25 March 2008

Thought for the Deity

As the most important festival in the Christian festival, Easter is generally treated as a more serious affair than Christmas. Rather than unmitigated joy, it is a time for reflection, for contemplation of deeper spiritual matters. It is also a time for the most smug and sanctimonious piffle you are likely to hear broadcast on public airwaves. I can't remember hearing a more self-righteous collection of judgements masquerading as moral guidance as came out of the broadcast media over the four day weekend.

Kicking off on Good Friday's "Thought for the Day" on Radio 4, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, takes a swipe at the faithless for their arrogance. What puzzles the bish, apparently, is "the absolute certainty of their conviction which does not allow for any doubt ...the believers I know have a much humbler attitude".

It's a reworking of a very familiar claim - the last resort of someone who has run out of ideas. To seek an explanation of the complexities and mysteries of the world around based upon only what we can prove, in my humble opinion, is, well, pretty humble. To say: "I can explain it all - God made it" is surely the most arrogant position of all. But it saves having to expend too many grey cells.

Next up the leader of the Scottish Catholic Church, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, used his Easter sermon to pile into the debate on the proposed embryology bill as a "monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life". He forgot to add something about the "human dignity" of those who live with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's who might face the prospect of a cure through such research, but I'm sure that was just an oversight.

He concluded that it would allow experiments of "Frankenstein proportion." Which was ironic, really - I don't think any of the scientists I have read on the subject have mentioned using the bill to turn the dead into the living, as Dr Frankenstein attempted. They leave that sort of thing to the church every Easter.

Finally, even the non-conformists felt a need to get in on the act, when faced with the prospect of bookmakers opening on Good Friday for the first time. A spokesman for the Methodist Church said they would prefer people to think about the day's religious significance rather than placing bets. In logical terms that's a false opposition, surely? I don't believe that one activity excludes the other.

In fact I would go further and say that placing a bet can be part of contemplating the wonder of the universe and complexity of life. If you care to really think about the chances of life existing at all on earth, and marvel at the process through which we came to be, I reckon a £10 punt on a 50-1 outsider might put things in perspective. It would certainly seem like short odds, all other things considered.

The floating holiday

This year Easter has thrown everyone: schools, first-quarter reporting for business, end of financial year. Given the ubiquitous 2 month lead up to any public festival of consumption, it meant Valentine's Day build-up started at New Year, and we had barely finished the Christmas Pudding before pancake day had rolled around. It has stretched the traditional business lull around Easter to about three weeks, as it fell upon just about the earliest possible date it can.

I'm prepared to guess that a smaller proportion of the population knows how the date of Easter is calculated than attempts a DIY project over the four day break. For the record it is, according to the English book of Common Prayer, "the first Sunday after the full moon which happens upon, or next after the 21st day of March; and if the full moon happens upon a Sunday, Easter Day is the Sunday after."

Can you imagine if Christmas was calculated in the same way? Which begs the question: why do we not decide on a fixed date in April? If we can cope with a fixed date for the Messiah's birth, I'm sure we can struggle through when it comes to mark his crucifixion. It would make it a great deal easier for the rest of the real world that has to plan holidays, work cover and Q1 revenue reports.

19 March 2008

The Ministry of Teenage Kicks

The government’s attempt to deflect attention from the recent budget took the form of a curious story about getting British teenagers to swear allegiance to the state. Given the staggering stupidity of such a proposal, it was obviously not a real story, any more than Alastair Darling is the real Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it was a curious piece of kite-flying even by New Labour standards.

At no point amid all the huffing and puffing did anyone mention what the object of such a policy would be. Arguments were advanced on either side (well, mostly against) about the practical challenges, and whom or what would be sworn to or at – but no-one seemed to come out with a straight answer about what the scheme was for. A cure for binge drinking, teenage pregnancies or happy slapping? Like ID Cards, it was a solution in search of a problem.

I think the answer was the first attempt to standardise the Traditional Teenage Rebellion. If we recognise youthful contrariness as a necessary developmental stage between acne and employment, it would be much more efficient if it were channelled into specific forms at predictable times. Giving school-leavers the chance to tilt at the establishment through provocative but harmless decrees would give them a focus for their angst, to slot alongside the other parts of the National Curriculum. Whatever form their protest took, they could then get an official certificate to put on their UCAS form.

Look out for the setting up of a new government Task Force on Buying Halves Of Cider In Pubs or the launch of a Certificate For Navel Piercing.

Back to the future

My friend Phil pointed me towards a story of astonishing magnitude that, amid all the hurly-burly of stock market plunges and ex-Beatles divorces, seems to have slipped through the general consciousness: an experiment scheduled for this summer at CERN – the particle accelerator in Switzerland – will attempt to send an atom several thousand years into the future, in the first steps towards time-travel (story here). I’m not quite sure how they will verify that the experiment has succeeded, bar waiting around for a few millennia to catch up with their atom, but it opens up exciting possibilities.

According to the Daily Telegraph: "The debut in early summer could provide a landmark because travelling into the past is only possible - if it is possible at all - as far back as the point of creation of the first time machine." In other words, if this experiment does, ultimately, lead to the creation of a working time machine in the future, the resultant time travellers could be amongst us as soon as July.

So if you catch sight of a DeLorean leaving fiery-tracks in the road, it might not be the local joy-riders earning their next ASBOs. (And if you don’t understand that reference, the only time-machine you need is a beta-max video to take you back to 1985, when time-travelling was just about the coolest mischief a kid could get up to.)

05 March 2008

Past its sell-by data?

The British police's DNA database - the largest in the world - has recently been the focus of attention by both its supporters and opponents. At the same time as police have sung its praises for tracking down two murderers, two innocent people have gone to the European Courts to have their own details removed from among its 4.5million records.

Public support for a universal database, hosting the DNA profiles of all UK citizens, seems to vary from week to week, depending on the number of murderers caught versus the number of records mislaid by the government. This is reflected in the government's own apparent double-think on the issue: they maintain that a universal system would have "significant ethical issues", while simultaneously opposing the removal of innocent people's data from police files.

Those who hope such a database would be able to solve all future murders will probably be disappointed by a fact that has gone widely unreported. That the database itself is riddled with inaccuracies and duplications. Surprising as it may seem, when people are arrested, they sometimes lie to the police about their identity - but not before their DNA sequence is committed to record. If I were nicked for an offence and gave an acquaintance's name and address it would not only get me off the hook, but would leave me free to commit at least one offence at his or her expense.

Of course the error would soon be realised, but not before my associate had been banged up for a couple of hours. And, of course, have his own DNA profile added to the list for absolutely no reason. But as the Home Office says "They have nothing to fear from providing a sample". Nothing except the incompetence of the Home Office, of course.