Bland Christian Pop makes me cringe

Jesus was a radical politician who spoke for the powerless. This matters more than alleged divinity.

As a non-practicing atheist, its not really my place to give advice to the purveyors of Christianity. However, the pathetically earnest efforts of some Anglicans to spread their Word demands a comment.

I caught the latest edition of the BBC’s Song’s of Praise last Sunday. The programme featured a number of Christian rock bands and church groups, singing with guitars and drums that I assume are intended to present a modern facade to potential recruits.

Tragically, the songs weren’t great. Of all the possible music genres that could have been employed to spread the concept of Jesus, these people had chosen bland, bland pop. Accomplished musicians and singers they certainly were, but inspired the music was not. If you are singing about someone who you claim to be The Son of God, your music needs to be… well, heavenly. Mimicking the power ballads churned out by Pop Idol wannabes simply will not do, and the cause for which they were singing was critically undermined by each cringe-worthy note.

What was also missing was any substance to the lyrics. Saying Jesus’ name over and over again is no doubt an uplifting experience for people who already believe, but will convert no-one (except possibly some Westlife fans, who seem to respond to tiresome repetition in a way that the average person finds baffling).

Jesus was a radical politician who spoke for the powerless. This matters more than divinity, and it is this aspect of his life which can save mankind, not his alleged resurrection. Christian bands should be writing political songs, like Johnny Cash’s Man In Black:

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

Could that song be more relevant to current affairs? I’ve also been listening to For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield today, which I think could fall into the same category.

To be fair, it seems that Churches Advertising Network (CAN) have cottoned onto the key meaning of their faith. Their Christmas 2005 campaign features images of Jesus which parody other famous revolutionaries, Che Guevara and Chairman Mao. I hope the irony of referencing two famously atheist men to advertise the Anglican Church is not lost on church-goers.

Philosophy of the Internet reading list

Two articles I will be reading soon

The concept of Open Source computer code (such as the WordPress blog engine which powers this site) is both fascinating and fantastic. It is the first thing I cite when having arguments with pessimists who say that the human race is inherently slefish and motivated by profit. That fully working computer programmes are available free leave most people incredulous. That I would donate money anyway baffles them too!

On my reading list are two papers from the think-tank Demos: Wide Open and Open Source Democracy. Both concern the idea of open Source development, and what implications it has for government, democracy, and how we will conduct our politics (and, I suppose, our lives) in the future.

Excerpts and commentary will be posted on this site when I have read them!

The Cost of War

We should have just paid Saddam to leave…

Since the The Independent newspaper today asks what happened to the $1bn Iraqi defence budget, it seems a good time to mention some research by an old lecturer of mine, Professor Keith Hartley.

Professor Hartley estimates that the total cost of the war in Iraq will be US$1.25 trillion. This bill will be picked up by the US and UK taxpayers, and the new Iraqi state.

“If, at the outset, the Americans anticipated the Iraq operation would cost $100 billion, they could have given Saddam Hussein and his family $20 billion to go, $50 billion to Iraq and still have had $30 billion left over. The UK would not have been involved, no-one would have died and no buildings would have been destroyed. (PDF)

Internet Philosophy

When the aliens come to visit me, the first thing I will do is show them the Internet.

When the aliens come to visit me, the first thing I will do is show them the Internet. I think it is fascinating that I can surf from cross-stitch to cross-dressing in a single click. The Internet proves how diverse the human species can be, with little cliques and groups each posting their messages about those activities which take up their time.

I enjoyed Jeanette Winterson’s article in The Times, discussing the internet as an innovation and a medium. Part of the reason for this site’s existence is my plan to discuss the philosophy of the Internet: How its uses are evolving; how design, and coding innovations allow easy access to information; the future of the medium. I believe that the Internet will have a seismic effect on society, in the UK and beyond. The ability to “communicate and connect” (as Winterson suggests) may cause a paradigm shift for the way we live, especially politics and the media. The Internet is about globalisation…. it will be at the heart of multiculturalism.

This post inaugurates a new category on this website. I will call it Internet Philosophy for now, but I may change it to something less (or more) grandiose, depending on the feedback.

US of E

I look forward to the day when we become the United States of Europe, when I can celebrate my illustrious countrymen

Reading Gary Monro’s post regarding Europhile Ken Clarke’s Tory leadership bid, prompts me to think once more about the arguments against the single currency.

I remember going to see Tony Benn speak a year or two ago, when he was promoting a recently published volume of his diaries. He made the point that if (or when) we joined the single currency, economic and financial decisions would be made by people who we could not “sack” out of office. Joing the single currency does indeed imply the “foreign control” that Gary speaks of.

There are therefore only two democratically acceptable positions to take on this issue: total non-participation, or total European federalism. Ken Clarke, New Labour and the Liberal Democrats do us a disservice by picking a position somewhere between these two stools.

Thoughts on the nature of culture and multiculture I must leave to another day. However, I think I find the idea of a federal Europe less offensive than most of my countrymen. In the UK, we already live in a federation of sorts. Despite an English accent, I have Welsh and Scots ancestry. Now I live in Edinburgh, I can be as proud of cultural icons such as David Hume, Walter Scott and Robert Burns as I am of anyone strictly English. I look forward to the day when we become the United States of Europe, when I can celebrate my illustrious countrymen: Da Vinci, Voltaire, Neitzche, Picasso!

Letter to Lord Falconer

Trust is not a right; it is something to be earned

Today begins what I anticipate to be a long series of posts. It shall consist of letters written to prominent politicians and public figures, asking for clarification to particularly ambiguous statements made in other parts of the media. The point raised with Lord Falconer (below) is perhaps of minor importance, but I do believe his comments are characteristic of The Government’s tendency to present non-arguments as something more substantial. Blogs and The Internet are the perfect place to examine such comments in more detail.

I am writing to ask for a clarification on comments you made to journalist Marie Woolf, published in The Independent newspaper today (5/09/2005).

You are quoted as saying:

That there was a disagreement about that issue [the decision to go to war in Iraq] should not lead to a corrosion in trust. Plainly those who disagree with us on Iraq do not in any way forfeit our trust, and it should not be vice-versa.

Regardless of whether or not the decision to go to war was correct, your comments seem to imply a willful misunderstanding of the nature of the public disagreement the Government has faced over this issue since September 2002. I suggest the Government did not lose trust because of the decision made in light of the facts available at the time. Instead, trust was forfeited due to the perceived Government duplicity concerning the veracity of those facts, and indeed the chronology of the decisions made. Likewise, the BBC also lost a great deal of trust over its presentation of the facts during the Kelly-Gilligan affair.

If you think someone is lying to you, is it not perfectly rational, sensible and prudent to trust them less? Were your comments directed towards campaigners against the decision within the public at large, or against specific sections of the media? In any case, trust is surely not a right, but something to be earned.

The Devil's Alternative

Better that we allow a dozen commuters to die, than kill one innocent electrician

The news that Simon Harris, the suspected murderer of Rory Blackhall, had been facing sex offence charges, has led to calls for yet another reform to the crimminal justice system. This time, it is suggested that we add people who have simply been accused of sex offenses to be added to the sex offenders register until their trial. This idea of pre-emptive justice inevitably reminds me of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, who died at Stockwell tube station on 22 July.

Then as now, the argument centres around the idea of public protection. Those in power declare that it would be crimminally negligent of them to allow innocent people to die. For them, to ‘err on the side of caution’ is to neutralise potential threats, and ask questions later. Menezes is simply a tragic casualty of war. Likewise, depriving a potentially innocent man of his civil liberties is a price worth paying, to reduce the treat of harm to the Great British Public.

However, we must admit that people will kill and abuse each other, whatever the actions taken by the State. If they are doing this in numbers that society deems unacceptable (for now, 52 people dead on the London Transport system fits that criteria, in this country at least) then the problem is not necessarily a failure of policing, but a failure of society and a failure of political decision-making. Locking people up, putting them under surveillance, or even shooting them seven times in the head (and then once in the leg) is a simplistic policy answer.

The fact that these crimes occur highlights the fact that the security services are not all-powerful. The State simply cannot protect us from everything. It is crucially the role of the State which is under scrutiny here. Not only the State’s to deal with such threats, but where the State exists on the moral plane. We must be very clear about this point, and at present the waters are muddied.

The State is not a person. It cannot make snap decisions based upon the ‘facts on the gound’. Instead, the State is a collection of people, all of us, and we have to make decisions in advance, which are then applied equally throughout the country. They are our laws, and we must stick to them. There can be no special circumstances when these are flouted. If there are, then they become unfair, unjust, and ultimately meaningless.

Many people have said this before, but often they conclude their argument at this point. However, respecting the rule of law, and our civil liberties, has some very unpalatable consequences which we must nevertheless admit to ourselves if we are to have any chance of improving our society.

Perhaps it is better for another child to be murdered, than for an innocent man to have his life ruined by false imprisonment or even a false accusation. Perhaps it is better that a dozen innocent people die on a tube train by terrorism, than it is for one innocent electrician to be wrongly murdered by the State. Whatever the choice made, someone will die. In the case of a true suicide bomber or a child murderer, the killer is an individual. But in the Menezes case, the killer was the State. It was us. There is a moral difference between allowing a death that even the police are powerless to prevent, and proactively causing the death of an innocent person.

The choice is of course a Devil’s Alternative, but when our agents made our choice for us on 22 July, we all became murderers. To absolve ourselves of this sin, we must ensure that it never happens again. Some of our laws make it harder to catch terrorists. Better that we allow innocent people to die by terrorism than to become murderers, terrorists, ourselves. Altering our laws can no longer help us win the battles against terrorists, sex offenders or indeed any other crime. We need to begin altering our society, and the way we conduct our political debate, if we are to stand any chance of winning.

Narrow Definition of Web Design

Star letter in July 2005 issue of Creative Review

This was the Star Letter in the July 2005 issue of Creative Review.

If the websites showcased recently in Creative Review are any guide to the industry as a whole, our definition of what constitutes a good website design is far too narrow. The emphasis at present seems to be purely on the visual, with websites being laid out using exactly the same rules as print design. Focus is given to ‘wow’ technologies such as Flash, while the basic rules of accessibility are ignored.

A film with immaculate cinematography may be totally let down by poor narrative structure or sound-track. Likewise, a website with an pleasing and original visual style will be let down by invalid markup, slow download times, and a lack of accessibility features (such as ‘title’ and ‘alt’ attributes to aid site visitors).

Examining the Aardman and Nike websites, showcased in the 2005 Annual, we see that neither site validates for HTML or CSS, and all the copy is presented as images – not searchable by Google or Yahoo – with no textual alternative. I can’t remember the last site featured in CR that was NOT designed to fixed dimensions, which reduces accessibility for those who may wish to enlarge the site on their screen. The end result of all these choices is that the key messages are communicated less efficiently to less people.

Designing good website visuals is not the same as designing a good website. I would encourage readers of CR to read one of the countless guides to website accessibility that exist online, and design accordingly. The ability to separate content from presentation is one of the positive aspects of the Internet. The web should be treated as a medium in itself, and not a metaphor for print.

Cliché watch #1

Journalists should stop citing Google search results as an indicator of how important the subject they are writing about actually is.

The Internet is a wonderful medium for communication and collaboration, but my God, it encourages lazy clichés. Many journalists are still under the illusion that using the Internet for research is still innovative and clever. In order to demonstrate to us, the pop-cultured masses, that their chosen subject is relevant, they begin their article thus: “A search on Google for x yields over 100,000 results.”

It’s a really tedious way to set the scene. No specialist knowledge or research lies behind the statistic. Anyone can use Google to search for a phrase, and everyone does. And therefore, everyone knows that the figures given are meaningless. Google includes in its results all indexed sites that contain one or more of the keywords and does not yet make any recommendations as to how relevant the results returned are likely to be. Everyone also knows that several pages in the same site can return multiple results, making the raw figure presented at the top of the screen even more meaningless.

What does the figure actually mean? When 472,000 results are returned for, say, “Margaret Thatcher Sex” have we really learnt anything new? All it really tells us is that some English words are used on some sites, somewhere on the web. And yet the journalist is wasting an entire column inch telling us this.

But it is most annoying because the phrase itself if so unoriginal. A search on Google for “A search on Google for” yields 90,000 results. So let us call a moratorium on this particular cliché, please.

Oxymoron

Terrorism is a weapon, not an ideology

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was… Terror. Our war began on or around 14th September 2001, when George W Bush asked for a ‘unity’ against terror that quickly became a ‘war’. Heads of States flocked to their press conference microphones to join the war, and soon an airborne armada was bombing Afghanistan.

What a shame, then, that our enemy doesn’t exist.

The word ‘terror’ means to be really, really scared of something. Common things to be scared of in this county range from being stung by a wasp, to being blown up in an aeroplane, and everything in between. But whatever, you are scared of, your ‘terror’ is an emotion, something within you. The only way we can eradicate terror is to annihilate our species… something we seem to be on course for at the moment.

When Dubya made his speech to the nation on that grief stricken Friday, he misused the word ‘terror,’ and in doing so dammed a generation to meaningless conflict. The word has now become a catchall phrase to describe any attack, for an reason, on Westerners. Almost three years later, the same man describes ‘terrorism’ as the new Nazisim. He talks about the ‘terrorist movement’ as if it were a political party, and vows to defeat it. What he fails to realise, and what will ultimately cause hundreds more deaths before the end of his presidency, is that terrorism is not an ideology, or a group, but a weapon. For all his bravado on the anniversary of D-Day, the President is fighting a battle he cannot win. It is as if he said he was going to declare war on guns. Or tanks, or stones. Though it pains me to ally myself with Dubya’s buddies at the NRA, terrorism doesn’t kill people; People kill people.

To eradicate terrorism, you need to stop people hating you, and if you want to do that, the last thing you need is a war. Instead, George W Bush sends in his troops equipped with rifles and ray-bans, and every shot they fire creates another American-hater who will pick-up terrorism, the only weapon they have, in order to fight back. The ideology that is ‘anti-Americanism’ now sees its ranks swelling to numbers that the Nazis could only dream of.

A terrifying thought.