Thursday, October 30, 2014

A very musical 10 days in Beijing

Cast ot Elektra BMF performance
Back from a long trip to Beijing. Much of it unbloggable but it was remarkably musical:
  • On Sunday I sang in the English Choir of the South Cathedral (Xuānwǔmén Tiānzhǔtáng) which was as always a moving and enjoyable experience. On this occasion I was the only Westerner in the Choir. The Anthem was Elgar's Ave Verum, simple and moving.
  • On Tuesday we went to the Leipzig Opera production of Ariadne Auf Naxos - our friend Yu Long had kindly sent us VIP Tickets.  This was an absolute delight - I'd never seen the opera before (!) and what a joy. The wonderful number Die Dame gibt mit trubern Sinn had me in stitches: one of the funniest musical jokes ever written where the song and dance troupe are trying to cheer up Ariadne and then their "pop star" Zerbinetta starts singing in the modernist style on top of their jaunty "es gilt, ob Tanzen//Ob Singen tauge."  The cast was excellent and I guess particular praise is due to Michaela Selinger as The Composer, Sharleen Joynt as Zerbinetta and Meagan Miller as Ariadne.
  • On Thursday after the HBR Summit the Harvard and Chicago alums has organised concert with some young singers and orchestra, including a violinist friend of Lang Lang's who had performed for Premier Xi the previous day.
  • On Friday there was an excellent concert performance of Elektra conducted by Charles Dutiot with a very strong cast, including Siegfried Jerusalem playing the old king.
  • Finally on Sunday Yu Long triumphantly conducted the China Phil in the Strauss Violin Concerto and Ein Heldernleben. The soloist was Lu Wei who was very good indeed - you can hear that he has played with Sophie Mutter a lot. And was delighted to see that Yu Long put the baton down for the 2nd movement of the concerto and conducted just with his hands. As in the Prom, this caused the orchestra to play even better.  I do hope he does it more often.
Yu Long applause after Strauss Concert
In addition to this musical cornucopia the trip was highly productive and interesting from a business point of view. Also Daughter came over for part of it - her first visit to Beijing which she enjoyed greatly. She also met a lot of very interesting people, and got to the Art District, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Jesus' first and last disputations in the Temple

Holman Hunt - The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple
(courtesy Wikipedia)
I've been preparing a Sermon on Jesus's final disputations in the Temple (Matthew 22.34-45) and made what to me is a really interesting discovery.  First of all here is the passage:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments all the Law depends and the prophets.

While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
     until I put your enemies  under your feet.”'

If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

A rabbai by one of his disciples: “Rabbai, why do you always answer a question with a question?” He replied “And what is wrong with answering a question with a question?”

Public debate and discussion are fundamental to the Jewish culture. Indeed as Amartya Sen argues in his wonderful book The Idea of Justice, they are fundamental to justice and liberty.  This Chapter of Matthew is full of questions. The Chief Priests ask by what authority Jesus upsets the moneychangers and Jesus answers with a question about the Baptism of John. The Herodians ask “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Ceasar?”  and Jesus answers with a question “Whose image is this?”. Then the Sadducees ask about the resurrection.   And now the Pharisees. They have heard disturbing reports that Jesus is making claims of divine authority.  He is named after Joshua (the words are the same in Hebrew) and it’s bad enough that he takes thousands of followers into the wilderness and talks of feeding them bread from heaven. There is only one God, the Lord. Everyone knows that this is the greatest commandment: we have to say the Shama (Listen O Israel, The LORD your God is ONE, You shall Love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength) twice a day. Let’s see how he responds.

So Jesus gives the “correct” answer but with a twist. He adds “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19.18) and then says “on these two commandments all the law depends and the prophets.” (This is the Greek word order, which might also suggest that the law should be read in the light of the prophets, but we don’t really have time to develop that thought). The great Rabbi Hillel was approached by a heathen who asked him “teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot” and Hillel replied 'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour:  that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary on it; go and learn it.”  Hillel died in 10AD in Jerusalem, so Jesus could well have met him when he was in a disputation with the sages in the Temple when he was 12 (Luke 2.41-52). Hillel was clearly "not far from the kingdom of God" though note how Jesus takes it further than Hillel ever does.

 When an expert in the law asked Jesus a similar question in Luke 10 and Jesus (answering a question with a question) replies “what is written in the Law? How do you read it?” this expert knows enough to reply Love God and Love neighbour and then asks “who is my neighbour” which ends up with the legal expert being told to act like a Samaritan.

This time, Jesus asks his own question. Whose Son is the Messiah? This is a massively tricky and topical question. There was an enormous amount of expectation that the Messiah would come, set the world to rights, expel the Romans and inaugurate the age to come.  Jesus has many of the expected characteristics of the Messiah, but was deeply puzzling. Instead of turning his thousands of followers into an army he disperses them.  He can claim descent from David but he refers to himself highly enigmatically as “Son of Man” Where is this going to lead? Still there is a standard answer: “Son of David” What will he make of that?

As always, Jesus leads us beyond our preconceptions. If David calls him Lord, how can he be his son?  Psalm 110 is a highly messianic psalm. “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool…you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” and is explicitly stated to be “A Psalm of David” (unlike Psalms 111-121)  As the writer of Hebrews astutely observes, Melchizedek received tribute from Abraham and is therefore “superior” even to Abraham, let alone David. (BTW I think Hebrews was almost certainly written by a woman, probably Priscilla, but that’s another story!)  Who is this Messiah?  Who is this man? Can it be that, as Jesus claimed, “one greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42, Luke 11:23)

“No-one could say a word.” And from that time no-one dared ask him any questions. Are they in the presence of someone greater than Abraham? Someone who, in the words of Psalm 110, “will execute judgement among the nations, filling them with corpses”?

And this passage jumps right across the 20 centuries to us today. Twice a day the observant Jew repeats the Shemah – “Listen O Israel, The LORD your God is One. You shall love The LORD your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength”. Tom Wright’s wonderful magnum opus on Paul brings out, amongst many other things, how central the Shemah is for Paul and how he redefines it to include Jesus.  I could, and certainly should, do a lot more to live and breathe the Christian Shemah including “love your neighbour as yourself.”

Secondly, we all have to face up to the question: “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” Son of Mary – born in a Palestine ruled by the client despot of an Empire whose own ruler, Caesar, was held to be Son of a God and the bringer of peace? Son of David – heir of God’s great promises and the means of their fulfilment. Son of Man – one who is like us in all things, yet without sin? We have all sinned, in that we have fallen short of the glory of God: but Jesus makes the glory of God known and was obedient in all things, even death on the Cross.

And finally, we need to recognise the deep connection between these two passages. To love God with all you heart, mind and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself are wonderful goals but, in human strength, they are impossible.  Only be done by God’s grace through Jesus his Messiah, putting on the wedding garment that God supplies, can we participate in the Messianic banquet which is eternal life, of which this communion is a wonderful foretaste.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Nature articles on Extended Evolutionary Synthesis and on Top Quark

illustration by R. Craig Albertson
Cichlids from Lake Tanganyika (L) and from Lake Malawi (R)
evolved similar body shapes (see Article)
Two remarkable articles in Nature. One is a Point/Counterpoint on Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? where Kevin Laland, Eva Jablonka and others debate with Gregory Wray and colleagues. This is very much along the lines that Denis Noble has been advocating - and indeed cites his 2014 paper. They contrast Standard Evolutionary Theory (SET) with what they term the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES).
The EES "maintains that important drivers of evolution, ... that cannot be reduced to genes, must be woven into the very fabric of evolutionary theory."  They "hold that organisms are constructed in development, not simply ‘programmed’ to develop by genes. Living things do not evolve to fit into pre-existing environments, but co-construct and coevolve with their environments, in the process changing the structure of ecosystems."

They draw attention to:
  • "how physical development influences the generation of variation (developmental bias);
  • how the environment directly shapes organisms’ traits (plasticity); 
  • how organisms modify environments (niche construction); and 
  • how organisms transmit more than genes across generations (extra-genetic inheritance). 
For SET, these phenomena are just outcomes of evolution. For the EES, they are also causes."  They don't mention Denis Noble's profound ideas about multi-level causality.

Wray and colleagues agree that these phenomena are important but they deny that SET has ossified.  They think that these phenomena "are already well integrated into evolutionary biology, where they have long provided useful insights" and deny that "today’s evolutionary biologists as unwilling to consider ideas that challenge convention." This sits oddly with the furious reaction to Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson for example, and the tenacity with which people affirm the validity of "Inclusive Fitness" and deny the validity of "Group Selection". As Nowak's 2012 JTB article points out:
The idea of group selection has a long and troubled history, but mostly in terms of verbal arguments on both sides. The mathematical theory of evolution clearly shows that group selection is possible provided certain conditions hold. It requires careful examination to determine whether these conditions are met by a particular empirical situation.
The other item I find fascinating in Nature is The mass of a top which is a commentary on a PRL paper V. M. Abazov et al. (D0 Collaboration) "Precision Measurement of the Top Quark Mass in Lepton+Jets Final States" This quark weighs ... amazingly ... 187.85 ± 0.82 atomic units, which is almost as much as a Gold atom. A top quark decays in one trillionth of a pico-second into a Bottom Quark and a W Particle. But the really intriguing aspect is that:
Because of the huge top-quark Yukawa coupling, the fluctuations involving the top quark affect the shape of the Higgs potential (which describes the potential energy of the Higgs field as a function of the field strength). In fact, making the strong assumption that there are no as-yet-undiscovered particles, the Higgs field seems to exist in a local minimum of the potential, which would make the Universe as we know it unstable... the desire to ascertain its ultimate fate is a key reason for accurately determining the top-quark mass: differences of just 5% in this mass make the difference between stability and instability.
I have a feeling - and it's no more at this stage (I haven't had time to read the referenced papers in detail and I almost certainly wouldn't understand them if I did) that this could turn out to relate to the MaxHELP hypothesis.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Gems from Amartya in An Uncertain Glory

I'm learning a lot from reading An Uncertain Glory which Amartya kindly sent me.  They take a loving and critical look at this great country, expressing grave concern that although in GDP terms there has been enormous progress, in other social and development indicators, such as health and education, the situation is seriously disappointing.

One basic problem is that India failed to invest in education. "Indian planners were at the opposite pole from planners in all the Communist countries ....[who] all valued universal standard school education. Interestingly they were also ignoring... Milton Friedman, who submitted an enlightening 'memorandum to the government of India' in 1955 where he emphatically argued that Indian planning was giving too much importance to physical capital and grossly neglecting 'human capital'."

They compare India with other South Asian countries and note that Bangladesh, with a much lower per capita income, is ahead of India on many social issues (including life expectancy at birth).

They have an excellent though of course rather depressing chapter on Accountability and Corruption. They point out the need to distinguish between  "two different questions:
  1. In what areas can the public sector, given feasibly good arrangements, serve the interests of the public better than the private sector?
  2. How  can public sector institutions be made accountable so that the serve well the purposes for which they are set up?"
They instance India's electricity sector where "A large proportion of electricity supply is actually stolen or unaccounted for, and while those in charge know this, they are not inclined to engage with the problem as it can have significant political consequences."  They say that "the basic lacuna is the almost total absence of responsibility attributed to particular persons who take decisions... without having to face any consequences themselves if things go badly wrong."

They point out how damaging subsidies of electricity and fertilizer are (the latter accounted for 1.5% of India's GDP in 2008-9 which was more than public expenditure on healthcare!) and "revenue foregone" in taxes is 5% of GDP.

They also note that "no government employee can be prosecuted for dereliction of duty without prior permission of the government, which is rarely granted...'previous sanction' of the concerned government is required even to 'take congnizance' of a violation of the [Prevention of Corruption] Act on the part of a public servant."

There is much more wonderful material which I haven't yet got time to blog. Do read the book!

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Electra and Forgiveness

Cast (minus Orsestes - not sure why)
To Old Vic on Friday with Daughter to see Electra in a new version by Frank McCourt. Kristin Scott-Thomas was Electra with Diana Quick and Clytemnestra, and Jack Lowden as Orsestes.

It's a very moving play (which I haven't seen before) and well acted with a good ensemble. My only concern is that in many places it is played for laughs and this rather seriously damages the cumulative effect. Probably people felt that without an interval you could not sustain the dramatic tension without plenty of relieving moments. Maybe this is right for a modern audience. But it is amazing to connect with something written over 2,400 years ago in such a deep and compelling way.

The whole concept of cycles of revenge and death is sadly very topical now with the continuing awful situations in the Middle East and places like Nigeria and South Sudan. Plainly the only way to resolve such situations is through reconciliation and forgiveness but this is much harder to achieve in the absence of a strong religious imperative to forgive.

We tend to think of this as mainly Christian but Islam also has an important strand of forgiveness. And it is a shameful fact that both sides in the appalling situation in South Sudan claim to be Christian.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Cornwall and Lambeth Palace

The Altar at Lambeth Palace - Compline
Very busy week. Went straight from Cambridge to Cornwall to celebrate my mother's 83rd birthday. She went surfing with us, twice (on Sat and Sun). Harvest Festival in the Church was very full and it was the Golden Wedding celebration of a much loved couple: Jerry and Betty Chandler.

Then on Mon I had to travel up for a business meeting and then to go to Lambeth Palace for a fork supper with Archbishop Justin and colleagues briefing the Lambeth Partnership. We were fortunate enough to bring 6 guests - 3 very senior industrialists with 2 wives and 1 former investment banker. It was an enormously inspiring evening - one of our guests said it was the most inspiring series of church talks he had heard for 10 years.

Justin's three priorities remain:
  1. Prayer and the renewal of the Religious Life. The development of the Community of St Anselm, of which he will be Abbot, is enormously exciting.
  2. Reconciliation. We had a terrific talk by the leader of that ministry - huge challenges being risen to right around the world. South Sudan particularly challenging.
  3. Mission and Evangelization. Again a terrific talk by the leader of that ministry.
We finished as usual with Compline in the chapel in the crypt, led by Justin. A wonderfully inspiring evening.

PS on Sun our vicar commended Justin's speech on the ISIL action. It's here and the gist of it is:
The action proposed today is right, but we must not rely on a short-term solution on a narrow front to a global, ideological, religious, holistic and transgenerational challenge. We must demonstrate that there is a positive vision far greater and more compelling than the evil of ISIL and its global clones. Such a vision offers us and the world hope and assurance of success in this struggle, not the endless threat of darkness.