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26 May, 2008

Thank You NASA

Just congratulations and thank you to NASA for continuing to inspire the world. Their Phoenix spacecraft touched down in the Martian arctic last night (zulu) after a damned-near perfect flight and descent. The ship has travelled 422 million miles and was right on target! The pictures are starting to come in now but it's the science I'm waiting for.

Part of Phoenix's brief is to drill into the Martian permafrost and study the ice below the surface. There are lots of reasons for this. Partly it's to see what resources might be available to later crewed missions, partly it's to look for signs of ancient life, and partly it's just plain old curiosity. This is the first time we've been so far north on Mars (68 degrees) - talk about terra incognita!

So, thanks guys. Outstanding work! And I hope the rest of the mission goes as smoothly.

22 May, 2008

Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Herbalist To Live

Does US Presidential candidate John McCain believe in witches, I wonder?

I ask because on Tuesday night, local time, a mob rampaged around a district in Kenya with a list of suspected witches burning down their houses. They burnt 30 houses in all, killing 11 women in total, most of them between 70 and 90 years old. And it got me thinking.

It's always shocking to me when people let their fantastic beliefs get so out of hand that they start killing people. It must have been even more shocking when Christians were doing the same thing some years ago in Europe and the US. (The last execution of a witch that I know of in Europe was in 1738 when two German women were executed. However, the last bit of witch-hunting I know of in the West was December 1999, when a student in Oklahoma, USA was suspended from school accused of casting spells. Of course, it still goes on in Africa and the Middle East – but then, what doesn't?)

So back to my question. If John McCain is elected president, can we expect a more vigorous clamp-down on witchcraft in the home of the brave? I ask because John McCain – one of the saner Republican politicians as far as I can tell - is a Baptist.

This means, for instance, that he believes, “The Scriptures, consisting of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, are the infallible Word of God. They were written by holy people of God inspired by the Holy Spirit and have supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.” (This quotation is from the Baptist credo as approved by their 1979 Assembly, amended to gender inclusive language following 2002 and 2003 Assemblies.) And therefore, this means he must follow the injunction in Exodus 22:18, namely, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.'

I've mentioned some of the more ludicrous passages from the Bible before, so I won't dwell on how screwed up you'd have to be to believe this nonsense. Let me instead use their creation myth as an example. Since McCain believes that Genesis is “the infallible Word of God”, he therefore, I suppose, believes what Creationists believe – that the world was made by a magical being sometime around six thousand years ago. Human beings were made then, along with all the animals, all the plants, our planet, in fact, everything. Fair enough. Lots of loonies believe such things. However, consider this, McCain is also an advocate of reducing carbon emissions to help mitigate human-induced climate change. How does he square this with the fact that most of the evidence for climate change depends very heavily on the assumption that the Earth is rather more than 6,000 years old? I can't imagine. Even the last ice-age – something extremely recent in geological terms – ended 13,000 years ago. For Pete's sake, the original settlement of his own continent happened more than seven thousand years before McCain believes the world was created!

So, if a man like this, steeped in magical fantasies, who regularly talks to invisible beings (I don't know if they talk back to him), who can think ten contradictory things before breakfast, were to become head of state of the United States of America, might he not feel it is his duty to persecute witches? It seems quite plausible that a man with such beliefs might do any crazy thing.

Incidentally, there is an interesting article by Alexei Kondratiev on the Proteus Library site suggesting Exodus 22:18 was mistranslated and that it is 'herbalists' not witches who are the bad guys that God wants us to persecute. Wow, I think if I was an American herbalist, I would definitely vote for the other guy!

16 May, 2008

What is going on at Blogger?

I'm getting pretty fed up with Blogger. It has been nothing but trouble in the past week or so.

One of the big problems is in the page layout code. I can't change the layout on my pages and I can't add new page elements. Irritatingly, the error message is simply 'errors on page'! Not exactly user friendy! Blogger's 'Help Centre' is a morass. There is almost no chance of finding a fix there. I found two other people who had reported an identical error - but that was back in 2007 and no-one had posted a fix. Someone who had posted a similar error got a reply saying stop using Internet Explorer and change to Firefox. So I tried this and, with Firefox I couldn't even log on to my blog admin page. This time the error message was an alphanumeric string of about ten random characters! Gee, thanks, Blogger.

The other big problem is that AdSense - Google's advert placement scheme - keeps telling me it can't 'crawl' my blog pages because it has been denied access. This means no revenue! The AdSense help pages explain how to adjust my settings to make it work - but only for a hosted domain of my own, not for Blogger or any other hosted blog site. Wonderful!

I've had good service from Blogger for almost two years now and I'm reluctant to switch - but this is becoming so frustrating that I may have to. Other people I know seem to prefer Wordpress - and perhaps I can see why now.

09 May, 2008

There's More To Life Than You Can Imagine

David Attenborough is someone I admire immensely. I saw an episode of his latest series Life in Cold Blood the other day and I was impressed all over again by the incredible complexity, diversity and beauty of Life. It's enough to make you feel sorry for those poor people who believe in gods.

There was a frog in the episode. The male, who looks about a quarter of the size of the female, is too small to get his arms around his mate's body, so he can't hang on while they have sex. So the little guy exudes glue from his belly and sticks himself to the female's back! What's more, these frogs live in a hostile, arid environment and they need to be underground sheltering from the heat rather than frolicking on the surface like moonstruck calves. So the female frog digs a burrow, with her prospective mate still glued to her back, and they mate underground.

Now this isn't the weirdest thing in Nature. Not by a long chalk. But who could have imagined such a way of life? Not us, for sure. Our imaginations are just not that good. Which is why I feel sorry for the poor god worshippers. Since none of their beliefs about the universe are real, they are limited to what people can imagine. Worse, they are limited to what people once imagined at the time their sacred texts were written, and are now fixed (barring a little embellishment by theologians from time to time). Of course, the old fantasists certainly had their moments – the world on the back of a turtle, twenty-seven virgins for every martyr, the creation of the world happening just a few thousand years ago – but mostly it is all stultifyingly dull and simplistic. Childish, actually.

When you compare these ancient yarns with what Nature shows us, there really is no comparison. Consider the fractal beauty of a tree, the bizarre but elegant 'standard model' of quantum mechanics, the existence of shrimps that pick up grains of sand and drop them into holes in their heads to use as ballast, the grand, swirling ballet of stars, dust and gasses in a galaxy, the deep mystery of electromagnetic fields, the way the brain uses cilia in a spiral cochlear to sense different frequencies of sound, the many kinds of blood chemistry that exist for the transport of oxygen around so many different kinds of bodies, the existence of quarks, the sheer number of things – atoms, stars, brain cells, species of nematode worm – and the incredible sizes of things – the distance from here to the Oort cloud, the spacing of molecules in a quartz crystal, the 'walls' of galaxies that span the universe, the nano-fibres on a butterfly's wing that give it such iridescent colours.

It is all so breathtaking and astonishing and none of it, none of it at all, was dreamed of by the people who fantasised about gods instead of looking with open minds and receptive hearts at what is really out there in the world.

And the little guys in the picture above are pine processionary caterpillars - 16 of them - photographed by me this morning. They walk around in nose-to-tail processions like this at this time of year, looking for a good place to pupate. Now which religious text ever imagined anything like that!

06 May, 2008

So now I'm a writer. Maybe.

Thing is, I write all the time. I write this stuff. I write stories. I write books. Trouble is, I'm a disillusioned, cynical writer who feels that getting anything published is such a lottery that it isn't worth even trying. I don't buy lottery tickets, or scratchies, or raffle tickets, and I don't submit my writing to publishers for the same reason - the odds are too long.

So how come I'm here at a 'writer's retreat' on beautiful Bribie Island off the Queensland coast? Well, it's a long story - which I won't bore you with - but, basically, I won the lottery (a writing competition) and the prize was this.

And for the first time in my life I have spoken to a publisher, a very charming lady called Bernadette Foley at Orbit (the speculative fiction bit of Hatchette Livre in Australia). Not only did I speak to her but we spoke about my latest manuscript - a novel called Time and Tyde - which she'd read! What's more, she had read it carefully and said such flattering things about it that she's achieved the unthinkable and given me hope. Of course, I may live to curse her for toying with my emotions like this, but right now I'm thinking 'Well, maybe I should give this publication thing another go.'

And what does that mean in practical terms? Have I rushed out and stuffed a dozen envelopes with short stories and novels and cast them on the winds of chance? Not a bit of it. What I've actually done is to start another blog (how many is that now?) This one, called 'Graham Storrs' (that's me, by the way) is intended to chart my progress as I try to get Time and Tyde published and to talk about my other literary endeavours.

It seems us writers need to market ourselves. Our names must become a brand. Our work must generate 'buzz'. So I thought I'd start with a bit of a blog, just to get the ball rolling. Later - probably if the book is published - I might start a whole website. But let's not go mad, eh?

So, if you'd like to follow the ups and downs of my budding literary career, you might like to click your way across to Graham Storrs: The Blog and scratch your itch. And, for the dedicated reader of Waving Not Drowning (that's this blog for those who don't read banners) don't worry. All the juicy stuff in my life will still be here.

The Gray Wave Jukebox


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