Tuesday, 30 December 2008

On BC, AD, and a Triumph of Christianity

There must have once been a conference to settle how the Calendar would be carved up between the religions.

Envoys would have been sent by the Classical pagans, the Nordic pagans, and the ambitious Christian religion. I picture these skilled negotiators posing for the photographers, like at Yalta.

The Nordic envoy, the most dominant, would have demanded the names of the days. The daily cycle would mean the most to people, and if each day was named in honour of the Nordic religion, then it would survive for evermore. The Nordic envoy got what he wanted.

The Classical envoy, the most beautiful, asked politely for the names of the months. The monthly cycle, because of the moon and other reasons too delicate to mention, would mean the most to people. Each month will be named after a Classical great, and so the Classical religion would survive for evermore. The Classical envoy got what she wanted.

The Christian envoy, the most intelligent, was relieved and delighted. Without a further word, she took the years.

It was a wise choice. Her BC/AD system provides a bias towards Christianity, at least in the West.

Few people care for the names of the days of the week or the months of the year, which may as well be named after the seven dwarfs, or the twelve men in a cricket team (including the twelfth man), for all the practical difference it makes to how we now think about religion.

The reckoning of years is different.

The wise Christian envoy passed her BC/AD system to Dionysius Exiguus in around 525 AD, who popularised it.

In a subtle way, this BC/AD system validates the Christian church.

The early church is about 100-400 AD, which is of course just right for an early church, and the life and times of Jesus and his followers will be earlier still, which is perfect.

Religions with their origin later, or during the counter-intuitive reverse-dating BC period before, seem wrong because they are clearly too late or too early.

The effect would perhaps be different if we had carried on with the classical Olympiad system, which commenced in 776 BC (and ended in 392 AD).

Here Jesus of Nazareth and his followers would be around in the eighth to ninth century, and the "early church" would be from around 900 to 1200. They would then seem just another bunch of latter-day religious fanatics.

However, it is sadly not sensible to make any significant change to the AD dating, at least after the sixth century AD. (However, do spare me the politically correct CE ("common era") pandering.)

But do we really need to continue with BC and early AD dating, at least in histories of the Classical world?

Why can't histories of the Classical period use the calendars which (usually) meant something to those alive at the time? Historians could switch to the Christian dating when Dionysius Exiguus, Bede, and others come along. There could be a converison table, just as there is for other measurements.

I wonder if the Christians would ever let go of their BC/AD dating system?

After all, it does give the Christians a historical head start.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

On Jesus of Nazareth

The primary message of Jesus was love and social inclusion. This is clear from the traditions recorded in the various gospels.

Accordingly there is a contrast between this message and that of the "Christian" churches which preach in his name.

The word Greek-based term "Christ" was probably unknown to the historical Jesus. To call him such turns him from a historical figure into a theological event.

And, by doing so, love and social inclusion are replaced by an arrogance of religious certainty.

There was no historical inevitability that Jesus of Nazareth would be transformed into "Jesus Christ"; indeed, there was no reason why the traditions of his life would be written down at all.

The early history of the Christian church is a series of contingencies which could have gone in any direction, or no direction at all.

But each move does seem to me to have sadly taken those involved further from the ethical traditions of Jesus of Nazareth.

For me, "Christian" churches are not primarily concerned with love and social inclusion, but with asserting and imposing "truth". And, for me, that is where all the bad things about Christianity come from.

For Christian "truth" is not one that cannot be tested, challenged or verified, but one which provides the grounds for inflicting hate and social exclusion.

So I will be celebrating the birth of Jesus and not the birth of "Christ".

Monday, 22 December 2008

On Bob Quick

I have some sympathy for Bob Quick, the policeman who has now retracted and apologised for his silly comments about the Conservatives.

Being turned over by tabloid journalists cannot be pleasant, just as being raided by the police is not. It must be incredibly distressing.

And it would make one say stupid things. So I have some sympathy with Quick, though I have more sympathy for the poor innocent people Quick has (presumably) routinely turned over and then questioned during his successful career.

BCA v Singh: the BCA's Motive

The motive of the BCA in bringing a libel case has never been clear.

One would think that the appropriate response to Simon Singh's charge that there was not a jot of evidence that Chiropractic did not assist with six children's ailments would be to, er, show the evidence.

Bizarrely, the BCA instead issued libel proceedings before the High Court.

Why did they do this?

Some evidence on this point has been posted on the agreeable and useful Sacral Musings forum. The poster states:

"My contacts at the BCA are determined to take this case forward on the principle that writing letters to the newspapers and journalists protesting that they are misrepresenting chiropractic has not changed anything."

So there you have it.

One type of intervention is clearly not working, so a more drastic intervention is made, with no rational connection to the desired outcome, at great expense, and with the potential effect of actually damaging those whom the BCA exist to serve.

An interesting insight into the BCA and their attitude to an evidence-based approach.

On Conor Cruise O'Brien

Before Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen, there was the Irish intellectual and politician Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Cruise O'Brien, who has passed away (see obituary), saw political conflicts and crises without the distorting effect of party or tribal loyalty.

A man of the left, he would "let the side down" rather than pretend he did not see and think what he had actually saw and thought. And, as with George Orwell, the priority was his humane and thoughtful response to a praticular problem rather than a theoretically sound stance.

This was frustrating for the tidy-minded, and it did indeed mean that his first principles were sometimes difficult to discern. Such a person, perhaps rightly, will have a better career as a public intellectual than as an elected official.

I remember reading his brilliant and stimulating biography of Edmund Burke at university, as well as his essays.

It did not matter if I shared his opinion on any particular subject, for his writing always made me appreciate that one should always be unafraid to work out a view for oneself.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

In the Bleak Midwinter

The shortest day is always a day of hope, for the days cannot get any shorter.

And also from now on (one hopes):

- the Woos and the Religious cannot surely abuse the legal system any further, with the recent collapse of the Rath case and the final abolition of blasphemy,

- our police cannot surely gain yet more power, whilst we still remain a democracy,

- tabloid journalists can no longer easily invade the private realm, thanks bizarrely to Max Mosley's spanking delights,

- modern "art" cannot surely get more faddy or more reliant on the cliche of being placed in a whitewashed gallery,

- Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld cannot surely further discredit the right of centre, and

- our economy cannot surely get much worse, or our government more in debt.

The daylight hours will now get longer and brighter...

Saturday, 20 December 2008

REVIEW: Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People

Bloomsbury Theatre, London, 19 December 2008

This event promised a great deal.

By way of background, the rising and well-connected comedian Robin Ince had a bright idea a couple of months ago.

He would round up leading scientists and popular entertainers to do a secular and thoughtful London counterpoint to that worthy but dull Christian plodfest in Cambridge.

Last night (Friday) at the Bloomsbury Theatre was the original event, and I somehow got a couple of tickets.

Once advertised, however, interest in the event exploded.

Extra events were then organised: one on the Thursday before, and two more to come at the Hammersmith Apollo.

Ince, to his great credit, had hit on an unsatisfied demand.

And I doubt that any other impresario could go - from scratch - to four packed, big-name shows taking place in the week before Christmas.

Robin Ince
is a very fine comedian, but he also has a touch of real Geldof-like persuasion and organisational talent.

The show, however, was mixed. This was perhaps predictable for a first time, and the good stuff bears well for a repeat next - and every - year.

The main highlights were the scientists.

We were first inspired by a recording of the calm and wise Carl Sagan.

Simon Singh then took time away from being sued by the misconceived to tell entertaining and instructive tales of the Big Bang and Katie Melua.

Richard Dawkins - whose Oxbridge background perhaps made his contribution closer to the more conventional lessons and carols - read two beautiful and thought provoking passages from his own work.

And Ben Goldacre gave what was, in effect, a sermon. Describing how he had been sued by the dangerous Matthais Rath, and how Rath's bad medicine had been disastrous for South African AIDS sufferers, he ended by stating "Don't ever believe that bullshit isn't dangerous". I have seen Ben speak a few times now, but this was him at his most truly powerful.

To complement the scientists were comedians, singers, and other entertainers.

The most impressive was Tim Minchin, the last act, who narrated a brilliant and witty "beat poem" about an encounter with an earnest Woo dinner guest. Without notes, and with perfect pacing, it was a splendid performance. And, in doing so, he deftly articulated the worldview of many secularists and skeptics.

Also good were Joanna Neary, whose mime as "Pan's Person" made me cry and rock with laughter, and the extremely funny Natalie Haynes. The Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra provided fun and well-played accompanying music and interludes.

In contrast, some of the other entertainers were a disappointment, or worse.

Phil Jupitas just looked bored, and Josie Long was unprepared (and told a rambling and confused anecdote about David Hume's famous deathbed scene, calling Samuel Johnson a Catholic, and mixing Adam Smith for James Boswell).

Ricky Gervais came on to warm applause and goodwill. It didn't last. He shared a sick and simply horrible joke about raping an old woman with Alzheimers. He left to substantially less warm applause, and a loss of a good deal of respect.

Mark Thomas joked about Norfolk inbreeding (radical, anarchic, yawn). And a chap called Andrew Collins slipped in a joke about putting Jews on trains; I rather hope his career declines markedly after this.

I am afraid the acts of Gervais, Thomas, and Collins did depress me a bit.

The secular alternative offered by the title and theme of the evening was supposed to inspire. But I really would rather be a misguided Christian than someone who enjoyed such bad material. Thankfully, their stuff was outweighed by the goodness elsewhere.

Overall, the event was enjoyable, and it has the genuine potential next year to be great.

Admittedly, the evening was crowded and over-ran. (Another reviewer - of the night before - has said the length was a test of one's faithlessness - see here.)

Pruned back, and removing the needlessly offensive and lazy acts, it would be more attractive and focused. And this would be a good thing.

After all, there is an important message to be told at this time of year.

The Universe is far more beautiful and intriguing than any religion can convey.

I hope Robin Ince repeats the show next year, and that it becomes a fixture at this very special time of year.

Friday, 19 December 2008

On Colin Stagg

Colin Stagg is an innocent man.

His (failed) prosecution meant that the police did not persue the man who has now been proved to be the true murderer.

At least the police have now had the decency to apologise. However, the wretched and disgraceful Paul Britton ("Britain's Cracker"), who was so quick to publish books on the back of this case, has not apologised at all.

And we will not get an apology either from the hateful tabloid journalists, fed by the usual (and non-prosecuted) police leaks, who knew that Stagg had really done it.

Just like with Barry George.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

On Gordon Brown's "Fear" of Elections

As this Blog has shown before, elections (like trials) are potentially disruptive to the onward march of the Establishment, and that is why elections (and their effects) are curtailed as much as possible.

This Blog has also emphasised that Gordon Brown is not to be underestimated. In terms of gaining and accumulating power, he is the most effective politician in decades. But he has never faced a genuinely contested election.

Brown became party leader and Prime Minister by a sequence of manoeuvres and sheer force of will. He also dodges by-election campaigns. And, of course, he bottled the Autumn 2007 non-election.

One does not need much imagination for one to conceive of Brown creating a so-called National-Government-In-Time-Of-Crisis and avoiding a real election altogether.

He would even swallow his tribal anti-Toryism for that (just like he swallowed Blair for ten years, as some things are just that important).

Iain Martin in today's Daily Telegraph explores this issue of Brown avoiding contests, and wonders whether Brown is actually frightened of elections.

For me the answer is that he is not fearful, at least not directly.

Avoiding electoral contests is at the core of his personal political strategy. And this is entirely rational, if you have the political skill to do it.

No ambitious politician is truly a democrat. And, in this way, Brown is indeed a successful and highly rational politician.

In gaining and keeping power without having faced a genuine electoral contest, Brown is in fact the envy of much of the political world.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

On Police Reform, Joe Orton, and the Daily Telegraph

An interesting piece in the Daily Telegraph by Philip Johnston bringing together concerns about Kingsnorth, De Menezes, and the Damian Green arrest, together with a quote from Joe Orton(!).

This would be the sort of article you would have seen just in the Guardian only a few years ago. For the Daily Telegraph to be carrying it suggests things are changing.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

On where is the BCA's Reply?

This Blog has long been covering the misconceived libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association against the science writer Simon Singh.

(Singh said it was inappropriate for the BCA to promote chiropractic (a type of spinal treatment) for six children's ailments unrelated to the spine.)

By now the BCA should have filed at the High Court a "Reply" to the "Defence" of Singh (see here).

But according to the English High Court, no Reply has yet been filed.

This is peculiar. There are some possible explanations:

1. the BCA have not done a Reply, but this would mean they have (in effect) accepted the Defence as it stands;

2. the BCA have served the Reply on Singh, but not filed it at court, but this would mean their lawyers are perhaps incompetent;

3. the BCA are seeking to keep the Reply as some sort of closed document, but this would mean that they are embarrassed at what their Reply says; or

4. either I or the High Court have made a mistake (never to be ruled out).

I wonder which one it is?

(By the way, the case features in the current Private Eye.)

On why government IT projects go wrong

Over on the Skeptics Forum, the question has been asked as to why government IT projects go wrong, see here.

As the use and abuse of government contracts and "public procurement" is to become a new theme for this Blog, I thought this a good moment to make a start.

In my experience, the key problems are:

1. the civil servants start off with an aspirational IT specification, requiring a great deal of bespoke development work, when they should instead adopt a Commercially Off The Shelf (COTS) package;

2. the elaborate and expensive "public procurement" process has a bias towards established government service providers who can deal with the many formalities and can afford to lose two bids in every three;

3. the service providers then put a bid in with a commercial and technological model which will require lots of lucrative post-contract development work;

4. in the meantime, the civil servants that launched the process will not be the ones who manage the project post-contract;

5. the government lawyers will (usually) not be commercial specialists and so will not ensure that the service contract has the contractual protections and appropriate allocations of risk; and

6. once the project is clearly going wrong, the government will throw money at the service provider because of the underlying public interest in the services being provided.

In my experience, it is the lack of realism and expertise in the government department which is as much at fault as the hapless contractors.

And, to declare an interest, I used to advise the government on IT contracts...

Monday, 15 December 2008

On the police over-reaction at Kingsnorth

A great piece in the Guardian today:

"When climate camp protesters descended on the site of the Kingsnorth power station for a week-long summer demonstration, the scale of the police operation to cope with them was enormous.

"Police were accused of using aggressive tactics, confiscating everything from toilet rolls and board games to generators and hammers. But ministers justified what they called the "proportionate" £5.9m cost of the operation, pointing out that 70 officers had been injured in the course of their duties.

"But data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act puts a rather different slant on the nature of those injuries, disclosing that not one was sustained in clashes with demonstrators


"The other injuries reported included "stung on finger by possible wasp"; "officer injured sitting in car"; and "officer succumbed to sun and heat". One officer cut his arm on a fence when climbing over it, another cut his finger while mending a car, and one "used leg to open door and next day had pain in lower back"."

The police of course really do not need any justification for such an exercise, and the overtime must have been welcome.

Joking aside, the list of confiscated items by itself demonstrates another excesssive exercise of police powers.

Overall, a £5.9m advertisement for Police Reform.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

On the Damian Green case and the need for Police Reform

The news today that the case against Damian Green is likely to be dropped - see here and here - allows me to comment (belatedly) on this misconceived move by the police.

Now the political class fully realise what many of us have known for ages. The police are simply arrest-happy, and they can arrest and detain at will.

An arrest, of course, can be a humiliating act of some force; it is often, in effect, an assault which the police can freely do to a citizen without facing any real redress. The subsequent detention is similarly beyond real challenge, even if there is then a release without charge.

The police will also take DNA, even forcibly, which they retain - again, even if there is no charge. Thankfully, the European Court on Human Rights is challenging this, even though our courts meekly nodded - see here.

The police powers of arrest have widened dramatically under the Labour government. For example, the important distinction between arrestable and non-arrestable offences was quietly abolished in 2006 (see here). There are many other examples.

This growth of police power without accountability is growing and should be checked. There was no reason on the facts to arrest Damian Green. However, the police are now just so used to arresting at will, they probably didn't give it a second thought. The political reaction must have come as a sharp shock.

Perhaps this arrest can lead the Conservatives into taking Police Reform seriously. The police are the last unreformed institution of the state and, after a decade of Labour legislative complicity, they are more in need of reform than ever.

This Blog will continue to press for Police Reform to be taken seriously.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

On an excellent post on De Menezes

See the post by Graeme Archer at the Conservative Home site -

Archer (who I don't know) brilliantly articulates valid concerns about how the police dealt with the aftermath of the execution. It is heartening to see this from a Tory, meaning that (at last) the knee-jerk deference that the Right give to the police is losing impact.

Perhaps an incoming Conservative government will take Police Reform seriously.

In the meantime, we should leave such defence of the indefensible to the pitiful Ken Livingstone.

On the De Menezes Verdict

It is deeply wrong that the De Menezes coroner's jury were not allowed to consider unlawful killing as a verdict.

Deeply wrong, both morally and as a matter of law.

Morally, because in such a sensitive and complex case the jury should be left to consider all of the options.

Legally, because the judge appears to have misdirected himself that unlawful killing could only imply murder. In fact, it can imply manslaughter or even a breach of health and safety law (of which the Met have already been convicted).

The De Menezes family are right to be outraged. Their usually annoying and self-promotional lawyer - Michael Mansfield QC - was correct to withdraw from the proceedings. I wish them well for their judicial review.

For the best legal summary, from a lawyer for the De Menezes team, see here. The inequality of arms between the police and the De Menezes legal teams is sickening.

I accept that had De Menezes instead been killed by the July bombers then there would not be this media profile.

But he was killed by the State, and it is most appropriate that we are anxious. This is especially true as the police are increasingly a law to themselves and this case a rare example of scrutiny and accountability.

The De Menezes family in this case do not only speak for themselves, but for all of us who care about our safety in the face of the police's terrifying power and sheer incompetence.