Monthly Archives: November 2013

Minimal christianity (A Personal Catechism #2)

Link to #1

Q: How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?

A: Three; the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.


My first reaction to this was one of “that’s a great question to ask” followed up with “I really don’t know how to answer it”. What it drives at is the idea that christianity need not be complicated.

There may be much that we don’t know and don’t really understand about the faith that we hold, but not understanding something is a basis for exploration, not abandonment. I’ve received challenges in the past (one just a few weeks ago) from a friend who asked me to explain the nature of the Trinity. I can’t. I can come up with expressions of how I think it might work, but I can’t claim that I have a firm grasp of it. Upon my failure to come up with a neat, 30 second answer which would satisfy the curiosity of my friend, the idea was dismissed on the grounds that if I didn’t understand fully what I believed, then my whole faith was groundless.

We agree to disagree, and here I won’t further attempt to look at the Trinity. The point I’d like to make is that it is not necessary to understand everything in order to be a christian. It isn’t a case that we have all the answers, I know I certainly don’t. Anyone coming either to this blog or just to this series hoping to have an authoritative sermon delivered to them will be sorely disappointed. I’m just poking around, looking into things for myself and you might be peering over my shoulder as I do so. If I inspire/provoke/prompt you into doing a bit of poking around, then that may be all for the good.

I do think there is some importance to be placed on ‘being right’ and to that end I do try my reasonable best to battle ignorance and come to some detailed and nuanced views. But that is not primarily what christianity is about, I don’t think. That does not mean, however, that christianity is a total free for all; this is something I looked at some time ago, asking how you define a christian. But trying to come to some kind of ‘essence’ of christianity is hard.

One might be tempted to answer the question from the catechism by giving the two great commandments: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” Yet this would then prompt the inevitable question, “what do you mean by ‘God’?” and then lead to the sort of infinite regress that I hoped to avoid.

From the point of view of this project, there is a slight methodological problem which this brings up. Question 2 contains within in it a reference to question 1. So in my response, ought I really to take the catechism’s answer to question 1 or my alternative take? If I choose the former, then my answers may not seem to hang together, as I answer a later question on the basis of a premise I have already differed from. If I choose the latter, then I will likely diverge and my answers would bear no resemblance to the question, or else I might have to say “not applicable” – which would not be terribly informative. If I tried to do both, it would be like putting one foot on one skateboard and the other foot on a different skateboard; if they’re not parallel then any attempt at going forwards will quickly lead to be falling on my arse! Though it may not be satisfactory to all, I will choose to answer the question as it is asked, to the best of my ability.

It is interesting how the question ends: “mayest live and die happily” – I’m not convinced that that is the aim of the christian life. But then, what is? It would be a better person that I who can  concisely give an “aim”. Though I’ve alluded to the 2 great commandments above, are they really an aim or are they guidelines to meet an aim? In other words, though I would fully affirm that we need to love God and love other people, is that the end in and of itself? I would posit that it isn’t.

That, however, should not diminish the response given in the catechism. The 3 points raised are very good. Perhaps, though, instead of saying “how great my sins and miseries are”, I would drop the ‘miseries’ and the ‘great’. It seems odd that a question phrased as it is, to be happy, entails an answer which references self-awareness of misery. Instead, I think it would be better simply to have an awareness of sin. But then, what is sin?

It’s too big a topic to deal with adequately here, but I hope the following attempt at a synopsis of my understanding is not so brief as to be misleading.

As I view it, sin is a state of being. It is the state of being separated from God. It is a state which describes, as a whole, the human race. Therefore to be described as a “sinner” is not a pejorative statement, though I generally refrain from using it as it is often perceived as such. It certainly should not be used (though it frequently is) as an antithesis to the term saint.

However, the word ‘sin’ may also be used as verb, as in ‘to commit a sin’. Again, the cultural accumulation of connotations makes this an awkward phrase to use without being pejorative. Other, words with common similar meanings may include “transgress” or “trespass” though these carry with them connotations of legalism. I view the matter not in terms of legalism, but in terms of identity. Therefore if I use the term sin as a verb the primary meaning I have in mind is an action which embodies that state of separation.

In terms of causality, I sin because I am sinner (i.e. I act in such a way that I exemplify a state of separation which I am already in) not that I am a sinner because I sin (i.e. that my actions result in a state of separation).

Moving onto the second clause of the answer, this is a very brief summary of the doctrine of salvation. It is feature of christianity since the reformation that salvation has been considered vitally important to christianity. To some, the notion of ‘gospel’ is synonymous with the story of salvation. I would not want to downplay the idea of personal salvation though I would stop short of saying that that is the whole gospel. Or maybe ‘stop short’ is the wrong phrase. It would be better to go further. The gospel (the good news of the kingdom of God) is about restoration or recreation. Salvation for an individual is an important part of that, but the whole gospel is far grander and more wide-ranging than that. Though personal responsibility is a part, the whole of creation is involved.

To know this, though, I think would need, as an intrinsic part of it, to know the means by which it came about. That is, the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. More will come of this later in the project.

The final part is an interesting one, and I must admit I’m not sure if I’d keep in it my own personal catechism. It is essentially a summary of worship. While I would certainly say that worship is part of a healthy christian life, I wonder if it is so foundational as to warrant mention in this “minimal christianity”. I’ve thought about this for about the last day or so and I don’t think it is necessary. To my way of thinking, I draw a parallel with life. We must eat, drink and breathe in order to live. These are essential. If you give up one, you will die before long. What about sleep, though? Sleep is certainly healthy and I don’t think a person can live, but is something that will naturally come. i.e. you cannot choose to give it up as you might with food or drink. I know this is not a perfect analogy, but I hope the point is not wilfully misunderstood. Worship is something will naturally come from a christian life. It may take many different forms and we can delight in the variety of worship that people of different cultures and personalities, but it should not be prescribed as a particular format.  To do so is stifling and ultimately regressive. So while worship is, I would say, a healthy part of christian living, it is a natural outflowing and need not be part of a “minimal christianity”.

With the answer given by the catechism largely dealt with, then, is there anything missing? I think there is. It is not necessarily part of the picture, but the frame in which it is held, which I think needs to be mentioned early on lest it get ignored or downplayed. Grace. In some ways it might be considered to be part of the second clause of the original answer, but I would rather make it a little more explicit.

So then, how might we draw all this together in summary? What follows as my ‘alternative answer’ is what I would say are the ingredients to make a basic understanding of christianity. Of course, there are some words there that I haven’t defined precisely and which open up further questions. But that’s OK. It’s just a sketch outline at this stage, so it should be recognisable and the details can be filled in later.

Alternative answer

The aim of the christian life is not to be free from misery; it is a more complex tapestry than that. But even a tapestry has elements to it which are essential. The starting point is the centre of christianity, the foundation of the church is Jesus of Nazareth. As Jesus said to Peter, the rock on which the church is built is the declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. That is the centre. But to get to the middle we must then look back to the past. What was this Messiah? The Messiah is one through whom creation is restored and renewed from a state of sin (that is, separation from God) which has come about through humans. The restoration, though, was not achieved merely through the being of a single person, but through the twin actions he was subjected to: his death by crucifixion and his resurrection 2 days later. The substitutionary sacrifice of death and the subsequent victory over that death are the two sides of a coin that pay the ultimate debt. This supreme act of love is not only unmerited but flies in the face of normal reasoning. This gift of grace to all of humanity is freely given and may be freely accepted.

Book Review: Confessions by Augustine of Hippo

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I have started reading a few “theological autobiographies”. My aim was to do 3 this year, starting with Stanley Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child, moving on to Jürgen Moltmann’s A Broad Place before finally ending up at one of the most famous of them all, Augustine’s Confessions.

There are quite a lot of translations around, so it’s worth pointing out to you that I read the Henry Chadwick translation. I can’t comment on whether or not it is a particularly faithful translation as I haven’t attempted to compare it to the original. What I can say, however, is that it rendered Augustine eminently readable. There were a few instances where I suspected some inference on Chadwick’s part; one that comes to mind was the phrase “hodge-podge” which was rather unexpected. That said, for a relative newcomer to Augustine, I had no major issues with it and would not hesitate to recommend it.

What, then, of Augustine himself and what he wrote? The whole book is written as a poem addressed to God. Thankfully, Chadwick hasn’t tried to give it rhyme or rhythm in English, though I am assured that this existed in the original Latin. As the title suggests, it largely consists of Augustine confessing what he sees as his past sins.

But to imagine that it is simply a list of wrongdoing would grossly mislead you. It is, however, very difficult to summarise. That is because the book is no one thing; it is many. But those multiple aspects are not sequential items; they are layers and threads that are intertwined and overlaid in a majestic tapestry. The autobiography aspects include his very frank and rather modern view of sexuality, some close friendships and what they meant to him, especially moving when the friendship as terminated by mortality.

There is some theological disputation here, particularly against the Manichees, a group that Augustine first joined and later rejected. Mixed in with this then are Augustine meditations on the nature of good and evil, God, mankind, the universe and the like. It is not, however, a systematic work of philosophy. Though writing centuries after the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the stylisation is totally different. I read it mostly whilst commuting, with some excerpts whilst sat in a local park (yes, there has been a gap between finishing reading it and getting round to publishing the review – I didn’t sit in the park in November). As such, I was sort of swept away by it and can offer little by way of detailed critique. It is a book to return to and dissect at some point in the future, possibly with the aid of further writings of someone who is more familiar than I with the full depth and breadth of Augustine’s thoughts.

Being swept away however does not imply drowning. The text was not so obfuscating but provided some fascinating insights into Augustine’s mind. For me, one of the more intriguing aspects was his musings on space and time. Though, with the hindsight of the discoveries of modern physics, some of it looks a little wide of the mark, it would be anachronistic to dismiss his ideas as irrational. Instead, it is quite a remarkable feat considering when it was written, and one could easily think him a thousand years ahead of his time.

The end of the book trails off somewhat with a look at the early chapters of Genesis. Again, here the modern reader may be tempted to look at him out of his time, though it is really not clear, given the modern polarisation between good science and creationism/ID, what box he might seem to fit in. I have for some time failed in my efforts to get my hands on his The Literal Meaning of Genesis, but this seems to cover similar ground. It is a thoughtful consideration of what Genesis means, but though Augustine doesn’t explicitly refer to the creation story in modern terminology as a myth, he focuses on the meaning of it. Again, though it is hard to summarise and would hope you may do a better job than I did of getting your head around it.

There can be little doubt that this was the product of a great thinker of his time. The early emphasis on his struggles as a young man had strong resonances with me, making me wish I had read it in my late teens or early twenties. If you are reading this and you are in that age bracket then I would recommend this to you with some urgency. To anyone else, it is still a majestic piece of writing. Even if you are predisposed to disagree with Augustine, I would recommend it to you as an insight into the mind of one of the most influential figures from that time whose legacy has endured. If nothing else, the topics covered will almost certainly prompt you to think for yourself.

Book Review: Enough is Enough by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill

I must post a disclaimer here in the name of honesty. The publishers of this book, Routledge Press, are not a stand-alone company. They are part of a wider group of companies. I am, at the time of writing this review, an employee of that same group of companies. I was not asked to review the book by anyone at work, and I work in a different division. So make of that what you will. I aim, as ever, to present purely my own view, but if you think that that compromises my integrity and independence, you are welcome to think that.

So, what’s the book about? You might get a clue from the subtitle, ‘Building a sustainable economy of finite resources’. This is a book of economics. Yet not the kind of economics you might be familiar with from a formal education the matter. This is a manifesto for a radical rethink in how economics could work.

The premise is this: the world and its resources are finite.

That’s it. That’s the foundational idea on which the whole book is based. If you don’t buy the premise, then don’t buy the book; it won’t make sense to you in the least bit. If, however, you have a modicum of education and understanding, then you ought to recognise that the truth of the statement.

What next? Well, think about it. What are the consequences of a world of finite resources? I’m sure you can think of some consequences, but what Dietz and O’Neill do (OK, it seems to be mostly Dietz’s voice, this much is admitted in the text and evident by the poor spelling that typifies the writing of Americans) is guide us through the idea of unending economic growth where that growth is fuelled by the consumption of the earth’s resources. If the resources are finite, then surely economic growth must also be finite?

The authors do a thought experiment, whereby it is assumed that economic growth isn’t finite; it carries on. What would happen with finite resources and never ending growth? These are the questions posed which lead on to the idea that a different economic model is needed. One that is not based on the idea of more and more, but on the basis of “enough”.

From here, the book embarks upon something of a manifesto. What might a new economics look like? One of the ideas that really struck me in this passage was that we measure what we care about and that we care about what we measure. If you read the business and finance news, as accountants like me often do, then one cannot escape from the idea that economic growth is a good thing. It’s one of the key economic measures that we live by. Increase in gross domestic product (GDP) is good, decrease in GDP is bad; that’s the mantra.

Unlike a lot of other accountants, though, I have long queried this. It’s a view of economics that is deeply conservative; one which values the pound more than person. I, for example, am far more interesting in the unemployment rate. If it goes up, who’s been losing their jobs and why? If it comes down, does this mean that those who have been jobless are now in full time jobs paying a reasonable wage? Of course, economic growth and unemployment are not divorced from one another. But is the driver and what is the indicator?

The strategies to achieve the desired economy comes under several headings, each with their own chapter: Enough Throughput, Enough People, Enough Inequality, Enough Debt, Enough Miscalculation, Enough Unemployment, Enough Business as Usual.

Each of the chapters is neatly structured, with an outline of the problem as it stands, an attempt to answer “What could we do instead?” and concluding with “Where do we go from here?”

Potentially, one of the most controversial of these is ‘Enough People’ – which looks at the idea of trying to stabilise the global population. Though not mentioned by name, one could not help but spot the shadow of Malthus lurking in the corner here. I must admit I found this chapter to be rather too idealistic in terms of the practicalities of slowing down the birth rates in countries which are both poor and have high birth rates. It seems a little like ivory tower thinking from the privileged West.

Enough Inequality covers similar ground (and includes some of the same data) as The Spirit Level. As it’s only a chapter, it is less thorough, though the practical suggestions do include setting maximum pay differentials – something I don’t recall from The Spirit Level.

My take on it is that it’s a highly ambitious step in the right direction. Towards the end of the book, the authors state that the proposals are mutually supporting, in that working through one will help with the implementation of the others. The image they used was something akin to the front of the Parthenon, though I couldn’t help but think of it as a house of cards. If they are mutually supporting, then the failure to implement one would impede the progress on the others.

The most reasonable suggestion is on using different economic measures, and I would wholly endorse starting there. The ambition for full employment is vital and one which I am not convinced recent governments have pursued adequately, whatever colour they have been; though some are worse than others. The fly in the ointment here is that talk about having everyone in meaningful jobs, which implies that those who are currently in meaningless jobs must transition, which is something easier said than done. In my view, such a transition would not be painless and would result in an increase in unemployment in the short to medium term; something that should be provisioned for, but which seemed to be largely overlooked in the text.

There are a few other downsides in the writing. Not least very early on they make reference to adding revenue to a balance sheet (p15), a statement so financially illiterate I know many people who would give up reading at that point. Dietz also expresses a frustration with the economics he learnt during his formal education in such a way that one might question whether he understood it.

Those, however, are minor points which should not be used to discard the whole project. One interesting overlap that I wasn’t expecting to be so blatant was the overlap with christianity. The foreword, written by Herman Daly, explicitly references the provision of manna in the desert and the idea of “daily bread” in the Lord’s prayer. The section on reforming the monetary system also echoed Philip Goodchild’s Theology of Money, though the treatment here is a lot more accessible.

One could choose to treat this as pie-in-the-sky thinking, the basic premise is one that needs attention paid and demands a change to current economic thinking. Whether this is the perfect solution, one may hold an opinion in favour or against. My opinion is that it’s better to try than to not. The proposed solutions may need alteration and trying to get buy-in from the economic right-wing will be hard to get, but let’s give it a go.

First post from the new laptop

Hopefully, normal service can be resumed. Though there hasn’t been a complete blackout in terms of the number of posts appearing on the blog, my writing has been severely impaired by the lack of a computer to write with. The book reviews posted were those already written, while the other couple of posts were typed onto a phone, which took significantly longer than normal.

First impression of the new pc is that it’s not great. It is a HP Pavilion, rather like my last one, though it does have some features I am not fond of. For one, in attempting to be like a desktop, there is a number pad on the right of the keyboard. That wouldn’t be so bad in itself, only it means everything else gets shifted to the left, including the touchpad, so it is no longer central. In politics, I tend to prefer things left of centre, but here I am not so sure.

Windows 8 is also not at all user friendly. The cornerstone of the previous versions of Windows has been the start menu. It was the starting point from which you could find and launch your programmes and accessories; especially useful for those you didn’t use very often, as they would typically have a shortcut on the desktop.

The other major downside is the presumption that everyone is connected to the web via a wireless broadband. I am not. The way you are reading this is by me writing this on my isolated laptop, saving the file, coping it via USB to my phone and then emailing it to myself. I can then copy the text and paste it into a WordPress app. I then do final editing either at a public library or at my work desk (outside of working hours, of course, as permitted by the IT department). All this is an awful lot cheaper than having to pay for a wireless router, installation fees and an ongoing contract for internet which I don’t use. I don’t download pirated films or music or do online gaming or any of that malarky. My phone has email, the major social networking sites and a few news websites. This is all I need, so I don’t see the need for paying for any more than that.

Anyway, there is much that I have thought about, much to be written. So I will now get on and write some more, to be published later.


I’m attempting this as another post from my phone, written over the weekend and edited in my lunchbreaks. Hopefully, that means it will be short. We’ll see.

Tradition is one issue about which I am quite passionate. On the few occasions I choose not to bite my tongue, I invariably get a torrent of abuse for doing so. This usually happens on Twitter which, due to the character limitations, is rarely the best platform for nuanced discussion. Taking shortcuts in the thinking or using alternative, shorter, words can lead to misunderstanding, which, in my view, is probably the leading cause of disagreements and arguments. It is therefore my hope that I may avoid such unnecessary unpleasantness here.

This should not be seen as any sort of attack or dig at particular groups or individuals. That’s not the sort of thing I would do. Instead, the motivation for speaking out is the hope that it will prompt others to think and have a reevaluation. Though as the post will hopefully go on to show, this may be a bigger obstacle for some given the subject matter.

What do I mean by tradition? Roughly speaking, it’s the practice of doing something on the basis that it has been done before, repeatedly, and for an extensive period of time. This might be done by an individual for a number of years or it could be done by an identifiable group over centuries.

Most traditions are, I believe, benign. Some are helpful, some are unhelpful though some may be positively damaging. I would hope that that statement is relatively uncontroversial. Where we might all differ is on which traditions fall into which categories. Part of the difficulty is that many traditions are ingrained within various cultures to the extent that the traditions help to form a significant chunk of that cultural identity. To question the tradition may be seen to call in question that cultural identity, or even to attack it. If an individual feels strongly identified with that culture then in order to defend it against a perceived attack, the individual will feel compelled to defend the tradition. Please bear this in mind when considering critiques of those traditions which you have a vested interest in. It is not a wholesale attack on on a person’s identity; though if considered rationally it might to lead to some reconsideration of the use of tradition within a given community.

To give an example of a tradition that I would consider benign, having the family and friends of a wedding party sit on a particular side; bride’s family & friends on the left, groom’s family & friends on the right. There’s no functional purpose to this and though it may a cause a little consternation for those who are friends of both, there is neither any great reason to stick to it, nor is there any pressing need to depart from it.

Though I may write about tradition in general, I will often have in mind tradition within the church. As a nonconformist, I do have the luxury of not being tied into any one tradition. Though I have qualms about those who identify themselves through their tradition (or else use the term ‘christian’ as a synonym for their particular tradition), that is not to say that any and all traditions are inherently wrong, misleading or unhelpful. Part of the reason they develop is because of their helpfulness to a particular community in a particular society at a particular time.

Yet that specificity is the seed of why I don’t wholly embrace one tradition or another. The very nature of tradition carries with it a normative overtone that may not translate across cultures and centuries, resulting in a community that can be anachronistic or simply ill-fitted to the society in which it finds itself.

It often strikes me as odd that those who are most passionate about quite radical reform within our present western culture are often those who most strongly defend their own brand of traditionalism. If the church is to be at the heart of God’s plan to renew creation, surely the church has to be the first to change. There is a strange irony here, though. Of the many -isms and -ists that pervade our lexicon, christianity seems to have its fair share. One I recently came across is one that could be used a fair description of me: restorationist (though if you click the link you’ll see it’s quite a jumble). Broadly speaking, though, I hold to the idea that the modern church should have the same aims as the early church. So in some respects, I could be seen as an ultra-traditionalist. Though I would contend that that’s not quite the right way to look at it, as I would not advocate replicating the praxis of the church as it existed then, but rather advocating that a modern praxis should have recognisable echoes of the early church.

The advantage the non-conformist has over the traditionalist is that of picking and choosing what lessons from the past we can best learn from. One need not, say, accept and bind ourselves to everything that is recognisably  anabaptist, yet that does not mean we cannot look at their beliefs and practices, adapting the most helpful of these to our present circumstances. In other words, tradition is not something to be adhered to and defended in the face of prevailing circumstances and evidence; and it should certainly not be used as a substitute for scripture. Yet it can be regarded as a useful resource which may be used to help us understand where we have come from and how others have understood scripture, without having to adhere to the lessons of the past unquestioningly.

I’ve tried to talk in generalities here, though if you want more specifics, see other posts I’ve written on liturgical chanting, priests and saints. I hope that clarifies my position, though please do let me know if anything was unclear if there are any points you think I’ve overlooked.

Book Review: The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction by David Gwynn

Having eventually finished Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the next significant period of history to look at was that of the rise of Rome. Some of this was covered in Virgil’s Aeneid, though I confess that I had a relative ignorance of anything to do with the Roman Republic. Or at least I thought I did.

As it turns out, much of what I thought related to the time of the Roman Empire was actually from the earlier period of the Republic. Gwynn starts off by asking where Rome’s origins lie. I would hope that anyone reading this blog is educated enough to be familiar with the myth of Romulus and Remus. Yet where did they come from? Was there any settlement at Rome prior to the founding of the city? Gwynn puts forward a hypothesis that those who became known as Romans were originally Etruscans, from further north. Though he acknowledges that it’s a little more complicated than that, but there is not enough room in this small volume to discuss the issue thoroughly.

In trying to look at the history of early Rome it is not as simple as one might hope to distinguish between historiography and mythology. Gwynn attempts briefly to sketch out the formation of the Republic from the early wars of Rome, though he admits he draws from a paucity of primary sources. From here, he goes on to paint a portrait of “everyday life” is such a generality can be reasonably made. Particular attention is paid the qualities of dignitas and gloria and their importance in the Roman worldview. This was a most illuminating section, as it gives a key context which so much of the rest of the history is set in.

Much of this is based on the writings of Livy, which I admit I haven’t read. Though having completed Herodotus and Thucydides, I am now thinking that Livy ought to be next on my list of great ancient historians to read. That’s the thing with these VSI books; they come with a great ‘further reading’ list that for each book I read, 3 more get added to my recommended future reading.

In examining the rise and characteristics of the Republic, Gwynn also points the reader to the seeds of the Republic’s demise and its ultimate transformation into the Roman Empire. This includes the warlike mentality that was driven by the gloria concept, with a whole chapter on the wars with Carthage.

As far as meeting the brief of ‘a very short introduction’, Gwynn has done an excellent job. There are many more aspects that could be explored and unpacked, but the book certainly left this reader with a better understanding of an overview of one of the most influential periods in European history.

The changing meanings of symbols & words – abandon or reclaim?

With my computer now dead, I am attempting to write this on my phone. I’ll try to get it drafted here and then edit it during my lunch break, but if I miss some autocorrect errors, please forgive me.

This afternoon (Sunday), after church, I found myself watching a documentary on the use of the swastika in Hinduism. In short, the programme looked at the symbols origins as a way to embody good fortune, and how that was then hijacked by the Nazis. The main focus was on the continued use of the symbol and how it is seen by modern Hindus and Jews.

It struck a chord with a thought I’ve had for some time, but which I don’t think I’ve explicitly blogged about before, though regular readers may recognise the thought in earlier allusions. Though the programme dealt with a symbol, my thought relates more to words. The thought relates to the question of how far meanings can be twisted from their original intention and still be of use.

The question implicit in the programme was whether the Nazis so damaged the symbol that it has become indelibly linked with evil and should be scrapped, or whether Hindus should ‘reclaim’ it and educate people into thinking of it primarily as a Hindu emblem.

In my opinion, there are a great number of words which have been similarly tainted, though maybe not to such a violent extent. I then wonder whether we need to make an effort to wrestle them out of the modern vernacular usage and restore them to their original meaning or whether they should be allowed to change, leaving us searching for new words to enunciate old ideas.

Of course, the notion of “original meaning” is a tricky one that may be hard to pin down, given the changing nature of language, particularly English. Most I know who have formally studied linguistics speak of languages as ever-changing. From my layman’s perspective, I’ve never been convinced by the arguments presented to me. Though I freely admit I am amateur in the field and open to correction (as in any matter!), I think of the English language as a cooling lava. Yes, there have been great changes, but there must come a point at which the spelling and meaning of a word must become set. Determining such a point may be difficult, though I don’t think it’s absurd to think that such a point exists.

Take, for example, the word ‘meek’. Today, it’s common usage is a synonym for ‘weak’. It is most often heard in the phrase “meek and mild” which seems to be used as a tautology, since they are meant to connote similar ideas. Yet in it’s original usage, it meant something more akin to “power under control”. In other words, it is a word denoting strength, the very opposite of how it is understood. So ought we to use the word as it was originally meant and risk being understood or do we abandon it and “go with the flow”?

Here, I must admit that in this respect, I am something of a contrarian. I do not think that every word that has had it’s meaning undergo a metamorphosis ought to be restored back to an antiquarian definition. Neither would I propose that we give up all hope. Instead, it’s a question of effort and how that compares to the value we put in words.

From a mathematical point of view, one word I am quite passionate about is ‘complex’. To me, this denotes a large set of numbers, made up of real and imaginary parts. Then again, ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ mean very specific things to me that they probably don’t to most non-scientists. As a consequence of this, I am very careful to use the word ‘complicated’ to denote something that is tricky, intricate or entangled.

I would hope I’m not alone in having these thoughts. Maybe those words I am most passionate about are unique to me, but that’s ok.

  • Are there any words you think are regularly misused?
  • Have I used any words in a way you disapprove of?

Book Review: Robotics: A Very Short Introduction by Alan Winfield

As readers of this blog may have twigged, I’m rather fond of the Very Short Introduction (VSI) series that Oxford University Press publish. This was one of the more recent editions that I just happened to pick up when I was browsing around a bookshop a few months ago. I was also conscious that I’ve not read that many science books this year. So the time was right to get stuck into this.

Unlike the last VSI book I read, I had very little prior knowledge of robotics. It’s always seemed to me a more ‘hands-on’ science where I’m much more at home with theory. The book, though, doesn’t require you to build your own robot. For that, I was quite grateful.

Instead, Winfield starts us off as simply as he can, by defining what a robot is. He gives a few different definitions, as one simply will not suffice, and then expands a little on these. From here, he goes on to show the reader some different examples of robots in use now, highlighting the differences between them. For example, car production line machines, cow milking machines, hospital dispensing robots, drone aircraft and the Mars rover.

A table of classification is then built up, so that we can better understand each different type of robot. They are classed according to their mobility, their means of control, their shape/morphology, their interactivity with humans, their ability to learn and their ultimate purpose. All this takes up the first two chapters of the book and are very easy to follow. Winfield doesn’t assume very much of his readers, for which I, as a total novice to the field, am very grateful.

From here, he goes on to look at what he dubs ‘biological robotics’ where robots are designed to mimic either human or animal behaviour or functions to greater levels of mimicry, including a fascinating example of a robot that has something resembling a digestive system – something I had never come across before. This line of thought is then narrowed and explored further by looking at humanoid robots and androids; the former being defined as those which have some features which imitate humans (such as being bipedal, or having facial expressions) whereas the latter are those which attempt to resemble and act as humans in every way (think Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation or the replicants from Blade Runner). This naturally brings the author to the question of ethics, for which he gives the reader a primer, but which is not explored in any great detail. Allusion to Asmiov’s laws of robotics would seem to be mandatory for any author in this area, and Winfield duly obliges us by doing so.

He looks at what is referred to as “swarm robotics” whereby numerous small robots join forces for a larger purpose. I must confess that at this point my understanding was stretched. The rapidity with which Winfield tries to cover the breadth of his subject left me behind a little. That’s not to say it is poorly written, it most certainly isn’t. I just possibly didn’t read slow enough to digest fully what was said in one section before moving onto another which built upon it.

Naturally enough, the book finishes with a look towards the future. Only time will tell how close or how far off it is. Though tracing the development of robotics will not go out of date, the potential future may well look quite misguided in 50 years’ time. But for now, I think the book fully meets its remit to be a very short introduction. As ever, there is a bibliography for further reading as well as a few online resources.

Anyone who is vaguely interested in learning a little about robotics should find this a valuable little book. For those who work in the field, I doubt there will be much new here, but it is pleasantly delightful nonetheless.