Thursday, May 29, 2008

Einstein and Atheism

Yes, I'm in the middle of exams. 4 down, 5 to go, the next one is in a bit over 3 hours. But I thought it was worth posting this quotation, which I got stuck in my head for one of yesterday's exams.

Beyond all the discernable concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend is my religion.
Albert Einstein

You know, I kind of get Einstein's religious views. He essentially believed that there was an impersonal god underlying the regularity of natural law. I think that if you ignore the possibility of divine revelation, then Einstein's views seem eminently sensible as a starting point (except for the whole determinism thing and the universe needing to be unchanging thing).

But what I don't get is "rational" atheism. How can someone plausibly discount the existence of the sort of god that Einstein believed in? Or are they being less rational than they think?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Eurovision and Ethnic Minorities

I watched Eurovision last night. Two entries were so funny I cried. I'd heard beforehand the theory that voting was determined largely by ethnic miniorities voting for their home countries. Russia won, and their 12 points were from Israel, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Armenia. There could be something in that...

Germany were really really bad - four women who couldn't sing in tune, which became painfully obvious when they tried singing together. And they got their points from Switzerland and Bulgaria.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

I know it's a few days since the bill was passed, but I'm still busy revising.

I found praying about the bill immensely difficult after it was passed (though I guess it still has to get through the House of Lords). As far as I can tell, the majority of MPs voted for a bill which will probably result in the deaths of thousands of innocents who cannot defend themselves. So what should we pray about it?

The first thing, it seems to me, is repentance for all the times we haven't spoken up, and for our complicity in electing them. As a student, I have two MPs, but only one vote. One of my MPs voted against some aspects of the bill, the other one has been known to campaign for a removal of all time limits for abortion and the legalisation of euthanasia. Did I speak publically against him at the last election? No. Am I therefore complicit? To an extent. And I need to repent of that.

The second thing, which quite surprised me, is how refreshing it can be to pray Psalms about God's justice at times like these. We are witnessing the government largely go against the will of the people, and taking a course of action which they know may well lead to large numbers of innocent deaths. Passages like Psalm 10 just seem so appropriate...

12 Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.
13 Why does the wicked man revile God?
Why does he say to himself,
"He won't call me to account"?
14 But you, O God, do see trouble and grief;
you consider it to take it in hand.
The victim commits himself to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break the arm of the wicked and evil man;
call him to account for his wickedness
that would not be found out.
16 The LORD is King for ever and ever;
the nations will perish from his land.
17 You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
18 defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.

Psalm 10:12-18 (NIV)

This link is great for confirming the right-wing bits of my prejudice. 92% of Conservative MPs voted for children needing a father. 82% of Labour MPs voted against, with only slightly weaker patterns on the abortion issue. I prayed, and I think I was right to pray, that every single MP who voted against the unborn would lose their seats at the next election.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dave Walker Cartoon

There's a great cartoon entitled "the Vicar's Study" here. It's on the Church Times Blog. I'm not usually a great fan of the Church Times - it seems almost relentlessly anti-evangelical, but Dave Walker's cartoons are generally great.

Ah yes, and exams start a week today, so don't expect much in the way of posting.

Friday, May 16, 2008

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Random stuff here...

One of the ways I like to look at where it'd be nice to visit on a holiday is by looking for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Now I haven't been to that many of them, but all the ones I've been to have been really good and worth visiting.

Full List.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Abortion - The Choice

I watched this documentary following 5 women going through abortions, with lots of interviews. Wow. I don't think the makers take either side, but it is very powerful. It's available to watch online for another few days.

Just watch (except for the bits where you have to look away), and just think about the word "conscience"... I think people know whether abortion is right or not...

It's really good seeing the BBC producing something sensible like this for a change!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Two Books on the Reformation

An interesting contrast here, between two books on the Reformation, of a similar length, published at a similar time. Reformation - Europe's House Divided, by Diarmaid MacCulloch, and The Reformation World, edited by Andrew Pettegree.

To my mind, Pettegree is better in almost every single respect. It's easier to read, it's at a higher academic level (the people writing each chapter are experts in their field and the chapters are helpful summaries of the field; MacCulloch is an expert on England in the 1500s) and Pettegree is generally better reading for academia, for revision (my current concern) or for pleasure. Don't get me wrong - MacCulloch is a superb lecturer, and his book is a good overview of the European Reformation - it's just that Pettegree's book is better.

Except in one aspect - price. On, MacCulloch's book is currently £25.60 in hardback or £8.99 in paperback. Pettegree is an astonishing £142.50 in hardback or £29.99 in paperback. Why the difference? I can only assume that the publishers are aiming one at the academic library market and the other at the popular market. But I can't see any reason for it.

I bought MacCulloch's book, but I keep getting Pettegree's out of the library.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Einstein on Jesus

I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene... No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.

Albert Einstein, 1929

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Problem with Cars v Public Transport

The discussions on several recent posts seem to be heading this way. It's worth saying that I tried to cope without a car for several years (10 after leaving school, including 5 in full-time employment). I then gave up, learned to drive, bought a car and now drive more than I should.

The problem with huge and unnecessary car use seems to be in several parts.

1) The way society is (or, more likely, isn't) designed means that people often need to have a car. Visiting family in rural areas, transporting furniture or weekly shopping, etc. I suggest this issue is very difficult to deal with, but its force would be weakened by tackling the others.

2) The cost of a car is heavily split into three categories - initial cost, yearly required stuff (servicing, tax, etc) and incremental cost (fuel, etc) that depends on distance. For convenience, we can split these into owning cost and driving cost - how much it would cost to own the car anyway, and how much it costs to drive it that bit more.

3) Public transport almost always seems to try to compete (if it competes at all) with the total cost of owning a car, whereas to persuade people not to drive, it needs to compete with the driving cost. If I get the bus to my girlfriend's house, it might cost me about £1.50 and take 30 mins or so. If I drive, it costs me about 60p and takes 10 mins. If I walk, it costs me very little and takes about 50 mins. I can't see why a car owner would want to use public transport for that journey. In fact, with things the way they are at the moment, I don't see why a car owner would ever use public transport, except for going somewhere with very poor parking.

4) I used to do a lot of cycling. Again, it's much harder to be motivated when it's competing with the cost of driving rather than owning a car. When I cycled regularly around South Manchester, the main problem was consistent lack of good cycle parking. Yes, there would be places to lock it, and then bits of my bike would get stolen, which was kind of annoying.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Things that Seem Obvious - Biofuels

Back to more stuff that seems obvious...

Biofuels are a good idea, primarily for two reasons. 1) We can grow more of them a heck of a lot quicker than we can grow more oil, which also then gives us better control of prices. 2) The CO2 they release into the atmosphere is CO2 they took out of the atmosphere only a short while before.

However, growing biofuels on land previously used for agriculture is a less good idea because 3) the conventional ways of making biofuels (grow complex plant, harvest it, crush bits of it, maybe ferment them for a while and purify) is pretty inefficient, it would force the price of food up and it would take an awful lot of land to grow enough fuel to make a significant difference. So I'm not sure why sugar-based biofuels, for example, are being touted at all.

What seems much more sensible is something along the lines of GM algae (small organisms, photosynthetic), which either produce the fuel directly, or which do the first stage of an integrated, single-site process. Algae make sugar, yeast change sugar into alcohol, distillation of the alcohol by energy produced on-site.

And the obvious places for this are on land we are not currently using - i.e. deserts or ocean.

Hydrogen fuel cells are nifty, but they just store energy, so shift the producing problem elsewhere.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Filling in Forms

For some reason, some sensible filling of a stupid form by an architect has made the news. You can see the full form here.

It just seems the sensible thing to do, though the fact I'm prone to do that sort of thing quite a bit has on occasion got me into trouble. I remember filling in a risk assessment form for a school trip I was running, and including an assessment of the risk of alien abduction or nuclear war. The headmaster of course returned the form to me (with approval) pointing out that I hadn't done an assessment for an outbreak of some obscure disease.

But the time I really got some hassle was when applying for something with an organisation which I'm not going to name, but which might well rhyme with "Birch of England". This particular application seemed to filter people on the basis of their ability and liking for vast quantities of over-repetitive paperwork. So after the first two or three times of filling in personal details, I started inventing fictional children of mine with implausible Biblical names. And then came the medical form, which got unduly obtrusive about medical history of friends, relations, pets, etc.

One of the questions asked if I had restricted mobility. Now, I like clear communication, and I like avoiding jargon. And I know that "restricted mobility" is, in the way it is normally used, politically correct medical jargon for what would normally be called "physical disability". But it's actually a really stupid phrase, because "unrestricted mobility" is something that no-one has. But they didn't give me enough space to write all this, so I just commented that I couldn't fly unaided.

And a few weeks later, I got a phone call from an elderly gentleman with no sense of humour whatsoever who didn't seem able to understand that the words on the form could mean anything other than their jargon meaning. Oh well....

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Things that Seem Obvious - Car Parks

In Britain, a large number of smaller shops have been shutting for many years now. The most frequently blamed culprits are big supermarkets. I, however, think the blame largely lies elsewhere.

It seems obvious that if faced with three options:
1) walk half a mile to the local shops, then half a mile back with heavy bags
2) drive half a mile to the local shops, pay £2 for parking
3) drive two miles to a big supermarket, parking is free
Most people will take option 3). And yet in lots of places, the local shops continue to close, and people blame the supermarkets. There have even been utterly mad suggestions to force supermarkets to charge for parking.

The real solution seems simple. The availability of free or very cheap parking near to shops increases their attractiveness (as does good public transport). It is therefore in the shopkeepers' interests to make sure that such parking is available. And if the council want to keep the local shops open, it is in their interests as well.

Parking in towns should therefore be controlled either by federations of local shopkeepers or by the council running it at a loss (which may pay for itself indirectly via increased land values or tax paid by the shopkeepers). Subcontracting running car parks out to profit-making firms damages local shops when there is viable competition which does not charge for the use of its car parks.

This just seems obvious...

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Iron Man

Is this the best comic book film adaptation of all time? It's certainly up there (IMO with Batman Begins and V for Vendetta, both of which, like Iron Man, actually have some plot). And from a physics geeky point of view, it's certainly one of the coolest. All the guys came out of the cinema wanting to be Iron Man, and most of the girls wanted to be with him.

Robert Downey Jr stars as a playboy genius weapons developer who gets kidnapped in Afghanistan by rebels and forced to build a super weapon. Most of the rest is fairly predictable, but it's great fun.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Denis Alexander - Rebuilding the Matrix

I put off reading this book for years, a) because I knew a fair bit about the subject and b) because I didn't especially get on with Denis Alexander when I'd heard him speak on it. Having said that, it's surprisingly good.

It is aimed to be a fairly academic but accessible book by a Christian who is also a respected scientist about the relationship between Science and Christianity. And it actually does that fairly well. His theology of science seems pretty much right, though he doesn't really make a big thing of it. The book tends to cover the areas that most books and talks on science and religion cover - notably history and creation / evolution.

Alexander spends a lot of time saying not very much, but I guess that's important if this is aimed at a largely non-Christian audience (which it seems to be). I guess this book is best aimed at someone who is university educated without much background in theology, and it does a pretty good job of that. It would probably be the book I'd be most likely to recommend to such people.

If I was being critical, I'd say that he could often be a lot clearer and more concise. But I suppose my biggest criticisms would be that he doesn't allow his theology of science to impact on miracles or the question of general revelation, and that he assumes that science and "faith" tell us complementary truths about reality - an approach which is useful to an extent, but which doesn't actually hold together philosophically especially well.

And for those who are interested in such things, he's very much a theistic evolutionist, to the point where he is really quite critical of Young Earth Creationism, but also of evolutionary naturalism.

Friday, May 02, 2008

David Wenham - Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?

This book aims to discuss whether Paul knew (or cared) about what Jesus taught, and to what extent he followed it in his own teaching. It is therefore also about how coherent the message of the New Testament is - whether the Gospels teach the same thing as the letters or not.

And it's the best book I've ever come across on that sort of topic, written by a really great and humble guy (who was one of my tutors last year).

Singing one Hymn to the Tune of Another

Loads and loads of examples - I personally like O Jesus I have Promised to the tune of the Muppet Show. Metrical hymns are good like that.

But yesterday, I discovered that it is possible to sing Before the Throne of God Above to Jerusalem. I'd never have expected that...

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Roy Clements - When God's Patience Runs Out

This is a book of sermons preached on Amos in 1984. Some of the application now therefore seems very dated, and there's one or two technical details about his handling of Amos I disagree with, but it's certainly well worth a read and good for getting across some of the force of what Amos was saying and for thinking about how to apply it to today.

Why are there so few of this type of book around. Why, for example, can't I find one on Hosea, or Joel, or Obadiah, or Micah?

Anyway, here's a thought-provoking quote:

For if God cannot in any sense be angry with people, what do we mean when we say he is being patient with them? If God is not subject to real and intense provocation by human sin, then all those Bible words such as long-suffering and mercy, even grace, become emptied of all meaning.

(Here's my link to commentaries I recommend. Any listed before the / are ones I find helpful to use devotionally, like this one...)