Q&A #2 – Writing, Zombies, Creationism and Batman

I had planned an interesting post for today but it’s been stinking hot in Newcastle – it passed 39’C where I am – and my brain has kind of shut down. I tried waking it up but it just went “nope stupid human, not gonna happen, come back tomorrow” and went back to being lazy. So I don’t think that post is going to get written today.

Instead I thought I’d do another Q&A as I enjoyed doing the last one and I had a few questions left over. I hope you enjoy them and if you want to suggest any for the future, feel free to in the comments.

  • What advice would you give to someone who is just starting to write?

I think the best advice I ever received is to never stop enjoying writing and that’s the main thing I’d pass on. There will be days where everything flows and writing feels amazing and there will be days where nothing works and you want to smash your keyboard or throw your pen at the wall. And sometimes there’ll be days where it all just feels kind of, well, meh. The best thing you can do is to try to always enjoy writing no matter what because as soon as it starts to feel like a chore, or you feel like you’re writing just because you have to fulfil some deadline, then it becomes much harder and you’re less likely to finish it or to produce something of quality. If you write because you love to write then it doesn’t matter if no one reads it, or if everyone you know hates it, or if it’s never published; as long as you’ve enjoyed writing it, that’s what matters. And to me that’s what being a writer is all about.

The other thing I’d say is that if you want to write, you have to read. A lot of people seem to think that the two are separate but I’ve never believed that. Reading, and reading regularly, keeps your mind sharp but more importantly it teaches you the tools of the trade. Reading improves your vocabulary, expands your knowledge, and teaches you different styles and approaches to writing that you might not otherwise be aware of. And most importantly, reading reminds us of why we wanted to write in the first place, to tell our own stories that will hopefully touch people in the same way. In my opinion the best thing a writer can do is read. And read a lot.

I’d also suggest that it’s a good idea to keep your expectations in check. Anyone can be a writer; all you need is a pen and paper. Being a published author is different and there are a lot of factors which go into it that you cannot control – you may be an excellent writer but never be published and that’s just the way it is. Having unrealistic expectations will not help you and may actually stop you from listening to people and taking advice. Don’t misunderstand me: by expectations I don’t mean desire. There is nothing at all wrong with wanting to be published and wanting to be successful, and aiming and working towards that goal. Just don’t expect it to come to you on a silver platter because you think your novel is the Greatest Thing Ever I guess is what I mean. Like anything it takes hard work and I’m still trying to get there myself after 15 years and a number of small publications. But again, I write because I love it, and to me that’s the most important thing.

My last piece of advice: be careful with adverbs. I hate them and think they are a sign of lazy writing. If you ever find yourself writing “he said angrily”, stop and think if there’s a way you can show us that anger instead. Trust me, your writing will be much stronger for it.

  • Do you think Tony Abbott will ever be Prime Minister again?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: I know some of Abbott’s supporters are convinced he’ll have a chance to be Prime Minister again at some stage but I can’t see it. I think a lot of this comes from the idea that Turnbull is some kind of bandaid fix for the problems that afflicted the Coalition under Abbott’s time as PM; that Turnbull’s popularity will get them through the next election but eventually dissipate and then Abbott could regain the Prime Ministership. I’m sure that Kevin Rudd’s return probably gave them heart too.

The problem is that Tony Abbott is not Kevin Rudd and thinking that Turnbull is a temporary necessity also ignores the problems with Abbott’s leadership. Kevin Rudd still had public sympathy on his side from being dumped as PM in such a harsh way and it made a return to the top feasible; Abbott though was consistently polling disastrously and while there is some public sympathy for him, most people don’t want him back and would not be happy if the Coalition positioned him as a potential leader again.

The main problem with Tony Abbott is that he (and by extension his government) was perceived as out of touch with mainstream Australia and not listening to what people wanted; like his strong opposition to gay marriage, the knights and dames situation, climate change, his way of often politicising issues and giving them a religious context (again like gay marriage but also things like the state of science in schools and how that plays in to creationism and intelligent design), etc. He lost trust and popularity and so when Turnbull prevailed, the reaction was more relief from people than anger or surprise. And so I just can’t imagine the Coalition being able to justify returning him to power.

I can see Turnbull losing popularity at some stage, particularly if people become frustrated with him not being able to deliver the changes they assumed they’d get under a Turnbull leadership, but if Turnbull was to make a substantial misstep I imagine Scott Morrison is the one who’d be positioned to take over. And even then Julie Bishop would be a formidable contender too. I very much doubt it’s likely to happen any time soon though, if at all.

The best thing for people to do is to accept the truth: Abbott’s leadership is over and he won’t be returning. After the election, perhaps he could return to the cabinet as his experience would be useful, but that’s a long way off yet. Really people should just move on and let normal politics resume.

  • Speaking of that – do you think creationism should be taught in schools?

I think there is a place for talking about creationism in schools but no, I don’t think creationism and other ideas should be taught and particularly not alongside evolution in a science class.

Evolution is a theory, yes, but a theory in scientific terms isn’t the same as a theory generally: we might think of a theory as like an educated guess but in science a theory is an actual explanation or statement for why something exists that has been repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation. For instance, if I looked and said “ my hand has five fingers”, I am making a statement based on what I can observe and verify.

The same is true for the theory of evolution; it has been tested and reconfirmed many times and is the best explanation we have for how human beings came to be, based on our current understanding. It has stood up to scrutiny for a very long time but that does not mean it cannot be proven wrong, or refined, just that it is what is scientifically verifiable and correct right now. Something like creationism however is not and has in fact been disproven by scientific methods, like radiometric dating showing the age of the earth.

I understand creationism is important to people but I don’t believe that belief is reason to teach something in science classes that is thoroughly unscientific. If we did then it would be potentially misleading and confusing to students as presenting creationism alongside evolution would seem to give the idea a scientific weight it does not have.

This does not mean that creationism should not be in schools at all. Personally I believe it should be mentioned in detail as part of a theology course. But science classes are for science and creationism is not science.

  • How long do you think you’d survive in the zombie apocalypse?

I’d like to say quite a while but honestly I doubt I’d make it more than a few days, if that. I’m not the fastest runner and I think my fitness would hold me back. So yeah, zombies would be feasting on my yummy brains in no time.

My best bet would be to join a group and try to contribute through information and knowledge rather than strength. With a good group maybe I’d last a little while, who knows? Hopefully I’ll never have to find out!

  • Who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman?

So with Batman v Superman coming out soon I’ve discussed this with a couple of friends recently, who all thought Batman. I just don’t get that. Superman is basically a God amongst humans; he has super strength, speed, can fly, is practically invulnerable, has heat vision, etc. I just don’t get how Batman is supposed to go up against Superman and win.

If Batman had time to prepare for a fight, sure, he could get a special kryptonite suit or something to even the odds, but even then all Superman has to do is fly away and use his heat vision. The only way I can see Batman winning is if Superman is completely unprepared and taken by surprise. Which isn’t really a fight then, is it?

So for me it’s Superman. I’ll be interested to see how they do it in the movie. Hopefully it makes sense.

  • What’s your favourite album?

My favourite album is probably also the first album I ever bought. Tina Arena’s Don’t Ask.

There are other albums I love too but listening to it always gives me the feeling of coming home. And there are some great songs on there, like Chains, Heaven Help My HeartSorrento Moon and Wasn’t It Good?.

If there was one album I’d want with me on a desert island and would never get sick of, it’s this one. Don’t think you can really ask for more than that.

Some thoughts on extremism

I posted this on Twitter and Facebook last night in the wake of the Paris attacks and thought I’d post it here as well for posterity and to share some additional thoughts.

Like everyone I was shocked and appalled by the attacks and my heart goes out to everyone in Paris and France.

But as the hours went by, I started seeing a lot of posts and comments blaming muslims and all of Islam for the attacks. As well as how muslims needed to convert to “the Christian god” so we could have peace.

I guess I lost it but I am sick and tired of hearing how Islam is a religion of hate and it’s “us vs. them”. It’s a bigoted worldview and it’s not only ignorant and wrong but it is dangerous as well.

ISIL and similar groups want us to be divided and to turn on moderate Islam; it’s one of the goals listed in their own publication – to eliminate the “grayzone” as they call it, the zone of coexistence we share and have everyone live in a black and white world which makes it easier for them to spread their ambitions through the Levant and beyond.

Everyone who lumps all of Islam together with ISIL and their ilk is doing their work for them and helping to create more recruits and likely more attacks like we just saw in Paris.

There are 1.2 billion muslims in the world and the vast, vast majority of them are peaceful and moderate and just want to live their lives; it is unfair to place them all together and it is beyond reality to expect that over one billion people should be held responsible for the acts and beliefs of radicalized extremists.

Our struggle is with extremism, all extremism; the scenario should never be framed as “the West vs. Islam” or “us vs. them” but rather “moderates against extremism”. Wherever it strikes and whomever it oppresses in the world.

If you can’t see that, nor how all religions have struggled and continue to struggle with extremism (from the KKK, to The Army of God, to Eastern Lightning in just the recent past alone), then I would suggest that the problem is with you, not with Islam.

And if you seriously believe the only solution to this whole situation is for one group of people to convert to another religion, then I would suggest as well that you have more in common with ISIL than most muslims ever will.

***

I’m seeing a lot of posts and comments on Facebook and Twitter at the moment blaming muslims for the attacks in Paris.

Some are even asking for people to pray that all muslims “convert to the Christian god” as that is the only way “we can have peace”.

Others, more understandably, want to send ground troops to take care of IS.

I feel like I need to say a few things as seeing all this pop up again and again is driving me nuts.

1. The vast majority of Islam is moderate and peaceful. The people responsible for these attacks are ideological extremists. They are a perversion of Islam, not a true representation of it. It is wrong and ignorant to blame all muslims for their actions.

2. Every religion struggles with extremism. Please remember Christianity’s past history with the Crusades, the Inquisition and the KKK before passing judgment on all of Islam.

3. #PrayForParis means we are thinking of and stand with the people of France. It does NOT mean pray for muslims to convert to “the Christian god”. How dare you use a tragedy in such a way?

4. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all share one common link: Abraham and, by extension, Abraham’s god. It is likely you actually already believe in the same god.

5. This is a “war” that will likely last generations and it cannot be won through military force alone. The only way to defeat extremism is to change people’s perceptions over time by engaging with community leaders and tackling issues like poverty and youth dissatisfaction. ISIL and other threats need to be confronted as well but without tackling the root causes of terrorism, the cycle will never end. And that may take decades.

6. ISIL and other groups want us to turn on our communities, to make it the West vs Islam. They want young muslims to feel persecuted as it drives them straight into their arms. Turning on each other only makes ISIL stronger.

7. In the end our global response to tragedies like this sends a message and it’s up to us what we want it to say. Do we really want to blame Islam? Or do we want to show that we stand united and unbowed as moderates against extremism? The choice is ours. I know which I’d prefer.

Family Trees

Šternberk Family Tree

Photo: Šternberk Family Tree, from Šternberk Castle

Do you ever think about your family tree? About where you come from? I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot recently. The idea of learning more about my family line is something that has always interested me and I’ve often found myself looking at genealogy websites, wondering if, out of all those people, one of them might be a distant relative.

I suppose my interest is partially about accepting my own mortality. Life is such a fragile thing; we’re born, we live, we die. There’s nothing particularly special about me as a person but that I am here, alive today is part of a remarkable chain of events that stretches back through time. But why me? Why not someone else? If the lives of my parents, grandparents, ancestors had been just a little different, that chain would have been broken and I wouldn’t be here. I guess in trying to understand more about them, I hope that I may understand more about who I am as well.

Several members of my father’s family have done some research into our family tree and I’m hoping to see it soon. I’ve been thinking about trying to extend it if I can, so that it includes the family on my mother’s side as well. I thought I’d start with censuses and hopefully my research skills will come in handy.

One person I have been particularly interested in learning more about is my great great grandfather on my father’s side. His name was Isaac Levinsohn; he was born in Kovno, Russia (now Kaunas in Lithuania) in 1855 and had a remarkable life. He wrote several memoirs and religious books, one of which, his memoir of his early years and conversion to Christianity, my family recently had restored. I’ve spent the last few weeks reading and thinking about it.

I’ll probably write a longer, more detailed post about it at some stage as it’s a fascinating story and I’d like to read his other books as well, but to be honest I didn’t have the reaction to reading it that I thought I would. With the exception of myself as an atheist, most of my family is very religious and have admired Isaac for many years. I do as well but so often I’ve heard (particularly from my father) how wonderful and uplifting Isaac’s story is. Reading it, I found it very sad and lonely.

Basically Isaac’s memoir is the story of how he converted to Christianity. As a child Isaac’s family were pious Jews and Isaac felt immense pressure from his father to become a rabbi. For years Isaac studied and tried to follow his family’s wishes but from a young age, he developed an intense fear of death. He was terrified of the idea that when he died, he would be judged unworthy before God. And so when he was sixteen Isaac left Russia and his family despite their protests, trying to find peace and a way to be saved.

Isaac travelled through Germany, experiencing fierce anti-Semitism, and several times became so lonely and disheartened that he nearly committed suicide. Finally he settled in England in 1871. He spoke no English and had few possessions when he arrived. Eventually he befriended a converted Jew who helped Isaac and introduced him to Reverend Stern, who had a profound influence on him. Over time Isaac began to convert to Christianity and his family disowned him. With nothing left Isaac dedicated himself to Christianity, becoming a preacher and a member of Charles Spurgeon’s congregation, preaching to other Jews and converting them, often on their deathbeds.

Isaac’s story is remarkable but I didn’t find it to be quite as uplifting as the rest of my family. I fully admit that may be because I am an atheist and also because I haven’t read his other books yet, but I’d like to think I can look beyond that. Reading it, I just felt very sorry for Isaac. He wrote it in later life and much of what he remembered was filtered by his beliefs, so his perspective on Judaism and what he felt as a Jew feels somewhat tainted. In his memoir Isaac often writes of his darkest moments hopefully as they prepared him for his conversion, but at the time that couldn’t possibly have been what he felt as he was terribly conflicted. I didn’t feel like I got a genuine picture of what that time was really like for him or what he was feeling.

To be honest reading it, Isaac seemed like a scared young man, a boy terrified of death and of failing his father. He was also severely depressed, anti-social and suicidal (most likely due to bipolar) and losing his family broke his heart. That he found peace and later reconciled with some of his family and did so much good is wonderful, but in the end I found much of his story to be very sad.

But I am glad I read it. It is a remarkable story and Isaac’s leaving Russia for England is one of the major events in my family’s history. If he hadn’t left Russia, I wouldn’t be alive today. Who knows what might have happened to the family line if he had stayed? They might well have perished in the Pale of Settlement – or worse, in Auschwitz or some other terrible place. Perhaps descendents of his extended family did die there; I don’t know. That’s one reason I’d like to know more about our family tree and read Isaac’s other books, to find out more about what happened to them.

I think if I had the chance I would have liked to have met Isaac. He was an interesting man and I’m sure hearing him tell his story would have made it even more compelling. As his great great grandson, there’s a lot I’d like to ask him.

There are other people in my family I’d like to know more about as well. My grandfather on my father’s side (Isaac’s grandson) died before I was born; my father talks about him sometimes and thinks I would have got on well with him, but I don’t know as much about him as I would like to. He was my grandmother’s second husband, after her first husband whom she loved very much died. I often wonder what their lives would have been like if he had not died. Would they still be married now? Perhaps in some alternate reality they are… a reality where my father and I never existed.

I know little about my mother’s side of the family as well, except that historically it is a large Irish family which has settled in various countries. It’s something I’m looking forward to talking to my mother and grandfather about, particularly when I try to trace it back further. My uncle (my mother’s brother) and his partner recently had another child as well, my third cousin. So it looks like that side of the family tree is continuing to grow.

I don’t know whether I’ll add to it. Obviously I’m young and it’s possible I’ll start a family one day but for some reason I’ve always thought that my part of our family line will end with me. The last Levinson. I don’t plan to get married or have children; if I meet someone, great, but it’s not something I’m looking for. I don’t want my genes to live forever; I don’t believe in achieving immortality, except perhaps through writing.

I think that’s one of the reasons I am so interested in our family tree, though. Because in a way it is immortality, following that one seed as it stretches back through time. It reminds me of just how remarkable life is, that despite all the odds, we’ve all lived on this planet, if only for a short time. I think the least I can do is to try and remember.

If I find anything more about my family tree, I’ll let you know. I’m looking forward to seeing what my family has found out so far… and hopefully adding some details of my own.

What about you? Have you ever tried to trace your family tree? Found out anything that surprised you? I’d love to find out.

Update: After posting this yesterday I’ve heard from a couple of relatives we didn’t know about. Looks like there are at least five relatives we didn’t know about. Very excited, particularly as it’s happened so quickly. Hopefully we’ll be able to swap stories.

Dear Clare

I’ve been doing some soul-searching recently. A post by another blogger upset me and I’ve been trying to work out why. It brought up a lot of feelings about a friend who died when I was a child, feelings I thought I had moved past. I was wrong.

I think the reason it upset me so much is because I’m not religious. I respect people who are but I don’t believe in Heaven; I believe I will never see my friend again and being confronted by her death was very painful. It actually made me cry and I haven’t cried in a long time.

What I realised from it is that I’ve never really said goodbye to Clare; I was too young to understand and I’ve never had a chance to make peace with her death. I wrote this by hand last night and the pages are still wet. I thought I’d make it public, as a tribute to my friend… and as my way of saying goodbye.

* * * * * *

Dear Clare,

When we were young we were close friends. What I remember about that time often feels more like a dream than something real, it was so long ago. And yet other times it seems as clear as yesterday. I remember how you could be so serious and yet your smile could light up the room; how your hair used to fall across your face. And how you were a loyal friend. I was never able to tell you what that meant to me… and then you were taken away.

I didn’t understand what had happened to you for a long time; how do you explain death to a child? How do you explain that some of us are born to live long lives and others to die as their lives are just beginning? Now when I think of you it’s tinged with sadness, not just for your loss, but because I never had the chance to say goodbye.

There’s so much of you I don’t remember, so much I wish I could. Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up? A doctor? A dancer? When I think of you now I find myself wondering if you knew you were about to die. Were you afraid as you fell? Was your last sound a scream or is the last thing we should remember of you your sweet laughter?

I think about you often and wonder what kind of person you might have become. You’d be out of university now; or would you have chosen another path? You might have been married, a mother; a writer, an artist… you could have been so many things but we will never know. The only thing I know is you would have been a wonderful person, because you already were.

In many ways all that I am today I owe to you. When I remember all your potential and who you could have been, it makes me want to be a better person. The lives we might have chosen might have been very different but as long as I hold a piece of you in my heart, I feel that perhaps your death was not so meaningless and that you share in my life. It’s not much to offer but it is all I have to give.

Your death has stayed with me all these years and I realise I must allow myself to say goodbye. But it’s the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I don’t believe in God or Heaven; to me you are gone forever and I must accept that I will never see you again. That I will never see you smile or hear you laugh again; never be able to tell you what you meant to me. While I hold on to your death I cannot celebrate your life. And so I must let you go.

Clare, you mean so much to me and you always will. You will be in my thoughts and my heart; in my dreams and my words. I will never forget you and the joy your brief life brought to mine. I am who I am because of you and I hope you would be proud of me, as I have always been proud of you.

Goodbye, my friend. I miss you. I love you. I’ll remember you. Forever.

Christopher.

7 things I want to do before I die

The beginning of the new year’s made me think about a few things. Well, that’s not unusual; I’m always thinking. 😉 But particularly I’ve been thinking about some of the things that I’d like to achieve in my life. Recently I’ve decided to have a look at my priorities, so I thought making a list of some of those things might be a good place to start.

It’s just a short list; I plan to add something new each year so it stays fresh. They’re things I’d like to be able to look back on in later years, things that would make me feel I’d achieved something and could remember with fondness. I wonder how many would be on your list?

7) Learn to dance.
I’m a terrible dancer. I always feel self-conscious and awkward. A large part of that is I’m very sensitive to noise, so being near loud music is difficult. But I’d love to be able to dance; to dance with my wife at our reception would be something I’d remember for the rest of my life. Of course, first I’d need a wife…

6) Spend time on every continent.
I’ve always wanted to see more of the world. Over the next 10 years I hope to see more of Europe and the Americas and it’s my dream to see the Pyramids. Eventually I hope I’ll be able to spend some time on each continent. Antarctica will be the difficult one, if you believe Al Gore.

5) Make a pilgrimage.
I’m not sure where I’d like to go yet but making a journey I’d remember for the rest of my life is something I’d love to do. Jerusalem would be one possibility, or tracing Rome’s history… probably what appeals to me the most is tracing Darwin’s route through the Galápagos.

4) Sleep under the stars.
This is probably the easiest one to do but one day I’d love to get out of Sydney and spend several nights under the stars. You can barely see the stars at night here and the sky is never clear; I imagine being away from the city, the darkness would be beautiful.

3) Listen to someone’s life.
I’ve always liked the idea of a speaker for the dead, to use Orson Scott Card’s term, someone who would learn and speak about a life honestly. One day I hope to listen to someone tell me their story, to truly get the chance to know them… and then if someone wanted to know about them after they had passed, to share it so they would live on.

2) See John Williams and Howard Shore in concert.
I talk about music a lot, but I’m actually more interested in classical music than I am pop music. I write to it and I think movie scores are the closest thing we have to the great compositions of the past. For me John Williams’ score for Star Wars and Howard Shore’s for The Lord of the Rings are the greatest scores ever written (Miklos Rozsa’s Ben-Hur a close third). I’d love to hear both performed live, given the opportunity.

1) See all 4 Grand slams.
Tennis tragic that I am I’d love to see Wimbledon, the Australian, French and US Opens live. I haven’t been to the Aus Open in Melbourne yet but I hope to go next year; if things work out well, that might be when Federer overtakes Sampras’ record. Hopefully I’ll be able to see the others too at some stage. Maybe I’ll be able to see Agassi’s and Graf’s daughter win Wimbledon. 🙂

Bah, Humbug!

There’s a certain time when it starts to feel like Christmas for me. Sometimes I can be walking around K-Mart and looking at decorations but it just feels silly; it’s like October and Christmas seems an age away. Plus where would I store them for three months? But around late November I start to get into it more. I can usually tell when; I’ll be out shopping and at some stage the Christmas music starts and I don’t feel like destroying the speakers!

I enjoy the Christmas season but I’m one of those people who gets quite stressed in the lead up. I like getting my shopping done early (1st week of December) but inevitably someone buys something I’ve already bought them, so back it goes. I hate the queues; it’s not the waiting I hate, but the people who don’t wait. They jump the queue like they think they’re better than the rest of us commoners. And back out on the streets, the crush is five people deep and it’s a game of dodgeball just to avoid the elbows and backpacks. Ah, the joys of city life…

What I like about Christmas is more the feeling than the day itself. I wouldn’t say everyone is happy and nice, but there’s definitely a different feeling when you’re out. Houses have their trees up and suncatchers in the windows, the shopping centres have their decorations and lights, children are excited, the music’s playing in the background… it’s just a nice feeling that doesn’t happen any other time of the year.

Recently I’ve had a bit of a think about what Christmas means to me. I’ve outgrown the child’s excitement that comes with the day, and I’m more spiritual than religious. So now it’s more about spending time with my family, and the message that comes with the season; peace, joy, hope, a worthy message no matter what you believe. The problem that often seems to come with it, though, is that it can be an anticlimax. Have you ever seen Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation? That’s one of my favourite holiday movies and I love that everything he tries to do for his family just goes wrong! The tree’s too big, the lighting won’t work, his bonus is cancelled, the tree burns down… it’s not so far off real life. It doesn’t take much for family feuds to resume or a meal to be a disaster and all the fuss just doesn’t seem worth it. What lingers for me is the Bam earthquake on Boxing Day 2003, and the tsunami the following year… when 200,000 people die so suddenly, everything else drops away.

But at the same time perhaps that makes the message more important. The idea that we can live in peace, that we can celebrate something that brings so many people joy, that family does matter to us, is a wonderful message. Much as I don’t like the shopping and commercialism, I love the joy it brings to children; I love seeing their eyes light up when they see Santa or open a present on Christmas morning, or when the carols are on TV and families sit together and sing along. That’s what I like about the season.

This year I’ve decided I’m going to do things a bit differently. I’m going to cut back on a lot of the things that stress me out and enjoy the festive feeling instead. I’m staying away from the crowds and cutting back on the amount I spend (never a lot anyway) and the food, and I’m going to listen to more of the music. I just bought Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong and I’m looking forward to rewatching some of The Simpsons Christmas episodes. Something I do each year is to add up the amount I’ve spent and make a similar donation to charity. This year I’m going to do that through Global Giving. It’s a great site and connects users to over 450 independent charity projects around the world; the donations are spread out at a grassroots level, so they can really make a difference to an entire community (orphanages, schools, health programs). I ‘ve written about it before and I think it’s well worth supporting.

Other than that it’s going to be much the same as always. A salad on Christmas day, some time with family and friends, a mince pie here and there… I’m sure there’ll still be some of the stresses I hate so much, but hopefully it’ll be more balanced! What do you think? Do you get carried away or is it all a bit of a “bah, humbug!” moment? I’ve always said Ebenezer was misunderstood! 😉

Is beauty dying?

One of my favourite novels is George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. It’s one of the most beautiful, haunting novels I’ve ever read and it holds up amazingly well when you think it was published in 1949. Earth Abides is a post apocalyptic novel but it’s really more than that. It’s a lament for civilisation; human history unravels, devolves. But even as humans shrink, nature reclaims what it’s lost. There’s a wonderful scene at the end of the novel where Ish looks at the hills and knows that soon he shall return to the hills and the earth, and so shall his children, and the world they leave will be nothing like the one he knew. But life will go on; earth abides.

Reading all the posts about Blog Action Day has reminded me of Earth Abides. We seem to be at something of a crossroads right now about the environment ourselves. 20,000 blogs were involved in Blog Action Day and people are angry, worried about what world we’re leaving to our children. I’m concerned as well but I don’t think we’re at the final tipping point just yet; we have to accept our role in the problem, change our policies and the impact we have on the environment, but I still think if given the chance nature will reclaim what its lost. That’s evolution, the way of life; earth abides.

But having said that, responsibility is key. We need to understand that we all have an impact on the world we live in and accept the responsibility to make changes in our lives. If we all put off the changes, say someone else will do it, then the effect is negated. Likewise we need governments to be responsible for making changes, for making industries to adopt more environmentally friendly policies. And the only way politicians are motivated to make changes is if they know it’s a community issue, something they can’t ignore. That’s why Blog Action Day was a great initiative; it got us talking about the environment in ways that matter to us, and hopefully we’ll keep talking about it.

Blog Action Day also got me thinking about something else: Beauty. It was MusEdition’s great post which started it; she described her surroundings and it sounded so beautiful, to turn and look out the window at mountains and birds. Then I read Sulz’s entry and I knew just what she meant about walking through the woods or a park as the sun rises; one of my favourite pastimes is to walk along the beach, see the tide and the sun reflecting off the ocean. It’s something I take for granted sometimes and I shouldn’t; I’m going to try not to from now on.

But then I looked out my window. I don’t really know how to describe it; I live in one of the nicer residential parts of Sydney but I’m surrounded by cakeboxes. The street is filled with blocks of flats and the occasional house; I live near one of the largest parks in Sydney but I can’t see it from here and I’m high up in the flats. In fact, I can’t see trees at all; it’s just a concrete and brick jungle. Well, there is this one scrawny thing opposite that looks like it should be put out of its misery, but I don’t know whether that counts or not.

I live in one of the world’s most beautiful cities (and I do mean that) but today it just struck me how manufactured a lot of it is. And how manufactured our society is. We seem to have this idea of beauty that nothing can really live up to; a person has to look a certain way to be beautiful, our clothes are in fashion one minute and ugly the next, our homes have to have the latest trends, our gadgets have to be new and shiny. If something doesn’t match our standards, we don’t just get it fixed, we remake it in our image; cosmetic surgery, makeup, renovations, there’s always something which can make us or our possessions more “beautiful”.

I’ve never been someone who buys into the whole idea of image; I’m not going to say I don’t care how a person looks, but that’s not everything. I care more about personality and if the person is interesting than their looks or if they’ve got the latest iPod. I think at heart most people would say the same thing. But we still cling to this modern ideal of beauty just the same. And I’m wondering if this is spreading to how we think about the environment as well. When was the last time you saw a natural feature that made you stop and appreciate it? Not something you planned for, but just saw by accident? I know the last time for me: it was a sunset that caught my imagination just the right way. I took a picture of it. But before that I’d gone weeks, maybe months without even thinking about it, without even noticing what was around me. I think that’s true for a lot of people living in large cities.

It’s so much easier to turn a blind eye to the environment when you feel like it’s just your surroundings; when you’re so busy with your daily routine that you barely notice anything outside of it. That’s apathy and that’s the biggest danger of all, that we just exist and don’t care. We don’t see it so we don’t care that cities are taking over more and more land to cover growing populations; we don’t see that animals are being displaced from their homes by bulldozers for a new shopping mall to go up.

That’s why Blog Action Day was a good initiative and hopefully will continue to be; it’s got people thinking about it, noticing again. And as I said, I believe that if we play our role, nature will recover, and that’s why having a message of hope is a good balance. But something which concerns me is the thought that we might save the environment but replace the beauty that surrounds us in the process, and we might not even know what we’ve lost.

One of the biggest problems we’re facing now is overpopulation and crowding. How do you deal with it? With an ageing population and a steady birthrate, how do you extend a city and manage resources without impacting the environment? You can’t spread out further; you can’t take over new sites. The only viable option is to build up and make better use of the space we have; for more apartment blocks to be built, taller and with more vacancies, and for more people to live together, sharing costs. I think that’s the only way we can do it… but it means knocking down more houses, replacing them with flats. It means in 30 years that cities would become much more uniform, dominated by cakeboxes and dull towers, and what beauty we do have around us would be even less noticeable. I find that a very sad thought.

Perhaps it won’t be like that; perhaps I’ve simply used my imagination too much and envisioned something more like Blade Runner than a realistic future. But with the way we value our own ideal of beauty and the trends that come with it, it seems like something that might happen; that we’d place even less value on real beauty, artistry and design. That’s probably a worthy trade, but I find it sad just the same.

Still, life goes on. And earth abides; that’s the whole point, isn’t it? That’s what Blog Action Day was all about, spreading the message and making people think. It’s certainly made me think and I was proud to have played a small part in the day. Congrats to everyone. 🙂

Quantico by Greg Bear

Quantico Greg BearGreg Bear has written some of my favourite SF novels in the past but for the last few years has been moving more into the mainstream with his fiction. That’s fine with me as I’ll read anything I can get my hands on and Bear’s thrillers are different to most, but I admit I’m looking forward to his return to science fiction as well with his next novel; that’s where he really excels.

In the meantime Bear’s latest is Quantico, a novel based heavily on the fear of extremism. His story is set in a near-future where the Terror War is in its second decade and not progressing well. The Dome of the Rock has been destroyed by terrorists and a second attack of the scale of 9/11 has rocked the US; the threat of terrorists obtaining chemical and biological weapons has never been higher. In this atmosphere, three young FBI agents have recently graduated from Quantico; it is believed they could be among the last to graduate as critics seek to shut down the FBI for good. But when rumours of an immense planned terrorist attack begin to emerge, the agents find themselves in a race against time to stop it.

The first thing which struck me about Quantico was its tone; it’s dark and pervasive. There’s little optimism in the novel and not much humour, something which is unusual for one of Bear’s novels. Quantico represents the fears we all have in a post 9/11 world and at times is very confronting. Some people might find it too confronting but that tone is necessary for the novel to convey its message. Bio-terror, extremism and global politics form the backdrop for the world we live in and I found Bear’s depiction of a believable direction for the War on Terror both troubling and resonant.

Quantico works primarily on a suspense level as the FBI agents try to unravel who is behind the threat of passing a deadly strain of anthrax to religious fanatics; we’ve all thought about the idea of a chemical or biological weapon being used but here Bear takes it a step further – what if that weapon could be keyed to target a specific race? Suddenly the Holocaust doesn’t seem so distant and Bear’s science makes the premise scarily plausible. The characterisations in Quantico are also strong. The characters come across as flawed and believable, reacting realistically to the situation they find themselves in; Rebecca Rose, for instance, shows the impact of living with terror for 20 years, obsessed with cleanliness and her job, so much so that she has no other life.

The focus on Fouad Al-Husam (one of the agents) also gives the novel an interesting dynamic, contrasting modern Islam with fundamentalism and allowing Bear to explore the extent of profiling within the FBI. Another interesting aspect is that Islamic extremism is not the larger enemy in Bear’s work; rather much of it focuses on a domestic form of terrorism instead which makes the threat even more immediate, showing how fanaticism can arise anywhere, and the circumstances which might lead someone to committing such an act.

That said, a few things didn’t work as well as I might have liked. The main problem is that the ending, though bringing about a resolution, feels slightly abrupt; after a lengthy lead-in I would have liked to have seen the consequences followed though a bit more, to see the full impact on the characters. Also the internal politics of the FBI play a large and necessary role in the novel, but in certain scenes seem to weigh the story down more than in others, and more than any of the science. Likewise you could say that some of the government infighting seems slightly forced after a second 9/11 (although it might be accurate given the current partisanship).

But those are fairly minor points and the unnerving story arc is more than enough to pull the reader through from beginning to end. The pace is sharp and Quantico presents a compelling and intelligent examination of the War on Terror and our world as it might become. If you’re interested in a science-thriller based on current world events, I’d highly recommend it.

WordPress blocked in Thailand as well

First WordPress.com was blocked in Turkey, now it seems like Thailand has followed suit. Reports have been coming in since August 22 that the WordPress.com domain has been blocked by the state-owned TOT telecommunications company, preventing their users from accessing all blogs hosted on WordPress.com.

The FACT (Freedom Against Censorship in Thailand) blog reports that “TOT is a Thai public company under the supervision of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. Its chairman of the board of directors is General Saprang Kalyanamitra, a member of Council for Democratic Reform who did the coup last year.” Thailand has a particularly bad record with online censorship; the Royal Thai Police has blocked approximately 32500 websites, and last year pages from BBC One, BBC Two, CNN and Yahoo! News were blocked as well.

This is getting very worrying. This is a state-owned company censoring what their users can see; it’s no different to media being owned by governments in China and North Korea. If you add Pakistan’s ban on Blogspot and the Great Firewall of China as well, that’s four major countries blocking Western media, and three of those countries are supposed to be allies. I’m starting to wonder if there’s more of a political game going on here than we thought. Internations Musings compared the ban in Turkey to a fatwa rather than a court decision, and if you think of Kareem’s imprisonment as well, it’s very worrying.

So how do we respond? FACT has an online petition, and another against censorship in Thailand; you might want to stop by and sign both. In the end this is something only the folks at WordPress can sort out, but it’s left bloggers in Turkey and now some in Thailand stranded and we can’t just ignore that.

Perhaps devblog’s idea to use a blog outside of WP.com encouraging bloggers to voice their concerns is a good idea. Add instructions for how to access their blogs through TOR and at least we’d be doing something productive. Any other ideas?

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