September 22nd, 2006


Language Test

Booked the morning off work for a meeting with our financial adviser. He couldn't make it at the last minute so I can catch up on some other things, including this (via marykaykare):

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On a different topic entirely, Greece was hard work but also at times reasonably good fun. The highlight was a discussion on the linkage between the future of Europe and developments in the Balkans; one participant, in the course of explaining to us why not everyone in the EU is ecstatic about the formation of new states, read out a Wall Street Journal editorial from last May in horrified tones, concentrating on the penultimate paragraph:
Balkanization doesn't always deserve its bad name. Throughout history, Europe's microstates have tended to be less bellicose (shrimps don't pick fights), more democratic (government is closer to the people) and, with fewer resources to waste, economically savvier. To thrive the Tiny Tims need open trade -- thank the European Union for that today -- and peace, which now comes courtesy of a U.S.-led NATO.
The participant then added: "We are not striving for a Europe of shrimps!!!! Especially one designed by sharks!!!" I don't really agree with his sentiments, but he did put it very well. With friends like the Wall Street Journal, the small wannabe states of Europe don't need enemies.

The Pope and Islam

I first became aware of this issue waiting for my plane at Dulles airport on Friday last week, via the scrolling newbars on CNN. I knew I wasn't missing much, since with CNN it makes little difference whether or not you have the sound on; the story seems to have blown itself out now, but I have just two small points of my own to make on this, and also want to flag up some interesting posts from different parts of my f-list.

My first point is on the nature and character of the Pope himself. It is rather easy to forget that the Papacy, divinely inspired and sustained or not, is a human institution. (For a brilliant take on the Papal investiture as an inhuman institution, see here.) Stratfor, who are very heavily invested in the "clash of civilisations" paradigm, have a long piece about it asserting that:
he could have no doubt what the response, in today's politically charged environment, was going to be... each of the pope's public utterances are thoughtfully reviewed by his staff, and there is no question that anyone who read this speech before it was delivered would recognize the explosive nature of discussing anything about Islam in the current climate.
Well, I'm not at all sure that that claim is true. Some of my reasons for doubt are public knowledge: the speech was actually made literally on the day the Pope's most senior official, Cardinal Sodano, resigned as Secretary of State, to be replaced by Cardinal Bertone. In normal times, I'm sure the Secretary of State may well be one of those who looks over speeches, if the Pope chooses to let anyone look over his drafts at all. But as he's clearing out his drawers, waiting for the new guy to come in, knowing only that this is a speech about the relationship between faith and reason at the Pope's former university - sounds on the face of it like one you can allow to find its own safe landing. Similarly, the Vatican's press officer for 22 years retired last July, and the new guy is noticeably still finding his feet (though dealt with the fallout from last week's speech about as well as one can in such a situation). So I think it is entirely credible that the Pope's advisers let this one through.

Did the Pope himself, as Stratfor put it, "recognise the explosive nature of discussing anything about Islam in the current climate"? I am inclined to doubt it, not least because it is precisely those explosive consequences for which he has subsequently expressed the greatest regret. (scarletdemon objects that the effigies of the Pope being burnt in certain countries last week weren't half as good as the ones burnt every year in Lewes, Sussex.) An Australian Muslim commentator puts his finger on it: the Pope is by background an academic theologian, not a politician. I strongly suspect that he is largely insensitive to the social context of either his own remarks or of his source material. (pwilkinson points out why Manuel Palaeologos was a very poor choice of Christian writer to quote from, given what was actually happening in his lifetime.)

Many scholars, whether in theology and philosophy, or in the hard sciences, tend to feel that the words of previous experts in their field are the only matter of importance, and the social context in which those words were wriiten irrelevant. My own critical academic formation, at the hands of Jim Bennett, Simon Schaffer and Peter Bowler, sensitised me to the sociology of knowledge agenda, that the theories are difficult to understand if separated from the theorists. Scholars in branches of learning that make particular claims of truth find it difficult to accept that the truths they discover might be in any way determined by the environment in which they are discovered.

I would very much expect that the Pope is among those who regard the sociology of knowledge as foolish and wrong-headed. For him, the debate between the emperor and the unnamed Persian scholar (the one named Islamic expert in his speech, Ibn Hazm, was several centuries earlier and several thousand km further west) was, until last weekend, an interesting and mildly funny detail in the history of the discourse between faith and reason, one he felt able to refer to as a shared joke with his former colleagues in Regensburg. I am quite certain that he does not regard it in that way now. Stratfor fall into the trap which we analysts of international politics often do, of over-analysis; in fact the Pope was just being genuinely thoughtless.

My second point is also based on my history of science days, and relates to the wider debate on the nature of religion. (On which topic wwhyte has different thoughts.) Catholics are not in any position to accuse other religions of being violent, of course; but likewise, nobody should make the mistake of accusing Islam of being anti-rational. It's easy to forget in today's world that in the century after it became the seat of the Caliphate (AD 762) Baghdad was probably the prime centre of civilisation and learning in the world. In my own work on twelfth-century European scholars, I often felt a keen sense of frustration at their inability to grasp the concepts articulated by the Muslim scientists whose work they were trying to build on. There is a strong element of rationality in Islamic thought, and the mere fact that it doesn't excite either Western reporters or Muslim demonstrators shouldn't mean that the rest of us forget it. (There is also of course a strong pacifist mystic tradition which I have also encountered.)

The most insightful post I've read on this - saving the best for last - is by homais, who writes sanely of the "Stupid Storm" (with "stupid" to be understood as the first part of a compound noun, rather than as an adjective modifying "storm") around this and other issues. Go read it.

September Books 16) Epic

16) Epic, by Conor Kostick

I know the author a little and I know the publisher rather better; but what really flagged it up to me was fjm's review, a year and a half ago. It's a YA novel set on a resource-poor future colony world where participation in a WoW-type game is practically mandatory, and your success in battle determines who gets access to what resources. We've seen games used as the centre of sf stories before; on the spectrum that has Jack Chick's take and Catherine Asaro's typically dismal "A Roll of the Dice" at one end, and Iain Banks' The Player of Games at the other, with Poul Anderson's Hugo-and-Nebula-winning "The Saturn Game" somewhere in the middle, I reckon that Epic is well up in the top half, say about level with Sherri S Tepper's True Game trilogy. (This classification will be of no help at all to you if you hate banks, like Asaro and find Tepper incomprehensible. But at least I tried.)

Knowing Conor's politics I was wondering if or how he would manage to bring in the revolutionary overthrow of the system, and he does it through a combination of a young hero and his friends teaming up with older mentors (one the central character's father, the other the ideological guide for the revolution). However he manages to keep the suspension of disbelief and (I would have thought) in a style attractive to the target readership. If you don't want your teenagers exposed to insidious lefty propaganda, don't let them read this book. On the other hand if you want them to be intellectually stimulated as well as entertained, you could do a heck of a lot worse.

See also Sherwood Smith's glowing review on the SF Site.