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So long, LJ [18 Jan 2007|01:25pm]
For the sake of anyone still keeping an eye on this journal, it's time I wound things up - and directed you towards my new blog, Changing the World (and other excuses for not getting a proper job).

There are various reasons for moving on, not least that having left the BBC I feel freer to write under my own name. But that doesn't get to the core of it. LiveJournal was my first experience of the internet as an immersive social experience, rather than a reference and mail service. This journal started by accident, mostly because I was lonely in China and needed a window through which to spew at the English-speaking world - an experience I know a couple of my LJ friends can relate to. (It does occur to me that had I not become so immersed in the internet, I would have immersed myself more fully in my surroundings and my Mandarin would be a lot better...)

I almost let it drop after returning to England - LiveJournal, that is, not Mandarin - replaced by a mixture of face-to-face conversation and the discovery of other online environments, particularly the University of Openness and the Yahoo! Alan Garner group. What drew me back was the discovery that I had, without noticing, acquired a couple of mysterious LJ friends.

Up to that point, I'd assumed I was simply writing for a few "real world" friends. There was something heady about this new world of virtual social networks. I went exploring through the network of "interests". To be honest, I was disturbed by a lot of what I found: not because of any great innocence, but because I didn't know how to handle the intensity of pain and suffering which some people were pouring into their public journals. But I became more adept at filtering and finding interesting voices, including some wonderful writers whose thoughts and experiences it's been a pleasure to be let in on. (I'll still check my Friends page from time to time.)

It's a strange medium, this, patchy, casual and intense. It can be startling when you notice the absence of boundaries and conventions we take for granted in the old media. You start following someone's journal with a detached interest because you enjoy their thoughts on the world, and then after a few months they're hit by a major life event and you feel it with them. This happens with none of the editorial filtering that would apply to a newspaper column. People come and go, not posting for months, sometimes disappearing apparently forever. Once, a friend of someone whose journal I'd followed left a comment to ask if I'd seen or heard from him as he'd gone missing. I hadn't. I hope he turned up.

For myself, I don't know that I ever quite found the right voice for this journal. It was only a couple of degrees out, but it felt awkward, and I guess that's one reason why I decided to start somewhere else. But I'm glad I started here, because I probably wouldn't be involved in the work I'm doing now if I hadn't been drawn in to the potential of internet through this little corner of it.

Thanks for reading.

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[08 Sep 2006|11:44am]
Blair's off to the Middle East this weekend - presumably for some peace and quiet...
21 comments|post comment

[11 Aug 2006|12:49pm]
Some sanity from the editorial column of today's FT:
...no system is perfectly secure, and even if the world's aircraft could be made secure at a reasonable cost in time and money, terrorists will always have other options as simple as truck bombs or explosives on trains and buses. There will be more attacks, perhaps deadly and dramatic ones.

The first response must be to adopt a foreign policy that saps terrorists of support without pandering to their demands. It should not be necessary to remind either the US or the British government that it is not possible simply to kill or catch all the terrorists until there are none left - a pointless strategy based on what one might call the "lump of terror" fallacy.

The second response must be a sense of proportion. More than 3,000 people died last year on our roads, but the roads stay open. Even the worst acts of terrorism reap their largest toll in hysterical responses. Scotland Yard's statement that they had disrupted a plot to cause "mass murder on an unimaginable scale" was alarmist even if it is true. Journalists - and terrorists - are perfectly capable of spreading hyperbole without any help from the police. The most powerful answer to terrorism is not to be terrified.
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[26 Jul 2006|10:04am]
Some time ago, in a discussion on here, someone called JJ asked me a question: 'If you do dismiss literal interpretations of religious stories, how do you deal with the language of "belief" and "faith" that so pervades religious discourse?' I have been slow to reply, because the series of posts that led to the question were riddled with assumptions which, while widespread among educated people, I don't share. But cool_moose has been looking at my (slightly out of date) website and mentioned the subject of church, which started me thinking. Maybe I can offer some kind of answer to JJ in the process.

One of my oldest friends was recently ordained as an Anglican priest - I felt a joy for him quite unlike what you would ordinarily feel about someone getting a new job. Myself, I feel closer to Alan Garner:
I couldn't go far with any creed. But that to me is not relevant. It's enough that I know. I wouldn't try to persuade others, and it doesn't concern me, though I know it concerns some churchmen, that I'm not a member of the Church of England. They say, "Well, if you know, why don't you join...". And I have to say: "My job is not to join; it's to have another angle, to report the view from here."
I don't mean that I'm agnostic - rather that I have never been able to take the modern (in the long historical sense) confinement of religion to certain times and certain buildings very seriously. It's all around, or it's nothing. We may take the world for granted, as something which is simply 'there', yet we are always either engaged in the process of drawing out meaning from what's there, or else living within the result of others efforts at drawing out meaning. It is possible to say such meaning is entirely arbitrary (though it is harder to believe this than to say it). On the other hand, there is the experience that some attempts at making sense of things ring true, seem to correspond to something out there. Garner again:
Most of my friends are as recognisably priests as anyone can be. People who work in the theatre are in a religious profession: a theatrical director has the same job as a vicar. There's no difference in kind. They have to make manifest that which is not manifest, but which is. And they have to do it by presenting a picture or a metaphor of reality, because you cannot describe reality, but you can present a metaphor. A play, a novel, a parable, a religious text - all serve the same function. Just try seeing things this way, you say: you won't see it all but it will be another facet.
My issue with JJ is that - like a lot of people, including some liberal Christians, not to mention the literalists themselves - he thinks literalism was the natural form of religion and that seeing religion as metaphor is a modern trick by which to dilute unpalatable nonsense. This view is difficult to argue with, because it is widely held by intelligent people, yet incredible to anyone who has spent much time with theology - or, which had more influence on me, poetry - that predates "modernity".

In fact, I tend to see the process the other way round to JJ. Up to around the seventeenth century, the orthodox position for western thinkers was similar to that of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face...
To 'see through a glass, darkly' is to see indirectly, by telling stories, by metaphor - to treat the stuff that matters as difficult to get at, not directly accessible to us, but real and important, nonetheless. It seems to me that during the early modern period Paul's analogy was rearranged - the significant breakthroughs in scientific and technical knowledge led to a sense that we could 'put away childish things' and see all of reality 'face to face'. This became the new orthodoxy - that only that which can be observed directly exists, and that the stuff of stories is for children. ('Alice in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking Glass' are littered with the tropes of medieval religious dream poetry...)

Isaac Newton, for example, was deeply entangled in mysticism, but among the first generation to see the significance of his work, the sense grew that this process should unravel the workings of the universe all the way back to God Himself. (On this, see AD Nuttall's book on Pope's 'Essay on Man'.) This is where that desiccated form of religion, Deism, came from - although its appeal to thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century is perhaps only comprehensible in that the prospect of a scientific formula for religion may have seemed to offer an end to the religious wars which Europe had suffered. (Wars which must be understood as being rooted in social and economic tensions, rather than simply irrational religious feuding - the spread of secularism didn't make the twentieth century notably peaceful...)

Far from being the historical form of Christianity, biblical literalism (and fundamentalism in general) is Deism for the scientifically illiterate - religion reduced to a set of pseudo-scientific formulae, of which Creationism is only the most explicit example. Religion that claims 'face to face' knowledge, that has no place for mystery, develops a peculiar kind of intolerance and incuriosity. (This is not to say that this new form of religion has a monopoly on either, nor on bloodiness.) Those versions of liberal Christianity which hitch themselves to a secular narrative of progress and cede the ground of tradition to the fundamentalists do a deep injustice to their forebears. More practically, they also lose the ability to offer a genuine theological critique of the world today - getting sucked into feuds over sexuality within the church rather than challenging the cult of instant gratification which has been passed off as genuine sexual liberation.

So, how do I 'deal with the language of "belief" and "faith" that so pervades religious discourse?' I deal with belief with difficulty, as many have before me. I think of the father who said to Jesus, 'I believe; help my unbelief'. And when none if it makes much sense, I don't see it through the Victorian lens of the 'crisis of faith', but the 16th century lens of the 'dark night of the soul'. Because part of what was mislaid with the mystery and the riddles and the dark glass was the sense that whether I believe in God is no more important than whether God believes in me.
8 comments|post comment

outside in [24 Jul 2006|03:09pm]
I had a little rant on here some time ago about 'the nonsense we take for granted and call education'. There were a couple of comments I wanted to pick up, summed up by csn:
I tend to think that working within the system to change the structure is more effective than attempting to demolish it from the outside, though...
I wanted to come back to this, because so many intelligent and well-intentioned people succumb to this argument and much energy and talent is wasted as a result. I have yet to find a situation in which there is genuinely no choice except between 'working within the system' or 'attempting to demolish it from the outside'. In fact, I would go further - those apparent opposites have a common effect. To do either is to worship 'the system', in the sense of investing it with absolute importance and power. (This is also an argument against 'anti-' protests of any kind - although it must be balanced with the potentially transformative experience of participating in such events...)

The arguments I make about structures like our present education system are not arguments for an assault on them, but for investing one's time and energy in developing alternatives that have the potential to render them obsolete. In this sense, the most effective activists are similar to what, in the world of business, people call 'disruptive entrepreneurs'. What distinguishes the conventional entrepreneur from the activist is the priority put on measurable, monetary value - Pick Me Up, for example, is produced and distributed for free, but those of us involved have generally felt well-rewarded. I think of this kind of activism as entrepreneurship rooted in the diverse flows of value that make up human community, rather than the single (though important) flow of value dealt with by conventional economics. (One consequence of this difference is that the activist-as-disruptive-entrepreneur is better prepared for disruptions of economic 'reality'.)

Two distinctions may be useful. The 'DIY Culture' of the punk scene and much 'anarchist' activism has similarities to the the way something like Pick Me Up is produced - but it also tends to centre around a purist rejection of the mainstream economy which leads back to the worshipping-the-system-by-attacking-it problem. The kind of activism I celebrate is unashamedly pragmatic, because it sees 'purity' as not only unattainable but undesireable. On the other hand, I would distinguish this kind of activism from 'Social Entrepreneurship' because that goes under that label involves filling the gaps in current structures rather than innovating to render them obsolete. (I'm not saying that may not be valuable, I'm just making the case for another approach.) If I had to give the people I'm talking about a label, I'd call them Guerrilla Social Entrepreneurs.

One other element is important to this kind of activism - a deep grounding in the diversity of ways that people have lived at different places and times. This is why I find such value in the work of anthropologists like Hugh Brody, writers like John Berger and Alan Garner, social thinkers like Ivan Illich, as well as theologians. Rather than the utopian thinking which has shaped 'progressive' politics for two centuries, it is an attention to the variety of ways of living people have already practised that gives the confidence and the insights necessary to question what we currently take for granted.

I'm skimming over a lot of ground here - ground I'll hope to cover more satisfactorily in the closing section of the book - but I'd value people's questions.

Finally, to give an example relevant to the original subject of education, let me say a little about a project I'm currently involved with. This is an attempt to create an online mechanism for putting people who want to learn a certain skill or discipline in touch with one another and with those who can teach them. The idea is not to facilitate online learning, but to use the internet to make it easier for people to find others to learn with or from in their local area. I can't go into much detail, as we're on the point of getting development funding and need to be aware of the risk of someone else coming along and lifting our idea - but perhaps you can see the potential of such a project for disrupting the existing structures of education. (It's certainly something I'll be interested in discussing once we're further down the line.)
8 comments|post comment

[24 Jul 2006|03:49am]
Long time, no post...

Busy writing and stuff.

And organising a Manhunt in Sheffield next Saturday. (How long is it since you last played Hide & Seek? Too long, I'm guessing...)

I'll reply to those outstanding comments soon, I promise, but at 0315 all I'm up to is using this as a random place to list some books I may otherwise forget to order, but can't justify buying off Amazon - at least until my last order arrives. If you've read any of them and don't think I should bother, do tell me.

Daniel Bell, 'The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism' (old, but I read about it three years ago and it keeps coming back to mind)

Richard Sennett, 'The Fall of Public Man' (read a library copy years ago and, though his overall arguments don't hold together, it's a jumble of fascinating digressions which I find myself wanting to refer to)

'Politics Without the State', ed. George & Mudede (several chapters by Nicolas Veroli, whose essay on Descartes & the enclosure of knowledge, 'How a Fiction became the Truth', is brilliant)

Andrew Ross, 'No Collar: The Humane Workplace and its Hidden Costs' (thanks to http://www.bonkworld.org/media/swfs/skive/onskiving.pdf)

Charles Leadbeater, 'Up the Down Escalator' (because I'm preoccupied with optimism, pessimism and hope and suspect I'll disagree with it - although since writing it, he's become fascinated by Illich - albeit a rather sanitized, secular version)

Also the history of the department store which Sennett quotes from in 'The Fall of Public Man'

It really is time to sleep...
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[16 Apr 2006|02:07pm]
There are many things in life which seem perfectly sensible until you think about them. School, for example.

Today's Observer features an example of the kind of "new research" without which newspapers (and radio news bulletins) wouldn't know what to do:
Hundreds of thousands of parents are risking hefty fines by taking their children out of school to take advantage of cheaper holidays or enjoy day trips because it is 'more convenient', according to new research.

Many of those who go on short breaks or one-day outings often tell teachers their children are ill, feeling the lie is justified because their work patterns make it difficult for their families to spend time together.
There are plenty of issues involved in the story, but the most fundamental may be the least obvious. On what basis does the state tell people what they can and can't do with their children - and levy fines for the exercise of "parental choice"?

If someone was telling me what to do, in any area of my life, I'd want to know that they spoke from a position of competence, that there was something I could learn from them. But the state's track record is not encouraging. As corporate parent, it is responsible for around 61,000 children in care. At sixteen, 6% of such children will get five good GCSE grades (A* to C) - compared to 53% of children overall.

the case against school - continued...Collapse )
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[19 Feb 2006|02:37pm]
This so-called concern with human rights, that bombs the hell out of the citizens of Kosovo or Baghdad, ignores so many things. Above all, the ingenuity with which people manage somehow to live, and help each other survive. And this ingenuity is very close to what I mean by tenderness.
(John Berger, interviewed in the Daily Telegraph, 23rd July 2001)
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the bill to end all bills [16 Feb 2006|03:32pm]
What are we going to do about this?

I had a riff going a while back about how Bush, Blair and Berlusconi represent the dawn of the post-democratic era. I thought I was being a little over the top. I was wrong.
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jesus christ superhero? [07 Feb 2006|05:08pm]
On tomorrow morning's Radio Sheffield Breakfast, we have a local RE-teacher-turned-academic who apparently 'sees many parallels between Jesus and Superman'. This, the Daily Torygraph informs me, is her idea for making RE relevant to kids who've never been to Sunday School.

Leaving aside the question of whether Superman himself is exactly up to date, what are these parallels Miss Cook finds between the two?:
• Both arrive on Earth in unusual circumstances after being sent by their fathers

• Both move from relative obscurity to a prominent adulthood

• Both are able to help the humans they are sent to live with

• Both struggle to stand up for truth against injustice and evil
Whatever your take on Christianity, surely the most apt point of comparison is the temptation in the desert:
Next the devil took him to the holy city, set him upon the parapet of the temple, and said, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. Scripture has it, 'He will bid his angels take care of you; with their hands they will support you that you may never stumble on a stone.'"

Jesus replied, "Scripture also has it, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'" (Matt 4.5-7)
The devil tempts Jesus to play Superman - and he refuses.
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Just a thought... [25 Jan 2006|11:32am]
How big a bung do you think Blair gave Endemol to put Galloway on Celebrity Big Brother?

Incidentally, it seems to be orthodoxy in much of the leftish blogosphere that one ought to pick a side in the great Galloway versus Hitchens gangbang. Isn't this a prime illustration of the way our entire post-9/11 culture has been infected with the rhetoric of "You're either with us or you're with them..."?
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'the economist' backs people power - up to a point... [22 Jan 2006|06:00pm]
Tom points out this (pay-walled) article from the Economist about the virtues of people power:
All the evidence is that people power, if it is to bring about a lasting change that increases freedom, must bubble up from below. It must be indigenous, broad-based and, ideally, non-violent.
It's certainly a shift from the belief that military intervention could trigger a domino effect. But it relies on a Fukuyama-ish certainty that 'people power' could never trouble regimes that think of themselves as democratic, as opposed to Islamic hierocracies.

evo morales, ozymandias & isaiah 40...Collapse )
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jonah arrives in london [20 Jan 2006|02:59pm]
A northern bottle-nosed whale swam past the houses of parliament this morning. An epic animal disturbingly out of place against an iconic background, it feels like an early scene in a Hollywood disaster movie. (One about global warming...?)
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pick me up #77 [09 Jan 2006|11:20am]
Pick Me Up #77 finally arrived in people's intrays this morning. Big thanks to mcgeary, jjones229 and csn who feature in the January 1st story! (I hope my editing didn't introduce any errors into your wonderful stories...)
"There is no such thing as a long piece of work, except one
that you dare not start."

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion."

read pick me upCollapse )

Sign up for Pick Me Up here.
3 comments|post comment

my education was what I got when I should have been doing my homework [04 Jan 2006|10:24pm]
A while ago, I was batting around ideas with another of the younger reporters in the newsroom, slipping from one subject to another through analogies or bad jokes, when a colleague across the desk shook his head and said, "I don't think the way you two do."

It was one of a series of moments that have made me understand for the first time why I.T. is called Information Technology. Information literacy isn't about being able to use Word and Excel or even knowing how to find what you want on Google - it's about a whole new set of ways of working with information.

These ways of working lead to a newly agile approach to reality...Collapse )
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the hope that waits inside the leafless tree [04 Jan 2006|03:38pm]
I told mcgeary I'd post the poem/prayer I wrote last January. The pain it was written from seems a long way off, thankfully, but the words still work for me.

a prayer for new yearCollapse )
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a new year request [31 Dec 2005|12:25pm]
As a few of you know, I'm one of the editors of an email magazine called Pick Me Up. Some people say it's like "Why Don't You...?" for grownups.

Well, I'm editing the first issue of the New Year, which comes out next Friday. My friend Charlie suggested we ask people to capture a moment of January 1st 2006.

So I thought I'd ask any of you who fancy it to post a few lines or maybe a photo that captures something that happens to you in the first 24 hours of the New Year. (Or alternatively, drop me an email.)
5 comments|post comment

rock synchrony [19 Dec 2005|12:03pm]
Interesting to see how far this gets - a sort of distributed Live Aid. Basically, a band called the Flying Heroes are trying to get hundreds of venues around the world to organise simultaneous concerts, in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust.

It's all happening on 1st July, 2006.
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[08 Dec 2005|03:41pm]
The best sale ever! - courtesy of the Space Hijackers:
The plan was beautifully simple! Print up a bundle of t-shirts for our secret agents, we then wander into large chainstores in central London and help the staff tidy up, give out directions and generally be helpful members of the public.</a>
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[29 Nov 2005|08:08pm]
Still thinking about weddings, I went back to re-read the final section of John Berger's 'Here is where we meet'. The book consists of a series of encounters with the dead, but it ends with a birth and a marriage - though not in the respectable order. The scene is a town in Galicia (not the region of Spain, but the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands), which like everything else in Berger's writing seems to have been listened to with an unusual attention:
Nobody starves in Nowy Targ as they do in Milano or Paris, but there's a pall of silence over the town for there are no projects to discuss. The town lives, like dust, from day to day. And its six or seven taxis wait discreetly, just off the main square, for the occasional fare, usually a foreigner.
So here are some samples from the wedding at Nowy Targ which sidle up to what I was trying to say directly and too fast. First, the young priest:
He knew each marriage at which he officiated had been agreed upon within an intricate web of calculation, desire, fear, bribes and love, for such is the nature of the marriage contract. Each time, however, the task he set himself was to try to locate what was pure in this web. Like a hunter going into the forest, he set out to stalk a purity, to entice it out of its cover and to let all those present, and particularly the couple involved, acknowledge it.

Not an easy task, and it wasn't necessarily simple on the rare occasion when the woman and man were wildly in love, with scarcely andy other interest, for then he risked to glimpse how desire, when mutual and passionate, is more often than not, a conspiracy of two against the cruelty of the world, apparently abandoned by God. Shreds of the purity he sought were of course always present, what made his task difficult is that a purity, when disclosed, invariably goes back into hiding...

The young priest last Saturday in Nowy Targ, accomplished his task; at a certain moment he was radiant. Perhaps the purity he located, the purity which did not run for cover, resided in ten-month-old Olek. Olek, dressed in white like his mother and father, lay awake and totally calm throughout the long ceremony in the arms of Danka's elder sister, who was sitting, smiling towards the altar, at the back of the church.
Read more...Collapse )
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