Saturday, 26 September 2015

Understanding Those Strange Scientific Names

     Once, when I was studying for my M.Sc., Lone Pine Sanctuary was suddenly invaded by a host of girls from some private school, obviously as part of a science project, for they each carried a list of questions to be researched. To the question, "What is the scientific name of the spiny anteater", half of them had nothing, and the other half had written "echidna", which I suspect is what the nuns expected. In any case, I always religiously crossed it out when they showed it to me, and wrote, Tachyglossus aculeatus, tried to teach them how to pronounce it, and informed them that I was a zoologist, and knew what I was talking about.
     All this raises a subject which is probably arcane to most of you. What is the purpose of these strange scientific names? Who coins them? What is wrong with "echidna", or even "spiny anteater"? Indeed, how do you pronounce the silly things anyway?

Monday, 31 August 2015

Same-Sex "Marriage"?

     I see Warren Entsch's ill-advised cross-party bill on same-sex "marriage" has died a natural death - at least for the moment. Common sense should have told him that the Coalition had no choice but to refuse a "conscience vote" on the issue. For a start, you can't have a free vote on a moral issue, because it implies that it is legitimate to vote for an immoral law. (The same thing, of course, goes for a plebiscite.) Apart from that, the only reason "conscience votes" are called is to allow the government to get their way without splitting the party, and to deflect from the party itself the popular odium the law may bring. This is undemocratic enough when done by a government; it is ridiculous when it is contrary to government policy. What the minority of Coalition extremists wanted was the right to join with the Labor Party in the hope of overturning majority policy. Why would the majority agree to that?
     And the irony is, there has no renewed support for same-sex "marriage". All that has happened is that its proponents have been shouting more loudly in the wake of the Irish referendum and the decision of five of the nine people who really make the law in the US. But although a lot of people may be prepared to accept it, the only groups who really want it are (a) about half the homosexual community, equating to about 1% of the community, and (b) the extreme left, who will never vote Coalition anyway. However, the Coalition would lose a lot of their natural supporters if they supported this unnatural policy. So what on earth were the rogue Coalition MPs thinking? And why don't the rank and file come out in force argue against it? Well, since they don't appear to want to do so, here are the reasons. And - guess what? - they have nothing to do with religion.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

What Does a Woman Want With a Career, Anyway?

     Shortly after my parents were married, and certainly long before I was conceived, my mother gave up her day job. "In my experience," she explained when I was grown up, "when a wife is employed, both husband and wife end up working harder." It should sound like common sense to anyone who has watched overworked mothers (and fathers). However, we are constantly being told that women are getting the rough end of the stick when it comes to careers, but what does a woman want with a career, anyway? No, this is not a facetious, provocative, male chauvinist quip. All right, perhaps it is, but it is not just a facetious, provocative, male chauvinist quip. It is a serious question demanding a serious answer.

Monday, 13 July 2015

What We Can Learn From Hobos

     What can we learn from the lives of hobos? Quite a bit, actually, if we are discerning. Back in 1907 W. H. Davies described his life as a tramp in the U.S. in a book entitled, The Autobiography of a Super Tramp. From his friends in the "business" he learned the fine art of identifying the best neighbourhoods and the best people to provide their free meals and pocket money, while they whiled away the rest of the day loafing. Being always interested in sharing quirky stories, I had written on another blog how they used to game the system to obtain free accommodation and meals at taxpayers' expense. The lamentable fact was that it was a deliberately chosen lifestyle, not forced upon them by economic necessity. The real victims of fate presumably spent their time looking for work as well as charity. So what can we learn from this?

Monday, 29 June 2015

Yes, Salt Can Lose Its Savour

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. (Matt 5:13, cf Mk 9:50, Lu 14:34)
     Salt adds flavour, and aids in preservation, so the meaning is fairly clear. But how, I used to wonder, could salt lose its savour? Well, as it turns out, it is quite simple.

Monday, 15 June 2015

When a Superpower Was Written Off

     When I was a little boy, we didn't have television, so we had to make do with the wireless instead. After school we would listen to 15-minute serials about such characters as Superman and Tarzan, for our parents were rather tolerant. Then, within a week of the first Sputnik going into orbit, some Australian radio writers started up a new serial, Operation Moon Satellite. By the time I caught up with it, it presented as a Flash-Gordonish fantasy, which soon resolved into a war of wits against a humanoid computer known simply as The Brain. The plot became ever more convoluted - and implausible - as the heroes found their moves checked at every turn by The Brain, and one by one they fell into his hands. They were trapped. The situation was hopeless. At last, The Brain came down and conversed with a woman standing just above a large engine room. All of a sudden, without warning, she pushed him into the machinery, and he disappeared in a flash of blue flame. He was simply written out of the script. Just like that! Next, a voice-over came on and announced that the show was over, and was going off the air.
     I was dumbfounded. It was the classic "with one jump Jack was free" artificial ending. I could hardly believe that such a complicated story line could end so abruptly. The amazing thing is, several decades later, I watched the same thing being played out on the world stage. An awesome and terrible superpower was simply written out of the script of history. Just like that!

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Why Didn't the Norse Settle North America?

     Almost 500 years before Columbus, Snorri Thorfinnsson became the first white person to be born in North America. Labrador and Newfoundland were first discovered by Norsemen based in Greenland sometime around 1000 AD,under names such as Markland and Vínland. The site of the second area is disputed, but that was where Snorri was born. How many Norse settlements were made, how long they lasted, and how frequently attempts were made at settlement are all unknown. Certainly, only a single Norse site has been archaeologically discovered, and that in Newfoundland. Wat is known is that the first bishop of Greenland visited Vínland in 1120, so there were presumably people living there. In 1347 a Greenland ship bringing timber from Markland was driven to Iceland, but whether it had visited a colony at the time is unknown. Shortly afterwards, the Greenland settlements themselves disappeared from history.
    The Norse venture into North America is one of the great might-have-beens of history. Why did it fail? It has been suggested that the European weapons of the day were not markedly superior to those of the natives. Climate change, particularly the start of the Little Ice Age, has also been implicated. But I think there were more profound reasons.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Philosophy of an Aboriginal Tribe

     One of the advantages of being a compulsive book buyer is that I tend to have a book available for every occasion. Thus, when I learned that on my visit to Alice Springs in 1997 I would have the chance to attend a demonstration of the customs of the Warlpiri tribe, I thought it was time I read the book I had purchased twenty years before: Desert People, a Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia by M. J. Meggitt. Written in 1962, it had the added advantage of describing the tribe as it existed in the 1950s, before they had picked up the worst parts of our civilisation.
     "Alice Springs is not the homeland of the Warlpiris," explained our white guide. "Their territory extends from Yuendumu and Mt. Eclipse right up northwest to Hall's Creek in Western Australia."
     "So," I said, "they have further extended their range in the last fifty years."
     "What do you mean?" he asked.
     I then explained how Meggitt had recorded that, originally, they lived south of Winnecke Creek. Nevertheless, with the decline of other tribes, they managed to extend their range - at one stage by force, at another by ceremonial purchase - north to the headwaters of the Victoria River and southeast to Teatree. But by 1962, they still had not expanded to Hall's Creek.
     "Well, we were told they had always lived there," the white guide replied.
     Don't believe everything an Aborigine tells you, my man.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Homosexuality in the Lower Animals?

     By popular demand. Well, not exactly, but a correspondent has suggested it is about time I made good on the promise made in my essay on the sex life of koalas:
Obviously, I am going to have to write another article in due course about the phenomenon, because non-zoologists do not understand that many species of animals use sex in manners not easily referable to human sexuality - or, indeed, to that of other non-human species. Homosexuality as we know it is extremely rare outside of humans.
     There seems to be a lot of interest in this lately. The Wikipedia article on the subject, for example, is accurate as far as it goes, but misses the big picture entirely. The natural temptation is always to equate it with human homosexuality. Indeed, it is clear that many people cite it in order to valid the human activity. One wonders how many examples they need to validate it: a hundred, or just one? And how the same method would not validate monogamy, harems, promiscuity, infanticide, and cannibalism, all of which can be found in the lower animals. In point of fact, every species, including the human species, possesses a social system adapted to its way of life. The presence of a specific behaviour in some other species does not validate it for human beings, and its absence does not invalidate it. Whether homosexual practices are a legitimate activity for human being is a legitimate subject for debate, but you won't find the arguments in this essay.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Problems of Pontius Pilate

     Now that Easter is coming up, perhaps we should spare a thought for Pontius Pilate. In 2006 I watched the Black Hills Passion Play, and it depicted Jesus being brought before Pilate while it was still dark. Suddenly, a lot of things clicked.