in this world

In a semantics tutorial not so long ago, I bizarrely found myself saying something like, “Obviously, in this world, you wouldn’t blah blah (be able to find an extension for that phrase, or something).”

The slightly peculiar reaction from the student I was talking to reminded me (a) that they haven’t actually been told about ‘possible worlds’ theories yet, and (b) that anyway ‘this world’ is a phrase which maybe only trips off my tongue so easily because of how familiar is the concept that there is another world in addition to the one we presently live in.

But the thing is, I’ve been uncomfortably realising recently that the other world is much more distant from my thoughts than it should be, and having much less of an impact on my daily life than it really should. Whoever it was that said it, it’s true – eternity is just a step away; the only thing that separates us from the eternal world is the breath we breathe. It’s too common and far too easy to assume that things will carry on here just as they always have done – and more subtly, that we ourselves personally will always still be here. (It’s only very rarely that you seriously face up to the absolute certainty that it won’t be all that long before your life here will be irrevocably ended.) Whereas this mindset is glaringly counterfactual. ‘Change and decay in all around I see’ – nothing in this life is constant or perpetual, and grasping the implications of that would make a world of difference to how we live, if only we would grasp it.

Leaving the scene of time and stepping into eternity – that’s what our whole lives here are geared towards, and eternity is much more real, and much more near, than I for one really tend to acknowledge. It’s also much more important. ‘Teach us to number our days, and so to apply our hearts unto wisdom. O satisfy us early with thy mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.’ Let it be true, that ‘surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’

‘in no wise’

Another snippet from John Bunyan’s quotable little treatise:

“It is manifest that it was not the greatness of sin, nor the long continuance in it, no, nor yet the backsliding, nor the pollution of thy nature, that can put a bar against, or be an hindrance to, the salvation of the [sinner coming to Jesus] …

Suppose that one man had the sins of, or as many sins as, an hundred men, and suppose another should have an hundred times as many as he; yet if they come, this word, ‘I will in no wise cast out,’ secures them both alike.

Suppose a man hath a desire to be saved, and for that purpose is coming in truth to Jesus Christ, but he by his debauched life has damned many in hell; why, the door of hope is by these words set as open for him, as it is for him that hath not the thousandth part of his transgressions: ‘And him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out.’

Suppose a man is coming to Christ to be saved, and hath nothing but sin, and an ill-spent life, to bring with him; why, let him come and welcome to Jesus Christ, ‘And he will in no wise cast him out.’

Is not this love that passeth knowledge? is not this love the wonder of angels? And is not this love worthy of all acceptation at the hands and hearts of all coming sinners?”

These considerations are obviously mainly intended to act as an encouragement to people who are already worried about their sin in a way that makes them at least wonder if there is mercy available from Christ for them – and even more specifically in the context of the book itself, people who might be worried that their sin would be a reason why there would be no hope for them in the gospel. Clearly Bunyan’s words are not meant, for example, to let people think that gospel mercy licences them to carry on absorbed in things that are opposed to the gospel and in the neglect of their souls.

Bunyan’s message here is to show how the Saviour is a Saviour for sinners, however sinful they might be, which is not a trivial consideration to people who find sin in everything they do. Sinners are not excluded from the gospel offer: the gospel is offered in fact to sinners as such; and as the final sentence in the quote shows, the undeservingness of the people it’s offered to is one of the greatest incentives to accept it.

(Other excerpts from the same book here and here.)

John Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ: A Plain and Profitable Discourse on John 6: 37. First published 1681, my edition 1820, p192

privacy in scotland

This motion is apparently going to be debated in the Scottish Parliament tomorrow:

That the Parliament believes that the fundamental liberties enjoyed by generations of our citizens must not be eroded;
welcomes the commitment by the previous Scottish Executive that ID cards would not be needed to access devolved services and its proportionate position on DNA retention;
is concerned at the threat to civil liberties from the UK Government’s expensive and unworkable proposal to introduce compulsory ID cards;
believes that the Scottish Government should not put citizens’ privacy at risk by allowing the UK ID database to access personal information held by the Scottish Government, local authorities or other devolved public agencies;
therefore calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that all data protection procedures are secure and that audit of data under its jurisdiction is independent of government and accountable to the Parliament,
and takes the view that there should be no blanket retention of DNA samples and that the Assistant Information Commissioner for Scotland should have specific powers to carry out spot checks on the compliance by Scottish government agencies and bodies with the Data Protection Act 1998.

It will be interesting to see what they say. Already in Scotland some fears have been raised about the so-called Scottish Entitlement Card, which people apply for on the basis that it acts as a free bus pass, but which requires them to waive their data protection rights in order for their personal information to be shared across unspecified other government departments, on the basis that this will give them easier access to other government services which may be provided via the card in the future. (In theory there is an opt-out, so that your personal details will be used only for the purpose of getting you the bus pass you’re entitled to but for no other purposes, but, as John Welford has been documenting, it’s not so easy to achieve in practice.)

I’m a bit unclear as to the procedures of the Scottish Parliament and what the implications of any outcome of this debate will be, but if (in the wake of the multiple data loss scandals of the past few weeks) our elected representatives in the Scottish Parliament decide that identity register schemes are not in the interests of ordinary members of the public, some change of policy on the much-vaunted ‘free bus pass’ might well be required.

not intellectual

Top CIA man says,

“Like a lot of Americans, I’m involved in this internal, intellectual battle with myself weighing the idea that water-boarding may be torture versus the quality of the information that we often get after using the water-boarding technique. And I struggle with it.”

Thing is, it’s not really an intellectual problem, it’s a moral problem, and it would be a shame to think that lots of Americans are really making this confusion.

He doesn’t even give an accurate description of the second alternative. That word should strictly be “quantity,” not quality.

What a world we live in.

fraudulence still unproven

Now here’s a misleading headline:

Lie detector finds benefit cheats

Apparently for the past few months Edinburgh City Council has been trialling some sort of automatic voice analysis software to detect whether people are lying on the phone.

The report states that phonecalls with 75 people have been analysed, and the package has flagged 25 of them as requiring further investigation – ie, a third of the sample.

The problem is that the outcome of this further investigation is not reported in the article (if indeed it has been carried out). So we have no idea whether the system is actually accurate. Perhaps it’s too sensitive, and gives more false alarms than correct identification of suspect speakers. All that the package can do is identify acoustic patterns which may indicate that the speaker is under stress of some sort – it can’t tell if the speaker is actually telling a lie, or intending to cheat the system – so it’s clearly important to establish the actual sensitivity and specificity of its outputs.

(An earlier article claims that by comparing measurements with the recording made of the speaker’s voice at the start of the phonecall, it will be possible to ensure that “nervousness or shyness” can be excluded as sources of the acoustic patterns. But ‘ensure’ is somewhat optimistic; there’s no real guarantee that the speaker’s first utterance of the phonecall will be representative of their typical unstressed speech. It’s also odd that the 75 speakers mentioned in the article were called by the council, not callers to the council, and the basis for the council selecting these particular benefits claimants is not stated. The acoustic patterns of people answering an unexpected phonecall would presumably be much more variable than those of people who have sat down to call up the council in their own time, making comparisons even harder to interpret.)

Just as odd is the fact that none of these suspect 25 people have actually been found to be cheating the system. The article mentions a case in which “one Edinburgh resident was recently sentenced to 150 hours community service for claiming more than £11,000 in benefits over five years while she was employed.” But since there’s no claim whatsoever that she was caught as a result of the ‘phone lie detector’ system, the relevance of this anecdote is pretty unclear.

Perhaps people are deterred from making false benefit claims on the basis that a mysterious voice analysis program might catch them telling lies, and perhaps some of the 25 flagged speakers are genuinely suspicious, but what the council has failed to demonstrate (at least going by what the article reports) is that the technology has actually made any concrete contribution to identifying benefit cheats. “Voice change detector seems to be identifying voice changes” might have been a more accurate way of putting it.

been here before

Re Jacqui Smith’s proposed 42-day detention limit, I’ve said it all before. So just read this again, substituting her name for John Reid’s in the first paragraph, and adding her name to the list in the penultimate paragraph.

(Do I get to categorise this as phonology for casually using the word penultimate?)