Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Society: the causes of poverty

According to the Tories' Iain Duncan Smith (who seems to have found a happy, if unlikely, berth as a campaigner for social justice after his short tenure as Leader of the Opposition), here are the causes of poverty in the UK:
  • Family breakdown
  • Lack of educational achievement
  • Addiction
  • Dependency
  • Debt
The mis-match with government policies (of all stripes) is interesting. We have:
  • 'Education, education, education' as allegedly the first three priorities of government
  • Family breakdown completely ignored
  • Drug addiction declared war upon
  • Alcohol addiction essentially ignored
  • Dependency (in the sense of the poverty trap) attempted to be tackled by successive budgets and
  • Debt essentially ignored.
Here is where the gospel is so enormously better than the best the government can do. In our little (low-cost, voluntary, local) C of E church we have members who have successfully been weaned off each of these killer afflictions. I can even think of one or two or who joined us with zero education, no family we knew of, alcohol problems, and mental illness, who are now standing on their own two feet, cherished members of the congregation, whose lives have blossomed before our eyes.

Atmospheric methane: The danger of boring blogs

OK, I look again and realize that the last entry, about atmospheric methane, could be construed as boring. But, hey, it was one of those news stories that gets completely buried because it is the complete opposite of the received wisdom.

And anyway, you didn't have to read it.

And actually, it's quite interesting.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Sustainability: good news about methane

An unexpected piece of good news seems to have been little covered: the fact that the quantity of methane in the atmosphere has stopped rising, as the BBC reported the other day.

It sounds arcane but methane, which apparently arises from sources as rich and varied as
  • melting Siberian permafrost
  • gas production and
  • both ends of the humble cow
is a potent greenhouse gas. Anyone who reads about sustainability will have come across stories about (for example) giant methane burps from the deep ocean ending life as we know it. Here's one. Methane is, we are told 21 times worse than an equivalent amount of CO2 and is responsible for 20% of all global warming, if you can rely on the climate models, which you can't.

Anyhow the good news is that, after rising to 150% of its pre-industrial levels, the global atmostpheric methane level hasn't budged for the past seven years, and may even start falling. This may even be a result of various conservation attempts over the years, including farmers bottling the stuff as it comes out of cows (let's not picture this in our minds) and then selling it or using to power their milking parlours.

Not, in other words, like this cartoon:

cartoon from

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Society: HMP Grendon

Just come back from an open day at HMP Grendon, a unique prison in the system that is set up as a 'therapeutic community'. You have to be in prison for quite serious offences, and you have to ask to be referred to this prison. Each morning, the inmates in each wing meet for an hour and a half of group (I guess cognitive) therapy.

In this way they unbottle, for perhaps the first time, their story and their feelings, and face up to their crimes.

At this Open Day, perhaps a dozen inmates spoke to an audience of psychologists, lawyers, prison visitors, other prison officers, students, random other visitors, and me, telling how they had been changed through HMP Grendon. They were all sex offenders, rapists, murderers and people who had committed violent burglaries. Some themes that came up over and over again:

  • Sexual abuse in childhood, usually from family members
  • No love expressed in the family home -- quite moving to see these big, ugly, tattooed men describing how their mothers didn't want to help them or the fathers brutalized them; how they never knew a hug.
  • Very low self-esteem, hidden for decades under bravado and machismo
  • Drug taking and violence to ease the pain
  • Having been desensitised to violence -- being violent to express their anger, but not being aware of the hurt they were causing others.
Other prisons versus HMP Grendon
Some interesting comments regarding other prisons rather than this one:
  • Free availability of drugs. One inmate described how he smoked 'the weed' and thus dozed through his first long sentence in the Young Offenders Institute. Another said told how he felt at home in one London prison, since there were both drugs and fights a-plenty,
  • Other prisons teach you not to trust. Instead you learn to lie to probation, go on courses so as to get parole, watch your back. At Grendon they seemed to go for (and often found) honesty and group accountability.
  • Remorse that you were caught, not that you did what you did.
Reality check
Prisoners' views on different prison regimes were also interesting:
  • You can even blag your way through HMP Grendon -- though many don't. Many do indeed face the painful process of self-disclosure.
  • Liberal regimes only increase prisoners' exploitation of them. You need both justice applied firmly and opportunity to change.
  • You can't excuse adult crimes because of childhood abuse -- there are 'innocent children', but not 'innocent adults'. You have to face up to both -- the terrible things done to you or that happened to you; the terrible things you yourself did.
  • Many guys had had many opportunities to change presented to them, before they decided to take one of them up.
The overall impression, though, was of a bunch of guys (at least, the guys on show) who were facing up to their crimes, their pasts, their present situation, and taking responsibility. Spending time with one or two of the prisoners, I saw something I'd never seen in a jail before -- peace and even joy.

A challenge to me also before the day was finished: on the way out, do I shake hands with a man who admitted on stage to grooming and controlling children, planning and then carrying out violent sexual attacks on them? Do I wish him God's blessing?

Here's a view from the inside on the prison

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Society: 'Stuart, a life backwards'

Alexander Master's unforgettable book (Harper 2006) about a man who spent half his short life in prison and much else of it homeless is given extra fascination because it's a Cambridge story, involving situations and ministries I know quite well. Stuart Shorter apparently is one of the 'chaotic homeless'. Among the few staples in his life are drugs and alcohol.

Healing didn't reach him
Stuart does come across people or environments that were genuinely caring and healing -- this in the midst of much of the inadequate un-joined-up work that is called 'care' in our society.

  • HMP Grendon, a prison for the mentally ill that is uniquely therapeutic: he manages to get himself sent there (there's a waiting list), but then ships out, unable to face or bear the regime, even though they seemed perhaps to be getting to the roots of his chaotic behaviour
  • A girlfriend, who seemed to offer genuine love: his response simply was to take everything she offered, then disappear and get high on drink or drugs for a few weeks
  • The Emmaus community outside Cambridge, which offers a simple, working community, which he turns his back on.
The joy of solvents
The book describes the joy of solvents: amazing hallucinations from almost anything containing solvents: glue, Tipp-Ex, nail varnish, car paint and on and on. The typical gluehead is an adolescent,lower-class male with low interest and motivation, whose father left or died when the child was young, who is excluded or rejected by his peers, and short of stature' (p172) -- all of which is true of Stuart.

How it happened
The book seems to blame two things for Stuart's destruction:
  • Child abuse at the hands of his brother and his babysitter; then by some of those in the care system, including some of the most popular and respected social workers
  • Choosing violence and madness as a way to get respect when he was bullied and mocked for his physical handicaps as a small boy.
Neither Stuart nor Alexander Masters has much time for God. Stuart, at least, however, has no problem believing in the Devil. Near the end of the book, Stuart says this:

"You know, Alexander, I don't know meself how I got to be like this ... sometimes I think I'm the child of the Devil. Honestly, I do believe that. I've invited the Devil in, and now I can't get him out. I've tried burning him out and cutting him out and he don't take no notice. Why should he? He doesn't want to be homeless. He's got me. Little, skinny, violent me." (p 284).

Monday, October 23, 2006

History: John Milton

Rediscovering John Milton is a bit like stumbling over some ruined palace in an overgrown jungle: you have to hack through lots of classical allusions and conventions, but it's scarcely believable what you uncover.

Milton (1608-1674) was a polemicist for the Puritan government after the Civil War -- a job which cost him his sight. He achieved his life-calling, to write epic poems in English, in later life.

He fell somewhat out of favour with orthodox Christians after his death because of his apparently heterodox views on the Trinity.

Here's a couple of quotes from his earlier poems:

From On Time:
Then long eternity shall greet our bliss 

With an individual kiss,

From Lycidas (a lament to his friend Edward King, drowned in a passage from Chester to the Irish Sea, 1637; the ‘most perfect long short poem in the English language’)

So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,
Through the dear might of him that walk'd the waves

The 'dear might of him that walk'd the waves' is such a beautiful phrase, a bit of a class apart from your standard hymnody.

Now I'm tackling Paradise Lost itself, with two helps at my side:
  • Margery Hope Nicholson's book A Reader's Guide to John Milton (Thames and Hudson). I picked this up in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge; I expect such bookshops are full of them because it's probably a set text.
  • Then I'm using this annotated internet version of the great poem.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Internet: 'The Long Tail'

This insightful book, by the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, describes three trends that are changing the way we produce things and shop for them:
  1. It's easier to produce stuff (think of how much easier it now is to publish music, books, films, facts, opinions than it was in the days when traditional media ruled)
  2. It's easier to store this material (for example, Amazon can 'store' over approaching four million books, four hundred times better than the biggest Borders store.)
  3. It's easier for customers to find this material (through search technologies and recommendations, for example).
The result is the Long Tail, the idea that via the Internet we can all access an almost infinite inventory of products and ideas. It turns out that, when we are given this choice, we use it. This in turn means:
  • Bestsellers are less important, as are all the power-structures devoted to the care and feeding of bestsellers -- editors, agents, publishers, stock-buyers, advertisers
  • There's money in that there Tail. For example, Chris Anderson quotes the figure than around 750,000 Americans rely on Ebay as their primary or secondary source of income. All these people are supplying specialist goods and services that would be hard to find in the high street. He gives examples of self-published books that are selling between 5,000 and 50,000 copies without bothering agents or mainstream publishers or high street bookstores at all. This is fascinating because of 1.2 million books being sold in 2004, fewer than 25,000 titles sold more than 5,000 copies in that year.

His final chapter suggests some ways to succeed in the Long Tail world. Briefly:
  1. Make everything available
  2. Help me find
Or slightly less briefly:
1. Stock everything
2. Get your customers to help -- for example by holding stock themselves (like Amazon's marketplace) or by their input and criticism that helps people find their way around your site.
3. One product, price, and location doesn't fit all. Try to offer as many different flavours of everything that you can.
4. Stock everything, and track sales, rather than trying to guess what to stock
5. Don't underestimate the power of free. You can build a business that involves 90% of your customers not paying anything (like Yahoo or Skype).

Some random ways in which the Long Tail affects my little world:

Some book agents are going to get the idea soon that the best way to find a possible best seller is simply to look at the self-published books that are selling well on Amazon, and then offer the author a contract, rather than trying to figure out what we sell well (and usually getting it wrong).

We should adopt Long Tail thinking when we come to marketing ourselves and our books in the mission agency I work for. For example, we can target Google ads at people we want to recruit. Our website will be enhanced by free stuff and by areas where users can put in their own material, for example missions mobilization ideas.

I've worked in the past in writing and compiling information about the Church worldwide, putting the material into a series of books called Briefings. These were great fun to do and have sold many tens of thousands of copies. See, conveniently, my website. But they have many limitations. It would be much more authentic and quite a lot of fun to set up a Wiki system where people around the world could write about their own cities and countries, passing on information, asking for prayer, and supplying links to videos and so on.