Tonight’s the return of Children In Need, but it’s a tough ask this year. Everywhere you look, funding for charities is being cut; and with the cost of living increasing, fewer people can afford donations to make up the shortfall. But we all know that child poverty in Britain is a scandal, so the Children in Need campaign this year feels more important than ever. Read More
The UK’s religions are bracing themselves for the forthcoming Census announcements, which in the Autumn are likely to show further decline in religious affiliation in England and Wales. It’s already declined in the Northern Ireland census; and it’s likely to do so here too, when Scotland reports next year. After years of America bucking the global trend, which shows that religious belief generally declines as countries become more affluent, data from the US now looks similarly gloomy. Read More
Surfing the crimson wave? A visit from Aunt Flo? Got the painters in? This week Scotland led the world in tackling period poverty with the coming into force of the Scottish Government’s Period Products Act. This requires councils and places of education to offer sanitary products free to those who need them. Read More
Last week, an IT engineer was put on leave, after claiming that a chatbot he’d been working on had become sentient. Global commentators rushed to their keyboards, to argue about robots and consciousness, and to ask if this program had finally aced the Turing Test. Read More
March 13th, 1996: the day Dunblane became synonymous with a school massacre: sixteen pupils and one teacher were shot dead that day. May 24th, 2022 the town of Uvalde in Texas becomes synonymous with a school massacre too: nineteen children and two teachers gunned down in cold blood. Read More
Her Majesty the Queen is 96 today. She’s been Queen for 70 years, and by the time of her Platinum Jubilee in June, she’ll be the world’s third longest-serving monarch. By Christmas she’ll be second only to the Sun King, Louis Quatorze of France, who tops the league tables with a reign of 72 years and 110 days. Read More
I must confess that I’m a total killjoy about April Fool’s day. I’m haunted by the memory of one of my primary teachers sending a hapless boy down the corridor to ask another teacher for a ‘long stand’; and I still go red remembering being jeered at in the playground for falling for something foolish. But of course I see the point of it all. It’s one of the few non-religious festivals that seems to crop up all over Europe and beyond, so today we join many other countries around the world in pranking our friends and neighbours. Dennis the Menace is Scotland’s Patron Saint of pranking, and he’d be in his element today. Read More
I once managed to inveigle my way into a job interview at Deloitte. The two Partners were clearly rather underwhelmed by my CV. At that stage I had 4 (junior) years at the Church Commissioners under my belt, and an MBA from a school that was Not On Their List. Finally they reached the end of the interview. Obviously relieved, as they gathered up their papers, they asked rather diffidently, do you have any questions for us? Yes! I said eagerly, Do you have any reservations about my candidacy? They scowled. Why on earth would we want to risk putting someone with a Theology degree in front of our clients? Well, you’ll be delighted to know that I sat them right back down and gave them the full story on why a theology degree is the ONLY degree a girl will ever need.
So I thought I might give you that story today, by way of saluting your academic achievements here at Sarum. But first I need to tell you something rather alarming. Read More
While the dark shadows of war gather over Ukraine, scientists in a lab in Oxfordshire have built a star, managing to generate energy from fusing hydrogen atoms for a full 5 seconds. It’s a major milestone in the development of a new clean energy source. What these two situations have in common, is that they show the best and worst-case scenarios for our use of Artificial Intelligence. AI is accelerating scientific and medical discovery; but at the same time, the use of drones threatens to transform warfare, raising deep ethical questions about decision-making and control over life and death. Read More
Black Friday seems to have started early this year. Technically it’s this Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, but my inbox seems to have been full of deals all month. But do you know why we shop? The sociologists think it’s because we fear death. Shopping keeps this fear at bay, because it’s distracting. Buying stuff makes our reality feel more substantial, and buying cool stuff wins us approval from our peers, which makes us feel really alive. Read More
Scotland is Top of the European league! Unfortunately it’s for drug deaths. And this week, we’re back at the top of the UK charts for alcohol-related deaths too. There are lots of people injecting drugs all the time, for diabetes, or fertility treatment, but we direct our disapproval at those who break the law, regardless of the tragic stories behind the statistics. And in some ways that’s right: if we didn’t disapprove of law-breaking, it would become normal, and the law would cease to work. Read More
I took my kids to see the Galloway Hoard at the weekend. Of course once they’d seen the gold jewellery they were totally bored: but I was transfixed. Given that the pinnacle of my detectoring was the discovery of 3 rusty nails, a bottle cap and a corroded 2p, I find it amazing that the detectorist in this case found a 1000 year old hoard worth 2 million pounds, and worth immeasurably more to our understanding of Scottish history. Read More
It’s St George’s Day today. I’ve often wondered what the patron saints do for each other’s birthdays. Does David take George some daffs, while Patrick plays the harp, and Andrew pours him a whisky? As a Scot born here but from English stock, and having lived both sides of the border, I’ve always felt a bit weird about St George, and a bit alarmed at all that flag-waving. St George seems to have been a Roman soldier, but it’s not very clear why he’s a saint, or why he’s England’s patron saint. Most of us probably know him best for his dragon-slaying. Read More
Someone witty has spotted the similarity between online meetings, and attending a séance: Elizabeth, are you there? We can see you, but we can’t hear you. Can you hear us? Funnily enough, last time there was a boom in seances was almost exactly a hundred years ago, after the 1918 flu pandemic. It seems that a national brush with mortality makes the veil between life and death feel so thin that people want to try to contact those they’ve lost. Read More
Judging from all the carefully cocooned Christmas trees walking past my window trailing gleeful children, I’d say a lot of people are getting their trees early this year. Any why not? In such a bleak year, when we’ve been confined in large part indoors, it feels appropriate to dress the house and to celebrate the start of the end of this dreadful saga.
It’s the 40th anniversary of the creation of the West Highland Way, the first trail of its kind in Scotland. It starts in Milngavie and heads north for 96 miles, following old cattle drover routes and military roads. It winds past Loch Lomond; through Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe; before skirting Ben Nevis to finish by the Sore Feet statue in Fort William.
In a normal year, more than 100,000 people walk part of the trail, staying overnight in the villages en route. When I walked it, we survived an all-day deluge on Rannoch Moor, and had to wear midgie hats to make it safely into Kingshouse. To pass the time, my sister taught me to Address the Haggis, while I taught her tramping songs. Read More
In the movie Arrival a linguist learning an alien language gains access to a consciousness that knows the future. Unlike our consciousness, which runs from cause to effect and is sequential, theirs can see the whole arc of time simultaneously.Their life is about discerning purpose and enacting events, while ours is about discerning good outcomes and deploying our free will and volition to those ends.
In Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, on which the screenplay is based, this is explained theoretically with reference to Fermat’s principle of least time. This states that the path taken by a ray between two given points is the path that can be traversed in the least time. Lurking behind this idea is the realisation that nature has an ability to test alternative paths: a ray of sunlight must know its destination in order to choose the optimal route. Chiang has his protagonist muse about the nature of free will in such a scheme: the virtue would not be in selecting the right actions, but in duly performing already known actions, in order that the future occurs as it should. It’s a bit like an actor respecting Shakespeare enough not to improvise one of his soliloquies. Read More
I sense a morbid fear behind our catastrophizing about androids, which I reckon is to do with a loss of autonomy. It’s true that for periods in history tribes and people have assumed they have no autonomy, life being driven by the fates or by a predetermined design or creator, so this could be a particularly modern malady in an era that luxuriates in free will. But concern about the creep of cyborgism through the increasing use of technology in and around our bodies seems to produce a frisson of existential dread that I have been struggling to diagnose. Technology has always attracted its naysayers, from the early saboteurs to the Luddites and the Swing Rioters, and all the movements that opposed the Industrial Revolution, but this feels less about livelihoods and more about personhood. Read More
Schools are all over the news just now, not just about mask-wearing, and how to be fair to students after this year’s disruption; but arguments over the recent exam results have got more of us thinking about the algorithms that influence our lives.
For some people, algorithms are by definition unfair, because they’re sets of rules which computers have to follow to the letter. Of course many religions and philosophies use rules-logic, like Thou Shalt Not Kill, or The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number. But rules-based morality begs big questions about the biases of those writing the rules, and aren’t flexible enough to deal with exceptions, as we saw with the anomalies produced in exam grading. Read More
I’m sitting on the beach at North Berwick, with clear views out to the Bass Rock and May Isle, watching the children play. My daughter digs a deep hole, then runs off to find hermit crabs in the rock pools. Nearby, a young boy is buried up to the neck while his sister decorates his sarcophagus with shells. On the shore, a toddler stands transfixed by a washed-up jellyfish, while two older girls struggle to manipulate a boat in the shallows, trying to avoid the splashing boys playing swim-tig.
We’re under the benign shadow of the North Berwick Law, where there’s a bronze-age hill fort, so it’s likely this holiday postcard scene has not changed much since this part of Scotland was first settled, thousands of years ago, when those children dug holes, found crabs, and frolicked in the sea. I felt a wave of such sadness, thinking forward in time. Will this beach still play host to the children of the far distant future, or will we have designed out childhood by then? Robots don’t have childhoods because they don’t need them. Humans still do, but I wonder how much time you’ve spent trying to figure out why?