2 minutes with the Archbishop of Canterbury… and a helium balloon

“Archbishop of Canterbury is thoroughly nice bloke” – that’s the headline my husband suggested. But mine says what it is I want to tell you about…

Today was Back to Church Sunday.  Our church celebrated this not only by having Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, there for the services in both of the parish churches (a formal service and a more freewheeling one), but also by all having lunch together.
I had something specific I wanted to ask the Archbishop, which I’ll tell you about in a minute.

The Archbishop did both a talk with the children, and a sermon today. The children all had a sheep to hold, and the Archbishop explained that the staff he had with him was a real old Kentish shepherd’s crook.  Given what happened later, I think this made a bit of an impression on the kids.  He answered questions about going to church when he was young, and what life had been like growing up (tin baths in front of the fire, apparently).
The really nice bit was that, as the children had all gathered on a mat at the front, he went and sat on the floor with them.  I noticed that, similarly, when doing communion, he bent down to each child’s level to do their blessings.  It was a great reminder that being head of the Anglican church nevertheless puts you on a level equivalent to a child in the eyes of God.

The sermon we heard (and apparently there was a different one at each service) was on the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16, 19-31).  This is a great subject for any newcomers service (the other good one is Acts 8, Philip and the Ethiopian with it’s message “how can I know what its all about if no one explains it to me”?)  The story of the little girl who told her mum that the Optician of Wales had been to her school triggered a great sermon on helping people to see, to see time at church as honest time in which we confess our sins but also celebrate how God sees us, with unconditional love.

When the service ended, we all helped put up tables and move the chairs to make a dining hall.  A posse of helpers had baked potatoes, made bolognese, grated cheese and provided great vats of baked beans and coleslaw.  We had all also brought desserts to share.
The Archbishop did not spend his time just talking to our minister.  Instead, he made his way around the room, firstly meeting all the people who’d stayed for coffee but not staying for food, then round to each table, joining us and chatting with us.  This was done gently, without entourage (he brounght a “minder” with him, basically like a Minister bringing a private secretary – or a Camerlengo to the pope?), and without formality.  He moved around seemingly at random, but clearly trying to see everyone.
When he came to our table, we were all ready to talk to him, but right at that moment, our vicar and a woman in a pink jacket came over – the Archbishop’s visit had been filmed, not just to go on the church website (as I’d assumed) but for Back to Church Sunday, to be shown in other churches. As recent arrivals, would we mind talking about it?  Of course we were happy to do so, but part of me was thinking, well that’s our chance to talk to him gone.   And when we’d filmed our segment, the Archbishop was asked to go and film a segment.

Someone at the church had provided some large silver helium balloons for the service spelling out WELCOME.  After the meal, some of the children were playing with them, and somehow the L had become separated from its weight and had floated up to the high village hall ceiling.  The children tried to use the O balloon to lasso the string of the L but even though the O could reach it, there was not enough tension in the string to bring the balloon down.  The the vicar’s daughter had a bright idea – the Archbishop’s shepherd’s crook!
Although they tried and tried, standing on a chair, the kids couldn’t get the hook to twist around the string and rescue the balloon.  Then one of the church team arrived with sticky tape.  They coated the top of the crook with it, and on tiptoe on a chair, the balloon was finally rescued.  The whole room applauded.

I started to take some pictures – and in the last photo , I realised the Archbishop had sneaked into the background – he’d come to see what was happening and congratulated the kids – nothing wrong with the flock borrowing the crook and all working together to solve a problem.  I’m sure there’s a metaphor there somewhere…

Which meant that, thanks to wanting to record this for my blog, I actually got two minutes with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I talked about this blog and the other things I do online talking about faith issues and in particular the discussions I have with those of no faith.  I asked ths:  I talk about personal experience of God in our lives, and that if Jesus rose again then everything else is interesting but ultimately we need to take seriously what he said and live it… but what other message should I have for you?

The Archbishop said this: the incredible value of each individual.
This is what we learn from Jesus – how much we are loved by God, and the value we place on each human life.  There are and have already been people in this world who don’t value people this way, but we feel this is wrong. It is through seeing ourselves through God’s eyes that we understand why we feel it is wrong.

Thinking about this more, this is like the argument that our morals and values must come from somewhere – why is it that, underneath our own interests, our greed, that we instinctively know that equality and fairness matters?  Why do we sometimes feel that the right thing to do is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends?
And all the psychological, biological, genetic, historical efforts going into trying to prove that altruism and ultimately self-sacrifice is not a betrayal of selfish genes but somehow good but without a God dimension… this pales into insignificance when you realise that we know this because. for a moment we see ourselves through God’s eyes and realise how life changing it is to see others in this way too.
How can you not give to the flood victims in Pakistan, send clothes for the deported Roma, visit your neighbour you’ve not seen around lately, buy a coffee for your collague that’s having a tough time when you realise that God sees them as just as important as the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Without that sense that each individual should be prized, we are no better than the rich man ignoring Lazarus starving at his gate. And as Jesus has the rich man in his parable say, if we don’t realise it now from all the words from everything that we’ve been told, then we won’t believe it no matter who tells us, not even if someone were to rise from the dead.

Trying something nEU on Twitter…

… sorry about that, just can’t resist that dipthong when writing EU stuff.

Thought I’ try out something on Twitter.
Admittedly Saturday pm not the best time to do so, but tant pis (or for the benefit of a colleauge who asked me if I could translate that, c’est la vie but with more cynicism…).

So, an idea.  Take a subject you’re trying to think about deeply.  give it a #hashtag (I like #EU deepthought).
Then, in homage to the great brain of Douglas Adams who gave the second greatest computer in all creation the name Deep Thought, give yourself 42 tweets to put some of your thoughts out there.
You might get a thousand responses.
You might get none at all.
You might just get WTF or equivalent (hon ment to @RalfGrahn at this point…)
But you might sort your thoughts into something amazing.
A bit of crowd sourcing would help that I think.

Here’s the 18 Tweets so far… come on over!

  1. Jo Jowers rose22joh

    thats 18 swift thoughts out there- well, 16 ignoring explanatory tweets. Need a break to do some more #EUdeepthought… and watch XFactor… 8 minutes ago via web

  2. Jo Jowers rose22joh

    is best outcome for EU citizens, EU businesses, national interests etc actually all the same thing? Or just vested interests? #EUdeepthought 12 minutes ago via web

  3. Jo Jowers rose22joh

    or is it right to have best possible negotiated outcome for all 500m citizens? Is 2 chamber negotiating actually delivering? #EUdeepthought 14 minutes ago via web

  4. Jo Jowers rose22joh

    my #EUdeepthought experiment – can you make a blogpost/ converse and find a new perspective in just 42 tweets? 16 minutes ago via web

  5. Jo Jowers rose22joh

    Is it possible to make the best of what we have rather than always striving for something extra? #EUdeepthought 18 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      not just question of implementation, goldplating etc. but focus on end result delivery, reducing need for legislation etc. #EUdeepthought 20 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      question: how to see if what’s in place already compatible enough + delivers as good or better results than something new? #EUdeepthought 22 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      @RalfGrahn thanks – or as no time trying to do it in just 42 tweets… #EUdeepthought 27 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      maybe (@bloggingportal) Day of Multilingual blogging a chance to examine this more… #EUdeepthought 29 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      or is that just the ones writing in English? #EUdeepthought 30 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      most Eurobloggers seem to be pro EU but sceptical on practicalities these days #EUdeepthought 30 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      not easy to have sensible debate on what EU is and does- express modicum of positivity on concept and accusations of bias fly #EUdeepthought 31 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      constitution debate might have somewhat got in the way of a real discussion of what is actually wanted and by whom #EUdeepthought 32 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      civil society groups in e.g. UK always very big on compliance and very active – same everywhere? #EUdeepthought 35 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      is there a way to enbrace the big society concept in the EU? #EUdeepthought 35 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      or the people drafting the legal / political texts? #EUdeepthought 36 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      is it the decision making process that tends to favour prescription? #EUdeepthought 37 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      surely aim is that should always be done well, not done uniformly? #EUdeepthought 39 minutes ago via web

    • Jo Jowers rose22joh

      The irony about so much EU stuff is that it is often opposed because would require doing things already done well differently #EUdeepthought 40 minutes ago via web

    Daddy Days?

    In a rare treat for my son a couple of weeks ago, my husband took a day’s holiday to spend with him.
    While a 24-hour tummy bug scuppered plans to go swimming, they seem to have had all sorts of fun.  I’ve not yet asked why toddler’s sunhat is wedged in the cherry tree…

    I’ve always wanted my husband to play a big role in bringing up my son.  But although he, like me, has a legal right to request flexible working he’s felt unable to do so.  While prior to our son’s birth we pretty much had income parity, he changed job to increase his pay and opportunities and the world he now works in appears to be pretty much 24/7 if you want to be “taken seriously”.
    This seems to be a common problem of perception. In some recent research two-thirds (66%) of parents expressed some concern about making a request to work flexibly to their current employer which might prevent them from doing so. Around a third (32%) thought that if they made such a request that it might mark them out as being uncommitted to their job and just under a quarter (23%) thought that such a request may affect their promotion prospects. Parents aged 18-34 were more likely to feel this more acutely – around 75% were concerned about asking (but quite a lot did it anyway).

    That fits with research carried out by McKinsey which identified that the age of 30 was the point at which career aspirations start to consolidate – those over 35 may have reached their pinnacle before having children, or have decided it mattered less than actually having a child, and therefore be less concerned about what often amounts to a choice between part-time work plus nanny, or dropping out of the labour market, unless they can start flexible working.

    So when we divided up our household income/ childcare balance, it made sense for me to be the one that went to part-time hours, not least because my employer is generally very accommodating.  However, this compounds the difference between us.  We’re not unusual in having made that split:  according to research for the Government Equalities Office, more than half (53%) of working parents feel their job prevents them spending the amount of time they would like with their children. Mothers who work full time are more likely than fathers who work full time to agree that their job prevents them spending the amount of time they would like to spend with their children (72% and 59% respectively).

    I’m not saying my husband does nothing.  He does his fair share of transportation to our childcare, but the hours he works often mean that our son is already asleep when he gets home, or that they’re frankly tired and grouchy when they are together.

    Does it matter?  There are probably a lot of people out there who’d argue that they never saw their dads other than at weekends when they were tired, or in the holidays, and it never did them any harm.
    But my dad, as a teacher, was able to be around in the school holidays and I think there were benefits for us as a family, and also for my brother in learning what it is to be a man.

    That sounds a bit pathetic?  Well, look at the evidence from the inner cities where charismatic youth leaders are working hard to replace the older boy gang members as the male role models in the life of fatherless younger boys, or even government endorsed programmes like REACH. Having men around in the lives of small boys matters.

    Also there seems to be a growing amount of evidence that boys and girls learn differently – Gareth Malone (of the community choirs fame) is investigating this in his BB2 School season show “Gareth Malone’s Extrordinary School for Boys” on Thursdays, also on BBC iPlayer.

    I’m incredibly lucky.  My parents (both retired teachers as it happens) are very active in my son’s childcare so he has a second decent male role model regularly available to him.  It’s very funny to watch my son run to the tool box to find spanners and screwdrivers to follow my dad around, to see him carefully sort through a bag of screws to find the right size one to help build furniture (without a thought of eating any of them), chase my dad around the garden being lions – he wouldn’t really do these things with my mum, except for the chasing – and it’s sweet to watch him copy my dad’s body language.
    But if he’s feeling a bit off colour, it’s grandma that gets the cuddle.

    Small children do stereotype – he said to me the other day in an imaginary transport game “mummy, I boy, I do the driving. You LADY”.  (Re-learning to drive is certainly going to help squash that particular impression…)
    Even so, I am slightly concerned about the sheer number of women in my son’s early life – none of his nursery nurses are male, and the stories in today’s press suggest that this will not improve when he’s old enough for school.
    This is not about role models – I gather that boys don’t necessarily equate male teachers with role models in any case.

    But it feels wrong that just 12.5 per cent of primary school teachers are men, and a quarter of primary schools have no male teachers at all, according to a report from the General Teaching Council.
    Academics blame concerns over paedophilia, low pay and the cultural idea that teaching small children is “women’s work” – the reception teacher in particular seen as a kind of substitute mother weaning children away from their home lives and out into the world. Here’s just some of the recent press coverage: Professor Alan Smithers, Centre for Education Research: “There’s a danger that boys could grow up thinking education is sissy.”
    Sue Palmer, academic and author:“People look at men funnily if they want to hang out with kids”.
    Jamie Wilson, literally the only man under the age of 25 working in a state-run nursery: “For some young children I am the only male figure in their everyday lives and I feel that is important.”

    That’s not to say that men are better teachers than women, or that women can’t teach boys.  It’s not saying that men will teach through football to promote male-bonding. There is rightly concern that scarcity value means any man in primary school teaching will do, any man will get promoted simply because he’s a man, or that he can be the figure for discipline in a school.  All of this is silly stereotyping and not in the interests of anyone in education.

    But to overcome the idea that school is “sissy” and the self-reinforcing idea that primary teaching is the preserve of women, what’s needed is a much more equal number of men in primary schools- a visual reminder that teachers can be men as well as women.
    So here’s an idea.  In the 1960s primary teaching was specifically promoted as good for women with small children.  I know it’s a bit different now with mountains of paperwork and long hours before and after the school day, but the impression continues.
    So if that’s the case for women, why is it not the case for men too?
    Think about the up-sides: a decent-ish salary (made more decent if you consider that it’s largely term-time only – my brother-in-law used to think of it as a £30k a year job with unpaid holidays), time to spend with your own kids and the professional experience to help them get the most out of their learning in the increasingly competitive education system. Plus you can try to work locally to home, cutting your carbon footprint (although not so close that you see your pupils all the time when you’re not at work). What’s not to like?
    Sure, it is going to be tough teaching the kids that are not inspired by the subject you love and don’t want to be there. Sure, discipline in schools seems to be more problematic than my memory suggests it was when I was at school.  Sure, as you get older and more experienced, and as school seek out money saving options, you can be bypassed for promotion for someone less good but cheaper – not necessarily the best thing for the school but that’s no different to the rest of the working world?  The only problem is if more teachers can’t be afforded due to the economic climate…

    Fathers of the UK, our children need you.
    But if you’re not inspired to go and be a primary school teacher, why not step away from the computer now and build a wooden brick tower/ play a ball game outside/ help make that fort the kids have been on about?
    If it’s fun, think about doing it on a Monday instead of being in the office or the factory or whatever. 50% more time at home, 20% less work.  It’s got to be worth thinking about…

    Dwelling on customer service

    Dear reader, you will have noticed that poor customer service really upsets me.
    I’ve mentioned before the maxim taught to me by the sales trainers at my old ferry company: provide good customer service and your customer will tell three friends.  Provide poor service, and they’ll tell at least seven.

    Well now we live in the age of the internet – and I’d like to tell you about the customer service we’ve received recently.  Possibly there are now more than seven of you reading this direct, via RSS, Facebook, bloggingportal, EUGirlGeeks or other blog aggregator, so, I hope the new rules of customer service and social media means speedy resolution for other customers of the sorts of issues I’m about to share with you…

    I’m a repeat customer of Dwell.  Dwell is a shop of nice things, described by Mary Portas as being somewhere between Ikea and Habitat in terms of price and range.  I love Dwell furniture, and have set out to have as much of it as possible in our house.  Deliveries come at the weekend and on bank holidays, and when it’s good, it’s really good.

    In March, we ordered a bedside cabinet (pictured above).  It was not hugely expensive in comparison with what we could have spent at Habitat or Bo Concept, say, but it was rather lovely.  When it arrived, in May, it was damaged – a split right along the side.  My dad, who knows a lot about wood, said that it must have been dropped with some force, or from some height to sustain that damage.
    We rang Dwell, and were asked to send them some photos of the damage before they would agree to do anything further.  We did, and emailed them the photos.  We were told that we could have a 20% discount on the damaged cabinet, or a replacement.  We opted for the latter and were assured of a June pick up and delivery date.  In the meantime, the damaged cabinet sat in its cardboard box in our sitting room, taking up precious floor space.
    A week before delivery, we checked our order status – to find it had been delayed.  A new date some weeks later was on the order, and it changed again to a later date still, with no one informing us.  We rang, and were told that the bedside table was being held up at “the port” somewhere, and they had no further information.  August became late August, and we rang when the latest date too passed.
    “It’s only a couple of days late”, said the customer service representative, who appeared to be actually in a branch somewhere.  Possibly there was no information about the wait to date on the order?
    We were then told that they had no idea where it was or when it would be delivered so we decided enough was enough.
    We’d been waiting since March for a usable piece of furniture, and so instead we requested a refund.  We were told that once the damaged goods were back in the warehouse, the money would be returned to us.  So we arranged a pick-up for a Sunday, after 12.30pm.

    Mid-sermon that Sunday, my husband received a call.  He was informed by the driver on his mobile that the pick-up would be at midday.  No, he said, we arranged 12.30pm – 1pm at the earliest.  The driver said they had not been informed of this, and did not want to wait around – something about returning to Milton Keynes.  My husband arranged to be home at 12.15pm, even though this would mean leaving the service early.  We got home at 12.14 on the car clock – no van.  12.20, 12.30, 12.35 – nothing.  As we were now into our original window my husband rang.  The mobile was switched to voicemail.  We tried several more times – including from the house phone in case it was my husband’s number they were ignoring.  An hour after the supposed pick up time, my husband rang the Dwell customer order line.  We were promised a call back to find out what was going on.

    What followed just beggared belief. I was outside playing with our toddler when I heard my husband shouting.  He came and handed me the phone: “he wants to talk to you”.  The customer sales representative then basically told me that the driver said he’d been outside our house 12 noon until 12.15 and had left. I said, well we arrived back from church at 14 minutes past and there was no sign.  He said our watches must be slow!  This felt tantamount to an accusation of lying.  I told him I was appalled and listed the catalogue of delays and problems associated with this order – I said that this really was not putting Dwell in a good light at all.  I was assertive but didn’t shout or swear, but I did say that I was very upset and now needed to give the phone back to my husband.  We’ve still no idea why he asked to speak to me in the first place – the order was in my husband’s name – there shouldn’t be an expectation that you are married!

    My husband took the phone and arranged that yet more of my time would be sacrificed – 12-6pm pick up on Tuesday.  They came shortly after noon – but the driver still asked to examine the damage to the cabinet that we had returned to its box back in May…
    And then this week, we received an email asking us to arrange a delivery date for the replacement.  It just felt like they don’t listen.

    The irony is that the MD of Dwell, Aamir Ahmad, appears on the Barclays Corporate website,  talking about how cash flow and customer service are his priorities.  He says the right things, he seems like the sort of person I’d get on with, it’s just a shame the company isn’t living up to his expectations (“we hold everything in stock… deliver within a few days”???).

    We’ve had so many lovely things from Dwell, but this experience was just awful.  Of course you start researching these things on the internet: just search “Dwell” and “customer service” and you find this, this and this. So we’re not alone.  No company should be proud of only 22% of customers recommending them.
    I felt offended, not just because I wanted my refund sorted (it now has been), but also I think that, in a capitalist economic set up, the happiness of your customers drives repeat business and should therefore be your goal alongside profit, of course.  So I think that it is bad business to treat your customers poorly.  There cannot be such an infinite number of potential customers in the UK that you can afford to alienate the ones you have.

    So, Aamir, there are 10 things in your current catalogue that I was thinking about ordering and now won’t be.  
    Given they were  this, this , this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this, it might not all have been immediately, but we are still setting up home, and this is our sort of style.   I lose out because they are lovely things that I wanted and can’t bear to think I might have and then lose because they arrive damaged.  But you lose out too, because reluctantly I’ll have take my business elsewhere.  
    I need some pretty amazing customer service to regain confidence in Dwell.

    By the way, a few weeks ago, Marks and Spencer screwed up an online order in two different ways.  
    Despite receiving an email saying it had dispatched, it did not reach the shop for pick up.  
    The staff took a mobile phone number, but then customer services emailed my husband asking him to call on an 0845 number – he emailed back to ask why, given they already had his number.  A phone call came, they cancelled and refunded the order, and gave us a £5 credit for the inconvenience caused.  
    Who do you think we’ll shop with again?

    Re-Hawking an old idea

    Did the universe as we know it merely come into being by itself from a quantum-level change in an existing one?

    I’ve been putting off blogging about Stephen Hawking and God.  Mainly this is because I feel that the latest pronouncements splashed across the front page of the Times last week (no link as I don’t want you to have to pay News Corp a pound to read it) were more about stirring controversy to increase book sales than any new ideas on where and how God “fits in” with the universe.

    Of course, by ignoring the story for a while I’ve been able to read a lot of the excellent and not so excellent commentary.  The Church Mouse blog was among the best of the religious responses, pointing out that:

    What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn’t prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary. [Stephen W. Hawking, Der Spiegel, 1989]

    Compare the quote from 1989 with the one which has caused the headlines today:

    “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

    If anyone can spot a difference, please let Mouse know.

    To those of us that are sci fi fans, the multiworlds model which Hawking cited alongside laws such as gravity as making God “unnecessary” is familiar.  Basically the idea is that for every “decision” at a quantum level, a parallel universe is created in which the other “decision” was taken.

    It features in Doctor Who – not just in the obvious case of “Pete’s World” where the cybermen come from, but also in multiple explanations of things going on (Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant’s doctors both use it as an explanation – the tenth doctor refers to it in the episode “School Reunion”).  Terry Pratchett’s famous “trousers of time” is another example this theory being used in a really understandable manner.

    I’m not going to take on Hawking on the physics.  As the Church Mouse says: “if you try to claim you know more about the science of creation and the big bang you will instantly make yourself a laughing stock.  And nothing that Hawking has said rules out the possibility of God“.
    It is that latter part that I think merits a bit more thought.

    Of course, if it is taking the decision (consciously or quantum-ly) that creates the new world, then Hawking has a point – it does indicate that a creator god would not be needed to make each parallel world just pop into existence – infinite, multiple worlds spinning off through all time and space of a multiverse.  And getting your head around this is not easy. It slightly makes me think of another Terry Pratchett quote: “Nothing good ever follows the word multiple” (Guards! Guards!)

    The responses from the religious community, at least the less fundamentalist parts of it, has been relatively measured.  Most follow the Church Mouse’s rule.  Most also pointed out that while theories of how the universe came into being were interesting, they did nothing to answer the fundamental question of “why” it came into being.
    The Daily Mail (I know, rare for me to comment on their more sober reporting) quoted:

    Dr Williams said: ‘Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the universe.’

    He told The Times: ‘It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence. Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.’

    Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and one of Britain’s top imams also joined the condemnation. Lord Sacks said: ‘Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation… The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the universe came into being.’

    And the apparent head of the religion of atheism, Richard Dawkins, was quick to embrace Hawking as one of his kind of people.  Many comments abounded in the blogosphere, probably not direct from the man himself, saying that just as evolution left no space for God in biology, Hawking left no space for God in physics.

    Dawkins did say in the Times that asking “why?” was nonsensical and that “stupid questions” did not deserve to get answers.

    Interesting – the entire spirit of scientific inquiry is on the basis of asking “why” such-and-such is and trying to find the mechanics behind it.
    Ah, but then this is metaphysics, not physics, and because it is unprovable and therefore cannot be tested by scientific means, the question is outside the self-defined belief system that says that science is all, and therefore not a valid one…
    Um, am I alone in thinking that Dawkins’ atheism is not just about following Darwin’s principles but fast becoming a science-based faith in its own right…

    “God is a delusion. … Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain. An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles – except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand.” (Introduction to “The God Delusion”).

    (another tenet of this belief: knowledge at present is ok until a better theory is available and a theory to explain each thing and everything will eventually be found)?

    But I digress.
    If what you believe in is a “God of the Gaps“, that God is the explanation until each gap is filled in with a plausible scientific explanation, then perhaps Hawking’s bid to increase his book sales is problematic.But it seems to me that the answer “it can and inevitably does create itself” is unsatisfactory.  From what?  Where did those things come from?

    By answering the question of where did everything come from with what seems to be “it has always been something”, we are essentially opening ourselves up to a broader question: yes, the universe as we know it may be the inevitable result from a decision taken somewhere in a parallel universe probably at a quantum level and therefore may have been spontaneously created but how did it all get going in the first place?
    After all our observations are that there are patterns of apparently infinite complexity (such as never-ending fractals) but is it reasonable to conclude that they have just “always been” or “just are”?
    We’re trying to answer the idea that “something came from nothing” (ex nihilo creation) by saying that what we have always thought of as the beginning point isn’t.  So where did what spontaneously created itself come from?
    God is of course the Occam’s Razor explanation for all of this…
    But now I’m in danger of straying into the territory that the Church Mouse wisely recommended steering clear of…

    So where do we go from here?As I’ve said in previous posts where we go from here comes back to the person of Jesus – if he was who he said he was, and did what we think he did, then all of this discussion is so much ephemera, an interesting diversion on God’s tools when we should be living better, supporting the poor and needy and building our relationship with God through prayer, praise and celebration.
    The bible does not use scientific language or mathematics to describe how God made everything, and does not take a view on cosmology, life on other planets (all God’s children too?) etc. etc.
    We shouldn’t expected it to- it is after all primarily the story and user’s manual for God’s relationship with his chosen people that turns out to be all of us – and Jesus seems to have had more personal, pressing priorities to communicate concerning something that Richard Dawkins does not actually believe exists: our souls.

    A final thought: in other scientific spheres, the ideas of science fiction have so captured the imagination that we have Star Trek communicators in our pockets, and I look forward to the pain-free instant surgical laser of Star Trek: The Next Generation or any of the time travel or teleportation devices we see (but note the warnings on these technologies that sci fi also holds…).
    Ideas of good science fiction always inspire, helping us to find the room to adapt for usefulness and become science-fact.
    But I’m afraid most of us will have no idea what Professor Hawking’s maths equations that show the possibility of the multiverse that leaves no space for God actually mean and whether he’s right, and I’m struggling to see how they can be adapted for the good of everything except for further development of scientific atheism’s faith position.  But perhaps that’s not the point.
    But then, to paraphrase the Times editorial, if we were to know “how God did it”, Stephen Hawking is one of the very few people on earth that would understand how it was done.

    Good night, and God bless

    My Fellow Europeans: The State of the EUnion…

    Today, the Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, made his first state of the union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg (watch it here).  As Ralf Grahn has already pointed out, whether he should is a point of constitutional uncertainty. Executive power in the EU does not really rest with Barroso – perhaps he should have been accompanied by Buzek, Van Rompuy and, for the rotating Presidency held by the Member States, the Prime Minister of Belgium… hold on, not certain who that is at present…

    And the BBC said that the meeting of EU finance ministers today may well overshadow Barroso’s speech in any case covering issues of real importance – the economic crisis and regulation of the banking sector…

    So leaving aside the issue of who should have been doing the speech, what did they say and what does it mean for EU citizens?
    Firstly we should note that this speech is being given to the European Parliament, and that will affect some of the things that are said in comparison with – say- a speech given to the European Council.  You’ll see what I mean later.
    Second, there’s no underlying coherence to the speech – as Mary Honeyball (who was presumably there) points out, it’s a shopping list.  but that’s inevitable as the EU itself is a messy sort of compromise between a lot of ideas.

    We’re promised “a Europe of opportunity where those that aspire are elevated and those in need are not neglected“.
    A Europe that is open to the world and open to its people. A Europe that delivers economic, social and territorial cohesion“.  I’m not entirely sure what economic, social and territorial cohesion means in practice – presumably it means that we all help each other out, spirit level style.  But let’s look at what that has meant in reality.

    Our interdependence was highlighted and our solidarity was tested like never before.  We have provided many of the answers needed – on financial assistance to Member States facing exceptional circumstances, on economic governance, on financial regulation, on growth and jobs“. Hmm.  If I was in Germany, I’m not totally sure I’d see bailing out the Greek economy where public servants can retire in their mid-40s as solidarity – solidarity needs to work both ways and the reform needed to equalise the exceptional circumstances needs to be in place.

    Did anyone bar the most ardent, foaming-mouthed Europhobe really predict “the demise of the European Union” in the financial crisis?  I thought it was the Euro which was the target of most scepticism?
    The European institutions and the Member States have demonstrated leadership. My message to each and every European is that you can trust the European Union to do what it takes to secure your future“.  I feel very reassured, don’t you? 🙂
    He also cited various bits of legislation that were coming forward, prompting one MEP to say it felt more like a forward work plan than a state of the union.

    Barroso then turned to the economic outlook in the European Union – better than it was, with higher growth than forecast, and high unemployment sustained rather than growing.   I’m guessing that “budgetary expansion played its role to counter the decline in economic activity. But it is now time to exit. Without structural reforms, we will not create sustainable growth” is essentially the idea that once we’ve used tax payers money to bail out the bits of the economy that are collapsing, we need to cut back until its sustainable.
    We then got a couple of sentences referring back to the Europe 2020 agenda – “accelerate our reform agenda. Now is the time to modernise our social market economy so that it can compete globally and respond to the challenge of demography. Now is the time to make the right investments for our future“.

    The demographic challenge mentioned is falling birthrates and rising retired populations.  Basically, to sort this out we need to refocus our idea of work – that it’s not just about full-time, visible in the workplace jobs.  If we need as many people as possible to work, then we need to be taking seriously the role that women play – in the workplace, and at home.
    First of all, we can’t just assume that everyone should be in full-time paid employment, effectively farming out our childcare and other caring responsibilities to paid carers in some big societal experiment.

    We can’t assume that everyone will be fit enough to work into old age.
    We can’t just continue to assume that women will fill the gaps – if we’re going for real social cohesion, we need to normalise the idea that men will do some caring – for their children, their partners, their parents – just as women do.  That should meant that quality jobs can be done in part-time hours rather than the assumption that working part-time means a lower level of ability.  We do need to think about how we identify talent and allow demonstration of leadership so that we really can use everyone’s talents – after all if there are more female graduates than men from European universities, what’s happening to them all that’s preventing them being the majority in leadership roles too?
    If Europe takes a lead in this, then I agree with Barroso that “this is Europe’s moment of truth“.
    But I’m not totally convinced that this is the angle he’s coming from here…

    Barroso also lists 5 key challenges for the EU in the next year:

    1) dealing with the economic crisis and governance:
    the proposed solution is effectively more monitoring and “true economic union” – I’ll post separately on this another day but I’m a bit concerned that punishing the banks is politically popular but not economically sensible, and a Europe-wide tax on financial transactions on top of national levies is – interesting, when banks are threatening to move out of Europe.
    Don’t get me started on the “own resources” debate.  Seems the European Parliament took this to mean that EU direct tax is on the cards – I predict right now that this is unlikely to go anywhere.

    2) restoring growth for jobs by accelerating the Europe 2020 reform agenda:
    This is where getting more women and older people into jobs is mentioned – although again policy on this neglects the wider role of people as people and not just as workers.  We do this at our peril.
    The numbers are interesting – 6 million people have lost their jobs across the EU this year.  There are apparently 4 million job vacancies.
    To put this in perspective, there are currently about 2.5 million unemployed people just in the UK (about 7.8% unemployment rate) compared with 4.6 million unemployed in Spain (unemployment rate of nearly 20%) – there are over 22% unemployed in Latvia and an Eurozone average of 10%.
    So that’s a lot of jobs needed. Barroso’s solution will sensibly “be centred on skills and jobs and investment in life-long learning” – again just hope that the needs of women, who are, post-children, often working below their skills level are addressed via this approach.
    I like the idea of an EU-wide vacancy list, but I’m filled with dread at the idea of an EU skills passport.  Many of the things that make you good at a job are hard to quantify – as anyone who has ever tried to move between sectors will know- and we risk lowest common denominator-ing the descriptions of ourselves to fit.
    I’m fascinated to know how the EU will cut SME red tape by 38 million euro, and if they succeed, whether the UK press would ever report it as it goes against the EU= bureaucracy message…
    There’s a lot too about securing energy supplies and renewables.  I guess I’m less worried about how it’s done (although I don’t really want to live any closer to a nuclear power station than I already do) as long as the lights stay on and the heating works in winter.

    3) building an area of freedom, justice and security:
    This was always going to be hard to read when France is expelling Roma and I noticed the stress on “legal migration”, but the section was remarkably short on detail.

    4) launching negotiations for a modern EU budget:
    Then we come to the budget, and the Budget Commissioner has already screwed any prospect of sensible debate on this issue in the UK press.
    An “open debate without taboos” says Barroso?
    This is the issue of European policy where all Member States are mostly about protecting their national interest.  Most remeber to wrap it up as in the EU’s interest.  The UK, for reasons of historic handbagging never manages to.  So I really hope they unpack all the taboos, including location of the EU institutions (goodbye Strasbourg) and that more than 40% of the EU budget is still agriculture, and cuts through the l’Europe, c’est moi waffle of some others.

    Yes, it should be about getting most value for our money – as long as that is in line with the priorities we most want to achieve!
    And check out the warning that the budget will inevitably go up in future: “Europe offers real added value. That is why I will be pushing for an ambitious post-2013 budget for Europe” – you can call it “spending more intelligently, by looking at European and national budgets together” but that word ambitious will put the frighteners on people who see the EU as a malevolent force trying to take over national budgets rather than as a partner.  Barroso even mentioned some areas where a Euro spent at European level brings more than one spent at national level: “energy interconnections, research, and development aid” – essentially cutting costs, avoiding overlap and better retrun on investment.  But convincing some that even economies of scale are a good thing is sometimes a bit of an uphill struggle.

    And is there a hint at job cuts in the institutions?
    Of course, part of a credible European budget is the rigorous pursuit of savings. I am looking at the administrative costs within the Commission and other Community bodies like Agencies. We need to eliminate all pockets of inefficiency“.

    5) pulling our weight on the global stage:
    This is the tricky one. Not that the others aren’t, but Europe still has such a way to go in this area.
    I have to admit that while I like being British and feeling like people know where I’m from as I travel the world, being British is not universally popular out there.  Nor is it that powerful any more.  Possibly except when seeking to trade.

    But the “Who do I call?” question is still not really answered.  Should Clinton be calling Ashton?  Von Rompuy?  Barroso?  Hague?

    Something similar to the “Suez moment” that showed to the government of the day in the UK that it could no longer act alone internationally was felt at EU level at the Climate Change talks in Copenhagen last year.
    Barroso acknowledges that “we did not help ourselves by not speaking with one voice” but that was not the whole issue.
    Barroso may well be “impatient to see the Union play the role in global affairs that matches its economic weight” but ultimately the deal at Copenhagen was done without the EU.  It was also done without the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and in fact without any of the member states that consider themselves big hitters.
    In the end, the EU simply did not matter enough, because any deal was better than no deal at all.  that said, the future belongs to the BRICs, not even to the USA in the long run.  The EU is our best hope of still having some relevance.

    If Barroso is serious about the EU acting internationally, then its staff need to be the very best diplomats and subject expert negotiators the Member States have to offer, especially in the Member States, possibly as seconded national experts, in the European External Action Service.

    And if it is a cards-on-table discussion on how best to act internationally, then the interests of Member States, which vary, will need to be taken into account.  It’s hard to tell a proud shipping nation like Greece that, say, an Austrian with only theoretical policy experience of shipping is going to lead the delegation representing them in the relevant international forum.  That’s why Commission relations with Member States really matter.  The EU is just not going to be able to act with authority internationally if Commission staff attempt to bludgeon Member States into certain positions that don’t necessarily reflect what they would want.  Though I doubt anyone is attempting that sort of thing these days?
    And if “size matters“, the issue of numbers of votes and seats are particularly important.  The rush to be represented as the EU should not be at the price of every Member State’s seat and voting weight – the measure should be what we have now, not what the USA has.

    As for helping other parts of the world, while all Member States have “spheres of influence” where they are more likely to focus aid, I want to see that the pan-European effort adds to this rather than muddling efforts.
    I’m not clear whether Barroso’s intended extra money for the Millennium Development Goals is on top of national budgets for the MDGs or whether the EU contribution includes the member states’ contributions?
    Where’s the clear, coordinated campaign of strong voices against the stoning-for-adultery in Iran?
    And yes, it’s crazy that different Member States have different equipment to help with the crisis in Pakistan, but are not necessarily coordinated to get it there helpfully.
    As for a Common Defence Policy: don’t we need a common outlook on world affairs first?  Wasn’t that the lesson of Iraq?

    I’m glad he pointed out that “Europe is not only Brussels or Strasbourg“.
    However I encourage you to think on the statement “the Union will not achieve its objectives in Europe without the Member States. And the Member States will not achieve their objectives in the world without the European Union“.
    While I obviously agree with the latter part of the sentence, I can’t help wondering:

    – Should the EU have many objectives that are separate to those of the Member States?
    – If so, where do they come from?
    – How legitimate are they?
    – To whom are they accountable?
    – Do the EU population understand it?

    Barroso rounded up with several of the www.bloggingportal.eu Barroso buzzword bingo ideas:  bedding down the new institutional set-up of Europe created by the Lisbon Treaty;  delivery is what counts; the Community Method (usually codecision- sorry, the Ordinary Legislative Process) is the secret of Europe’s success.

    Barroso concluded his speech by saying to the European Parliament that “for Europe to succeed, the Commission needs your support“.
    I slightly resent his further call for a “special relationship between the Commission and Parliament, the two Community institutions par excellence“.
    If the EU is to work properly, even if the Council does do some things intergovernmentally rather than via the community method, it seems childish to pretend that it is inferior or frankly that the Commission and Parliament are more European.  The EU is a combination of these methods and the Commission atempting to sideline or alienate the Council where Member State governments are represented is hardly going to endear it to already sceptical peoples.

    I’m trying to take a balanced view, but actually, this part of this speech has made me a bit cross.
    Look at the Twitter summaries posted by the

    European Parliament Europarl_EN twitter thread:
    : Majority in this House wants more Europe #SoEU (yes that is a different hashtag from the one being used for the buzzword bingo #SOTEU)
    : in a period of change: some want intergovernmental EU: I want community method #SoEU
    #Barroso: People want more Europe/ support policies I have put forward #SoEU
    #Barroso:On EU budget must win over public opinion about what EU budget should be used #SoEU

    And this response by @Nosemonkey:
    Note “win over” not “consult” RT @Europarl_EN: #Barroso:On EU budget must win over public opinion about what EU budget should be used #SoEU
    Not all MEPs were uncritical of Barroso – Schultz wanted to know more about the haves and have-nots (of course, he’s the socialist group leader). Others were frankly a bit embarrassing – I mention no names.

    But if most people in the European Parliament want “more Europe” then there’s a bit of a sales job to be done on why this is a good thing to the wider public.  Even in economically good times, the Constitutional Treaty’s referendums way back in 2005 were not all universally and enthusiastically greeted, and few people have had a chance to have their say since then.
    There’s a series of posts in the EUblogosphere at the present on eurobarometer that might give some clues as to how the EU is seen at present.
    If they want “more Europe”, I’d love to know how they communicated with their constituents on that point: in the UK, Euroelection leaflets are usually about local schools and hospitals and where Europe does get a mention it tends to be from those hostile to the EU about how it will be held back or withdrawn from.  I freely acknowledge that this is not the case everywhere, so what does a Europhile MEPs constituency surgery sound like?
    And if this is a sign of the Parliamentary Europe that Vihar Georgiev talks about over on his blog, I think there’s a bit more discussion needed. And they certainly need a higher turnout across the EU to legitimise it.

    It’s not that Barroso actually said anything so wrong in the rest of the speech.  It was just a bit – predictable.

    Right at the moment, it feels a bit as if there’s a State of the EU for Brussels/ Strasbourg audience and a whole other speech needed for the wider public with a bit more clear language about exactly how the EU adds value.   Barroso was getting there in parts, but this appeal to the European Parliament’s ego at the end just wasn’t- right.

    So the state of the EUnion is that the economy’s a bit messy but getting better, unemployment’s high but things are being done about it.  While finances are in a parlous state at present, working together saves money, more money is needed in the long run, more aid is needed for the rest of the world.  There’s a whole lot of debates still to be had about how things need to be done, but generally we’re all just getting on with it.
    Not exactly inspiring, but then what politics is at the moment?  Even Obama’s halo seems a little tarnished these days.

    And what a missed opportunity to kick off the whole “My Fellow Europeans” expression for starting speeches…