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The overstatement of the present terrorist threat to the UK

PoliticsPosted by Jim Baker Thu, November 07, 2013 08:48PM
The director general of MI5 has claimed today that 34 terrorist plots in the UK have been foiled since 7/7, an average of about 4.3 a year.

This compares to the fact that there were at least 186 terrorist attacks in Great Britain between 1980 and 1996, an average of 11.6 a year. This figure does not include incidents in Northern Ireland, it does not include plots that were foiled before they even got started, and it does not include incidents before 1989 that did not result in death or injury.

Fewer than 60 people have been killed by Islamic terrorists in the UK since 2001. More than 3400 were killed in the Troubles between the late sixties and the late nineties.

MI5 and the government would have us believe that Islamic terrorism represents a significant threat to the UK and that as such the curtailing of various civil liberties can be justified. In actual fact the terrorist threat to this country has been very significantly less in the past decade than in the three or four decades previously, quite independently of the workings of MI5 and the police.

Brief notes on reliability of Bible manuscripts

ReligionPosted by Jim Baker Thu, October 24, 2013 11:42PM
I have just read this article here: http://www.e-n.org.uk/6419-Unapologetic-Christianity.htm. Bart Ehrman, the subject of the article, has estimated "400,000 variations" among New Testament manuscripts, which looks like a big number.

From my own work, I can report that there are approximately 5000 words in the Greek text of just one manuscript, Codex Bezae, that display "variation" by not being spelled in the standard way. There are also about 5000 Greek NT manuscripts altogether, so assuming Bezae is indicative we can predict that there may be about twenty-five million variant spellings in the entire corpus. (This estimation is far from exact for various reasons I won't go into, but it may well be about right.)

This is far more variation than even Ehrman estimates. But the point that needs making (and the article linked does make it) is that this sort of variation is basically irrelevant - it does next to nothing to change the meaning of the texts. Simply identifying variation, to whatever degree, does not prove the texts unreliable. What matters is variation that actually makes a difference to the meaning of the text - and there is not nearly so much of that, and when it does crop up there are generally reliable ways of working out what the original probably said.


Icons

WebsitePosted by Jim Baker Tue, September 03, 2013 04:49PM
Trying to pick icons to go with the different categories on the main page of my website. This is surprisingly difficult - two of the three categories at present are "Blog" and "Essays", and compounded with the likely future category "Fiction", picking a unique image for each is pretty hard.

Literary fiction

Writing/literaturePosted by Jim Baker Thu, August 22, 2013 08:28PM
Here is a link to an article I read today: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/10/its-genre-fiction-not-that-theres-anything-wrong-with-it.html

I don't want to give a detailed critique of every point in that article but rather to (briefly) contest its main argument: "good commercial [i.e. "genre"] fiction is inferior to good literary fiction". There seem to me to be at least a couple of problems with this.


One is that the argument is perhaps basically definitional. Works of the "genre" type have a tendency to be promoted to the "literary" type whenever they have sufficient "literary" characteristics. Thus for example 1984 would seem to fit the basic criteria for being considered science fiction - being set in (at the time of writing) the future and having various invented technologies at least one of which is pretty central to the story. Its general dystopian feel is replicated across the sci-fi genre. Yet, because 1984 also has plenty of "literary" characteristics, it may end up being regarded as "literary fiction" and not "science fiction". Of course, if you consider "literary" characteristics (fairly reasonably) as the core of what makes something good writing, and any piece of work that has enough literary characteristics magically ceases to be "genre" fiction and becomes "literary fiction", then the best works of the latter type are always going to be better than the best of the former.

Secondly, consider the example of a specific work: Macbeth. If I were to argue that this is the greatest piece of literature ever produced I don't think many people would regard this as particularly unreasonable, even if they personally disagree. But surely Macbeth satisfies the definition of "fantasy" - not to mention sword-fights and castles and other things that tend to pop up in fantasy works, it has witches, who are not mere irrelevances but the driving force of the plot, as well as a ghost. You could perhaps argue it is "magic realism", but that is somewhat dubious, and magic realism might just be a sub-type of fantasy anyway. We might say, then, that the greatest piece of literature ever produced belongs to the fantasy genre. And that would seem to confound somewhat the argument of the linked article.

I think it's also important to note that, even if the best "literary" fiction were better than the best "genre" fiction, it doesn't follow from this that not all literary fiction is better than all genre fiction, which is maybe what is assumed in some circles. I've read quite a lot of "literary" fiction - prize-winning literary fiction, even - which is, in my opinion, really really bad. Pretty prose (i.e. prose which clings to a certain narrow and probably fairly arbitrary definition of what is "good" writing) cannot make up for a book being absolutely awful in every other respect. I would go so far as to suggest that "literary" works are more likely to be really bad books than "genre" works. Done badly, the latter stand a good chance of being vaguely entertaining whereas the former just end up as pretentious purposeless pseudo-artistic drivel.



Hello

MetaPosted by Jim Baker Thu, August 22, 2013 07:54PM
Hello and welcome to my new blog. Here I intend to post thoughts that are too long for Twitter, probably at somewhat irregular intervals. Longer, more considered ramblings may go at http://seven-fifty.net/essays.htm (link doesn't yet go anywhere, but it will do in future) or elsewhere on the website, though I'll try and post links to them here if I remember.

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