Sunday, 25 October 2009

Climate change?

One of the topics I think I need to understand more is the reality or otherwise of human impact on climate change. My knowledge of that to date has been limited to the overwhelming media bias towards our culpability in that regard, and our consequent responsibility to decrease CO2 emissions.

South African Lewis Pugh astonished me by demonstrating that you can swim at the North Pole — which implies that the ice has melted to such an extent that you can no longer walk there (at least at some times of the year)!

On the other hand, I have recently stumbled on two works by climate-change skeptics:
  • Prof Ian Plimer on ABC National's Ockham's Razor. (I have very little respect for Plimer having seen his abusive and disrespectful style in a live debate twenty years ago. He spoke against the Creationist Duane Gish, failed to bother about the topic of the debate but spent most of the time baiting, besmirching and belittling. As a climax, he donned gloves, connected two wires to a power point, claimed that Gish knew nothing of science and challenged him, if he was serious about experimental evidence, to come and grab hold of the wires! You can see it on YouTube, at about the 6 minute mark. Very dramatic, but not at all befitting what was supposed to be an academic debate. I was so outraged that a representative of my own University could behave so badly that I wrote a letter to him! Nevertheless, that doesn't discount what he has to say about CO2.)
  • Some notes by Leon Ashby, showing, among other things, that only 3.4% of atmospheric CO2 is caused by human activities.
I'll need to find some balanced review of the science on this topic.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Communicating wth an Orchestra

Mixed with the great speeches at TED, there are plenty of duds. But this one is a wonderful description of the way conductors communicate with their orchestras. Itay Talgam compares the techniques of von Karajan, Bernstein and others. It's just a pity he didn't include Danny Kaye!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Reacting and responding

Here's a simple thing really, but it struck me as a neat summary. I was gazing over the shoulder of a fellow passenger on the train home this evening and in her book I read ...

An unconscious choice is a reaction.
A conscious choice is a response.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

"Canoeing is my religion"

Someone recently said to me "Some people go to church for their religion, but I get my religious nourishment while canoeing". She wasn't a friend -- in fact it was the first time we had met -- so I couldn't delve into what she meant, but it set me to wondering. All I could say on the spot was that there wasn't any reason why she couldn't do both.

But what do people mean when they say things like that? What view of "religion" is behind that comment?

I gather that "He's religious about football" usually means "fanatical" or "dedicated" or perhaps "spends a lot of time on". But that's not what this woman meant.

I think she probably meant that canoeing gives her the experience of comfort, serenity or peace that others feel in church. Maybe it goes deeper. Maybe she is drawn out of herself into a sense of awe and otherness and getting lost in the moment while communing with nature.

That "what I get from religion" approach is quite different from James' idea that true religion is "to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

Nevertheless, I think comments about what people feel "religious" about still indicate a semi-conscious acceptance that they desire and value the spiritual state that they perceive religious people have.

I'd love to hear how others interpret it.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Novel networking

Back in the mid-90's Larry Tooke mentioned to me -- in fact he was thinking about doing his Master on the topic -- that you could run a LAN via the electricity cabling that was already in place in your house/office/school. That's now been commercialised (HomePlug for example) and I guess largely redundant now that short distance wireless technologies are so cheap.

Slashdot ran a story last week about an alternative mobile phone network that works by the phones communicating directly with each other via Bluetooth or WiFi. The network is based on ephemeral connections depending on proximity of available devices. See more here and here.

But that's nothing compared to the idea of Human Area Networks! That is, data communication via human touch. RedTacton has prototypes (in fact they've had something working since 2005) that use the body's natural electric field to transmit data. You'd have a card-sized device in your pocket (I think with a wire touching your skin) and if you shook hands with another person similarly attired, the devices can talk to each other through the skin! Or it might be that you touch a doorknob that's wired to a computer and your pocket device tells the room's computer who you are.


Monday, 5 October 2009

Words from the grave

While reading Memoirs of Moving On by Dorothy McRae-McMahon, I found this passage incredible. It is rare to find such an unambiguous example of the super-natural.

Dorothy had a son Christopher who, at two years of age, went into autistic withdrawal and stopped speaking entirely. The cause was undiagnosed until much later, when Dorothy's sister Thais died in a car accident.

Three days after Thais died, before we had the funeral, I was walking to the local shops with Robert [her second son] in the pram and Christopher alongside me. Christopher threw himself down on the ground and was screaming and banging his head. I stood and said to myself "Oh God, what will I do?" Thais's voice came to me as clear as a bell and said "Dearth, take Christopher to see Laura Nesbitt in Collins St." (Dearth is my family nickname derived from the young David calling me Dearthra because he couldn't say Dorothy.) I looked around to try to see her because it was all so real. I went home and looked up Laura Nesbitt in the phone book and, sure enough, there was such a person listed in Melbourne's Collins St. I tentatively rang the number and the phone was answered by Laura herself. I said, "I feel a bit silly asking, but what sort of doctor are you?" She replied "I am an allergist. Are you, by any chance, Thais Worner's sister?" I told her that I was and she said, "The presence of you sister came to me this morning and told me you would ring."

It's pretty hard to put that down to co-incidence, wishful thinking or any naturalistic explanation!

(After tests, the doctors discovered brain damage caused by an allergic reaction to a polio vaccine.)

Friday, 2 October 2009

The Shack

Suppose you wanted to write about what God is really like, about God’s intention for us, about why God lets us suffer. Being a good storyteller, you decide to get the message across by weaving a dialog with God into a fictional setting. So you come up with a gripping story line and then put your pen down for a long time while you think about how to represent God. Surely you’d have to do better than a long-bearded wise old Gandalf or Father Christmas figure. And you couldn’t make God into a Lion because C.S. Lewis has already done that. How would you bring the Trinity to life for a modern adult readership?

The Shack is William Paul Young’s attempt.

I won’t give too many secret’s away about the plot, but I certainly found it enticing and rewarding. The story centres on Mack, who has been immensely sad for many years, unable to release the pain of his young daughter’s death. When Mack receives a note in his letterbox inviting him to return to the place of his daughter’s death, there is every reason to believe that this might be an invitation from God. He hesitantly takes up the offer, setting the stage for a weekend that challenges his beliefs about God to the core.

A quote on the back cover of the book compares The Shack to Pilgrim’s Progress. But that’s misleading. Although both books use a fictional setting as the stage for theological and philosophical reflection, Pilgrim’s Progress is a allegorical – with overt symbolism equating each element with some spiritual reality – whereas The Shack is clearly a modern novel. Some have claimed that the book, which is a best seller in the USA, is poorly written. I don’t think that criticism is aimed at the story itself, but more at the lengthy sections in which Mack and God talk. That didn’t bother me, probably because I was too interested in the ideas being presented to worry about how smoothly the dialog flowed.

So don’t read The Shack purely for the story. That’s just the setting. The real fun comes from dwelling on Young’s understanding of how God cares for us. Young’s God is more concerned about relationship than dogma. More interested in grace than judgement. More fond of verbs than nouns. More than anything, God is concerned about the process through which we are lead towards him (or is it her – you’ll have to read the book to see how Young addresses that one!).

It has often been said that traditional Christianity imposes a lot of guilt on people. That hasn’t been my experience. The preaching and reading that have come my way have emphasised the freedom that comes from forgiveness. But what has become clearer to me recently is that I have soaked up a theology in which, having been forgiven, I carry a burden of responsibility with regard to how I should live. How many of us “freed” Christians are weighed down by responsibility? And how frequently do we relate to others with an expectation that they must adhere to the same rules?

In The Shack, Mack shows those same inclinations. But God says to Mack:
“Let’s look at your two words: responsibility and expectation. Before your words became nouns, they were first my words, nouns with movement and experience buried inside them; the ability to respond and expectancy. My words are alive and dynamic – full of life and possibility; yours are dead, full of law and fear and judgement. That is why you won’t find the word responsibility in the Scriptures.”

If that sort of insight sparks your interest, you might enjoy the rest of the book too.