Book Review: Enlightening Symbols by Joseph Mazur

Subtitled ‘A Short History of Mathematical Notation and Its Hidden Powers’ I was first made aware of this book on GrrlScientist’s blog on the Guardian website. I added it to a wishlist and was given it as a present for my birthday earlier in the autumn. Having been educated in maths to a degree further than most, I have used rather a library of symbols in my time and had cursory historical overviews of their development but I have not previously read a thorough history.

The book is split into three parts, the first focusing on the development of numerals, the second on algebra and the third on the power of symbols. All three parts are quite distinct and ought to be looked at one by one.

I must confess, I didn’t find the first part particularly coherent. That is partly a feature of the fact that the history of the representation of numbers is itself quite muddled. In reading this, I got the impression that Mazur, who I don’t ever recall coming across before, was more of a mathematician than a historian. As it turns out, this seems to be a fair characterisation, though, like me, he takes a very keen interest in history and (we’ll come to it below) into other areas as well.

The history of numerals is summed up on page 78 as follows: “There have been many scrupulous studies on the origins of our system, but even after a hundred years of scholarly wide-ranging research, we are left with only sketchy guesses of its beginning and evolution.” Perhaps this should have been an executive summary at the start of the section rather than a conclusion reached after having gone round the houses a few times. It’s not that the history is uninteresting, it is really quite captivating. It’s just that Mazur’s take on it didn’t allow this reader to get a grasp on it, so it was quite bewildering. So I must confess that I wasn’t overly enamoured with Mazur’s writing and as I finished the first part, I feared that the last 2/3rds of the book would be a bit of an unenjoyable trudge.

How glad I was to be proved wrong. For in moving from numeral to algebra, fresh life was breathed into the text and I was treated to the book that I had hoped to read.

As with the first section, the story is not straightforward, but we do get to see some of the significant historical developments in fresh light rather than the fairly dim gloom we had beforehand. The first major figure we encounter is Diophantus. His name should be familiar to most maths students, though if you haven’t come across him then this would be a good place to gain an introduction. The basic story is that problems that we think of as algebraic did not begin with symbolic representations.

If you had a good maths teacher (and I’ve been blessed by having a few) then you will have been presented with “word problems” where some question or other is asked which involves numbers and where the answer is required in the form of a number. The student is then asked to convert the word problem into a symbolic form and then manipulate that symbolic form using the methods taught to arrive at an answer. What Mazur gives us is an unpacking of this, showing that most early algebra consisted of such word problems.

We get to meet al-Khwarizmi and see some of the problems he posed in his seminal work Al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hi sab al-gabr wa’l-muqabala (yes, I did have to copy that carefully). We see the development of symbolic representation such as those for multiplication, powers and division. Without trying to summarise it here (I confess, this part of the review was written a couple of weeks after I finished reading the book), I would heartily recommend it to you. For those who dropped maths after their GCSEs, I will say that it might not be particularly applicable. For those who are university educated or who can still recall their A-levels then the final step will be very familiar, but it’s a fascinating story as to how we got here.

The final third of the book carried on in the same vein as the second part had, with less of a major change in tone that there was between the first and the second. As I read through the first two parts, I was struck by a quite sobering (or maybe dispiriting might be a better term) thought that in spite of having studied maths to a greater level than most people in the world, was my understanding of it merely the understanding of manipulation of symbols?

There is reassurance at the end, though. Mazur’s view is that our ability to shorthand things in symbolic frees up the mind to truly understand what is going on. This seems to coincide with how I view the abstraction in maths in general, as well as some specific aspects like Fourier transforms; here we phrase a question in a specific way, abstractify to the general case, solve the general case and then you have a template for answering the specific case. By working with symbols we may temporarily lose sight of exactly what it is we are calculating, but that lack of sight allows us to avoid getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. By all means, if we wish to come to back to an intermediate stage in the calculation and convert into word problems, we can – that is the power of symbolic maths.

The final section also deals with some other matters peripheral to our understanding of mathematics, such as the psychology and philosophy of maths. So it was little surprise to see Wittgenstein referenced at this point. Though Mazur was readily more accessible than Wittgenstein was. The breadth of this final view reveals the author to be more than just a mathematician, he is a bit of a polymath. So while the book was not hugely coherent to begin with, the last two-thirds are very creditable and I would recommend it to anyone interested in maths and the history thereof.

The Rochester & Strood by-election: a prediction

I must confess from the start that the title is a little misleading as the purpose of this blog is not really to predict the precise number of votes and therefore who will win the forthcoming by-election. Rather, this is a prediction about the fallout after the result.

For what it’s worth though, I think it will be a close-run election and that the Conservatives and UKIP will be the top two parties. The Labour proportion of the vote will go down, as will the Lib Dems, with a small, but insignificant increase for the Greens. If the opinion polls are to be believed, then UKIP look set to come out on top.

However it goes, the fallout is what will be more interesting. The fact is that Rochester and Strood has been a safe Conservative seat. Though given the change in British politics that we have witnessed in last few years, it seems reasonable to suppose that a lot of those on the far-right, which the Conservatives rely on for electoral success, will switch to UKIP, thus eroding the Conservative vote.

As a result, whether or not they win, the relentless optimism of the UKIP leadership will be declaring this a success. The extent to which that celebration takes place will, of course, depend on whether Mark Reckless wins the seat he previously won for the Conservatives. I would predict that Nigel Farage will be given plenty of air time and column space to enunciate his view that this is indicative of a sea change in public opinion, that people are fed up with traditional Westminster politics and that UKIP are the ones to deliver change.

The Tories, having either lost the seat or seen their majority severely dented, will need to have their spin on it. And of course, that spin will be: “[what a disaster for Ed Miliband]”. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Tory playbook would parrot the same line even if Labour were to have an unlikely win. If I were a Labour voter in the constituency I might even be tempted to vote UKIP as a tactical vote, though given the proximity to the 2015 general election I might just not bother this time around, as it won’t change who’s in government. Either way, the Conservatives should have a tough job on their hands, but they will look not to their own failings but will react like a wounded beast to lash out at those around them. Don’t expect David Cameron to be put in front of the cameras and interviewed extensively; that job will fall to someone else, offered up as a sacrificial goat to the right wing media who are increasingly finding their loyalties split between an ailing Tory party and the strengthening, yet still dilute, poison of UKIP.

In a seat where the Tories have had a majority of just under 10,000 any movement in the votes for Labour, the Lib Dems or the Greens is of such comparative insignificance that any attempt to make generalisations about the state of the parties and of the country as a whole will likely have an extremely high conjecture-to-fact ratio.

It is interesting to note that in the last general election, the English Democrats polled higher than the Greens in the constituency but that they’re not standing in this election. Instead, there are 4 independent candidates as well as representatives of the Monster Raving Loony Party, Britain First, People Before Profit and the Patriotic Socialist Party. I wouldn’t expect many of these to have a significant effect on the outcome, and indeed most will probably lose their deposit.

What might be most interesting is the Labour reaction. In some ways, being the previous runners-up but with no realistic chance of winning, they’re in a no-lose situation. The ground would be set for an attack on David Cameron’s lack of leadership, just as the right wing press have attacked Ed Miliband recently on the basis of journalists passing off rumours from other journalists as news. However, given that this looks set to be a two-horse race between the two right wing parties, it seems likely that the media will grant them the lion’s share of the coverage. As such, if there is to be any comment from Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens on the outcome of the election, don’t expect them to make the headlines.

What we’ll get is airtime afforded primarily to Nigel Farage with maybe the odd comment from Mark Reckless, though he’ll mostly be silent so as to not steal the limelight from his party leader. The upper echelons of the Tory party will be strangely quiet and none of the main media outlets will question why. They’ll put up someone to take any flak for them, though any questioning will tend to be along the lines of “[are you not far enough to the political right on immigration]”.

In other words, no change from what we’ve grown used to over the last couple of years.

Book Review: A Mathematician Reads The Newspaper by John Allen Paulos

This has been my latest coffee table book that I dip into a few pages at a time. The premise is that maths is not well understood, but that it’s all around us. Paulos’ plan then is to educate us through a number of examples, which run to just a few pages each.

From the start, though, one is struck by a very heavy American bias. I think he tries to name drop by using examples of people he thinks his readers will know, but outside of the USA, names of the justices of the US supreme court are not commonly known pieces of trivia. That left this UK-based reader a little nonplussed, as it could have been made far more inclusive.

It’s a real shame, particularly as I read through the first part, which was on the subject of politics, its relentless US-centricism detracted from some otherwise very good prose. Paulos doesn’t really go into much mathematics here. His focus is more about rational thinking and how that can apply to things of a mathematical nature. So do not expect a particularly pedagogical text or worked examples. Numbers are fairly thin on the ground. As such, some who, like me, picked up the book expecting a book primarily about mathematics might be left wondering if the title wasn’t a little misleading.

In truth, it’s much more about general rationality than it is about maths. Given the expectations generated from the title, this inevitably left me rather disappointed. I know it was a follow up to an earlier book of his, entitled Innumeracy, which may have been closer to a better title for this work than the one it has.

The way the book is supposed to be structured is meant to roughly mirror a newspaper. So the front part of the book has more politics, the middle is more ‘lifestyle’ and there is a bit about sports (almost invariably US-based sports) towards the end. At times, the link to the typical newspaper seems rather tenuous, even if the general thrust of the argument is sound. Yet for a science writer, Paulos just seems to lack any great level of enthusiasm. Many of the best science writers (I think here of the likes of Feynman, Dawkins, Penrose and Sagan) have an attitude of “[isn’t this brilliant? Come, let me show you]” whereas Paulos is more towards the brow-beating end of the spectrum. There is little joy to be found, with an air of despondency at other people’s lack of nous.

The other fact that cannot be avoided is that, though it was only written in the mid 1990s, it hasn’t aged well. Any talk he has of computers or the possible threat the internet would be to the newspaper industry seem rather dated. That cannot be a criticism against the author, though, as one cannot expect him to be a prophet. Rather, it is a word of caution intended for any potential reader. Though I cannot say I would be in a great rush to recommend this book to anyone. The material covered here may be found in many a popular level book on mathematics and are dealt with in more detail and with a greater level of engagement than may be found here.

Book Review: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

After last year attempting to lay out my position as an egalitarian, but not a feminist, it seemed only fair to read some of the key texts in the latter movement. So where better to start than with a work which is widely regarded as one of the cornerstones in the genesis of feminism? Before I begin the review proper, though, I must say that I enjoy looking at the looks I get on public transport (for that is where I do the majority of my reading) from my fellow passengers when they see what I am reading. In this instance, it seemed to be mild surprise that a man in a suit in his early 30s would be reading a work of feminism from the late 18th century. Then they see that the hand in which I hold the book is ringless and there is a look of faint recognition there. I could speculate as to what they infer from that, but I shall leave that for you!

So how does Wollstonecraft’s argument go? Well, firstly, it is an argument. This is very much a piece of opinion, rather like an extended editorial in a modern newspaper. It is almost all reason and very little evidence. It is invective, rhetorical and written with great verve. She begins with a rather surprising admission: that women are the weaker sex. I know many women who can run faster and longer than I and who would have little trouble beating me in an arm wrestle. I also know many who would dispute Wollstonecraft’s claim.

She goes on to say that our entire society has progressed from this fairly innocuous factoid and drawn inferences from it that are unwarranted and incorrect, but that these form the educational and societal norms by which women are told that they are inherently different from the rest of humanity and therefore must suit different roles. This has been reinforced through education (or a lack thereof) and that something is needed to correct this unjust imbalance.

Her further analysis focuses on virtues. In her perception of society, some virtues are seen to desirable of men while a whole different sets of virtues were to be desirable of women. Wollstonecraft contends that the pursuit of virtue is inherently human and that the differences between the sexes are merely a matter of degree. In her crosshairs is the characteristic of coquettishness.

Her style of writing falls somewhere between the polemic and dialectic. The opening quarter of the book lays out the argument in summary with the remainder filling in the detail.

I think my main critique of this is consistent with my main critique of modern feminists: that being the Wollstonecraft contends that that those who disagree with her position are so because they are uneducated. Simple observation of feminists who are both highly educated and uneducated and non-feminists who are likewise educated and uneducated should be sufficient evidence to falsify this belief which persists as part of Wollstonecraft’s legacy.

Yet that word of caution should not be taken as a rejection of the treatise of the Wollstonecraft’s legacy as a whole. For something written in the 1790s, it comes across as a remarkably modern treatise, even if the vernacular hasn’t aged all that well. So whilst I might question some of the detail, the overall argument is sound and well worth heeding. If you’ve not read it, then I would encourage you to do so. The version I read was from the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ series, which is a slight abridgement of the original text.

Book Review: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

There are some writers we are told we must read. Iain Banks is one of those writers. He has long been on my list of those to get round to reading and in any interviews I saw with him, he came across as a very passionate, reasonable and likeable fellow. His premature death was greatly mourned in the world of literature and the wider arts. So I was determined to read at least one of his books. When I asked for recommendations I got several answers along the lines of “[all of them]” though when people were more helpful, they homed in two of his early works, The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road. So on a pure whim, I opted for the former.

I knew nothing about the plot, only that the book was described to me by others as being not only brilliant, but also weird and rather disturbing. It was said to be unlike anything that I would likely have read before.

Upon reading, I would say that is partly true. The story is told in the first person by Frank, a teenager verging on becoming an adult, though he recalls incidents from earlier in life, which help us to get a view on a very twisted individual. The reason I say ‘partly’ is because if one imagines a child half way between the protagonists of Catcher In The Rye and American Psycho then you might not be too far off. As it’s written on the back cover, it is no great spoiler to say that he has murdered 3 people, all while he was under the age of criminal responsibility.

But Frank’s not the mad one in the family. Oh no, that title belongs to Eric. After all, he was the one who set fire to the dogs and who has just escaped from an institution. It is this escape that provides the impetus for the book’s narrative. Mostly, it is told in flashback, with Frank recalling the details of how he killed his three victims and of how Eric got to be how he was.

In so doing, what Banks presents us with is a work of a hugely twisted imagination. One wonders about someone’s mental well-being if they had such an imagination to think this all up. In truth, though, I think it takes someone who recognises the potential of the depths of darkness that can dwell within in the human soul and who can handle that to be able to dissect it as Banks does. Because for this appears a novel about a disturbed teen, there is more than meets the eye. The Wasp Factory of the title is hinted at early on, but remains quite enigmatic for most of the novel, but when we see what it is, we get an excoriating critique of what Banks sees in religion.

There are other critiques and layers that Banks piles on. All throughout the novel, in addition to the disturbing episodes (and there was one scene where I put the book down it was so disturbing – for those who’ve read it, I will just say ‘maggots’) there was something else amiss. I tried to put my finger on it, but missed the clues that in retrospect were there, but which only fully revealed at the end. But for the sake of those who’ve not yet read it, I will leave that for you to discover. It is by no means an enjoyable book to read, that’s the wrong word to use. But it is certainly a fine work of fiction and I look forward to discovering more of Banks’ work.

#CNMAC14 – a return to the christian new media conference

Pre-conference thoughts

Two years after last attending the christian new media conference and having skipped last year’s, I returned this year, after buying an early bird ticket. Also, with the advantage of having moved to London, it took little more than half an hour to get to the venue and at no additional cost. Last time I went I had the intention of trying to meet various people who I had spoken to online before, though it was all rather a stressful and draining experience. This time, I decided to stick to my more natural disposition by observing others and hiding in plain sense.

On arrival I grabbed a coffee, a welcome pack and sat down to plan what sessions I would attend. I spotted a few people I recognised come in, though such recognition was not mutual. One piece of information omitted from the agenda was to say what room the introduction was in. Thankfully, this year there was a wifi available to all (a vast improvement on 2 years ago) and my query was soon answered by someone else who was monitoring the #CNMAC14 hashtag.

So I found the main room and sat in my usual position; that is, as a way of reflecting my political views I tend to sit on the far left. I must say I thought the main room was very nice. It was far more spacious than the lecture hall we were in last time, with nice wooden beams augmented by some tasteful blue lighting.

Introductory session

The first session was given by Rachel Jordan, who is the national advisor for Mission and Evangelism in the CofE. The theme that it was her job to introduce was that of “Transformers” which has nothing to do with toys from the 80s or big budget terrible films of the last few years. Rather, it was linked to Romans 12 and the theme of transformation that one may find there.

Her key point was that transformation takes place when we meet God face to face. She used a few examples of people meeting Jesus as he was passing by and having their lives transformed as a result of those encounters. Secondary to a direct encounter is an introduction. So bringing in the aspect of the digital, she noted that the accessibility facilitated by the internet allows for more opportunities for people to meet and this then includes possibilities to meet or be introduced to Jesus. From here, the emphasis shifted to one of the busyness of modern life and how such busyness can get in the way of such encounters. Therefore, we need to get good at appropriate filtering and making the time and space to allow ourselves to be transformed.

It was a good introductory presentation, which was evidently well-rehearsed. The general impression was one of agreement, with the Twitter feed buzzing with soundbites from the talk. Though here and in most of the talks I heard during the day, there seemed to be less of a strain on the part of the speakers to generate soundbites. That had been a bit of a plague 2 years ago that detracted from well-constructed arguments. That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of quotes used and generated this time round, but they didn’t feel quite so forced.

Breakout 1

After this, I headed down to a talk on crowdsourced theology. It was done in two parts, the first given by Danny Webster, the second by Marika Rose. It was a very different kind of talk, not least because the two speakers didn’t exactly agree on all points, though it wasn’t framed as a debate between the two. Danny began by noting that dissent is often the oxygen of social media. The upshot of this is that the priesthood of all believers can be abused and becomes the priesthood of the loudest voices. There can also be a temptation to think that if we garner a strong, negative or otherwise hostile response that we can convince ourselves we must be on the right track. It’s a symptom of “[if you go looking for it on the internet, you will be able to find something]” – which can lead to confirmation bias if we’re not careful.

It seems that frequently, attempts to engage on more serious issues quickly go off the rails with every Thomas, Richard and Harry jumping in with an opinion; often an opinion that hides where people come from, hiding their background theology and their agenda. So if, on the one hand, social media prioritises polarisation and isn’t very good at patience, while on the other hand, working out matters of doctrine require patience and less polarisation, then the natural conclusion is that social media isn’t the best place for discussing church doctrine. In this I would largely agree with him.

Marika’s response was characteristically robust. She began with the proposition that “Patience isn’t always a virtue.” She continued by pointing out, correctly in my view, that theology is always political. Unfortunately, she didn’t expand much on this point as that assertion could be taken in a number of different ways. Instead, she used the example of the civil rights movement to illustrate changing attitudes in that Martin Luther King was considered an extremist until Malcolm X appeared on the scene. With a caveat that analogies between civil rights and other issues including egalitarian leadership in churches and the accepting of LGB people are fragile; parallels can’t be drawn without invoking false reasoning. It’s worth noting that this caveat was later questioned by one of the members of the audience, to which there was no convincing backup of the assertion.

She further contended, contrary to Danny, that asking for patience is equivalent to taking sides with the status quo. Harking back to Martin Luther King again, the response to the demand for change that is worded as “not yet” is really just a “no” put a little more politely. She also queried whether polarisation was necessarily a bad thing or something to be avoided. A very interesting point that resonated with me, though I’d never quite enunciated as such, was that the prophetic speaks with a harsh voice, while the pastoral speaks with a softer voice. This was backed up by noting that Paul could be firm with those he addressed his letters to and that the Old Testament prophets hardly adopted a softly-softly approach to dealing with the sin of a nation.

Breakout 2

The second breakout session was on the subject of church websites. And who better to present this than Sara Batts? The session didn’t get off to a great start as we were invited to turn to our near neighbours and discuss two questions with them. Those who know me know that I find such things to be really quite tortuous and in my own church it is the one thing I dread more than any other.

The two questions were: 1) What sort of thing might a visitor to your church website be looking for? and 2) What information does your church website have on it?

It was put to us that these two lists of information may not coincide. We were shown a few examples of good church websites though Sara stayed away from showing a bad church website (possibly because there was a risk that the creator of such a website might be in the audience). The key warnings were to avoid the mentality that information should be there “in case someone might want to know”. There was also a warning against the essence of traditionalism: we do it this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

One of the responses from the audience to the first question was “to find out what sort of church it is” which I think was a much better answer than the person who posited that the most important information is about weddings, funerals and baptisms (which indicates that they probably came from one particular denomination!). One of the other topics that cropped up was the question over membership logins. I am very firmly against these, as they seem exclusive and divisive. The church where I grew up (but haven’t been a part of for many years) hides the recordings of its sermons behind a login, so anyone who wants to sample the teaching of the church are prevented from doing so online, as a conscious act of the church, which I find a bizarre way of sharing the gospel.

Speaking to someone afterwards, they shared my impression that this was overall a bit of a ‘beginner level’ talk; that this was all fairly basic things that constitute competent website design, not necessarily exceptional design. So it might be an improvement to have the agenda labelled a bit more clearly (ironically enough) to say who the target audience is. I’m sure it will have helped quite a few people there, though the impression given was that the digital surgeries were more designed for beginner level.

Probably the most pertinent point was that 16% of all adults in the UK have some level of difficulty with reading and that if our websites are too text-heavy then we run the risk of excluding them.

So with that we headed off for lunch. I must say it was quite disappointing. There was nowhere on site and we weren’t permitted to bring food in from the outside so we all piled into an eatery next door. Unfortunately, I’d developed quite a headache so nipped to get some paracetemol first, which put me rather far back in the queue. So we were late in being served and they ran out of various dishes so I had to wait for them to do another batch of mine; even then they added mushrooms which I had to pick out. I mean, why ruin perfectly good food by adding a fungus to it?

Transformative Technology

Coming back from lunch, we had 3 short talks entitled ‘Transforming Technology’, ‘Transforming Mobility’ and ‘Transforming Humanity’ given by Alastair Somerville (Acuity Design), Paul Johnston (Padajo) and Pete Philips (CODEC) respectively.

The first of these focused on the ‘sensory web’ which was essentially technology that we wear and beacons that detect when a suitable device is nearby and automatically send messages to it. The purpose of these is mainly advertising, so you would be bombarded with shoe ads any time you get near a shoe shop, which I find to be an extremely annoying prospect. The idea here, though, was that they could be used to augment a space you are travelling through (say, within a building) and to then create an alternative experience of pilgrimage. It was an interesting idea, but it struck me as a case of IT-itis. i.e. what *can* we do instead of what *should* we do. I’ll touch on this theme again below.

The second was on mobility, but this was nothing to do with accessibility for the disabled. The only point I really picked up on was that if messages become free to send, then they can lose their value. Our tendency to regard anything as slow if it is not instant creates impatience that has subsequently shortened our attention spans. This results in the idea that messages that are created quickly also fade quickly. In my head, the contrast that was conjured up was the difference between a Snapchat message and a stone engraving.

Pete’s talk on transhumanism rather passed me by as I was scribbling notes from the previous talks. Also the live Twitter stream on screen had been hijacked by a load of spammers, so quite a few were trying to alert the tech team that their filters had failed. The most seized upon soundbite was that “we are all cyborgs” though the follow up to this appeared to verge on bullying one of Pete’s colleagues on the CODEC team. [Late edit: To clarify, this last reference is to the follow up to the talk, not the content of it. This should not be taken as any statement or hint of anything untoward from any member of the CODEC team]

Between the three talks, they all had their interesting points, but I couldn’t see much that was very applicable here. It was more a session of tentative prophecies, some of which may look quite out of date in just a few years; only time will tell.

Breakout 3

I had a change of mind about the 3rd breakout session. Having seen a session that posed a question of “How should Christians react to militant atheists and people of other faiths who challenge their beliefs?” I was rather turned off by the use of the phrase ‘militant atheists’ so I had planned instead to go to Chris Juby‘s session on digital engagement with the scriptures. At the last minute, though, I changed my mind and decided to give the apologetics talk a go. As it turned out, it was very popular and was in one of the smallest rooms, so we were rather squeezed and one or two latecomers turned back or else had to stand by the exit.

The talk was given by Ruth Jackson of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and who also runs the social media for Ravi Zacharias Ministries. As might be predicted for a talk on apologetics, there was a strong focus on 1 Peter 3:15, though I wasn’t familiar with the version used. I suspect it was The Message, the New Living or some other paraphrase. This particular version began with the phrase “If any asks you…” with the emphasis put on the ‘if’. i.e. we shouldn’t go looking for a fight, but we ought to be willing to answer anyone who asks.

Ruth did put a qualifier near the start of the talk which was to define what she had meant by the term ‘militant atheist’. She confessed that she hated the term but that it was a shorthand for the kind of person who instead of having their atheism as a default position or apathy, it’s the kind of person who frequents social media and where the majority of their output is concentrated on their atheism and who sometimes take a hostile or otherwise highly negative view of anything vaguely religious.

Ruth advocated the idea that “I don’t know” is a powerfully honest and highly respectable answer. While I would like to agree with her, my experience of discussing christianity online is vastly different. It’s taken as a fob off whereby one goes away to find a clever christian apologist to rabbit back at the atheist. Though in fairness, any atheist who says that God is our imaginary friend or is a sky fairy is themselves merely rabbiting a line that is far from original.

It’s important to remember that behind every profile is a person (or people, I might add). This is the antidote to dehumanisation. She gave an example using The Wee Flea blog, where some hostile commentators had found their way to the site, but where the host was far more interested in them as people rather than in trying to satisfy his own ego by winning an argument. [n.b. a quick search of the site didn’t yield anything resembling the conversation Ruth describes and I would not endorse some of the content of that blog]

A recommendation that was put to us was that online discussions should avoid denominational or controversial issues. This wasn’t really expanded on, so it was open to (mis) interpretation. Harking back to the 1st breakout session, I wonder what Marika Rose would’ve thought of Ruth’s advice.

There were some fairly fundamental points that anyone wishing to engage in online apologetics should take as lesson 1. These included listening to objections and trying to understand someone else’s point of view, so as to avoid constructing a strawman argument. She pointed out some atheist memes (oh the irony of the origin of the term ‘meme‘!) and how they demonstrate a lack of understanding of christian issues, but rather than use the same kind of mockery that is sometimes encouraged of atheists to use against christians, she encouraged us to be more serious-minded and engage with the issues at hand in a mature manner. In trying to understand someone else’s views, that includes being able to spot the clichéd fallacies that get churned out from time to time including assertions that faith is blind belief or misleading notions of the nature of God.

However, Ruth went a little bit further than this. She advocated that we christians should try to make sure that “the ball is in the other court” and we do this by enquiring of atheists what their views are. Now, any time I’ve tried this, I’ve found not only evasion on the part of the person who I’m talking to but also an accusation that I am the one avoiding the issue. For example, if someone asks a question of me, I think it is at least courteous to attempt a response. Sometimes people will try to ask 6 part questions where several conflate various issues. This is what should be regarded as “trolling” though that term has somewhat morphed away the meaning it used to have online (meaning a time waster or someone who was simply trying to get a rise out of you) into a term to describe abuse – which ought to be known as “flaming”. Yet I do think that avoiding answering a question by asking them back is no less an element of trolling than the original question (or series thereof) might have been.

One of the little things that caught my eye was that Ruth put up a screenshot of various resources she recommended and I noticed a reference to the book that so riled me that it prompted me to write a review of it, which gave birth to the current incarnation of this very blog: Who Made God by Edgar Andrews.

The final point was that in all online apologetics we mustn’t forget to pray. It can be easy to get drawn into debates and there’s a great temptation to forget graciousness and idolise the idea of being right. But if the lesson of the Wee Flea above is heeded, it is better to lose an argument if you win the person – though on reflection I wonder if that soundbite actually makes sense!

Breakout 4

The final breakout session I went to was on the topic of creating community. I was surprised to not see many of the faces I thought would be there, as I know quite a few people treat the online world as a community in its own right and would want to listen to this talk. It was given by Jason Ham who was simply described on the agenda as “Church Online Leader”. In fact, he’s a facilitator for the online dealings of a particular church in Exeter as well as being responsible for the social media output of God TV.

The opening gambit was to look at what sort of communities can be created by social media. He used the example of the American megachurch, Saddleback to demonstrate an example of people posting prayer requests on Facebook. However, using that example didn’t make it seem very close to home. If, in a church of that size and fame, a prayer request could generate about a dozen responses of people saying that they were praying, how would that translate to a church of more modest size and of no great fame? Then there’s also the question of privacy which wasn’t addressed at all.

Again, we had demonstrations of IT-itis, whereby lots of possibilities were shown but there didn’t seem to any kind of coherence to it, or really a questioning of what the needs were of the potential audience (see breakout 2) of the church and then trying to address them. We were shown a bookclub that consisted of members in the UK, USA, Australia and another couple of countries I missed as I was writing notes. The impression that we were given was that just because you can connect with people from across the globe, that is an inherently good thing and therefore is to be embraced.

But as I sat listening, I couldn’t help but think that this was an indirect indictment of the local churches. After all, I had agreed with Danny Webster earlier when he said that if you hold opinion X, it is easy to go online in search of someone who agrees with you and who will back you up. If someone is relying on a community that is so disparate, does it not imply that either there is a failing in their local community to adequately look out for the needs of someone who is potentially isolated in plain sight?

One of the other examples used was that the church in Exeter which Jason is a part of rebroadcasts its services 67 times per week. While having the availability of an online service can be valuable to those who are elderly, disabled or otherwise have difficulty getting to a meeting, this was not clear at all from the talk. Instead, what seemed to be advocated was a wholly new, and rather haphazard, way of doing church. i.e. it was more of a substitute than a supplement.

I think the root of my issue was the question of isolation. It’s possible to be physically isolated but digitally connected, in which case some of the ideas of open forums, Skype, etc. are valuable tools which can be used to address the need of these kinds of isolations. But instead, what was advocated was the provision of online services because they can be provided. It certainly wasn’t clear that there was a need to which these were a solution. Instead, there was more of a mentality of ‘if you build it, they will come’. There was a muted acknowledgement of the limitations of online community, but there was no solution proposed. There was a Q&A at the end, where the tone seemed to be mildly hostile, as was the question I wanted to ask but which ran out of time. So somebody asked about safeguarding vulnerable people online, particularly as one of the forums demonstrated allowed posting without any kind of sign-up process to it. So people could just come and go. In a church where the congregation is so transient, can there really be adequate pastoral care given to someone who hasn’t been around for the last month? How would such people be noticed?

My question was going to along these lines: For anyone who regularly visits an online church, what efforts are made by that church to put them in touch with an offline, local church who can provide what the online community cannot?

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t answers to these questions, but the relentless optimism generated by IT-itis seems short-sighted. If anything, it is an issue that pervades the whole christian new media conference, in that while there are some fantastic tools to enhance our spiritual lives and help to connect those who might otherwise be isolated, the increasing reliance on the digital realm creates its own form of isolation: digital isolation.

If there were any topic I’d like to see addressed in the next conference as a burning issue, it is this one. Looking around my church, nearly all the over 15s have a mobile phone and access to the internet, about half have a Facebook account, maybe about a dozen are on Twitter, but for the most part there isn’t as much focus on what can be done as there is at the conference. It is my fear that if we pile more and more resources into creating the best digital spaces that we can, then all we do is create a great space for a few people who are very interested in it at the expense of ignoring a great many people. One obvious comeback is to become evangelists for what can be done digitally and try to get as many people interested in our particular way of doing things as we can. Yet this runs into two problems: 1) Not everyone will be interested and it is arrogant to suppose that because we see good in a given tool that someone else will; and 2) if we are to evangelise, then should that not be evangelism to the wider world about gospel of crucified and resurrected Messiah? These two could be summarised by the phrase: misdirected effort.

Final session

The final session was billed as a cross between Songs of Praise and the Graham Norton show. To an extent this true. It consisted of 3 guests having short interviews by the host (Vicky Walker) and each guest was then to showcase their work. As with guests on Graham Norton, they only seemed to have gone there to plug their products. We had a rapper called Faith Child who performed his forthcoming single, a subversive artist (think a christian version of Banksy) called Micah Purnell who was launching a new website and a singer called Tabitha Webb who was launching a new musical. By the end of the day, and having been less than impressed at the previous session, it’s fair to say I was in a cynical mood. This final session just came across as a series of commercial plugs. OK, rap music isn’t my thing so I can’t say whether, given that particular artistic medium, it was very good or not. The subversive art was quite good as was Tabitha’s singing, though I couldn’t help but think of Danny Webster’s piece on the christian reviews of her musical as I watched.

It seemed that the whole concept of transformations which began the day and had been key to the mini sessions just after lunch was by now out of the window and forgotten about. I noted this on the Twitter stream and had a couple of responses which advocated the idea that the purpose of the session was to show how digital means had been used to transform creativity particularly in how these 3 people marketed their material. I could kind of see that, but it was heavily buried under the immediate promotion that they were making here, in person, to the audience of around 500 people.

As we ended fairly promptly, I stuck around for 5 minutes in case there was anyone who wanted to quickly chat, but I just stood around looking like a lemon so I shot off and headed back for home.

Conclusions

So with all that observed, what were the impressions I left with and which I have dwelt on in the 30 hours since leaving?

My strongest thought on leaving was on the issue of digital isolation mentioned above. It may have been addressed in other sessions which I didn’t attend, though it wasn’t plain from the agenda summaries. Unless that issue is addressed then new media will fail to live up to the prophetic hopes which surround it and become a clique for the initiated and those who have grown up with it. Yet there remain a generation of people who form an integral and loved part of the church for whom this generates little excitement and we must not leave them behind or exclude them in any way.

Looking back, trying to draw the threads together, I think the theme of confirmation bias, of looking for things that back up your views, that came out in the first breakout session can be seen in several of the other talks. We might project onto others our ‘ideal’ visitor to a church website and miss the real people who find us in their searchings. In the Transforming Technology session, it came across as all too easy to think that because something is new that it is inherently good. This was also true of the final breakout session. Of course, one could react the other way and think that anything new is inherently bad.  In the third session one could see this idea of bias in seeking out argumentation, where we may have a presumption of how someone arrived at their expressions of atheism and to argue to those presumptions rather than love the person who may hold a very different and more nuanced view.

Of course, this theme isn’t really linked to transformations. Maybe that’s indicative of how loosely that theme permeated the day. Yes, it was strong in the introduction and after lunch, but it was tenuous at best elsewhere. Perhaps it was a case that the theme was decided independently of the proposals for each session. I can only speculate at that.

Only time will tell what ultimately sticks. One of the noticeable things was at how little emphasis there was on personal blogging. It’s been noted by many that some have given up their blogs while others have merged or stepped back. Is it possible that the day of the blog is over? I can’t say there was much there that seemed of imminent practical use. Of course, there were useful reminders of basic issues that could be immensely useful to the newcomer to new media.

So those are my thoughts. Over to you now:

  • Were you there?
  • Did you go to any of the same sessions?
  • What was your overall impression?

A short story that’s meant to be in the style of HP Lovecraft

In an unusual move for the blog, I’m posting an original piece of fiction. The first draft was done about a year ago, though I’ve only just got around to finishing it. It was inspired by a collection of short stories I read by H.P. Lovecraft.

In the autumn of 2013 I found myself one Sunday sat on my sofa in my tiny flat in south London. The nights had been drawing in for some weeks, though on this day, the sky had darkened early due to a low pressure system to the west of Ireland kicking off numerous isolated storms, complete with heavy rain, thunder and lightning. To the modern, enlightened and rational mind, there was nothing unusual about this; it was an event that was predicted on the weather forecast and duly played out as expected.

Yet as the sky changed colour in the minutes leading up to the first drops on rain, I became aware of the failing light not through looking out of the window, but by the increasing difficulty with which I was able to read the volumes I had been perusing that day. To many a person in the 21st century, the common instinct would be to simply switch on a light with little thought, let alone to consider darkness as being a thing which needed to be repelled. Had the switch been within reach I would have joined them, but this afternoon I had an unusual lethargy which stayed my hand. I remained rooted to the sofa for a few moments more.

From my position, I could look to the right and see out of the bay window, across the road. The sky outside had that faint tint of mustard yellow that one is familiar with just prior to a storm or a heavy shower. Yet something seemed amiss. I couldn’t work out what it was, but I had difficulty in taking my eyes off the foreboding sky. There was something to see out there, something loosely tangible, but it just eluded me. I wondered if it is was the sort thing best spotted by looking away and viewing it in a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of one’s eye, but which might scurry away if you dared to look at it full on.

No. Instead this was more like something camouflaged; something right in front of me that could be discerned if one looked long enough and hard enough. So I looked, yet I did not see. This sense of something that was just not right did not escape me. Was it my imagination?

Ah. It was the light level. That’s it, it must be. But it’s not quite the light level. It’s something about the light. Though it was more yellow than normal, it wasn’t the colour that perturbed me. Somehow, the light was lower than it shouldn’t have been. Yes it was gloomy, but it was fractionally darker than there seemed good reason for.

In the dim room, I continued to look out to the tree on the far side of the road, puzzling over why it seemed to gloam at such an hour as this. The obvious reasons seem not to apply; the window wasn’t dirty or anything like that. Was it possibly some kind of pollution? That seemed absurd, yet something about that last idea planted itself like a seed in my mind. Yet it’s not quite pollution either. It was more like something in the air outside of the window; something hanging in the atmosphere that occluded the view by an amount that was just marginally more than that which would be imperceptible, yet which would likely be ignored by the unobservant.

A group of people passed by on the other side of the road, so I observed them as they walked. From one point of view, I wanted to see if they reacted to the darkness around them; from another, I looked at them to see if the same effect of the light could be seen around them.

To my disappointment, the answer was negative on the first count. Lost in their own conversation, their environment was a mere background player, barely noticed by any, though they noticed enough to avoid tripping on the paving slabs pushed up by the tree roots.

On the second count, however, the answer was true. There was something about the colour of their shirts which just seemed wrong. It was as though they had been washed many times and faded, but it wasn’t quite that. My inability to specify the problem was increasingly frustrating though as my anxiety grew, so did my certainty that something was wrong.

I looked for a few minutes more, staring out of the window pondering a variety of possibilities, each flashing through my mind for a few seconds. Yet the more I thought about it, the further a rational answer seemed to be. I needed something else to do, or else I might just sit here forever, always wondering, never doing, unable to move.

With something of a more strenuous effort than I was used to, I forced myself to avert my gaze from the window pick myself off the sofa and turn on the light.

With that small flick, the curious lack of light that had so preoccupied me was now filled with the slightly yellow glow of the tungsten filament above my head. It was an old bulb, I must admit, and I am not sure I could get a replacement if I so wished. But as long as it worked then there was no need to replace it. I could forget what fleeting atmospherics were outside and resume my reading, perhaps with a cup of coffee if I could muster the energy to go to the kitchen.

As my eyes fell back upon the pages, I noticed that the dimness I had noticed earlier remained. How could this be? The light had been switched on, filling the room with a level of artificial incandescence that would surely eliminate any gloom. Yet here I was, struggling to read the words in front of me. I raised my head to look at the bulb which should have illuminated the room.

As I did so, my chest seized momentarily, as it seemed that there was an almost imperceptible cloud of something within my very living room, hovering between me and the ceiling. It was exactly the same kind of intangible thing that had been between me and the tree on the far side of the road. Had it penetrated the glass and come indoors?

Or had it been here all along?

With a shortness of breath and a quickening of the pulse, it dawned on me that the unsettling, subtly different kind of darkness was not outdoors. Indeed, it wasn’t even above my head in some kind of ethereal form. As I bowed my head in resignation, what had been primarily a visual phenomenon became one that was auditory. Like a whisper in my ear, only generated not by external source of sound, there came not words, but a sense of words, the sighing of an internal monologue where the essence is enunciated without a single parting of the lips. “I am the darkness. I am inside you. I am here to stay. I am you.”