19 August 2015

A Word annoyance resolved

I recently upgraded to Office 2013 and everything seemed OK at first. However, when I subsequently upgraded to Windows 10, Word 2013 started refusing to open files that had been emailed to me, which was a real nuisance since most of my work comes that way.

Clicking on the Help button in the error message led to scary stuff about possible corruption of the file I was trying to open. But why should everything I downloaded be corrupt, and why if that were the case was Word 2007 happy to open the same files?

Initially I worked round the problem by opening the files in Word 2007 and resaving them, which seemed to convince Word 2013 that they were OK. However, having dug about a bit, I have discovered that Word 2013 (combined with Windows 10?) has a new security precaution built in: it simply blocks all downloaded files!

To get round this on a file by file basis, you can go into File properties and manually unblock the file. But for me a better solution was to go into Trust Center (in Word options) and add my entire Documents folder and subfolders to Trusted locations. Problem solved.

12 August 2015

Idealist and Windows 10

As long-time readers of this blog will know my computer use is built around Blackwell Idealist, an ancient database management program which used to be marketed as ‘the information manager’. In addition to it being essential to the bibliographical research and note-taking phases of my workflow, I use it to manage my personal journal, a repository of story and novel ideas, and several other databases. If I add that the date on the copyright page of my copy of the Idealist manual is 1995 (!), you’ll realize why it was with some trepidation that I pressed the button to start my system upgrading to Windows 10 this weekend.

The good news for any other worried Idealist users out there is that the whole upgrade process went smoothly. In fact, this has been the smoothest transition to a new version of Windows in my experience (and my experience encompasses ten different versions since the days of my very first laptop, which ran Windows 3.1 on 4MB of RAM and which I upgraded to Windows for Workgroups in order to make full use of the then cutting-edge 32-bit capabilities of Idealist). Yes, there are a few annoyances (Microsoft will insist that they know better than the user when it comes to all kinds of settings), but the main thing is that Idealist is still working! What is more, my first impression is that it appears to run more smoothly on Windows 10 than it did on Windows 7 (which sometimes seemed to be slow about shutting Idealist down).

So, for any Idealist user worrying about the prospect of Windows 10:

  • Don’t worry. The upgrade should be fine.
  • If you are planning to install Idealist on a shiny new Windows 10 computer: (a) If it’s a 32-bit system, Idealist’s installation program should still work (and once installed, set Windows to run the program in compatibility mode for e.g. Win98). (b) If it’s a 64-bit system, the installation program won’t work. But it is easy to install the program manually. Simply save the folder containing your existing working program (which will most likely be in the Program Files (x86) folder of your current computer) to the Program Files (x86) folder of your new computer, create a shortcut pointing to i32.exe (with the appropriate compatibility setting), and you’re ready to go.
  • You should probably devise a viable migration strategy anyway. Idealist may have survived to work with another generation of Windows but it is over 20 years old. Sooner or later 32-bit programs will go the way of their 8-bit and 16-bit predecessors.

19 June 2015

Nonviolent Action

A review of Ronald J. Sider, Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015.

This little volume by Ron Sider consists mainly of a series of studies of examples of non-violent direct action (NVDA). The text is divided into four parts: ‘Proving it Works’ explores early developments in NVDA, the contributions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and the role of NVDA in the recent history of Nicaragua and the Philippines. Part 2 focuses more closely on the part NVDA played in the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Part 3 examines ‘Recent Victories’, including Liberia and the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. The concluding part is a call to action, which proposes that the clear successes of NVDA warrant its use as a moral alternative to war.

The book amounts to an extended pragmatic argument for NVDA based on a carefully selected series of cases. Since it is a relatively short book, a high degree of selectivity is necessary. But that very selectivity is also a weakness, particularly in view of the fact that all the examples he examines were successful. What about occasions when NVDA has failed (e.g. in China, Burma, or Bahrain)?

Sider’s selectivity seems to extend to his definition of NVDA. He seems to focus exclusively on mass protests against what modern liberal-minded Americans would regard as oppressive regimes. What about strikes, boycotts, and pickets? What about the Sanctuary Movement? What about prophetic/symbolic protests against nuclear weapons? What about the Occupy Movement? He avoids examples of NVDA directed against Western government policies, big business, the military-industrial complex, and those who threaten the environment. In other words, he avoids anything that might offend large sections of his potential readership.

Who is the book addressing? In the final section, Sider seems to direct his remarks at two main constituencies. On the one hand, he wants to wake up Western Christian pacifists who are too passive (complacent?) in their pacifism and who underestimate their capacity to bring about real change by taking appropriate (non-violent) action. On the other hand, he uses his collection of successful cases of NVDA as a stick with which to beat Western Christian advocates of just war theory. I felt this criticism was unfair since just war theory is about placing moral limits on the way a government wages war rather than being a defence of the use of violence per se.

In conclusion, this is a useful introductory study of major successful twentieth-century examples of NVDA. However, it fails to offer anything but a pragmatic justification for the use of NVDA. The reader will search in vain for any theoretical theological or philosophical underpinning. Sider fails to recognize when or why NVDA might fail. It would be very instructive to compare/contrast the political/cultural contexts of successful and unsuccessful cases. More generally, he fails to draw any practical lessons from the cases studied. Are there common factors that might be woven into a strategy for the successful deployment of NVDA? So while the book might be helpful to newcomers to the concept of non-violent action, it will be of very limited use to scholars or practitioners.

09 April 2015

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: theologian and martyr

Today is the seventieth anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution in Flossenburg concentration camp. His last words to a fellow inmate were, ‘This is the end – but for me, the beginning – of life.’ His life, and particularly his death, is a salutary reminder to all Christians that we cannot avoid being political. As Christians, we do not have the luxury to remain silent;

Bonhoeffer is primarily remembered for his theology and his opposition to Hitler, but he also wrote a number of hymns and poems. Here is a translation of his best-known hymn (which if I remember correctly he wrote while in prison). The words seem peculiarly appropriate:

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Yet when again in this same world You give us
The joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
and our whole life shall then be Yours alone.

23 February 2015

The Myth of the Market

A review of The Myth of the Market by Jeremy Seabrook (Black Rose Books, 1996)

Jeremy Seabrook’s book is a damning indictment of free market economics. He writes as a disillusioned socialist who has witnessed the total capitulation of democratic socialism (and, more recently, totalitarian socialism) to the content, if not the rhetoric, of free market ideology.

The book divides naturally into three parts: an initial analysis of the ideology (or mythology) of the market; a central section in which the author goes ‘walkabout’, illustrating his claims about the shortcomings of the market (or caring capitalism) from first-hand experience of places as diverse as Bombay and Glasgow, Rome and Lapland, even prosperous Illinois furnishes him with ammunition; finally, he reverts to a more analytical approach.

His case against capitalism is that the goods it promises are largely illusory. Far from being the agent of human emancipation, the free market reduces freedom to the freedom to spend (if you have money). It even fails to provide genuine freedom of choice since our spending patterns are increasingly dictated by the advertisers and image makers. Accompanying this narrowing of freedom is the gradual reduction of human beings to consumers: creativity and genuine individuality are crushed as we become increasingly dependent on the market.

The book is passionate, emotive, even tendentious in places. After reading it, I felt battered and depressed by the absence of any alternatives to global capitalism. Seabrook presents a nightmare vision of a global free market leading ultimately to apocalyptic totalitarianism. He does call upon Greens to resist but gives no clues as to how resistance might be organized.

In a sense, he fails to take his own analysis seriously enough. I recognized in his description of the free market all the hallmarks of a religion. Granted he does describe the market as the object of a quasi-religious cult, and he clearly sees the purveyors of fantasy in all its forms as the mediators of a substitute spirituality. However, he seems unaware of the sheer psychological force of a living religion. Money and the market are so successful precisely because they are archetypal in character. If you like, they are the loci of genuine (albeit, demonic) spiritual power. The Bible’s presentation of the first-century Mediterranean economy as Mammon remains uncomfortably relevant in the twenty-first century.

For Christians, this book offers a salutary reminder and a challenge. It reminds us that Western society, far from being secular, is intensely religious. His diagnosis of what ails our society is extremely helpful. However, we must beware of his pessimistic conclusions. The challenge is to show how the good news of Jesus Christ can be a practical and optimistic form of resistance to Mammon/the market.

16 February 2015

Christianity is a way of life

One of the blogs I follow has just published an entry on Islam, which begins thus:
Many centuries have passed since there was any meaningful dialogue between Muslims and Christians, mainly because the two religions are like chalk and cheese. Christianity is a profoundly theological faith: Islam, like Judaism, is a way of life. . . . because Islam is first and foremost a way of life it has no detailed theology of, for example, sin and salvation; and where it does venture into theology it is usually only to deny Christian beliefs.
I find this deeply disturbing. It is profoundly wrong (perhaps even heretical) to set up such a contrast between Christianity and Islam.

Such a contrast misrepresents Islam. The implicit dismissal of it as (merely) a way of life and the explicit description of its theological traditions in entirely negative terms (as nothing more than a reaction against Christian doctrine) betrays a profound ignorance of its theological depths. One merely has to think of the sophisticated schools of classical Islam that preserved and built upon Greek philosophy (and thereby helped to enrich Christian theology in the Middle Ages).

But the contrast also misrepresents Christianity (and herein lies its heretical potential). Of course Christianity is ‘profoundly theological’. But it is first and foremost, like Islam and Judaism, a way of life. Indeed, as a Christian, I view it as the way of life – according to Brother Francis, the vita evangelica, the form of life that is shaped by the good news of Jesus Christ. It is only secondarily theological, since as part of that gospel life we are called to love the Lord our God with all our minds. Theology serves the Christian life by articulating it and enabling us to discern what is and what is not an authentic expression of that life. Any account of theology that elevates theology above praxis runs the risk of degenerating into a new gnosticism in which right doctrine matters more than right behaviour.

NB I am not for a minute suggesting that the author is a heretic, or even that he seriously believes in the contrast his words seem to create, merely that he has expressed himself badly.