News & Current Affairs

June 20, 2009

The value of a hobby

The value of a hobby

Balloons

Exotic hobbies are not always necessary

Perhaps wowing interviewers with your array of hobbies is not all that important after all, muses Laurie Taylor in his weekly column.

“Tell me Janice, why do you want to study sociology?”

I’d already asked five other applicants for an undergraduate place at York the same question that morning so I wasn’t exactly hanging on the answer.

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Laurie Taylor
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Just as well really. For although the sixth-former now occupying the interview chair in my office at least looked as though she recognised the question, she still delivered nothing more than the sort of stock reason which had no doubt been recommended by her school careers advisor.

“Well,” she said slowly, “I’ve always been interested in people.”

My fellow interviewer, a grumpy and overweight senior lecturer who’d never shown any interest whatsoever in any other person than himself, signalled his dissatisfaction with a grunt.

But I persisted. “So, Janice what exactly interests you about people?”

The candidate clearly hadn’t been trained to expect a follow-up question. She once more found herself distracted by the tips of her sensible interview shoes.

I tried to help out. “Are you interested in their differences? Or perhaps their similarities?”

Janice looked up with a sudden show of certainty. “Their differences,” she said. “Good,” I said with an encouraging smile. “And what sort of differences?”

I hoped against hope that she’d come up with some sort of answer so that my fellow interviewer would have to credit my line of questioning. But this was clearly a step too far. The silence began to stretch.

Janice looked for all the world as though she’d been suddenly asked to pontificate on the finer points of Kantian epistemology

“Differences in clothes?” I suggested helpfully. “Differences in style? Differences in class?” In court, they’d have called it leading the witness.

“All sorts of differences,” said Janice hopefully. My co-interviewer snorted again.

And even though it was the end of a long morning’s interviewing I was suddenly overcome by the feeling that I must somehow rescue this young woman from her extreme inarticulacy, somehow find a way in which she could, if not sparkle, at least emit a faint glow of comprehension or intelligence.

I quickly scanned her application form. Perhaps there was something here which would give the lie to her present inadequacy. But it was all purely routine.

A list of O-level successes and A-level aspirations and a reference from a headmaster which spoke of Janice as a “moderate to high achiever” who “had not always lived up to her potential but who was now gaining in maturity” and “could be expected to make the most of a university opportunity”. I suspected on the basis of these cliches that even I was already more familiar with Janice than her own headmaster.

Interview

Interviews can be harrowing experiences for many

I flipped over the page. Perhaps there’d be some meat for me to gnaw on in the “Hobbies” section. What did Janice get up to in her spare time? Yes, here it was. Hobbies. And there, in her neat rounded slightly backward sloping hand, Janice had written “Brass Rubbing”.

“Right,” I said, as though I’d been totally satisfied by her analysis of social differences, “let’s move on. I see that your hobby is brass rubbing. What interests you about brass rubbing?”

Janice looked for all the world as though she’d been suddenly asked to pontificate on the finer points of Kantian epistemology. Her face, which had never shown much more than a flicker level of animation throughout the interview, now assumed a total blankness.

I checked the form again. Had I misread her hobby? No, it was as plain as a pike-staff. I tried again. “Where do you do your brass rubbing?”

Bitter confession

Janice shuffled. Was she deciding between a range of cathedral tombs? Not at all. She looked up and I could see tears forming in her eyes.

“I don’t do it anywhere,” she said sadly. And then, almost as though she knew that matters could not get any worse, she poured out her bitter confession.

“I don’t even know what it is. I don’t know what brass rubbing is. But when we were filling in the UCCA form, our teacher said that we all had to have a hobby but when she asked the other girls in the class what their hobbies were no-one, except someone who did cooking at home, had a hobby.

“So the teacher had this list of hobbies like watching birds and collecting stamps and brass rubbing and she gave us one hobby each and I got brass rubbing.”

“So you don’t have a hobby of your own?” I asked gently. Janice was now in her stride. “No. I’ve never had a hobby. My mum and dad always told me I should have a hobby. But I never wanted a hobby. I had too many other things to do to bother with a hobby. You had to do hobbies by yourself. I didn’t want to do that.”

“Why?” I almost whispered. “Because,” Janice was now leaning forward, and even my grumpy co-interviewer was paying attention, “because, because, like I told you. Because I’m interested in people.”

I’m pleased to say Janice now lectures in sociology at a North East university.


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September 9, 2008

Why the fascination with the end of the world?

Why the fascination with the end of the world?

Artists impression of asteroid hitting earth, placard and mushroom cloud from French nuclear test

A huge particle accelerator experiment is about to start and a tiny group of people believe it could spell the end of the world. But why are we so obsessed with the possibility of apocalypse?

The world will end. That much is a certainty. But it may not be soon. And in all probability it will not come to a shuddering, fiery, boiling, cataclysmic end on Wednesday this week.

THE LARGE HADRON COLLIDER
At Cern on French-Swiss border
One of biggest and most expensive experiments in human history
Critics say micro black holes could be created, that could swallow the earth
Cern says any black holes will evaporate quickly and harmlessly
Effects will be less than cosmic ray collisions in atmosphere
LHC collisions could shed light on creation of universe
First beam on Wednesday
First collision later in year
Action ongoing at European Court of Human Rights to stop experiments
LHC Kritiks lead opposition

That is when the Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss/French border has its first full beam. The collider is a giant particle accelerator which, by smashing one particle into another, will tell us amazing things about the birth of the universe, scientists hope.

But there are a small but significant group of naysayers who worry that the LHC is not 100% safe. Opponents say it is possible the collider could produce micro black holes and dangerous “strangelets”, and that catastrophic effects from these cannot be ruled out.

In this worst case scenario the earth could very well have had its chips.

However, the consensus of physicists is that the collider is perfectly harmless. Micro black holes would vanish almost instantaneously.

But when you see a headline in a newspaper that says “Are we all going to die next Wednesday?”, one can’t help but wonder at our fascination with the idea of the end of the world.

FAILED PREDICTIONS
Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted end several times, but have stopped
Millerites predicted end of world for 22 October 1844 – day known to followers as Great Disappointment
Edgar C Whisenant wrote 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988 – followed up with predictions for 1989, 1993, and 1994
Argentinian goalie Carlos Roa gave up football in anticipation of end of world in 2000
Hal Lindsey in 1970’s The Late, Great Planet Earth linked end of world to the EU

Whether you refer to it as eschatology (religious theory of the end of the world), millenarianism, end time belief, apocalypticism, or disaster scenario, it is one of humanity’s most powerful ideas, and it goes way back.

“It is a very ancient pattern in human thought. It is rooted in ancient, even pre-biblical Middle Eastern myths of ultimate chaos and ultimate struggle between the forces of order and chaos,” says cultural historian Paul S Boyer, author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture.

“It is deeply appealing at a psychological level because the idea of meaninglessness is deeply threatening. Human societies have always tried to create some kind of framework of meaning to give history and our own personal lives some kind of significance.”

And although end of the world thinking crops up in many religions, those in the West are probably most aware of Christian eschatology. In the early days of the church it was taken as a given by many believers that the Second Coming and the end of the world were imminent.

Child holds placard

The concept of the world ending is key to mainstream Christianity

Mainstream Christianity moved away from this type of thought, but large numbers of believers returned to it at various times.

“It isn’t just the lunatic fringe, it’s an integral part of all Christianity. But [in mainstream Christianity] it is put into perspective that it may happen ‘one day’,” says Stephen J Hunt, a sociologist of religion and author of Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco.

“But certain groups and movements believe it is in their generation. They are saying we have got the truth and nobody else has.”

Cataclysmic scenarios

There have been many groups that have predicted the end of the world, or Tribulation, or Rapture, dealt with it not coming to pass and then issued new ones.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have issued predictions about cataclysmic scenarios that have manifestly failed to come to pass, only ceasing predictions of the end in recent years. Failed predictions seem not to have alienated core believers. Indeed, it is denied by some that specific predictions – as opposed to speculation based on scripture – have ever been made.

RELIGIOUS AND SECULAR
“End of world” concepts include:
Destruction of planet
Extinction of human race
Significant change in situation of human race
Secular scenarios include:
Catastrophic climate change
Asteroid or comet strike
Massive nuclear war
Destabilisation of earth or moon orbit
Religious scenarios include:
Islam refers to “last judgement”
Some Buddhists believe in disappearance of Buddha’s teachings
Christian end of world linked to second coming of Jesus
Hindus believe in cycle of ages
Zoroastrians may have had first codified end of world theory

No such luck applied to the 19th Century Millerite sect, led by William Miller. He didn’t just predict the end would be soon. He nailed the day – 22 October 1844. As the day neared the sect’s popularity snowballed, with thousands of newspapers sold. Only one thing was able to derail the movement’s popularity – the safe and unexpected arrival of 23 October 1844. The failure of the world to end was known as the “Great Disappointment” and followers left in droves.

“The current prophecy popularisers are much shrewder,” says Prof Boyer. “They say no man knoweth the day or the hour, but it’s coming soon.”

Carlos Roa thought he kneweth the hour. The Argentinian goalkeeper, best known for his penalty heroics against England in the 1998 World Cup, refused to countenance a new contract at Real Mallorca as the year 2000 approached because he believed the world was going to end and he needed to prepare. When it didn’t he was soon donning the gloves back in Mallorca.

And for all it is easy to mock those who have tried and failed, thinking about the ways the world might end, or the timing, may be fulfilling a basic human need.

Edition of The End is Nigh

Eschatology is of interest to both academics and curiosity hunters

“It comes down to an issue of power,” says Michael Molcher, editor of the magazine The End is Nigh. “What you get during times of particular discontent or war or famine or during general bad times is a rise in apocalyptic preaching and ideas.

“It is a way for people to control the way their world works. The one thing we can never predict is the time and manner of our own deaths.”

The great periods of millenarianism – Europe around the year 1000, the English Civil War, the Industrial Revolution on both sides of the Atlantic, and the 20th Century – have been periods of intense turbulence. Putting an eschatological spin on current events is extremely tempting.

“A lot of fundamentalists are what we call ‘sign watching’. If there’s another tornado in Florida it must be a punishment,” says Dr Hunt.

Sometimes the links to the temporal world can be tortuous to say the least. A common theme on the fringes of Christian millenarianism is a revived Roman Empire led by the Antichrist and consisting of 10 European nations. The theme is drawn out from the description of a beast with 10 horns in the book of Revelation.

THE TERMINOLOGY
Eschatology: Religious theory of the end of the world
Millenarianism: In Christianity, belief in coming of thousand year golden age linked with second coming of Christ
Apocalypticism: Belief based on end of present world order
End time: The end of the world or the end of the current age

It was historically linked to the EU, but now there are 27 members attention has shifted to the 10-nation Western European Union.

And these end times beliefs seem easily to find their way into popular culture. The Left Behind series of novels have sold millions and cinema-goers have happily trooped in to see three instalments of the Omen.

But it is wrong to say that belief that the world could be about to end is entirely confined to religious people. When the Cold War was going on, the likely culprit was nuclear weapons, at the moment it might be a catastrophic climate change scenario that leaves the world intact, but humanity gone. And Mr Molcher’s favourite prediction of recent years involved a woman who was convinced that Chinese plans to build a base on the moon would throw its orbit out and send it hurtling towards earth.

Seventh Day Adventist next to poster for exhibition on the end of the world

Many religious groups have made more than one prediction

And end of the world believers, whether religious or not, have one thing going for them. The world will, one day, end.

And there are still plenty willing to name a date.

Preacher Ronald Weinland’s book 2008 – God’s Final Witness, predicts that the US will be destroyed within two years.

Sadly anybody wanting to find out more by e-mail receives an automated response. One can only assume he is too busy preparing for the end that is nigh.


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August 28, 2008

‘I have a dream’

‘I have a dream’

Courtesy BBC

On 28 August, 1963, Martin Luther King delivered his magnificent “I have a dream speech” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Below is the full text of his speech.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.

America has given the Negro people a bad cheque which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’

But 100 years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

And so we’ve come here today to dramatize an appalling condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a cheque. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this cheque – a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Sweltering summer… of discontent

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.

There will be neither rest nor tranquillity in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: in the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realise that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back.

Trials and tribulations

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights: “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied and we will not be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

The dream

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning: “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California.
But not only that.
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Martin Luther King Centre logo

Permission granted by Intellectual Properties Management, Atlanta, Georgia, as manager of the King Estate. Further to Dr King’s legacy by making community service a way of life, please visit the King Center’s website [under related links] to find a service opportunity in your neighbourhood.

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