Monday, October 11, 2010

At a family gathering last week I agreed to go and help my Grandma clear out my late grandpa's study. My grandpa died when I was 14, but he left behind a bewildering quantity of books and papers that no-one has had the time to investigate since then. I think a family friend went through the accounts after the funeral to find all the important financial information my Grandma needed, but the rest has largely been left to gather dust. My grandma now wants to make use of this room, however, so the current contents need to go.

The main task I was given was to sort and catalogue the many shelves of books with the eventual aim of finding someone willing to take them away. The books in my grandpa's study fall into  two categories: they're either engineering books (related to his long career as an engineer-turned-technology journalist) or they're theology books (related to his work as a Methodist lay preacher). He took both of these interests very seriously, it would seem, and collected a quite substantial library over the years.

Within a few minutes of looking around, however, I realized that this wasn't going to be as big a job as it first appeared. My grandfather's collection of engineering and technology books is, for the most part, completely obsolete. It's a shame to have to throw them away, but no-one is going to be interested in these texts. Authoritative though it might have been, a guide to computer aided manufacturing techniques written when a top-of-the-line computer had about 64k of memory isn't going to be any use today. They might perhaps be a interesting curiosity to someone working in that field, but they're ultimately useless as reference works.

Bearing that in mind, I decided to focus on the collection of theology texts. Religious scholarship, I figured, doesn't date in the same way as technology journalism, and so would probably still be of interest to someone.

Although I still think they're timeless enough to be of interest to someone, it was very interesting to discover—as I worked my way through the titles—that there are changing fashions and trends in theological scholarship. It seems that there was, for example, a strong interest in the historicity of the gospels in the late 1950s—grandpa had many books from this period that discuss the gnostic gospels, the archaeology of the holy land, and the early history of the Church. I suppose this period of introspection must have been initiated by the discovery of the dead sea scrolls, which was probably the first many Christians had heard of the many dissenting early branches of Christian and Jewish thought.

Simiarly, in the late 1960s and 1970s there was a wave of socially progressive texts, examples of the faith adapting and changing with new social structures and norms. (I expect there was also a wave of books denouncing these new social norms, but my grandpa wasn't that sort of guy).

The most interesting ones I found, however, were the texts that date from during or shortly after the second world war. These books were written by a generation of minsters and preachers who had witnessed two devastating world wars in their lifetimes. The one that particularly caught my attention was a book written in 1943 called In Quest of a Kingdom: An Examination of Jesus' Teaching on the Kingdom of God with Special Relation to the Projected New World After the War by Leslie Weatherhead. To give you idea of what this book is about, have a read of this, the introductory paragraph, with its wonderful preacherly prose.

In this poor, broken world, the teaching of Jesus is the only known philosophy of life which has never been seriously tried. Some have called it impracticable. But two thousand years of trying 'practicable' methods of living together have brought us to hell. Some have called it irrelevant. But the spirit of Man is too sublime to accept as truth that the only 'relevant' methods of getting on with one another demand that every twenty-five years we should sacrifice the youth of the nations and ask from our men of science that they bend all their energies to find new ways of killing others. Politicians labour to produce policies, economists labour to produce theories, psychologists labour to cure our neuroses, and social welfare workers labour at reforms. At the time I write, a hundred groups are studying and planning to make a better and happier world, and yet, while I wish them well, I cannot share their optimism. Incredible as our stupidity may seem in another thousand years, man is still blind to the fact that the cause of all his troubles is within himself.

I asked my Grandmother about the book and she explained that Leslie Weatherhead is very much out of fashion these days. Indeed, a quick google search shows that the last time he was mentioned by a religious leader (insofar as he can be called that) was when Ian Paisley denounced Weatherhead as an apostate and averred that he was probably burning in hell (which increases my opinion of Weatherhead's ideas no end). As we're once again living in an age of war, death, and destruction (not that they're really been a period where we weren't) it annoys me that more religious and secular leaders aren't working on the fundamental problem that Weatherhead identifies in this book: things tend toward horror and death because, no matter how you squish them into pseudo-utopian schemes, most people are still greedy, self-centered, and violent.

While I've been working my way through the shelves, Kristen was rummaging around and sorting through the cupboards and drawers filled with stuff. A process that she has documented here.

While I was there I found an amazing book from the mid-1980s (all about the latest consumer gadgets) that I'm going to have to scan and put up parts of here. It's a masterpiece.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


I own two computers. One is a Samsung netbook (an NC10 with 2GB of memory), while the other is a strange old tower PC that I've had since 2004. Both are reasonable machines, but both are showing signs of wear and age. I want to get a new computer, but I can't decide which of these machines to replace.

The NC10 has a flickering screen problem (hardware related) and has recently developed an unpleasant habit of giving me electric shocks (not dangerous ones, but very painful—about the same strength as a cattle-fence). It's generally fine, but neither of those habits are particularly endearing. The warranty expired a while ago, so any repairs would probably cost more than a replacement.

The tower PC is a mess. Over the years it has had most of its components replaced or upgraded, often with bargain-basement or salvaged parts. It's on its second sound card, third graphics card, third power supply (it burns through them every few years), it's had its RAM upgraded many times, and has had more optical drives than I can remember (there are two in the case at the moment, and I'm pretty sure that at least one of them doesn't work.) It has only two working USB ports, no working wireless card, and has been running Ubuntu since I finally got fed up with the five minutes XP was taking to boot up. On top of all that, every now and then it refuses to boot up at all (definitely a hardware issue, as it continued after I completely wiped the hard drive). When it does this I have to unplug it, pull out all its memory, and then shove it back in for it to start working again.

Here are the possibilities:
1. Get a new desktop.
This would be the cheapest option, and it would allow me to keep using Ubuntu (which I've grown rather fond of over the years). On the other hand, it would tie me to the desk in the attic and I do have some concerns about how well certain things would run on a faster ubuntu machine. If I can repair the NC10 cheaply then this is the obvious choice.

2. Get a new Laptop.
This is a more expensive option than the desktop. I think if I get a new laptop it will be a small, lightweight one. I've gotten too attached to being able to sling my netbook around and using it while lounging on the sofa to get a cumbersome one with a short battery life. It would force me to use windows 7 though, and restricts me to a fairly limited range of options.

3. Replace both machines
I could either go crazy and spend a shedload of cash, or I could get two relatively low powered and cheap machines (a netbook of roughly equal spec to the one I have and a dual-core nettop) for only a little more than the price of the current frontrunners in the laptop- and desktop-only options.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Victory Mosque

Things about this that are teh stupid.

1. The pictures.
Flames and death, swarthy moors and their African soldiers trampling the innocent citizens of Jerusalem? They must have gone back to at least the 19th century to find such fine Orientalist balls. They're all wearing Ottoman-style turbans ferchrissakes! One of them even appears to be wearing a leopardskin tunic, Tazan style.

2. The Dome of the Rock.
Ok. This one is going to take a while. Firstly. the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat as-Sakrah) was built in 691, more than 50 years after the conquest of the Holy Land. Second, the site it was built on is probably the single most contested place in the world. It's best known as the holiest site in Judaism, the location of the Temple of Solomon. However, the last Jewish Temple on the site was demolished by the Romans in AD 70. The city changed hands numerous times between then and the time of the Arab conquest (typically in the bloodiest way possible. Massacres have always been in fashion in Jerusalem) and when the Arabs arrived the Temple Mount was occupied by a small Byzantine Christian Church. A Church that was built, incidentally, after the Byzantines recaptured the city from the Persian Sassanids and banished all the Jews. Thirdly, the Arabs did not trample and stab their way into Jerusalem, as implied in the advert. There was a short siege that ended when the Christian leaders of the city surrendered without a fight. The Arabs did something extremely innovative here, and didn't massacre everyone in the town—they went a step further, in fact, and didn't banish them either. They even, and this is the real shocker, allowed the Jews to return to the city and gave them freedom to practice their religion there for the first time in centuries.

3. Córdoba.
The great mosque of Córdoba was gradually adapted from a Christian Church starting in 784, more than 70 years after the conquest of Spain. It was a Christian Church before, admittedly, but not one of any huge significance. More importantly, the Muslims didn't destroy the old church in a murderous rage. They bought it from the Christian community. Over the next few hundred years they built a beautiful mosque on the site, all the while maintaining pretty good relations with the local Jewish and Christian communities (Jewish historians refer to this period as a Golden Age)*.

One more thing. You know what the Great Mosque of Cordoba is called these days? The Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (The Cathedral of our lady of the Ascension). After the Reconquista the Jews and the Muslims in the city were driven into exile. The Christians then built a Church in the Mosque's courtyard that sits there to this day, like a medieval-gothic spaceship that has just come down for an awkward crash landing in the middle of the city.

4. The Hagia Sophia
Unlike the rest of them, this one was made into a mosque almost immediately after the conquest. And yes, that conquest was pretty brutal (for both sides, Constantinople's defenses were immense, and still are). Although the Cathedral suffered in the ensuing looting, it was nothing like as bad as the thorough trashing and pillaging it suffered in the wake of the oh-so-classy fourth crusade. Furthermore, while this church was made into a Mosque, most of the city's churches stayed as they were. Under the Ottomans the building was well maintained and cared for, they didn't do anything tacky like plonking a cathedral in the middle of it. Many of the mosaics and frescos were plastered over, rather than destroyed. When the building started showing signs of fatigue and structural weakness, they got one of the finest engineer/architects in history, Mimar Sinan, to do the repairs. (He also designed its four minarets). Since 1935, the building has been a museum, rather than a mosque. It is now a showcase for the brilliance of the original builders and artists who adorned it that anyone can go and see.

5. "The Muslims"? That's the real kicker. It suggests that all this was the work of some sort of homogenous group. Jerusalem was conquered by an Arab army. Córdoba by a North African Berber army (Berbers look like this, or this, or this). Constantinople by the Ottomans, who were a Turkic people (descended from the Mongols who came from, you guessed it, Mongolia). They were not part of some kind of unified movement, and don't really have anything in common other than their religion. It's like saying "The Christians" and holding up pictures of Richard the Lionheart, Peter the Great, and George W. Bush.

I'm no more of a fan of Islam than I am of any other religion, and you don't have to look that hard to find plenty of atrocities, but there's no pattern here. The idea of a victory Mosque seems to exist largely in their own heads. The closest equivalent I can think of to a victory mosque is something like the Süleymaniye Camii in Istanbul, which was built with the spoils of war in Eastern Europe.

*Admittedly, the standards for a golden age are pretty low in Jewish history—any period where the world at large wasn't actively trying to murder them all is generally seen as a great time.