Monthly Archives: April 2012

Book Review: Barefoot Disciple by Stephen Cherry

Unlike last year, when, in the weeks leading up to Easter, I read almost exclusively theology, I opted this year for a more laid-back approach and only read one “Lent book” which was this. I only started it about 10 days before the start of the Easter weekend, but as it is quite a short book (172 pages + introduction, acknowledgements, bibliography, etc.) I was able to go through it quite slowly and ponderously and finished it on Good Friday.

The subject of the book is humility, which the author (a fairly high church Anglican at my old stomping ground of Durham Cathedral) acknowledges is very tricky to write about. Most of the first chapter is devoted to the challenges of writing about the subject without taking pride in the fact that one is humble. He puts it much better than I do, though.

This is what I would describe as a “lifestyle christianity” book. It’s not self-help dressed up in christian clothes but neither is it a detailed theological study. Cherry picks out examples from his own life and draws on as many, if not more, secular sources as he does biblical quotations. In this respect, the writing style is not entirely dissimilar from that of C.S. Lewis.

The barefoot of the title is derived from Cherry’s own experience of pilgrimages to Lindisfarne where some people went barefoot as they crossed the mud flat at low tide. The subtitle of the book, “walking the way of passionate humility,” is sort of defined but is really demonstrated throughout the whole book. It is hard to sum up in a paragraph, so having made several attempts whilst writing this review, I decided not to and simply recommend that you read the book yourself.

What is core to Cherry’s viewpoint that passionate humility goes firmly against conventional (or we might say ‘worldly’) wisdom. It is not piousness or grovelling, where the example of Dickens’ character, Uriah Heap, is held as an example of exactly what Cherry doesn’t mean. This is far more affirmative, yet not self-seeking. It is the practicalities of ‘living out’ this worldview that Cherry unpacks.

The only downside I found in the book is that Cherry does adopt an extremely “high church” position where there is some talk of “holy spaces” (a subject I have been intending to write about for some time, and hope to pick up soon) and at one point slights some elderly people for saying bits of liturgy that only the priest ought to say, as if some words ought to be forbidden from being uttered by the hoi polloy.

Yet this is a small aside and may well pass unnoticed by readers of a similarly high church background. This is an intensely thought-provoking book and one that I would recommend to you to read at any time, not just during Lent/Easter.

Stephen Cherry’s personal blog may be found here.

The first day and a half of unemployment

Plans

So the first day and bit of unemployment is now complete. My plan for the first day was to ring up the department of Work & Pensions (DWP) and make an initial claim for Jobseekers’ allowance (JSA). After so doing, I was going to travel to London for a day out as a tourist. As poor as the latter may seem in light of the former, this was to be just a one-off. The train ticket I used to get to work was always a weekly one, but because of the Easter holidays, the week had been disrupted so the ticket was valid from Tuesday to the following Monday. Hence, I was able to use it on Monday at no extra cost. I wouldn’t quite say it was free, as I had already paid over £90 for it, but it only got me to work for 4 days instead of the usual 5.

1st phonecall

Having already phoned up the DWP in the prior week, I knew the phone number I needed and was able to navigate my way through the options menu. I got through to a call centre but this was not like anything that you get when calling the private sector, such as for utility or telephony companies. There was no sales patter or script. They simply had a form with lots of questions on there, which I did my best to help them fill out.

All in all, the telephone interview went on for 50 minutes, though it would probably been a lot longer if my personal circumstances weren’t as simple as they are. With no dependents, no partner and no mortgage, some parts just sailed by.

We probably spent a lot longer than normal on the banking section. This is because I have a small myriad of bank accounts that I keep for various purposes. Trying to explain this over the phone was not fun, and at the end they said it would probably need to be reviewed again when I have a face to face meeting at the Job Centre. This particular appointment was made for the next day (which is why this blog post is called the first day and a half, as there is more this later).

The issue, I think, hangs around a means-tested element of JSA, since one of the questions was “do you have more than £x in savings?” The answer was no, but if you add on the amounts I am owed in terms of salary and redundancy pay, then this may just tip the scales. Though at the time of writing, I don’t know what will become of this.

2nd phonecall

Having finished the call and made the appointment for a face-to-face meeting, I left the room to go and find my shoes so I could head out. But no sooner had I left the room than the phone rang again. I thought there was some piece of information they had missed off (which was fairly unlikely, as they were fairly thorough, with the possible omission of asking about borrowings).

It wasn’t the DWP calling back at all, but a recruitment consultant telling me that I have a job interview! This has now been booked in for Monday lunchtime. It’s not terribly far away. It’s about half an hour on the train and then about 15 minutes by foot. The company is quite different from that which I just left, but it is a return to the high-end technology companies that I enjoyed working at when I was working in audit.

The London trip

After getting all this out of the way, I was finally ready to go back to London for one last time. Since I don’t know if I’ll be working there again, I went with the mindset that this was the last time I’d likely see the capital for some time. After initially getting on an ultra-slow train, I hopped onto the Gatwick express. At this time, after rush hour, the place was full of tourists and the train seemed to be packed with people who had fled France after the 1st round of voting in the general election. There were a few German voices as well, but as far as my carriage was concerned, my native English was definitely a minority as far as first languages went.

I made my way on a very soggy day to the British Museum, which I had never visited before. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. I’ve been to the Victoria & Albert Museum once, but this was the last of the ‘biggies’.

To begin with, I didn’t really know where to begin. The place was fairly busy with tourists but not packed. I dread to think what it would be like on a bank holiday. I started off on the right and just allowed myself to get lost. I did start to get drawn into the trap as I sometimes do of simply reading the descriptions of the objects instead of really observing them. I won’t bore you with all the details, though it was somewhat sad to see that in this ‘British Museum’ the vast majority of the items had been plundered from other countries and civilisations. Great for learning, but it did leave me feeling a little uneasy about how so many objects had arrived there, particularly as lots of them simply stated “donated by Lord Somethingorother in Suchandsuchayear” without stating how and when the donor had acquired the object.

One item of note, which is probably the most famous object there, is the Rosetta stone. I managed to scare my dad a bit with regards to it. The real stone is housed in a glass cabinet and is almost impossible to view. It’s the most famous and most popular object there, and trying to get close enough to see it is like trying to get on an underground train at London bridge at 8:35am: there were crowds of people 4 -7 rows deep, tightly packed. However, an exact replica of it is housed in a room a few feet away with the sign “please touch” since it’s a replica. So I took this photo and sent it to my dad, without telling him about the replica, just so he’d think I’d got my grubby mitts on the real thing.

After a few hours of very slow walking, I opted to make an exit and head home, which I thought was for the best, overall.

The meeting at church

The following day I headed to the next town down the road, where I go to church. I had made two appointments for this day, one of which was at church and the other back at the job centre which is just a 5 minute walk from my flat. The meeting at the job centre required me to bring a paper copy of my CV with me, but as I don’t have a printer I had to ask a friend to do it, which they were most gracious to do. So I went to pick it up from them around 9am.

My meeting with the pastor was only vaguely booked but I texted him to say I was around in town and free until 11:30, whereupon I’d need to get a train back in order to make my 2 nd appointment on time. He said to come along at 10:30 so in the mean time I looked for somewhere to sit down and either read a book or write some blog material. As it happens, I ended up starting to write this post, which I am conscious is now getting rather long! Sorry; now that I have more time I may need to learn brevity now that it is no longer enforced upon me.

Anyway, we discussed various things about joblessness and church life. This was mainly triggered because I said that since I was going spare (and in another sense, I may go spare, let the reader understand!) I might as well offer to help out. The church has a very small staff, and I thought it would be very easy for little things to get glossed over or where there are those things that you want to do but never get round to actually doing. Anyway, I won’t divulge anything that was confidential, but it was a really helpful chat, though I think I scared the pastor a little and I know he contacted his personal tax accountant shortly afterwards based on some information I gave him which he was unaware about.

The job centre

Finally, we come to the 2nd meeting of the 2nd day of unemployment. This was back at on office I had actually been to before. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much and I wasn’t disappointed. As mentioned above, they had some questions over my savings accounts, and I said I was perfectly happy to demonstrate the evidence for them by logging on either using a spare computer or if they could get my laptop connected to the web. Would they have this? No.

I’ll be writing another whole blog post on this soon as it delves into the question of epistemology and what one regards as acceptable evidence.

They dug out a copy of an agreement I signed 6 years ago where I agreed to do 3 things per week to look for a job, which I would have to keep a record of. The boxes they have are tiny, though so I’ve mocked it up on a spreadsheet and will then try and slim it down so it’ll fit. Though at this stage I’m not sure if “answering a phonecall from a recruitment consultant” counts since it’s a fairly passive action which resulted from a much earlier action.

I’ve got an appointment to go and sign on at the office on the 1st Friday of May, but I need to talk to the building society first to see if they will issue me paper statements for my e-savings accounts, which kind of negates part of the point of e-savings.

The saga continues, and I’ll try to keep you informed.

The Last Day

As regular readers will be aware, I have now been made redundant from my job and am, for want a better turn of phrase, a gentleman of leisure for the time being. I began to write this piece in my head on the way home after my leaving drinks, though I did not start to actually type anything until the Saturday afternoon. I wanted to write fairly close to the day’s events so as to not start forgetting this, as I am wont to do. However, the lack of immediate internet facilities has delayed the publication until now.

The night before my last day was somewhat ambivalent. I have been ready to leave now for a good couple of months and in my mind I had already left. I was simply playing out the time, trying to make sure all loose ends were tied up and that I was able to hand over everything that needed to be handed over. I got the last train I could get that would get me into the office on time, so I arrived duly at about 8:50 and decided to go for breakfast in the canteen. Others who were down there were puzzled as to why I had come in any time before 11am; after all, who can really complain and what could anyone do about it? One late morning is not a sackable offence, so I wouldn’t have been risking my redundancy package.

The point, though, was that I always wanted to be, and to be seen to be, straightforward, honest and transparent. As an accountant, I believe that one of the best virtues you can have is to be accountable. This is why much of the work I have done over the last year has been to remove levels of obfuscation that my predecessors had put in place over some areas of the finance function. Of course, there is need for confidentiality, so when dealing with salaries, I would always lock my computer even if walking out of the room for 3 minutes to get myself a cup of coffee.

So, having started my day on time, even though I had not much to do, I set about writing my goodbye emails and saving them in a draft folder, ready to go out later that afternoon. I had to rack my brains thinking of who I might have left out so as to not unduly offend anyone.

As it happens, I had some time off in the middle of the day to go and speak to some more recruitment consultants. These ones were based in a new building called Heron tower, which seems to have been overshadowed by the Shard (not literally, they are about a mile apart!) and which is one of the tallest buildings in the country. I’d never been in before, but it was a bizarre experience. Outside the door was a guy in a long coat and bowler hat, who wanted to know why on earth I might want to enter. Once I’d got past him and through the revolving doors, there was another chap standing between myself and reception desk. My intention was simply to walk past him, but he stepped across my path to block me, demanding who I was going to see. This chap more than the bowler hat guy, had a serious US Secret Service inferiority complex. It seemed that his entire job was to stand in the lobby with a little wire in his ear and look cross.

Having negotiated my way to the reception desk I was finally able to get to make known who it was I wanted to see. Though it wasn’t until I had sat down to wait that I realised the entire backdrop to the reception was a giant fishtank. I didn’t have a measuring stick with me but at a rough guess I would say it was about 50 feet wide, 12 feet high and 7 feet deep. It was full of large tropical fish. It was like a much bigger version of the tank my parents have, and with supersized fish too, though some did appear to be a similar species/variety/genus (please forgive me, biology wasn’t my strongest point).

Anyway, the meeting went pretty much as every other meeting I’ve had with recruitment consultants. Afterwards, I headed on back to the office post haste. I finished clearing down a lot of old emails, as I had checked with work that they wouldn’t mind if I deleted emails confirming that I authorised a supplier payrun in Luxembourg in September 2010.

Throughout the day, I had the occasional person come up to me and wish me well for the future, which was really nice. The odd thing about my role is that I predominantly deal with people across Europe and in the United States. I have very little to do with the people who physically work in the same office as me. That’s not to say I never interacted with them, it just wasn’t anywhere near as much as they had with one another. I was just the quiet bloke sat in the far corner near the finance director and who drank a lot of black coffee.

After sending out emails spanning a reasonable part of the globe, I again got quite a few nice responses. Some weren’t aware I was leaving. This was particularly annoying as there was a small delegation from the US who were coming to the UK this week (w/c 23 April) who wanted to meet up, since we talk regularly on email and on the phone, and I’m just going to miss out on the chance to meet them.

There was small presentation for me at 4:30 with a couple of speeches. I didn’t prepare anything other than a wisecrack on our forecasting ability given that I had been there for 27 months on a 12 month contract! Oddly, though, at that point I still had not been informed that I would definitely be made redundant. Officially, it was still the case that my role was at risk of redundancy. So I still had to have a meeting with HR at 5:00 to confirm this.

Now, it is a truism that you should never trust HR with numbers. This was no exception, as I had calculated how much holiday I was owed, and knew that they would pay me for any unused holiday. They miscalculated and gave the figure too low. I picked up on this in an instant. So even on my very last day, I couldn’t leave on time as I had to wait for the official letter to be redrafted. That said, the extra 2.5 days is worth a few hundred pounds so that’s the closest I’ll have come to paid overtime during my tenure there.

After all this was done, we eventually managed to make it to a bar, where many many drinks were consumed and which I paid for none. Considering when I left my previous job, only one person showed up, I was dreading another no show. But quite a lot of people came out. However, I was standing just behind one guy who I heard saying “who was this guy leaving anyway” which I think sums up how ‘high profile’ I was. But most of the finance team and IT were there, who I do speak to every day. Once the drinks got flowing and the tongues loosened, an interesting portrait was revealed about who really thought what of whom. This is not the place to spread gossip and how much the strength of feelings may have been exaggerated by alcohol is questionable. But I did get more encouraging feedback from folks with comments like “you’re one of the good guys” or “whenever I needed help, you were the one who provided it.” As the evening wore on, the advice got a little more tenuous.

Several of them didn’t know that I wasn’t allowed a proper holiday last year. When you have a line manager who ignores employment law, compounded with a vague HR policy, all I could take was the odd day either side of a weekend, but not a full week at any point in the year. So I’ve still only been on holiday twice in the last 12 years. At this, I was told that I ought to travel to Thailand and “bang as many women as possible.” This was the point to call it a night. I’m not quite sure how I was still standing at this point, as I had consumed considerably more alcohol in the space of 4 hours than is recommended for a week.

I managed to get on the last train home and well aware that I was at risk of falling asleep and waking up in Brighton at 11pm, long after the last train back from there, I sent a message on twitter and to my sister to remind me to change trains at a 10:40. Spot on time, my sister phoned. I hadn’t fallen asleep (I don’t think) but I was able to get home fine and then randomly watch an episode of Father Ted on DVD before heading to bed. However, I was wide awake and stone cold sober at 5am on the Saturday.

So as I come to finish this now at just after 10:20pm on Saturday night, I’ve been up for a fair old while and am pretty tired, so I shall head off to bed and think about scheduling this for publication later in the week.

Book Review: The Metamorphosis and other stories by Franz Kafka

The first thing to note is that this is not a single novel but a collection of short stories, of which The Metamorphosis is the longest. I’ll review each story in turn. Another thing that ought to be noted is the translation. This is known as the “Dover Thrift Edition” and the introduction states, “These new translations, in idiomatic modern American English, attempt to be more complete and correct than the old British versions”. This instantly arouses suspicion, and these are well-founded as the text is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors which does spoil the enjoyment a little.

The Judgement

The collection opens with this little skit between a man and his bed-ridden father. The judgement of the title is the condemnation that the father passes down to the son at the very end of the story. This is not a particularly captivating story and I didn’t really see much depth in it, so won’t say any more.

The Metamorphosis

The longest story in this collection is really quite bizarre. The premise, given in the first sentence, is that a man wakes up and finds he has suddenly turned into a giant bug. Unwilling to show himself, he hides in his room and evades his family and his boss who comes to find him. When he does eventually reveal himself his family reject him, and he is confined to his room.

The story can be read on several different levels, which is why I think it has enduring appeal. On the surface, it could be just a piece of weird fiction where one element is distinctly sci-fi but all else is normal. Given that the man was a travelling salesman, it can also be read as the dehumanising process that modern business can have on people. If the focus is shifted to his family, then we could also see it as a parable on how disabled people are treated.

There are some incongruities in the story, though this may be due to the Americanised translation. Specifically, these relate a wound that appears on his side which is never explained and also later on in the story there are hints that his insect form has shrunk somewhat, though it is never made explicit. It is perhaps these ambiguities that ensure there is always room for debate.

In The Penal Colony

In my opinion, this was the best story of the collection and is more provoking than the more famous story above. It revolves around a torture/execution instrument. A visitor to the penal colony is shown his this machine works with the help of an officer who works there and is loyal to the old governor. The new governor is not convinced that the use of the machine has any future, and this was why he invited the visitor to inspect it.

The machine is described in some detail which I shan’t go into here. In short, a person is strapped naked, face-down on a table and a board with lots of needles on it hangs just above, and swings about, with the needles etching out a pattern on the person’s body. The pattern they etch out is related to the crime for which they are accused (though, as is very Kafka-esque, they are not informed beforehand what it is they are accused of). The injuries are always fatal.

[Spoiler alert]

Having explained how the machine works with a great deal of fondness for it, the officer begins to second-guess the purpose of the visitor’s inspection. He here begins his own defence of why it is necessary, but in so doing gives the condemnation himself. In an act that has strong resonances with that of the Easter passion, the officer pardons a prisoner mid-way through his sentence, strips naked and subjects himself to the machine. Only whereas before the the device etched out patterns in the back that were related to the crime, the setup is tampered with by the officer so that it simply punctures and impales him. He takes the punishment that was owed to a prisoner and puts it upon himself in the most brutal manner.

Only this time, there is no resurrection. The story is left hanging somewhat, but the richness of the story leaves the reader’s mind whirring with thoughts.

I fully expect to come back to this in the future, though it is not for the squeamish.

A Country Doctor

This is the shortest story of the collection and tells of a doctor as he does his rounds in a rural region. Much like the first story, there is very little of interest here and it can be skipped over without missing anything of any importance or interest.

A Report To The Academy

The final story in the collection is a letter, in which a “person” writes about their former life. Now it happens that their former life was spent as an ape. I could not help but think of the idea that this may have had some influence on the Planet of the Apes films. The emphasis, however, doesn’t really touch on the issues brought to the fore by the first 2 films of the series. Instead, the question posed is (in a very Philip K Dick-esque manner): what does it mean to be human?

It Is a short critique of how humans treat both themselves and others, especially others who are different from themselves. It is fairly thought-provoking, though I think some of the issues dealt with are not as significant in the 2010’s as they were in the 1910s, when it was first written.

Conclusion

The Metamorphosis and In The Penal Colony are far and away the best contributions to this collection of short stories. The others are OK, but there is nothing in them that really stands out as first rate writing, though as mentioned at the top, this may be because of the Americanised translation. But it is absolutely worth reading for the 2 stories mentioned alone.

Is this the worst email reply ever?

This week, the tv signal got switched off once and for all. In order to be able to watch tv, I would have to upgrade to digital. Now, since (as you can tell from recent posts) I am being made redundant, this is not a justifiable expense.

So I decided it would be better to cancel my tv license and get a partial refund. However, having gone through the rigmarole of the online form, at the end of it I was asked to print off another form which had to be posted along with supporting evidence as to why I no longer needed a license.

Now I’m all for backing stuff up with evidence. My background is, after all, scientific. But the list of things they suggested just didn’t match my circumstances. I don’t need a tv license because there is no signal any more. Evidence of the non-existence of something is very tricky to do!

So I asked this question of them:

I wish to cancel because the tv signal has been switched off. I cannot afford to upgrade to digital as I am losing my job. I have printed off an application for refund form but I have been asked for a piece of evidence backing up my reason. What would you consider to be admissible evidence for this reason?

Below is a copy of their reply, copied exactly from the email.

Dear Mr Meadows

Thank you for contacting us.

If a TV Licence isn?t needed again before it expires, we can refund any unused whole quarters of the fee (three month periods) remaining on the licence.  A refund cannot be given earlier than the date we receive the application without further evidence.

Your application must be submitted within two years of the expiry date of the licence for which you need a refund.

If you believe you are eligible, please visit tvlicensing.co.uk/refund. The form will tell you whether you need to send us any evidence. If you do, then you need to print the completed form, sign it and send it with a photocopy of your evidence to:

The Refund Centre
PO Box 410
Bristol
BS99 5HP

Alternatively please call us if you would like me to post a refund application form to you.

Please Note: As a signature is required, the application must be made in writing; we cannot accept emails, but we can accept a scanned signed copy.

I hope I?ve been able to explain the situation and thank you for taking the time to contact us.

Yours sincerely

Mr W Kimball
TV Licensing

The frustration of the jobhunt

Frustration (was: threesixtyfive | day 244)

As I write this on Saturday afternoon, I know that I only have 5 working days left in my current job. Technically, I’ve not actually been informed I’m being made redundant; rather, my current role is “at risk of redundancy” and that it will not actually be determined until Friday, which is the day that my temporary contract expires.

So far, I have had 5 job interviews and have succeeded with none of them. The first one I have written about before. There was one more where it was very clear that I was not suited for the role, though I had been misled by the recruitment agent and he misled the company about me. After a few terse words, I told him I didn’t want to have anything to do with him any more.

These two were a waste of time, and were frustrating for that reason. But the other 3 were even more frustrating. These were jobs I had a real shot at. Two of them involved a greater level of direct involvement with the commerce side of the business. In my current role, I am very much back office staff, and my day to day interactions are with the company directors, account managers and other finance staff;  I have no need to interact with sales and to do so would be overstepping my mandate, besides the fact that I have nothing to talk to them about.

Yet this was my downfall for 2 of the interviews. So on this basis, I have had to revise my short term goals and avoid anything that has a commercial aspect, as I will not lie in an interview situation. But every time I mention that I working with commerce would be something I’d look forward to, the level of interest on the part of the interviewer drops.

The last one was the most frustrating of all. The job description was the most similar to my current role and 90% of it I could have done with next to no training at all. The only difference was the software systems they use, though I am very adept at picking up new software skills and quickly surpassing those who teach me. One part of the job description was to line-manage a graduate student. In my current role, I am nobody’s line manager, though I do have lots of people reporting into me.

Yet someone else they interviewed was currently line-managing an ACA student. I had really high hopes for this role, as it was walking distance from home and I got on really well the group financial controller. The interview had been due to be an hour, but ran on for an extra 20 minutes, the close of which I had been asked about my salary expectations, notice period and availability for second interview. Talk about getting someone’s hopes up!

So where am I now? Pretty much back at square one. I am due to have an interview sometime this week, though I have not been given a time for it. I’m putting my CV out on more and more websites, which usually ends up with a flurry of phonecalls, but it often seems more like fuss than progress. By now, I’ve had the same conversation with so many different people that I’m starting to lose track of who I’ve spoken to. At one recruitment consultancy, I keep speaking to different people, so every time they call me and they say I’ve spoken to one of their colleagues, I have no recollection of whether or not that’s true. I decided to just call them all ‘Mark.’

When I get sent a job specification that is unsuitable for me (often because they lack the understanding that when I say I’m willing to commute up to, but not more than, a total 3 hours per day) that they send me job specs for roles that are in Berkshire, or other places that are a 2.5 hour commute each way. It is interesting to note that are very few jobs in the local area, which is very blue in the political sense. The places where all the majority of new roles are being created tend to be in Labour constituencies; it certainly casts an interesting perspective as to which of the 2 main parties is more pro-employment.

The odd thing about job hunting is that when you think you are on the brink of being employed, you can suddenly find yourself as far as ever, yet not knowing when the right job spec will come under your radar or when you may get called for interview, you can also be extremely close to finding a job before you realise it.

So as a question of epistemology, you never know when you are close and I try not to get my hopes up too much. Because the range of emotions that exist create the illusion of being close to a job, and it is when the rejections come that I feel furthest from getting a job.

It’s like trying to jump over a narrow stream. Even if you get 95% of the way across, you still end up with mud on your face. From the feedback I’ve had, there’s nothing wrong with my run-up or take-off. I’ve just got to keep going, but there now seem to be fewer streams to traverse, as I’ve had a go at most of those around.

Book Review: The Problem of the Pastoral Epistles by P.N. Harrison

My motivation for reading this book came from a post from Gurdur where he stated:

 “A fair bit formally credited to him is not his work (probably 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews not being his)”

It was by no means the first time I’ve heard that stated, but wanted to do was examine the evidence. Where I looked around for references, all I could see were references to “most scholars” or some very vague hand-wavey arguments. It was surprisingly hard to pin down anything resembling original research. Eventually, all the roads that didn’t lead to dead ends ultimately ended up at this book.

It is free to download, but I’m not a fan of e-books so it has taken several months to find a long enough weekend (I read this over Easter) to read the ~200 page pdf file on my laptop.

The opening section contains a very brief outline of the “problem” which forms the title of the book and the approach that the author intends to take in order to tackle the problem.

The problem is stated as the questions over who wrote the books (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus), when were they written and why were they written. Harrison states that his technique is to be open-minded and to review the evidence as independently as possible, without giving any reverence or special treatment to any one point of view. However, he goes straight from this into his giving his conclusion which, in summary, is that Paul did not write the entirety of the books but that they were written by a follower of his in the early 2nd century who had access to some personal notes that Paul did write to Timothy and Titus, where phrases from these are incorporated into the letters as we presently know them.

So that problem that the reader is faced with from the outset is that we have an author who professes all the right things we want to hear for an ‘objective’ view of history but who in the next breath disregards this with a piece of polemic setting out his conclusions in advance of the evidence. To me, it doesn’t matter that he comes out against Pauline authorship, the verdict on the scholarship would be the same if he had pre-emptively concluded in favour of Pauline authorship. The rest of the book then set about trying to give justification for these views.

The main argument focuses on what Harrison refers to as Hapax Legomena, which is a shorthand of saying words which appear in the Pastoral epistles which don’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament (NT). Of course, this refers to the number of Greek words rather than any translation. Curiously the statistical basis on which this is based is the number of such words per page. This is then reliant on the particular edition used and appears quite arbitrary. Another analysis referred to, which Harrison rightly disparages, is the number of unique words per chapter. This is course is dependent on the arbitrary chapter divisions which was made much later than the composition of the letters. Yet the irony of using the number of words on a page is lost on Harrison. It seems to me much more reasonable that the rate of unique words per 1,000 would be much more specific and comparable with other works.

In short, the number of unique words per page in the pastoral epistles is much higher than in the rest of the Paul’s works. There is also a brief discussion on apparent “omissions” where words and phrases (very commonly ‘connecting’ words) which are common in the rest of Paul’s works are not present in the Pastorals.

With the arbitrary nature of the statistical analysis aside, there are plenty of other objections that may be raised against Harrison’s hypothesis and he does duly take note of some of these. Those that jumped to my mind included:

  • The fact that the Pastorals were written to individuals whereas most of the rest of the Pauline letters were to churches.
  • The subject matter of the pastorals is very different from the rest of the Paul’s writings, so it should be no surprise that a slightly different vernacular is used.
  • There is no comparison to other writers and how their usage of words varies across their works.
  • The real significance of the variances considering that the whole of Paul’s recorded works is really very small, especially when considered against the Lucan corpus or the collected works of any other contemporary writers.
  • The assumption in the statistical analysis that what we have preserved represents the entirety of Paul’s writings.

Harrison attempts to answer some of these critiques, but not all. For those that he does tackle, his treatment is not convincing. In his response to the first point, he points out the example Philemon, which was written to an individual. This is, however, the shortest of Paul’s writings and so to draw on that as a source of statistical significance seems suspiciously spurious.

Harrison also tries to address the second, but the argument presented carries no weight, moves to a side-issue and never actually answers the challenge.

For the third point, he makes of comparison with Shakespeare, where a similar analysis has been done. Now the results of the Shakespeare survey does in fact show the same level of variance between his plays as Paul’s writings does (including the Pastoral epistles). This would seem to counteract Harrison’s proposition, though his defence is that the Shakespeare model has a fairly continuous range, with the number of unique words per page not only spanning a range, but filling it is as well. The contrast with Paul is that there appears to be one range for 10 of his letters and then a large jump to the Pastorals; a fact which is demonstrated by numerous graphs.

The fourth and fifth points are never addressed and so any meaningful statement of significance is somewhat lacking.

Moving on from this, Harrison looks at a collection of 2nd century christian writers. This is to look at his conclusion (determined before the examination, remember) that the pastoral epistles were composed in the 2nd century. Here, there is some consideration given to the paucity of writings we have available, though interestingly he never considers alternative 1st & 2nd century writers other than those of the New Testament. For example, I would have considered it reasonable to compare Pauline grammar with that of Josephus and Tacitus, but they are noticeable by their absence from this analysis. At least these would form a better comparison than Shakespeare, writing around a millenium & a half later.

The other point that Harrison misses is that Paul was a significant thought-leader of his time. So the fact that some of his grammatical structures appear to have parallels in 2nd century writings could indicate that it wasn’t necessarily composed then, but rather that there is possibility that those who followed adopted Paul’s pioneering writing style.

The last section of the book is very different in character. Here, Harrison posits that the pastoral epistles, and in particular 2 Timothy, contain some of Paul’s genuine writings. He does this by posing further questions on the authenticity of the composition of the writings. Specifically, he asks when and where they were written. First and foremost in his crosshairs is the idea that Paul was imprisoned twice in Rome and that the letters were written during the 2nd imprisonment. In outline, the idea is that the details of the 2nd imprisonment are so closely aligned with the 1st so as to the make them indistinguishable and therefore show that they were in fact one and the same.

Having ‘plucked out’ the genuine elements of 2 Timothy, Harrison then constructs what he believes to be Paul’s actual writing before giving a short commentary on this passage.

Conclusion

I do not find Harrison’s conclusions to be as firmly grounded as he does. That is not to say that I affirm the Pastoral Epistles are unquestionably 100% Paul’s writings. This work does provide evidence which casts doubt on such a proclamation. Yet the evidence presented fails to take into account the relative paucity of the volume of the writings and the comparisons made to other writers (such as Shakespeare). As such the declaration that the vast majority of the work are not of Paul’s origin and that only a small section of 2 Timothy may be rightly credited to him is unconvincing.

So where does that leave us? I neither confirm nor deny Paul’s authorship of these letters. I remain with doubts in my mind and have not seen any evidence presented here or elsewhere to push me off the fence on direction or another.

Confession of a left-wing christian

Introduction

What follows from ‘Background’ onwards is a post I wrote a few months ago, but have delayed publishing as it kept expanding and wish it was my intention to break into several parts and publish as a series later this year. Now, at the weekend, a report published by Demos proposed that there was a link between ‘religious’ people and left-wing viewpoints. This prompted me to think whether or not posting this article would be apposite. After asking an open question on Twitter, I was encouraged (and many thanks to those of you who responded so warmly) to publish this.

This is incomplete, I admit. I would need a thesis to firm up my arguments and I readily admit there may be many a good counter-argument to the case I make here. Be that as it may, here it is, warts and all.

Background

After my earlier post, ‘Should christians accept bonuses?’ a friend posted underneath the link I put on facebook the following comment: “I am fascinated by the statement that left = being a Christian. How left is left? Far left employs a system that stunts the need to work – benefit addicts, etc. Being a Christian is right wing too. Jesus confirmed all 10 commandments bar the Sabbath and even added to. I think it’s dangerous to get hung up with Christian = left, Linux, Prius. To the original question though – it depends is my answer. For 99% of us, I’d say “yes”. But abuse at the top makes this question more topical.”

Since there is far more to write than could be contained in a single comment, I’ve opted to write this post as a response. This will only be an overview, since to give full justification for the matter would require the writing of several books (maybe about 66 of them!) which I don’t have the time to do. I am already well aware that I have over a dozen blog posts that I have started but not finished for various reasons (lack of time, ill health, inability to find the right words to express myself).

Opening comments

In all of what is to follow, I hope to keep in mind two things:

1) Christianity predates the ideas of ‘left’ and ‘right’. So when I talk about myself being left wing, this is because there are ideas and values which I have taken from my understanding of christianity which I recognise as being more common to the left than to the right. So from the outset, I do not claim that “christianity = left” as was stated in the comment.

2) There are wide variety of opinions that fall under the scope of ‘left’ and ‘right’ making them very hard to pin down in any precise sense. In that respect, it’s not unlike trying to define a christian, which is a question I looked at in some depth last year.

So I have to define what I mean when I say ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ I know I often have a go at others about not being precise enough in their thinking, so I shall attempt as best I can to be precise. In these definitions, I won’t cover all ground, so I shall only try and get at the core values.

What I mean by ‘left wing’

When I talk of being left wing, what I have in mind is a system of fairness and equality, tempered by grace.

When I speak of being left wing, I primarily mean in an economic sense. There is an additional sociological sense to being left wing, which is tied up with the economics, though for the sake of not confusing matters, I prefer to use the term ‘liberal’ when it comes to the more sociological side of things. I will touch on that later but for the most part I will leave that for another time, as I think that is far more complicated to deal with in a short blog post.

To be economically left wing is to recognise that our economy (both national and international) is full of inequality. I know that I benefit from that inequality at the expense of others. Though it is not a scientific tool, there is a little gadget here which shows how highly ranked you are in terms of the world’s wealth. Take it with a due pinch of salt. While the recent Occupy protests talk about the 1% and 99%, these were initially meant to refer to those within a single country. Taken globally, I am probably in the 1%, though, as will many of those who read this post, I suspect.

The main principle of left wing economics is to ensure that as many people as possible are looked after and able to live dignified lives. If we then recognise that there is inequality, then corrective measures have to be taken. This leads onto the secondary principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That is, wealth redistribution. The emphasis has to be on the disadvantaged.

What I mean by ‘right wing’

As before this is a wholly inadequately brief summary, but I want to get at the core values from which all else springs. In economic terms, by right wing I refer to capitalism. The fundamental principles which drive capitalism are individualism and greed. The notion of supply & demand is inherently grounded on the idea of the individual person setting out to get the best deal for themselves. But this rapidly leads to an idea of “value” that is purely monetary and which loses any sense of proportion. This is most easily seen in the example of footballers’ wages. Here, there is a high demand and a low supply which pushes the cost up, but which, by its very nature, ignores the rest of society and fails to take into account anything other than a very narrow viewpoint.

One of the things that got me very angry in my accountancy training was when it was stated that “the purpose of a company is to increase the wealth of its shareholders.” There was no statement about creating employment or providing a valuable good or service to the public. It can be put into summary by saying that the pound is more important than the person.

One aspect of capitalism is often stressed is that of competition. The idea is that there should be several different entities in the same market, where the forces of supply and demand lead to each party trying to improve their products (which will therefore attract customers) and to reduce their prices, but without doing so to the extent that they lose money. This only works in a limited and isolated microcosm, which of course is not the kind of world we live in. Plus, it doesn’t remove from the fact that the fundamental motivation remains personal greed. This is something I find fundamentally opposed to my christian belief.

What I do not mean by left and right wing

There are some things which may have cropped into people’s minds during the above discussion in the form of “what about this” or “what about that.” It’s not a discussion that I find particularly productive or helpful. When I talk about left wing, I do not mean I am a communist.

Marx had some very good ideas, but I do not agree with all of them. Firstly (and you won’t be surprised by this), I don’t agree with his statement of atheism. Secondly, there are many examples of supposedly communist states that have veered a long way from what Marx envisioned. He is said of once uttered, “if that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist.” In fact almost every communist regime in the world has fallen, and for one very simple reason: greed. It is the very fuel of capitalism that is incompatible with a communist style of government. When the task of administering a redistribution of wealth is given to individuals and groups, time and again, history has shown that these groups adopt an approach akin to “one for you, one for me.” This has led to mass economic ruin often with greater levels of inequality than in the pre-communist days. So this is not what I am advocating.

Similarly, it may be common in some rhetoric to equate anyone of a right wing persuasion with the fascist extremism of Germany in the 1930s & 1940s. As Godwin’s law rightly points out, when you compare someone you disagree with to the Nazis, you have usually lost the argument. I would reserve the term “far right” for those individuals and organisations that advocate setting up one group as inherently superior to another, or prejudice against certain groups. These exhibit themselves is characteristics such as racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, theophobia, etc.

So by referring to someone as right wing, I am not trying to falsely align them with the likes of the British National Party or English Defence League. That kind of talk is far more provocative than it is productive.

The obvious justification: the early church

There is some very obvious justification for identifying christianity as a left wing group. This is evidenced by the early years of the church. The book of Acts gives us a couple of samples of what life was like in the years following Jesus’ resurrection. The two clearest passages are these:

“All of those who believed came together, and held everything in common. They sold their possessions and belongings and divided them up to everyone in proportion to their various needs.” (Acts 2:44,45; NTFE)

“The company of those who believed had one heart and soul. Nobody said that they owned their property; instead, they had everything in common. The apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, and great grace was upon all of them. For there was no needy person among them, since any who had possessed lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sale, and placed it at the feet of the apostles, who then gave to each according to their need.” (Acts 4:32-35, NTFE)

I think they’re fairly self-explanatory. One of the phrases that was often taken to sum up the thinking of Karl Marx was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” referred to above. Interestingly, this is found neither in Das Kapital, nor The Communist Manifesto, but in one of his lesser known works, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875). Although the phrase is not used exactly in Acts, the idea is very much present, predating Marx by quite a few centuries.

In all fairness, there is no explicit instruction that this is the only way to conduct a christian society. Rather, it is a natural expression of the disciples (and by this I mean more than 12) who have spent several years following Jesus and his teaching, and who are now living in the light of his resurrection, carrying out their commission to preach the gospel to all the earth. It’s what they did as one of their first reactions now that they had the full picture.

From Jesus’ teaching 

Below is a selection of quotations taken from the gospel of Matthew which have influenced my thinking. For the sake of the wordcount, I have made them intentionally short. I would, of course, encourage you to read the wider contexts in which they appear, lest you think I am quote-mining.

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Gk: mammon).” (Matt 6:24; NRSV)

This is crucial to me. I struggle to understand christians who profess to serve both. This is later echoed in 1 Timothy 6:6-10 which includes the famous quotation “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” One reason is because I work in finance and as such, it is very easy to lose your priorities in that world. So I constantly have to remind myself that I do a good job because that honours God rather than allowing me any materialistic gain.

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake.” (Matt 7:9,10, NRSV)

This demonstrates to me the idea of meeting the need as it arises without prejudice. Jesus doesn’t ask for any form of means testing. If it asked for, it is given. I know that if I am in need the last thing I will want to do is to face an interrogation (c.f. Atos assessments for disabled people) before being given the help I need. Likewise, if I would like that for myself, then that is what I am obliged to give to others, as exemplified by the following quote:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12, NRSV)

One of the themes that runs through Jesus’ teaching is of turning conventional or ‘obvious’ wisdom on its head. The idea of each person getting what they ‘deserve’ is often described as a meritocracy, and at surface level is really quite straightforward and seems to make sense. Yet the gospels turn this on its head:

“At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants’.” (Matt 11:25, NRSV)

Another example of this is the parable of labourers in the vineyard (Matt 19:30 – 20:16) which is bracketed by a parallelism of “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” and “the last will be first, and the first will be last” – here, I think the chapter divisions break up the flow and probably ought to be repositioned.

Then we come onto health:

“Great crowds came to [Jesus], bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute and many others. They put them at his feet and he cured them,” (Matt 15:30, NRSV)

Putting aside questions of the historicity of miracles for a moment, what’s the principle being shown here? I read it as one of generous compassion. In modern politics, the future of healthcare is a major topic. Jesus never asked for payment to heal others, it was done freely.

In the next quote we see another example of the topsy-turvy reasoning that permeated Jesus’ teaching:

“’If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’” (Matt 16: 24,25, NRSV)

Again, in the news recently has been the issue of tax avoidance. For honesty’s sake, I probably admit that I avoid some tax, via gift aid, pension contributions and an ISA. So I am uncertain as to whether I am actually living biblically given the following:

“When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ He said, ‘Yes, he does.’” (Matt 17:24b,25a, NRSV)

Though I shall not quote it in full, the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35) has a summary of the major subject of the gospel: forgiveness. Where the master has a debt, he is willing to be forgiving to his debtor; this is not the way of capitalism. It is far more compassionate than the cold laws of supply and demand, where payment is demanded from those who cannot pay, which is what the unforgiving servant does.

“’If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matt 19:21, NRSV) In cross-referenced bibles, this is usually linked to the verses in Acts quoted above; thus demonstrating the link between Jesus’ teaching and the behaviour of the early church.

“Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt 19:23,24, NRSV)

Again, Jesus talks about the issue of wealth. I get the impression that it’s a fairly important topic as far he was concerned, and therefore it probably ought to be important to us. Note, he doesn’t say it’s impossible for rich person to enter the kingdom, nor does he condemn them simply for being rich, so neither do I. Instead, it is simply “difficulty.”

Then again, we come to yet another example of the upside down logic of Jesus:

“The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matt 23:11,12, NRSV)

Note that these are just quotations from Matthew. My intention had been to do a complete survey of both the Old Testament and the New Testament but, as stated earlier, there is no space here. I leave it to you to fill in those extensive gaps and which is why I readily admit that this argument is incomplete as it stands.

Some caveats

There is the not entirely unreasonable argument that goes along the lines of “that’s fine for individuals, but this shouldn’t be reflected in government policy.” Where I believe this argument falls down is that if carried through to its logical conclusion, all welfare would be solely due to the whim of the a very small rich minority. Implicitly, this would then be dependent on each and every member of this elite minority to conform to the same set of values. But this has been precisely the problem with implementing communism; nice as an idea as it was, it failed because of the fallibility of people.

While the disciples in the early church don’t seem to have implemented a tax system, per se, I have yet to think of a better way of implementing a redistribution of wealth to those who most need it in a manner other than what we would recognise as a tax system in a society as large and complicated as ours.

I ought to point out that the gospel is not primarily a political manifesto. There may be some who consider it to be such but I think the broad consensus amongst christians is that the gospel’s primary purpose is one of salvation (or soteriology, if you want to be fancy). It does have a number of knock-on consequences, so do not think that I am stating that this is the whole summary of the gospel. I am not pretending it is, this is something of a side show. Of course, 1st century Middle Eastern politics does play an important part in the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and I would not seek to rip those out of their historical context. But for the sake of brevity, I shall have to leave this aspect woefully short of what should be an adequate treatement.

There is one very right-wing sentiment that Jesus expresses. “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have in abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Matt 13: 12, NRSV) Here, as with all the verses quoted above, we need to consider the context. Here, Jesus is explaining why he uses parables as a teaching tool. He refers not to material wealth but to, “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven”. This takes us firmly away from the world of materialism and more into eschatology. Were this to be taken as a basis for socio-political rhetoric, you would have to somehow dismiss all that has been noted above; and I, for one, don’t know how to do that with any integrity.

The parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) and the parables of the pounds (Luke 19:12-28) provide food for thought in this context. I haven’t got space here to go into these in the depth that they deserve. If anyone wishes to write a counter-argument to mine (and I would encourage you to do so) then these 2 parables would make a very good starting point. All I would say here, is I think that Jesus is using the worldly wisdom as an illustration of the issues of sin & judgement. For the parable of the pounds, Kenneth Bailey has an excellent essay in ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ which is well worth a read.

What I do not argue is that wealth is inherently wrong. To the best of my knowledge, at no point in the bible is wealth in and of itself ever condemned. Indeed:

“When Joshua sent [the half tribe of Manasseh] away to their tents and blessed them, he said to them, ‘Go back to your tents with much wealth, and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze and iron, and with a great quantity of clothing; divide the spoil of your enemies with your kindred.’” (Josh 22:8; NRSV)

Deuteronomy 8 is a great passage that carries the core message “[don’t forget where you came from and who provided for you]” One of the key verses is the following:

“But you shall earnestly remember the Lord your God, for it is He Who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” (Deut 8:18; Amp)

I would encourage you to read the whole chapter, as it carries a warning against complacency and lack of humility. This is what I think is at the heart of Jesus’ declaration that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (cf Matt 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25) .

A breakdown

So with that said, let’s go back to the original comment and break it down. “I am fascinated by the statement that left = being a Christian.” I think I’ve shown that I made no such statement; and this is a misconstruing of what I did write. To quote myself: “…I am distinctly left-leaning. One of the main reasons this is because I am a christian.”

“How left is left?” As discussed above, there are a wide variety of opinions and viewpoints that fall broadly under such an umbrella term. I don’t think it’s overly helpful to always try and classify such subjective opinions and group them together; you can find yourself making bedfellows with those with whom you disagree on a large number of matters.

“Far left employs a system that stunts the need to work – benefit addicts, etc.” I’d be interested in the evidence to back this up as well as finding the definition of “benefit addict” is. While the tabloid press may love to find the odd exception and pretend it is demonstrative of an example of the failure of the welfare state, the silent majority who receive benefits do not live on them entirely and it is certainly unfounded to say that benefits stunts the need to work. Indeed, as things stand, I shall be on Job Seeker’s Allowance very soon, yet the amount that pays wouldn’t even cover half the rent on the 1 bed flat I live in, let alone any other living expenses. Frankly I find the comment as offensive as it unreasoned.

“Being a Christian is right wing too. Jesus confirmed all 10 commandments bar the Sabbath and even added to.” Here, I don’t think the assertion being made makes any logical sense. What I think may be meant is that being right wing is in some way identified with the rule of law. Now, provided that my reading of that is correct, it does show a subtle difference in terms of left/right when it comes more to sociological aspects than economic, the latter of which has been the thrust of my argument thus far and which was the subject of my original post. But even if one takes the more sociological ‘liberal’ aspect of ‘left’ then the comment still doesn’t make sense, as liberal values still have respect for, and demand the enforcement of, the rule of law. Precisely, how those laws are formulated is of course something up for grabs and a matter there isn’t room for here.

“I think it’s dangerous to get hung up with Christian = left, Linux, Prius.” As stated at the start, I do propose that christian = left and never did. As for the inclusion of Linux & Prius I am simply perplexed as to how they come into the equation.

Conclusion

In spite of going on for around 4,000 words, this has barely scratched the surface. There is much more that could be (and probably has been) said. I’ve given just a sample of scriptures that have influenced my thinking on the subject. The heart of the issue is the source of our motivation. My view is that the gospel is largely built around the notion of grace, and that this has far more in common with left of the economic-political spectrum. The economic right is dependent  upon, and actively encourages, greed. For this reason, I cannot, with any sense of honesty, reconcile this to a christian viewpoint.

Of course, this analysis has been dependent on my understanding, and I acknowledge that that may well mistaken. For the sake of brevity, I know have made some gross over-simplifications, but I hope that you can forgive me for these. If I have made any gross misrepresentation or have got the wrong end of the stick, I would encourage you again to post a comment with a due correction or to write a response post and let me know about it.

So, for all its flaws, that is my argument.

Book Review: On Space and Time by various authors

When I first saw this book it instantly appealed to me and my sense of the pursuit of cutting edge science. Some of the writers I was familiar with, such as Roger Penrose, Alain Connes and John Polikinghorne. The other writers were less known to me, but the inclusion of the above names on the topic of Space & Time meant that this wasn’t one to be missed.

In truth, the book is dominated by Shahn Mahjid. He writes the introduction and his chapter is by far the longest in the book.

Andrew Taylor – The dark Universe

This first essay introduces some of the big issues in cosmology, including dark matter and dark energy. However, the chapter doesn’t shy away from the details. In this respect it is extremely hard going. It may have something to do with the fact that I was a theoretician, rather than an experimentalist, but it struck me as being far too technical for the non-expert reader.

Shahn Majid – Quantum spacetime and physical reality

With Taylor having laid the groundwork in experimental evidence, Majid picks up the mantle and takes us back into theoretical physics. Again, though, he goes down a very narrow road where few can follow him. I have heard it said than expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing. In this case, you have to know an awful lot about very little in order to fully follow Majid. I think I got stuck in the passageway about a third of the way down it.

The general thrust of the essay is on the potential solutions to how we might think about quantum spacetime and the implications that may have on how we think of the rest of reality. For example, while calculus has been an enormously helpful tool in physics, we may have to ditch it as a tool if we are to penetrate to the heart of reality.

Roger Penrose – Causality, quantum theory and cosmology

Of all the writers in this compilation, Penrose is by far and away the best communicator. In his essay, he gives an outline of some of the problems that thermodynamics poses to the issue of space and time, particular with relation to causal structure. He then goes on to give a description of his theory of Conformal Cyclic Cosmology (CCC). If you have read his Cycles of Time, then much here will be familiar, even if it remains at the very cutting edge of science.

Alain Connes – On the fine structure of spacetime

Connes is most famous for his work on noncommutative geometry, so it is no surprise that this is the subject of his essay. He starts off easily enough and does scare the reader somewhat by giving a complete Lagrangian of the standard model displayed on a slide, which is a gargantuan formula. This is merely to demonstrate that perhaps another approach is needed. Connes’ outline of noncommutative geometry starts off accessible enough, but quickly goes out of sight of the non-expert reader, much as Majid’s essay did.

Michael Heller – Where physics meets metaphysics

Heller is a catholic philosopher whose essay marks a radical change in the tone of the book. Instead of focusing on the physics, the emphasis is on the metaphysical implications of the theories discussed. For someone picking this up off the shelf, imagining it to be a book purely on physics, then Heller’s essay may be a disappointment. I, however, found it a welcome break from the intensity of the preceding chapters, as it was eminently readable and understandable to non-expert like me.

He gives a helpful, though not devastating, critique of the idea of “God of the gaps” which is an idea I have personally grown out of. He also looks at the idea of non-locality (an idea discussed in detail elsewhere in the book, and is mooted as a potential answer to the problem of action at a distance) and how that might then go on to inform and reform our understanding of philosophy and theology.

John Polkinghorne – The nature of time

Christian theologian, and former particle physicist, Polkinghorne gets the shortest essay tucked at the back of the book, which is just 6 pages long. As such, there is very little here, apart from an advertisement for Exploring Reality which Polkinghorne had published in 2005. The core of his argument may be found at the end, where he proposes that when it comes to studying time, physics, metaphysics and theology all have a role to play. This may be seen as a provocative statement by some positivists, though that would be testament to their lack of understanding of metaphysics.

Conclusion

The last 2 essays are very distinct from the rest of the book, which could be perceived by a purist physicist as spoiling it slightly. Instead, I think it adds a different dimension to the book which is quite welcome. The extremely hypothetical nature of the book is what appeals, though to get to grips with it all, you will need a PhD in theoretical physics. Where it is accessible, it is highly thought-provoking and will be interesting to return to it in the years and decades to come to see what, if any, becomes mainstream science and what may be discarded as hypotheses that failed to get off the ground.

Changing Rainbows

For many years schoolchildren have learned the mnemonic “Richard Of York Gave Battles In Vain” in order to learn the order of the colours of the rainbow. This gave rise to much confusion as to whether the G was for ‘Gave’ or ‘Gained’ which is also frequently used. The other aide-memoire, which I found more helpful, was to say that the rainbow was invented by a man named Roy G Biv.

All that may be about to change, however. Increasingly, the words indigo and violet have dropped out of common usage and replaced by the more catch-all term, purple. Under plans which are set to revealed by Michael Gove later this week, the national curriculum for young children is to be changed to reflect the more modern terminology.

The government’s position is backed by a MORI poll commissioned by the Liberal Democrat party. People were shown a series of colours and asked to identify them, followed by what they thought each symbolised. It is understood that the poll was initially commissioned as a way of researching how to rebrand the party in time for the next general election, when the party is expected to lose at a third of its seats including the Sheffield Hallam constituency of its leader [sic], Nick Clegg. However, the poll showed that the majority of people did not distinguish between indigo and violet. Instead, purple was, by virtue of Cadbury’s identified with chocolate.

An unnamed source within the Liberal Democrat party was quoted as saying, “Most people like chocolate, so it will be helpful for the party to be associated with something they like.” When it was pointed out that UKIP already use purple as one of their main colours, the Liberal Democrat noted that UKIP also incorporate yellow into their colour scheme, which the Liberal Democrats have no intention of using beyond 2014.

The planned move has not been without its critics, however. Many horticulturalists are adamant that indigo and violet are wholly different colours. A spokesman from the Royal Horticultural Society, Draco Romper, said, “Indigo and violent are from completely different ends of the spectrum. They are nothing alike.”

What other changes might this cause? I’m sure the makers of Parma Violets may be given cause for concern, though I don’t think Parma Purples sound too bad. If only they could make them taste nice.

As for the mnemonics, please feel free to post suggestions.