Sunday, November 30, 2014

Social Physics and the New Deal onData

Sandy Pentland (from Wikipedia)
I realise I haven't blogged about Sandy Pentland's brilliant book Social Physics which I finished some time ago. I really regret not having read it earlier and find it hard to recommend too strongly.

The basic point (as I see it) is that we can now understand in much more detail how people behave and how ideas spread, through large-scale instrumentation of people via sociometric badges or mobile phones. This has tremendous possibilities in terms of health, wealth and environmental impact. But - and this is very important - it also requires a New Deal on Data so that people know what data is being collected about them, are legally owners of their data, and can give explicit permission on how it is used.  There is an excellent interview with Sandy about this in the HBR and a prescient article Sandy wrote for the World Economic Forum on this in 2008.  An update from Davos in 2013 is here and there is also something called The Windhover Principles for Digital Identity, Trust and Data which are backed by Sandy's co-founded organisation ID3 (the Institute for Data Driven Design).  These are named after a place called Windhover Farm in New Hampshire.

I don't have time alas to quote all or even most of the 'gems' from the book but if you are interested in what will drive advanced economic development you should read this book. It's not minerals, oil, land or capital, but the shared development of ideas.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Pray for peace esp in South Sudan

Mass in S Sudan (from Wikipedia)
To Cambridge last night to celebrate some very good family news. Working hard so no time to blog during the week.

Very sad to read in The Economist that the fighting is expected to resume in South Sudan. The terrible situation in Iraq and Syria with ISIL and the deplorable situation in Nigeria with Boko Haram are bad enough. But South Sudan is a predominantly Christian country - according to Pew 65% of the population are Christian. The President is a Roman Catholic and his rival the former Vice-President is a Presbyterian. I know from Justin Welby that the Anglican Church there is working very hard to try to promote reconciliation but the situation is really horrible. This report from Al Jazeera is depressing, with claims that rebels killed people by burning down a Church. And indeed according to this report heavy fighting broke out on Friday.

Full page ad in the Evening Standard draws attention to the fact that on Nov 8th the global head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community called for Concerted action against ISIS. Sadly they are a persecuted sect and in Pakistan, where they are most numerous, they are banned from calling themselves Muslims. The only Muslim Nobel Laurate, Abdus Salam, was a member.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Schubertiade seasoned with Mozart

To the Wimbledon Music Festival last night for a wonderful Schubertiade seasoned with Mozart by The Fibonacci Sequence. This was two concerts with a big interval for dinner.

They began with a one-movement Schubert String Trio (D.471 in B flat) and then a Mozart Piano Quartet in G minor (K.478) which was  a real delight. At a short drinks interval I found I was sitting behind the parents of the Cellist Ben Hughes.  And then we had the sublime Trout Quintet!  The Fibs are incredibly musical and wonderful collaborative musicians - as one would expect from a group directed and pulled together by the great Kathron Sturrock. Both in the Mozart which I didn't know and the Trout which of course I do her wonderful musicality and the keyboard was perfectly complemented by her colleagues. Jack Liebeck and Marije Ploemacher alternated as leaders; Yoko Inoue on Viola (who like Kathron won first prize in a major competition)  and Graham Mitchell on Bass.

After supper the second concert began with an exquisite performance of the Mozart Oboe Quartet in F K370 with the Chris O'Neill giving a flawless performance with his colleagues. Kathron then joined Chris, Julian Farrell (Clarinet), Richard Skinner (Bassoon) and Stephen Stirling (Horn) for K452 which made you understand why Mozart wrote to his father "I myself consider it to be the best thing I have written in my life" (in 1784, so before the great operas but after Symphony 36 and the Piano Concerto 16). The ensemble writing is wonderful and it was played with exquisite sensitivity - four voices and the piano perfectly matched in the best possible operatic ensemble.

And then the astonishing Octet! What can I say, except that it would be hard to imagine a finer performance.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Justin on the rise, and Dawkins on the wane

Justin - courtesy Wikipedia
Delighted to see a full page editorial in The Spectator called "Thank heavens for Justin Welby!"  We must not get carried away and it is very unwise to expect Christian leaders to be popular in the media for very long. But it's very encouraging how well things seem to be going for Justin.

His campaign to compete against Wonga and the others has been extraordinarily successful. But the extent to which has has restored the morale and influence of the Church of England more generally is remarkable. I remember shortly after he became Archbishop hearing him say that he had never been more optimistic about the future of the CofE and I think this makes good sense.

Although he comes from the evangelical "wing" of the CofE he seems to have the strong support of Catholics and Liberals and I think the CofE is more united now than at any time in the recent past.

In addition Justin has become a very influential figure on the world stage. The fact that he was invited by Mark Carney to be on the IMF/World Bank panel on Ethics and Finance along with Mark, Christine Lagarde, Philipp Hildebrand and Kok Song Ng is pretty significant. His contributions were of course excellent (from 47mins on) and indeed the whole discussion was well worth watching.

The contrast with Dawkins is of course striking.  No-one now takes him seriously on anything outside his narrow expertise - although I don't think most people understand how narrow that expertise is.

When EO Wilson on his recent tour stated that "Dawkins is not a scientist, he's a journalist" people were a bit surprised, but they shouldn't have been. And here is one interview in which Wilson explains:
“What else is he? I mean journalism is a high and influential profession. But he’s not a scientist, he’s never done scientific research. My definition of a scientist is that you can complete the following sentence: ‘he or she has shown that…’,” Wilson says. “I don’t want to go on about this because he and I were friends. There is no debate between us because he’s not in the arena. I’m sorry he’s so upset. He could have distinguished himself by looking at the evidence, that’s what most science journalists do. When a journalist named Dawkins wrote a review in Prospect urging people not to read my book, I thought the last time I heard something like that I think it came from an 18th-century bishop.” 
Headlines like "The Atheist Movement Needs to Disown Richard Dawkins" (from the highly influential "Vice") calling him an "outdated idol" are pretty self-explanatory. Google trends shows one aspect of his decline fairly graphically - and the number of searches doesn't show how many are from those who approve and how many from those who disapprove.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Carrying oil - the wise and foolish maidens

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten maidens who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
Then all the maidens woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
‘No,’ they replied, ‘If we do that there won’t be enough for both us and you. You’d better go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The maidens who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
Therefore be vigilant, because you do not know the day or the hour.
(Matthew 25:1-13.   adapted from NIV)

There’s a delightful series of cartoons in The Stage called Hamlet, usually featuring two actors talking at a bar.
“So, you’re performing at an outdoor New Age festival?”
“Aye. What’s more I’ll be staying on site. But I don’t know whether to bring my own tent or borrow one of theirs…. Tepee or not Tepee, that is the question”

My friend Denis Noble, one of the fathers of systems biology, wrote a wonderful little book called The Music of Life explaining that we should not think of DNA as some kind of computer program, but rather that we should think about biology as more like wonderful music played on an organ, in which the many stops, pipes and notes combine to create dynamic music in a way that cannot be reduced to any single part.

In many ways the Bible is like music. One part resonates with another. Jesus and Paul only need to quote one phrase from a passage and many of their hearers will recall the whole passage: it’s a bit like someone saying “to be or not to be.”  So when Jesus talks in the previous chapter about the coming of the Son of Man he quotes Daniel “The son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven”. (Daniel 7.13). Daniel was a very live and topical book for Second Temple Jews. Here is the context from Daniel 7:
“After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast … it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left … it had ten horns… [one] horn had eyes like the eyes of a human being and a mouth that spoke boastfully….
As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat…. Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire….
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
Pretty much everybody in 2nd Temple Judaism thought that Daniel was a prophecy of the fall of the Roman Empire. The emperor who is said to be “son of God” (speaking boastfully indeed!) and his empire will be overthrown by God’s mighty acts through God’s Messiah in a great Day of the Lord. Israel will be restored to its rightful place as top nation, though the more thoughtful interpreters remembered that it was to be through Israel that “all the gentiles” will be blessed.

It’s a little bit like the attitude of the British at the beginning of the First World War. The right side will achieve victory and it will all be over by Christmas. Well it was, but Christmas 1918 not 1914. And there was terrible death and suffering before eventually the 100 Days Offensive achieved the decisive victory.

Expectations in Israel were high. But Amos makes it clear that this is not so simple.
Woe to you who long
    for the day of the LORD!
Why do you long for the day of the LORD?
    That day will be darkness, not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion
    only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
    and rested his hand on the wall
    only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light—
    pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
So what is it to be? A day of light or darkness? A day rejoicing, or weeping and gnashing of teeth?

And there is something else: a part of God’s plan which no-one had anticipated. The final victory of God would be a day of God’s time and not ours.  Obvious when you think about it, perhaps. But certainly not obvious at the time. We now believe that the Universe is about 14 billion years old. So if the universe were a 70 year old man, a universe-year (if you like) would be 200M years, a universe-day would be about 540,000 years, an hour would be about 23,000 years, a minute about 380 years and a second about 6 years. From this perspective we’re about 5 universe-minutes after the resurrection. God’s perspective is not, of course, governed by arithmetic. But it’s notoriously difficult to see the true shape of anything when you are in it. I can’t resist quoting a Chinese Poem carved on the wall of a temple in a mountain range:
From front a range, from side peak
Views relate in ways oblique
Can’t know the mount’s real true face
While I’m centred in this place.
Su Shi, “Written on the Wall of West Forest Temple” (11th Century) translated NB

This all seems very confusing. Is Jesus talking about the end of time, about the end of the age, about his vindication, his second coming, the fall of Jerusalem or indeed how people should prepare for their own deaths?  And the answer is: all of these. Jesus’s words resonate through time and eternity.

We lose sight in English translations of the extent to which Jesus uses poetic language to convey deep and resonant truths. For example in Matthew 24 Jesus says in the days before the flood they were “eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage.”

That sounds prosaic if slightly odd. But in Greek that’s
trwgontges kai pinontes, gamountes kai gamizontes. 
Catchy, poetic, memorable.

So what is happening here?  The bridegroom is coming to the wedding feast – the messianic banquet – and it is the duty of these maidens to welcome him in carrying their lamps to light the way. But some are prepared and others are not. They “slumber and sleep.”*

Then in the middle of the night there is a cry, behold the bridegroom!  This reminds us of Isaiah 40 “Behold your God! Behold the LORD.”

The maidens all rise up – the word is the same as used for resurrection – but those who are unprepared cannot perform their duties. (we shouldn’t infer that Jesus is condoning selfishness here or worry about the likelihood of oil stores being open in the middle of the night – that’s beside the point).  They go away to try to get themselves prepared, but by the time they return it’s too late. The door is shut. They have never known the Lord – the Lord has never known them.

So the arrival of the bridegroom – the day of the Lord – is good news for those who will make themselves ready to receive him, but bad news for those who will not.  This is also the message of Amos – the Day of the Lord will be darkness for Israel because they are not obeying the spirit of God’s law.

Is Jesus talking about the destruction of Jerusalem? About the moment of our death, where we will fall asleep and then the next thing we know (probably) will be to rise up to meet his judgement? Or is he talking about the end of time?  Well I think the answer is – all of the above. Tom Wright is convinced that this is primarily about the destruction of Jerusalem which, as Tom points out, is one element of the demonstration by God that Jesus is indeed a true prophet.  But rather as in music one theme can have many resonances signify many different things, and as in biology one gene or set of genes can be involved in many different processes, so Jesus words can have meaning at many different stages of our lives and in many situations.

So what can this mean for us, today, on this remembrance Sunday? May I offer three thoughts:
  1. We never know when God will call us to do something important and special in His service.  We are called to be lights of the world. God will equip us with the strength we need, but we must be open to his call. And prepared, watchful, vigilant.
  2. Nor do we know when we will meet our deaths. We will slumber and sleep, and then rise up to meet our Lord. There is a paradox here which we cannot hope to resolve and we just have to remember. God in Christ has won the victory over sin and death, and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.  We do not and can not earn our place at the wedding banquet – these maidens were appointed to welcome the bridegroom and didn’t earn their place. And yet, as Jesus makes clear, we cannot just blithely assume that we have to do nothing.
  3. Our lamps have to be filled with oil. And what is this oil? Well of course it’s not petroleum, but olive oil. The same oil that is used for anointing, and Christ means “the anointed one.”  So I think one of the things this passage is saying to us is that we must be filled with the oil which is the spirit of Christ.  Only he can equip us for the work he wants us to do – and only he can equip us for our deaths to become the prelude to a glorious resurrection.
Let us pray
Lord Jesus. Thank you for your word, your way, your truth and your life.
Thank you that you laid down your life so that we might live.
Thank you for all those who gave their lives fighting for freedom and against tyranny.
We pray that you will fill us afresh with your Holy Spirit.
And we claim your promise that you are with us always, now and until the end of time.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Poppies and a Normandy Veteran

Remembrance Sunday approaching and things have been very busy so no time to blog properly.
However I did get to see the poppies at the Tower and they are remarkable. My colleague and I walked from a business meeting thus avoiding the big crowds on the station. The crowds looking add a huge dimension to the spectacle and the poignancy.

The first photo also has what I would like to think is a dove flying over (though it may well have been a seagull) and if you look closely at the second you will see a solitary raven from the Tower walking solemnly along the grass avenue.

Yesterday I attended a dinner which reflected on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI. We had two guests of honour, Philip Hammond and the Governor of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. General Sir Redmond Watt.

Philip spoke not as Foreign Secretary but as a former Defence Secretary and was very moving about the awesome responsibility of sending troops to battle. He said that of the over 14,000 parishes that sent troops to WWI there were only about 50 "grateful parishes" where all returned safely. Nowadays he and all his predecessors write personally to the families of any British serviceman killed in battle which really brings things home. And he paid tribute to the 200,000 Irish soldiers who volunteered to fight for the UK during WWI (there was no conscription in Ireland).

I was very privileged to be sitting next to a veteran of the Normandy Landings who served in the Royal Horse Artillery, landed in a Liberty Boat had was wounded in Operation Epsom. For a long time he had problems with his arm but eventually he joined Customs and Excise. He is now a Chelsea pensioner. I told him of my late friend Alan Haynes who had his birthday on D-Day landing people in an LCT.

In his view Saving Private Ryan was a great exaggeration He says A Walk in the Sun was the most realistic WW2 movie he had seen.

Opposite me there was a lady of 104 - looking amazingly well. I shook her by the hand but she was only able to converse with her close friends.

A remarkable evening.