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the eighth day

March 23, 2011

Melbourne Environment Warning

Unconstrained Energy Leak Engulfing City

While residents on the north coast of Japan watch and wait as the environmental impacts of the damage to its Fukushima nuclear power generators in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami, and communities along the Gulf of Mexico continue their cleaning efforts after the sustained release of oil energy from the disabled drilling platform, Melburnians today are being warned of a major energy disaster engulfing the city. Energy many times the capacity of either the reactors in Japan or the oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico is being released across the city in an unrestrained way, impacting the lives of every resident of and visitor to the city. Daily reports of this leak fill our news media, with papers regularly reporting the times in which its release begins and ends, often indicating when the peak impact will occur during the day. Radio programs punctuate the hour with updates, often reinforced across the hour. Yet in their typically laconic Aussie style, Melbourne's residents seem to take it in their stride.

Far from being concerned about this release of energy into the atmosphere, Melbourne's citizens seem to revel in it. Though extreme circumstances can cause severe damage to the skin, and often lead to a significant reduction in productivity, marked by a surge in residents leaving the city and heading to the shores, shedding work responsibilities and, incredibly, soaking up its rays, for the most part the atmospheric presence of this unrestrained energy source is taken for granted, with little pressure being exerted upon governments and industry to take action to curb this waste.

A variety of symptoms of exposure have been reported, including in its mild forms, increased consumption of liquids, and the shedding of external clothing by humans, and at extreme levels increased risk of skin cancers. But its release can also lift sombre moods, stimulate the playful twitter of bird life, and the encourage the blossoming of flowers and flourishing of gardens. Oddly enough, a common response when this energy release is at its peak is for Melburnians to increase demand for and consumption of coal and gas-fired energy sources which have even more adverse effects on the atmosphere and the broader environment, intensifying its impact in the atmosphere. Some of Melbourne's citizens have consequently been pressing for investment in the nuclear generation technology which has Japanese residents presently in a heightened state of alert. In spite of the abundance of this energy source, few Melburnians seem concerned enough to harness and utilise solar resources in the overall generation of power through its infrastructure. This terrible and unconstrained wastage passes daily with little concern by the average citizen, save to occasionally retreat when at its most intense or, paradoxically, also when it is at its least intensity. In stark contrast to the citizens of Japan and the Gulf Coast, Melburnians seems strangely relaxed about this unconstrained release into the environment and the accompanying wasted opportunity, yet at the same time apparently concerned that we move to harness and deploythe very sources of energy which have paralyses these other places for extended periods.

Interestingly, were such unconstrained release of energy of the kind we see each day be of any other form of energy being consumed around the world, the death toll would be enormous and the environment damaged to the extent that it would be uninhabitable. Conversely, harnessing this power source for our daily conduct of life will do nothing to diminish the enjoyment of it in other ways by others, and may even provide benefits in other ways to our communal well-being, without the risks which most alternatives bring. It almost beggars belief.

So every time you hear a weather report today and revel in the sun's rays, take a moment to remember and perhaps pray for our sisters and brothers in Japan, and contemplate the waste we tolerate every day.

Posted by gary at 06:52 AM | Comments (0)

March 15, 2011

The State of the Planet

The first part of 2011 has been remarkable for the number of catastrophic events which have been on our screens and in our newspapers. Floods, cyclones, bushfires, earthquakes, and tsunamis have appeared almost in sequence within this region of the world, prompting many to pause and ask "what is going on?" The ever-present and continuous news presentations providing blanket coverage of these events has, to some extent, heightened awareness and - possibly - the sense of trauma being felt within the community. The distance from our lounge-room chairs to the flood-devastated residents of Brisbane and North Queensland, to the bushfire threatened residents of Perth, to the shaken and shattered residents of Christchurch or to the inundated residents of Japan has been greatly reduced by the wonders of telecommunication technology and the conspicuous presence of 24-hour news coverage. It is hard to avoid being drawn into these dramatic events. It is equally difficult to escape their presence. The trauma being experienced by the residents is encroaching upon our daily lives.

At one level, the sense of disaster we feel is heightened by our proximity to the events, both in vision and experience. Who can but help to be shaken by the images of waves destroying everything in their path which have saturated our screens in recent nights? How can we not be shaken to the core as we witness first-hand the distress of residents standing outside collapsed buildings wondering whether friends and loved ones are trapped inside? We experience these things in their raw state, entering ever more deeply into the experience of the residents. Not for us any longer the capacity to wait for news to reach us, often processed with the benefit of passing time. It is raw. It is filled with anguish. And the very screen which brings us into this drama also cuts us off from resources to help us process it. Aid and support workers are on the ground helping residents deal with their shock and grief, but not in our lounge rooms. We find ourselves either immersed in the trauma, or conceptually reducing it to a form of entertainment. (Remember the reminders during the events of September 11? Newscasters had to remind audiences that this was real. Note that we no longer find the need to do so.)

At another level, we seem to have been hit by an uninterrupted sequence of catastrophic events of an extreme nature. This sequence also gives rise to the question - is there something unusual about this sequence? Have we tripped off events by human action? While I resonate with Boris Johnson's decrying of those who search for simplistic answers to this situation, I hesitate to rule out the need to ask ourselves whether our actions have somehow disturbed the delicate balance in creation to a point where the frequency of events has been accelerated and their ferocity intensified. Is it realistic to assume that we can extract billions of litres of crude oil from below the earth's crust and replace it with seawater without upsetting the balance? Is it naive to believe that setting off nuclear explosions beneath the earth's surface has no impact on the stability of the tectonic plates? We are already pondering the impact of our carbon emissions on the planet... ought we not extend our considerations to other aspects below the surface? Of course the earth is not a person who "exacts revenge." It is, however, a system in balance - an ever-shifting balance with tremendous capacity to adapt to changes - but one which does have limits to its flexibility. We can no longer presume on human capacity to treat creation as its plaything without some consideration of the potential consequences. Whilst I would agree that it is only human stupidity which seeks to ascribe simple or singular causes to such events, I would also suggest that it is only human arrogance that can allow us to continue as though these things were entirely matters of chance.

Yet when we hear the question, "What is going on?" echoing through ordinary conversation, we recognise the conversation being turned towards discussion of meta-narratives - is there a bigger picture of which this is part? The search for meaning is a basic human trait - that sense of purpose in life which explains who we are and why we live in a certain way. Although some might suggest that the idea of the meta-narrative has gone the way of the dodo, its resurrection at times such as this (and not only at this time) indicates that questions of meaning are still very much alive. This is why some find it irresistible to offer simplistic explanations: "It's the judgment of God," or "It's the earth fighting back." These are as helpful as Johnson's suggestion that "we don't have to treat this as any kind of verdict on mankind's activities," or to borrow a phrase from another politician, "shit happens." An inappropriate response - at either end - does not invalidate the question. There is a middle ground where some thoughtful reflection needs to be undertaken about the impact of our lifestyle on the planet while we pour our efforts and resources into aid and support for the devastated regions (and not just those in the West!)

We do need to contemplate where our lifestyle is leading us, and whether these events are indicators, or simply isolated episodes consistent with the inherent volatility of our planet. Failure to even ask the question might allow us to journey into even deeper troubles.

Posted by gary at 11:30 PM | Comments (0)

November 04, 2009

Nature's Amazing Creativity

See some Amazing trees and watch water bouncing. Nature is amazing...

Posted by gary at 04:37 PM | Comments (0)

March 26, 2009

What do you get if you divide science by God?

A prize-winning quantum physicist says a spiritual reality is veiled from us, and science offers a glimpse behind that veil. So how do scientists investigating the fundamental nature of the universe assess any role of God, asks Mark Vernon.

The Templeton Prize, awarded for contributions to "affirming life's spiritual dimension", has been won by French physicist Bernard d'Espagnat, who has worked on quantum physics with some of the most famous names in modern science.

Quantum physics is a hugely successful theory: the predictions it makes about the behaviour of subatomic particles are extraordinarily accurate. And yet, it raises profound puzzles about reality that remain as yet to be understood.

WHAT IS QUANTUM PHYSICS?
Originated in work conducted by Max Planck and Albert Einstein at start of 20th Century.
They discovered that light comes in discrete packets, or quanta, which we call photons.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty principle says certain features of subatomic particles like momentum and position cannot be known precisely at the same time.
Gaps remain, like attempts to find the 'God Particle' that scientists hope to spot in the Large Hadron Collider. It is required to give other particles mass.
The bizarre nature of quantum physics has attracted some speculations that are wacky but the theory suggests to some serious scientists that reality, at its most basic, is perfectly compatible with what might be called a spiritual view of things.
Some suggest that observers play a key part in determining the nature of things. Legendary physicist John Wheeler said the cosmos "has not really happened, it is not a phenomenon, until it has been observed to happen."
D'Espagnat worked with Wheeler, though he himself reckons quantum theory suggests something different. For him, quantum physics shows us that reality is ultimately "veiled" from us.
The equations and predictions of the science, super-accurate though they are, offer us only a glimpse behind that veil. Moreover, that hidden reality is, in some sense, divine. Along with some philosophers, he has called it "Being".
In an effort to seek the answers to the "meaning of physics", I spoke to five leading scientists.

1. THE ATHEIST
Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg is well-known as an atheist. For him, physics reflects the "chilling impersonality" of the universe.
He would be thinking here of, say, the vast tracts of empty space, billions of light years across, that mock human meaning.He says: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless."
So for Weinberg, the notion that there might be an overlap between science and spirituality is entirely mistaken.

2. THE SCEPTIC
The Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, shows a distinct reserve when speculating about what physics might mean, whether that be pointlessness or meaningfulness.
He has "no strong opinions" on the interpretation of quantum theory: only time will tell whether the theory becomes better understood.
"The implications of cosmology for these realms of thought may be profound, but diffidence prevents me from venturing into them," he has written.
In short, it is good to be humble in the face of the mysteries that physics throws up.

3. THE PLATONIST
Oxford physicist Roger Penrose differs again. He believes that mathematics suggests there is a world beyond the immediate, material one.
Can science explain all of life's meaning?
Ask yourself this question: would one plus one equal two even if I didn't think it? The answer is yes.
Would it equal two even if no-one thought it? Again, presumably, yes.
Would it equal two even if the universe didn't exist? That is more tricky to contemplate, but again, there are good grounds for a positive response.
Penrose, therefore, argues that there is what can be called a Platonic world beyond the material world that "contains" mathematics and other abstractions.

4. THE BELIEVER
John Polkinghorne worked on quantum physics in the first part of his career, but then took up a different line of work: he was ordained an Anglican priest. For him, science and religion are entirely compatible.
The ordered universe science reveals is only what you'd expect if it was made by an orderly God. However, the two disciplines are different. He calls them "intellectual cousins".
"Physics is showing the world to be both more supple and subtle, but you need to be careful," he says.
If you want to understand the meaning of things you have to go beyond science, and the religious direction is, he argues, the best.

5. THE PANTHEIST
Brian Swimme is a cosmologist, and with the theologian Thomas Berry, wrote a book called The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era.
It is avidly read by individuals in New Age and ecological circles, and tells the scientific story of the universe, from the Big Bang to the emergence of human consciousness, but does so as a new sacred myth.
Swimme believes that "the universe is attempting to be felt", which makes him a pantheist, someone who believes the cosmos in its entirety can be called God.

Mark Vernon is author of After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life. source:BBC

Posted by gary at 11:33 AM | Comments (0)

March 18, 2009

8 Brilliant Scientific Screw Ups

Hard work and dedication have their time and place, but the values of failure and ineptitude have gone unappreciated for far too long. They say that patience is a virtue, but the following eight inventions prove that laziness, slovenliness, clumsiness and pure stupidity can be virtues, too.

1. Anesthesia (1844)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Recreational drug use
Lesson Learned: Too much of a good thing can sometimes be, well, a good thing

Nitrous oxide was discovered in 1772, but for decades the gas was considered no more than a party toy. People knew that inhaling a little of it would make you laugh (hence the name “laughing gas”), and that inhaling a little more of it would knock you unconscious. But for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to anyone that such a property might be useful in, say, surgical operations.

Finally, in 1844, a dentist in Hartford, Conn., named Horace Wells came upon the idea after witnessing a nitrous mishap at a party. High on the gas, a friend of Wells fell and suffered a deep gash in his leg, but he didn’t feel a thing. In fact, he didn’t know he’d been seriously injured until someone pointed out the blood pooling at his feet.

To test his theory, Wells arranged an experiment with himself as the guinea pig. He knocked himself out by inhaling a large does of nitrous oxide, and then had a dentist extract a rotten tooth from his mouth. When Wells came to, his tooth had been pulled painlessly.

To share his discovery with the scientific world, he arranged to perform a similar demonstration with a willing patient in the amphitheatre of the Massachusetts General Hospital. But things didn’t exactly go as planned. Not yet knowing enough about the time it took for the gas to kick in, Wells pulled out the man’s tooth a little prematurely, and the patient screamed in pain. Wells was disgraced and soon left the profession. Later, after being jailed while high on chloroform, he committed suicide. It wasn’t until 1864 that the American Dental Association formally recognized him for his discovery.

2. Iodine (1811)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Industrial accident
Lesson Learned: Seaweed is worth its weight in salt

In the early 19th century, Bernard Courtois was the toast of Paris. He had a factory that produced saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which was a key ingredient in ammunition, and thus a hot commodity in Napoleon’s France. On top of that, Courtois had figured out how to fatten his profits and get his saltpeter potassium for next to nothing. He simply took it straight from the seaweed that washed up daily on the shores. All he had to do was collect it, burn it, and extract the potassium from the ashes.

One day, while his workers were cleaning the tanks used for extracting potassium, they accidentally used a stronger acid than usual. Before they could say “sacre bleu!,” mysterious clouds billowed from the tank. When the smoke cleared, Courtois noticed dark crystals on all the surfaces that had come into contact with the fumes. When he had them analyzed, they turned out to be a previously unknown element, which he named iodine, after the Greek word for “violet.” Iodine, plentiful in saltwater, is concentrated in seaweed. It was soon discovered that goiters, enlargements of the thyroid gland, were caused by a lack of iodine in the diet. So, in addition to its other uses, iodine is now routinely added to table salt.

3. Penicillin (1928)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Living like a pig
Lesson Learned: It helps to gripe to your friends about your job

Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming had a, shall we say, relaxed attitude toward a clean working environment. His desk was often littered with small glass dishes—a fact that is fairly alarming considering that they were filled with bacteria cultures scraped from boils, abscesses and infections. Fleming allowed the cultures to sit around for weeks, hoping something interesting would turn up, or perhaps that someone else would clear them away.

Finally one day, Fleming decided to clean the bacteria-filled dishes and dumped them into a tub of disinfectant. His discovery was about to be washed away when a friend happened to drop by the lab to chat with the scientist. During their discussion, Fleming griped good-naturedly about all the work he had to do and dramatized the point by grabbing the top dish in the tub, which was (fortunately) still above the surface of the water and cleaning agent. As he did, Fleming suddenly noticed a dab of fungus on one side of the dish, which had killed the bacteria nearby. The fungus turned out to be a rare strain of penicillium that had drifted onto the dish from an open window.

Fleming began testing the fungus and found that it killed deadly bacteria, yet was harmless to human tissue. However, Fleming was unable to produce it in any significant quantity and didn’t believe it would be effective in treating disease. Consequently, he downplayed its potential in a paper he presented to the scientific community. Penicillin might have ended there as little more than a medical footnote, but luckily, a decade later, another team of scientists followed up on Fleming’s lead. Using more sophisticated techniques, they were able to successfully produce one of the most life-saving drugs in modern medicine.

4. The Telephone (1876)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Poor foreign language skills
Lesson Learned: A little German is better than none

In the 1870s, engineers were working to find a way to send multiple messages over one telegraph wire at the same time. Intrigued by the challenge, Alexander Graham Bell began experimenting with possible solutions. After reading a book by Hermann Von Helmholtz, Bell got the idea to send sounds simultaneously over a wire instead. But as it turns out, Bell’s German was a little rusty, and the author had mentioned nothing about the transmission of sound via wire. Too late for Bell though; the inspiration was there, and he had already set out to do it.

The task proved much more difficult than Bell had imagined. He and his mechanic, Thomas Watson, struggled to build a device that could transmit sound. They finally succeeded, however, and came up with the telephone.

5. Photography (1835)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Not doing the dishes
Lesson Learned: Put off today what you can do tomorrow

Between 1829 and 1835, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre was close to becoming the first person to develop a practical process for producing photographs. But he wasn’t home yet.

Daguerre had figured out how to expose an image onto highly polished plates covered with silver iodide, a substance known to be sensitive to light. However, the images he was producing on these polished plates were barely visible, and he didn’t know how to make them darker.

After producing yet another disappointing image one day, Daguerre tossed the silverized plate in his chemical cabinet, intending to clean it off later. But when he went back a few days later, the image had darkened to the point where it was perfectly visible. Daguerre realized that one of the chemicals in the cabinet had somehow reacted with the silver iodide, but he had no way of know which one it was … and there were a whole lot of chemicals in that cabinet.

For weeks, Daguerre took one chemical out of the cabinet every day and put it in a newly exposed plate. But every day, he found a less-than-satisfactory image. Finally, as he was testing the very last chemical, he got the idea to put the plate in the now-empty cabinet, as he had done the first time. Sure enough, the image on the plate darkened. Daguerre carefully examined the shelves of the cabinet and found what he was looking for. Weeks earlier, a thermometer in the cabinet had broken, and Daguerre (being the slob that he was) didn’t clean up the mess very well, leaving a few drops of mercury on the shelf. Turns out, it was the mercury vapor interacting with the silver iodide that produced the darker image. Daguerre incorporated mercury vapor into his process, and the Daguerreotype photograph was born.

6. Mauve Dye (1856)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Delusions of grandeur
Lesson Learned: Real men wear mauve

In 1856, an 18-year-old British chemistry student named William Perkin attempted to develop a synthetic version of quinine, the drug commonly used to treat malaria. It was a noble cause, but the problem was, he had no idea what he was doing.

Perkin started by mixing aniline (a colorless, oily liquid derived from coal-tar, a waste product of the steel industry) with propylene gas and potassium dichromate. It’s a wonder he didn’t blow himself to bits, but the result was just a disappointing black mass stuck to the bottom of his flask. As Perkin started to wash out the container, he noticed that the black substance turned the water purple, and after playing with it some more, he discovered that the purple liquid could be used to dye cloth.

With financial backing from his wealthy father, Perkin began a dye-making business, and his synthetic mauve colorant soon became popular. Up until the time of Perkin’s discovery, natural purple dye had to be extracted from Mediterranean mollusks, making it extremely expensive. Perkin’s cheap coloring not only jumpstarted the synthetic dye industry (and gave birth to the colors used in J.Crew catalogs), it also sparked the growth of the entire field of organic chemistry.

7. Nylon (1934)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Workplace procrastination
Lesson Learned: When the cat’s away, the mice should play

In 1934, researchers at DuPont were charged with developing synthetic silk. But after months of hard work, they still hadn’t found what they were looking for, and the head of the project, Wallace Hume Carothers, was considering calling it quits. The closest they had come was creating a liquid polymer that seemed chemically similar to silk, but in its liquid form wasn’t very useful. Deterred, the researchers began testing other, seemingly more promising substances called polyesters.

One day, a young (and apparently bored) scientist in the group noticed that if he gathered a small glob of polyester on a glass stirring rod, he could use it to pull thin strands of the material from the beaker. And for some reason (prolonged exposure to polyester fumes, perhaps?) he found this hilarious. So on a day when boss-man Carothers was out of the lab, the young researcher and his co-workers started horsing around and decided to have a competition to see who could draw the longest threads from the beaker. As they raced down the hallway with the stirring rods, it dawned on them: By stretching the substance into strands, they were actually re-orienting the molecules and making the liquid material solid.

Ultimately, they determined that the polyesters they were playing with couldn’t be used in textiles, like DuPont wanted, so they turned to their previously unsuccessful silk-like polymer. Unlike the polyester, it could be drawn into solid strands that were strong enough to be woven. This was the first completely synthetic fiber, and they named the material Nylon.

8. Vulcanized Rubber (1844)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Obsession combined with butterfingers
Lesson Learned: A little clumsiness can go a long way

In the early 19th century, natural rubber was relatively useless. It melted in hot weather and became brittle in the cold. Plenty of people had tried to “cure” rubber so it would be impervious to temperature changes, but no one had succeeded … that is, until Charles Goodyear stepped in (or so he claims). According to his own version of the tale, the struggling businessman became obsessed with solving the riddle of rubber, and began mixing rubber with sulfur over a stove. One day, he accidentally spilled some of the mixture onto the hot surface, and when it charred like a piece of leather instead of melting, he knew he was onto something.

The truth, according to well-documented sources, is somewhat different. Apparently, Goodyear learned the secret of combining rubber and sulfur from another early experimenter. And it was one of his partners who accidentally dropped a piece of fabric impregnated with the rubber and sulfur mixture onto a hot stove. But it was Goodyear who recognized the significance of what happened, and he spent months trying to find the perfect combination of rubber, sulfur and high heat. (Goodyear also took credit for coining the term “vulcanization” for the process, but the word was actually first used by an English competitor.) Goodyear received a patent for the process in 1844, but spent the rest of his life defending his right to the discovery. Consequently, he never grew rich and, in fact, wound up in debtors prison more than once. Ironically, rubber became a hugely profitable industry years later, with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. at the forefront.

By Eric Elfman

Posted by gary at 08:20 PM | Comments (0)

February 24, 2009

Hope in the aftermath

"I will transform the valley of trouble into a gateway of hope" (Hosea 2:15)
Last Monday, a friend returned for the first time to the property where his sister and her partner died in the fires of February 7. It was a profound experience as he and his brothers sifted through the remains of their bush property. The landscape was blackened, the yard strewn with deformed metal and glass, made molten in the flames. The kitchen in which they spent their last moments was barely a shell. The utter devastation of home and surrounds was confronting, yet helped the family to realise that their destiny was written firm in the flames, and not in any folly. The scorched landscape stands as a metaphor for the grief that crept its way into their hearts in the days following the fires as they awaited some news. Its black and life-deprived visage now reflects the despair and devastation of the heart: what good can be found in the wake of such events? Could we ever find joy and hope again? As they walked the property and sifted the charred remains, they stumbled across two unexpected finds. In the otherwise blackened yard, fresh green leaves from a rhubarb plant had already sprouted - the first signs of new life already evident, fresh green against the black merely a week after the flames had passed. And, embedded in the walls of the kitchen, intact pieces of their sister's art work: tiles she had painted and which were previously sealed by fire. They remained as a testament to a life lived: one reminder that her presence in life has not been obliterated. Such is the shape of grief: an encompassing blackness where it is impossible to imagine any beauty, where all seems lost; broken by discoveries of a life that has left its continuing mark, and which springs forth with new prospects. The discovery that joy does return, that hope still springs forth, even in the midst of loss, is a story slowly emerging across households and communities throughout the state. The prophet Hosea reminds us that God gives new hope - often born in the midst of trouble, not in spite of it: that beauty can emerge from devastation, not in spite of it. It is the gift of God which embraces the pain, while opening the future once again.

Posted by gary at 11:21 AM | Comments (0)

December 02, 2008

The Smiling Face of God?

Smiling Face of God.jpg
An unusual alignment of the new moon with Venus and Jupiter last night provided this joyous visage in the skies, visible even to those in the inner city. Makes you feel like someone is watching over you!

Posted by gary at 09:02 AM | Comments (0)

July 16, 2008

Towards a Sustainable Future

It was the year 1899 when the then Commissioner of the U.S. Patents office was reported to have said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." While he might choose to have retracted those words even before they had hit the wires, we might do well to pause and reflect on whether all invention can be described as progress.

As we enter an era when the level of carbon in the atmosphere continues to climb to hitherto unrecorded levels - and even while we debate the implications of that - we recognise that one of the significant costs of progress remains the environment in which we live. We have, in reality, bitten the hand that feeds us hard, and wonder at its capacity to recover and adapt.

A second thought reverberates through my mind - most, if not all of this progress has been to the benefit of the West, at the expense of other parts of the world, even at the exploitation of them. When we consider how corporations have made millions by using cheap third-world labour to produce garments sold at prices which bear little relation to their production costs, we must consider whether progress for some at the expense of the majority is really progress at all.

The cost of producing many of our staples in the West has ignored the unaccounted costs - those which appear on no corporate books or tax records. While countries debate the possibility of carbon trading schemes (which would appear one small and tenuous step towards addressing the problem), there is an unspoken need for the West to recognise the need to bear much more of the cost of our lavish lifestyles.

This struck me afresh recently as I read through the Psalms, and encountered the reverberating cry, "I am innocent, Lord". I realised that this is a cry that cannot honestly emanate from my own lips. I live in a world system which is biased in my direction. I live a lifestyle which takes far more from this planet than is just or equitable, let alone sustainable. Even as I make efforts to reduce this, I realise that I am a long way from innocence. Such is not to pile up guilt, or to deny the possibility of grace, but to underline the need to give careful consideration to the way I live, to the foods I buy, the products purchased, the use of money overall. By almost any measure, living in the West invariably and conservatively places us in the richest 10% of the planet (certainly if you are reading this on a computer!). With such privilege comes responsibility, one which isn't exercised by deferring to governments for action.

The Bible begins by creating an essential link between humans and the planet: from the dust we are formed, and to the dust we return. Our link with the earth is more than merely symbolic, or at the ends of life. Until we recognise our inherent relationship with the earth, and the inherent link between the health of creation as a whole and our own as individuals and communities, we are set on a path into territories which will raise ever more critical questions about our future.

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do. Perhaps we don't need new innovations so much as better environmental expressions.

Posted by gary at 04:40 PM | Comments (0)

December 07, 2007

The Vegetable Orchestra

In keeping with the environmentally sustainable theme, here's an organic orchestra - when you've finished playing, you can share a meal together!

Sadly this invites a litany of puns, whether you carrot all... or not. I'll go no further with that. But if you want to go further, check out their web site, which offers a suite of vegetable tunes.

Posted by gary at 09:56 PM | Comments (0)

June 14, 2007

Of droughts and flooding rains...

When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers

(Chinese Proverb)

When Australian Prime Minister John Howard made a public appeal for prayer for rain a month or so back, it provoked significant discussion amongst many of my colleagues. Many questioned the motives of the PM, particularly in light of the increasing propensity for Australian politics to court the Christian vote, much in the same way in which American Republicans have managed to successfully garner the conservative Christian vote over the past decade. Others questioned whether it is appropriate to ask for prayer without being prepared to act at the same time in response to the challenges. Given the PM's very public scepticism in relation to climate change, and unwillingness - or at least reluctance - to embrace any responsibility for reduction in carbon emissions, which are widely regarded as responsible for the changes in weather patterns which are evident throughout the world, and of which the extended Australian drought is just one evidence. The link between repentance (for actions which bring us to the present problem) and prayer was expressed. Then there were those who applauded the willingness of the PM to acknowledge the existence of a 'higher power' and a sense of dependence upon God. Other issues (such as cultural sensitivity) served to push the call into the background, many writing it off as a political stunt. Until...


Last week in the Hunter Valley region, torrential rain fell - over 170 mm in 24 hours in some zones - causing severe flooding which resulted in the death of at least seven people and property damage estimated to be in excess of one billion dollars, not to mention the loss of personal property, memories, and disruption to family life. It is an unmitigated national disaster. Where in the world would you find a community in the middle of a drought suffering such flood damage?

But these events brought the PM's request back onto the national agenda. It began in an innocuous way for me, when a parent at school commented, "we prayed for rain, didn't we?" when discussing the situation. It is a theme which has been picked up by Philip Adams, and The Chaser team on last night's show (big file, but you only need to watch the first five minutes).

Which brings us back to the nature of prayer.

Did we pray incorrectly (as some have suggested)? Perhaps we needed to be more specific... indicating what, when and how much. But of course this is absurd. It implies a God who is unknowing and uncaring - one with loads of power but no idea how to use it. Jesus said of our anxiety for the basics of life "your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things," (Mt 6:32) and that "your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him." (Mt 6:8) To recast God as a cosmic Santa Claus who needs to be manipulated by numbers or words (weight or choice of), diminishes the very character of God we are seeking to acknowledge and esteem. Are we suggesting that God does not know our need? That he doesn't know how to provide correctly? Of course not (and I am obviously caricaturing).

The Chinese proverb "When the gods want to punish us they answer our prayers" seems salient in this setting. How is it that we, being mortal beings, are able to cast the consequences of our desires and decisions better than the One whose vision and power is not limited as we? We cry out for rain, thinking that this would be good for us, and then are overwhelmed by it. Having cast drought as the an unmitigated evil, we paint rain as our friend. The reality proves otherwise.

When we journey back through the Bible, we see drought playing an important role from time to time in the purposes of God. It was drought that brought reconciliation between Joseph and his family. It was drought that brought the confrontation between the prophets of Baal and Elijah, ultimately turning Israel's heart back to God. It was in the desert that Israel was formed for entry into the promised land, and it was in drought that Jeremiah emerged to lead Israel. When we call for rain out of our own sense of need, might we be missing the greater purposes of God?

Which is not to say that it is wrong to pray for rain. My voice has been part of that chorus in prayer for some time. But, when we ask for something, we also need to be aware that God might have a different purpose at work. Prayer is about much more, and much greater things, than simply rolling out our requests before God, who has no need of increasing His personal approval ratings, but is more intent on shaping his kingdom 'on earth as it is in heaven'. When I pray for rain, I need to listen... to discern whether there is a response of the Spirit of which I am called to be part.

There is little doubt that this extended drought has sharpened our awareness of the impact of our lifestyles on the planet. Would we be as aware of climate change without it? Would we be equally willing to make changes to our lifestyles if we were well-watered? The issue of stewardship of creation is firmly in the forefront of our minds as we contemplate shortages in water, impacts on our river and eco-systems, and the consequences of our increasing reliance on fossil-based fuels. Rather than simply telling God what to do about the drought ("send rain") ought we not also be asking God what we should be doing? There is a partnership in existence since the dawn of time when in the Garden of Eden responsibility was given to the humans to care for the land which we need to reconsider. Our care has been lacking, and a decent fall of rain isn't going to solve the continuing problems.

If it comes to the point where, in prayer, we need to be very specific about the amount of rain we want, and where we want God to put it, then we have moved so far from where our relationship with the God who created and redeemed us ought to be. Far from expressing dependence upon God, we are making Him our servant, and at our beck and call. That seems to be the exact opposite of where it ought to be.

Posted by gary at 11:18 AM | Comments (0)

February 13, 2007

A stress-free career?

New Scientist offers six steps to a stress-free career - a wonderful ideal at first glance, but hardly achievable, or even desireable as a goal. First let me give you the six steps:

  1. Create a good space
  2. Raise your status
  3. Be social
  4. Don't be too social
  5. Learn to switch off
  6. Modern stress-busting (activities to dissipate stress and its effects)
The ideal of a stress-free utopia is an empty myth - it is stress which is at the heart of growth. The problem is not stress itself, but unmanaged stress and ignored stress. It goes to the heart of suffering and its place in our personal growth. Meeting new challenges, finding ourselves testing new resources, building stronger networks and relationships... all emerge from response to stress as we learn and adopt new coping mechanisms.

It is part of our nature to hold to goals and ideals which are beyond us, which call us forward into a better future. This is the nature of hope - to keep us dissatisfied with what is so that we work to create what can be.

Certainly the advice in the article is helpful, but its premise needs to be questioned.

Posted by gary at 10:15 AM | Comments (0)

January 30, 2007

Stars, Comets and Christmas

comet mcnaught.jpgThe appearance of Comet McNaught in southern skies over recent weeks has provoked conversation in our household about the star at Christmas which lead the wise men to the infant Jesus. How we actually perceive that star reflects some interesting challenges in the faith conversation. Did the wise men "follow the stars" in the same way that astrology is understood, rather than geographically lighting up the manger like a neon sign? Or was it a comet such as this one? Or a peculiar manifestation of a star or planet in the night sky? How we picture in our mind the text of scripture goes a long way towards interpreting the text for us.
My original perspective on the text was of a giant star hovering over a manger - a Christmas Card special, painted in the night sky for all to see. But I have yet to see the night sky produce anything approaching a similar effect. And knowing that the stars track across the sky during the night makes it even more problematic, not to mention the issue of whether or not the star appeared on consecutive nights for a lengthy period. What if it rained?
It is more likely that the wise men were astrologers, who read the stars and were alerted to the fact that something special was afoot in history, of cosmic proportions. But then, there are other presuppositions brought to the text which cause us to baulk at such a notion.
It is an interesting concept to explore, not without practical implications. God has the strange habit of appearing to us in ways which contradict his own theology..>! (or was that mine?8^0)

Posted by gary at 02:16 PM | Comments (0)

October 27, 2006

Into the Desert: Space

Into the Desert: Space
Before we commenced this journey, there were odds being laid amongst friends about how long it would take Ev to call it quits and return home. The idea of a family of five compressed into a sedan when travelling and a van when not seemed anathema to her personality. And with barely four square metres of available floor space inside the van, one had good reason to be concerned. How would we all (not just Ev!) cope with such confinement? Would it be like “six months in a leaky boat, trying hard to stay afloat”?
Without wanting to understate the adjustment and occasional frustration with living in such close proximity to one another, the real answer came within days of returning home, with the comments about how hard it was to live in such confined spaces. Yes, that's right – AFTER we were home, and inside a larger house (well, at least larger than the van!)
Mornings were often greeted in the van with a view to the horizon from one's bed, and the day farewelled in the same way. Life was lived outside for the most part, where the views were much more extensive than those available from our front door or out a bedroom window (and that's saying something – we have pretty good views of the city from our front door). In parts of the journey, particularly in the desert regions, the views were panoramic, stretching out before us in all its colour and grandeur, its arid expanse and variegated rock formations able to be drunk in at leisure.
Space is not only a function of distance, but of time also. There have been times sitting on the beach at home when I have felt an invisible hand in my back pushing me on to other things, the world closing in around me, strangling the sense of freedom. But in the desert, time and pressure dissipate in the vast expanses. Indeed, in some places, even travelling at 100 km/h, the desert passes slowly, encouraging you, daring you, provoking you into connection with it. In the cities, one is faced with a constantly changing backdrop, such that one learns to switch off to the signs, the cars, and many of the sounds which swirl about us. The space closes in and moves by with speed. But in the desert, space steps back from you, its diffidence and constancy part of its allure, a quiet invitation to be free, to be enveloped in its vast expanses, and to be part of its grandeur. Over time, one finds oneself more in tune with its rhythms, liberated by its lack of limitation and its enduring presence.
Occasionally the desert called you very close, whether it be to give examination to its rare flowers or insect life, to give attention to a strange sound, or light. But it always stepped back, giving you room to move and explore, waiting for the right time to draw you close once more. Its enduring patience and presence part of its charm, almost a breathing, as-it-were.
Those who have never been to the Territory cannot appreciate what is meant by one who says “its colours get into your soul.” They certainly get into your socks, your clothes, and your car! But these echo the stains it makes upon your psyche, and the relaxant it injects into your heart. The desert landscape remains largely as it was centuries ago, even longer, reminding us that beauty sometimes comes from stillness, from slow shifts in concert with the elements, which are embraced. City life often involves closing out the elements: their sense of chaos, their unpredictability and volatility much better managed when kept at a distance. But these elements shape the desert charm, and those who dwell within it. Activities are often deferred or adjusted when the elements turn as their continuance invokes greater risks. High winds are not deflected by buildings, held back by walls, or excluded by windows. Their strength felt in the rocking of the van, or directly against clothing. Engaging with the desert means facing wind, rain, and heat and learning what is healthy and possible in concert with them, unconditioned by heaters, coolers and tiled roofs.
In time you learn to read the landscape, welcome its shifts through the day, heed the warnings it invariably gives. This sensitivity highlighted as we left Yuendumu, when Cobra warned us of a “bad wind... hot, cold, hot, cold... coming from the wrong direction.” We sat beside a warm campfire in the balmy evening, watching the patchy cloud dancing across the sky, playing hide-and-seek with the full moon, the warm winds from the North-West blowing gently. Within a matter of hours the sky was blackened, the thunder and lightning looming in the distance, finally opening with heavy rain some 14 hours after Cobra's prescient observation. Here was a man who knew the land and its ways, who had embraced the desert space and his place within it, identifying its foibles and patterns, seeing something which we had not.
In the vast desert expanses there is an intimacy with the landscape available to those who learn its character, and embrace its pace.
(This post comes from reflections on our journey around Australia)

Posted by gary at 03:43 PM | Comments (0)

October 20, 2006

Into the Desert: Darkness

"Night-time heightens, sharpens each sensation

Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defences..."

Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Phantom of the Opera

Living as we do on the fringe of Melbourne's CBD, darkness is a foreign experience to us. Street lights ensure that it is possible to play sport in the park next door with minimal risk (save perhaps the experience of facing Brett Lee with a new ball at 3 am!) regardless of the time of day or night. The absence of darkness fosters a continual activity, whether it be in animal life or the multitude of vehicles which travel King Street. The night sky always bears the dull glow characteristic of city light pollution, keeping the number of stars visible to a minimum, invariably high in the sky. As a consequence it is not often that one's gaze is averted to the night sky.

As with the experience of silence, the wonder of darkness was first experienced in the Flinders Ranges. It was fascinating to watch our children seeing a panoply of stars in the night sky - it was filled from horizon to horizon! The breadth and depth of the night sky in the absence of ambient light reveals a glory hidden from city eyes. We enjoyed watching and identifying the different constellations, and even some planets.

Slowly, gently, night unfurls its splendour

Grasp it, sense it,
Tremulous and tender..

Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Phantom of the Opera

Yet this initial experience was but an introduction. As we moved up the Stuart Highway towards Coober Pedy, we were rewarded with a glorious sunset over the desert. To the east, however, we enjoyed an entirely different experience - watching the night sky rise! While the last rays of sunlight dissipated as the sun dipped further below the Western horizon, the deep blue-black of the night sky gently rose in the East, the shadow of the earth evident in the sky. We would grow in wonder as this experience was repeated on many occasions, with the darkness slowly enveloping the land. We were able to capture this on camera at Uluru, the night-lines visibly moving further up the rock. The further the darkness rose, the more stars became visible, the night sky slowly unfurling its splendour.

Night Rise1.jpg

Night Rise2.jpg

...silently the senses

abandon their defenses
Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Phantom of the Opera

Yet this wonder was not all the darkness would reveal to us. As we became more comfortable with the darkness, enjoying its stillness and our own, we would become aware of the satellites circling the earth, their dull light moving at speed across the sky. To see satellites requires a commitment to stillness, and to allowing one's eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was only when we embraced the darkness that its full glory would be revealed to us - our eyes discerning the stars and objects in the sky with a candescence less penetrating. The presence of any light prevented us from seeing these lesser objects, as they would easily succumb to the opposition.

At Mataranka I sat outside for some time, allowing my eyes to adjust to the night sky in an effort to appreciate its full beauty and glory. And as my eyes adjusted, my ears became increasingly sensitive to the sounds around me: the small noises of insects, the distant calls of birds, the soft shuffle of the leaves in the nearby trees in response to the wind, the movement and sounds of animals nearby. Starting as an observer, I slowly embraced myself as part of this creation and its soft symphony, increasingly aware of my own contribution to it, realising I was actually a participant. Every movement created a sound! The scraping of my arm against the chair gradually revealed a volume which became increasingly disturbing. What bird or animal was listening to my own echoes?

And yet I was still not seeing fully.

On our last night at Mataranka I took the binoculars with me. O, what a wonderful array of stars was revealed through even this small magnification! What hidden beauty exposed when my sight was both more focussed and assisted! The number of stars - already in what seemed a full sky - multiplied! My exclamation at the sight brought the rest of the family outside, wondering what had captured my attention. To see more deeply into the world, the universe, only came as I was prepared to embrace its darkness, its stillness, and my own limitations.

I recall being afraid of the dark as a child - its eerie sounds and ability to hide bred an imagination of horrors, and an aversion to darkness. I would turn on lights, play music, watch TV - anything to hide the horrors of darkness from me. As an adult, I no longer regard them as horrible, but still have not learned to recognise the darkness as a repository of riches. The habits of avoidance evolved into comforts in their own right, the darkness still alien; viewed as emptiness at best. The desert has introduced me to its riches in a new way...

And invited me to reconsider the darkness of my own being. Is it possible that these places are a rich source of life which I have ignored?

Posted by gary at 10:50 AM | Comments (0)

October 08, 2006

One world

If ever we need reminding of the impact of our actions on the planet as a whole, it comes in the report of the breaking apart of an iceberg in the Antarctic as the result of a storm over 13000 km away.

Scientists had placed a seismometer on an iceberg which had broken away from the Antarctic ice sheet. This was no small iceberg - reported as being bigger than the US state of Massachussetts. The seismometer recorded the impact of the Asian tsunami before it broke into smaller pieces on 27 October 2005. It appears that this event was caused by a storm in the Gulf of Alaska which generated 45 foot waves at the source. By the time it reached the Antarctic, the swells were enough to make the huge iceberg bounce on the floor of the ocean and break apart. There is an eerie echo of what is known as 'the butterfly effect'. Read the full story here.

It seems that we can ill afford to pretend that our actions on the earth in any one place escape global significance. To recognise ourselves as part of the creation is one important step in a long journey. We clearly need to respect our relationship with the created order, for it is one on which our dependence is great.

Posted by gary at 04:21 PM | Comments (0)

October 05, 2006

Into the desert: Silence

For centuries men and women have made the journey into the desert as part of an intentional spiritual quest - a quest for God. Australians have long held the dream of the quest into the outback, almost as part of one's Australian obligation. It has long held mythical status in the Australian psyche. Having returned from 14 weeks of travelling through some of the most remote parts of this vast continent, there have been perspectives and impressions which have been carried and shaped through that time.

The first experience of the outback is one that has lasted and is perhaps its deepest - the silence. From the time we first stopped for lunch at Burra in the Flinders Ranges, and settled down to bed at night at Rawnsley Park, the sounds of silence have reverberated through my mind. It assails one's senses. I can readily recall the first sounds echoing through my ears as we spent those first moments in bed before sleeping. I listened to a dull, rhythmic thudding... which turned out to be my own pulse - the blood rushing through my veins. It took some time for this pulsating to dissipate to the point where the silence itself took on a new shape, where I could feel comfortable with its emptiness and hear its unique sounds above those of my own heartbeat.

This inner noise was not evident in the city, and was demonstrated in the initial volume of our voices, which suddenly seemed to boom through the vacant spaces. In a caravan park this meant that conversations which would normally be contained within the family confines would easily be heard from much further distances. The city noise not only deafened me to my own sounds, but encouraged a more vociferous expression, one which sounded strangely aggressive in the vast expanses.

What does this do for my own spirituality? How can I connect with another when I am having trouble connecting with my own self? How can I hear the promptings of the Spirit when the normal sounds of the creation are drowned out by my own activity? Elijah spoke of God's voice as "the sound of a thin silence"... I have been awakened to a new form of deafness, where certain sounds are overshadowed by others. Where the voice of God in the midst of all this?

I also wonder at the other sounds that are extinguished: words of encouragement which would keep me striving... cries of pain and anguish from others... calls for help... words of guidance and direction. This deafness is not selective... or is it?

As we have returned to the city, I have been conscious of my own noise - and of the things which drown out other sounds. A commitment to intentional stillness - one which minimises my own contribution in order to connect with others - has been incorporated into my daily practice. It is not so much an emptying as a commitment to stillness, a place in which I am aware of my own imprint and alert to those which may have been in the shadow of my own.

Posted by gary at 04:52 PM | Comments (0)

April 19, 2006

Are these real?

Some amazing cloud formations

Posted by gary at 06:18 AM | Comments (0)

April 15, 2006

Astronomy Picture of the Day

This amazing resource provides daily pictures of natural phenomena. Some stunning visuals.

Posted by gary at 08:43 AM | Comments (0)

March 08, 2006

Could you survive?

The Ultimate Test - have you watched "Survivor" closely enough? Will you live or die?

Posted by gary at 12:30 PM | Comments (0)

March 07, 2006

Eating Locally - environmental considerations

An interesting follow-up to a recent post about eating locally, from the current edition of Adbusters.

Local rather than organic food could provide the biggest boost to sustainable living according to scientists. American researchers calculated that purchasing just 10% more food from within state boundaries would reduce collective annual carbon dioxide emissions by 3.6 million kilos. A Japanese environmental organisation found that switching to local food – expecially choosing local soy over imported – would be equivalent to reducing household energy use by 20%, which would enable Japan to meet its Kyoto targets easily. UK researchers calculate that purchasing food grown within a 12-mile radius has a greater positive impact than buying organic food that is not local. They calculate the environmental cost being lowered from $2.3 billion per year to under $230 million.

This is not to say that some international trade isn’t necessary. Chocolate and coffee might be two examples. However, when the port of New York city exports $431,000 of California almonds to Italy and imports $397,000 of Italian almonds in the same year, we have to ask serious questions.

Posted by gary at 07:21 AM | Comments (0)

March 04, 2006

Eat Local

Imagine only eating food that is grown within 100 km of where you live. Sound strange? Why would someone make such a choice? The Washington World Watch Institute estimates that the ingredients of the average North American meal travel between 2500 and 4000 km on the way to your stomach. Imagine all the greenhouse gases produced in that! Choosing to eat locally is an environmentally friendly choice.

But it is also a spiritual choice, inasmuch as it connects you with the rhythms of your land. No more watermelon in winter, strawberries in early Spring. Some foods would be removed completely from your schedule - how would you go without tea or coffee?

I remember visiting fishing villages in the Philippines where their evening food was caught in the afternoon. No fishing catch and the meal was rudimentary to say the least. It also meant less waste, as there was nowhere to refrigerate the fish for later use. How different from the lifestyles we lead, where our cupboards could keep us going for months. Any wonder our connection with creation is broken.

To give consideration to the environmental impact of our eating habits will become more of a necessity with the passing of years. Reclaiming it as part of our spiritual heritage is increasingly important. Remember the place that meals hold in both Jewish and Christian history: the Passover Feast, the Eucharist (or Lord's Supper), consider the space given to dietary laws in the Pentateuch. Clearly God intended the act of eating to be an expression of our relationship with Him.

At the heart of the christian celebration of eucharist is the reminder of a central aspect of faith: "as often as you eat bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." This is the grace in which every meal is celebrated.

Posted by gary at 07:03 PM | Comments (0)

February 23, 2006

Put an end to whaling

It's a small step, but here's an online petition and action forum to help stop the slaughter of whales. A small step in the larger act of reconciliation.

Posted by gary at 07:36 PM | Comments (0)

February 10, 2006

Quizzes

There are more quizzes here than I've got time to do, but there are some good questions to test your science knowledge.

Posted by gary at 12:06 AM | Comments (0)

February 02, 2006

The Queen Mary

Came across this interesting little piece... A stark reminder of how strength from the outside might not match the substance inside...

The Queen Mary was the largest ship to cross the oceans when it was launched in 1936. Through four decades and a World War she served until she was retired, anchored as a floating hotel and museum in Long Beach, California.

During the conversion, her three massive smoke-stacks were taken off to be scraped down and repainted. But on the dock they crumbled. Nothing was left of the 3/4-inch steel plate from which the stacks had been formed. All that remained were more than thirty coats of paint that had been applied over the years. The steel had rusted away.

Posted by gary at 12:49 PM | Comments (1)

January 26, 2006

It's as hot as...

The mercury pushed past 40 degrees again today. It is so hot that my body is melting into the seat. If perspiration could be tapped as a source for irrigation, we would solve the drought engulfing the Sahara! This is the third time in the past month we have experienced such heat. I've been trying to think of analogies for the heat:

It's as hot as.... (besides the obvious)
* iPods at a pre-Christmas sale
* the server of a spammer
* Roger Federer at the Australian Open (or any other tournament!)
* Shane Warne's SMS inbox
* the entrees at a Mexican party...

Or as an alternative: It's so hot that
* we have to put the roast in the oven to cool it down
* the cows are producing hot milk
* ice cubes turn to steam the moment we take them out of the freezer
* the birds were wearing sunscreen...

OK. I know these are weak. Anyone want to improve on them?

Posted by gary at 10:38 PM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2006

One million people, one medical gamble

You might donate blood to help save someone's life. But would you donate your blood, your DNA, and your most intimate medical secrets on a promise that it may help save a life years from now?

Half a million UK citizens are expected to do just that in the coming months, with another half-million to follow in the US. The research aims to study, in unprecedented depth, how our genes and environment interact over the years to cause disease. But the studies raise fundamental questions over privacy, who should own our medical records, and worries over insurance premiums that could be at risk if data about participants' genetic fate leaked out...

Read more.

Posted by gary at 06:43 PM | Comments (0)

January 13, 2006

Your Ecological Footprint

The future of our planet has been in the news over recent days with discussions between key nations about climate control and greenhouse gas generation. Global production of greenhouse gases continues to climb. While the US and Australia contribute substantially to the problem, the economic development in India and China evidences the greatest growth in greenhouse gas production as they take up carbon-based power generation at an alarming rate.

But that's the global problem: what about you and I? When I checked out my own ecological footprint at the EarthDay Network, it determined that we would need 2.1 planets to sustain life if we all lived as I do, as I use about 3.8 global hectares to sustain it. That's an uncomfortable thought, particularly in light of the gospel call to be life-giving. I'm a taker, who needs to repent.

And if you think that this is wacky thinking, then go over to the New Scientist web site and read about efforts by the Norwegian government to establish a doomsday vault to avert world famine. Just 1000 km from the North Pole they will establish a concrete room to store around 2 million seeds, representing all known varieties of the world's crops in an effort to safeguard the world's food supply against nuclear war, climate change, terrorism, rising sea levels, earthquakes and the ensuing collapse of electricity supplies to name just a few of the problems we are constructing for ourselves.

So, my lifestyle is forcing such drastic measures. Sadly, these are remedial, and the pittance that is being thrown at the problems by our governments underscores the necessity of such action.

Plenty can be done, but each of us must begin (and not remain) inside our own walls.

Posted by gary at 03:49 PM | Comments (1)

January 10, 2006

Detoxify the Mental Environment

Adbusters latest issue focusses (in part) on the way in which communication has been mixed with commercialism, and challenges readers to think again about the way in which our mental environment shapes our personal and planetary health. Here's the intro to the section, which makes thought-provoking reading...

adbusters.jpg"Let's convince ourselves and family, our neighbours and our classmates that the mental environment is as precious, and as vulnerable, as the lushest stretch of rainforest. Let's get people thinking about their mental health in the same way that they think about their physical health - two sides of the same tarnished coin. Get households banishing TV pollution at the same time they banish toxic detergents. Get parents watching their children's commercial intake as closely as they watch their sugar intake. Challenge students to say no to corporate curricula with the same fervour they say no to oil spills. Let's train people with mood disorders to reduce their mental burden, in the same way that people with allergies reduce their chemical burdens. Let's turn psychologists into mental ecologists, pioneers of a new and vital social science. In other words, let's detox before there's no turning back."

When one compares this call with the attitude of the desert fathers, who chose to withdraw into the desert to understand themselves and God away from the cultural stream that dragged them along, one can recognise that it is not altogether dissimilar.

It is now widely recognised that what we call 'news' is largely propaganda - an ideology being pushed at us. Less so, but to an increasing degree, we realise that all media does this to a greater or lesser degree. We are constantly bombarded with images and messages (is this why there is an increase in ADHD?) Is 'detox' a call for a modern form of asceticism?

Posted by gary at 10:47 PM | Comments (0)

January 08, 2006

Eat Local

Eating locally grown foods is one of the best things you can do for your own health and for the health of the planet, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

They record the difference between eating locally grown tomatoes and imported, in A Tale of Two Tomatoes

Long-Distance
Picked while green, Tom is gassed to redness. In order to better survive the long journey to market, many tomatoes are picked while hard and green, then sprayed with a hormone to help them ripen. This is just one of the eye-opening practices that has become commonplace in our industrial food system.

Local
The peak ripeness of fruits and vegetables once determined the timing of harvest festivals throughout the growing season. Ripeness—not the kind that comes from a hormone gas—is still a passion among local farmers. While it may be hard to forego the convenience of long-distance fruits and vegetables throughout the winter, it's only natural that we leap at the opportunity for honest food—local food—when prime season arrives.

Their web site has plenty of practical information on eating local.

Posted by gary at 09:13 AM | Comments (0)

January 04, 2006

The Rules for Being Human

You might have seen these "rules for being human" before. I cam across them today as I was sorting through some old materials.

1. You will receive a body. You may like it or hate it, but it will be yours for the entire period this time around.
2. You will learn lessons. You are enrolled in a full time informal school called life. Each day in this school you will have the opportunity to learn lessons. You may like the lessons or think them irrelevant and stupid.
3. There are no mistakes, only lessons. Growth is a process of trial and error, experimentation. The "failed" experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately "works."
4. A lesson is repeated until learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can go on to the next lesson.
5. Learning lessons does not end. There is no part of life that does not contain its lessons. If you are alive there are lessons to be learned.
6. "There" is no better than "here." When your "there" has become a "here" you will simply obtain another "there" that will again look better than "here."
7. Others are merely mirrors of you. You cannot love or hate something about another person unless it reflects to you something you love or hate about yourself.
8. What you make of your life is up to you. You have all the tools and resources you need. What you do with them is up to you. The choice is yours.
9. Your answers lie inside you. The answer to life's questions lie inside you. All you need to do is look, listen, and trust.
10. This will often be forgotten, only to be remembered again.

Posted by gary at 11:12 AM | Comments (0)

April 20, 2005

At the Zoo

Spent some quiet reflective time at the zoo over lunch and found myself in the area containing endangered and vulnerable species of cat, which got me to thinking. In every case the threat to the species was associated with loss of habitat. These powerful hunters now found their habitat defined by human barriers to the point where they now appeared tamed, tormented and ridiculed. Humans observing them were often chiding them to "do something". What future do they have, given that we will never return to them the thing which would allow them to thrive: their habitat.

Which got me to thinking about the church, whose habitat has also been severely transformed over the last hundred years. Once the centre of the community, shaping and defining its culture, the church too often appears like these powerful animals in the zoo: lethargic, robbed of majesty, turned into a curio.

It is the animals who have adapted to the change which are thriving. How are we to adapt to this new cultural environment whilst still maintaining the power which the gospel has always exuded? Seems the answer might have something to do with rediscovering those aspects of the gospel which aren't so culturally defined and to focus on those. The church - as it has borne the gospel of Jesus - has survived and thrived through radical cultural shifts before, but its expression of community and faithfulness has adapted to the new environs. As the church continues to express this gospel so will its fortunes and the purposes of God endure.

Posted by gary at 05:29 PM | Comments (0)

April 12, 2005

Lessons from the Sand

Enjoyed some time on the beach at Point Addis this afternoon, where I was captivated by the waves pounding the steep beach. What fascinated me most was the changing patterns the retreating waves left upon the sand. Each wave would wipe clean the surface. As it retreated, a clear flat surface was initially revealed, followed by variegated patterns. Their artistry had to be seen (sorry, didn’t have a camera with me!) to be appreciated.

The wave created three different effects; the first by its arrival, the second by its presence, and the third by its departure.

It strikes me that we are the same. We create an effect by our arrival, impacting conversation and perspective, interrupting the present balance. A new impact emerges from our presence, as we are incorporated into the setting and as we become part of the atmosphere and conversation. The third impact follows our departure, when the trails that we have left become clear to those around. Although we do not see this impact - because we are gone - it is as important, perhaps more long-lasting than the first two.

Posted by gary at 08:55 PM | Comments (0)

February 21, 2005

Autumn

It's not yet autumn in Melbourne, but this quote gave me some food to chew on as it approaches:

"I think of the trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of a season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep... Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go." - May Sarton, Journal of Solitude

Posted by gary at 04:19 PM | Comments (0)

February 13, 2005

Floods cause a fall in the river level

Exploring around Victoria's Surf Coast on the weekend caught us by surprise: after the recent heavy rains which have inundated both Melbourne and the Coast, we were astounded to find a dramatic drop in the river level in Torquay. It did not take us long to find the cause.

Spring Creek broadens out into a small lake (I'm being generous) near its mouth, and often does not flow into the sea. The sand build up at its mouth creates a largely stagnant billabong where it should empty into the sea. Only once in recent years have I seen it breached: a small rivulet only a matter of centimetres wide and of less than ankle depth ran across the sands to the sea. Not this weekend. A fast flowing stream, still less than a metre deep and a couple of metres wide, emptied into the sea. Although there had been no rain in the week since we had last seen it, the surge of water from upstream had cleared the mouth of the river. The beach has been significantly reshaped by the consequent flow.

Our attention was drawn to it by the much dropped level of the river a hundred metres or so upstream. The flood plains of the previous week were gone. The high tide now journeyed some way inland, entering the previously stagnant billabong and dumping seaweed much further up the beach, which itself was much less steep than before.

Cleansing storms. Unpleasant. Turbulent. Threatening. But cleansing.

Maybe the hard times in our life have potential to bring a similar cleansing in the aftermath of the turbulence.

Posted by gary at 09:02 PM | Comments (0)

February 08, 2005

Cleansing Rain

It may be the middle of summer here in Melbourne, but we have recorded about 25% of our average annual rainfall over the past week. Rivers are rising, beaches are being transformed... and closed. With so much rainwater entering the river system, a huge amount of debris is being washed into the water and reaching the beaches. As a result, there were 24 beaches closed yesterday because of pollution concerns. The cleansing rain has, in fact, brought society's dross to the forefront: the litter on our streets washed into the storm water drains, down into the rivers and out into the bay.

When new movements commence, this is always the pattern: the rising tide catches up the refuse and pushes it along at the front. When we decide to get our weight under control, we find ourselves more focussed on the foods we want to avoid; smokers feel that stronger craving; bad habits we are trying to change seem much stronger in their pull. If we judge it on the initial phase, we are liable to give up in despair, and perhaps even end up feeling worse about ourselves.

When winter is drawing to an end, we take to our roses with the secateurs. The immediate result bears uncanny resemblance to dead twigs poking out of the ground. But now, as summer is in full swing, these same plants are in full bloom, their glory on display.

Whether it be diets, habit changes, changes in family routines, or new movements in spirituality, we ought be careful about evaluating success in the early stages. Nature's patterns give us insights into the human pattern.

Posted by gary at 09:49 AM | Comments (0)

February 03, 2005

Melbourne Weather

The fabled Melbourne weather has been at work again. Tuesday's top was 36 C, while yesterday's maximum reached only 12.9 C, and was accompanied by record rainfalls of over 120mm for the day. In 24 hours we went from air conditioners to heaters, from shorts to jackets.

We arrived at school this morning to be told that it had been cancelled - a tree had brought down power lines, leaving the school without power, so no classes.

Following on from last week's electrical storm on the Surf Coast, which itself was at the end of a 37 C day, we have experienced some wonderful extremes of weather.

I suppose that's why it's said of Melbourne, "If you don't like the weather, just wait ten minutes..."

Posted by gary at 09:32 AM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2005

Behind the Lightning...

Seems last night's storms were the worst in decades. News reports called it "a mini-cyclone" Two storms apparently 'collided', bringing over 80 mm of rain, flash flooding. More forecast for the next 24 hours. I'll keep the camera ready again!

Posted by gary at 08:55 PM | Comments (1)

Lightning

A wonderful lightning show last night - an electrical storm which lasted for over 6 hours. Full sound and lights, courtesy of nature. Had a lot of fun with the camera, trying to capture some shots. Thankfully there were many opportunities.

Lightning2.jpg ...... Lightning2.jpg ...... Lightning3.jpg


Again we see the powerful force of nature: an electrical storm releasing much more power and energy than any nuclear device ever created. The most powerful things we create are still only shadows of the creation...

Posted by gary at 08:11 AM | Comments (0)

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