Wednesday, September 24, 2008

sanitised fairy tales

Boston Globe: Fear of fairy tales: The glossy, sanitized new versions of fairy tales leave out what matters: the scary parts by Joanna Weiss
The book went on to spin the tale of a charmed girl named Rapunzel, who spent her days in the tower sewing dresses with a friend. She loved when the witch came to visit and teach songs, including one that made Rapunzel's hair grow longer. But tension arrived: One day, Rapunzel looked out the window and saw a fair in the village nearby. She wanted to go, but the witch was off tending to her garden and couldn't let her out. Fortunately, a prince riding by in his carriage called up to her, "Rapunzel! Why aren't you at the fair?"
This is all wrong. The witch character has to be a threshold guardian or Rapunzel can't come into her power. And the archetype of the witch is meant to be a bit scary, because s/he is a wielder of power.

Of course this sort of thing has been going on for centuries, though this is a particularly schmalzy and fluffy version. Cinderella (the Perrault version) is a bowdlerized version of Aschenpüttel (Brothers Grimm version), which has much darker and earthier elements - in Perrault's version it's a glass slipper, but in Grimm it's made of fur, and the ugly sisters cut bits off their feet to fit into it, and are only caught out in their deception when blood oozes over the side.

I am sure that Clarissa Pinkola-Estes (author of the excellent Women Who Run with the Wolves) would have a thing or two to say about this evisceration of Rapunzel. And so would Bruno Bettelheim (author of The Uses of Enchantment). Indeed, in the rest of the Boston Globe article, various experts do point out why we need fairy-tales that aren't twee.

Hat-tip to Steve.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Stepping Stones Nigeria update

From Stepping Stones Nigeria:
Dear Stepping Stones Nigeria Supporter,

I just thought that I would take this opportunity to update you with some
of the exciting events of the previous few weeks. As you may know SSN has
been campaigning for the rights of so called child “witches” in Akwa Ibom
State since November 2006. This has been carried out through our Prevent
Abandonment of Children Today (PACT) campaign and has involved organising
two international symposiums, TV and radio adverts and regular visits to
government officials to advocate for the rights of the child. Most
recently SSN organised a child rights rally through the streets of Uyo,
which culminated in the children handing over a petition to the Governor
of the state demanding that he acted to protect the lives of these
innocent children. In addition to this SSN also paid UNICEF a visit in
order to make them aware of this terrible situation and request for their
assistance in the fight against child abandonment due to witchcraft

One of the consistent demands that SSN has made is for the Akwa Ibom State
government to enact the Child Rights Act (CRA). Despite the Federal
Republic of Nigeria enacting the CRA at federal level in 2003, Akwa Ibom
was still one of the 22 states still awaiting to enact it. Without the CRA
in place it is very difficult to protect the rights of the children, many
of whom have been tortured in churches, abandoned by their parents, set on
fire, trafficked etc. Indeed through working with our Nigerian partner,
CRARN, we had tried unsuccessfully to prosecute a number of parents and
pastors. Without the legal framework to support us this was a seemingly
impossible task.

Thankfully on 6th September we received the news that the Akwa Ibom State
government has finally enacted the CRA. SSN sees this as a giant stride in
our efforts to protect, save and transform the lives of stigmatised
children in Akwa Ibom State. Whilst we cannot fully attribute the
enactment of this law to the efforts of SSN or CRARN, it is clear that we
have contributed a great deal to bringing about this positive change. As a
small charity, with limited resources, SSN feels very proud at this
accomplishment and now looks forward to working with all stakeholders to
ensure that the CRA is fully implemented and that parents or pastors that
are guilty of violating child rights are held to account. Please do visit
our website - - for the latest press
coverage of these issues.

In a separate development, whilst carrying out research into the needs of
abandoned children in Oron LGA, our sister NGO – Stepping Stones Nigeria
Child Empowerment Foundation (SSNCEF) – recently uncovered some very
disturbing findings. A shadowy religious group, known as the “peace
sisters”, had been found to have rounded up between 200-300 abandoned
children from the streets on the pretence that they were taking them to
their centre in Aba for “deliverance”. SSN and SSNCEF were already aware
that this group had been arrested in 2007 on suspicion of trafficking of
children and, as soon as we unearthed these findings, we quickly leapt
into action. Letters were sent and numerous calls were made to the federal
government anti-trafficking agency, NAPTIP, government, police and UNICEF
demanding that urgent action should be taken to investigate the “peace
sisters”. After two weeks of high level advocacy, SSN is happy to
announce that on 12th September 2008, 5 members of this group were
arrested and were found to be imprisoning 36 children in their “church”.
SSN and SSNCEF strongly believe that these children were destined to be
trafficked, although where exactly to we do not know. The investigation
into the “peace sisters” activities is still continuing and numerous
children are still unaccounted for. SSN sees this case as a huge success
for the work of SSNCEF and hopes that this will be the first of many
positive interventions carried out by our sister NGO.

SSN now feels that there is a great deal of positive momentum behind our
work and we very much look forward to working with key stakeholders, such
as government, churches and traditional rulers, in the near future to help
develop sustainable strategies to dealing with the child “witch”
phenomenon and ensuring that all children in Akwa Ibom state have access
to their rights. This momentum will undoubtedly continue with the
broadcast of the "Dispatches" documentary that SSN has been working on -
The Witch Children of Nigeria - on 12th November at 9pm on Channel 4.
International supporters may watch the film online at

We hope that you share our joy about these positive developments and wish
to thank you for your continuing support for SSN’s work.

With best wishes,

Gary Foxcroft

Programme Director

Stepping Stones Nigeria

Protecting, Saving and Transforming the Lives of Vulnerable and
Disadvantaged Children in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria

Registered UK and Wales charity number 1112476
Company number 05413970

Friday, September 19, 2008

Avast there!

Happy Internashnul Talk Loike a Pirate Day!

Avast there me hearties! Prepare to be boarded. I be out on the cyber-seas lookin' fer people to walk the virtual plank. Ye lubbers!

If you be an aspirin' female pirate, you should read Pirates by Celia Rees, which be explainin' all about how young ladies might become pirates, if so be as they wanted to excape from a loife of drudgitude and subjecshun to patriarchy and such-like stuff.

Teh ship's mascot also be gettin' in on the akshun:

a new planet

This is very exciting: astronomers at the University of Toronto have spotted a planet.
Young StarYoung star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 and its faint, planetary mass candidate companion.

University of Toronto astronomers have unveiled what is likely the first picture of a planet around a star similar to the sun.

Three scientists from astronomy and astrophysics used the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii to take images of the young star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 (which lies outside the solar system at about 500 light-years from Earth) and a candidate companion of that star. They also obtained spectra to confirm the nature of the companion, which has a mass about eight times that of Jupiter and lies roughly 330 times the Earth-sun distance away from its star. (For comparison, the most distant planet in our solar system, Neptune, orbits the sun at only about 30 times the Earth-sun distance.) The parent star is similar in mass to the sun but is much younger.

"This is the first time we have directly seen a planetary mass object in a likely orbit around a star like our sun," said David Lafrenicre, a post-doctoral fellow and lead author of a paper submitted to the Astrophysical Journal Letters and also posted online. "If we confirm that this object is indeed gravitationally tied to the star, it will be a major step forward."

Actually I think I heard about this when it happened and forgot to look it up. But anyway, a planet like ours near a star like ours. Wow - it could be capable of supporting life.

Hat-tip to Geekologie.

More information and a bigger picture on Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Awesome! Bluetooth, steampunk-style:
Nicrosin’s Victorian-style Bluetooth device should be mass produced and powered solely by winding. He makes his creations from sculpey and watch parts, then lines it with leather for comfort. Though it still looks like it will eat your ear.

blog it
And this steampunk R2D2 is pretty cool, too:
Here’s what you get when a mad scientist from the 19th century creates a droid. The only thing missing is C3PO in a gentleman’s suit and bowler. It was made by Deviant Art user Amoebabloke, who has mad droid modding talent.
blog it

Saturday, September 13, 2008


I've finished my dissertation, "Do Pagans see their beliefs as compatible with science?" (short answer: yes). Thanks to all those who took part in the survey.


I'm really excited about the Large Hadron Collider. I really like physics (though the maths is beyond me) whether it is particle physics or astronomy.

I didn't really think that anything very weird was going to happen as a result of the LHC being switched on, but it was certainly an intriguing thought, adding a bit of excitement and mystery to Wednesday. (And what an appropriate day to turn it on, the day of the shamanic poet-god who sacrificed himself to reveal one of the mysteries of the universe.)

I had a quick look at a news item on the BBC website about the LHC, and in the "Have your say" section, there was a comment by some loony claiming that we're not meant to know the secrets of God. What utter tosh. If the creator exists, then it created us how we are and therefore endowed us with curiosity and would want us to discover stuff. Of course there is no supernatural creator because consciousness is an emergent property of matter (unless our universe was born from an LHC in a previous universe, and therefore was created by sentient beings...)

There were other nutters claiming that the LHC is a waste of money. No, sport is a waste of money. Particle physics is massively worthwhile. Apart from the sheer interest of understanding more about how the universe works, all sorts of technology might arise from the knowledge developed at CERN (I mean they already invented the WWW, for goodness' sake, just by having a lot of brainy people and some computers).

It's exciting that they could actually detect the Higgs Boson (in ATLAS or in the CMS), and also recreate the conditions a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, known as the quark-gluon plasma phase (this experiment is in ALICE).

Just after the Big Bang and the quark-gluon plasma phase, there were a billion and one matter particles for every billion anti-matter particles. The billion anti-matter particles cancelled out the billion matter particles, leaving one left over, and that's why (it is hypothesised) we live in a universe of mostly matter. According to the LHCb website, "LHCb is an experiment set up to explore what happened after the Big Bang that allowed matter to survive and build the Universe we inhabit today."

I don't really understand what TOTEM is for - "Total Cross Section, Elastic Scattering and Diffraction Dissociation" - but it's something to do with the interaction of particles and photons in collision, and their trajectories when they are scattered after collision. They haven't got a website for interested amateurs. Cool name, though.

The LHCf will investigate the origin of ultra high energy cosmic rays.

The LHC will also allow us to investigate hypotheses about parallel universes, the number of dimensions, the nature of space-time, and maybe even produce a Grand Unified Theory. It's really exciting.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Justice for Bob

I've just been sent information about this campaign to reinstate a lecturer who was sacked for not sacking a subordinate who was in difficulty; instead he argued for a breathing space to help the person turn things around.

More information - please sign the petition.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

illicit pleasures

What have Lolita, The Origin of Species, and The Satanic Verses got in common?

The answer is, they have all been banned somewhere. Wikipedia has a list of banned books.

Borders is being subversive and offering 40% off banned books at the moment. The list is fascinating.
The main reason things seem to be banned is either because they are politically subversive or sexually explicit, except The Origin of Species, which is presumably banned in creationist states of the US, or something.

They missed out the Harry Potter books, but I suppose those aren't actually banned by any legislatures, only by certain schools and libraries. Things used to get banned for being religiously subversive, such as Steganographia by Johannes Trithemius and Picatrix or Ghayat al Hakim, but they seem to have ignored that category - maybe because now you can get them as free e-texts online. Picatrix was allegedly one of the books that Casanova was imprisoned for possessing. The Index of books prohibited by the Catholic Church was abolished in 1966.

What these people don't realise is the psychology of the thing. The minute I hear that a book or film has been banned, or that someone somewhere doesn't want me to read or see it, it makes me want to go out and read it or see it. For instance, I had no plans to go and see The Last Temptation of Christ. Yawn, I thought, yet another film about Jesus. But as soon as I heard that it was controversial and people wanted it banned, it made me want to go and see it. I didn't see it in the end (apathy set in), but it illustrates how stupid it is to try and ban things. Notice how I thought several of the books listed above were actually quite boring - they would probably have sunk without trace if they hadn't been banned, but I expect the fact they were banned made them instant best-sellers (a bit like Spycatcher, which I bought in Germany because there was a court order against it being published in the UK, but that turned out to be rather boring).

Monday, September 08, 2008

a matter for divorce

I'd have divorced him too. Sizeist.

Fortunately, in our house, we are as one: Pluto is a planet. And Chiron, and Sedna....

Quantum rap

Just been sent the Large Hadron Collider Rap, which as well as being funny, explains the physics rather well (at least I assume it does, since I'm not an expert on particle physics). There's a Wikipedia page about the LHC, which incidentally records that the rap has been listened to by a million YouTube viewers. It also has a guest appearance from Stephen Hawking (or possibly a simulation of his voice).

I'm currently reading Keeping it real (part 1 of Quantum Gravity) by Justina Robson, which has as its starting point the rearrangement of the multiverse by a device similar to the Large Hadron Collider. As a result, gateways were opened to Alfheim, Zoomenon, Thanatopia and the realm of demons. It's good because there's a lot of detail about the world and the characters, and some interesting ideas, like Games (like head-games but there's more at stake). Also the main character is a cyborg called Lila, who is having an identity crisis about being a cyborg. The elves are pretty cool, too, though definitely not nice. There's also an elvish rock star.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Richard Zimler

I have now read three books by Richard Zimler: The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Hunting Midnight and The Seventh Gate. They follow the fortunes of the Zarco family, who are Sephardic Jews from Portugal. If you want to know what the style is like, try to imagine a Jewish version of Robertson Davies.

In The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Berekiah Zarco tries to discover who murdered his uncle, whilst there is a particularly vicious pogrom going on. In some ways it reminded me of The Anointed One by Z'ev Ben Shimon Halevi, but Zimler is the more accomplished writer of the two (though Halevi is excellent from an esoteric point of view). Zimler's characters are sympathetic and well-drawn; even those who are in the business of preserving their own skin even at the cost of betraying others are finely depicted so that their motivation can be understood. Zimler's main theme in this book and The Seventh Gate is the idea that a person can sacrifice themselves to change history; this is also the theme of Halevi's The Anointed One.

Hunting Midnight is about a friendship between John Zarco Stewart and Midnight, an African healer and freed slave. It's a beautiful book, though quite heartbreaking. It deals with slavery, the hidden Jews of Portugal, love, loss and betrayal.

The Seventh Gate is about Isaac Zarco, who lives in Berlin in 1933, and the struggle by him and his circle of friends to resist the Nazis. The characters are beautifully drawn. The book shows how the slide into Nazi totalitarianism came about, and how it affected people's lives, like the Jewish population, children who were considered subnormal, people with gigantism, and dwarves - all of whom were considered undesirable by the Nazis. It also explains why people waited until the last possible minute to leave Germany. In the midst of all this, Isaac Zarco is reading the book written by Berekiah Zarco and trying to attain the Seventh Gate of the Divine realm.