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The fruits of the earth (1)

… and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth … replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over … every living thing that moveth upon the earth … I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. [Gen, Ch 1 v26-29, KJV]

The single biggest time sink in my life has been software.

By that I mean that software is the activity which has given me the worst return. The best ballpark number I can come up with is several thousand hours (spread over several decades) for negligible useful result.

Of course, it all depends how you group activities. Most of us waste a quite alarmingly large number of the available minutes. There are 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, or 8760 hrs/year. Well, if you make the basic Julian correction of adding in a leap year every four years, that is 8766 hrs/year. But accuracy is unimportant, because we have to deduct sleep. Allowing for a few other activities which are hard to combine with others, we might deduct a third giving us 5840. Let’s round that down a little. Each of us has the same basic resource: 5,000 hours of time every year.

These days most people work 40 hours of less for 48 weeks or less, which is 1920, call it 2,000 hours a year. Those who are making a serious effort to get to the top of their field work double that. I have occasionally worked more than 80 hours/week. I remember a corporate finance transaction in my thirties when I worked 120/hours week for the two weeks before “impact day”. I then collapsed into bed for a day.

When I was in the Treasury, I noticed that to be Chancellor or Prime Minister it definitely helped to thrive on 5 hours sleep a night. Maybe those kind of people can work over 100 hours/week for long periods. I certainly cannot. Perhaps I should caveat that. Mercifully, I have never experienced wartime. Certainly there are plenty of autobiographies of people working long hours in wartime for periods of a few years. Whether such conditions allow everyone to work harder, or just bring those with the right genes to position where they later write autobiographies, I am not clear.

Also, of course, it depends hugely what kind of work you are talking about. Or maybe not. I am not sure about that.

In any case, 5000 hours is surprisingly high. There is far more time available than most of us think. What do we do with all those hours? I remember some email exchanges with a guy in New York a few years back. He was incredibly well-read in literature. And he hadn’t just scanned it quickly. He had interesting and thoughtful things to say about it. So how, I asked him, did he find time to read all this stuff. Well, he explained, he always had a book with him and was ruthless about reading it every spare moment.

Even so, my software time sink really bugs me. Part of the reason is the quotation at the top. I looked up the first Chapter of Genesis, because my memory of it is always somewhat garbled. I tend to remember it simply as: God gave us dominion over the earth; He gave us the fruits of the earth.

But the gift was well wrapped up. The idea was that we would only gradually discover how to harvest those fruits. For that, science was key. There is no time here to go into the gross misrepresentations of the Catholic Church’s attitude towards science in any detail. Suffice to say that one appealing feature of the Catholic Church is that it is deeply rational, as well as deeply mystical. Indeed, it can reasonably claim to have been a major proponent of science and other rational activities through the millennia.

Of course, it has many flaws, because it is staffed by people and all of us have many flaws. Things like the crusades and its attitudes to women or to temporal power for much of its existence are hard to defend.

It is certainly true that the bout of reform kicked off by John XXIII has some way to go. Benedict XVI, one of my favourite popes, did a masterly job of postponing the new Catechism until emotions had cooled a little, and he was one of the best papal theologians of all time, but there is still a major reform agenda. Maybe Francis is intending to carry it out; he certainly looks cannier and more thoughtful than most people seem to think.

I suppose my dream is tied up with Teilhard de Chardin and building the new Jerusalem. That is the concept that heaven and earth are not two entirely separate places, linked in a mysterious way by an interface mainly noticeable in the Eucharist and private prayer. Instead, part of the Church’s role is to build the New Jerusalem here on earth. We do that by gradually acquiring the mastery over material things that God bequeathed us.

On that I am passionate. We have barely scratched the surface with molecular biology, electronics and software. Well, those are the clear-cut cases; no doubt many more will emerge as the project gradually progresses.

What is completely clear is that there is abundance. But figuring out how to pull the levers (science and engineering) is only part of it. The other part is the great project of learning to cooperate and to curb our selfish urges.

Better communications have made a big difference. Our television screens and newspapers give ample detail of life in far-away places. The young often react with an idealistic urge to sort out the great North-South divide.

Unfortunately, the whole business is much more subtle than many of the most persuasive advocates seem to think. It is easy to focus too much on a detail and miss essential background, and too many people make too little effort to look closely at their own motivations. It is easy for most of us to spot cases like Ron Hubbard, but many leading figures in the environmental movement might look a little more closely at their prejudices and objectives. I am tired of the nonsense on nuclear power and global warming and saddened by the misdirection of youthful energy and altruism.

What is one to make of Tony Blair, now that the dust has settled? I mention him partly because of the accounts of how his diary in Number 10 was kept in blocks of 5 minutes. Life as PM is hectic with little time for reflection. Should the verdict of history on Blair be entirely negative, or does he deserve some credit for helping Dubwa to lead the US into yet another major foreign policy blunder? Did he mean well? Even if he did, can such a smart guy be forgiven for ignoring all the advice on the stupidity of invading Iraq? Did he actually believe the nonsense about weapons of mass destruction? Or maybe making better use of all those minutes is trickier than it looks.

What about Big Pharma? Is there anything to be said in its defence, or is it largely evil? Or does the blame lie with all the corrupt and lazy politicians who have assisted it in peddling overpriced, overhyped drugs? Or with spineless regulators?

God is the ultimate teacher. He gives us challenges, both individually and collectively, that are within our capacity, but only just. He is constantly stretching us to the limit. It is easy to say that is because he wants us to learn to rely on Him, not ourselves. That is certainly part of it. Examples of people who start well and then go off the rails are everywhere (take E-ba-gum as Carrington called him); that is why the Church is constantly urges us to beware of pride. But God is also trying to show us that we can be far, far better than we imagine in our wildest dreams.

[It is hard to believe that this started as a rather detailed article about the infuriating mess that successive third-party package managers have made to some aspects of my iMac desktop. I am now on my third attempt to sort out /usr/local and get ruby, git, brew and a few other things working properly. My attempts to put things in perspective have already driven me well over the usual thousand word guideline.]

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