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The Christian conundrum

Tuesday, 28 February, 2017 0 Comments

Early Christianity expanded rapidly through Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece and Italy. Because it had no linguistic, cultural, ethnic or territorial centre, it spread to towns, cities and communities that differed widely from one another. The rulers of Rome had seen nothing like it and were confounded by this new and challenging ideology. The British classicist Mary Beard discusses how the Romans viewed the conundrum of Christianity in her excellent SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Snippet:

“First, it had no ancestral home. In their ordered religious geography, Romans expected deities to be from somewhere: Isis from Egypt, Mithras from Persia, the Jewish god from Judaea. The Christian god was rootless, claimed to be universal and sought more adherents. All kinds of mystical moments of enlightenment might attract new worshippers to (say) the religion of Isis. But Christianity was defined entirely by a process of spiritual conversion that was utterly new. What is more, some Christians were preaching values that threatened to overturn some of the most fundamental Greco-Roman assumptions about the nature of the world and of the people within it: that poverty, for example, was good; or that the body was to be tamed or rejected rather than cared for. SPQR All these factors help to explain the worries, confusion and hostility of Pliny and others like him. At the same time, the success of Christianity was rooted in the Roman Empire, in its territorial extent, in the mobility that it promoted, in its towns and its cultural mix. From Pliny’s Bithynia to Perpetua’s Carthage, Christianity spread from its small-scale origins in Judaea largely because of the channels of communication across the Mediterranean world that the Roman Empire had opened up and because of the movement through those channels of people, goods, books and ideas. The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.”

Is past prologue? Could a faith-based or technology-driven belief system challenge the fundamentals of our world? Note: The phrase “What’s past is prologue” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I. In contemporary usage, the phrase stands for the idea that history sets the context for the present. The quotation is engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.


Gidon Kremer does not play politics

Monday, 27 February, 2017 0 Comments

The great Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer is 70 today. “Politics,” he once said, “represents only the surface of things. Music speaks with an outstretched hand, not with a clenched fist. It is an offering to the listener, and its profundity can only be established on the basis of service, not on the grounds of self-indulgence or meaningless stardom.”


The Oscars!

Monday, 27 February, 2017 0 Comments

Oscars


Houellebecq on elections

Sunday, 26 February, 2017 0 Comments

Today is the birthday of Michel Houellebecq, the great French writer who dares to speak the savage truth about France, sex, politics, culture and the human condition. This is from his novel Submission, which was published on 7 January 2015:

“To be fair, when I was young, the elections could not have been less interesting; the mediocrity of the ‘political offerings’ was almost surprising. A centre-left candidate would be elected, serve either one or two terms, depending how charismatic he was, then for obscure reasons he would fail to complete a third. When people got tired of that candidate, and the centre-left in general, we’d witness the phenomenon of democratic change, and the voters would install a candidate of the centre-right, also for one or two terms, depending on his personal appeal. Western nations took a strange pride in this system, though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.”

Houellebecq is terrifyingly honest, which is why people either love or hate him. There is not Third Way with Houellebecq. In a recent interview with the French magazine Valeurs actuelles he said, Les élites haïssent le peuple. Very Houellebecqian. Santé.

Michel Houellebecq


The King of the News

Saturday, 25 February, 2017 0 Comments

Sure, he’s the man the press loves to hate, but Donald Trump is also the man who shifts papers and magazines and powers the clickstream like no one else on Earth. From Germany to Spain to Sweden to Japan, the press is all Trump all the time now. Sex sells was the old media mantra. Trump sells is the updated version.

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Unplugging the thinking toaster

Friday, 24 February, 2017 0 Comments

Given that robots and automation will likely lead to many people losing their jobs, how should we deal with this upheaval? For Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the answer is clear: tax the robots. In an interview with Quartz, Gates argues that taxing worker robots would offset job losses by funding training for work where humans are still needed, such as child and elderly care. Quote:

“And what the world wants is to take this opportunity to make all the goods and services we have today, and free up labor, let us do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs. You know, all of those are things where human empathy and understanding are still very, very unique. And we still deal with an immense shortage of people to help out there.”

But, no taxation without representation, right? So, should the tax-paying robots have rights? What if progress in AI enables them to achieve consciousness in the future? When the machines are programmed to feel suffering and loss, will they be entitled to “humanoid rights” protection? Or should we prevent machines being programmed to suffer and therefore deny them rights, for the benefit of their human overlords? Here’s what Kurzgesagt, the Munich-based YouTube channel, says:


The Netflix Irishman of Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino

Thursday, 23 February, 2017 0 Comments

Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel… That’s what a $100 million budget can get you today. The big story, though, is that this star cast will be working on The Irishman for Netflix rather than one of the big studios and this indicates that something seismic is happening in the movie industry.

Anne Thompson of Indiewire, who broke the news of the deal, noted that The Irishman had long been planned as a Paramount Pictures production, but “Scorsese’s movie is a risky deal, and Paramount is not in the position to take risks. This way, he can make the project he wants.” And these projects involve serious money. STX Entertainment reportedly spent some $50 million for the international rights to The Irishman at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, which was very good news for Charles Brandt.

The Irishman The Irishman is based on Brandt’s best-selling book, I Heard You Paint Houses, about Frankie Sheeran, a killer who claimed he played a part in the legendary vanishing of the corrupt union boss Jimmy Hoffa. The book’s title, by the way, comes from the criminal slang for contract killings and the resulting blood splatter on walls.

Charles Brandt befriended Frankie Sheeran, who confessed to him that he’d been involved with the killing of Hoffa, who disappeared in 1975 and has never been seen since. Sheeran was an odious piece of work. He served with the US Army in Europe during World War II and experienced combat during the Italian Campaign, including the invasion of Sicily and the Battle of Cassino. He then took part in the landings in southern France and the Battle of the Bulge and admitted that he had been involved in several massacres of German POWs. He also claimed to have had inside information about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. According to Sheeran, Jimmy Hoffa wanted Kennedy dead, as Bobby Kennedy, the US Attorney General, was “persecuting” him. The killing of Kennedy was a Mafia hit, said Sheeran, who maintained he’d transported three rifles to the alleged assassins. Fact or fiction? Netflix is betting $100 million that people will want to watch, thanks to CGI, a youthful De Niro play Sheeran and Pacino star as Hoffa.


The rise and rise of the femme bots

Wednesday, 22 February, 2017 0 Comments

Joanna Stern, writing in The Wall Street Journal: Alexa, Siri, Cortana: The Problem With All-Female Digital Assistants. Snippet:

“You get the point: The virtual assistants popping up in our lives sound overwhelmingly female. ‘I’m female in character,’ Amazon’s Alexa responds if you ask her if she is a woman. In their own clever ways Google, Apple and Microsoft’s voice assistants will tell you they’re genderless…in unmistakably womanlike voices.

As femme bot after femme bot has invaded our phones , speakers, cars, TVs — even our refrigerators — I’ve been left wondering: Where the man bots at? And why do these hunks of plastic and electronics need to be assigned a gender at all? My Amazon Echo doesn’t have any reproductive organs.”

Apple’s Siri, by the way, is the only one of this bunch of bots with a male voice option: “Siri may default to a female voice in the U.S. but Apple provides both male and female voice options for iPhone and iPad users to choose from. In fact, on iPhones where the language is Arabic, French, Dutch or British English, Siri defaults to a male voice.”

Men and women may prefer female voices for their digital assistants, @WSJ writes, but adds, “it’s about time we had more male options.”


An Auden villanelle

Tuesday, 21 February, 2017 0 Comments

On this day in 1907, the English poet Wystan Hugh Auden was born and we’re celebrating his birthday with one of his lesser-known works written in the ‘villanelle’ form. The villanelle emerged during the Renaissance and the word comes from the Italian villano, or peasant. What began as Italian folksong turned into nineteen-line poems with two rhymes throughout, consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, with the first and third lines of the opening tercet recurring alternately at the end of the other tercets and with both repeated at the close of the final quatrain. The most famous villanelle in English is Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

WH Auden Written in 1940 during the darkest days of the Second World War, If I Could Tell You conveys Auden’s sense of uncertainty about the future of life and love.

If I Could Tell You

Time will say nothing but I told you so
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reason why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

WH Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973)


The Boy in the Boat

Monday, 20 February, 2017 0 Comments

The excellent fiddler Fergal Scahill, who plays with We Banjo 3, decided he’d record a tune a day for the whole of 2017. Last week in Reykjavik, on Day 46 of the project, he played a reel titled The Boy in the Boat, also known as An Buachaill Sa Mbád.

A blues song with the title The Boy in the Boat was recorded in 1930 by George Hannah, who has been honoured for his contribution to “queer music” by The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History. The title of the tune/song is an anatomical allusion with sexual connotations and the lyrics go like this:

Now, did you ever hear the story ’bout that boy in a boat,
Don’t wear no shoes or no overcoat.
Broad told me that it happened like this.
He love to dive and also to fish.
He went roaming in that shallow boat.
With his head hardly rising and his eyes hard to cope.
Face is all wrinkled and his breath smells like soap.
Talking about that boy in the boat.


Trump as Uber

Sunday, 19 February, 2017 0 Comments

The Irish economist, broadcaster and author David McWilliams has made a handsome living by swimming against some of the more popular tides of the past decade and articulating his contrary positions eloquently and entertainingly. His insights on the Crash of 2008, the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump have shown that his radar is finely tuned and have given him an aura of the oracle. That’s why his most recent article, Trump aims to do to the Washington insiders what Uber did to taxi drivers, is so valuable. Snippet:

“From now on, the relationship he intends to have with the American people (at least his American people) will not be mediated by the media. It will not be conditional on getting the ‘thumbs up or thumbs down’ from the commentariat and it will not be determined by experts. It will be as one to one.

By deploying Twitter, he has cut out the media. This is radical stuff and a total departure from decades, possibly centuries, of form.”

After he’s done with the media-establishment complex, what will President Trump disrupt next? According to David McWilliams, it could be the Fed and, if that were the case, “we are in for a big showdown at the very heart of the American economic system.” The current row with media would be a mere squib in comparison because “the near 30-year boom in American asset prices has been driven on the understanding that the Fed always wins.” Except that in a battle with Trump, the tribune of the precariat, the bankers will will not be able to call upon the commentariat for help.