tisdag 25 april 2017

In praise of Aspergers

We should take a moment now and again to acknowledge the fact that civilisation as we know it would never have arisen if it were not for the people, mostly males, with Asperger's Syndrome.

Both Newton and Einstein have been retrospectively diagnosed with the condition. Most of our technology could not have been brought to a workable condition without individuals having Asperger's Syndrome. Think about this next time you travel in a train, confident that you will arrive safely: what "normal" person would have the patience, persistence and attention to detail to design the railway signalling system on which your life depends?

Without the men with Asperger's Syndrome who developed the technology you are using to read this, we would probably not even have developed to the point of writing things down by making marks in wet clay.

A disgraceful prison sentence

A twenty-year old man, Adam Mudd, has been sentenced to two years in prison for creating, when he was 16, a program, which carried out more than 1.7m attacks on websites including Minecraft, Xbox Live and Microsoft and TeamSpeak, a chat tool for gamers. He earned the equivalent of more than £386,000 in US dollars and bitcoins from selling the program to cyber criminals.

Mudd was said to be a high-functioning Asperger case. Clearly he was not entirely responsible for his actions. The suspended sentence requested by the defence would have been reasonable in the circumstances. It was refused.

The approach seems entirely wrong. Those who have been affected should be suing the suppliers of the software and computer services, since they are responsible for creating the situation in the first place by releasing insecure software.

People who are able to crack computer security systems should be employed to make sure the systems offered to the public, commerce and government are as secure as possible; an Asperger's diagnosis is probably an essential qualification for the job. They should not be locked away in prison.

torsdag 6 april 2017

Brtain's poor productivity - again

"Britain’s poor productivity performance before, during and after the financial crisis of a decade ago has left a gap of 16% with the other six members of the G7 group of industrial nations. International comparisons published by the Office for National Statistics show that output per hour worked continued to lag well behind the US, Germany and France in 2015 – the last year for which data is available"

Article in Guardian.

Oh dear. The entire concept of "productivity" is dubious. If it applicable anywhere, then it is within manufacturing industry where sub-optimal productivity can be due to factors such as wastage, defective work which has to be rectified, poor design, poor organisation of the workflow, time kept waiting for components or raw materials to arrive, or obsolescent equipment. These are management issues, and there is certainly still tendency in British industry for the managers not to talk to the lower orders - the people who are working in the front line; handing down orders from on high, they stay in their offices and fail to grasp the nature of the tasks they are managing.

There are many occupations, however, where there is little or no scope for increases in productivity. Assuming that their work timetable does not result in a waste of staff time, how could a bus driver or a train driver or a nurse or a surgeon become more productive?

Statistics can aggregate that which should not be aggregated, to the point that they may be meaningless. There may be, and probably is, a problem with UK productivity, but raw figures like these are best taken with a pinch of salt.

We should also not forget that an item at the factory gate in the UK is worth less than the same item at the factory gate in Germany, simply because the German factory has around 400 million potential customers to whom it can be delivered in a door-to-door run, whereas in the UK, there are 60 million customers, but the other 400 million are on the other side of a strip of water which has to be crossed.

tisdag 28 mars 2017

Guardian Takkiya

In a fine example of takkiya, Guardian journalist David Shariatmadari writes "Should we blame Islam for terrorism?"

Shariatmadari writes "Let’s assume for a moment, then, that Islam is especially predisposed towards violence. If that’s your view, then you’ll need to show why the history of jihadi terrorism is so very short: this is emphatically a late 20th and early 21st century phenomenon, yet Islam has been around since the seventh century."

He conveniently forgets to mention the recorded actions of the Prophet himself. The article is not open for comments.

fredag 24 mars 2017

London atrocity

It now turns out that the man responsible for the London incident was a native-born Brit. This goes to show that whilst immigrants may bring their systems ethics and attitudes with them, control of immigration cannot keep those ethics out. We also need to remember that some immigrants want to get away from societies dominated by those ethics and attitudes, and that other immigrants are importing ethics and attitudes which our society needs to reclaim if it is to flourish. That points to the need for a nuanced approach to immigration, so that those who would be an asset are not excluded. It also points to the need to keep a close check on the kind of material which is in circulation, which is not an easy task when most of it is propagated on the internet.

torsdag 23 mars 2017

Lead kindly light

We all make important decisions in the course of our lives. Big ones we make not more than half a dozen or so in a lifetime. Some, such as the choice of career, are unavoidable. Others, involving some kind of change of life, a driven by an internal sense of compulsion. We feel that things cannot go on as they are.

People - family and friends - speculate about why we make these choices. Why did he chose to be a ...? Why did she marry so-and-so - such an improbable choice? Why did they get divorced or leave x for y? Why did they emigrate to…? Why did they change careers after twenty years? Why did they become a …? Or why did they stop being a …? Why did the priest lose his faith? Why did the atheist become a Christian?

I once knew a Catholic priest who became a Jew. Reflecting many years later on the conversations we had - it was in the 1950s, it was obvious that he had never believed what Catholic priests would be expected to believe. One wonders why he went through with the training and offered himself for ordination, and why those in charge ordained him?

One reason could be that one is inclined to doubt one’s own doubts and think there must be something wrong with oneself. It is the opposite of intellectual arrogance, but in its way just as damaging. So the non-believing student priest persisted with his training.

Often, decisions which seem to have been made suddenly, following a particular event, are in reality the outcome of many years of niggling pressure. Or because thoughts and concerns that were previously incoherent suddenly come into clear focus. The dam finally breaks. At other times, an alternative course of action opens up unexpectedly or is newly recognised as a possibility.

Not only do we need to pay attention to these pressures inside us; we also need to refrain from drawing conclusions about why other people have made their decisions. What appears on the surface might have been the precipitating event, but it is unlikely to be their motivation, which will be something that has been building up for a long time.

Why do I mention the subject now? I know a few people who could be on the verge of making significant and surprising decisions. I feel I might be approaching that point myself. The important thing is to take one's time, try to establish the real reasons for making the decision, and if you believe in it, pray for guidance.

A model to follow is John Henry Newman, later Cardinal Newman, who wrote the hymn "Lead kindly light" when he was ill in Sicily in 1833 and unable to leave Palermo for three weeks.

Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
lead thou me on;
the night is dark, and I am far from home;
lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
the distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
lead thou me on.
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still
will lead me on,
o'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
the night is gone,
and with the morn those angel faces smile,
which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
 In a similar vein there is the famous prayer of St Birgitta of Sweden
"Herre, visa mig din väg och gör mig villig att vandra den." 
 (Lord, show me your way and make me willing to follow it)

onsdag 22 mars 2017

Redesign

I have given the blog a redesign, partly because the font Vollkorn is now available - it is good for printing on paper, too, and partly to spare people's mobile batteries. A white background runs down the battery faster. Vollkorn is legible in sizes down to 9 point and because it does not have hairlines, is good for photocopying.

tisdag 21 mars 2017

Catholic dissidence

One of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council has been the growth of Catholic dissidence, focussed, in the first instance, on changes in the liturgy. The most extreme form of this dissidence is Sedevacantism, the theory that the See of Peter has been vacant since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, presumably with the implication that subsequent incumbents have been impostors.

The most organised expression of dissidence is SSPX, the Society of Saint Pius X, It was founded in 1970 by Archbishop Lefebre, with the original intention that it should be an institution within the formal structure of the church, dedicated to maintaining the traditional forms of Latin rite Catholic worship. The detailed history is complex but the end result was that it became separated, the final break being the appointing of bishops without the agreement of Rome. Although its members and supporters would deny this, SSPX has all the appearance of a sect standing outside the Catholic church.

There were also individual dissidents from that period, making a stand against reform, such as Father Oswald Baker, parish priest at Downham Market in Norfolk, who was removed from his post in 1975.

Other dissidence has been unimpeachably loyal. The Latin Mass Society and other organisations under the umbrella Una Voce have doggedly campaigned to promote the continuation of the Tridentine Mass. Their efforts were rewarded by the issuing of Summorum Pontificum in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, which declared that the Tridentine Mass had never been abrogated. Then there are organisations such as Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge, which have, together with the monks of Solemnes, worked hard for over forty years, against the trend, to preserve from within the church's musical heritage of Gregorian chant.

Other centres of loyal dissidence have been the Congregation of the Oratory, which in England, grew from the original parishes in London and Birmingham, to the present total of six, and The Institute of Christ the King and the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP).

A louder expression of unimpeachably loyal dissidence is that of Michael Voris and his Church Militant channel. Voris is angry, and that comes across in the way he talks. He is angry about the liturgical abuse, the poor catechesis, the homosexual infiltration of the clergy and the dilution of orthodox Catholic teaching.

There has, of course, been dissidence at the very highest level. Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, worked tirelessly before election as Pope, writing a number of books of which the best known is Spirit of the Liturgy. More recently, Cardinal Sarah has pushed for a return to the traditional practice of ad orientem celebration.

None of this opposition is against anything formally decreed. If liturgical practice followed the guidelines and rules, there would, indeed, be no real reason for the dissidence. Versus populum celebration would not occur, since it is based on a misinterpretion of archaeological research, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal would be complied with, and the use of the Solemnes service book Graduale Romanum would result in a liturgy little different from the Tridentine form. Celebration of the Extraordinary Form, as the Tridentine Mass is now known, would be frequent and often. There would be no reasonable cause for dissidence regarding the liturgy.

A hopeless endeavour?
It is the response to Cardinal Sarah's plea which makes me wonder about the value of all the attempts to get things back on track. The response from so many of the bishops to Sarah's request was that priests should take no notice. Sarah himself was pushed aside. Realistically, however, it was almost inevitable.

What is one to conclude? Is it possible that the counter-movements are harbingers of a return to Catholic tradition and that things will pick up? It would be nice to think so but the statistics do not add up. All of the movements mentioned above are flourishing against a wider decline, as can be measured by figures such as the numbers of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and ordinations, and the age profiles of priests and congregations. The pointers are all in the wrong direction, short of a miracle. We are, after all, in the centenary year of Fatima, so all things are possible.

Why has the situation arisen at this time? One could say that it is a consequence of the Second Vatican Council and the ambiguous formulation of the documentation of its decisions. However, the Council was a response to pressures which had been building up since at least the 1880s, and which Pope Pius X found it necessary to address at the beginning of the twentieth century. Liturgical changes had also been going on long before 1960; substantial alterations were made during the reign of Pope Pius XII.

A key factor seems to have been the declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1870, at the First Vatican Council. Whilst, in a formal sense, it was strictly limited, applying only to ex-Cathedra statements of dogma, in practice, it strengthened the authority of the Pope in all matters. It also formalised a tendency which had been running since at least the sixth century, when Rome began increasingly to assert its position of primacy amongst the patriarchs. As long as the popes were sound, conservative and dedicated to tradition, everything would remain on course. But that is not the history of the papacy. The quality of the incumbents has been mixed. As soon as there were enough cardinals to elect a pope with a modernising agenda, it was going to be out with the old and in with the new.

But there must be other forces at work as well, because the conservative Pope Benedict was not able to turn the ship round against the modernising momentum that had built up. That momentum has increased since Benedict was elected, to the point that Benedict was dislodged and the modernisers got the pope they wanted. Nothing could change even if someone like Cardinal Burke or Cardinal Sarah was elected pope next time round, since they would find themselves in an even more difficult situation than that of Benedict.

Is it Game Over?
Given that modernising within the Catholic church can be equated with decline, what kind of a future can we expect? Is Catholic dissidence any longer even a productive activity? Is it even good for the spiritual well-being of the dissidents themselves? How does one know when a battle is lost and it is time to retire from the field? And what then?

fredag 17 februari 2017

New Mass translation proposed

When I first read this on another blog I thought it was more false news. Not so. Pope Francis is apparently reviewing Liturgiam Authenticum, which stipulated that liturgical texts must be close to the definitive Latin.

The present English translation, which came into use in 2011, is awkward in places, and is far removed from the kind of English that is used in daily conversation, but it is a huge improvement on the banal 1970 version.

At least having yet another new version will help to keep printers in business. Nowhere is all these endless discussions about liturgical language is the point made that the universal use of Latin is both a sign and a instrument of the Catholicity of the Catholic Church. Once it was discarded, the church, and indeed, parishes, split up into national language groups. This is the great, and most valid, argument against the Orthodox, who have at least held faithfully to their forms of worship.

Once the Catholic church abandons its traditions so that the Sacrifice of the Mass looks like a re-enactment of the Last Supper - the Protestant interpretation, and abandons the use of a common language of worship, one has to ask what is left of it and what is its purpose?

http://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/01/27/why-pope-francis-right-revisit-new-mass-translation

fredag 3 februari 2017

Another look at why Orthodoxy?

I have always had a an open mind about Orthodox Christianity. As a convert to the Catholic church in England in 1975, the eastern Orthodox churches were not something that I had even thought about. They had next to no presence, since the only Orthodox churches were the expatriate Russians - this was during Soviet times, and the Greeks, immigrants from Cyprus.

The subject crops up from time to time, however, partly because there are many more Orthodox parishes where I live now, and partly also because I have a friend who is Orthodox. A few years ago I wrote this blog piece on the subject. My friend had been under instruction to be received into the Catholic church, but at the last moment he took exception to Papal Infallibility and joined the Orthodox church instead. That led to the problem of which Orthodox church to join. He ended up in the Euphorbian Orthodox church, an expatriate group with a congregation of about twenty. He has to make  a long journey across London every Sunday morning to attend their Liturgy. As a result of this contact, and because of the proximity of Orthodox parishes where I live, I sometimes attend an Orthodox liturgy, usually in the Serbian church. Contemporary Catholic liturgies, in comparison, are poor fare.

There are exceptions, of course. There are more or less traditionalist groups such as the Oratorians and the congregations committed to the Extraordinary Form. The Catholic church here in Sweden, and in particular, my own parish, is one such oasis; last night, we had a Tridentine Mass for Candlemas, a liturgy of great beauty and devotion. Parishes where this happens are growth points.

The bigger picture of the Catholic church in Europe and the English-speaking world, however, is of a crumbling structure. Ireland, for centuries a bastion of the faith, it has all but collapsed. In the USA, it is imploding. The situation in the UK, France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands is little better. Vocations to the priesthood have all but vanished for the past four decades. The age profile of the present priests means that numbers are about to plummet, with many parishes needing to be closed.

Strange news, and often contradictory messages, have been coming from Rome ever since the resignation of Pope Benedict; that was itself a strange event. We are in for an interesting few years. For more than a century there has been tension in the church between modernisers and traditionalists. Are we now approaching rupture?

How Catholic is the contemporary Catholic church in reality? One sign of Catholicity is the presence, in congregations, of people from all the nations of the world. But because of the way the foreign chaplaincies operate, our own multi-national parish is split into a dozen different language groups, each with its own vernacular Mass, plus one in English for everyone else. The post-Vatican 2 adoption of the vernacular in the liturgy is un-Catholic; Latin was both a means and sign of the Catholicity of the church. Once it had been cast aside, what was left of the Catholicity?

This raises a disturbing question. The church has survived major shocks before. There is the precedent of the Arian heresy and the preservation of the orthodox faith by the remnant, followers of St Athanasius, who was sent to a remote place in the empire. But that was before the Orthodox/Catholic split. Already in the sixth century the Western church was starting to go its own way as the Papacy was beginning to evolve.

Only once before has the Catholic church had to face such a crisis apart from the other ancient patriarchates. That led to the Reformation and Counter Reformation. Are we about to see another great split? Could this be the end of the Catholic church in the form it has taken since the Great Schism?

We have always assumed that the church, under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome, is the main branch of the tree, but this rests ultimately on an interpretation of Matthew 16:18. What if we have been wrong all along? What if the main stem is the churches of present nine Orthodox patriarchates? It is a disturbing thought.

söndag 29 januari 2017

The Balance of Payments problem

Imports = wealth comes into the country, claims on wealth go out.
Exports = wealth leaves the country, claims on wealth come in.

So which is more beneficial? A balance of payments deficit means that the value of what comes in is more than the value of what goes out. If that were not the case, the trade would not take place. There would be no reason for it.

tisdag 24 januari 2017

Foreigners harassed after Brexit vote

A German friend was telling me about the harassment he has been receiving, even from colleagues, since the Brexit vote. This, would you believe, is at a university. It is nasty; however, what has happened is the outcome of decades of ignoring people's genuine concerns.

Joining the EEC was never a good decision for the UK. It was imposed by a political elite for a variety of reasons, some creditable, others misguided. Edward Heath, Prime Minister at the time, and one of the driving forces, had been an artillery commander in WW2 and was anxious to prevent another war. The original conception of the EEC was based on subsidiarity but that principle was never followed, with ever more control being sucked to the centre.

Joining the EEC meant, first, the imposition of VAT, and second, import tariffs and a big increase in food prices, as the UK lost its sources of cheap food. These changes were part of the cause of the steep inflation which followed after the UK joined in 1973. Older people remember this well.

VAT was a condition of being in the customs union. It would be difficult to think of a worse tax, which, incidentally, yields little more than if it did not exist at all.There was no public discussion about it - VAT was forced on the country as a fait accompli. VAT is an administrative burden, especially for small businesses. What it was introduced, it put up the cost of goods and services which had not been subject to tax before. After 1973, spectacles, which had been free under the original NHS, not only had to be paid for but were subject to VAT on top. This was a regressive and damaging tax and was deeply resented. VAT also put up the cost of services such as building works, meals in cafes and restaurants, accountancy, even repairs to things like cars, bicycles, washing machines etc. It promotes the throw-away mentality.

Then there were the agricultural and fishing policies, which led to food mountains, the destruction of the countryside in many parts of the country, and the destruction of the inshore fisheries eg along the Sussex coast. I watched it all happen.

That was "reformed" and then we had set-aside, the scandal whereby farmers were paid to let weeds grow in their fields. After another 15 years we got another "reform", and set-aside was replaced by the present arrangement under which wealthy farmers are paid just because they are landowners - welfare for the wealthiest.

The EU fisheries policy was equally inept. For decades, the rules prevented the landing of under-sized or the wrong sort of fish, with the result that large quantities were dumped back in the sea, dead.

Free movement of labour also harmed the poorest people in the country. If we have two countries, Richland and Poorland, and allow free movement of labour between them, wages in the two countries will drop to the level in Poorland. They do not even average out. Are workers in Richland going to be content with finding their wages drop through the floor, and that the trade unions left powerless to do anything about it? It would be difficult to think of a better way of promoting exploitation of workers. That is not the end of it either, as the increase in population in Richland creates pressure on housing, leading to increases in rent. It is truly a policy for the benefit of the property-owning classes, and the "progressives" cannot even see it.

I was one of those who voted to remain in the 1975 referendum, in the expectation that the more stupid policies would be reformed, but there has never been any indication of a willingness to reform. Agricultural policy is worse than ever.

As a member of the privileged group, I am one who has gained from the EU. The vast majority enjoy no perceptible benefit. In the face of decades of bad news stories based on facts, not inventions, it is only surprising that the vote to leave was not bigger. It seems as if the EU leadership is oblivious of the problems caused by its policies.

The only fortunate thing for the UK is that it did not join the Euro. A common currency is not viable without political union. It draws wealth to the geographical centre of the area in which it circulates, and it is unworkable if interest rate management is used as a means of economic regulation. We have found the same thing even within the UK, which is too big for a single currency.

What has happened is a tragedy which could have been avoided, but the principal cause is high-handed and out-of-touch politicians. If the EU had held to its founding principle of subsidiarity, Brexit would not have happened.

lördag 7 januari 2017

Schoenberg and the atonals

BBC Radio Three is running a series of programmes on "The Second Viennese School": the group of composers that comprised Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils and close associates in early 20th century Vienna. Schoenberg himself was the subject of this week's Composer of the Week.

I have never been particularly attracted to that sort of music, though if you are used to singing Gregorian chant, it is not difficult to listen to. There is an interesting background. Schoenberg, who seems to have been a thoroughly good egg who had a hard life, was trying to break out of the diatonic (major and minor key) straitjacket, which, it was felt, had reached the limits of its possibilities by the end of the nineteenth century.

What is still not widely appreciated is that the dominance of diatonic music was a Western European phenomenon which took hold in the seventeenth century. Before that, and outside Europe, modal forms and other scales were and remain the norm. But even within Europe, the rules of diatonic music were famously broken by composers such as Gesualdo, William Lawes, Purcell, Bach, Zelenka, and Mozart.

That is not all. The music of the Catholic church, and the traditional Jewish music from which it was derived, is not diatonic but modal. The mode nearest to the major scale, Gregorian mode 5 (Lydian), is nevertheless different. The minor scale corresponding to the Aeolian mode, has no equivalent Gregorian mode. The other seven Gregorian modes are distant from the diatonic scales, none more so than mode 3 (Phrygian). Thus, if one is used to Gregorian chant, there is nothing strange about twentieth century "atonal" music.

Which brings us to Olivier Messaien, whose music also breaks out of the diatonic mould, but from a starting point in the Gregorian chant which he would have grown up with. There is here a sort of convergence. Messaien famously wrote no choral settings. He had taken the view that he could not produce anything of the quality of Gregorian chant and that it was a mistake to put one's work in a situation where it would be compared. A wise decision - in my view that helps to makes him probably the greatest composer of twentieth century church music.

In praise of Aspergers

We should take a moment now and again to acknowledge the fact that civilisation as we know it would never have arisen if it were not for the...