme - the need to devote all our energies to 'wiping people's arses'.

You'd never glean from a programme like this that Jesus was incredibly courageous and manly - a bloke's bloke if ever there was one - that he was often astonishingly rude to people he disagreed with, that he was angry and aggressive - and that there are a great many clergy who follow that path. In short - there is nothing prophetic about this presentation, it was entirely lacking in theological substance and truth.

Grrr.

However, having got that off my chest, there was at least a sign of the worm turning at the end of the programme. It will be interesting to see if that represents the way the series will go. How wonderful it would be if there was a robust presentation of the reality of God in a vicar's life. I won't get my expectations up.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Against the Machine (Lee Siegel)


One of the common tropes of Modern fictional stories (novels and films) is the way in which technology enslaves and harms its creator – think of anything from HAL to the Terminator for an example, but the origins go back to Faust and Frankenstein – and this awareness in literature is not without real life application – just consider the words Bhopal, or Chernobyl, or, more recently, Deepwater Horizon. A new technological development like the internet is bound to give rise to questions about whether it will prove to be harmful for humanity. This is Lee Siegel's thesis in 'Against the Machine'.

Let's start with some good points: Siegel can write well, with an arresting turn of phrase, “they were learning how to perform their privacy” (of bloggers), “If a Bach fugue went to sleep and dreamed of being another form of communication, it would be the Web”. He also has a point about the endemic narcissism that is so prevalent on the internet although his list of criticisms of blogging is rather overblown - “just fifteen years ago, blogospheric excesses would have been considered a democratic crisis”. Hmm.

Early in the book, Siegel talks about the difference between being in Starbucks with a notebook, and engaging with the wider world, and being in Starbucks with a laptop, and criticises the latter as a “social space [that] has been contracted into isolated points of wanting, all locked into separate phases of inwardness”. The web, and the ubiquity of the culture associated with it, has destroyed community!

Well, no. Siegel would have been fairer comparing the laptop user to someone reading a book – which is also an extremely effective tool for cutting off human contact and distorting 'normal' patterns of human association. At the moment I am particularly delighted that my eldest has been bitten by the book bug, and can now be found at all moments of the day with his nose deep in a Bewilderwood book.

Scratching the surface of this book just a little, we find a journalist who had a bad experience with the web and who is now working out his anger. A particular target is Kevin Kelly (and here I declare an interest, as I have followed Kelly's blog with great interest and benefit for a number of years now). It is a cry of anguish about the decline of one medium which the author finds congenial, and against a medium that he blames for all that has gone wrong in (his life) society.

There are some useful points in this book – enough to make a good long magazine article – but the book as a whole is lightweight and underwhelming. It didn't help that he misuses Wittgenstein (grin). Not recommended.

Rector removes trousers during sermon...


All in a good cause, of course :)
(Book I'm reading from is 'Smartest Giant in Town'. Thanks to Pat for the photo.)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Some thoughts post-Sunday afternoon (football)

I predicted 3-1 to Germany, so it turns out I was a little bit optimistic. Not very enjoyable to be proved right.

England actually played reasonably well - disregard much of the instant analysis - they had the great majority of possession for the first 2/3rds of the match and were controlling the flow of the game. Big problem was not being able to resist the fast counter-attack, and that was a problem of defensive organisation. We really missed Rio. Biggest problem, however, was not being able to convert possession into goals. Our best players were not playing in their best positions, and we didn't have a settled side that could become a 'team' - and just when we most needed to score, we bring on Heskey. Sorry Fabio, but you've lost at least this fan's confidence.

Still, at least I can now watch some cracking football matches. I'm particularly looking forward to Netherlands vs Brazil.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

TBTM20100626


I think this is worth quoting in full:

To summarize, and to make the sequence clearer using nothing more than explicit assumptions and accounting identities, let me suggest schematically the list of factors that require either much greater flexibility on the part of surplus nations or much greater deficits on the part of the US:

1. I assume that for the foreseeable future the major trade deficit countries in Europe are going to find it very difficult to attract net new financing. At best they will be able, through official help, to refinance part of their existing liabilities.
2. If these countries cannot attract net new capital inflows, their currency account deficits, currently equal to two-thirds that of the US, must automatically contract.
3. If European trade deficits contact, there must be one or both of two automatic consequences. Either the trade surpluses of Germany and other European surplus countries – larger than that of China and just a little larger in sum than the European deficits – must contract by the same amount, or Europe’s overall surplus must expand by the same amount.
4. We will probably get a combination of the two, but a much weaker euro – combined with credit contraction, rising unemployment, and German reluctance to reverse policies that constrain domestic consumption – will mean that a very large share of the adjustment will be forced abroad via an expanding European current account surplus.
5. If Europe’s current account surplus grows, there must be one or both of two automatic consequences. Either the current account surplus of surplus countries like China and Japan must contract by the same amount, or the current account deficits of deficit countries like the US must grow by that amount, or some combination of the two.
6. If the Chinas and Japans of the world lower interest rates, slow credit contraction, and otherwise try to maintain their exports – let alone try to grow them – most of the adjustment burden will be shifted onto countries that do not intervene in trade directly. The most obvious are current account deficit countries like the US.
7. The only way for this not to happen is for the deficit countries to intervene in trade themselves. Since the US cannot use interest rate and wage policies, or currency intervention, to interfere in trade, it must use tariffs.

Tariffs in the US, Asia and probably in Latin America and Europe will rise. These are big numbers and the risk is that the adjustments are likely to occur rapidly. This means the rest of the world will also have to adjust just as rapidly.

I don’t really see how the numbers are going to work...

GOP20100625


Just because I haven't posted one for ages, and I'm feeling especially fond of the beast right now :)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

TBTM20100624


The last answer.

Some thoughts post-Wednesday afternoon (football)

The scoreline wasn't great, but the performance, especially in the first half, was. Our goal was well earnt and we should have had several more. Which remains the problem. If we play the same team and formation against Germany I expect us to lose, possibly quite badly.

Some positives:
- Impressed with Milner, who visibly grew through the game, after an appalling first ten minutes
- Gerrard, for once, exercised a proper discipline on the left, which allowed Ashley Cole to play properly, which helped the team greatly
- Rooney showed flashes of what he is capable of
- Joe Cole had a run out - as a replacement for Rooney. Perhaps that is how Capello sees him, as a split striker rather than winger. Interesting.

One last thought - I've been impressed at how Capello has handled the Terry situation, and he got a great performance from Terry as a result.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

TBTM20100619


A good post from Tim about the Mitre fuss.
He also talks about the Ditchkins controversies, on which topic this video of Peter Hitchens is worth watching.

Some thoughts post-Friday night (football)

Firstly: full credit to Algeria for closing us down very athletically, denying us space and making us look stupid. That said...

If you are facing a hard wall, you need your best drill. If you have a diamond-tipped drill, why use a drill-bit best employed on wood? Most especially, when things are going wrong, why do you shift your diamond tip out on the left wing?

The team seem to have lost belief - either in themselves or in the coach - and I would put it down to using the wrong formation. Capello is, I think, starting to realise his lack of experience at this level, most especially (and I laughed heavily) when he said that the team didn't reflect what he saw on the training pitch. Well, duh! He needs to put the players in their best positions, where they feel most comfortable, and he needs to bring on Joe Cole, a proven performer at this level who also has a lot to play for (like a move to Man Utd) - and who also isn't exhausted by the over-long Premiership season.

Unless Capello shifts to the formation I recommended (!) then we will not score against Slovenia - and then we'll be on our way home, and deservedly so. Grrrrr....

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Fall


This was an absolute feast visually, but what held it together was a phenomenal performance from the child at the centre of the story. I'm not sure if it carries a great weight of meaning - the 'bracketing' of the film with particular images put me in mind of Magnolia - but it is certainly a film that could be watched many times. Highly recommended 5/5

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

20 Seconds of Joy


I caught this on TV last night and found it fascinating. It is a documentary following a Norwegian base-jumper, and it explores what drives people to pursue these extreme sports. It had interesting things to say about the nature of fear, and the way in which facing and conquering the fear of death - which you need to do if you're going to jump off the side of a cliff - leads to much greater equanimity and sense of proportion in the rest of life. I'd recommend seeing it if you get the chance.

It also struck me, however, that some people have the same attitude to worship that base-jumpers have to the adrenaline rush (the "20 seconds of joy"). They seek a 'hit' - an internal 'charging' of their spirituality, in the same way that the base-jumpers entered a state akin to meditation when they really had to concentrate on pulling the parachute cord at the right moment. Just as with any other addiction, familiarity breeds contempt. The Norwegian girl rapidly became accustomed to simply jumping off a cliff and flying down, so she pursued a path of flying closer to the cliffs for a greater rush. In the same way I have the impression that much Christian "worship" is about pursuing a particular experience, a particular subjective state, which allows some self-forgetfulness, and we end up with the phenomenon where "the pastor feels like a cult prostitute, selling his or her love for the approval of an upwardly mobile, bored middle class, who, more than anything else, want some relief from the anxiety brought on by their materialism" (Hauerwas & Willimon).

I think that to really enter into a genuine and transformative relationship with the living God a believer has to be prepared to work past the threshold of boredom with regard to worship. It is only when the self, with all its immoderate and ultimately jaded appetites, its consumer preferences and idolatry of choice, is subject to a higher discipline that a genuine intimacy with God can be found.

Put differently, many contemporary worship forms will simply end up breaking the legs of the believer. Liturgy puts them back together.

TBTM20100612


The Pontiac that was allergic to Vanilla Ice Cream.
Some reflections on Avatar.
What caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and why (possibly) it's going to get much worse.
Transition Culture vs The Big Society.
I strongly recommend listening to this (1.5 hour) talk from Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth, slides to accompany the talk are at the link. Very sobering.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Unforgiven Wrestler


Finally got around to watching this film last night – I had been meaning to watch it for ages – and it was, as expected, an excellent film, highly recommended, although, as a tragedy, it ends up being pretty grim. 4.5/5

However, whilst watching it I was put in mind of the text from Sunday's service: "he who has been forgiven little loves little". The turning point in the wrestler's story is a rejection, which leads to a relapse into bad habits, which escalates into another rejection, and a further relapse, and the man sinks back into the way of death. In other words, it is because of a lack of forgiveness - especially from one crucial person - that death follows. So I see the film as an exploration and presentation of a spiritual law - where choosing love and forgiveness leads to life in abundance, so too does a lack of love and lack of forgiveness lead to death.

Similar themes to the Eastwood film - hence the title of this blog post.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Righteous

Is it worrying that I really like this motivational poster?


Some thoughts post-Saturday night (football)

I'm starting to really lose faith with Capello. The best thing about his coaching is that he learns from mistakes - hence the frequently inspired changes for the better in England's second half performances - but I'm worried that he is going to stick with the formation that served him well in qualification, and which isn't going to be up to it at the more elite level of the knock-out rounds in the world cup. NB this is true even if Capello sticks with the formation for the next two games and we get resounding victories.

Let me expand further: it's all about Heskey. Now, I happen to admire Heskey and I have absolutely no qualms about him being in the squad. I would use him, however, as a back-up for Rooney. This is not simply because his scoring record is so appalling, but because of the impact on the rest of the team.

When Capello started out in the qualifying campaign, Rooney was used as the split-striker (an enganche, a beautiful word I discovered recently), and it made perfect sense to have him playing off Heskey. Against the standard of opposition in our qualifying group, it worked well. However, in this last season, Rooney has made the lead striker role his own, to great effect. Much the most frustrating thing for me on Saturday night (other than watching it on ITV HD and therefore missing the England goal!) was seeing Rooney occupied in deep midfield, when the gaps between the US central defence were crying out for his industry and goal-scoring. Rooney needs to play as our lead striker - our best player in his best position.

Sticking with Heskey as the lead striker means that there is a severe knock-on effect for our ability to score goals all through the side, which goes beyond Rooney. It means that Gerrard is also not played in the position he plays for Liverpool (behind Torres) and he is less of a threat. It also meant, on Saturday night, that Gerrard and Lampard shared the midfield and, although they did better in that game than they have achieved before, it also means that Lampard isn't able to play his natural game, as he needs to have half an eye on staying back if Gerrard goes forward etc.

Put simply, Capello needs to drop Heskey and push some of our best goal-scorers into more effective positions (not least because we need to outscore the US if we are to top the group and avoid Germany in the next round).

I don't expect to see it change though.
All this and I haven't said anything about the debacle of choosing Milner on the left and never bringing on Joe Cole. Barmy.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Diamonds and Pearls

(A Courier article)

I've been talking a little bit about values – about how we value the world and the many wonderful things in it – and about how to understand what theologians call 'idolatry', which is simply what happens when we get our priorities wrong. I want this week to talk about some of the pressures that lead us to get our values muddled, and to do that I want to share talk about diamonds.


Everybody knows that diamonds are a girl's best friend. Everybody also knows that they are a girl's best friend because they are incredibly valuable, and can be counted on to remain committed to the girl even if the boy ups and leaves. Why, though, are diamonds valuable? After all, they are basically just a stone, a rock, something that is dug up from the ground. Yes, when they are cut and polished they can look very pretty, but why should that make them valuable? Yes, they are extremely hard, and therefore useful in industrial processes (and industrial processes can now manufacture diamonds at will), but why should that make them valuable? Most of all, why are diamonds seen as more valuable than rubies and emeralds and sapphires – all at least as beautiful, and in fact much rarer.


The simple answer is: Advertising. In 1947 an advertising agency working for De Beers (who used to control over 80% of the diamond market – imagine Murdoch controlling not just Sky and the Times but BBC, ITV, the Daily Mirror and even our humble Courier and you get an idea of how dominant De Beers was) came up with a new advertising slogan, “A Diamond is Forever”, and began to associate the purchase of diamonds with the idea of eternal love. All the talk about 'how to make one month's salary last a lifetime' and how to show the seriousness of your love for your fiancee – all this was created for marketing purposes. After all, why should the giving of a clear lump of carbon symbolise love? Why couldn't it be rubies (red for the heart)? Or something else completely different, like the keys to a house, or a portrait, or a meal?


My point here is simply that the cultural significance of diamonds is something that was created, and created not all that long ago. Yes, there is some intrinsic value to a diamond, but not much, and certainly not as much as our culture gives. In other words, I see diamonds as a perfect example of the way in which our values can be distorted by wordly pressures. We as individuals value diamonds because our culture as a whole has accepted the advertising slogans about diamonds. It's all an illusion.


Of course, it isn't just with diamonds that we go along with peer pressure and value what other people value. It applies to what we eat and how we dress, how we travel and how we entertain ourselves. We do it with most of our choices, and doing so actually makes life easier and more convenient for everyone. Imagine what it would be like if there were no shared values! There wouldn't be much of a community left. Yet alongside the positive 'social glue' there is the danger that who we are, who we are meant to be, gets squashed by the majority.


For in the end, if we simply go along with the crowd, we stand to lose all that is most essential in our own lives. We gain the world, but lose our own soul. When Jesus talks about this, he uses the language of 'living in the Kingdom'. He said “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great price, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13.45) In other words, rather than simply going with the flow, and accepting the values that the wider society have given to us, finding heaven involves finding the one thing that needs to be given a higher value than anything else in our lives. Once we have that in place – and we can give up everything else in order to get it – then we get everything else as well, in its proper place. We see the world clearly, and we have our lives in proportion.


I believe that our present way of life has rather too much of diamonds, and not enough of pearls. We have accepted certain things as having a very high value – such as economic growth and technological progress – but we have ended up giving them too much value. As a result, we are destroying the ecological basis for our existence, and losing our humanity in the process. We need to recover a proper sense of priorities, and remember what it means to be human.

District 9

Probably the best sci-fi film of at least the last ten years, a highly intelligent, sharply observed and meaningful movie which packs a hefty emotional punch. Obviously, if your preference in alien films involves Arnie and a big gun, this might be a bit disappointing (although the action-packed third act is very exciting), but if you want an original vision that is fully realised and executed, you won't go far wrong. Marvellous. 5/5

Monday, June 07, 2010

Ghost (Robert Harris)

Got this to read because I saw the trailer for the movie, and thought it looked intriguing. Fascinating plot - and consideration of what ghost-writing involves - and a satisfying ending, albeit a little predictable. At some stage I'll have to do a rant on attitudes to the Iraq war, but not today.

Heavy Rain (PS3)

Now this was a step in the right direction for me - although a sluggish and annoying beginning (annoying because I didn't find the control system intuitive, and it caused problems later on) - the basic conceit for this 'game' is fascinating, and I felt it worked well. Essentially, you play different characters in what is essentially a 'track down a serial killer' movie - and it works. I've only played it through fully once - and to be honest I'll probably not bother playing through alternative timelines, I'll just look them up on the web - but as a taster of the way the technology is moving, this was absorbing, characterful and exciting. Recommended for the more cerebral game player.
(For more info on what the game is about, go here.)

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)

OK, 2nd PS3 game that I've played through (came with the box) and.... it's alright, quite fun, would make a good, sub-Indiana Jones movie (with much higher body count). Thing is, lots of the little tricks that hook game players into keeping going (like accumulating treasures) just had no interest for me. So: clearly a very good game, just not intelligent enough for me.

The end of 24

After musing the other day about the endings of stories, a few thought about the ending of 24 from last night (the ending not just of this series, but of 24 as a whole).

24 has suffered somewhat in recent series from the diminishing returns produced by simply escalating the threats – after all, where can you go once a nuclear bomb has been detonated on US soil? - but I actually felt that these last episodes benefited from a smaller-scale threat, viz. That a peace treaty wouldn't end up being signed. It also benefited from wonderfully pitched performance from Gregory Itzin as Wormtongue, seducing the President on to the dark side.

Best of all, though, was the resolution for Jack's own character. I felt that he had crossed a line earlier in the season, when he had carried out an execution, and there was a great moment when he hovered above the abyss before returning to his own moral centre – a moral centre which proved to be the crucial factor for the President's own momentous decision. Things are nicely set up for possible movies – the 24 episode, 'real time' format is surely now played out to exhaustion for these characters.

On not talking about agw

I thought this was interesting, especially this quote:

"I very specifically avoided that whole area [climate change] for two reasons. The first is that I thought I could create a compelling enough sense of urgency without going into that topic, and the second reason is that I had worked with this enough in various life settings to discover that there are people on both sides of that story that hold very strong beliefs around that material..."

That is the same decision I made about my own book, although, since 'climategate', I am wondering whether to say something more. It's very difficult to have a conversation that doesn't generate more heat than light - on which subject, an interesting guest post at Byron's place today.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

TBTE20100602


Hallelujah! Today, I'm actually feeling well again!
So much to do; so little time....

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Movie notes

This may be the last time I review in this format

17 Again 3/5 blah
Ghost of Girlfriends Past 3/5 blah, blah
Wolverine, 4/5 much better than I expected it to be
Vicky Christina Barcelona 4/5 I've avoided Allen for a while, but this was good
Drag Me to Hell 4/5

I have dropped Sky and taken up Lovefilm, hopefully my consumption of rubbish will diminish, and my take up of quality film will increase.

Homily for Trinity Sunday

Has been posted on my other blog. Very short :)