Saturday, 30 June 2007

"australia's most beloved novelist"

It's not often that my taste and popular taste coincide, but this is one of them. Without doubt my favouriate novelist is Tim Winton, and he and his books have also commonly been at the top of polls conducted in Australia.

Winton writes about people on the edge - on the margins of society, or at the end of their tether, or just on the edge of the vast western Australia coastline. His "tough but spare" writing captures the idiosyncrasies of working Aussies and tells emotional stories evocatively but with a minimum of fuss. His sympathies are clearly with the strugglers and the losers, and although many of their lives are bleak, his characters often find mateship and hope.

Probably his best known book is Cloudstreet, an urban epic of two families who live in the two halves of an old house. The events of the lives are ordinary yet surreal, plain yet deeply moving. It was made into a 5 hour theatre production that never lost interest (there was a meal break in the middle!).

His first novel (and one of my favourites) was An Open Swimmer, the story of a teenage boy who spends his holidays, mostly alone, camping, swimming, fishing and introspecting on lonely beaches on the coast. If you're looking for thrills, you won't find them here, but if you enjoy watching a character grow and struggle within himself, this is good.

His most recent book, The Turning, contained short stories about connected characters in a coastal fishing town. Some want to escape, some have never thought of anything more than the day-to-day. The stories tell of "the darkness and frailty of ordinary people", tender yet gritty stories of hope and hopelessness, family and loneliness. For example, the title story chronicles a woman's spiritual emancipation even while being abused by her partner. Yet somehow through it all, there is hope and a celebration of being human.

But my personal favourite is That Eye the Sky, the story of a family that once tried to live the hippy dream of self sufficiency on a small faming property, but the dream has faded. When the father ends up in a coma, needing care at home along with an aging and helpless grandma, the family situation is definitely bleak. Then into their life comes a mysterious and edgy stranger who offers to do some of the hard work caring for the invalided father, in return for board. He brings both good and evil, hope and defeat into their lives.

The story is told by 12 year old Ort, who observes and dreams. As the world falls apart around them and death and despair visit them, Ort and his mum find renewed hope. Perhaps God, who Ort imagines as a big eye in the sky observing all, may even heal his dad?

The story is wonderfully told, grips me throughout whenever I read it, and so much happens in a relatively short space. The last few pages, simply written in Ort's laconic voice, are some of the most effective writing I have ever read. The book was made into a good film (albeit with some changes to suit a worldwide audience and the different medium), and an amazing stageplay.

If you want a good read, or you want to capture the Aussie spirit, or you want a little hope amid the trials of life, Tim Winton is not to be missed.

Read some reviews of The Turning, That Eye the Sky and the film, a brief biography or an interview with Tim (2004).

Thursday, 28 June 2007

when too much sex is barely enough

The last 50 years has seen an amazing sexual revolution in western society. The advent of the pill and changes in ethical beliefs in the 1960s were partly responsible for making sex a popular recreational activity, and liberalised censorship laws and now the internet have made it into a popular spectator sport. While all this has had its benefits and pleasures, there are also obvious downsides.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported recently (How porn is wrecking relationships by Adele Horin) on one of the downsides - the adverse impacts of internet pornography on some men. For example:

  • Relationship counsellors are reporting increasing numbers of marriages which have broken down because the husband has become a compulsive user of internet porn, to the detriment of his spouse. Estimates of the number of men exhibiting compulsive behaviour vary from almost none up to 9%.
  • A study of female partners of male porn users found about one in three found it highly distressing, harming both the relationship and their own self esteem, and leaving them feeling betrayed.
  • Although cyberporn is much less of a marriage wrecker than alcohol abuse or violence, health and relationship experts believe this is a growing problem that requires attention.

A few weeks back I reported on how the influence of fashion and celebrity appears to be contributing to poor body image in many girls (are celebrity magazines a health hazard?). This SMH porn investigation appears to be teaching some similar lessons - that being interested in the artificial more than the natural, becoming obsessed with image more than substance, and valuing glamour more than real relationsips, can lead to unhealthy and compulsive behaviour.

Sometimes, whether it is over-eating or porn or glamour, the things we want are not what we need to be truly happy. As one of Shakespeare's characters said: "Lord what fools these mortals be!" Or as Paul of Tarsus wrote: "What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me?"

Check out more background information, or a list of places where people can get help, and one site which offers help from a christian perspective.

For non-Australian readers, the title is a misquote from iconic Aussie comedians and sports commentators, H G Nelson (Greig Pickhaver) and Rampaging Roy Slaven (John Doyle), who use the phrase: "when too much sport is barely enough".

Monday, 25 June 2007

power and greed?

I wrote recently (how rich do you think you are?) about personal wealth, and the vast differences between the rich and poor. There are enormous differences between nations also.

Because of these differences, and the terrible effects of poverty on people's wellbeing, 189 nations signed the Millenium Declaration in 2000, "to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level".

These nations agreed to achieve the following targets by 2015:

1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger 2. Achieve universal primary education 3. Promote gender equality and empower women 4. Reduce child mortality 5. Improve maternal health 6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases 7. Ensure environmental sustainability 8. Develop a global partnership for development.

The cost of a realistic program to achieve these goals is estimated to be perhaps $50 billion extra aid a year. That seems an emormous amount, until you learn that almost $1000 billion is spent worldwide on arms each year, and $300 billion in agricultural subsidies. The Iraq war has cost something like $100 billion each year.

Yet the rich countries are not meeting their side of the deal, with aid from most countries either falling in real terms, or no better than steady. And the recent G8 meeting in Germany did little to bring change or confidence.

I guess governments will only act if they know their citizens want them to.

Read about the Millenium Development Goals, and a summary of the outcomes from the recent G8 meeting.

Read about what some peope are doing about it - Jubilee Debt Campaign, Make Poverty History.

Well, God is in heaven And we all want what's his But power and greed and corruptible seed Seem to be all that there is I'm gazing out the window Of the St. James Hotel And I know no one can sing the blues Like Blind Willie McTell Bob Dylan, "Blind Willie McTell"

Thursday, 21 June 2007

was it all planned?

Ring Galaxy (photo by NASA)

Is the universe too amazing to have just happened, or has science explained it all now?

For millennia people have look at the grandeur of the skies at night, and felt that it reflected the handiwork of God. Typical is Psalm 19 in the Bible (probably written almost 3,000 years ago): "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands."

These thoughts were developed into an argument, based on the idea that if you were walking in the country and found a watch, and it was something you'd never seen before, you'd immediately surmise that it wasn't natural, but someone had designed it. So, the argument went, we should assume someone designed the universe.

But science has put a real dent in that argument. Granted the laws of physics and chemistry, scientists believe they can, or soon will be able to, explain the shape of the universe from conditions at the time of the big bang, and explain the complexities of life on earth by natural selection. There is no need for a designer.

But the argument has received a new lease of life in the last few decades, and the key is the phrase "granted the laws of physics and chemistry", especially those operating at a cosmic scale. For scientists have discovered that some of the basic laws of the universe include numerical values that could only have led to a universe if they were within extremely narrow bounds. For example:

  1. Following the big bang, the rate of expansion of the universe had to be "just right" for the universe to form. If it was a millionth part (0.00001%) larger, everything would have flown apart and there'd be no stars, or planets or anything; an even tinier percentage smaller and everything would have quickly collapsed in on itself.
  2. The cosmological constant, a measure of "the energy density of empty space", is an important factor in Einstein's relativity equations. Theory suggests the constant should be quite large, in which case matter would not coalesce to form stars and planets (if positive) or the universe would quickly collapse in on itself (if negative). However the actual very small number is extremely fine-tuned (it has to be exact to 56 decimal places) to allow our universe to exist.
  3. The physics of atoms is also "just right". If the difference in mass between a proton and a neutron was not exactly as it is (approximately 2 electrons), then all neutrons would be protons or vice versa, and we would have no chemistry and no life. If the mass of a neutron was only 0.14% larger and there would be no nuclear fusion in stars and no energy source for life.
  4. There are four fundamental natural forces: the strong nuclear force, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and gravity. Changes in the strength of these forces, or the ratios between them, would have significant impacts on the universe.
  • If the nuclear strong force was only 2% stronger, the universe would be composed of hydrogen and if 1% stronger there would be no oxygen; if only 5% weaker, there would be no stars, and if only 1% weaker there would be little hydrogen, and hence little water.
  • The nuclear weak force is much larger than gravity; if it was only slightly weaker, all hydrogen would be helium and we could have no water, but if only slightly greater, the elements necessary for life would not been produced.
  • Gravity is much weaker than electromagnetism. If it were only one part in 10 to the 30th power larger, stars would be billions of times less massive and burn a million times faster.
  • The ratio between the nuclear strong force and electromagnetism is exactly right to create conditions that allow carbon to be synthesised.

Some say there are 15 different constants which have to be "just right", but others say there are only 4. But regardless, the argument goes, the odds against the universe occurring "by chance" are so enormous as to be unthinkable. This argument is well summarised in Stephen Davis' book God, Reason and Theistic Proofs, which I discussed in proving and disproving god.

Opponents of this argument have many responses, some of which I outlined in cosmic jackpot?. The most popular seem to be:

  1. The universe just happened, and it is meaningless to ask why. We are only here to wonder because it did happen.
  2. There is some underlying fundamental reason for these values that we just don't know yet. Perhaps some cosmic form of evolution has occurred.
  3. Maybe there are absolutely zillions of universes (a concept called "the multiverse"), so the odds of one of them being just right for life may not be so high.
  4. If the laws and constants had been different, a different universe would have occurred, and a different form of life might have evolved. The argument is too anthropocentric.
  5. The argument might show that belief in a god is possibly reasonable, but is not strong enough to compel belief.

But interestingly, Robin LePoidevin, whose book Arguing for Atheism I also discussed in proving and disproving god, doesn't rely on any of these arguments. Instead he argues that what we are doing here is assessing probabilities - the probability that these factors could be fortuitous by chance, and the probability that God exists. But, he argues:

  • Probabilities are based on looking at a number of examples and seeing how often they turn out favourably - such as how often a Royal Flush will turn up in millions of Poker games. But we only know about one universe, so probability simply can't be applied in this case.
  • The chance of an outcome depends on the circumstances that caused the outcome. But there is no process the we know of that can produce God, so it is nonsensical to talk about the mathematical probability that God exists.

Therefore, LePoidevin says, the argument fails, and disbelief in God is the most reasonable option.

I still think that the alternative explanations are unconvincing; they seem to be either wildly speculative or highly improbable. Those who say that if the constants had been different, a different form of life would have evolved, seem to ignore that the odds were zillions to one against any stable and long-lasting universe forming at all.

LePoidevin's statistical argument seems to me to fail the commonsense test - maybe we can't apply mathematical probability, but we all know what seems likely and unlikely. In fact, his argument that we cannot sensibly talk of the probability of God's existence undercuts a common theme of modern atheism, that God's existence is highly improbable. As I said before, the counter arguments seem to me to only show the strength of this argument that the universe does appear to be carefully designed.

What do you reckon?

Read more about the "fine-tuned universe" on Wikipedia.
Read a theistic summary by Holmes Rolston or James Hannam, or an atheistic view from Michael Hurben or Stephen Weinberg.
Read some quotes from scientists about design (selected from a theistic viewpoint).
Read about the multiverse (from an atheistic viewpoint).
Read my own longer discussion of the topic.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

mysteries of stonehenge

Photo from Cardboad Stonehenge blog.

I have long had an interest in neolithic and bronze age England, and on my only visit to the UK managed to visit Stonehenge, West Kennet Longbarrow, Avebury and Silbury Hill. I have read a bit about Stonehenge, and know my stonehenge from my woodhenge.

So it was with great delight that I found something new - cardhenge! If you have an interest in neolithic sites plus an odd sense of humour, you may enjoy cardboard STONEHENGE. : )

Monday, 18 June 2007

horror movies right there on my tv

Further support for my recent post is tv violence bad for us - really? comes from an article in the Sydney Sun Herald last weekend.

Journalism students watched every program and advertisement on each of Sydneys five free-to-air channels from 6:00-10:30 pm every night for a week. In that 157.5 hours of viewing they saw 234 cases of gunfire, 104 deaths, 142 cases of physical abuse, 85 car crashes, 4 rapes and 350 other violent acts.

There may be a little double counting there, but that's still something like 6 violent incidences every hour - perhaps not as many as I would have guessed. The government-funded multicultural broadcaster, SBS, had the highest violence score, possibly because it has more extensive overseas news bulletins.

NSW Premier (more or less equivalent to a US State Governor), Morris Iemma, was quoted as being concerned about TV violence and is now exercising greater control over the viewing by his young family.

What do you reckon? Is it too much?

Sunday, 17 June 2007

the universe - what you see is not all you get!

Nebula N81 in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy near to ours (NASA).

Go outside on a clear night and look at the stars - and you see one of the most beautiful and amazing sights. But of course we can only see an infinitessimal fraction of what is "out there".

We cannot even see all the planets in our own solar system with the naked eye. And our sun is only one of an estimated 100-500 billion stars in our galaxy. (We can only see a few thousand of these, most of them stretching across the sky in the milky way, which is our view of the major part of our galaxy.) And our galaxy is considered to be only one of possibly more than 100 billion galaxies.

But it doesn't stop there. Scientists estimate that stars form only 1% of the combined matter and energy of the universe. Gas and dust and stuff make up perhaps another 4%, and the rest is mysterious "dark matter" (25%), which we can't see because it doesn't reflect or emit light, and don't know what it is, and even more mysterious "dark energy" (70%). It seems most likely that dark matter is made up of quite different particles from those which comprise the matter we are familiar with.

So if we can't see it, how do we know it's there? Its effects can be observed in two ways:

  • Even though we can't see dark matter, it has effects that can be measured, like gravitaional influence on the motion of stars and even the rotational motion of galaxies.
  • The universe has expanded since the big bang, and the speed of that expansion, in the past and now, can only be explained by the presence of dark matter (which slows down the expansion) and dark energy (which speeds it up).

What can we say? It's fascinating but a little beyond my comprehension. If God created the universe, it was an amazing conception. If it occurred naturally, perhaps even by accident, that is even more amazing.

Read more about dark matter and dark energy from NASA, and from Wikipedia (dark matter and dark energy).

Thursday, 14 June 2007

sometimes i wish history could repeat!

Back in the fourth century, the Roman Empire was nearing its end, and Christianity was 300 years old. The Christians were taking Jesus' command to love their neighbours so seriously that they set up welfare measures such as food distribution, orphanages, hospitals and prison visiting. The thing that amazed the rest of society was that these programs were open to all.

Emperor Julian wanted to limit the influence of these "atheists" (as he called them, because they didn't believe in the pagan gods) so he offered government funding for pagan temples to set up a similar welfare system. He wrote to a priest: "the Christians' compassion towards strangers, their care of the graves of the dead and the pretended piety of their lives .... have done most to increase this atheism .... [they] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us"

Sociologist Rodney Stark has studied the sociological factors behind the rise of Christianity, and concludes that social welfare and more compassionate treatment of women and children were two of the main reasons. "... the ultimate factor in the rise of Christianity .... Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues - that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful ..... This was revolutionary stuff."

I'd so much like to see history repeat - Christians recognised more for their compassion and service than so many less worthy things. The Salvation Army seem to have the right idea, but history presents a big challenge to most of Christendom.

Read an article about Stark's conclusions or check out his book.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007


Quintuplet star cluster, by NASA

"Here we are
On this starry night staring into space
And I must say
I feel as small as dust lying down here
What point could there be troubling
Head down wondering what will become of me"

Dave Matthews Band, "Pig"

Sunday, 10 June 2007

are celebrity magazines a health hazard?

Photo: bigfoto

Studies show that body image dissatisfaction is linked to poor mental and physical health, especially in women, and may lead to low self esteem, anxiety, even depression and suicide, and unhealthy weight loss practices such as crash dieting, fasting, laxative misuse and vomiting. These, in the longer term, may lead to increased risk or osteoporosis and infertility. Poor body image can also lead to binge eating and obesity.

A recent Australian study found that less than a quarter of young women with a healthy weight were actually satisfied with their weight.

Health professionals consider poor body image to be a serious problem. Professor Susan Paxton, of Melbourne University: "Body image problems and related disordered eating are serious health problems in our community and it is important they are not just seen as frivolous concerns of women but ather as frequently destructive for both men and women."

Australians are huge consumers of magazines and some of the highest-selling are built around celebrity gossip, fashion, self image and sexuality. Do these have an effect?

  • A 2005 report by Womens Health Victoria reported on a study of the impact of womens' magazines, and "found that women's body satisfaction was influenced by their exposure to the thin ideal presented in fashion magazines."
  • The Melbourne Age reported: "Media images that help to create definitions of attractiveness are often criticised for contributing to the rise in body dissatisfaction."
  • Studies by Flinders University indicate that children as young as five have an awareness of body-image issues and that young adolescents are vulnerable to the negative effects of televised images of attractiveness.
  • A 2003 study found that advertisements in magazines aimed at teenage and younger girls almost always featured an "idealistic female image" that was thin or athletic and attractive.

Increased concerns about body image are considered responsible from a large upsurge in cosmetic surgery.

What is the remedy?

A Government website advises women concerned about body image: "Give yourself a break from women’s magazines and the mass media for a while.", "Stop weighing yourself." and "Change your goal from weight loss to improving your health."

But I can't help feeling that we need to do something more positive, both as individuals and as a society. Perhaps we need to value more worthwhile personal attributes (e.g. humour, integrity, loyalty, caring) than body image, and fill our minds with more interesting and substantial things than celebrity and fashion? And surely we should make sure we value people for more than their appearance.

I would have thought men have an important part in this, although Amelia Haines, a doctor who specialises in sexual and relationship therapy, says: "Women always compare themselves with one another."

What do you think? Do we value celebrity too much? Are we growing more trivial? Does it matter?

For further reading, try this page, or this one. If you need further assistance, there are many online sources of further help, such as this one, also from Victoria in Australia.

Friday, 8 June 2007

proving and disproving god

C S Lewis once said we could define God as a being who spent all his time having his existence proved and disproved. People don't seem to care so much about (dis)proof these days, but some people are still into it.

If you're interested in the philosophical arguments for God's (non)existence - and who isn't? : ) - then two books I've read recently would interest you.

  • "God, Reason and Theistic Proofs" by Stephen Davis, Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California, is an even-handed and rigorous discussion by a theist who only occasionally presents his own views.
  • "Arguing for Atheism" by Robin LePoidevin, Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Leeds has a clearly-stated aim to present arguments that support atheism.

Both books are readable. Davis's book is more detailed, but LePoidevin's covers a little more territory. Do either of them land a knockout punch?

I didn't think so. Philosophical "proofs" just can't deliver certainty. Davis doesn't even attempt "proof", but he does think that some arguments show theism is more reasonable that any alternative. On the other hand, LePoidevin believes that God can be disproven.

I found Davis's more even-handed and measured approach gave me greater confidence in his conclusions, whereas LePoidevin's more argumentative approach did not seem able to deliver what he claimed, and some of his "disproofs" were quite unconvincing. If you want a "winner", then Davis wins by a nose, but then that may be because I have come to similar conclusions.

I'll come back to some of their arguments and counter arguments another day, if anyone's interested.

Monday, 4 June 2007

what is "rich" anyway?

Yesterday's blog about wealth isn't the whole story. In Australia and elsewhere in the western world, we've never had it so good, yet it's not doing us any good.

Real income trebled in Australia (The Age), and more than doubled in the US (SMH), in the second half of the twentieth century, yet surveys indicate people are no happier.

In Australia, people are working longer hours than they did a few decades ago. 35% of male and 19% of female full time workers put in more than 50 hours a week, and a third work "unsocial" hours which take them away from families on weekends. About half of the overtime hours are not paid. "Australians work some of the longest hours in the industrialised world." writes Adele Horin in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Photo: Webshots

Elsewhere in the SMH, Australia is described as "one of the world's most intensely work-focused countries", yet at great human cost.

  • A recent report by Paul Shepanski found a strong link between long and unpredictable work hours and the breakdown of family and other relationships. "People are feeling that, despite all this wealth, there is something rotten in the system."
  • Housing affordability is at its lowest in 30 years (B van Wanrooy).
  • While wages are increasing in real terms, they are falling as a percentage of overall wealth, as business profits take an increasing percentage of the gains (Ross Gittins).

What is the remedy? Surely it is for each of us to be clearer about our goals. If we value family, or life generally, more than wealth, then maybe we should try to structure our lives accordingly. If increasingly large houses with rooms and spas we don't need, filled with wide-screen plasma TVs that don't enhance junk programs and other material possessions don't make us any happier, why do we keep swallowing the lie and working long hours to buy them all? Read more about what makes people happy.

Of course it's sometimes easier said than done, but realisation is the first step. Meanwhile, three quarters of the world, who lack so much that we think is essential, look on with amazement.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

how rich do you think you are?


More than 80% of people who read this blog come from English-speaking, affluent, western countries. How wealthy do you think you are, in world terms?

Here are some statistics:

  • If an adult's net worth is more than $US2,200, they are financially better off than half the world's population, while $US61,000 puts you in the world's top 10% and it takes $US500,000 to put you in the top 1%. The richest 10% of the world own a massive 85% of global household wealth.
  • If a cosmic Robin Hood took from the rich and gave to the poor until everyone had the same, all of us would have assets worth $US20,500.
  • There is obviously great disparity between countries. There are two different ways to do the calculation, to make things more confusing, but the countries with the richest people were Japan, Switzerland, Luxemburg, United States, United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Taiwan rates higher than both Australia and Canada. At the other end of the scale, household wealth in India, China and many African countries is only a few percent, or less, of the levels in the richest countries.
  • More than 60% of the world's richest households (upper 1%) are in either Europe or the US, with most of the rest in Japan, Singapore or Korea.
  • The average person in the top 10% is 3000 times richer than the average person in the bottom 10%, and the average person in the top 1% is 13,000 times richer!
  • There is disparity within most countries as well, with the richest 10% of adults owning 70% of the total wealth in the US. The figures for other countries generally lie in the range 40%-60%.

If I interpret the figures correctly, a couple owning their own house in Sydney Australia would likely be included in the world's top 2%. And I would guess almost everyone who reads this is richer than almost everyone who doesn't.

If this concerns you, you may wish to read up on the Jubilee debt campaign to cut third world debt and make poverty history.

This information is contained in report released late last year by the World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University. Read the report or (simpler) a press release summary.