It’s everywhere – you’d better get used to it. It’s a language we all must learn – both to be able to understand messages sent to us and to avoid ending up paying far too much for text messages. But the interesting thing is that the language of text-speak did not originate with the mobile phone and SMSs. It’s been around for around 150 years!
While studying and writing talks for our All Souls week away next month, I’ve been getting up out of my chair every 5-10 minutes taking photos of exactly the same view. All day. Slightly bonkers you might think – and some will wonder how I get anything done. Well, fair question I suppose. But actually I’ve got the sort of will-o’-the-wisp mind that constantly needs interaction with different things. So bizarre as it may seem, I work best when juggling different things. Read more
Last month’s Wired UK Carried a host of mini-articles by various techie, business gurus and Apple groupies about the phenomenon that is Steve Jobs. One of the standouts though was Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish, an account of his address at Stanford University in 2005. Read more
Someone made the mistake of asking me the other day what magazines I read. And it came as a bit of a shock to me when I tried to work out my list. I’ve always been a magazine junkie, I suppose – because at their best, they’re far more significant than mere advertising vehicles or glorified gossip columns.
So here’s my main list, in no particular order. I remember Tim Keller saying in a talk once (but can’t remember for the life of me which talk it was, so you’ll have to take my word for it) that he reads a careful selection of magazines simply because they are often the best indicators of the shifts and prevailing winds of popular opinion or insight. Well, that did it for me! I became a professional magazine consumer as a direct result. So you can blame him…
To get a taste of each magazine, click on its image.
Well, some would say it’s a ridiculous indulgence. And it probably is. But here are my justifications (!)
- Wired UK (monthly) – it’s not just a geek’s bible. It often has fascinating and well read, insightful articles about all kinds of technological and scientific advances. It is an education – but a highly enjoyable one (especially for geeks). The heights of human ingenuity are on display.
- The New Yorker (weekly) – ok, yes I know it’s high-brow and its articles are probably the longest on the planet. Each edition will have at least 3 or 4 10 page articles. But this is my biggest treat. It is perfect for long journeys – and it’s range of interests is incredible. One week you can be reading about an American art philanthropist, gun-running in the Sudan, the history of late night chat shows on US TV etc etc. The cartoons are fab too. What’s not to like?
- BBC History Magazine (monthly) – it partly reflects the centres of gravity of modern history teaching (eg there’s always something about the Tudors and the Nazis) which is a bit annoying. But the range of articles is usually good; there is always a fascinating section looking at the historical background of a big news item; and the book reviews are great. Oh and I always enter the crossword competition in the vain hope of winning a book. No such luck so far.
- Private Eye (fortnightly) – during his 5-minute interview on BBC Online, editor Ian Hislop explained that the purpose of satire was “to expose vice, folly and humbug“. Private Eye does that in spades – most of the time, it is not too scurrilous. Much of the time it is doing a great public service and I’m grateful for it. As well as hugely amused.
- Empire (monthly) – probably my longest subscription. I adore movies – and love to know how they were made etc. But I hardly get time to see them or even to watch DVDs these days. So at least I can read the reviews. Though my frustration with Empire is that it is becoming a bit too celeb-dazzled (or has it always been? can’t work it out).
- Christianity Today (monthly) – it’s always interesting to see Christianity from another cultural perspective – and this American mag (if you can get past the interminable adverts for Christian colleges and seminaries in the US) often provides that.
- Tate Etc (quarterly) – this comes automatically with being Tate Friends – and it is lavishly produced and a real treat. Very interesting for keeping up with developments in the art world. Often provocative but always informative and beautiful to look at.
Ok, so I know what some of you are thinking. How on earth does he have time? Doesn’t he have a day job? Should his employers not be informed?
Well, here are my explanations/further justifications:
- Reading stuff is part and parcel of my job – and being in touch with what’s going on is essential to it. So this is work.
- Although it is fair to say that this definitely combines business with pleasure.
- I have strange reading habits – I’m fortunate enough to be able to pick something up and read it for 5 minutes and then come back to it later. So if I’ve got a spare moment waiting for someone to turn up, I’ll read something. In fact, I’m sure I need to see someone about this – but I have a pathological need to be reading something all the time (even if it is about the calcium content of Corn Flakes).
- Most magazine articles are bite-sized anyway (apart from the New Yorker obviously) – and so designed to be read in short bursts. Perfect for loo-reading, then.
So there we have it.
Would be very interested to know if you have particular favourites. Or even if there are magazines you think I should add to the list!! :-)
- The dilemma for Iraqi Christians
- Charts showing the difference between NIV2011 and previous versions, and here. (HT Antony Billington)
- Full schedule of Lausanne III at Cape Town to see videos of main talks etc
- Bring Advent to life by following Natwivity on Twitter
- David Instone-Brewer at Tyndale House has very helpfully reviewed a variety of computer resources for the bible scholar – check them out at Tyndale Tech
- If you know anything about recent Balkan history, this news is an encouraging sign.
- Books vs eBooks – an interesting Newsweek chart
- Very interesting article about what Americans feel about their ex-Presidents.
- Scary infographic about internet porn. (HT Simple Pastor)
- The problem of contemporary parental discipline:
- Ever been on an overnight flight? Well this sums up the experience perfectly.
- I love tilt-shift photos – clever focus manipulation that makes real life scenes look like models. Check these out.
- Some rather fun and quirky photographs from everyday London.
- I rather like these Ukrainian designs for playing cards
- 50 office jargon phrases we just totally hate
- Some fascinating cartographic futurology from the ever reliable Strange Maps
- People are awesome (not dumb… mostly) …!
- Rather fun reflection by Kevin Connolly on James Bond, America and post-war austerity
This is not quite the biography of the Man who was Q I was hoping for (for that you need David Porter’s The Man Who Was “Q”) – but then I should have read the small print! But it does recount a story that he was undoubtedly desperate to tell for years but prevented from doing so by the 30 year restrictions of the Official Secrets Act.
Before World War II, Charles Fraser-Smith had been many things: a prep school teacher, a despatch rider, a factory worker and a missionary agriculturalist in north Africa. In their different ways, all wonderfully equipped him for his extraordinary, secret role during the war as an inventor at the Ministry of Supply. He had been recruited, bizarrely enough, while on missionary deputation at an Evangelical church in Leeds. They invited him to join them, ‘to do a funny job in London’.
Ian Fleming encountered him in that capacity when he worked for Naval Intelligence – and it is widely accepted that he was the inspiration for Bond’s supplier Q. And in this book, Fraser-Smith (who died in his 80s in 1992 – see New York Times obit) lists the gadgets and schemes that were a lifeline to those working undercover on the continent, or those who were trying to escape the clutches of the enemy. Consequently, the book zips along with a narrative that could have been told by a character from Boys’ Own or Biggles. There are the wonderful colloquialism of 1940s received pronunciation and understatement. The enemy are despicable, diabolical and dastardly; our chaps (especially the heroes of S.O.E.) have real pluck and vim, for which he has only admiration; and when people on our side don’t pull their weight (e.g. businesses looking to their profits rather than supplying the war effort) he writes ‘the worst stinker of a letter I was capable of writing. It made my day.’ (p141)
Above all, this gives an extraordinary insight into a world which was by necessity secret until long after the events described. Fraser-Smith invented all kinds of things and he gives details of how they were supplied (and which firms ‘came up trumps’. He would be sitting in his drab civil service office at the Ministry of Supply (where he was undercover as a regular civil servant) and get a phone call from an anonymous voice who would bark a password and a demand – 400 miniature cameras by next week. And so he would have to find them. But as well as finding the impossible (like special Balkan tobacco to supply as morale-boosters to Tito’s partisans in former Yugoslavia), he came up with some classics which became integral to escape packs smuggled to POWs in camps. Hairbrushes, dominoes and pipes containing maps, fountain pens containing miniature magnetic compasses, shoelaces containing surgical saw-wire. He came up with the idea of chocolate infused with garlic to give airmen who landed instant garlic breath to help them blend in more to French life. And he can take the credit for having the brainwave while brushing his teeth of supplying food inside toothpaste tubes (vitally portable for escapers), which is now a multi-million pound industry.
The ingenuity knew no bounds. But just occasionally, in this book, there are hints of the wider, Christian worldview which was Fraser-Smith’s bedrock. So here is one example which both illustrates the horrors of war, Fraser-Smith’s turn of phrase and the beliefs he held to. Michel Hollard was a key member of the French resistance, and he had used a miniature camera supplied from the British very effectively for getting intelligence of enemy activities back to Britain:
Hollard’s personal story came to me long after the war. He was finally captured by the Gestapo. After a year in a concentration camp, he was loaded and locked into the hold of a German ship. This was one of those crammed with ‘unwanted’ prisoners which were abandoned in the North Sea with engines running but no crews aboard. When challenged by Allied aircraft or ships, the floating coffins would fail to heave to, thus inviting certain attack and destruction. This diabolical way of getting rid of hapless prisoners was typical of the Nazi mind, and horribly successful. Two of the ships, the Deutschland and the Cap Arcona, were sunk and thousands perished.
Fortunately Hollard was on the third, the Thilbeok. Locked in the hold, he heard the ship’s engines stated up and guessed the fate in store for them. Later that day he raised his voice, inciting all his doomed companions to link hands and pray. IT is a matter of record that those prayers were answered. A Swedish Red Cross boat mercifully arrived at that moment and took possession of the hapless Thilbeok. (p40)
He was desperate to cut through red-tape, overcome desk-bound idiocy and to find better ways of operating. So another idea was to encourage Arab farmers behind German lines in North Africa to develop farming practices that would sustain them and supply the war effort when the time came.
My Moroccan farming, the Malta storage experience, a strong BBC overseas service and some rather heavy-handed but quite sincere messages of inspiration, all tossed into a plan which was basically just common-sense. But when one remembers the story told of the First World War – when sandbags needed in the desert were reportedly sent by sea from Europe, filled with sand – the need for this commodity can be fully appreciated. (p124)
All in all, this is a very enjoyable book – patriotic, justly proud but quick to give credit where credit is due, an insight to a bygone era. To coin a cliché, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
I leave off 1 star only because there are no pauses for reflection or questioning of the rightness of everything done by the Allies. This is the breathless account of a dutiful servant of the war effort, who unthinkingly obeys orders and would never for a moment seek to do less than his best. But then, in an account of the whys and hows of Q gadgets, perhaps that is all one can expect.
The Blair autobio was far too chunky for me take on the plane to Albania, last week, so instead I took Clay Shirky’s followup to the wonderful HERE COMES EVERYBODY, from which I’ve posted before. He’s called it Cognitive Surplus, which is perhaps rather an intimidating and opaque title. Nevertheless, he’s still his readable, informative and thought-provoking self. It’s perhaps not as ground-breaking as the first one, which his why i gave it 4 not 5 stars. That good old ‘second album syndrome’, I guess. But it is definitely worth a read for any wanting to understand further how the Internet is shaping our lives and cultures.
The general idea is that for the first time in human history, it is possible to harness and exploit the billions of hours of free/leisure time of people separated by oceans for the greater good – through the internet. Here’s a flavour:
The bundle of concepts tied to the word media is unraveling. We need a new conception for the word, one that dispenses with the connotations of ‘something produced by professionals for consumption by amateurs’.
Here’s mine: media is the connective tissue of society.
… The internet is the first public medium to have post-Gutenberg economics. You don’t need to understand anything about its plumbing to appreciate how different it is from any media in the previous five hundred years. Since all the data is digital (expressed as numbers), there is no such thing as copy anymore. Every piece of data, whether an e-mailed love letter or a boring corporate presentation, is identical to every other version of the same piece of data. (p54)
His approach this time, bizarrely but convincingly enough, is taken from detective work. In a crime case, police look for the means, motive and opportunity. Thus he concludes, “The fusing of means, motive, and opportunity, creates our cognitive surplus out of the raw material of accumulated free time.” (p184) As a result, he is able to get under the skin of why people invest so much time in social media, from the in(s)ane (lolcats) to the inspiring (Ushahidi).
There were lots of gems. Here are a couple to be getting on with
The Prevailing Dangers of Generational Stereotypes
Napster acquired tens of millions of users in less than two years, making it the fastest-growing piece of software of its day. Its astounding success surely said something about the culture, and two conflicting interpretations were advanced in the early 2000s. The first was that young people had all become morally corrupt, willing to flout the sacred conventions of intellectual property. The second was that young people were so imbued with the spirit of sharing that they were happy to engage in the communal opportunity that Napster offered. The first explanation purported to explain why young people were so willing to take, the other why they were so willing to give. Both explanations couldn’t possibly be correct. In fact, neither of them was correct.
One of the weakest notions in the entire pop culture canon is that of innate generational difference, the idea that today’s thirty-somethings are members of a class of people called Generation X while twenty-somethings are part of Generation Y, and that both different innately from each other and from the baby boomers. The conceptual appeal of these labels is enormous, but the idea’s explanatory value is almost worthless, a kind of astrology for decades instead of months.
Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do. Human nature changes slowly but includes an incredible range of mechanisms for adapting to our surroundings. (p120)
I love that: astrology for decades instead of months is a brilliant put-down! But Shirky has exposed a dangerous tendency that I see a lot in my circles, not least in preaching…
… the desire to attribute people’s behaviour to innate character rather than to local context runs deep. It runs so deep, in fact, that psychologists have a name for it: the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution is at work when we explain our own behaviour in terms of the constraints on us (‘I didn’t stop to help the stranded driver because I was late for work”) but attribute the same behaviour in others to their character (‘He didn’t stop to help the stranded driver because he’s selfish’). Similarly we fell into the fundamental attribution error when we thought Gen Xers weren’t working hard because they were lazy. …
People in my generation and older often tut-tut about young people’s disclosing so much of their lives on social networks like Facebook, contrasting that behaviour with our own relative virtue in that regard: ‘You exhibitionists! We didn’t behave like that when we were your age!’ This comparison conveniently ignores the fact that we didn’t behave that way because no one offered us the opportunity (and from what I remember of my twenties, I think we would have happily behaved that way if we’d had the chance). (p122)
The rise of music sharing isn’t a social calamity involving general lawlessness; nor is it the dawn of a new age of human kindness. It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives. (p126)
We must all beware of resorting to the Fundamental Attribution Error …
The Unexpected Consequences of Inventing Movable Type
Then, returning to a theme familiar to any who read up on the internet’s social impact, Shirky returns to the effect of the invention in Europe of printing. He points to a factor in Gutenberg’s printing business of which I’d not been aware at all. Not only did he print the bible. He printed indulgences!
Johannes Gutenberg’s best-known work was his forty-two line Bible, a spectacularly beautiful example of early printing. But it was neither his first work nor his most voluminous. (He printed fewer than two hundred copies). That honour instead goes to his printing of indulgences.
[Previously indulgences had to be laboriously handwritten but] Gutenberg’s press flooded the market. In the early 1500s John Tetzel, the head pardoner for German territories, would sweep into a town with a collection of already printed indulgences, hawking them with a phrase usually translated as ‘When a coin a coffer rings/ A soul for heaven springs.’ The nakedly commercial aspects of indulgences, among other things, enraged Martin Luther, who in 1517, launched an attack on the Church in the form of his famous Ninety-five Theses. …
The tool that looked like it would strengthen the social structure of the age instead upended it. From the vantage point of 1450, the new technology seemed to do nothing more than offer the existing society a faster and cheaper way to do what it was already doing. By 1550 it had become apparent that the volume of indulgences had debauched their value, creating “indulgence inflation” – further evidence that abundance can be harder fo a society to deal with than scarcity. Similarly the spread of Bibles wasn’t a case of more of the same, but rather of more is different – the number of Bibles produced increased the range of Bibles produces, with cheap Bibles translated into local languages undermining the interpretative monopoly of the clergy, since churchgoers could now hear what the Bible said int heir own language, and literate citizens could read it for themselves, with no priest anywhere near. By the middle of the century, Luther’s Protestant Reformation had taken hold, and the Church’s role as the pan-European economic, cultural, intellectual, and religious force was ending.
This is the paradox of revolution. The bigger the opportunity offered by new tools, the less completely anyone can extrapolate the future from the previous shape of society. So it is today. (pp187-188)
I read recently of one famous English novelist bemoaning the huge threats to the publishing and book-selling industry posed by e-books. This is true. And many jobs, and even a few professions, will disappear. And many of those people will struggle to find equivalent work in the digitalised equivalents of their profession. But with such innovations and revolutions, there’s not a lot we can do about it. For consumers will always go for whatever is easiest, cheapest, most available. After all, who needs manuscript copyists these days, except for very special occasions like certificates etc? There’s no mass market for them. So, I fear, will it be for ‘real’ books, much though I love them (see my rant about e-books last year). Scary perhaps, but inevitable.
Shirky is always worth listening to and looking out for. He always seems to me to talk sense and bring insight – so all in all, a great read.
- Having mentioned last month that a chapter from Don Carson’s new book The God Who Is There is available online, it now transpires that you can download the 14 original talks on which the book is based (each is an hour – accompanied by a 10 min video preview).
- I’ve loved the recent BBC series REV. – and here’s a great, all too brief, interview with James Wood, co-creator with Tom Hollander of the series, on Ship of Fools.
- Paxman issues national appeal: Read the classics and the bible!
- The lengths to go to translate the bible! A very old friend of ours is an MAF pilot in Uganda – check out this Sudanese ‘international airport’ that he had to land at the other day.
- I’d not spotted this until the other day – the Telegraph has produced an interactive timeline of the House of Commons from 1885 to the present day. Really interesting – especially to see how many Irish Nationalist/Sinn Fein members there were in the years before Irish partition.
- The power of philanthropic billionaires in The Giving Pledge. Remarkable (HT Simple Pastor)
- Now I want one of these… draw a straight line every time.
- Well, here’s a thing. In the west, for every text sent by adults, teenage boys send 3 and teenage girls send 10! So no surprises there, I guess
- I’ve no intention of seeing the movie – but i quite enjoyed this: