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Practical approach

19 June 2015

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IS THE Pope a Communist? Is this a serious question, or one that serves the same rhetorical function as asking whether the Pope is Catholic? Analysis (Radio 4, Monday of last week) showed that there are people out there who really do think that the current pontiff is an abominable leftie, and that it does not help when one of his right-hand men is one Cardinal Marx.

Still, the accusation comes principally from right-wing "shock jocks" from the United States, such as Rush Limbaugh; and if you took seriously everything these people spouted, you would have enough straw men to fill St Peter's Square.

The Pope is not a Communist. The presenter, Edward Stourton, disabused us of this early on in his discussion. What is more interesting is the nature and origin of his political and economic thinking, and the more nuanced opposition that is forming against it.

The Pope's biographer Austen Ivereigh thinks that Pope Francis's politics might most easily be recognised in the Hollywood film The Mission. This tale of a group of Jesuits defending the rights of native South American Indians reflects a practical approach that eschews abstract ideology.

Pope Francis, we are told, is sceptical about the usefulness of lavish charity dinners and ostentatious do-gooding. You must make friends with the poor, and live among them. It is not a way of thinking which endears him to right-wing Roman Catholic economists, such as the director of the Institute for Economic Affairs, Philip Booth, who likened the Holy Father to Polly Toynbee.

Stephen Moore, of the US think-tank the Heritage Foundation, was similarly critical, suggesting that the Pope was "off-message". Stourton's retort was perfect: "I thought the Pope wrote the message."

Big Problems with Helen Keen (Radio 4, Wednesday), a promising comedy, breaks no new ground, but last week's offering, on the subject of death, easily broke what the film critic Mark Kermode has established as the requirement for good comedy: the six-laugh test.

It's a pretty low baseline for a 30-minute show, but you would be surprised how many radio comedies fail it, despite the fact that, as Keen demonstrated, you can get a computer to produce this stuff. Edinburgh University has developed a programme that can generate gags, and, when tested by Keen against jokes created by her human audience, the computer fared pretty well.

What you cannot get the computer to do, at least yet, is develop new forms of joke; they all sound like a Morecambe and Wise script. Similarly, we discovered on Five Live Science (Saturday) that music created by a computer tends to sound like the stuff you try to ignore in a hotel lobby.

The music, by Domenico Vicinanza, is designed to turn complex data-sets into auditory patterns. What the lazy eye might miss if presented in a series of graphs, the well-tuned ear may catch in a sequence of harmonies.

It is particularly pleasing to hear this feature in the context of a programme developed by the Naked Scientists: the Cambridge-based group whose radio shows had been threatened with extinction, but which have found a new and welcome platform.

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