Friday, 20 June 2014

Why War?
We are heading toward the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, a particular lowlight in a century marked by war and massacre.

Looking back at the violence of the 20th century, it strikes me how much of it was characterised by a toxic mix of nationalism and ideology, and how little it had to do with religion.

The First World War was fairly unambiguously nationalist and imperialist in origin, whilst the second seems to have been triggered by a more complex brew. On the one hand there was German national feeling, battered after WW1 and bearing grudges over the post-war loss of Germanic territories; on the other there was fear of communism, fear and hatred for 'the other' - particularly, but not exclusively, 'The Jew' - then there was a striving for discipline and order, represented by a powerful fascist ideology, and a bizarre mix of Aryan and Wagnerian mythologies.

Meanwhile, in the Far East, causes seem to have been more simply about nationalism and access to resources (traditionally the other main driver of imperialism).

In between these 'world wars' you had the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, with its ideological civil war followed by mass famine as their policy of Prodrazvyorstka destroyed the battered agricultural system; then under Stalin the famines and purges continued as ideology and tyranny ran their course.

After the Second World War, the Cold War marked the continuation of ideological and imperial conflict, much of it through proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam. Meanwhile the Maoist revolution in China followed the path of Russia's revolution through civil war, mass famine and extensive purges.

I am only aware of two major outbreaks of violence during the century where religion was one of the main causes, both in the late '40s: the Partition of India in 1947 and the founding of Israel in 1948. Both of these events had violent repercussions which continue to this day, and both had a strong religious element. Both also had a strong ethnic and nationalist element: religion and nationalism can be just as toxic a compound as ideology and nationalism, it seems.

There is a list of 20th-century battles on Wikipedia, which gives an idea of the continuous level of conflict during that troubled century.

Granted that my knowledge of 20th-century history is not exhaustive, I do still find it strange that the 'new atheists' - the likes of Richard Dawkins - continue to link war with religion. With a couple of exceptions, here was a whole century of essentially non-religious violence, much of it explicitly atheist.

Why war? Because people are prejudiced; often they are ignorant and demonise 'others'; they are all too ready to follow leaders who tell them they are right and others are wrong; and because, by and large, people prefer to function as part of a local ethnic/racial community, rather than as part of worldwide humanity.

Most religions attempt to work to a bigger picture, which could be immensely helpful in enabling people to live together in peace. Sadly, all religions are composed of fallible, flawed people, as are all ideological groupings. We could just wait for God to fix it, or we could try to work with God and spread peace and justice in our own small ways, wherever we are, and whoever we are with. It's our choice.

Postscript: There is an interesting post on a similar theme over on the BeThinking blog.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Time, Talents & Tenners
One of the perception issues that modern churches struggle with is the idea that they are always after your money: "Praise the Lord and pass the collection plate," as the saying goes. Conversely, another issue for many churches is lack of money, especially older churches with ludicrously expensive heritage buildings to maintain.

Many free churches, especially those on the religious right, hit the tithing button: telling members it is their religious duty to pay a tenth of their income to the church. This is usually presented as a Biblical demand, ignoring the fact that it is a part of the Jewish Law and that Christians are supposed to be free from the demands of that Law. Indeed, Jesus once said that God's children are exempt from paying such 'duties and taxes'.

Other churches have 'stewardship campaigns' - bundling the money issue in with other contributions people make to their church: 'time & talents'. This makes rather more sense, but if you look at the supporting literature and listen to the supporting talks then you can see where their heart really lies. Some churches focus on their ministries: the things they do for others and how people's contributions, of whatever form, build God's Kingdom. That suggests they are genuine. Others just focus on money, with any reference to time and talents as an inadequate fig-leaf, and service to others notable by its absence.

As something of a Bible geek, I do find it really aggravating when such churches abuse the Bible to get their demands across. I've already mentioned the tithing demand, but another aggravating claim is that giving to God and giving to church X are the same thing - they are not! Giving to God could be helping your elderly neighbour, with time, talents or even cash; giving to the church of which you are a part is more like giving to yourself.

Likewise the claim that such giving is all about generosity: if you are part of that church then that is really nothing more than "generosity begins at home". This often gets linked to a passage in Paul's second letter to Corinth, in which he talks about taking up a collection for famine relief. As soon as you think about that famine context it is clear that it has nothing to do with giving to your local church, but that doesn't stop preachers from abusing the passage to try to get people to give them more money.

It seems to me that Jesus' comment about children and taxes can be taken further. I don't charge my kids for staying here - what parent would - indeed they get cash from me in the form of pocket money or student grant/loan top-ups. But my son is currently job hunting. If he gets a job with a decent salary and remains living at home for a while, it would be entirely reasonable, I think, for him to pay a share of the household costs.

I am a part of a church which costs a fair amount per year to keep running, as well as additional costs for all the things we would like to do, together as a church and in our community. It doesn't just cost money, it also costs time and effort and skill and dedication. It seems entirely appropriate to me that those of us on a reasonable income who use and value the church should make our monetary contributions to the running costs, and those of us with reasonable health should contribute with time and effort, and so on.

A church is people, not a building or an organisation. Its running costs are our running costs, to be shared fairly between us, according to what we have to offer. An annual reminder that costs are increasing, preferably tied to a review of what has been achieved over the year, and what we are hoping to do over the following year, is a reasonable and sensible thing to do. Incessant nagging and arm-twisting is not, and misrepresentation of the Bible to bludgeon people into handing over their cash should be anathema.

There's God's work to do, a Kingdom to help build. As Jesus said, we should be focussing firstly on that Kingdom, and leaving the worrying and stress about resources to God.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Don't Panic But ...

They really are out to get you. Malware producers, that is ('malware' = viruses, trojans, rootkits, adware, spyware, junkware, spam-bots, etc, etc). And they're probably winning.

There was a time when the vast majority of infected PCs I saw had no antivirus and were used by teenagers who regularly downloaded 'free' pirated music. There was one parent who I was seeing about every six months until I pointed out how much cheaper it would be to use a legal paid-for service to download his son's music, rather than paying me to keep cleaning the PC up.

Nowadays most PCs have some sort of antivirus, and most people have at least some degree of wariness about the internet, yet the proportion of infected PCs continues to rise.

On Tuesday I came across my first infected broadband router. It had been reprogrammed so that all internet access using it went via a rogue website first. Fortunately it had been crudely done and the user was sensible enough to notice that something was wrong and call me in. Also fortunately she was still using Windows XP, which made it easier for me to see the fingerprint of the router infection; neither her Norton nor my anti-malware tools could see anything amiss.

If you are interested you can see a description of the way the router had been hijacked on Jakob Lell's blog (subtitled "Technology changes ... insecurity remains", which could be an alternative title for this post).

Most users just seem to accept that their PC does strange things that they don't understand, and that it runs frustratingly slowly. If they do notice the latter then they see an online ad saying something like "Speed up your PC" and casually download it, clogging their PC up with even more junkware (at best) and making it go even slower.

Governments don't help to clean things up, instead they just add to the mess. China has long been known to use malware to steal advanced technology, spreading viruses far and wide in the process. Israel and USA cooperate to create malware to attack Israel's neighbours, incidentally catching the rest of the world in the crossfire. Now we learn that the US's NSA and our very own GCHQ are busy creating ever more sophisticated malware in their quest to spy on all of the people all of the time.

It's like the wild west out there, but with the marshals leading the worst criminal gangs.

Is there anything you can do? Up to a point:-
  1. Make sure you have a decent antivirus running, and that it is this year's version. My list of 'decent' antiviruses includes Norton, Kaspersky, F-Secure and AVG. I do not consider McAfee or Microsoft Essentials to be effective. Most antivirus programs include a year number as part of their title; Norton doesn't but has a 'New Version Check' in its Support menu. Unless you really think the extras are useful, I would recommend sticking with the basic 'antivirus' versions of these products - they are a fair bit cheaper and do the important job.
  2. Apply Windows updates and Adobe updates religiously. Unless you are really sure that you need it, uninstall all versions of Java. When downloading Adobe updates make sure you untick their 'optional offer'.
  3. Run a 'full scan' with your antivirus at least monthly. If you can't remember when you last did a complete virus scan then do it now: don't read the rest of the points, just do 1) and 2) above then run that full scan. It will take a while, but there are millions of infected PCs out there whose users just don't know it: make sure yours isn't one of them.
  4. Don't install registry cleaners or other 'go faster' tools. If you have any already installed I would recommend removing them. CCleaner (free) is an exception: it is a decent disk cleanup tool but don't use its registry cleaner unless you are really, really sure you know what it is doing.
  5. Similarly don't install multiple toolbars. Google or Bing or the BT one can be useful, but not the gimmicky 'something for nothing' ones.
  6. Avoid free downloaders - they are hardly ever useful with modern broadband and several add extra nasties to the downloaded programs.
  7. If you are still using Windows XP, double check your Windows Updates are installed and download and use Firefox or Google Chrome for your internet - the XP version of Internet Explorer (the big blue 'e' symbol) is far too vulnerable. This also applies, with slightly less urgency, to those using Vista.
  8. Keep backups of anything important to you, especially digital photos. Not only do computer drives fail sometimes, but there are now viruses known as 'ransomware' which encrypt all of your files and charge you hundreds of pounds for the key to decrypt them again (which they may or may not then provide).
  9. If you have a management program for your broadband router then use it to change the access password (and don't save the password in your browser when it asks) and, if you can find the option, don't allow access to the router from the internet (or the WAN as the option may put it).
You probably don't want to go paying a tech support person for every little oddity or slowdown on your PC, but do ask around to find a reputable PC support person in your area so there is someone you can call out when needed (it's the same general theory as plumbers - you don't want to wait until there's an emergency before trying to find one you can trust). If your PC is more than a couple of years old, you might find it useful to have it serviced - even without malware in all its guises, Windows itself tends to accumulate crud and slow down over time.

I think that PCs are wonderful things, which can open an amazing window onto the world - especially for older or less mobile users. It is a crying shame when unnecessary problems and malicious garbage prevent people from enjoying the benefits.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Frustrated Ramblings
Irritated! I had a post about Jesus' ascension ready to go (last Thursday being Ascension Day). Then, when it came to actually typing it ... all gone. Mind a total blank. Especially annoying because it's now a fortnight since my last post, and I had been doing quite well at getting them done weekly. When it's a habit it's so much easier.

Time for a ramble then - bits and pieces without necessarily any overall shape and destination. I've always felt the best way to get to know a new place is to go out and get lost there for a while. It's a lot of walking the first few times, but you soon build up a mental map which helps in the future. Rambling: purposeless wandering ... with a purpose ;-)

A few follow-ups to earlier posts would do the trick, I reckon.

My last post I said I was expecting to take a hit from overdoing things ... I did. It was still worth it.

There was an interesting opinion piece on the BBC website today about disabilities and quality of life: in most cases it is no worse, sometimes it can even be better. A challenge can lead to a re-evaluation of what is really important, and a focus on that. One point the article makes is the importance of context, particularly in terms of social environment and relationships: simplistically, people matter more than circumstances. The article is well worth reading.

Before that I wrote about Kristin Cashore's young adult fantasy, Fire, which I found engrossing and moving. I am now about halfway through the next book in the series, Bitterblue, which is equally stunning. Themes include confusion and disorientation, so getting into the book at the beginning is not as easy as in the earlier books. The initial situation in which the heroine finds herself  is confusing and disorienting, deliberately leaving the reader without much clue as to what is going on. It's very well written.

Whilst I felt that Fire has a subtext of what it is like to be a young woman growing up; Bitterblue seems to allude to being a young abuse survivor growing up - hence the disorientation and the focus on the slippery nature of truth and lies. I'm only half way through, so I don't know if she can keep this quality of writing up all the way through, but so far it is an amazing book.

Actually, I am finding Bitterblue a touch more confusing than it really should be, as I am having trouble getting my head around the cast of characters. It adds an extra challenge to reading books when you can't remember half of what went on before.

Which was a part of the source for my Easter post, Alzheimer's At Easter. But the main trigger for that was the question of what it is which defines a person's identity. Is it their memories and their patterns of life? If so then I guess it is true that dementia in general, and Alzheimer's in particular, strips the person away to leave a shell behind. But if there is more to identity than the surface stuff, if a person's essence is deeper and subtler than just memories and habits, then the loved one remains and is to be respected as a fellow human being.

As the BBC opinion piece I mentioned earlier points out, assumptions about quality of life in difficult situations can be wrong. The evidence seems to be that having company, someone to talk to them and sing to or with them, can be really helpful for people with dementia.

As a final follow-up, looking back two years, I have been thinking about a post I wrote about my plans to lose weight. As ever, life got in the way of those plans. For most the past two years I have been half a stone down on my starting point (against a target of a stone). The past couple of months I have stabilised at three or four pounds higher than that, as CFS has clamped down.

What has struck me though is a possible answer to the age-old question of why it is that some of us could eat what we liked as teenagers and still remain thin, yet in middle age the pounds pile on. I suspect that I was probably putting on weight back then too, that probably hasn't changed. What has changed is how long I have been doing it for.

If I have been putting on roughly a pound a year throughout, then as a skinny teenager I was not going to notice any effect over three or four years. But over thirty or forty years is a very different matter: forty years at around a pound a year is near enough three stone - enough to take me well into 'overweight' territory.

To round off, I am now a big fan of West Berkshire Brewery. My daughter got me a mixed case of their beers for my birthday: absolutely delicious!