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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thinking About: Being Psychic

There was a funny incident at work this week. I was talking to a colleague and noticed that she was bundling together a bunch of cable-ties. “62” I said. “What?” she replied. “62 cable-ties”. “How did you know?” she enquired, looking confused. Of course I didn’t know and told her so. “Are there really 62?” I enquired. She nodded and looked a little spooked out.

Actually this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Some years ago after a long day, after an even longer week, a group of us were tidying some stuff away when the Boss asked how many instruction sheets we had left over. They were in envelopes so I picked up a handful of them and waved them in front of my face. “27” I said. The Boss gave me a rather unkind look and advised me to count them properly. Which I did – to find that there were indeed 27 envelopes.

Even stranger, some years earlier I was doing A Level Psychology at college when another study group needed volunteers for a set of ESP experiments. The one I was given was guessing the suit of playing cards as each one was presented face down to me. As I guessed one after the other the girl conducting the experiment began to look more and more uncomfortable. After a few minutes she suddenly looked relieved. I enquired what the matter was and she told me that until that moment I had correctly guessed 29 cards in the correct sequence.

During my teenage years I experienced déjà vu on an almost monthly basis and for my own amusement told people exactly what was going to happen in the next few minutes. More often than not I was right. On another occasion I heard my brother call my name from another part of the house so I went looking for him. When I asked him what he wanted he informed me that he hadn’t called me. He was going to but then decided against it. Both my Mother and I have had dreams that have come true – though famously she got my sex wrong before the birth. We also have been known to answer the phone before it rings. In fact I did that just last week at work.

The guys at work have a good laugh about my ‘psychic abilities’ and I do find them highly amusing. You might find it odd that I don’t believe that there is anything supernatural going on – or even anything particularly strange. I know lots of people who have had prophetic dreams, or déjà vu or any number of so-called psychic experiences. As far as I am concerned it’s just a normal non-supernatural part of life. The brain is an incredibly complex organ which we are only just beginning to understand. So-called ‘psychic’ abilities are nothing more, I suspect, than the brain doing things that we have always been able to do – except that now in this high-tech age we have forgotten that we can. So if weird stuff happens to you from time to time my advice is to enjoy it while it lasts and not to take it too seriously.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Tides of War by Steven Pressfield

In the 5th Century BC two of the great super-powers of the age engaged in a bloody war of domination. For 27 years the city states of Sparta and Athens hammered away at each other resulting in the deaths of countless thousands and the wholesale destruction of many cities. Told through the eyes of Polemides, a captain in the Athenian marines, this is a tale of courage, honour, sacrifice and ultimate betrayal. Told primarily in ‘flash-backs’ as Polemides awaits execution for the assassination of the great Athenian General (and traitor) Alcibiades – who was the main focus of the novel - this epic work is a delight to read.

Pressfield again, after Gates of Fire, shows that he has the uncanny ability to put you in the heart of the story, make you feel for the characters and begin to look at their world through their eyes (rather than our own). For the Ancient world is not our world and ancient ways are not our ways, except of course – and this is where Pressfield shines – humanity has remained the same through the ages. We still love, we still fight and we still grieve as the ancients did. Human nature hasn’t really changed in the last 2 thousand years so identification with Athenian or Spartan soldiers and their families is no more difficult that identifying with peoples experiences today.

I did find the political manoeuvring a little slow in places but the battles where beautifully (and bloodily) rendered. When nearly all fighting was hand-to-hand and you saw the man you where killing up close and personal it couldn’t be anything but brutal. I knew a little bit about the Peloponnesian War before reading this and now want to know a whole lot more. I have three more of his books and am looking forward to every one of them. So prepare to see his name here at least a few more times. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the Ancient world, war novels or just a very satisfying read.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Swirling waters boost chance of life on Europa

by David Shiga for New Scientist

10 December 2008

WITH Jupiter stirring the pot, the planet's icy moon Europa may be brewing a more nutritious soup for life than anyone had expected. Ice-floe-like features on Europa's surface and certain characteristics of its magnetic field suggest there is an ocean of liquid water beneath its surface. The heat needed to keep it liquid has long been thought to be produced by Jupiter's gravity: Europa's distance from the gas giant changes during its orbit, which means the planet's gravitational pull on the moon varies. This stretches and squeezes the moon's rocky core, producing heat by friction. However, new calculations show that additional variations, due to a suspected slight tilt of the moon's spin axis relative to its orbital plane, make it possible for Jupiter's gravity to warm Europa's ocean directly by stirring up currents within it. The heat produced this way could exceed the amount generated by the flexing of Europa's core, according to Robert Tyler of the University of Washington in Seattle (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature07571).

If a lot more heat is being generated inside the moon than has been assumed, the icy shell could be thinner than expected: until now estimates of its thickness have ranged from less than 1 kilometre to more than 100 kilometres.If more heat is being generated inside the moon than has been assumed, the icy shell could be thinner than expected A thin shell would be good news for the possibility of life, which would have a tough time surviving without a supply of oxidising chemicals needed for metabolism. These chemicals could be generated on the surface when ultraviolet rays from the sun hit the ice, but would not benefit life unless they could get down into the water through cracks or partial melting of the shell, says Terry Hurford of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "The thinner the ice is, the more likely that the surface can communicate with the ocean," says Hurford. He adds that the effect may also apply to other icy moons, such as Saturn's Enceladus.

[Europa is a great candidate for life in the Solar System. I’m certainly keeping my fingers crossed. With that and the possibility that the methane plumes on Mars might possibly be the result of biological activity, the chances of other life right here in our backyard is definitely looking up.]

Saturday, January 24, 2009

UFO claim over wind farm damage

From the BBC

Thursday, 8 January 2009

UFO enthusiasts are claiming damage to a Lincolnshire wind farm turbine was caused by a mystery aircraft. The turbine at Conisholme lost one 66ft (20m) blade and another was badly damaged in the early hours of Sunday. County councillor for the area Robert Palmer said he had seen a "round, white light that seemed to be hovering". Ecotricity, which owns the site, said while investigations continued they were not ruling anything out - but the extent of damage was "unique". The turbine is one of 20 at the Conisholme site, which has been only been fully operational since April 2008. The broken blade has been recovered and is being examined. Local ufologists said they had received many reports of activity in the area and had teams searching for clues.

Mr Palmer said: "I actually saw a white light - a round, white light that seemed to be hovering. "That is the only way I can explain it - it wasn't a flare-like light - it was just round, white light with a slight red edge to it that seemed to be over the wind turbines." Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, said the company was keeping an open mind about the incident. "We don't have an explanation at the moment as to what the cause was," he said. "We have been crawling all over it and have sent bits off for analysis to see if we can work out what caused it. Until we have some idea, some plausible explanation that it was not a UFO, I don't think we should rule it out". He added: "To make one of these blades fall off, or to bend it, takes a lot." Russ Kellett, from the Flying Saucer Bureau, said witnesses had told him of activity in the area. "One saw what they at first thought was a low-flying aircraft on the Saturday evening and another heard a loud banging in the early hours of Sunday," he said. "This is the second most reports of activity we have ever had - I have had over 30 phone calls and emails. To hit two of the blades, any object must have been about 170ft long."

But some technical experts have suggested a more mundane explanation. Dr Peter Schubel, from the University of Nottingham, is an expert in the design and manufacture of wind turbine blades. He said that if the turbine blade was still, it would take the equivalent of a 10-tonne load to do that kind of damage, but if it was rotating, or hit by a moving object, the force could be a lot less. He said of the possible cause: "It's definitely not a bird. It could be ice thrown from a neighbouring turbine that struck it. Most turbines have an anti-icing system on the blades and maybe it failed to prevent the ice build-up."

The Ministry of Defence said it was not looking into the incident. A spokesman said: "The MoD examines reports solely to establish whether UK airspace may have been compromised by hostile or unauthorised military activity. Unless there's evidence of a potential threat, there's no attempt to identify the nature of each sighting reported." Ecotricity said it hoped to have the turbine back in action within a week.

[I love UFO stories – they’re just so funny. My (uninformed) guess is metal fatigue enhanced by the particularly cold weather – or possibly poor manufacture or maintenance. I wonder if we’ll ever find out?]

Friday, January 23, 2009

Arms Manufacturers concerned about the World recession begin to target a new consumer base...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Just Finished Reading: A Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Yes, another ‘school’ book. First published in 1755 this 100 page book attempts to answer the question: ‘What is the origin of the inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?’

Rousseau splits his response into two parts. In Part One he discusses man in his natural state – the state of nature which, he proposes only contain natural inequalities – such as strength and other natural attributes which make people different in every day life. This is actually – and especially for its time – a creditable attempt to discern the origins of mankind without any reference to creation and precious little mention of God. It posits “thousands of centuries” for man to develop from ‘beasts’ to pre-civilised humans in a time where Young Earth Creationism was generally considered the consensus view. Part Two concentrates on where it all went wrong for mankind. Basically, Rousseau considers the move from the ‘state of nature’ to what we would regard as civilisation as a backward step – though unfortunately one from which we are unable to recover. The source of our trouble and inequalities he places firmly on the discrepancies in property ownership that began almost as soon as the idea of property first entered our minds. With increasing wealth came increasing influence and power. The rich rose to rule whilst the poor served or starved. It was only on the eve of war between the few rich and the many poor that the famous Social Contract was enacted in order to make civil society possible - but the amazing thing is (and I was honestly shocked when I read this – having already read his later book of that title) that Rousseau considered this first Social Contract as a con perpetrated by the Rich to enslave the poor further under the disguise of equality and freedom.

Over the last few weeks reading this and the Social Contract (plus elements of his other works) I have become increasingly impressed by Rousseau. Not only does he seem to have some very modern ideas – which must have been very radical 250 years ago – but I can’t help but admire his decidedly left leaning views. This is a quick and easy read for anyone interesting in 18th Century political thought (and who wouldn’t be?) as well as those interested in understand just where many of the debates about government originated. This is definitely worth a few days of your time to read and ponder over.

Monday, January 19, 2009

My Favourite Movies: 300

Obvious I know, but I do so love this film. For those of you who have never seen it, 300 tales the oft told story of the 300 Spartans who stood and died at the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC facing a huge Persian horde bent on the destruction of the Greek city states.

This particular version of the story is highly stylised being produced by the same team that brought us Sin City. In this case the stylisation makes the movie both mythic in quality – it became a myth (something larger than life) apparently shortly after the actual event – and other-worldly. Though not quite as simple as the movie portrays 300 Spartans, along with several thousand allies, did fight a battle over three days against an estimated 250,000 Persians (not the 2 million sometimes quoted) and died to a man. It’s arguable that Thermopylae is one of the most important battles ever fought on European soil.

The movie portrays this pivotal battle as one not only between men but between cultures – the upright democratic Greeks and the decadent theocratic despotism of the Persians. The portrayal of the Persians actually came in for a lot of criticism as did a throwaway line about the Athenians being ‘boy-lovers’ but I’m sure that was something the Spartans would’ve said – so it was totally in character as was the totally off-colour humour before, during and after the seemingly endless battle scenes. I loved Gerard Butlers role of Leonidas, Lena Heady as his queen and a very honourable mention goes to the narrator Dilios played with aplomb by David Wenham – he of “it’s only an eye Sire, the gods saw fit to furnish me with a spare” quote.

I loved this film for so many reasons I hardly know where to start. But staging classical Greek single combat to thumping rock music has got to be one of them. If you want to be totally wowed – and you haven’t seen this film yet – you really need to watch it. Now.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Prisoner star McGoohan dies at 80

From The BBC

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Emmy-winning actor Patrick McGoohan, best known for starring in cult 1960s TV show The Prisoner, has died at the age of 80. He died in Los Angeles after a short illness, his film producer son-in-law Cleve Landsberg told Associated Press. McGoohan played the character Six in the surreal 1960s show, filmed in the north Wales village of Portmeirion. He won two Emmy awards for his work on TV detective series Columbo, playing different characters. The first came for an episode of the series in 1974, with another 16 years later.

The screen star also won a Bafta award for best television actor in 1959 for his role in The Greatest Man In The World, a one-off drama in ITV's Armchair Theatre series. In more recent years, McGoohan played King Edward Longshanks in the 1995 Mel Gibson film Braveheart. The actor, who was born in New York and raised in England and Ireland, came to screen prominence in TV series Danger Man, in which he played a secret service agent. The programme later aired as Secret Agent in the US. He was later considered for the role of James Bond for the movie Dr No. But McGoohan was chiefly associated with cult ITV drama The Prisoner, writing some of the episodes himself under a different name. His character spent the entire time attempting to escape from The Village and finding out the identity of his captor, the elusive Number One. He repeatedly declared: "I am not a number - I am a free man!" In 2000, McGoohan reprised his most famous role in an episode of The Simpsons.

Residents of Portemeirion, which has its own The Prisoner shop selling memorabilia from the show, have paid tribute to the star. Councillor Dewi Lewis said: "It helped to put Portmeirion the village on the map during the 60s and we are still benefiting from that today." Mr McGoohan is held in high esteem in the area for the work he did - it still has a loyal following of people who come to Portmeirion annually." Robin Llywelyn, managing director of the Portmeirion village resort, added: "What he created out of The Prisoner is a lasting piece of TV at its best - it achieved cult status. It's something that we are very proud of." Last year, ITV confirmed that Passion of the Christ star Jim Caviezel would take the role of Number Six in a remake of The Prisoner, which will also star Sir Ian McKellen. "His [McGoohan's] creation of The Prisoner made an indelible mark on the sci-fi, fantasy and political thriller genres, creating one of the most iconic characters of all time," AMC, which is co-producing the remake, said in a statement. "AMC hopes to honour his legacy in our re-imagining of The Prisoner." McGoohan's last role came in 2002, as a voice artist in animated picture Treasure Planet.

[Iconic indeed – and one of my early heroes. The Prisoner probably had a significant effect on my earliest political beliefs for which I thank him. Number Six is Dead. Who is Number One? Be seeing you Patrick.]

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This is yet another book that has been sitting on my shelves for quite some time. I bought it as a part of the collection of 20 Great Ideas books that changed the World sort of thing. Of the 20 I’m afraid that this is only the 2nd volume I’ve read to date – shame on me.

Anyway, I finally had to read this for my university course and polished it off in only a few days. Written in 1762 this classic of political philosophy is both surprisingly modern and easy to read. Rousseau puts forward the then revolutionary idea that the people, rather than the absolute monarch or aristocratic elite, and the sovereign entity in any state and that they – and they alone – can determine the type of government they will allow to govern them. This was incendiary stuff in the later 18th Century and copies of this work were actually publically burnt in his home city of Geneva (which personally I would count as quite an accolade).

Famous for his championing of the noble savage, Rousseau considered that the invention of society had been a basic error of judgement that, unfortunately, could not easily be undone so attempted to devise the best form of governments in the circumstances. He suggested that Monarchy was the best form of government for large countries or empires, that aristocracy (in the Ancient Greek sense of the best) for medium sized countries and democracy was only fit for small poor countries. He was also – despite being a devout Calvinist – dead set against the involvement of religion (in particular Catholicism) in the running or influencing of the State.

Despite being very much of its time The Social Contract (and its predecessor – of which more later) is a surprisingly modern sounding book. His analysis of political power and its abuses could easily be written today. His warnings about the corrupting effect of money could, likewise, be taken from the pages of today’s newspapers. Rousseau is definitely still worth reading and is, I think, more than capable of shining a light on modern political events. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 12, 2009

And There Lie the Bodies

by Gideon Levy for Haaretz

Published on Sunday, January 4, 2009

The legend, lest it be a true story, tells of how the late mathematician, Professor Haim Hanani, asked his students at the Technion to draw up a plan for constructing a pipe to transport blood from Haifa to Eilat. The obedient students did as they were told. Using logarithmic rulers, they sketched the design for a sophisticated pipeline. They meticulously planned its route, taking into account the landscape's topography, the possibility of corrosion, the pipe's diameter and the flow calibration. When they presented their final product, the professor rendered his judgment: You failed. None of you asked why we need such a pipe, whose blood will fill it, and why it is flowing in the first place.

Regardless of whether this story is legend or true, Israel is now failing its own blood pipeline test. As Israel has been preoccupied with Gaza throughout the entire week, nobody has asked whose blood is being spilled and why. Everything is permitted, legitimate and just. The moral voice of restraint, if it ever existed, has been left behind. Even if Israel wiped Gaza off the face of the earth, killing tens of thousands in the process, as a Chechnyan laborer working in Sderot proposed to me, one can assume that there would be no protest. They liquidated Nizar Ghayan? Nobody counts the 20 women and children who lost their lives in the same attack. There was a massacre of dozens of officers during their graduation ceremony from the police academy? Acceptable. Five little sisters? Allowed. Palestinians are dying in hospitals that lack medical equipment? Peanuts. Whatever happened to the not-so-good old days of Salah Shahadeh? When we liquidated him in July 2002, we also killed 15 women and children. At least back then, moral qualms were raised for a moment.

Here lie their bodies, row upon row, some of them tiny. Our hearts have turned hard and our eyes have become dull. All of Israel has worn military fatigues, uniforms that are opaque and stained with blood and which enable us to carry out any crime. Even our leading intellectuals fail to speak out on what havoc we have wreaked. Amos Oz urges: "Cease-fire now." David Grossman writes: "Hold your fire. Stop." Meir Shalev wants "a punitive operation." And not one word about our moral image, which has been horribly distorted. The suffering in the south renders everything kosher, as if the horrible suffering in Gaza pales in comparison. Everyone is hungry for revenge, and that hunger is excused by the need for "deterrence," after it was already proved that the killing and the destruction in Lebanon did not achieve it.

Yes, I know, war is war. After all, they brought this on themselves. They are a terrorist organization and we are not. They want to destroy us and we seek peace. Still, is there nothing here that will stop this blood pipeline? Even those whose hearts are hardened by "moral righteousness" will have to momentarily halt the bombing machine and ask: Which Israel do we have before us? What will become of its standing in the world, which is now watching the events in Gaza? What are we inflicting on the moderate Arab regimes? And what of the simmering popular hatred we are sowing throughout the world? What good will emerge from this killing and destruction?

It is doubtful whether Hamas will be cut down to size as a result of this wretched war. Yet, the face of the state has been cut down to size, as have civilian elites who are apathetic and scared. The "peace camp," if it ever existed, has been cut down to size. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz authorized the Ghayan killing, regardless of the cost. Haim Oron, the leader of the "new left-wing movement," supported the launch of this foolish war. Nobody is coming to the rescue - of Gaza or even of the remnants of humanity and Israeli democracy. The statesmen, the jurists, the poets, the authors, academe, and the news media - pitch black over the abyss. When the time comes for reckoning, we will need to remember the damage this war did to Israel: The blood pipeline it laid has been completed.

[What is war without restraint but murder on a massive scale? Since when do we accept the slaughter of women and children as justified as long as some terrorists die in the process? Since when is it acceptable to fire artillery shells into heavily populated areas and still have the gall to say that civilian casualties are being minimised? Is it any wonder why so many people hate the West and its sponsorship of such horrors? When are we going to learn that some things are simply not done – no matter what the provocation?]

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thinking About: The Meaning of Life

Those of you who have been reading this Blog for a while now will be aware that, as far as I know, there is no greater meaning to our lives over and above the one(s) we give it. In effect I’m saying that certainly from the Christian point of view that I hold life to be essentially meaningless. The trick, if I want to use such a word in this context, is what we should do about it. How should we respond to life’s inherent lack of meaning?

As I’ve mentioned in other posts you could always invent a meaning or adopt someone else’s. That’s what most people do. Most people adopt the meaning prevalent in the culture they accidently happen to have been born into – normally called religion. Others discover (or invent) their own meaning like climbing mountains or being the best kazoo player in the world. Some of these people go on to achieve amazing things.

But what if you really believe that life is without meaning? Then what? The danger of this belief is that it’s entirely possible to fall into total despair and basically give up – sometimes followed by suicide. It’s certainly a valid answer to the problem and a permanent one. Alternatively you could 'live' feeling dead inside and responding to life with neither pleasure nor pain, though this sounds rather dull. The classic way to respond to a meaningless life is the well worn track of hedonism – living for pleasure. I’ve known a few wannabe hedonists in my time who expended lots of energy on finding the next high or sleeping with the next girl. Funnily none of them seemed very happy for very long. This was, I believe, because they made the fundamental error of equating pleasure with happiness. Some of them never learnt that they are not the same thing. The problem with all external pleasures is that they’re dependent on other people or other things over which you have little or no control. Being dependent on these things – especially when you crave them – is a recipe for unhappiness rather than the reverse.

I did come across an interesting solution recently which appeared to offer a way of life for those who fail to see any meaning in existence. A response to the challenge of nihilism designed for people who accept the fact that life can be, by its very nature, deeply absurd. That response is heroism. By that I don’t mean going around rushing into burning buildings saving kittens or throwing yourself on grenades in Afghanistan to save the lives of your team mates. I mean recognising that life is indeed meaningless on any level and still living it to the best of your ability – with a real and sincere smile on your face. To laugh in the face of adversity and death knowing in your bones that it doesn’t matter what you do but you continue to do it anyway and to see the absurd in everything around you and respond with humour because that is the only rational response to such an impossibly ridiculous situation. I obviously need to think and read more on the subject but I think I’ve found a trail worth investigating. I will of course let you know what I find on my travels. If you see someone whistling through adversity with a grin on their face it’ll probably be me – so say hello.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Trilobite! – Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey

It’s something you can pick up cheaply in most gem shops – fossilised Trilobites that look like squished odd-looking insects encased in rock. I certainly knew of them before reading this book but I didn’t know that much about them. Trilobites were amongst some of the earliest fossils found back in the 17th Century starting the debate about their place in the scheme of things that eventually led to the Theory of Evolution. They also helped identify the ages of rocks across the whole planet. Once this was established it prompted ideas about plate tectonics and Continental Drift which is so important in understanding geological processes such as earthquakes..

Trilobites are fascinating creatures – the beetles of their time with hundreds of species spanning the whole globe and lasting some 300 million years – that’s 200 times longer than we’ve been around – so they where very successful whichever way you look at them. Part of the fascination of the narrative in this book is that its told as a very personal tale of discovery from the author as a small boy unearthing his first fossil to his life in palaeontology where not only did he have the privilege of naming newly discovered species but also got to name the long vanished oceans they swam in. His stories from all over the world – both personal and historic – bring the study of immense timescales down to a much more human dimension. His comments regarding the Cambrian Explosion – brought to the world’s attention by Steven J Gould – gave me some serious food for thought which will lead to further investigation.

I did struggle with this book a little possibly because it was slightly outside my normal comfort zone – not having read much real science for a while – or possibly that Fortey was so into his subject that he did tend to milk a subject area a little too much on occasion. One thing I do think though – that I might start collecting examples of these fascinating little beasts next time I see one on sale. I can already envisage the glass case full of interesting fossilised creatures. All in all this was a very good start to my anticipated science reading this year. It’s about time I read more things like this
Poster Time.
Cartoon Time.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Why Bombing Ashkelon is The Most Tragic Irony

Tuesday, December 30, 2008 by Robert Fisk for The Independent

How easy it is to snap off the history of the Palestinians, to delete the narrative of their tragedy, to avoid a grotesque irony about Gaza which - in any other conflict - journalists would be writing about in their first reports: that the original, legal owners of the Israeli land on which Hamas rockets are detonating live in Gaza.

That is why Gaza exists: because the Palestinians who lived in Ashkelon and the fields around it - Askalaan in Arabic - were dispossessed from their lands in 1948 when Israel was created and ended up on the beaches of Gaza. They - or their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren - are among the one and a half million Palestinian refugees crammed into the cesspool of Gaza, 80 per cent of whose families once lived in what is now Israel. This, historically, is the real story: most of the people of Gaza don't come from Gaza. But watching the news shows, you'd think that history began yesterday, that a bunch of bearded anti-Semitic Islamist lunatics suddenly popped up in the slums of Gaza - a rubbish dump of destitute people of no origin - and began firing missiles into peace-loving, democratic Israel, only to meet with the righteous vengeance of the Israeli air force. The fact that the five sisters killed in Jabalya camp had grandparents who came from the very land whose more recent owners have now bombed them to death simply does not appear in the story. Both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres said back in the 1990s that they wished Gaza would just go away, drop into the sea, and you can see why. The existence of Gaza is a permanent reminder of those hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lost their homes to Israel, who fled or were driven out through fear or Israeli ethnic cleansing 60 years ago, when tidal waves of refugees had washed over Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War and when a bunch of Arabs kicked out of their property didn't worry the world.

Well, the world should worry now. Crammed into the most overpopulated few square miles in the whole world are a dispossessed people who have been living in refuse and sewage and, for the past six months, in hunger and darkness, and who have been sanctioned by us, the West. Gaza was always an insurrectionary place. It took two years for Ariel Sharon's bloody "pacification", starting in 1971, to be completed, and Gaza is not going to be tamed now. Alas for the Palestinians, their most powerful political voice - I'm talking about the late Edward Said, not the corrupt Yassir Arafat (and how the Israelis must miss him now) - is silent and their predicament largely unexplained by their deplorable, foolish spokesmen. "It's the most terrifying place I've ever been in," Said once said of Gaza. "It's a horrifyingly sad place because of the desperation and misery of the way people live. I was unprepared for camps that are much worse than anything I saw in South Africa."

Of course, it was left to Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to admit that "sometimes also civilians pay the price," an argument she would not make, of course, if the fatality statistics were reversed. Indeed, it was instructive yesterday to hear a member of the American Enterprise Institute - faithfully parroting Israel's arguments - defending the outrageous Palestinian death toll by saying that it was "pointless to play the numbers game". Yet if more than 300 Israelis had been killed - against two dead Palestinians - be sure that the "numbers game" and the disproportionate violence would be all too relevant. The simple fact is that Palestinian deaths matter far less than Israeli deaths. True, we know that 180 of the dead were Hamas members. But what of the rest? If the UN's conservative figure of 57 civilian fatalities is correct, the death toll is still a disgrace.

To find both the US and Britain failing to condemn the Israeli onslaught while blaming Hamas is not surprising. US Middle East policy and Israeli policy are now indistinguishable and Gordon Brown is following the same dog-like devotion to the Bush administration as his predecessor. As usual, the Arab satraps - largely paid and armed by the West - are silent, preposterously calling for an Arab summit on the crisis which will (if it even takes place), appoint an "action committee" to draw up a report which will never be written. For that is the way with the Arab world and its corrupt rulers. As for Hamas, they will, of course, enjoy the discomfiture of the Arab potentates while cynically waiting for Israel to talk to them. Which they will. Indeed, within a few months, we'll be hearing that Israel and Hamas have been having "secret talks" - just as we once did about Israel and the even more corrupt PLO. But by then, the dead will be long buried and we will be facing the next crisis since the last crisis.

[I despair, I really do. When will we learn that killing people never solves political problems? It only makes things worse.]

Friday, January 02, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Carnival of Destruction by Brian Stableford

In 1918 as the Germans advance towards a defenceless Paris a young French sniper lies dying in a foxhole. As he dies he sees for a moment a spectral Maid of Orleans who offers him a deal. If he will act of her behalf she will save his life. He accepts her offer and becomes a foot-soldier in a much larger conflict that has been raging on Earth since the beginning of human existence. For Earth is a battleground fought over by seven creatures some call Angels. These so-called Angels have the power of creation as well as terrible powers of destruction and have used humans – and creatures of their own creation – to operate for them in the material realm. But their time is finally coming to an end. Humanity is about to answer the question that drives them like no other: Who and What they are.

This third book in the trilogy (preceded by The Werewolves of London and The Angel of Pain) can only be described as rather strange. In some ways it isn’t really a novel at all but a great thought experiment played out against a fantasy backdrop. There is a sort of plot behind it all as well as characters from the previous two books and yet there isn’t really a storyline in any conventional way. What little action there is in these 500 pages is separated by long discourses between the antagonists on the meaning of history and the origins of the universe (amongst other things). We are flung into alternate worlds – which were very reminiscent of H.G Wells or Olaf Stapleton - and alternate utopias so that particular characters can make particular philosophical points. It was often very bizarre indeed. Whilst inevitably verbose (given what I’ve already said) and rather too long – a common complaint from me I know – this book was a more than interesting read. Stableford is a difficult author to pin down. He’s certainly a master of the big idea and writes beautifully but he does sometimes run with an idea a little too far. He is a great pleasure to read but honestly can go on a bit. I still think that The Werewolves of London was one of the best books I’ve read though I honestly struggled with the second book. This final volume was worth the effort it took tracking it down – it’s presently out of print I believe - and I’m glad I finally read it. As to whether or not it was any good – at this point I honestly couldn’t say. It does kind of haunt you though. [muses]

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Church attendance 'to fall by 90%'

Jamie Doward for The Observer

21 December 2008

In one of the most holy weeks in the Christian calendar, a report says that in just over a generation the number of people attending Church of England Sunday services will fall to less than a tenth of what they are now. Christian Research, the statistical arm of the Bible Society, claimed that by 2050 Sunday attendance will fall below 88,000, compared with just under a million now.

The controversial forecast, based on a "snapshot" census of church attendances, has been seized upon by secular groups as proof that the established church is in decline. But the Church of England has rejected the figures, saying they were incomplete and ignored new ways of worshipping outside the church network. According to Dr Peter Brierley, former executive director of Christian Research, by 2030 just under 419,000 people will attend an Anglican Sunday service. By 2040 the number will be down to 217,200, falling to 153,800 five years later. By 2050, if the trend prediction is correct, only 87,800 will be attending. The figures stand in contrast to the picture of faith described by the prime minister earlier this month. In a preface to a new report, Faith in the Nation, Gordon Brown said: "Faith in Britain today is very much alive and well. At the last census, more than three-quarters of the population said they belonged to a faith ... people's religious identities go right to the heart of their sense of themselves and their place in society and the world."

Keith Porteous-Wood of the National Secular Society said: "Church attendance has already been in decline for over 60 years, all over Britain, in all major denominations and across all age groups, except the over-65s. Independent statisticians now have enough data to predict confidently that the decline will continue until Christianity becomes a minority sect of largely elderly people, in little more than a generation." The forecast was made by Christian Research in its annual statistical publication, Religious Trends. Benita Hewitt, the organisation's new executive director, said she accepted that the figures were disputed and stressed she did not believe they showed people were turning away from religion. "As with all forecasting, we are living in rapidly changing times at the moment and it is very difficult to predict what things will look like in the coming years," she said.

The Reverend Lynda Barley, head of research and statistics for the Archbishops' Council, said the figures represented only a "partial picture" of religious trends, adding: "Church life has significantly diversified so these traditional statistics are less and less meaningful in isolation." Studies suggest figures for Sunday attendance represent only 58 per cent of the number of people who attend in an average month. Attendance at Church of England cathedral services has been growing , while church groups have attracted new congregations by holding meetings in venues such as pubs or at car boot sales.

[Whilst somewhat less than definitive this report does seem to indicate that religious observance within the UK is in terminal decline – no matter what others inside and outside the church claim. I wonder if there will be a time in the not too distant future when people will only know about Christianity (or maybe even religion in general) through the study of history.]