Monday, April 27, 2009

Coming Out

I’ve always been uncomfortable about evangelism. 

Whether it’s a throwback to squirming adolescent encounters or not, I can’t be sure.

A rather down-at-heel, middle aged gentleman, dressed in dowdy, old-fashioned clothing, used to hold a battered leather-bound Bible aloft in the High Street, shuffling from foot to foot as he proclaimed his message in a quavering, sheep-like monotone, to a world safely bastioned behind a portcullis of indifference as they went about their business, eyes glazed, skirting a parabola around him.

It amused me to read a tag in the New York Times recently about a fuss in South Carolina last year over license plates. It appears that one may advertise one’s allegiance for environmental causes or pastimes like bicycling, fishing, golf, square dancing and NASCAR by a suitably modified license plate.  The new kid on the block is one proclaiming ‘I Believe’.

"There's a fundamental difference between these (other) plates and the 'I believe' tag," wrote Rob Boston, the Assistant Director of Communications of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "South Carolina can endorse NASCAR and even name it the official state sport. It cannot legally endorse Christianity."

The state has already endorsed a plate intended to appeal to atheists. The "Secular Humanists of the Low Country" plate mimics the existing "In God We Trust" plate but substitutes with "In Reason We Trust".

Oh, dear. What, I wonder do the ‘I Believers’ believe in, or, indeed, the Reasoners trust in? For the former, there’s a tasteful cross and stained glass window, so I suppose we conclude that it’s something more tangible than the Tooth Fairy, but I rather doubt that many will receive a Damascus Road experience on the Interstate having been overtaken by a car so faithfully adorned. Ah, well, ‘tant de bruit pour une omelette…’ as they say in Paris, Texas.

It does, however, raise another issue. It would seem that the humanists are Coming Out and much like our dowdy friend from the High Street doing a little evangelising. For those who like a little sauce with their pasta, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a persuasive opponent of dental caries and intelligent design. Enjoy. But not too much.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hawking's non-eventual Universe

Stephen Hawking is ill, poor man and hospitalised in Cambridge. My imagination is caught by quantum cosmology, the notion that representing the Universe as one of many by a probabilistic wavefunction might or might not be at least a partial explanation of its existence. Yet, as Einstein remarked, it 'gets us no nearer to the secret of the Old One'. Hawking's cosmology goes further than Einstein's. Theists argue, in my view more correctly, that whatever begins to exist has a cause, the Universe began to exist, therefore the Universe has a cause. The concept of 'beginning' is so intuitively obvious, so it's unwise to try to construct an argument in favour of it, for any proof of the principle is likely to be less obvious than the principle itself. And as Aristotle remarked, one ought not to try to prove the obvious via the less obvious. The old axiom that "out of nothing, nothing comes" remains as obvious today as ever. Philosophers are often adversely affected by Heidegger's dread of "the nothing,"  and conclude that "the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing", a sort of Gettysburg address of atheism, perhaps. Nothingness is however, not the same as 'hiddenness'. Unlike Dr Hawking, who clearly is a closet Gnostic, most of the rest of us have no idea about what God is thinking, much less know his mind and whether or not the notion of a beginning prefigures it. Karl Barth (a personal favourite) used to teach on the 'otherness' of God - in brief the concept that predestination is mankind having been chosen for salvation at the permanent cost of God's 'hiddenness' -  in exchange for a glass at the bierkeller. A very fair exchange.
Finally, an extraordinary  space 'blob' has just been discovered, named after a  mythical Japanese queen. Its spectra exhibited a redshifted hydrogen signature clearly indicating a remarkably large distance—12.9 billion light years - or 800 million years from the beginning of, well, time. Here's a picture of it - it appears to be about 55,000 light years across. Ah. That explains everything, then...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Social Networking

CNN was atwitter today, since it lost the battle with Ashton Kuchner "Dude, where's my car?" to find a million followers on the snappy social networking site. I actually heard the phrase ' 20th century..' for the first time, in that pityingly derogatory tone that 1920's flappers used at Surrey parties after 1918, when describing their parents as ' pre-War'.. There is, indeed nothing new under the sun.
This little quote from the Book of Ecclesiastes brings me  nicely to today's offering. Church today was endearingly muddled, which is not new, fuzzily vague in directional terms and a little unsteady liturgically, like a drunk trying a new brand of liquor for the first time. Me? I'm just the observer, the peripheral participant, the guy wearing the scarf watching the game on the touchline. No cheering, of course, that would signify involvement, just a curiosity as to the game plan. Carpenter from Nazareth seeks design consultants as well as joiners. Where are we going and what do we want? Perhaps we're all tugging gently in different directions.
Post-Church was, well, church. We all headed west to celebrate Orthodox Good Friday with a few friends. Sorry, people. The phone camera as well as the photographer could do better.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Spiral logic

I must be getting old. One of my brighter students asked me today to demonstrate a piece of physics with the irrefutable logic of mathematics. No, this wasn't a complex problem, but I found myself looking for an elegant, shatterproof piece of algebra that satisfied me, which I found a little bit demanding. Which led me, as spirals will, back to Fibonacci and I asked myself whether I could use a spreadsheet to reproduce a two-dimensional Fibonacci series as an equation.
This is how far I got in twenty minutes. I was quite pleased, since at the very least, it doesn't break any rules and at most, it's quite pretty. I might try again with a similar problem next year.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

International Day

Despite a late night last night, for reasons too dark, complex and unpleasant to relate, today was really rather jolly, being International Day at school. There are thirty-seven different nationalities, excluding Cornwall which insisted on its own T shirt, six more than Baskin Robbins, and everyone makes an effort to celebrate their cultural identity with singing, dancing, music and food. Parents vie with each other - there's a competitive feel to the proceedings - to help put on the most lavish culinary displays - the Americans and Egyptians almost came to blows over the 'borrowing' of six tables that were earmarked for the hamburgers and Kool-Aid fresh in from the US base - the South East Asians were appropriately dressed in multicoloured national costumes, the Lebanese girls wiggled bejewelled hips seductively on the stage and, inevitably, the Kuwaitis paid someone to do it all for them. A few flavourful images, enjoy...

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Another Embassy visit today, for the Easter Dawn Service.

Rumour has it that we can thank the Venerable Bede whose writings include references to the Anglo-Saxon  Eosturmonath, the month of the goddess Eostre for naming Easter.

A frequently repeated - but wholly unsourced - story relates how Eostre found a wounded, freezing bird and transformed it into a hare to ‘save’ it. The hare continued to be able to lay eggs and did so each spring in gratitude to the goddess.  A neat, improbable conjoint, I think.

Eostre (or 'a') seems to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning was perhaps adapted for the resurrection-day of the Christian God, the ancients being notorious for hedging their bets since allegiance to one deity invariably ticked off the others - rather like supporting two football teams at the same time. Bonfires were lit at Easter and according to popular belief the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, she (or perhaps, he) gives three joyful leaps, and dances for joy. Water drawn on Easter morning is, like that at Christmas, holy and healing. Maidens clothed in white, who at Easter, at the season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess. 

In the Embassy gardens this morning, no maidens, clad or otherwise, peeped out from behind the bushes, no hares gambolled, no eggs were discovered in hedgerows; instead a dawn chorus of familiar numbers from Godspell started off the proceedings. Lovely. However, I still think that sticking to Pesach would've been much fairer to everyone.


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I met a photographer the other day, and paid him the gravest insult imaginable by making some completely inane remark about how many weddings he must have to attend every year. Sorry, Charlie. It did, however, provoke me into looking at my own mediocre photographic archives - everyone's a David Bailey since pixellation and Microsoft. I'm fascinated by the differences between the man-made and naturally occurring - the man-made having a fractal clumsiness while the natural has a breadth and sweep of detail which makes the man- made look half-finished. A couple of images illustrate the point, shot with my very own Kodak EasyShare V803. There was unfortunately a brewing storm, which rather took away the sharpness and the feel of Lego bricks that I wanted. The bottom shot is of an Oxfordshire wall.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009


occasionally has the power to surprise. I'm not a great lover of IKEA, being neither in my mid 20's nor having a relish for unfinished pine and flat-pack. It so happens, however, to be the 25th anniversary of their startup here and instead of stark, Scandinavian minimalia, in a corner of the restaurant there was an exhibition of Arabic craftsmanship, with artisans using hands, feet and curiously shaped, improbably sharp knives with the cavalier abandon born of a lifetime's practice, making beautiful furniture, children's toys and sea-chests, in celebration of local culture. The contrast was curiously warming, like finding something beautiful in a place where beauty ought not to be, like a flower seller in a war zone. This man took less than twenty minutes of relaxed, effortless manipulation to make a child's toy from scratch, including stripping the date palm, making holes, fitting and finishing. An impressive performance indeed.
Yesterday's post was depressing and in bad taste. Perhaps this will redress the balance a little

The Dark Side

Kidnapping is by no means unknown here, together with ransom demands. Someone sent this to me recently, and I'm reproducing it word for word here. Carrefour is a busy, modern hypermarket in the middle of a vast shopping mall, frequented by the well-heeled, Westernised and, one might suppose, civilised members of the community. A few days ago, this happened...
A mother was leaning over looking for meat and turned around to find her four year old daughter was missing. I was standing there right beside her and she was calling her daughter with no luck.
I asked a man who worked at Carrefour to announce it over the loudspeaker. He immediately walked right past me after I asked and went to a pole where there was a phone. He made an announcement for all the doors and gates to be locked - using a store code or something. So they locked all the doors at once.
This took all of three minutes after I asked the guy to do this. They found the little girl five minutes later in the store's toilet cubicle - drugged.
Her head was half-shaved and was dressed in her underwear with a bag of clothes, a razor, and a wig sitting on the floor beside her - most likely to make her look different! Whoever this despicable person was took the little girl, brought her into the bathroom, shaved half her head and undressed her in a matter of less than 10 minutes
Most of us float comfortably on the warm waters of secure and predictable events. Underneath - not far below the surface, it seems - is a dark, putrid, seething stewpot of pure evil, which we rarely even see, much less touch. Were this my daughter, what kind of blind, unreasoning rage would have been unleashed in me, and what kind of vengeance would I have exacted, had I caught the perpetrator? I wonder, does this make me as evil as him?
In  lighter and tastelessly flippant bad taste, I came across this image. Ironically over 50% of Kuwaitis are clinically obese.