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03 December, 2010

One Word #reverb10

December 1 One Word.

Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?
(Author: Gwen Bell)

2010 – Publisher

2010 was the year I achieved a lifelong ambition and had my first novel published. TimeSplash - a rollicking sci-fi romp set in the near future - was by no means the first novel I'd ever written. More like the tenth! But it was the first to make it into print. My publisher (oh how sweet those words are!) Lyrical Press, brought the book out in a range of ebook editions in February this year. It was a moment of triumph, of course, but also a moment of relief. You know what it's like when you tick off these huge milestones in your life. You did it. You made it. For evermore, your achievement will stand. No-one can take it away.

In recent weeks, I've signed with a second publisher (the very exciting, Big Bad Media) to produce an audiobook of TimeSplash (read by the fabulous Emma Newman no less!) and, probably, in a yet-to-be-finalised bit of company pair-bonding, to bring the book out in print with eMergent Publishing (an honest-to-God Aussie publisher no less!)

What a year! Definitely one to remember. I learned a lot and got to know some great people.

2011 – Agent

If you've been reading my writing blog, you'll know that I've been trying to find an agent for some weeks now. I actually found one last week and, after an epiphany, or psychotic episode (the way it felt, it could have been either) I turned them down, hoping to find a better agent.

You see, the agent I want is one that can take my career to stratospheric levels. Don't get me wrong, the publishers I'm working with now are terrific. The energy and enthusiasm is outstanding and I'm sure we're going to do great things together. It's just that, in the long run, I'd like to crank this all up a great many notches. Maybe BBM and eMergent are the people I will do that with. And that would be truly outstanding! But I'm no spring chicken (except in my general demeanour and level of maturity) and if I want to get on that NYT best-seller list, I need to get my arse in gear and start doing what it takes.

So the agent thing is my Plan B strategy for getting there. Because, sadly, to get on that list, it helps enormously to have been published by a top-of-the-heap publisher, and, equally sadly, the only way to get your manuscripts in front of such publishers is through an agent - and a good one at that. And that means reseraching and querying. Success at finding an agent in 2011 is my target then. Watch this space.


Thanks to Merrilee for pointing me to this project.

24 August, 2010

Review: The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution
 by Timothy Taylor

(This review first appeared in The New York Journal of Books on 23rd August, 2010.)

The Artificial Ape is a book with a plausible idea, but that is all it has. If you are looking for a convincing argument that “technology changed the course of human evolution” or even some compelling evidence, this is not the book for you. However, if you like informed speculation about humanity’s prehistoric past and you enjoy surveys and summaries of this immensely long and fascinating period, The Artificial Ape will keep you turning the pages.

Taylor is a well-known and popular archeo-anthropologist and is beginning to make himself a name for controversial speculation. His Prehistory of Sex takes us back 8 million years and The Buried Soul makes some startling claims about how widespread cannibalism and vampirism were in prehistory. The Artificial Ape follows in this tradition.

Taylor’s main contention is that tool use in early hominins was a necessary step to allow us to develop our large brains. In particular, he speculates that the invention of the baby sling must have occurred about two million years ago (although there is no actual evidence). This would have allowed a hairless ape with an upright gait—and thus a restricted pelvic gap—to give birth to increasingly immature babies, ones that could not cling to their mothers and would need to be carried, thus allowing the brain to continue to grow and develop outside the womb. As Taylor puts it, turning ourselves into artificial marsupials.

He makes much of the fact that tool use in hominins began about 2.5 million years ago, long before signs of accelerated skull-size began to be seen in the fossil record (after 2 million years ago). It is a puzzle that stone tools were being made and used before Homo ergaster and then Homo erectus began to develop their larger brains, and it is this puzzle that Taylor’s hypothesis attempts to tackle.

Taylor also points to the fact that an ape with an upright gait has a much shorter intestine than one on all fours. This means that not only meat eating but cooking may have been essential precursors to the development of bipedalism, simply because of the difficulty of finding sufficient nourishment from a vegetarian and raw meat diet with a short gut, at a time when we would have been extremely active and burning calories at a rate rarely seen in humans today.

Interestingly, recent evidence, published after the book was released, pushes the date for tool use and meat eating back to perhaps 3.4 million years—the pre-Homo days of Australipithecus afarensis. This find gives Taylor a 1.4 million year gap to explain before brain sizes begin to increase. But it does provide more time for full bipedalism to evolve after tools for butchering meat are first seen.

Given the paucity of the evidence, much of what Taylor proposes must be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, hominin skulls are quite plentiful across the last two million years, but there are only a dozen or so before that time. The graph of brain capacity against time that he presents is quite compelling but it would not need many new data points in the pre-2 million years’ range for it to look very different. More critically for the argument, there are just three hominin pelvises that have been found covering a period of almost 3.5 million years. While they approximately match the required changes in morphology for an ape specializing increasingly in bipedalism and immature neonates, it is very little to base an argument on.

So the book is disappointing in that, having made its surprising but apparently reasonable claim, it then provides scant evidence and only weak arguments in support of it. It is disappointing in other ways, too. It contains long and frequent digressions into areas of human cultural evolution that are not strongly connected to the main argument and which tend to dilute and confuse the message.

While fascinating in their own right, Taylor’s discussion of neolithic art and culture do not contribute much. Similarly, his extended discussion of why Tasmanian aborigines had apparently “regressed” to a level of tool use and a style of living not far removed from that of chimpanzees, while a very useful antidote to Victorian condemnation of and dismay at their lifestyle (which still persists in a mild form in academic circles today), does not strengthen his argument appreciably.

Some discussion as to why other hominids (the great apes) have not taken the same evolutionary path as humans, despite the strong probability that they were as proficient with tools as our distant ancestors were, would have been worthwhile. It is likely that chimpanzees have been using tools for as long as us, yet it has not led either to bipedalism or to increased brain size. The same problem arises with birds. Modern studies show extremely surprising sophistication of tool use in crows and other species of bird, yet we do not see the same evolutionary tie to tool use that Taylor suggests for ourselves. Birds have not become “artificial avians.” Why not?

And the same problem arises with dolphins, which also use tools. Bird brains also raise the interesting problem for Taylor’s hypothesis that their brains are notoriously small. Claiming that tool use (technology) enables increases in brain size, in the face of a crow’s tiny brain, begs the question as to whether the evolution of technologies and brains is causally linked at all. It would have been useful if Taylor had addressed some of these issues.

The Artificial Ape is a good read. It is full of interesting and provocative ideas and information. Yet, while it is interesting and its main idea is appealing, in the end, it fails to make its case.

14 July, 2010

The Great Puzzle of Why the Sun Rose This Morning: Part 2

You may remember I wrote a couple of months ago about a strange conundrum regarding time. I mentioned this post on a number of lists I belong to, hoping that someone with a better grasp of physics than I would be able to explain it to me. I got many, many responses but, sadly, not one seemed to understand what the issue was and the great majority assumed I just needed a quick primer in special relativity (and then proceeded to give me one, often in a most garbled and peculiar way.) Most people were genuinely interested and tried to be helpful. However, one idiot, on a list I didn't even post to, became quite abusive and accused me of inventing a load of nonsense about relativity in order to make more sales of my book! (Now, how would that work, exactly?) He also threw in a garbled account of special relativity, just to be sure I understood what a genius he was.

It was quite a depressing experience all round.

I have been reading more on the subject since then and I think I have actually found the answer. Gratifyingly enough, the answer is almost exactly the one I came up with. In the language of relativity it is couched in much different terms, however, but I believe it amounts to the same thing.

The conundrum is this: even though time passes at different rates for different frames of reference, we do not experience objects moving in and out of existence as our relative positions in time change. I gave the example of the Sun, which, having a much larger mass than the Earth, should be aging ever so slightly more slowly. In fact, over the 4.5 billion year life of the solar system. the Earth should be 71 years older than the Sun. So why aren't we in the Sun's future? Why is the Sun here with us in this moment in time?

The answer, I suggested, was that we do, in fact, all move at the same rate through time, which would mean that time dilation is something analagous to the way the frequency of light changes depending on the relative velocity of its source. As it turns out, I shouldn't have been talking about space and time separately but about spacetime. Because, as it happens, we are all moving at exactly the same rate through spacetime. When we use spacetime metrics instead of the metrics of space and time, it appears that everything in the Universe is moving at exactly the same rate. That light has a constant velocity is a corollary of this. Light having no mass, there is no time dimension to its motion in spacetime, it must therefore always appear to be moving through space at the maximum velocity possible. Time dilation, under this view, is simply an effect of the projection onto space and time of a spacetime 'velocity' for objects having significant relative speed or mass (or acceleration). All the space and time components as well as mass/acceleration are traded off against one another to maintain a constant spacetime motion. Time can therefore appear to be 'red shifted', in the terminology I made up, for exactly the same geometrical reasons that light appears to be.

And we're all together here and now in spacetime. That's why the Sun keeps coming up in the morning!

Aren't you glad I got that sorted out?

13 July, 2010

Review: Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

(This review first appeared in the New York Journal of Books on 13th July 2010.)

Why Does E=mc2? is one of those questions that educated non-physicists must have been asking themselves for over a hundred years, ever since Albert Einstein derived the equation back in 1905. Now, in this easy-to-read little book from Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, we have the answer. The authors are both professors of physics at Manchester University, and Brian Cox is also a well-known TV personality—well known enough to warrant a jacket blurb from Stephen Fry.
The book begins with the traditional approach to explaining the slowing of clocks for observers in motion relative to one another, by examining the geometry of a light beam bouncing up and down in a moving vehicle. The authors demonstrate just how easy it is to get to Einstein’s time dilation formula using nothing more than Pythagoras’ Theorem and the knowledge that the speed of light is capped. But they don’t leave it there. In the first half of the book they consider two more approaches that lead us to the same conclusion. 
Along the way, they very cleverly introduce all the ideas we will need to get to the world’s most famous equation, E=mc2. What is more, they focus on the most puzzling part: the question of what c, the speed of light, is doing in there. Very early on, they introduce c as a scaling factor so that we can talk about “distances” in spacetime. Later, by various means, they explain why c has to be the maximum speed that anything can travel. It is a small triumph of the book that Cox and Forshaw make the attempt to show the logical necessity of there being a universal speed limit, and that their arguments are presented so clearly.
Yet, as with any book of this size tackling a subject so enormous, it is not long before the authors start asking us to take things on trust, undermining the comprehensibility of their presentation. The first big one is when they introduce Maxwell’s equations and ask us to believe they demand that the rate of propagation of an electromagnetic field be constant for all observers. Then comes the work of mathematician Emmy Noether and her demonstration that invariance leads to the conservation of quantities. 
These, and many others introduced later, are tough ideas and hard to swallow. The authors introduce them to provide alternative ways into the understanding of relativity and that famous equation. It is to their credit that they do not always hide the complexity nor the long history of ideas behind relativity, but it would have been better, perhaps, to have spent a few more pages on some of these notions. It is also to their credit that they make the case, as Feynman and others have done before them, that, at some level, the weirdness of the universe just has to be accepted, and the only test of physical theories that matters a damn is whether they are supported by actual observation and experiment.
And there would have been many pages to spare for additional background and explanation if, near the end, the book had not wandered into obscure and largely unrelated areas as it tackled a broad-brush description of the Standard Model in an attempt to explain what mass is. It was inevitable that some particle physics had to be discussed and that this would lead to discussions of quantum theory. After all, the book’s sub-title is And Why Should We Care? and the reasons given largely involve nuclear power, chemistry, and cosmology—all of which are helped by discussions at a subatomic level. Perhaps also Brian Cox’s involvement at CERN (he heads a project there to upgrade the ATLAS and CMS detectors for the Large Hadron Collider) meant that a discussion of the Higgs particle was inevitable. Nevertheless, this, and the very brief glimpse of general relativity right at the end, seemed to detract from the clarity and force of the earlier exposition.
It is a curious book that tackles several of the most difficult ideas in modern science in the tone of a friendly, almost patronizing, high-school teacher, trying to ensure that the slow kids manage to keep up with the rest of the class. The tone and the endless asides (did you know that the Sun converts 600 million tonnes of hydrogen into helium every second?) can become a bit wearing, but Cox and Forshaw have to be praised for their unwavering insistence that their subject is accessible to anyone at all who will stay with them and think about it.
In an age when most lay people throw up their hands at the mention of relativity or quantum theory, when religious creation stories and New Age mysticism offer a far simpler, less challenging route for the intellectually overwhelmed, it is hugely important that ordinary people see that physics is not just for the egg-heads, that it can be understood, and that there is a grand beauty in what it reveals about our world. Cox and Forshaw have made an important contribution in this area, one that will help school science teachers as much as it will their students.

27 May, 2010

Time, Relativity, Time Travel, and the Great Puzzle of Why the Sun Rose This Morning

There's something wrong with my notion of time.

I used to think it was all subjective - by which I meant relative to one's frame of reference, as general relativity tells us. I am more than happy to accept all the experimental evidence that says moving very fast, or being near a large mass, will slow down the passage of time relative to an observer outside your frame of reference. There is so much evidence for general relativity that it would be ludicrous not to accept it. Yet a simple observation of my own tells me that there must be more to the story than that.

And this is it: the Sun rose this morning. I know that because I saw it.

The problem is that it should not have done. The Sun should not be there at all. The Sun and the Earth were formed at about the same time, some 4.5 billion years ago. However, the mass of the Sun is about 330,000 times that of the Earth. Relatively speaking, time will run a bit more slowly for the Sun than for the Earth. But, after 4.5 billion years, all those nanosecond differences will add up. Yet Earth and Sun seem to be here together. We have both arrived at today at the same time.

So my notion of time - and/or my notion of what general relativity is saying - must be wrong. In fact, the same goes for special relativity too. I cannot account for why anything moving fast relative to me doesn't just wink out of existence. Because its time is slowed down, I should move into its future, it should move into my past, and we should not be able to perceive each other in our respective presents. After all, I know from experience that I cannot see the future, or the past.

So, okay, the fact that relative gravitational potential, or acceleration, or velocity, affects the rate at which time passes for different 'observers' seems to have nothing to do with the way time is actually passing for us all. I can live with that. In fact, I've seen something very like it somewhere else. The speed of light is quite similar. This is a constant and, all intuition aside, light travels at the same velocity (c) relative to you, whatever speed and direction you are travelling relative to its source. What does happen to light, though, is that its frequency shifts. If you are approaching a source of light very fast, it still hits you at exactly c but its frequency is shifted higher - towards the blue end of the spectrum. If you are racing away from the source, light still catches you at exactly c, but now its freuency is lower - shifted towards the red end of the spectrum.

What if time behaves like light? What if the rate of passage of time is also constant? Then, whatever we were doing in the Universe, time would always affect us the same way. But, accelerations, gravitational fields, and relative velocities lead to us perceiving a shift in something equivalent to the frequency of time. Let's call it time's 'colour'. A high gravitational potential, shifts time's colour towards the red end of its spectrum.

This notion (although it explains my problem with time) is an intuitively difficult one because what we normally think of as time - that thing that measures the intervals between ticks of a clock - isn't really time at all. It is just the colour of time. Real time, the thing that has its colour shifted and which ensures the continued coexistence of everything in the present, must be something else. Maybe we should call it 'persistence' or (to borrow a word from H. G. Wells) 'duration'?

So time is a kind of universal persistence and what I used think was time is just the colour of this persistence.

Am I happy now? No, not really. For a start, shifting the colour of persistence is analogous to shifting the colour of light (and is effected in exactly the same ways). So, by the same analogy, there can be no time travel. Shifting the colour of light does not affect its speed. The rate of persistence will be constant regardless of relativistic effects on its colour. You can age less (or more) than other things in the Universe by manipulating your speed, acceleration, or proximity to mass, but you do not change your place in persistence with respect to the rest of the Universe. That's why fast things do not blink out of existence for me. We are persisting at the same rate, even though we are aging at different rates. (Even dragging the exit of a wormhole around at near light-speed won't do the trick any more, because entrance and exit persist at the same rate, the exit may end up younger than the entrance but they will still be there at the same point in persistence at the end of it all!)

Are there any physicists out there who can tell me why all this is wrong and also explain why I saw the Sun this morning?

14 May, 2010

Review: Epitaph Road by David Patneaude

(This review first appeared in the New York Journal of Books on 12th May, 2010)

Epitaph Road is the latest in a string of successful young adult novels by David Patneaude. In 2067 a world reeling from recent nuclear brinkmanship between the USA and China is suddenly devastated by a virus that kills almost every male person on the planet. Only those males at sea or in remote places survive.
Thirty years later, the world is populated and dominated by women. There are a few more males, but strict birth control laws ensure that the male population cannot rise above 5%. It is a world free of much petty crime and war but one in which the remaining males are subjugated and controlled, and the women in power have all the vices that political elites have always had. 
Kellen Winters is fourteen in 2097, the son of one of the few survivors of the plague they called Elisha’s Bear. He lives with his absentee mother, an important person in the new North American government, and dreams of leaving one day to join his father, who lives as a “loner” among male “throwbacks” on a kind of reservation. He is preparing for his citizenship exams and coping with the oppression and subjugation that is the role of all males, when he and two female classmates stumble on some information that leads them to delve into the origins of the plague that changed the world and which still recurs from time to time. What they uncover sends them on a journey to find his father and warn him about a potential new outbreak. But powerful forces don’t want Kellen to reach the throwbacks, and police and other agencies are searching for him as he and his friends stumble upon another shocking and deadly secret. 
Epitaph Road is a straightforward adventure story in which a group of youngsters fight the forces of an oppressive and hypocritical adult world. It has good pacing, is nicely written, and the adventure runs its course as it should to its proper ending. Yet it is a most unsatisfying story, with two major flaws that spoiled it for me.
The first is the aftermath of the plague. Almost overnight, half the population of the world dies. And it is the male half, the half that hogs most of the power, dominates all industries except the lower-paid service industries, and has a near stranglehold in areas such as engineering, construction, power, transportation, communications, and so on. Yet, the world carries on, civilization carries on as if nothing has happened. The supply of electricity keeps flowing, the farms and food distribution keeps going, the communications networks stay up, the domestic water and sewage networks still operate, and billions of bodies are buried. There is no mass starvation; no millions dying in that first, unheated winter; no disease; no cessation of oil supplies; no massive shortage of doctors. Within a handful of years, countries have merged, a new world political order is established, new education systems are put in place, and massive social change is underway. You might think that, possibly by 2067, there is sexual equality and the work and power disparities of today no longer exist, but according to the story, that is not the case. If anything, male dominance is worse by then.
With a pinch of suspended disbelief, you might get past this issue, but it is the kind of “world building” problem that leaves me very uncomfortable. Worse, however, is the fact that the bulk of the story is set in 2097—almost a hundred years from now—but no technology seems to have advanced beyond today’s level. True, the desktop computers have touch screens, the smartphones are called “e-sponders,” and electric cars are commonplace (although the throwback men still drive old petrol cars), but there are no new technologies.  
The idea that civilization could progress for 90 years without radical new technologies appearing is just incredible. Even if we suppose that technical innovation ended in 2067 when the men died, we should still expect fifty more years’ worth. For example, the Internet is just twenty years old as you read this. It was barely known to the world at large before 1995. Yet the Web and texting (a technology which is about the same age as the Web) are supposedly still the technologies in use by kids in Epitaph Road, eighty-seven years from now. 
This is such a massive failure of the imagination, and introduces such a jarring credibility problem, that the question has to be asked: Why didn’t Patneaude set the book in the present? Without more than this minimal nod in the direction of world building, this is not science fiction. So why not make the date 2007 instead of 2097 and let this become an alternative history novel? 
It is a young adult novel, and is intended for children, but that is no excuse for not treating his readership with more respect. The description and development of the book’s main characters, their complex feelings and motivations, is well up to scratch, the plot is simple and easily anticipated but nicely executed and suited to the genre. However, the book is badly let down by the credibility of a major plot element and the complete failure to present a believable future world.

03 May, 2010

Review: Cro-Magnon by Brian Fagan

(This review first appeared in The New York Journal of Books on 2nd May 2010.)
By any standards, Brian Fagan is a leading authority on archaeology, and, with 46 books on the subject to his credit, he is among the world’s leading popularizers of the field. In Cro-Magnon, he gives us an easily digested round-up of what is known about the pre-history of modern humans in Europe.

Fagan presents an essentially chronological account, starting with the Neanderthals who were already present in Europe when modern humans arrived, and taking a brief detour to look at the evolution of hominins in Africa. From the arrival of Cro-Magnons around 45,000 years ago until the spread of farming in Europe, about 8,000 years ago, the book traces the movements and developing cultures of these people who were the first homo sapiens to settle the continent. It has a good index and an extensive list of further reading in the Notes section.

If you live in Europe, or are of European descent, then the Cro-Magnons were almost certainly your direct ancestors. Fagan digests and presents for us the extremely complex evidence that reveals population movements and social conditions, without burdening us with details or much controversy. This evidence is mostly archaeological—the bones, human and animal, that were left behind, the stone tools, the excavations, and the paintings and carvings. But he also makes much use of climatological data, studies of modern and recent stone-age peoples, and recent genetic studies, again, sparing us the arguments and supplying only the conclusions.

Fagan works in a field that is massively interpretative. Controversies abound—especially in the assessment of purely social, spiritual, or linguistic aspects of ancient peoples. Yet this reviewer thinks it is a strength of his approach that he delivers what he feels is the most likely interpretation, given a broad, eclectic, yet conservative, summary of the data from many disciplines, merely indicating where there may still be some disagreement among experts. It allows him to present an extended and coherent narrative that makes sense of the whole story of Cro-Magnon settlement in Europe.

And the way he tells it, it was a long, hard struggle. Europe, for most of the time that Cro-Magnons carved out a place there, was a bitterly cold, hostile environment, more akin to Northern Siberia or Canada than to the temperate land we know today. Frozen tundra and barren steppes were what greeted those first immigrants. Yet the Neanderthals had survived there for nearly 200,000 years when we arrived. It is typical of Fagan’s non-controversial approach that he doesn’t indulge in lurid speculation about how modern humans drove the Neanderthals to extinction. It was a slow and gradual process that took place over many thousands of years. In Fagan’s view the Neanderthals simply continued to live their lives as they always had, only with Cro-Magnons hunting the same territories, times just grew harder, until their already-marginal existence was gradually pushed beyond the brink.

Yet, while the absence of detail such as the minutiae of debates about dating and statistical analyses allows Fagan to present the bigger picture with bold strokes, it also leaves you wondering about some of his assertions. He is, for example, very firm on what was men’s work and what was women’s work. How much of that is in the actual evidence, and how much is imported from modern anthropological studies, or even modern prejudices?  And the speculations about whether Neanderthals danced seem fanciful and based on slender evidence (which appears, from what is said, also to be consistent with the hypothesis that they wrestled).

And it isn’t as if there was no room for more detail or more discussion. The book proceeds at the painfully slow pace of a modern TV documentary, with considerable repetition and often tedious dramatizations of life in the late Ice Age. The material in the book could have been presented in perhaps a quarter of the number of pages if not for the slow, repetitious style. 

The book proceeds at a measured pace, to put it kindly, and, while clearly written, the language used is often clichéd and itself repetitive. (There were several points where I thought if I read the words “bestiary” or “tool kit” one more time, I would throw the book down and jump on it.) Which is disappointing because there are sections—like the discussion of Cro-Magnon art near the end—where Fagan writes with fascination and insight. If the whole book had been like that, it would have been such a joy to read. As it was, the book provides a clear, pain-free summary of what is known about the earliest Europeans—it just happens to be a bit slow.

It is a sign of the rate of change in this field that, even as Cro-Magnon comes to press, DNA analysis of a finger bone found in a southern Siberian cave suggests that a third hominin species may have co-existed with Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals in that region. How would the presence of another human line affect the conclusions in Cro-Magnon? Only future editions will tell.

22 March, 2010

A Post on Behalf of Electronic Frontiers Australia

I received this email from EFA and I reproduce it here in full, in case anyone out there would also like to help in the campaign against Internet censorship in Australia.
Electronic Frontiers Australia needs your support to protect online
civil liberties in this country!

Over the past few months, EFA has been working hard campaigning for an
Open Internet against Government censorship of the Internet
(http://openinternet.com.au/). While we are proud of what we have
achieved in that campaign, the Government's decision to delay the
introduction of the legislation means that it will be prolonged and
ongoing campaign. Moreover, that is only one example of EFA's
activities and interests (http://www.efa.org.au/projects/). In
addition to Internet censorship, EFA also campaigns on a wide range of
issues relating to Internet regulation, including copyright,
defamation, R18+ for computer games, telecommunications, ISP
liability, privacy, domain names, trade marks, and the digital
economy.

Most of this campaign work is carried out by elected Board Members,
who act in a voluntary capacity and are not remunerated for their time
spent on EFA projects. This will not change. However, if EFA is to
continue to expand and launch further campaigns, we need money for
media, organisation and lobbying.

That is why, starting today, we are launching a fundraising drive so
that we have the necessary funds to effectively protect online civil
liberties in this country.

Visit http://www.efa.org.au/support2010/ and learn more about what it
is that EFA does and what your money will be spent on, and then please
give whatever you can afford. The recent debate in this country
around Internet censorship demonstrates that we cannot take our civil
liberties for granted and that EFA is in the best position to campaign
on your behalf.

In addition to donating, please forward this email to your family and
friends, and encourage them to support EFA.

You can also show your support by participating in the Open Internet
campaign (http://openinternet.com.au/) and by becoming a fan of EFA on
Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/pages/EFA-Electronic-Frontiers-Australia/36777331283?v=wall).
You can also now buy EFA merchandise on Zazzle
(http://www.zazzle.com.au/efa_oz).

Thank you for your support.

Electronic Frontiers Australia

12 March, 2010

Review: Einstein's God by Krista Tippett

This review originally appeared in the New York Journal of Books, where you can also find other reviews by me.

Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit by Krista Tippett
(Penguin Books, February 2010)

Krista Tippett has spent the past decade interviewing people about religion and spiritual ethics as the host of public radio’s “Speaking of Faith.” Einstein’s God is an edited selection from these interviews in which she discusses the relationship between science and religion with a number of eminent guests: some scientists, some not, some believers, some atheists—all of them leaders in their fields with interesting ideas. It’s an eclectic group of guests, and the conversations cover a very broad range of topics, including Darwin’s relationship to religion, the psychological basis of forgiveness and vengeance, and how God might have room to act within the constraints of modern physics.

Unlike most of what appears in print these days about religion’s interactions with science, Tippett’s book is not about conflict. It is about reconciling the two world-views. Its intentions are to show that scientists—even ones that have no religious belief— feel the same sense of awe and wonder at the world as believers, that even the devoutly religious can and should respect the study of the natural world, and that scientists themselves can be practicing believers and feel no contradiction within themselves.

Tippett is attempting in this book what, for many people on both sides of the religion vs. science “debate,” must seem impossible. She is speaking candidly and respectfully to scientists, theologians, and artists about their spirituality and beliefs, seeking to find the common ground between these extremely different world-views. In the process, whether you feel she succeeds or not, she achieves something just as helpful: She finds the common humanity in all these seekers, and gives us a basis for mutual respect and a sense of fellowship.

Within this framework, some of the interviews work better than others. The first interviewee in the book is the main reason I wanted to read it, physicist Freeman Dyson discussing Einstein’s spirituality. Yet the conversation was dry, if not dull. It covered ground that would be well known to anyone interested in Einstein. The only point of real interest it made was the idea that the feeling Einstein had about the Universe and how it is put together, about the “miraculous” way mathematics is able to describe nature (there being no reason anybody knows why it should), is very close to the religious sense that believers have when they contemplate Creation.

Unfortunately, this interview and the one that follows it with physicist Paul Davies, may have been recorded too early for either Dyson or Davies to be aware of a letter on religion that Einstein wrote to the philosopher Eric Gutkind in 1954, which became well known only in 2008. In the letter he clearly denies any belief in God—not just the “personal God” he famously rejected— saying, “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends, which are nevertheless pretty childish.” Tippett should have known about this letter and, I think, addressed the complexity it adds to Einstein’s expressed views on religion.

Once we leave Dyson behind, the interviews become more lively and engaging. Also, after the initial discussion about Einstein, the collection moves away from him, specifically, and goes off to explore the interplay between science and religion in other disciplines and through other thinkers. Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon, talks about his notion that human spirituality and religious feeling, human good and evil themselves, are the products of an evolutionary process that has selected and nurtured them. Tippett’s comment that such ideas “might richly inform many religious perspectives” is typical of the hopeful and inclusive attitude she projects throughout the book. Whatever we might think of the likelihood of this happening, it is impossible not to wish with her that it could be so.

High spots for me were the chat with Jana Levin, another world-class physicist, who talked about her novel, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, and about a rationalist world-view that is nevertheless filled with wonder and beauty. Psychologist Michael McCullogh talked about the evolution of forgiveness and its central, everyday role in preserving civilisation. Charles Darwin’s biographer, James Moore, was eloquent in describing the deep reverence of the Great Man for the natural world “undefaced by the hand of man.” And Esther Sternberg, a Canadian immunologist I had not encountered before, was fascinating on the complex connection between health and emotion.

Low spots included Anglican Priest (and one-time physicist) John Polkinghorne who, while decrying “God of the gap” arguments, proceeded to describe a Universe where God excludes himself from all but the most marginal influence through quantum uncertainty and chaotic processes. Polkinghorne appears to be a favorite of Tippett’s, judging by the number of times she mentions him in the book, yet I found his message that God created a self-creating Universe (i.e. He set up the initial rules and conditions but then lets it run more-or-less untended) far less intellectually satisfying (or even honest) than that expressed by V. V. Raman in another interview. Raman, a Hindu, seems able to keep his religious and scientific world-views completely separate and to experience the world in these two, quite different ways without feeling the need to find ways of fitting them together. I also found that the format of the book—essentially a series of transcripts with an overall introduction, introductory remarks before each interview, and break-out comments within (generally to give background to what is being discussed)—was rather tedious and involved a lot of repetition.

Einstein’s God swings between fascinating and infuriating with only a little dull in between. It would almost be impossible for it to do anything else with such interesting and controversial contributors involved. Tippett has attempted to move us away from the often hostile and sterile debate between science and religion, and instead demonstrate how, in the ordinary world of people’s lives, scientists and theologians are asking the same questions of and feeling the same wonder at the world they inhabit, without conflict, and with great humility and respect for the truth. And I think she has made a good job of it. However, her eclectic and inclusive approach may have worked against her to some extent. Suggesting, by their inclusion, that all religions are somehow equivalent and the content of their doctrines does not really matter, reduces them to the status of a mystical or spiritual impulse, whereby they can, indeed, be compared to Einstein’s “religious sense” of the Universe. It’s possible that some believers will be offended by this. But in the end, perhaps Tippett’s point is that it is the urge toward spirituality that is really important for most of us, and whether we satisfy it through scientific study or through religious devotion matters very little.

20 February, 2010

Saints Alive!

You know what? You don't cure cancer with magic. You cure it with medical procedures. You take thousands of scientists, thousands of doctors, and they work on the problen night and day for decades and decades. They train for the best part of a decade, they devote their lives to chipping away at this monstrous problem, they spend their whole careers doing it, just so they can pass a few, precious scraps of new knowledge down to the next generation of scientists and doctors.

And, after decades of intense, worldwide recearch, the results start to come. When I was a child, cancer was a death sentence. If you had it, you asked, "How long have I got?" These days, the rate of curing cancer is about 50%. If you get it you ask, "Can it be fixed?" It's one of the triumphs of our age that we have come so far in fighting this hideous disease.

So it really pisses me off that the Catholic church, has canonised an Asutralian woman because she cured cancer by a miracle. A miracle! Those fat cat bishops, controlling vast fortunes, running an organisation that has only last week scandalised us all by its sexual abuse of small children in Germany, have said that this woman cured cancer by magic!

Magic!

Well, I'm sorry. You don't cure cancer by magic. You cure it by applying brilliant minds and inconceivable amounts of hard work and resources for year after year after year. That's how you do it. You don't cure cancer by magic! And it's an insult to all those men and women who have worked so hard all their lives to even suggest that you do.

If the Catholic bishops really want to do something about cancer, they should give up their silly mumbo-jumbo canonisation rituals, stop talking crap about magic cures, sell some of their staggeringly huge assets, and invest the money in cancer research. That might actually help someone.

16 February, 2010

TimeSplash Twitter Tour Starts Now!

The TimeSplash Non-Stop 24-hour Round-the-World Twitter Tour starts soon. The process is complicated but all you need to know is that I'll be in your timezone between 7pm and 8pm during the next 24 hours. To shout out to me as I go by, send me a tweet on Twitter.

This is my Twitter ID: @graywave ( http://twitter.com/graywave )

I'll be using the hashtag #timesplash if you'd like to follow the whole thing (and have lots of stamina and a very high tolerance for me saying "Hello New York", "Hola Argentina" "Gruetzi Switzerland" and such for the next 24 hours.)

Don't forget to shout. And if you know people in odd places, tell them to shout out too. I've a feeling some parts of this are going to be very lonely :-}

15 February, 2010

My First Novel is on Sale Now!

At last, it’s February 15 New York time, and Once Upon a Bookstore, my publisher’s own online bookshop, is selling copies of TimeSplash.

Get your copy here

Please, everybody, pass on this message. Retweet it, Digg it, Stumble it, and tell all your friends on Facebook. You can even mention it to people in real life, if you like.

And, if you do me the great honour of buying it and reading it, I’m dying to hear what you think of it.

(If you haven’t heard me talking about TimeSplash before and don’t know what I’m talking about, here is the website of the book that tells you everything you will ever need to know. And if you find you need to know more than that, there is also a blog of the book. Enjoy!)

03 January, 2010

Irish Government Throttles Free Speech

Hello, and welcome to 2010! Or should that be 1010? I'm a bit confused. The Irish government has just extended its blasphemy laws, you see, taking the world just a step farther back towards the Dark Ages.

Fortunately, not all the Irish are insane - just the government. Some are actively opposing this new law and the constitutional basis for it. Have a look at the Atheist Ireland website for more information, including their deliberate attempt to provoke a prosecution from the government.

You know, I really hate people telling me what I can't say - especially governments and religious nuts.

And, just in case you thought the people who introduced this new law were sincere, God-fearing fundamentalists, here's a quote from Micheal Martin, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, opposing attempts by Islamic States to make defamation of religion a crime at UN level, 2009:
“We believe that the concept of defamation of religion is not consistent with the promotion and protection of human rights. It can be used to justify arbitrary limitations on, or the denial of, freedom of expression. Indeed, Ireland considers that freedom of expression is a key and inherent element in the manifestation of freedom of thought and conscience and as such is complementary to freedom of religion or belief.”
Governments and hypocrisy, eh? Who'd have thought?

02 January, 2010

Hope For Intelligent Kids Who Are Unhappy

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post called "Why Ordinary People Make Intelligent Kids Unhappy". It was immediately, and still is, one of my most popular posts. It is clearly an issue that concerns many people. Yet, looking back, I see it is a post in desperate need of a follow-up. The original post merely analyses the problem and offers no solace, and certainly no solutions. Most likely, many of the people who read the post felt worse after reading it rather than better. That's OK, I suppose. The world isn't here to make us feel better. It's just a place we need to cope with, and understanding what is going on in the world can only help us cope better. However, there are some things I could say that might make some people feel better, and it's about time I said them.

So here they are:

1. There is hope. I was a bright child. I was rejected to greater and lesser degrees by my family, my schoolmates and my teachers. Being clever doesn't win you many friends. Sometimes none at all. I grew up in a working-class city in the North of England. The people around me were poor, ill-educated and, almost without exception, ignorant. Most of them were also very stupid. Yet I found a way through. I was certainly luckier than many - my mother was bright and supportive, and I got a free, university-level education. I left the place I grew up in and went in search of better places. Eventually I found them. It's a very big world and there are many, many niches in it. Keep looking and you may find yours. It helps the search if you move to a major city.

2. Other bright people can sustain you, even if you never meet them. I'm not just talking about the Internet, here, although it's an obvious place to look for like-minded people. I didn't have the Internet when I grew up, but I had books. Read widely and read good stuff (on- and off-line). You will find that many of the people who became great writers also went through what we did. One of the best moments in my reading life was when I discovered J.D. Sallinger. In his short stories in particular, I often got that heart-stopping moment of recognition when I realised that this man knew my pain. Maybe Sallinger will do it for you too. Most likely it will be someone else. Just one word of advice - especially about the Internet. While it is easy to find fellow sufferers, and wallowing in misery together can be a relief for a while, in the end, you will get more of a lift out of positive, strong people. However bright you are, you're only human and you have the same psychology as we all do. Don't get locked in a downward spiral of self-pity with someone else. You'd both be better off on your own.

3. Work can help. Clever people tend to be good at certain things. They make good scientists, engineers, writers, and so on. Even in less intellectually challenging jobs - as administrators, planners, managers, etc. - they tend to shine. They might not get the promotions, they might not get the big bucks - for that you also need social skills which cleverness does not guarantee - but they do their jobs so well that they earn the respect of their peers. Respect isn't love, it isn't necessarily acceptance, it isn't even kindness, but it's something and it is not to be sniffed at. Respect from others helps you respect yourself - and self-respect helps in many different ways.

4. Don't worry about the meaning of life. There is none. Bright people are their own worst enemy when it comes to seeing through the crap. Sooner or later, you will conclude that there is no god, there is no deep meaning to the Universe, you have no destiny, and, in fact, there is no point to anything at all. That's fine, but you shouldn't let it worry you.

'Purpose', 'meaning', 'point' and so on are ideas that people come up with , they are not things we find in nature. The 'purpose' of the rain might be to make the crops grow, but we all know that is just a semantic confusion. The physical word doesn't have purposes, only people do. In the long term - the next ten billion years, say - nothing about humanity matters at all, not least your own little wants and needs, your hopes and ambitions, your loves and hates. However, we don't live in the long term. We don't live ten billion years. We live tiny, proscribed little lives. We flicker into self-awareness and are gone in a moment.

Yet, to us, in that moment, our own feelings, desires, and purposes are everything to us. And that is important - by definition. We are the creatures who give meaning to the world. We are the ones who provide purpose to the Universe. We are the ones that imbue existence with value. While we live, while we think and feel, we bring this into reality. You and I create the meaning of the Universe, quite literally. It is ours.

So don't feel shy about the purpose of your life. If you want an iPod, if you love the boy or girl next-door, if you have a craving for a swim, or to work in outer space, each of these is, in a very real sense, the highest purpose in the world - because it's yours, right now, and that, literally, is what matters in this otherwise indifferent Universe.

5. Find out who you are and accept it. The biggest advantage of being clever isn't that you can make money, or design cool stuff, or argue everyone else under the table, it is this: you can understand yourself and the people around you. If you don't understand yourself, you will always be doing stupid things that don't make you happy. If you don't understand other people you cannot love them and you will always be doing stupid things that don't make them happy either. It took me a couple of decades of very hard work to get a deep and thorough understanding of myself and to accept who I am, warts and all. It was the most difficult intellectual challenge I have ever faced - the most difficult emotional challenge too - but it was worth it. Well worth it. It requires strict intellectual rigour. It requires ruthless, painful honesty. It may require you to throw out many myths about yourself and your world that you cherish and hide behind. Don't waste that glorious brain of yours. It's caused you a lot of pain and heartache, set you apart, driven people away. Now, for once, get some good out of it. Use it for something that will really benefit you and everyone around you.

6. Never forget what you are. You are a human being. You evolved from ape-like creatures, who evolved from other creatures. As clever as you are, you are still an animal. You have the physiology of an animal and, importantly, the psychology of an animal. The kind of animal you are has psychological needs for the company and intimacy of its fellow animals. You can't fight your own psychology so try not to. Being cut off from the society of people is what is making you feel bad. Going along with that and cutting yourself off even more will only make you feel worse. The smart thing to do is to understand your animal nature and to start organising your life so that its needs are satisfied. I'm not talking about sex and eating and sleep and all those other 'drives' - although they are important - I'm talking about social interactions, social approval, gossiping, sharing rituals, and finding friends. Right now, those things may seem a million miles away from where you are - but that's what all the points above are about, getting yourself into a societal niche where you fit, finding people who like having you around, ditching false notions that will add to your troubles, and becoming so comfortable inside your own skin that you can face the world on equal terms and get what you need from it.


It will always be the case that you are in a minority. Always. But you don't need six billion people to accept you. You can make a great life with just a handful of close friends and family who see the way you are as a desirable quality, not a freakish aberration.

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