Friday, 26 December 2008

American Christianity and politics

I recently came across this speech that Obama gave a couple of years back to a Christian group and I think it points up a trend in the influence of Christianity on US politics. One of the guys Obama mentions, Jim Wallis, was a prime mover in a delegation of US churchmen who visited Tony Blair before the Iraq war and attempted to persuade him not to jump.

My reading (from 3000 miles away) of what has happened in the US in recent years is that the Democratic party has been dominated by a secular fundamentalism which attempts to ban any reference to God in public life (e.g. the language checker in our American HR software which objects to "Christmas" and suggests "holiday" instead). This has (unsurprisingly) driven many Christians into the arms of people like Falwell and through them, the Republicans. This support has in turn been used to shore up an increasingly theocratic regime which (probably mistakenly rather than cynically) confuses America and the Kingdom of God.

I think what is interesting is that we might be at a tipping point. Even the most honey-tongued televangelist must be running out of ways of persuading anyone who has actually read the Sermon on the Mount that the current Republican executive maps onto Jesus's blueprint for human relationships! I am fascinated that Obama sounds like he thinks along the same lines as Wallis.

To make it work, I think Christians have to persuade rather than pronounce; if for example they want to lower the rate of abortions for social reasons, to provide arguments that the secular humanist can subscribe to, rather than just expecting them to accede to a Christian viewpoint. The secular humanists meanwhile have to drop this absurd notion that religion and politics don't mix and give Christians and other religious believers the space to express themselves in theological terms on the public stage as King (and indeed Lincoln) did.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Christmas stamps

I was told that the UK Post Office were offering a mixture of secular and Christian stamp designs this Christmas. This seemed odd to me given the nature of Christmas as a Christian festival (it would seem pretty weird to print secular stamps for Ede, Hanukkah or Diwali).

However I didn't mind very much so long as I could get Christian designs. When I tried to purchase some stamps 6 days before Christmas though, I was told that my local Post office had long since run out of the Christian designs. Since when does a post office run out of stamps? And what are those small-minded enough to object to a Christian festival doing sending Christmas cards anyway? Christmas without the Christian bit seems to make as much sense as a rock concert without music.

Friday, 27 June 2008

"Positive" Discrimination

The UK Government is proposing legislation which would make it legal to discriminate against white males in, for example, promotions at work. Their reasoning is that they want to try to even up gender and racial imbalances in the work place.

If we are going to have positive discrimination to even up gender imbalances in the workplace, can we have positive discrimination in divorce courts to even up the imbalance of custody between men and women in divorce cases (90% of single parents are women)?

Or drop the whole stupid idea. Equality of opportunity is not the same as equality of outcomes.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Lisbon treaty

Henceforth I will fly only by Ryan air and drink only Irish whiskey. The Irish people have spoken for 400 million disenfranchised European citizens and kicked the wretched EU constitution into touch.

One wonders what part of the word "no" our politicians are struggling with. Most of us are in favour of an economic community (facilitating trade) but do not want a political union. If it ever happens it will be the beginning of the end of democracy in Europe - for the same reason that democracy doesn't work well in parts of Africa. Tribalism. One-person-one-vote only works if those persons loyalty is primarily to the political entity whose leaders they are choosing. Most of us feel national loyalties more strongly than European ones.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Cars and Commuting

There has been some discussion at work about greening the workplace. There are lots of politically correct things to do like recycling paper and ink cartridges and using low-power laptops. Most of these things pale into insignificance however when compared with the impact of commuting to the workplace.

As a ball-park figure, a car needs about 1 Kilowatt-hour to go 5 miles. Even ignoring engine and drivetrain efficiency (lousy, especially for the first part of the journey in winter when the engine is cold), this still works out to a Megawatt-hour per day for 250 people doing 10 miles each way. There are several possible ways to reduce this.

  • Encourage home working, maybe following BT's lead and having people formally based at home and hot desking when they come into the office for meetings.
  • Apply pressure for better public transport links (minibuses to business parks from park-and-ride locations??)
  • Encourage care sharing/pooling
  • State a policy to provide electric vehicle charging points at work. Many of us could commute in currently-available electric vehicles if there was recharging at work.
Electric vehicles still burn power, but less of it and produced with:
  1. a greater range of energy sources other than oil (including renewables)
  2. greater thermal efficiency (a fixed power station is more efficient than the true lifetime efficiency of a car engine which some sources put below 5%)
  3. more efficient distribution (electricity is distributed by wires with a small loss compared with the additional fuel burn of petrol tankers)
  4. less atmospheric pollution (fixed power stations again)

Electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles have a further longer term emergent eco-system benefit. With the right control software a critical mass of electric vehicles nationally could be used to smooth power demand. At present a significant amount of generating capacity has to be kept on idle standby to cope with peaks and troughs in demand (e.g. everyone putting the kettle on at the start of cup-final half time). A million EV batteries could do the same job (the grid charges the batteries during play and borrows a bit back at half time)

Saturday, 10 May 2008

He who sits in the Heavens will laugh them to scorn

The God Delusion. written by Richard Dawkins (an Oxford academic) is an outspoken attack on religious faith in general and Christianity in particular. It is brilliantly written, although the actual content is sloppy and naive. One among many examples of this naivety is his handling of the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac, which Dawkins roundly condemns, in effect accusing Yahweh (the name often used for God in the Old Testament) of child abuse.

I have met many Western Christians who are also uneasy about this story. I think both are mistaken. They are attempting to interpret the text through their own cultural filters and failing to see it through the eyes of those about whom and to whom it was written.

We know that human sacrifice was widespread in the centuries before and soon after the Old Testament period.

  • In the ancient Near East the God Molech is described by many authors as consuming living babies.
  • Chemosh in Moab required the occasional human sacrifice.
  • The tomb of Queen Pur-Abi in Ur (the city from which Abraham had come) contained the remains of 5 soldiers and 23 ladies in waiting.
  • It is believed by some that Phoenicians and Carthaginians sacrificed children.
  • In the Americas, the Aztec, the Maya and the Inca almost certainly practiced human sacrifice.
  • There is evidence for it amongst the Celts and the Vikings,
  • and in India and China.

Now imagine the story of Abraham, not being read by an academic living at a time when human sacrifice has been outlawed for millenia, but being heard around the campfire by people to whom human sacrifice was the norm. To them, the really shocking thing about the story would not have been that Yahweh said "do it" (that is what gods did in those days) but that Yahweh subsequently said "stop".

And people, particularly people who do not have access to books, learn through stories. To a peasant who has grown up with human sacrifice, this is a story with an unforgettable punch line: a story worth a thousand finger-wagging admonishments. Here is a God on the point of getting the ultimate sacrifice from one of his followers saying "stop - I don't want it"

It is arguable that this story of Abraham and Isaac has actually been redundant for the last thousand years, having done the job God intended for it. The three Abrahamic religions have wiped human sacrifice, once so common, from the face of the earth. It is banned in every country on the planet and has almost completely disappeared from every culture. We cannot wind back and re-run history without Abraham, but it is a fair guess that this story which Dawkins so derides has played a part in that triumph.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Below 50 Degrees South

The Southern ocean is one of the wildest and most inhospitable place on earth. There is an old saying that "south of 40 degrees south there is no law and south of 50 degrees there is no god".

In a 1996 single handed round-the-world race, Tony Bullimore went missing. One TV programme I saw about him at the time said that his wife, a Christian, organised prayer meetings on his behalf

To everyone's astonishment, a P3 Orion spotted the upturned hull of his yacht in the vastness of the Southern ocean. It had suffered a keel failure which had caused it to roll inverted. Bullimore survived in an air pocket in the capsized hull. Later an Australian destroyer rescued him after 5 days in the upturned hull.

The position of the rescue? 52 degrees south.

"... whither shall I flee from thy presence?..If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;..Even there thy right hand shall hold me."

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Contempt and Idolatry

In the 18th Century, Lord Chesterfield once wrote to his son "Speak of the Moderns without contempt and the Ancients without idolatry"

Our danger is the reverse: to idolise contemporary celebrities and to pass judgement on the wisdom and scholarship of the past on the basis of our vague and tawdry moral code

Friday, 14 March 2008

Green posturing?

How many of our green priorities are just posturing, and how much is tied to real benefit to real people? A few months back, I read an article on green laptops (the key issue being power consumption).

This is just daft. The power used by a laptop is a minute fraction of the power consumed in a typical office day. A typical laptop consumes between 7 and 30 watts depending on load. Even if I used my laptop for 8 hours at the higher figure, that is about 0.25 k.watt-hours in a working day.

My daily commute consumes at least thirty times that. It's about 40 miles/day and takes about an hour. My car probably uses about 10 HP in cruise. That is about 7.5 k.watt-hours a day ( I am making the assumption - generous to the laptop - that my car engine is about as efficient as a fixed power station at turning fuel into usable power)

Many authorities suggest that dropping your cruising speed from (say) 65 m.p.h to 60, increasing your tyre pressure, or lowering the weight of the car saves a significant percentage. If you do the arithmetic, only filling your fuel tank half way (to keep the weight down) would probably do more real good than swapping the worst laptop for the best. If you combined that with dropping your cruising speed 5 mph, and/or timing your commute to avoid peak traffic, you would blow any possible laptop power savings into the weeds.

You could do similar calculations on office heating and probably even the power consumed by the office kettle or in the staff canteen. Laptop power consumption is a drop in a bucket. There are far bigger wins that are easier and cheaper.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Not a little KNOWLEDGE but a little LEARNING

One of the most frequently misquoted sayings in English must be Alexander Pope's "A little learning is a dangerous thing..". It often becomes "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing...".

The two are most emphatically not the same. A little knowledge in the hands of a learned man or woman is perfectly safe and usually helpful. Great knowledge in the hands of someone of little learning is a recipe for arrogance.

Friday, 29 February 2008

Tonal Languages

Chinese (at least Mandarin, the most common dialect) is a tonal language. That is the the difference between a rising and a falling tone completely changes the meaning of a word. So for example, a sharp "shh" sound means "is" - if the tone is falling (like a steam locomotive on a gradient). On the other hand it can mean "poem" if the tone is level (like shushing a child whispering during a film). If the tone rises it means "ten".

English on the other hand is not tonal - or is it? The meaning of the word "Really" for example changes radically with the tone. With a falling tone it conveys scepticism or unbelief. A rising tone conveys interest or surprise.

Saturday, 26 January 2008


On 2 August 1947 a Lancastrian airliner crashed in the Andes. No traces of the aircraft were found in contemporary searches, but 50 years later the mystery was largely solved when bits of Lancastrian, and the remains of most of the passengers and crew were spat out by the Tupungato glacier. All on board had been killed in what (for those days) was a very common type of accident - flying into a hill in cloud.

A mystery remains however: the official record suggests that the last radio transmission from the aircraft (in morse code) was ETA [estimated time of arrival] Santiago 17.45 hrs STENDEC.

This message was clearly odd, because to this day no-one can begin to understand what STENDEC might have meant. It was repeated three times, very fast but apparently clearly. There is however another oddity. The message was received at 17.41, which means that the crew apparently believed themselves to be four minutes from touchdown.

This is however impossible if the crew had the slightest idea of their altitude. Current estimates are that the aircraft hit the ground at about 15,000 feet above sea level. Santiago is around 1,500 feet above sea level. In an unpressurised aircraft, 500 ft a minute is a comfortable rate of descent with passengers on board. Even if they pushed it to 1000 feet a minute the descent alone, quite apart from manoeuvring for landing, would take 15 minutes or so. Either the altimeter readings were way off or the last radio message was transcribed wrongly.

We know from accounts of WWII bomber operations that icing was a serious and sometimes fatal hazard. From contemporary photos, the Lancastrian did not appear to have any de-icing equipment, which would have made airframe icing a grave danger. If severe icing was encountered, the only way out was down - a problem if you are over high terrain in cloud.

If part of the message (the ETA) was wrong, the STENDEC bit could be wrong too. If you look at the morse for STENDEC and the morse for the word ICING with the letter separators changed, there is a lot of similarity:

... - . -. -.. . -.-. (Stendec)
.. - . -. .. -. - -. (Icing)

Futhermore, Icing is the only word that I can think of which could stand on it's own and not need to be part of a longer sentence or phrase like fuel low or engine losing power. If it had happened the radio operator would have understood the peril, which would explain the rapid repetition. It all fits, although we shall never know for sure.