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. But 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. What 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.