Three stunning articles in the Guardian this morning…

This would probably be something better suited for the linklog, but the sheer incidence of really interesting articles in the Guardian’s combined Life/Online supplement today bears extended comment. Sometimes each section has a bit of an off-week, but not today! At least three articles that are worth extended perusal.

First off there’s a fascinating and even-handed article on how people experience religious feeling and sentiment: Religion may be a survival mechanism. So are we born to believe?. Now obviously by implying that there’s anything to do with survival and evolution going on in the constructuion of human beings, this article is going to alienate some religious people. But beyond the potentially disconcerting concept of applying the concept of scientific research to religious sentiment, there’s little else here to offend people with strong spiritual beliefs. The article can be read in two ways – either as a rationalist debunking and explanation of religion or as an examination of what happens biologically when someone genuinely experiences the presence of God. As a confirmed and long-standing atheist, I choose to read it as an interesting explanation of why people choose to believe such counter-intuitive things – but there’s something here for everyone, and I applaud Ian Semple for writing it so elegantly:

Newberg has been criticised for his investigations into the essence of spiritual experience – the most vehement attacks coming from atheists. “Some people want me to say whether God is there or not, but these experiments can’t answer that. If I scan a nun and she has the experience of being in the presence of God, I can tell you what’s going on in her brain, but I can’t tell you whether or not God is there,” he says. Religious groups point out that there is more to religion than extreme experiences. It is a criticism Newberg acknowledges. “The problem is, the people who have these experiences are so much easier to study,” he says.

Another fascinating article is in real Lakoffian territory – so it’s great to see him name-checked in the article a couple of times. It’s about a fairly isolated people who have completely different metaphors for time – believing the past to lie ahead of them and the future to be behind:

The Aymara word for past is transcribed as nayra , which literally means eye, sight or front. The word for future is q”ipa , which translates as behind or the back. The Jesuits undoubtedly noticed this oddity in the 16th century, when they ventured up into the mountains to spread the word. More recently, linguistic anthropologists have puzzled over what it means. In 1975, Andrew Miracle and Juan de Dios Yapita Moya, both at the University of Florida, observed that q”ip¸ru , the Aymara word for tomorrow, combines q”ipa and uru , the word for day, to produce a literal meaning of “some day behind one’s back”.

And finally and on more familiar weblog-like territory, there’s an article on Posting for Profit – running weblogs for cash – by Bobbie Johnson:

In fact, for all but a select few, this city of gold will always prove elusive. Instead, it seems the real way to make money from weblogs is not from producing the final product, but in delivering services to bloggers eager to live the dream.

Take Evan Williams, one of the founders of, the pioneering personal publishing firm whose easy-to-use software helped put weblogs on the map. Six years ago, he was starting up a small software firm with a handful of friends. In 2003, the company was bought by search giant Google in an undisclosed big-money deal. Last year, he decided to leave the Mountain View firm, safe in the knowledge he had trousered enough to give him ample time to decide on his next step.

Obviously there’s stuff in the article that I’m not totally sure I agree with – I’m hoping that the main motivation for people to start a weblog is not a financial one, although I could be wrong about that. To be fair – one of the main reasons I like it (other than it’s mention of Jason’s attempts to go pro) is that he incorporated the phrase “he had trousered enough [money]”, which is frankly glorious. But even if that had been excised, there’s enough here of interest and intrigue about the emerging financial aspects of webloggia to open a few people’s eyes. Awesome stuff. Bring on next week’s issue…

3 replies on “Three stunning articles in the Guardian this morning…”

believing the past to lie ahead of them and the future to be behind
Or, more precisely, the past is that which is known, and stretches out in front of them, in plain view to the horizon — the beginning of time — and the future is that which is unknown, and creeps up and surprises you. Reminds me of the Dreamtime in Aboriginal culture, and other ‘spirit quest’ cultures, where historical time is mapped to landscape, and venturing out is tied to encountering one’s ancestors.
(It also reminds me that ‘putting a meeting back’ in English is a deeply ambiguous phrase.)

Also in ancient Greek, opisthen: of place, ‘behind’; of time ‘after, in future, hereafter’ (LSJ)
On the grounds that you can see the past (so it lies visibly before you) but the future is unknown (so you can’t see it, because it is behind you)
So not that different from at least one Western language.

P. Young is right about the Greek. Bernard Knox published a book in 1994 called Backing into the Future, in which he wrote:

Modern readers confronted with a book title that reads Backing into the Future may well come to the conclusion that it is a reference to the amusing film produced in 1985 called Back to the Future. But in fact the source of the title is much older. The phrase is based on a number of expressions found in ancient Greek literary texts: the chorus’s description of its bewilderment in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, for example—“not seeing what is here nor what is behind”—or the characterization of an older man in Homer’s Odyssey as “the only one who sees what is in front and what is behind.” The natural reaction of the modern reader is to understand the first of these expressions as “not seeing the present nor the past,” and the second as “who sees the future and the past.” But the Greek word opiso, which means literally “behind” or “back,” refers not to the past but to the future. The early Greek imagination envisaged the past and the present as in front of us—we can see them. The future, invisible, is behind us. Only a few very wise men can see what is behind them; some of these men, like the blind prophet Tiresias, have been given this privilege by the gods. The rest of us, though we have our eyes, are walking blind, backward into the future.

It’s a good introduction to classical thought in a lot of ways, mostly collected essays from The New York Review of Books and other U.S. “highbrow” sorts of place, but I still got the sense that Knox very much loved his work. Particularly check out his take on Charles Martin’s Catullus translations, if you pick up the book.

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