Hugh Miller, The Cromarty Stonemason 1802- 1856

Cromarty today is a quiet little town on the Black Isle, North-east Scotland. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, however, it was an important fishing centre, and an important trade supplying the needs of visiting shipping sheltering in the firth nearby, brought relative prosperity.

Born on 10 October 1802, as a boy, Hugh loved the rocky shores and wooded hills of the Black Isle, which he explored, sometimes alone or with friends, sometimes with his uncles, who taught him to appreciate the teeming wildlife of sea, shore and countryside. At nightfall, by the glow of a cottage fire, he was entranced by the tales the old folk could tell, as they passed the long winter evenings.

His father having died at sea when he was five, he developed a certain self-reliance, and so, despite his uncle’s offer to fund a college place, at seventeen he decided to become a stonemason. He knew the trade was hard, but also that the slack winter months would allow him to study natural history and literature, his true vocation. For the next fifteen years, he travelled all over the north of Scotland, quarrying, stone-cutting and building. During this time, as he laboured, he made many of the geological observations familiar in his writings. The Old Red Sandstone, until then little known to fossil collectors or geologists, became his particular interest. Continue reading Hugh Miller, The Cromarty Stonemason 1802- 1856

Conspiracy Theory (Part One)

Part One: Media and Conspiracy Psychology

Conspiracy theories are as old as the human psyche. But fears of an all-embracing political plan to take over the world appear to go back only as far as the French Revolution. In that same country, in the nineteenth century, the Dreyfus affair divided public opinion. Conspiracy theories continued to grow in importance up until the mid-twentieth century, when two arch-conspiracy theorists, Hitler and Stalin, warred against one another (despite a non-aggression pact), causing the worst blood-letting in human history. The world war sobered the Americans, who in subsequent decades dismissed conspiracy theories, and the mainly fringe groups or individuals who promoted such ideas, in their valid quest for some meaning or motive behind the seemingly meaningless, wanton destruction of war and commercial exploitation.

Sometimes those holding such ideas were denigrated for political, commercial, cultural or racial reasons, or for reasons of academic jealousy.   Some raise issues current in our culture:  these include those who question the assassination of Kennedy, or the death of Princess Diana, “Ufologists,” and perhaps those, such as David Icke, who claims  a reptilian race runs the earth and/or alien installations exist under the earth’s surface. Such themes enjoy a certain popularity, but owe little to common sense or carry little real influence. The politically disaffected,the political far right, and other alienated minorities have all been labelled ‘conspiracists’. Their theories imply a political agenda, but lack any significant credibility, or even influential publicity. To run for office with similar ideas in the manifesto would be to experience electoral disaster.

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Cases in Court by Sir Patrick Hastings

Sir Patrick Gardiner Hastings KC (17 March 1880 – 26 February 1952) was a British barrister and politician noted for his long and highly successful career. His skill in cross-examination was legendary. As a young man he served in the South African War, and also worked as a drama critic before studying law. He entered Parliament in 1922, was appointed Attorney-General in the first Labour Government. In 1948, Hastings published his autobiography, simply titled The Autobiography Of Sir Patrick Hastings, and in 1949 published Cases In Court, a book giving his views on 21 of his most noted cases. The same year he published Famous and Infamous cases ,a book on noted trials through history, such as those at Nuremberg. In 1948, he suffered a small stroke which forced him to retire. Hastings stayed in Kenya for two years, but spent the last two years of his life living in a flat in London, before dying on 26 February 1952 of cerebral thrombosis. The following excerpts from Cases In Court ,serve as a tribute and give a sense of his direct style.

“The position of the advocate causes much misunderstanding. The question addressed here is the often asked:   “How can a self-respecting counsel honestly defend a person whom he knows or believes to be guilty? How can he in honesty represent a client whom he believes to be a liar?” Such questions show woeful ignorance of the duties and obligations of the English legal system. Inasmuch as a barrister is the only person who has the right of audience in a Superior Court, that right casts upon him the absolute duty to represent to the best of his ability any client who requires his services and is prepared properly to instruct him”…

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Is the Fish a Christian symbol?

The outstanding unity of early Christian thought began to fade after the death of the apostles. From the second century, Greek philosophy and other pagan practices were mixing  into accepted doctrine.  From the Council of Nicaea, A.D. 325, Emperor Constantine’s fusion of the pagan religion of Rome with apostate Christianity moved ahead at a rapid pace.

In 378 A.D, Emperor Gratian granted Damasus, bishop of Rome, the right to bear the old religious title ‘Pontifex Maximus’. During his rule, much was done to embellish the catacombs beneath the city, the tombs of the martyrs. The former healthy Christian respect for the example of faith set by those who were martyred was now contaminated with the corrupt hero worship of Rome and turned into the saint worship of the following century..

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One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest -1975 DVD

Rating: ★★★★★

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest [1975] [DVD]

This 1975 classic portrayal of how the routine of an American psychiatric asylum turns upside down by one man, a disruptive, rebellious prisoner feigning madness, Randall P McMurphy, who was unforgettably portrayed by Jack Nicholson. It is a deceptively simple story, set within a stiflingly small world, the ward ruled by Nurse Ratched. 

With the potential to fail miserably, considering the bleak setting, it is at turns dramatic, frightening, funny, moving and uplifting. It is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Ken Kesey, a psychiatric nurse with a serious point well made, the lack of humanity in such institutions of the time. We may well feel we are on familiar ground here, since so many films, novels and TV series have similarly explored the dehumanising aspects of large institutions, for example, hospitals, prisons, schools and military establishments, all having received attention. Needless to say, if not the first, ‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ is a definite front runner. One could draw a comparison with ‘Hamlet‘, set within the confined court of Elsinore, and the central question, “Is he mad or isn’t he”?

The novel ( One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ) is told through the eye of the narrator, a mute Native American, Chief Bromden. It can take a while to follow him, as he explores the idea that the patients were the only sane, truly human people within a closed society forced into compliance by a powerful, machine-like, autocracy, using drugs and electro-convulsive treatment on the patients, and more subtle means on the lesser staff. The film opted for a more objective, conventional narrative, which reportedly infuriated Ken Kesey. The rumour is that he would never watch the film.

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In Britain and America, following recent Elections, fundamental questions are being raised about the nature of Democracy. In an era seemingly desperate for strong government, is a system that creates mega-personalities, with policies taking a second place,  “the best of all possible worlds?” Without straying into the party political arena, can any dispassionate observer see as ‘Democratic’, a system that functions by the consent of the majority, however slim that majority might be? Does history shed any light on how this came about?

“WE THE PEOPLE of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution.” These opening words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution indicate the founding fathers intended the United States to be a Democracy. Of Greek origin, “Democracy” means “rule of the people,” or as Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, famously defined it at Gettysburg: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Greece, itself recently experiencing  a ‘Pandora’s box’ of economic and political woe, is known as the cradle of Democracy, as Democracy originated in its city-states, notably in Athens, as far back as the fifth century B.C.E. But Democracy then was not what we recognize today. For one thing, Greek citizens were more directly involved in the ruling process. Every male citizen belonged to an assembly that met throughout the year to discuss current problems. By a simple majority vote, the assembly determined the politics of the city-state.

Women, slaves, and resident aliens, however, were excluded from enjoying political rights. Thus, Athenian Democracy was an elitist  form of Democracy for the privileged few. One half to four fifths of the population probably had no voice at all in political matters.

Nevertheless, this arrangement did promote freedom of speech, since voting citizens were granted the right to express their opinions before decisions were made. Political office was open to every male citizen.  Controls were designed to prevent misuse of political power, or tyranny.

“The Athenians themselves were proud of their Democracy,” says historian D. B. Heater. “They believed it was a step nearer than the alternative monarchy or aristocracy to the full and perfect life.”

It is probably true to say that today pure Democracy no longer exists. Considering the sheer size of modern states and their millions of citizens, governing in this way would be technically impossible. Besides, how many citizens in the busy world of today would have the necessary time to devote themselves to hours of political debate?

Democracy has grown into a controversial adult, with many faces.  As Time magazine explains: “It is impossible to divide the world into clear-cut democratic and non-democratic blocs. Within the so-called Democracies, there are gradations of individual freedom, pluralism and human rights, just as there are varying degrees of repression within dictatorships.” Yet, most people expect to find certain basic things under democratic governments, things like personal liberty, equality, respect for human rights, equitable taxation and justice by law.

This trend toward representative Democracy began in the Middle Ages. By the 17th and 18th centuries, earlier institutions, such as the Magna Charta and the Parliament in England, along with new political theories about the equality of men, natural rights, and sovereignty of the people, were  taking on greater meaning. The revolutions in America and France in particular, caused many to question long held ideals.

By the second half of the 18th century, the term “Democracy” had come into general use, though sometimes viewed with scepticism. The New Encyclopædia Britannica says: “Even the authors of the United States Constitution in 1787 were uneasy about involving the people at large in the political process. One of the signatories, Elbridge Gerry, called democracy ‘the worst of all political evils.’” Notwithstanding, men like Englishman John Locke continued to argue that government rests on the consent of the people, whose natural rights should be treated by politians as sacrosanct..

Many Democracies are republics, that is to say governments having a chief of state other than a hereditary monarch, now usually a president. One of the earliest republics was ancient Rome, although again, Democracy was admittedly limited. Nevertheless, the partially Democratic republic lasted for over 400 years before giving way to the dictatorial Roman Empire.

Republics are presently the most common kind of government. Of the 219 governments and international organizations listed in a recent  reference work, 127 are listed as republics, although not all are representative Democracies. In fact, the range of governmental forms of republics is wide.

Some republics are unitary systems, that is to say, controlled by a strong central government. Others are federal systems, meaning that there exists a division of control between two levels of government. As the name indicates, the United States of America has this latter type of system known as Federalism. The national government cares for interests of the nation as a whole, while state governments deal with local needs. An advantage of this arrangement should be greater flexibility, however it can lead to legislative anomalies, in Britain we sometimes call this a ‘postcode lottery’. Is there always a good distinction between national and local government, or does increasing bureaucracy lead to a wasteful inefficiency?

Some republics hold free elections. Their citizens may be offered a plurality of political parties and candidates from which to choose, this seems obvious, but the one party state is hardly unknown in modern times. Other republics consider free elections unnecessary, arguing that the Democratic will of the people can be carried out by other means, such as by promoting the collective ownership of the means of production. Ancient Greece serves as a precedent, since free elections were unknown there also. Administrators were chosen by lot and generally permitted to serve for only one or two one-year terms. Aristotle was against elections, saying that they introduced the aristocratic element of selecting the “best people.” A Democracy, however, was supposed to be a government of all the people, not just “the best.”

Even in ancient Athens, Democratic rule was controversial. Plato was sceptical. Democratic rule was considered weak because it lay in the hands of ignorant individuals easily swayed by the emotional words of popular agitators. Socrates implied that Democracy was nothing more than mob rule. And Aristotle argued, says the book A History of Political Theory, that “the more democratic a democracy becomes, the more it tends to be governed by a mob, . . . degenerating into tyranny.” Tactical voting, a label invoked whenever the opposition musters support against the favoured candidate, is not a thing of the past.

Other voices have expressed similar misgivings. Jawaharlal Nehru, former prime minister of India, called Democracy good, but then added the qualifying words: “I say this because other systems are worse.” And William Ralph Inge, English prelate and writer, once wrote: “Democracy is a form of government which may be rationally defended, not as being good, but as being less bad than any other.”

Democracy has several weaknesses. First, for it to succeed, individuals must be willing to place the welfare of the majority ahead of their own interests. It seems obvious, but if a candidate for office accepts an election result in his favour, he must logically accept it if the result is not in his favour. This might also mean supporting tax measures or other laws that may be personally disagreeable but necessary for the good of the nation as a whole.

Another weakness was detected by Plato. According to A History of Political Theory, he attacked “the ignorance and incompetence of politicians, which is the special curse of democracies.” Many professional politicians regret the difficulty in finding qualified and talented persons to serve in government. Elected officials may be little more than self-centred political amateurs. And in the era of mass media, a candidate’s good looks or charisma in a televised debate can win him votes that his administrative abilities never would.

Another obvious disadvantage of Democracies is that they are slow-moving. A dictator speaks, and things get done! Progress in a Democracy may be slowed down by endless debates, and powerful political lobbying. Of course, thoroughly discussing controversial issues can have definite advantages. Yet, as Clement Attlee, former prime minister of Britain, once observed: “Democracy means government by discussion but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.”

To what extent the decisions made are truly representative of what “the people” want is debatable. Legislative bodies are composed of individuals directly elected by the people, to represent them and to make laws for the benefit of all. Do representatives vote according to the convictions of the majority of their constituents, or according to  their own? Or do they simply rubber-stamp the official policy of their party?  Does the role of government ‘whips’ benefit  the cause of Democracy, party politics or practical law making?

The Democratic principle of having a system of checks and controls to prevent corruption is considered to be a good idea but is scarcely effective. Additionally, many are opposed to further central government regulation. However, loose regulation of  financial and banking services is widely cited as a reason for economic meltdown.   In 1989 Time magazine spoke of “governmental decay at all levels,” calling a leading Democratic government “a bloated, inefficient, helpless giant.” In Britain, the recent ministerial expenses scandals led to the near collapse of the elected  government.

Democratic rule has achieved greater acceptance in this century than ever before. The growing size and influence of the European Union bears this out. Nevertheless, “liberal democracy is now in serious trouble in the world,” wrote journalist James Reston some years ago. Daniel Moynihan warned that “liberal democracy is not an ascendant ideology” and that “democracies seem to disappear.” It seems obvious, but the best of governments cannot outlive the individual representatives, and generally only last a term or two before electoral defeat. Is there ever time to really make significant change, as so often promised?

For these and numerous other reasons, Democracies can hardly be called ideal governments. The obvious truth, as pointed out by John Dryden, 17th-century English poet, is that “the most may err as grossly as the few.” Henry Miller, American writer, was blunt, but nonetheless accurate, when he quipped: “The blind lead the blind. It’s the democratic way.”

Thomas Paine, vilified in his own time, much admired today, in the seminal  Rights of Man (1791), summed up governmental imperfections this way: “Government ought to be a thing always in full maturity. It ought to be so constructed as to be superior to all the accidents to which individual man is subject”. As  ‘man dominates man to his injury’,  all rule by man will only mirror the errors implicit in man (Eccl 8:9).

Altered Body Image- Anorexia and Bulimia

Today’s teenagers face demands and expectations, as well as opportunities and risks, that are more numerous and complex than only a generation ago. High divorce rates, ambiguous moral guidance, and complex media images all contribute to a lack of stability. Nonetheless, contrary to powerful stereotypes of teenagers as highly stressed, over-assertive, or incompetent, the majority attain adulthood with a positive self-conception and good relationships with both peers and older persons.

However, some teenagers do not have the circumstances, support or opportunities to gain competence and control over their own futures. Before looking at the psychological factors of weight gain or loss, it is essential to consider any physical health factors. To give just two, and there are many, weight gain is an unwelcome side-effect of many types of drugs, and weight loss is often an early sign of malignant disease.

It is now known that more than half the female population of the UK between the ages of 15 and 50 suffer from some form of eating problem, which gives an idea of the scale of the problem, and also, the many individual reasons there are for women to feel dissatisfied with their bodies. It should be noted moreover, that Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia are not solely female-oriented problems; there is an increasing incidence of both in males. There are many causative factors, but without doubt one is what doctors have called ‘the cult of slimness’, the malign side of the fashion industry. Fashion extremes are designed to influence people..

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William Whiston 1667- 1752

William Whiston was born in Leicestershire on 9th December 1667, the son of an Anglican clergyman. He is often simply dismissed as a devout eccentric. How accurate is this?

William Whiston was a brilliant Cambridge University colleague of Sir Isaac Newton. If you consult the English edition of the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (see section below), you will likely be reading the translation published by Whiston in 1736. Although other translations exist, his scholarly rendering, along with his notes and essays, has yet to be surpassed and is still in print. Many consider this work to be Whiston’s ultimate achievement.

Not to be overlooked, however, is the Primitive New Testament, Whiston’s translation of the Greek Scriptures. It was published in 1745, in his 78th year.

Love for the Bible was the motivation for what Whiston did. He lived in the ‘Age of Reason’ and Deism, the teaching that reason alone is an adequate basis for belief in God, was growing.  According to James E Force’s book William Whiston: Honest Newtonian , he strongly upheld “the traditionalist view that the Bible is the one infallible source of ancient history.” Sir Isaac Newton, foremost English scientist and philosopher, and author of the 1687 Principia Mathematica, had a profound effect on William Whiston. How?

After Whiston was ordained in 1693, he returned to Cambridge University to study mathematics and become an assistant to Newton. Three years later, Newton relinquished his position as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, and Whiston was appointed in his stead. Whiston lectured on astronomy and mathematics, but Newton’s influence also spurred him to take a deeper interest in Biblical chronology and doctrine.

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Life’s Dominion- an argument about Abortion and Euthanasia

Rating: ★★★★★

Life’s Dominion: Argument About Abortion and Euthanasia

Today, doctors command technology that can keep people alive, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for years. People near death, people under constant sedation, either through permanent incapacity or severe pain, people for whom there is little or no chance of improvement or recovery.

Most of us dread such a scenario, for ourselves or a loved one, life without thought or feeling, or to use the familiar analogy, a vegetable. Increasingly, people recognize the value of advance medical directives, legal documents stipulating that specified medical procedures should not be used to keep the signer alive under certain circumstances, and/or appointing someone else to make such decisions should the signer be unable.

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The Facts of Life- Shattering the Myth of Darwinism

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myth of Darwinism by Richard Milton

I initially picked up Richard Milton’s 1992 book (since revised in 1997), on the strength of the title, and as an introductory look at the evolution debate. It goes without saying that at present there are many more books for than against evolution, but for two reasons I was interested in this one. I too, believe evolution as taught fatally flawed, but also read both sides of the argument in order to understand more about the physical world, and also how men choose to present evidence (see  Darwin on Trial by lawyer Phillip Johnson). This issue is, I believe, of such importance, I welcome a trained journalist examining it.

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