Sunday, October 29, 2006

Faith And Faithlessness And Academic Disputes

In the LRB, vol 28 n 20, Terry Eagleton reviewed Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. In the review Eagleton berates Dawkins for attacking religion whilst knowing nothing about theology.
Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.
Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?
This week's LRB, vol 28 n 21, has A.C. Grayling accusing Eagleton of missing the point that "when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises" and discusses why it is not necessary to discuss the finer points of astrological theories to dismiss astrology as so much poppycock. The final paragraph of Grayling's letter contains the beginning of an academic feud:
Eagleton’s touching foray into theology shows, if proof were needed, that he is no philosopher: God does not have to exist, he informs us, to be the ‘condition of possibility’ for anything else to exist. There follow several paragraphs in the same fanciful and increasingly emetic vein, which indirectly explain why he once thought Derrida should have been awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge.
On such trifles does the world turn.

Itzhak Perlman Return to Cracow

Via Norm I found this beautiful piece on Itzhak Perlman's return to Cracow.

Go watch and listen. And think. About the meaning of "Never again".

Friday, October 27, 2006


This is just so wrong.

I am nerdier than 83% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

I read. I run. I watch films. I go to gigs. I go to concerts. It's just so wrong.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Blog first, ask questions later

Several weeks ago I blogged on a spat between Bookmarks and Principia Dialectica. I was, perhaps a little harsh on Principia Dialectica.

On Saturday I picked up a copy at the splendid London Review Bookshop.

It's definitely a journal to take your time over. There's an interesting piece on William Morris, Constructivists and Rodchenko. And an article by Moishe Postone rethinking the critical theory of capitalism.

An argument that keeps recurring is the Situationist position that it is the duty of the working class to abolish itself. As someone commented Moishe Postone formulates this position in a footnote in his 1993 book Time, Labor, and Social Domination.

The words "valorisation" and "revalorisation" crop up all over the magazine. It that's the type of thing that floats your boat then read it.

And now Will Rubbish quotes Moishe Postone.

Le Blog Diplomatique

The UN envoy to Sudan has been kicked out of the country for blogging, reports the excellent Sudan Watch.

Sudan Watch extracts from VOA News here and from KUNA News here (that's the Kuwaiti news Agency):
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Pronk remains Annan's special envoy for Sudan. Annan still has confidence in him. He was called in for consultations to review with him a letter the Sudanese Foreign Minister Lam Akol Ajawin sent to him Sunday.

In that letter Ajawin said the government "is of the view that the purposes of realizing peace and stability can better be served by other international civil servants who are dedicated and ready to adhere to the objectives of the UN Charter, possess the ability and determination to respect international law and sensitive to the sovereignty and integrity of the nations in which they serve".

Therefore, the letter added, the government "remains committed and will cooperate" with Pronk's replacement.
Sudan Watch comments:
Ha! Respect, sensitivity, integrity?!! The fact that they even contemplated the expulsion of Mr Pronk (head of UN mission in Sudan and great friend of Sudan) tells us they do not know the meaning of those words. Cretinous morons.
So it goes. So it goes.

Further reports reveal that Jan Pronk still has Kofi Annan's every confidence and is still the special envoy to Sudan.

Happy birthday to the UN.

(Thanks to the splendid Sudan Watch)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Hungary 50 Years On

Here is a piece on the reactions to the Hungarian Revolution and the Soviet invasion fifty years ago, from Saturday's Guardian. It's interesting to read how ideological rifts linger on when their immediate causes have long since died.

Daily Worker reporter Peter Fryer had been sent to Hungary to give first hand accounts of events.
Gollan [, the Party's new general secretary] had been reading reports in other papers and, MI5 recorded, "was particularly depressed by one about Russian tanks shooting down Hungarians. He called it blood-curdling. He expressed the hope that Fryer would be able to contradict that sort of thing ... These hopes were short-lived."

The problem was that Fryer (whom Campbell dismissed as "clearly out of his mind") completely contradicted the CP analysis that the uprising was a "fascist-reactionary" attempt to destroy socialism and restore capitalism. Two of his three dispatches were spiked and the third heavily edited.

"The events in Hungary, far from being a fascist plot, were a revolution by the vast majority of the people against the despotic rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy," Fryer wrote later. The Daily Worker played up reports of lynchings (mostly of the AVO secret police) and of communists being beaten to death. Fryer resigned and sent his letter of resignation to the Manchester Guardian.

Now 79 and in poor health, Fryer is reluctant to revisit these distant events. But Hungarian Tragedy, the book he wrote in 1956, still exudes the raw anger of a young man following his conscience to challenge party discipline. He went on to do much-praised work on race relations, but is still best remembered for his courageous stance on Hungary. "Peter's a nice man," says Max Morris, a neighbour in north London, "but he's an old-fashioned, unashamed Trotskyist". Old sectarian habits die hard.
Indeed they do.

If you're interested, here's a link to Fryer's book Hungarian Tragedy, including the preface from the 1986 edition.

Saturday's all right

Yesterday I went with Rullsenberg to London. There were several things we had to do. First came the meeting with Reidski and Jane in the Bunker Bierhall, in Seven Dials, next door to the Donmar. Waiting for it to open we popped over to the Crown and Anchor where Reidski managed to do one of those things everyone is supposed to have done by the time XXXX happens and that is buy a drink for everyone in a bar. Does it count if your group is the only set of people in there? The back to the Bunker for food and more drink. As its name suggests the Bunker is styled on a German Bierhall. It sells Freedom lager, made to German purity laws, in Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire. A damn fine brew it is, too. Drink, beer, conversation and food. A good time was had.

At dental time (two thirty) Rullsenberg dragged we willingly bext door to the Donmar to see The Cryptogram with Kim Cattrall and Douglas Henshall. A splendid play it is too, with wonderful performances by all the cast, especially Adam J Brown playing John. It's a good chalenging play that is also a short play, 65 minutes in total without an interval. If you've got something to say, say it. Don't LoTR it out. Short and sweet is the way to do it.

Then to downstairs at Slam City Skates in Neals Yard, to get a wonderfully discordant Lullaby Arkestra cd.

Then onto the London Review Bookshop. Books on shelves. Book on tables. Books in piles. Felt at home. No 3 for 2 offers. Hurrah. No promotions. How a bookshop should be. Pointed out a book on Hungary, I think it was "Twelve Days: Revolution 1956" by Victor Sebestyen, but I may be mistaken, to another customer. Bought some books. Spent money. Bought
  • "War Without End" by Bruno Tertrais
  • "Yiddish Civilisation - The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation" by Paul Kriwaczek
  • "On The Natural History of Destruction" by WG Sebald
  • "Mayakovsky - A Memoir" by Elsa Triolet
. Now got to read them.

Went for dinner to Pizza Paradiso in Store Street. Then to St Pancras and home.

And so to bed.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Simon "know nowt about it but I'll blether on 'bout it anyway" Jenkins on Nottingham

Simon Jenkins has all the attributes of a typical blogger: he'll write a piece on something he knows nothing about. However Simon Jenkins is paid for what he writes. More than that, Simon Jenkins is paid well for the uninformed guff that he writes. Sometimes I wonder if there is no such person as Simon Jenkins and all the pieces with his by-line are autogenerated by RusbridgerPlus, the Guardian's patented column generating machine.

Today Jenkins writes, badly, on Nottingham. Here's a sample.
To lovers of urban Britain Nottingham is still a heartbreaking place. It was and, until the 1950s could still have been, beautiful. To Celia Fiennes it was "the neatest town I have ever seen". As recently as 1938 the writer Arthur Mee could refer to it without irony as "the Stately Queen of the Midlands". It boasted England's first municipally financed university and its first civic gallery. It gave birth to Boot's, the Salvation Army and Raleigh bicycles - and still cares for its theatres. Then in 1958 it inflicted on itself England's most destructive urban road, the absurd Maid Marian Way, cutting the old centre from the castle mound and destroying, among a warren of streets, an exquisite set of Queen Anne almshouses.

Age has not withered the ugliness of what replaced them. An inner ring road wends its way past defaced shopping centres and car parks, which obliterated contours, streets and character alike. The Salutation Inn, with its splendid troglodyte cave, lies pathetically stranded.
There may be some worth in his claims but he then makes egregious schoolboy howlers like saying the Salutation pub has caves. It doesn't. The caves are in the Trip To Jersualem.

He gets a good seeing to by my constituency MP Nick Palmer:
Honestly, what a load of rubbish. I represent the area between the city core and the county border facing towards Derbyshire, which Jenkins derides as a nightmare. It's mostly very popular - whether you go by anecdotal evidence or house prices, people are keen to live in it. It's a mixture of suburbs and small towns, and I know Jenkins doesn't like suburbs for architectural and cultural reasons, but that's his problem. Naturally there are things we'd like to improve, such as more leisure activities: the proximity of the city discourages suburban leisure centres. But in general it's pretty good.

As for the city, gun crime fell sharply last year and appears to have fallen to a more typical urban level: it was fuelled by the extraordinary popularity of the city's vibrant night life, which tempted drug dealers and the turf wars that go with it. It was indeed a problem and still is, but it appears to be receding. Nottingham University was up to very recently the most popular for applications in Britain. The Lace Market area was refurbished years ago, rather than being desperately done up now as Jenkins suggests. I could go on, but I won't, except to ask what has any of this got to do with Tony Blair, except that Jenkins is writing the article and doesn't like him?
And a damn good pasting that was. Three cheers for Nick Palmer.

On the Evaluation of XML

There is a paper authored by Rullsenberg and Cloud called On the Evaluation of XML. Here's the abstract:
Many leading analysts would agree that, had it not been for permutable algorithms, the visualization of extreme programming might never have occurred [2]. Given the current status of extensible algorithms, researchers clearly desire the improvement of agents, which embodies the typical principles of cyberinformatics. In this work, we disprove not only that the famous pseudorandom algorithm for the analysis of the memory bus is in Co-NP, but that the same is true for lambda calculus.
The authors are willing to answer questions on their (ahem) work.

(Hat tip: Norm)

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Leading from the front

What would it be like to have a political leader who was the world's top golfer? A film maker? A fashion designer? A military mastermind?

May the R & A Tremble
NK News, a splendid database of North Korean propaganda reports it's twelve years since Kim Jong Il's majestic golf game. It aims to set the record straight, given all the ridiculous comments made.
The best documentation I can find about the event prevents a far more balanced and realistic picture. The actual story seems to be that, while playing on the PGA-level eighteen-hole par-72 golf course in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il chalked up a much more modest 38-under-par 34. And it was five holes-in-one, not eighteen. At the risk of sounding a bit condescending, I must admonish readers of NK News to be sure they have their facts straight, and not get carried away by wild rumors or innuendo.

May James Cameron Worry
One of this year's top movies1 is "Diary of a Student Girl". Its script writer and producer is Jong-il Kim, better known for reasons of orthography as Kim Jong Il. The official North Korean news agency reports (via NK News)
Letter to Kim Jong Il from Participants in Film Festival
Pyongyang, September 22 (KCNA) -- Leader Kim Jong Il received a letter from the participants in the 10th Pyongyang International Film Festival on Friday. The festival was all the more significant one as it was well organized and flawless, the letter said, and went on:
During the festival we have come to understand well that Kim Jong Il has paid special concern to the movie sector long ago and energetically guided movie-making to open a heyday in the development of Korean movies. We were moved to see good feature films "A Schoolgirl's Diary" and "Pyongyang Nalpharam" reflecting the fresh development of Korean movies.
Seeing with our own eyes all the Korean moviemen ardently revering Your Excellency Kim Jong Il as their benevolent father and dear teacher, we have been convinced that Korean movie art will make leaping progress in the future as long as they are under your wise leadership.
Short as our stay in your country was, we could realize that the secret that the Korean people wrought world-startling miracles one after another, bravely breaking through difficulties lies in the single-minded unity of the leader and the people. Availing ourselves of this opportunity, we extend heartfelt thanks to Your Excellency Kim Jong Il for always paying so deep concern that the festival may successfully be held true to the expectation of progressive people and moviemen of the world. Independence, peace and friendship are the lofty idea of the Pyongyang Festival and the common desire of the progressive people of the world.
.$B!!.(BWe will in the future, too, sincerely participate in the festival and make positive efforts for the development of genuine movie art suitable to the desire of the progressives.
It must be great living in a country where the Great Leader takes such an active role in the everyday life of the citizens. It must be great living in a country where the Great Leader is a sporting superstar, a filmaker, a designer, a scientist. It must be great living in a country where the Great Leader is Kim Jong Il. It must be great living in a country where the Great Leader is Kim Jong Il if, and only if, you are Kim Jong Il.

Let's look for more information about the Workers paradise that is the DPKR. What about this. Or this report on life in a country where the slightest ideological divergence leads to "revolutionization", a punishment of banishment and hard labour.

Recent pictures of Kim Jong Il show that he has changed from wearing sub-military fusc to wearing an anorak that would be rejected by your grandad as a bit too Matalan seconds. Can we read anything into this change? Or is the air getting a bit chill in Pyongyang?

1: One of this year's top movies in North Korea.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Looking for Langston

That's the title of an Isaac Julien film from the 1980s. It's also the title of this post. Flicking through this fortnight's LRB, as I do, I saw this snippet from Langston Hughes's autobiography The Big Sea:
"ordinary Negroes hadn't heard of the Harlem Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn't raised their wages any."

The History Boys

It was a play of two halves. A pacy, thoughtful, entertaining first half and then a second half seeking resolution, often where it wasn't needed. Some of the dialogue has developed a life outside the play. A line destined for books of quotations happens when Rudge, asked to define History, replies "it's just one fucking thing after another".

The louche Hector argues for Houseman's dictum "all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use". There are those who see this as being arguing for "knowledge for knowledge's sake", and what is wrong with that? I'm a strong believer in the existence of a moral imperative to know. After all, Ignorance was one of Beveridge's five great evils, the others being "Want, Idleness, Squalor, and Disease" standing in the way of post-Second World War reconstruction.

There is an alternative formulation, courtesy of the ICFI, that goes "All knowledge is precious and serves a human purpose whether or not its usefulness is immediately apparent”, but that would be different, misses the point of Hector's belief in knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and relates more to the temporal nature of knowledge, and that what is now pure research is tomorrow's applied science, is tomorrow's Simon Says.

Here's one excellent review. And here's another excellent review of the History Boys.

If you can, go see the play: if you can't, go see the movie.

It's Groucho Marx's birthday

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Groucho Marx.

And Richard III.

And Nat Turner

And Plum Warner.

And Mahatma Gandhi.

And Bud Abbot.

And Gillian Welch.

And me.