Every now and then, a revolutionary technological advance comes along and changes how we live our daily lives.

Li-Fi might just be the next one.

This amazing idea is like Wi-Fi, but much, MUCH, faster.


Having just been trialled for the first time in real life, Li-Fi was found to live up to scientists’ claims that it operates up to 100 times faster than Wi-Fi technologies.

And if you picture such genius inventions to have been born of a ‘light-bulb moment’, well this one most certainly was.

Li-Fi is a wireless technology that transmits high-speed data using visible light communication (VLC).

It means, within the next five years, you could be accessing the Internet using the light-bulbs in your home.

This would reportedly be safer from a data security perspective as well, protecting the data being sent, because light cannot pass through walls.

The technology was brought from research labs – where scientists achieved speeds of 224 gigabits per second – to real life by an Estonian start-up company, Velmenni.

Estonia? Yup.

“Currently we have designed a smart lighting solution for an industrial environment where the data communication is done through light,” Deepank Solanki, CEO of Velmenni, told IBTimes UK.

In another project, the company has set up a Li-Fi network in an office space to provide Internet access for a private client.

The man who invented Li-Fi, Professor Harald Haas from the University of Edinburgh, said that current infrastructure is suitable for integration of Li-Fi.

In a Ted talk broadcast in 2011 he demonstrated how, by flickering the light from a single LED, he could transmit far more data than a cellular tower.

“All we need to do is fit a small microchip to every potential illumination device,” Haas said.

If it does all turn out to be that easy, you really could be downloading that favourite movie or TV series of yours in a flash – a flash of light.


A Florida man who had admitted he killed his wife and posted a photo of the body on Facebook has been found guilty of murder.

Derek Medina admitted taking the picture on his phone and uploading it onto the social media site.

He failed to convince the jury that he had shot Jennifer Alfonso (eight times) in self-defence, after years of abuse.

He said his wife was threatening him with a knife when he shot her in their home in Miami, but prosecutors said she was cowering on the floor.

When he posted the picture, he wrote on Facebook that he expected to go to prison or be sentenced to death for the killing.

Prosecutors successfully argued that the 27-year-old wife was in fear of her life when she was shot in August 2013.

He had vowed to kill her if she left him and she had told friends she intended to do that, the court heard.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Rundle said: “No family should ever have to see their daughter killed and then exhibited worldwide on the internet like some macabre trophy to a husband’s anger.”

Medina, 33, could face a life imprisonment over the murder.

domestic violence


Yesterday was White Ribbon Day, to protest against violence against women, and domestic violence especially. We are not 100% sure if that is what this excellent and thought-provoking poem is about, (it’s a poem, after all, and therefore open to interpretation), but that’s how it speaks to us. Strongly.

We love the way the poem builds in intensity through a repeated motif. This is very skillful writing.



Oh but to shudder at the hands of a lover

Is no fun

No no no

It’s no fun

Mmm and they say she’s oh so clever

Got some charm, keenness about her

It’s alright,

They keep proclaiming

She’s alright,

Yeah he’s alright,

So let them keep on livin’

Don’t intrude on others’ business

She’s alright,

Just keep dancin’ in that darkened corner

She just fine,

Keep on peeling those potatoes

and tossing that great salad

Keep on sending out those letters

Telling everyone about

How bright

How kind,

How wonderful it is

to be around her,

Don’t let them see the secrets

Buried deep beneath the floorboards,

They’re alright

We’re all just fine,

Quit losing sleep over this duo

It’s their battle

We shall not intrude, no

Regardless of what we hear or see, no

She’ll be alright,

Look at her beaming,

Great big grin

look, now they’re kissing,

They’re aright

They’re just fine.


From: http://wanderingthroughhersoul.com/


syria photo


At the Wellthisiswhatithink desk, deep in darkest Melbourne, people occasionally pass us vital documents they think should be broadcast to a wider audience.

This is how we stumbled across this revelatory but top secret intelligence briefing on the situation in Syria and Iraq.

With luck, this highly restricted document will clear up any confusion you have on the situation over there. We publish so that the truth may be known. Eat your heart out, Wikileaks.

So … (deep breath) …


Let’s kick off with Syria. President Assad (who is bad) is a nasty guy with a bad moustache who only got the job because his Dad had it before, but then he got so nasty that his people rebelled and the Rebels (who are good) started winning. (Hurrah!) This is despite the dorky Assad having a rather dishy British wife who was universally believed to be good, until she spent too much on shoes and stuff and became generally considered to be bad.

Things were sort of going OK for the good rebels but then some of them turned more than a bit nasty and are now called IS or ISIL or Islamic State or Daesh (doesn’t matter what they’re called, they are definitely bad) and some rebels continued to support democracy (who are still good) and some we are just not all that sure about (who may be bad, or good, but time will tell).

IS are so bad even Al Qaeda (really bad too) don’t like them and start fighting them.

The Americans (who are good) start bombing Islamic State (who are bad) and giving arms to the Syrian Rebels (who are good) so they could fight Assad (who is still bad), which was good. But this ironically puts America on the same side as Al Qaeda in Syria, which is just plain odd.

Now. There is a breakaway state in the north run by the Kurds who want to fight IS (which is a good thing) but the Turkish authorities think they are bad, so we have to say they are bad whilst secretly thinking they’re good and giving them guns to fight IS (which is good) but that is another matter altogether and we’ll get more confused so we’ll let it go. Meanwhile the Turks have shot down a Russian plane which they say was flying in their airspace (which is definitely bad).

Anyway, getting back to Syria and Iraq.

So President Putin (who is bad, because he invaded Crimea and thejoker Ukraine and killed lots of folks including that nice Russian man in London with polonium-poisoned sushi) has decided to back Assad (who is still bad) by attacking ISIS (who are also bad) which is sort of a good thing?

But Putin (still bad) thinks the Syrian Rebels (who are good) are also bad, and so he bombs them too, much to the annoyance of the Americans (who are good) who are busy backing and arming the rebels (who are also good).

Now Iran (who used to be bad, but now they have agreed not to build any nuclear weapons and bomb Israel with them are now sort-of good) are going to provide ground troops to support Assad (still bad) as are the Russians (bad) who now have both ground troops and aircraft in Syria.

So a new Coalition of Assad (still bad) Putin (extra bad) and the Iranians (good, but in a bad sort of way) are going to attack IS (who are very bad) which is a good thing, but also the Syrian Rebels (who are good), which is bad.

Annoyingly, now the British (obviously good, except that funny and rather confused Mr Corbyn, who is probably bad in an ineffective sort of way) and the Americans (also good) and the Australians (who are generally considered good because they’re mainly about cold beer and beaches) cannot attack Assad (still bad) for fear of upsetting Putin (bad) and Iran (good/bad) so now they have to accept that Assad might not be that bad after all compared to IS (who are super bad).

So Assad (bad) is now probably good, being better than IS (but let’s face it, drinking your own wee is better than IS, so no real choice there) and since Putin and Iran are also fighting IS that may now make them good.

America (still good) will find it hard to arm a group of rebels being attacked by the Russians for fear of upsetting Mr Putin (now good) and that nice mad Ayatollah in Iran (sort of good) and so they may be forced to say that the Rebels are now bad, or at the very least abandon them to their fate. This will lead most of them to flee to Turkey and then on to Europe (which is bad) or join IS (still the only constantly bad group, and that would be really bad).

For all the Sunni Muslims in the area, an attack by Shia Muslims and Alawites (Iran and Assad) backed by Russians (infidels) will be seen as something of a Holy War, and the ranks of Daesh will now be seen by the Sunnis as the only Jihadis fighting in the Holy War. Hence many Muslims will now see IS as good even though they are the baddest of the bad. (Doh!)

Sunni Muslims will also see the lack of action by Britain and America in support of their (good) Sunni rebel brothers as something of a betrayal (not to mention we didn’t do anything about a corrupt Shia government being imposed on Sunnis when we took over Iraq: hmmm, might have a point there) and hence we will be seen as more Bad. Again.

A few million refugees are now out of harm’s way (good) but nobody really wants them (bad) and now winter’s coming (bad). Lots of people think the refugees are how IS will sneak bad guys into Europe (which would be bad, but there’s no evidence of it happening, which is good, but that doesn’t stop people being frightened of them even though they have no reason to be, which is bad). Meanwhile the French have decided to bomb Iraq to pay back IS for the attacks (bad) in Paris and other countries like Lebanon and Jordan also look like getting dragged further and further into the conflict (bad).

So now we have America (now bad) and Britain (also bad) and Australia (bad, but with good beer), providing limited support to Sunni Rebels (bad) many of whom are looking to IS (good/bad depending on your point of view, even though they’re still really bad) for support against Assad (now good) who, along with Iran (also good) and Putin (also, now, unbelievably, good) are attempting to retake the country Assad used to run before all this started?

There. I hope that this clears it all up for you.

And if in doubt, fuck it, let’s all just bomb someone else. ‘Cause that will help.


You know nothing, John Snow? Officially, at least.


Is this the confirmation worried Jon Snow fans have been craving?

Winterfell will play host to a meeting between some big characters in Game of Thrones season six.

Fansite Watchers on the Wall reports a scene with Ramsay Bolton, his reluctant wife Sansa Stark and the endlessly conniving Littlefinger is being filmed in Northern Ireland this week.

Jon Snow is also in the scene, according to the fansite, and is also the subject of a new teaser poster from HBO, (see above), despite apparently dying (or at very least, becoming very over-tired indeed) from multiple stab wounds from his Wall-watching mates at the end of season five, adding further fuel to the rumour (aka desperate female fan hope) that he didn’t die or will somehow be resurrected.

The encounter takes place in the courtyard of Winterfell, the childhood home of Jon and Sansa that is now under Bolton (boooo!) control.

Adding to the tense scene, a giant then turns up at the gate and people have to fight it off. But it’s unclear whether the giant is Wun Wun or if another giant has made it south of the Wall.

Sophie TurnerPrevious spoilers have revealed that actor Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy, has been in Northern Ireland to film Iron Island scenes. This latest news means Sansa and Theon did survive the jump from Winterfell they made at the end of last season. Which is encouraging for the growing legion of male fans of actress Sophie Turner, who has turned into a grown up at least as hot as her tumbling red tresses.

All of which is good news, but we are still reeling, Dear Reader, from the demise of Clara Oswald (aka Jenna Coleman, who is coincidentally Rob Stark’s girlfriend in real life) in the most recent episode of Doctor Who.

claraYes, we all know that the Who writers regularly kill characters off, and Clara’s behaviour had become overly-reckless recently, but it was nevertheless suprisingly emotionally distressing to see a character we have come to know and love killed off instead of having her leave the series for some other reason and in some other way (Billie Piper getting trapped in an alternate Universe from David Tennant’s Doctor, for example.)

Dakota JohnsonIt is really odd how we come to identify so closely with characters in either movies or TV shows. It must have something to do with the way our brains “suspend disbelief” to allow us to enjoy the drama. We watched an interesting discussion with Dakota Johnson, famously the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele in the schlock-BDSM pot boiler “Fifty Shades of Grey, and who is currently filming the sequel “Fifty Shades Darker”. She said she had difficulty finding a boyfriend because suddenly men seemed frightened of her, although apparently and happily she has recently rekindled her romance with her British rock musician boyfriend.

Apparently the men she was meeting thought she was “weird” because of the role she played, which was certainly “out there”. But why people would think the actress’s attitudes or behaviours would mimic those of a fictional character is curious.

Game of Thrones CycleAnyway, it looks like GOT fans might be grieving a little less next year.

And in late-breaking news, apparently Aslan in the Narnia Chronicles is not real.

I mean, really. Who knew?

Well done, Mr McClure, whoever and wherever you are. Well done, that man.


Well done, Mr McClure, whoever you are. Well done, that man.

A-Board outside a new shop.

“24 Hour Gym. Open Now.”

Glad to have the clarification. Sadly, Ms Junior Wellthisiswhatithink was past the location before realising she should have taken a photo. But she assures your indefatigable correspondent that it was true.

Apart from the packet of peanuts that said “Warning, may contain peanuts” this may be our favourite F*** Up of some time. 

As always, to read the entire sorry catalogue, just put F*** Up in the search box top left on this page …

Just some of those killed on the Russian flight.

Just some of those killed on the Russian Metrojet flight.


An amazing story has broken on the inside front cover of issue 1405 of the venerable and much loved scandal sheet Private Eye in the UK.

Their regular “Street of Shame” shame column reports that Nick Parker, Chief Foreign Correspondent of the populist tabloid Sun newspaper, had shocking news on last Friday’s front page: “Security at Sharm el-Sheikh airport has been exposed as a shambles after guards let Brits jump queues for a £15 fee – without checking their luggage.”

But as Private Eye alleges, it’s a pity he wasn’t allowed to write the story when he first discovered it, a full five months earlier.

They say it was while at Sharm airport in June this year that Parker heard of corrupt officials letting tourists avoid the queues – and bypass security and baggage checks – in return for cash backhanders.

He contacted his newsdesk and proposed an exposé of the lax security that was jeopardising the lives of holidaymakers. He would find an official, offer a £20 note and see if he could indeed get a bag through to flight-side without any checking.

Corporate prosecution

The newsdesk then contacted managing editor Stig Abell’s office, which informed chief compliance officer Imogen Haddon, who in turn consulted News Corp’s head office in New York and its Management and Standards Committee (MSC) – whereupon an urgent message was sent to Parker ordering him not to go ahead.

Why the panic? Private Eye say that since the News International scandals began, the Dirty Digger (Private Eye’s nickname for Rupert Murdoch) has been terrified of a corporate prosecution which could jeopardise his empire. Hence the creation of the MSC, which Private Eye argues kept the company out of the dock by grassing up individual hacks instead.

Hence, too, the reaction to Parker’s proposal: if he handed over £20 it might lead to charges against News Corp in America under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which applies to any company with US connections (such as News Corp) bribing foreign officials anywhere in the world. It might sound barmy, but that is how the News Corp minds now work.

So according to the Private Eye story the Sun missed its chance to expose the security failings at Sharm el-Sheikh.

And five months later, 224 entirely innocent Russian civilians were blown out of the sky.

In the interests of balance and fairness we should also say that the Currant Bun have denied the report. Indeed, the stunning claims in the magazine were met with a swift denial.

The publication’s managing editor, Stig Abell, said via Twitter the report was “sadly, totally untrue”. He also lamented being “blamed for a terrorist atrocity”. He also denied a story about the airport’s corruption was pitched or that money was involved.

We should also say that press watchers have poured scorn on their denial.

Which in the final wash up is all rather unsatisfactory.

Perhaps the Dirty Digger, long known for his enthusiastic use of Twitter to comment on world affairs and those he disagrees with, might care to clear things up?


To be utterly frank, Dear Reader, we do not even pretend to fully understand the current Middle East crisis and have even less idea what to do about it. It is times like this that we are very pleased we no longer pursue politics as a career.

This map, for example, purports to show Daesh’s view of a future Caliphate. It suggests that its ambitions stretch at least as far as the historical spread of Islam. The white lines, incidentally, do not relate to modern boundaries, but to Daesh-suggested administrative boundaries, as Daesh does not recognise modern nation states.

Daesh map

Anyhow, in the search for clarity, we reproduce in full below a long but scholarly article which first appeared in New Statesman in early March this year, and then in New Republic, because to us it has the smack of good research and commonsense.

It is a trenchant and thorough re-evaluation of the by-now famous article in The Atlantic (which we were impressed by at the time, and which we believe still has value, as regards, at least, the leadership of IS) which argued that IS – or as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius now urges us to call them, Daesh – is an eschatological “end times” cult that wants nothing more than to provoke a wholesale invasion of Syria and Iraq by the West to usher in the return of Christ and thus the end of the world.

Both articles appear well researched and credible, revealing again (as if we really need to have it reinforced) that this is a highly complex issue that does not succumb to simplistic explanations.

In any event, we urge you to read this article as well, because it goes to the motivation of people to join Daesh and it squarely argues that it is NOT an Islamic movement, and, indeed, that labelling it as such is aiding its existence and even growth. Given recent events worldwide, that analysis is more pressing than ever.

What’s more, as the leader of the “free world” this is a live issue for President Obama, in particular, who is enduring considerable criticism for his nuanced and oft-expressed view that Daesh is not an “Islamic” or “Islamic terrorist” problem. It may be that his reasons for doing so are simply too subtle for many social media readers and posters, especially those who detest Obama anyway, but if this article is credible then his attitude thus far is completely justified.

What is more important is that this is a discussion that every community in the Western world needs to have, as non-Muslim and Muslim communities seek to live peaceably together.

Whatever the precise truth of the situation we now face – and like all situations, there are layers upon layers of meaning and evidence – this article places the responsibility for the radicalisation of Muslim and recent-convert Muslim youth absolutely specifically to the aftermath of the Iraq war, and the subsequent bias and incompetence of the Shia government in Baghdad.

And it asserts – with compelling evidence from experts working in the intelligence field – that grievances in Western societies (poor housing, perceived racism, lack of opportunity, and a desire for belonging and meaning, above all) are all merely exacerbated by the echoes of 2003 and afterwards.

In effect, the article is saying that the war in Iraq never really ended, and that it is now conflated to include Syria.

We might also note that the next domino to fall, in this regard, would be Lebanon, which puts last week’s murderous bombing in Beirut into a critical context.

Please. Take the time to read this article.

UnderstandingWe believe it is an important contribution to current discussions, and should be taken into account as we examine what on earth to do next.

And if there is ever to be peace in the Middle East, we have to start somewhere.

In that regard, understanding what is going on seems a good place to start.

Article begins:

It is difficult to forget the names, or the images, of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning and Peter Kassig. The barbaric beheadings between August and November 2014, in cold blood and on camera, of these five jumpsuit-clad western hostages by the self-styled Islamic State, or ISIS, provoked widespread outrage and condemnation.

Liberation newspaper journalist Didier Francois who was freed after 10 months in captivity.

Liberation newspaper journalist Didier Francois who was freed after 10 months in captivity.

However, we should also remember the name of Didier François, a French journalist who was held by ISIS in Syria for ten months before being released in April 2014. François has since given us a rare insight into life inside what the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, in a recent report for the magazine, has called the “hermit kingdom” of ISIS, where “few have gone . . . and returned.”

And it is an insight that threatens to turn the conventional wisdom about the world’s most fearsome terrorist organisation on its head.

“There was never really discussion about texts,” the French journalist told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last month, referring to his captors. “It was not a religious discussion. It was a political discussion.”

According to François, “It was more hammering what they were believing than teaching us about the Quran. Because it has nothing to do with the Quran.” And the former hostage revealed to a startled Amanpour: “We didn’t even have the Quran. They didn’t want even to give us a Quran.”

The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been a disaster for the public image of Islam – and a boon for the Islamophobia industry. Here, after all, is a group that calls itself Islamic State; that claims the support of Islamic texts to justify its medieval punishments, from the stoning of adulterers to the amputation of the hands of thieves; and that has a leader with a PhD in Islamic studies who declares himself to be a “caliph,” or ruler over all Muslims, and has even renamed himself in honour of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr.

The consequences are, perhaps, as expected. In September 2014, a Zogby poll found that only 27 percent of Americans had a favourable view of Islam—down from 35 per cent in 2010. By February 2015, more than a quarter of Americans (27 per cent) were telling the pollsters LifeWay Research that they believed that life under ISIS rule “gives a true indication of what an Islamic society looks like.”

Yet what is much more worrying is that it isn’t just ill-informed, ignorant or bigoted members of the public who take such a view. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” wrote Wood in his widely read 10,000-word cover report (“What ISIS really wants”) in the March issue of Atlantic, in which he argued, “The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Bernard Haykel of Princeton University, the only scholar of Islam whom Wood bothered to interview, described Muslims who considered ISIS to be un-Islamic, or anti-Islamic, as “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” and declared that the hand-choppers and throat-slitters of ISIS “have just as much legitimacy” as any other Muslims, because Islam is “what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts.”

Many other analysts across the political spectrum agree and have denounced the Obama administration for refusing, in the words of the journalist-turned-terrorism-expert Peter Bergen, to make “the connection between Islamist terrorism and ultra-fundamentalist forms of Islam.” Writing on the CNN website in February, Bergen declared, “ISIS may be a perversion of Islam, but Islamic it is.”

“Will it take the end of the world for Obama to recognise ISIS as ‘Islamic’?” screamed a headline on the Daily Beast website in the same month. “Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behaviour and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder?” asked Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and high priest of the “New Atheism” movement.

So, is ISIS a recognisably “Islamic” movement? Are ISIS recruits motivated by religious fervour and faith?

The Analyst

“Our exploration of the intuitive psychologist’s shortcomings must start with his general tendency to overestimate the importance of personal or dispositional factors relative to environmental influences,” wrote the American social anthropologist Lee Ross in 1977.

It was Ross who coined the phrase “fundamental attribution error”, which refers to the phenomenon in which we place excessive emphasis on internal motivations to explain the behaviour of others, in any given situation, rather than considering the relevant external factors.

SagemanNowhere is the fundamental attribution error more prevalent, suggests the forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, than in our navel-gazing analysis of wannabe terrorists and what does or doesn’t motivate them.

“You attribute other people’s behaviour to internal motivations but your own to circumstances. ‘They’re attacking us and therefore we have to attack them.’” Yet, he tells me, we rarely do the reverse.

Few experts have done more to try to understand the mindset of the young men and women who aspire to join the blood-drenched ranks of groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda than Sageman. And few can match his qualifications, credentials or background. The 61-year-old, Polish-born psychiatrist and academic is a former CIA operations officer who was based in Pakistan in the late 1980s. There he worked closely with the Afghan mujahedin.

He has since advised the New York City Police Department on counterterrorism issues, testified in front of the 9/11 Commission in Washington, D.C., and, in his acclaimed works Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad, closely analysed the biographies of several hundred terrorists.

Does he see religion as a useful analytical prism through which to view the rise of ISIS and the process by which thousands of young people arrive in Syria and Iraq, ready to fight and die for the group?

“Religion has a role but it is a role of justification,” he tells me. “It’s not why they do this [or] why young people go there.”

ISIS members, he says, are using religion to advance a political vision, rather than using politics to advance a religious vision. “To give themselves a bit more legitimacy, they use Islam as their justification. It’s not about religion, it’s about identity . . . You identify with the victims, [with] the guys being killed by your enemies.”

For converts to Islam in particular, he adds, “Identity is important to them. They have . . . invested a lot of their own efforts and identity to become this ‘Muslim’ and, because of this, identity is so important to them. They see other Muslims being slaughtered [and say], ‘I need to protect my community.’” (A recent study found that converts to Islam were involved in 31 per cent of Muslim terrorism convictions in the UK between 2001 and 2010.)

Sageman believes that it isn’t religious faith but, rather, a “sense of emotional and moral outrage” at what they see on their television screens or on YouTube that propels people from Portsmouth to Peshawar, from Berlin to Beirut, to head for war zones and to sign up for the so-called jihad. Today, he notes archly, “Orwell would be [considered as foreign fighter like] a jihadi,” referring to the writer’s involvement in the anti-fascist campaign during the Spanish civil war.

Religion, according to this view, plays a role not as a driver of behaviour but as a vehicle for outrage and, crucially, a marker of identity. Religion is important in the sense that it happens to “define your identity”, Sageman says, and not because you are “more pious than anybody else.” He invokes the political scientist Benedict Anderson’s conception of a nation state as an “imagined political community”, arguing that the “imagined community of Muslims” is what drives the terrorists, the allure of being members of – and defenders of – the ultimate “in-group.”

JJ“You don’t have the most religious folks going there,” he points out.

ISIS fighters from the west, in particular, “tend to have rediscovered Islam as teenagers, or as converts”; they are angry, or even bored, young men in search of a call to arms and a thrilling cause. The ISIS executioner Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John” – who was raised and educated in the UK – was described, for instance, by two British medics who met him at a Syrian hospital as “quiet but a bit of an adrenalin junkie”.

Sageman’s viewpoint should not really surprise us. Writing in his 2011 book The Black Banners: the Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, the Lebanese-American former FBI agent Ali H Soufan, who led the bureau’s pre-9/11 investigation into Al Qaeda, observed: “When I first began interrogating AL Qaeda members, I found that while they could quote Bin Laden’s sayings by heart, I knew far more of the Quran than they did—and in fact some barely knew classical Arabic, the language of both the hadithand the Quran. An understanding of their thought process and the limits of their knowledge enabled me and my colleagues to use their claimed piousness against them.”

Three years earlier, in 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was obtained by the Guardian.

It revealed: “Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.”

The MI5 analysts noted the disproportionate number of converts and the high propensity for “drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes”. The newspaper claimed they concluded, “A well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”

As I have pointed out on these pages before, Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, the two young British Muslim men from Birmingham who were convicted on terrorism charges in 2014 after travelling to fight in Syria, bought copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon prior to their departure. Religious novices, indeed.

Sageman, the former CIA officer, says we have to locate terrorism and extremism in local conflicts rather than in grand or sweeping ideological narratives – the grievances and the anger come first, he argues, followed by the convenient and self-serving ideological justifications. For example, he says, the origins of ISIS as a terror group lie not in this or that Islamic book or school of thought, but in the “slaughter of Sunnis in Iraq.” He reminds me how, in April 2013, when there was a peaceful Sunni demonstration asking the Shia-led Maliki government in Baghdad to reapportion to the various provinces what the government was getting in oil revenues, Iraqi security forces shot into the crowds.

“That was the start of this [current] insurrection.”

Before that, it was the brutal, US-led occupation, under which Iraq became ground zero for suicide bombers from across the region and spurred the creation of new terrorist organisations, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

ISIS is the “remnant” of AQI, Sageman adds. He believes that any analysis of the group and of the ongoing violence and chaos in Iraq that doesn’t take into account the long period of war, torture, occupation and sectarian cleansing is inadequate—and a convenient way of exonerating the west of any responsibility. “Without the invasion of Iraq, [ISIS] would not exist. We created it by our presence there.”

The Spy

BarrettLike Marc Sageman, Richard Barrett has devoted his professional life to understanding terrorism, extremism and radicalization.

The silver-haired 65-year-old was the director of global counterterrorism operations for MI6, both before and after the 11 September 2001 attacks, and he subsequently led the Al Qaeda and Taliban monitoring team at the United Nations between 2004 and 2013.

Unlike Sageman, however, Barrett partly sympathises with Graeme Wood’s and Bernard Haykel’s thesis that “the Islamic State is Islamic”. He tells me that some ISIS followers “are clearly convinced they are following Allah’s will” and he insists: “We should not underestimate the extent of their belief.” However, Barrett concedes that such beliefs and views “will not be the only thing that drew them to the Islamic State”.

The former MI6 officer, who recently published a report on foreign fighters in Syria, agrees with the ex-CIA man on the key issue of what motivates young men to join—and fight for—groups such as ISIS in the first place. Rather than religious faith, it has “mostly to do with the search for identity . . . coupled with a search for belonging and purpose. The Islamic State offers all that and empowers the individual within a collective. It does not judge and accepts all with no concern about their past. This can be very appealing for people who think that they washed up on the wrong shore.”

Whether they are unemployed losers or well-educated professionals, joining ISIS offers new recruits the chance to “believe that they are special . . . that they are part of something that is new, secret and powerful.”

While Barrett doesn’t dismiss the theological angle in the way that Sageman does, he nevertheless acknowledges, “Acting in the name of Islam means that, for the ignorant at least, the groups have some legitimacy for their actions . . . They can pretend it is not just about power and money.”

LouiseThis irreligious lust for power and money is a significant and often overlooked part of the ISIS equation.

The group—often described as messianic and uncompromising—had no qualms about demanding a $200m ransom for the lives of two Japanese hostages in January; nor has it desisted from smuggling pornography into and out of Iraq, according to Louise Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Centre at George Mason University in Virginia. (Shelley has referred to Isis as a “diversified criminal operation”.)

Then there is the often-ignored alliance at the heart of ISIS between the so-called violent Islamists, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist regime – an alliance that Barrett has referred to as a “marriage of convenience.” If ISIS is the apocalyptic religious cult that Wood and others believe it is, why was Baghdadi’s deputy in Iraq Abu Muslim al-Afari al-Turkmani, a former senior special forces officer in Hussein’s army? Why is Baghdadi’s number two in Syria Abu Ali al-Anbari, a former major general under Hussein? (Welthisiswhatithink note; al-Anbari was reported killed in Libya in June.) 

“The Ba’athist element was certainly very important . . . as it gave the Islamic State military and administrative capability,” Barrett says. “It also made it possible [for ISIS to] take Mosul so quickly and cause defections and surrenders from the Iraqi army. There was and continues to be a coincidence of interest between Islamic State and other anti-government Sunni groups.”

Here again, it seems, is the fundamental attribution error in play. We neglect to focus on the “interests” of groups such as ISIS and obsess over their supposedly messianic and apocalyptic “beliefs.” The “end of times” strain may be very strong in ISIS, Barrett warns, but: “The Ba’athist elements are still key in Iraq and without them the Islamic State would probably not be able to hold on to the city of Mosul.”

Baghdadi’s appointment as leader of ISIS in 2010 was orchestrated by a former Ba’athist colonel in Hussein’s army, Haji Bakr, (killed in January 2014) according to another recent study produced by Barrett, in which he noted how Bakr had “initially attracted criticism from fellow members of the group for his lack of a proper beard and lax observance of other dictates of their religious practice”. Nevertheless, pragmatism trumped ideology as Bakr’s “organisational skills . . . and network of fellow ex-Ba’athists made him a valuable resource” for ISIS.

Apparently, Baghdadi’s supposed caliphate in Iraq and Syria was less the will of God and more the will of Saddam.

The Theologian

Perhaps the most astonishing achievement of Isis has been not the sheer size of the territory it has captured, but the way in which it has united the world’s disparate (and often divided) 1.6 billion Muslims against it.

Whether Sunni or Shia, Salafi or Sufi, conservative or liberal, Muslims – and Muslim leaders – have almost unanimously condemned and denounced ISIS not merely as un-Islamic but actively anti-Islamic.

Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi grand mufti.

Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi grand mufti.

Consider the various statements of Muslim groups such as the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, representing 57 countries (ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam”); the Islamic Society of North America (ISIS’ actions are “in no way representative of what Islam actually teaches”); al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world (ISIS is acting “under the guise of this holy religion . . . in an attempt to export their false Islam”); and even Saudi Arabia’s Salafist Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz al ash-Sheikh (ISIS is “the number-one enemy of Islam”).

In September 2014, more than 120 Islamic scholars co-signed an 18-page open letter to Baghdadi, written in Arabic, containing what the Slate website’s Filipa Ioannou described as a “technical point-by-point criticism of ISIS’ actions and ideology based on the Quran and classical religious texts.”

hannityYet buffoonish right-wingers such as the Fox News host Sean Hannity continue to refer to the alleged “silence of Muslims” over the actions of ISIS and ask, “Where are the Muslim leaders?” Meanwhile, academics who should know better, such as Princeton’s Bernard Haykel, insist that the leaders of ISIS “have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

MuradLegitimacy, however, “comes through endorsement by religious leaders. If Sunni Islam’s leaders consider ISIS inauthentic, then that is what it is,” says Abdal Hakim Murad, who teaches Islamic studies at Cambridge University and serves as the dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, which trains imams for British mosques. The blond-haired, 54-year-old Murad is a convert and is also known as Timothy Winter (his brother is the Telegraph football writer Henry). Murad has been described by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Jordan as “one of the most well-respected western theologians”, whose “accomplishments place him amongst the most significant Muslims in the world”.

The religious world, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian, is “packed with fringe and fundamentalist groups that claim the mantle of total authenticity,” Murad tells me. To accept those groups’ assertions at face value is “either naive or tendentious.”

He continues: “Just as Christianity in Bosnia 20 years ago was not properly represented by the churchgoing militias of Radovan Karadzic and just as Judaism is not represented by West Bank settlers who burn mosques, so, too, Islam is not represented by ISIS.”

Contrary to a lazy conventional wisdom which suggests that a 1,400-year-old faith with more than a billion adherents has no hierarchy, “Islam has its leadership, its universities, its muftis and its academies, which unanimously repudiate ISIS,” Murad explains. For the likes of Haykel to claim that the ISIS interpretation of Islam has “just as much legitimacy” as the mainstream view, he adds, is “unscholarly,” “incendiary” and likely to “raise prejudice and comfort the far-right political formations”.

As for ISIS’ obsession with beheadings, crucifixions, hand-chopping and the rest, Murad argues: “With regard to classical sharia punishments, the religion’s teachings in every age are determined by scholarly consensus on the meaning of the complex scriptural texts”—rather than by self-appointed “sharia councils” in the midst of conflict zones.

Many analysts have laid the blame for violent extremism among Muslims at the ideological door of Salafism, a regressive and ultra-conservative brand of Islam, which owes a great deal to the controversial teachings of an 18th-century preacher named Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and which today tends to be behind much of the misogyny and sectarianism in the Muslim-majority world. Yet, as even Wood concedes in his Atlantic report, “Most Salafis are not jihadists and most adhere to sects that reject the Islamic State.”

Salafists tend to be apolitical, whereas groups such as ISIS are intensely political. Even the traditionalist Murad, who has little time for what he has deemed the “cult-like universe of the Salafist mindset”, agrees that the rise of extremism within the movement is a consequence, rather than a cause, of violence and conflict.

“The roots of ISIS have been located in rage against . . . the 2003 occupation of Iraq. Before that event, Salafist extremism was hardly heard of in Syria and Iraq, even though the mosques were full in those countries,” Murad says. “Angry men, often having suffered in US detention, have reached for the narrowest and most violent interpretation of their religion they can find. This is a psychological reaction, not a faithful adherence to classical Muslim norms of jurisprudence.”

In the view of this particular Muslim theologian, ISIS owes a “debt to European far-right thinking.” The group’s “imposition of a monolithic reading of the huge and hugely complex founding literature of the religion is something very new in Islamic civilisation, representing a totalitarian impulse that seems closer to European fascism than to classical Islamic norms.”

The Radical

Raised in Toronto, the son of Indian immigrant parents, Mubin Shaikh went from enjoying a hedonistic teenage lifestyle involving drugs, girls and parties to embracing a militant and “jihadist” view of the world, full of hate and anger.

CSIS and RCMP informant Mubin Shaikh at his Toronto home on February 6th, 2007. Shaikh's information led to the arrest of dozens of terror suspects in the summer of 2006.

CSIS and RCMP informant Mubin Shaikh at his Toronto home on February 6th, 2007. Shaikh’s information led to the arrest of dozens of terror suspects in the summer of 2006.

He felt as though he “had become a stranger in my own land, my own home,” Shaikh told PBS in 2007, referring to an identity crisis that helped spark his “jihadi bug.” After 11 September 2001, he wanted to fight in Afghanistan or Chechnya because: “It felt like the right thing to do.”

It is a familiar path, trodden by the likes of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon, as well as Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo attackers in Paris. (A former friend of Chérif said that the younger, pot-smoking Kouachi “couldn’t differentiate between Islam and Catholicism” before he became radicalized by “images of American soldiers humiliating Muslims at the Abu Ghraib prison”, as the New York Times put it.)

Yet Shaikh eventually relinquished his violent views after studying Sufi Islam in the Middle East and then boldly volunteered with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to infiltrate several radical groups in Toronto.

The bald and bearded Shaikh, now aged 39 and an adviser to Canadian officials, tells me it is “preposterous” to claim that the killing of Christians and Yazidis by ISIS is rooted in Islamic scripture or doctrine. If it was, “Muslims would have been doing those sorts of things for the past 50-plus years. Yet we find no such thing.”

YAZIDIS(Wellthisiswhatithink insert: This becomes a particularly trenchant comment as a mass grave believed to contain the remains of more than 70 female members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority has been recently discovered east of Sinjar town after Kurdish forces claimed victory over Daesh militants in the area, the mayor and locals have said.

The insurgents overran the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar in north-west Iraq in August 2014, systematically killing, capturing and enslaving thousands of its inhabitants in what the United Nations has said may have constituted attempted genocide.

The mayor of Sinjar and local Yazidis who visited the site of the mass grave said last Saturday that they saw clumps of hair, bones, money and keys which they believed belonged to older women from the village of Kocho, whom the militants separated from younger women during their onslaught.)

Shaikh offers three distinct explanations for why ISIS should not be considered or treated as an “Islamic” phenomenon. First, he argues, “The claim that ISIS is ‘Islamic’ because it superficially uses Islamic sources is ridiculous, because the Islamic sources themselves say that those who do so [manifest Islam superficially] are specifically un-Islamic.”

He points to an order issued by the first and original Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr, which declared: “Neither kill a child, women [nor] the elderly . . . When you come upon those who have taken to live in monasteries, leave them alone.”

Takfiris are those who declare other Muslims to be apostates and, for Shaikh, “It is the height of incredulity to suggest that they [members of ISIS] are in fact ‘Islamic’ – an opinion shared only by ISIS and [Islamophobes] who echo their claims.”

As for Baghdadi’s supposed scholarly credentials, Shaikh jokes, “Even the devil can quote scripture.”

Second, he argues, it is dangerous to grant ISIS any kind of theological legitimacy amid efforts to formulate a coherent “countering violent extremism” (CVE) strategy in the West. “It is quite possibly a fatal blow in that regard because, essentially, it is telling Muslims to condemn that which is Islamic.” It is, he says, a “schizophrenic approach to CVE which will never succeed”.

Third, Shaikh reminds me how the former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often included verses from the Bible at the top of the intelligence briefings that he presented to President George W Bush. “Could we say [Iraq] was a ‘Christianity-motivated war’? How about verses of the Bible [reportedly] engraved on to rifles for use in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars?”

The former radical points out that highlighting only the role of religion in the radicalization process to the exclusion of, or above, other factors is short-sighted. “Fear, money . . . adventure, alienation and, most certainly, anger at the west for what happened in Iraq . . . [also] explain why people join [ISIS],” he tells me.

Shaikh therefore wants a counterterrorism approach focused not merely on faith or theology, but on “political, social and psychological” factors.

The Pollster

What Dalia Mogahed doesn’t know about Muslim public opinion probably isn’t worth knowing. And the former Gallup pollster and co-author, with the US academic John L Esposito, of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, based on six years of research and 50,000 interviews with Muslims in more than 35 countries, says that the survey evidence is clear: the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims reject ISIS-style violence.

DaliaGallup polling conducted for Mogahed’s book found, for instance, that 93 per cent of Muslims condemned the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

The 40-year-old Egyptian-American scholar tells me, “In follow-up questions, Gallup found that not a single respondent of the nearly 50,000 interviewed cited a verse from the Quran in defence of terrorism but, rather, religion was only mentioned to explain why 9/11 was immoral.”

The 7 per cent of Muslims who sympathised with the attacks on the twin towers “defended this position entirely with secular political justifications or distorted concepts of ‘reciprocity’, as in: ‘They kill our civilians. We can kill theirs.’”

It is thus empirically unsound to conflate heightened religious belief with greater support for violence. Mogahed, who became the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to hold a position at the White House when she served on Barack Obama’s advisory council on “faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships”, says that she was “surprised” by the results, as they “flew in the face of everything we were being told and every assumption we were making in our counter-terrorism strategy.”

As for Haykel’s claim that Islam is merely “what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts”, Mogahed is scathingly dismissive. “If Islam is indeed ‘what Muslims do’, then certainly numbers should be a powerful factor dictating which Muslims we see as representing it,” she says.

“ISIS is a tiny minority whose victims are, in fact, mostly other Muslims.

“By what logic would this gang of killers, which has been universally condemned and brutalizes Muslims more than anyone else, get to represent the global [Muslim] community?”

The former White House adviser continues: “Any philosophy or ideology, from Christianity to capitalism, has normative principles and authorities that speak to those norms. Each also has deviants who distort it to meet political or other goals. If I deny the existence of Christ but call myself a Christian, I’d be wrong. If I say the state should usurp all private property and redistribute it equally among citizens but call myself a capitalist, I would be wrong. Islam is no different.”

Echoing Murad, Mogahed points out, “Islam’s authorities have loudly and unanimously declared ISIS un-Islamic.”

Because of this, “Making a claim that violates normative principles of a philosophy, as defined by those with the authority to decide, is illegitimate.”

What about Haykel’s claim that ISIS fighters are constantly quoting Quranic verses and the hadith, or traditions from the life of the Prophet, and that they “mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion and they do it all the time”? Why do they do that if they don’t believe this stuff – if it isn’t sincere?

“The Quran [and] hadith according to whom?” she responds. “As interpreted by whom? As understood by whom?”

Mogahed, who served as the executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies until 2012 and who now works for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) and runs her own consulting firm based in Washington DC, argues that ISIS uses Islamic language and symbols today for the same reason as Palestinian militant groups used the language of secular Arab nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Any organisation uses the dominant social medium of its society,” she says. “Today, the dominant social currency in the Arab world is Islam. More than 90 per cent of Arab Muslims say religion is an important part of their daily life, according to Gallup research. Everyone, not just IS, speaks in Islamic language, from pro-democracy advocates to civil society groups fighting illiteracy.”

For Mogahed, therefore, “a violent reading of the Quran is not leading to political violence. Political violence is leading to a violent reading of the Quran.”

In a recent despatch from Zarqa in Jordan, birthplace of the late AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and “one of the country’s most notorious hotbeds of Islamic radicalism,” Foreign Policy magazine’s David Kenner sat down with a group of young, male ISIS supporters.

“None of them appeared to be particularly religious,” Kenner noted. “Not once did the conversation turn to matters of faith, and none budged from their seats when the call to prayer sounded. They appeared driven by anger at humiliations big and small – from the police officers who treated them like criminals outside their homes to the massacres of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq – rather than by a detailed exegesis of religious texts.”

It cannot be said often enough: it isn’t the most pious or devout of Muslims who embrace terrorism, or join groups such as IS. Nor has a raft of studies and surveys uncovered any evidence of a “conveyor belt” that turns people of firm faith into purveyors of violence.

Religion plays little, if any, role in the radicalisation process, as Sageman and countless experts testify.

It is an excuse, rather than a reason. ISIS is as much the product of political repression, organised crime and a marriage of convenience with secular, power-hungry Ba’athists as it is the result of a perversion of Islamic beliefs and practices.

As for Islamic scholars, they “unanimously repudiate” ISIS, to quote Murad, while ordinary Muslims “universally condemn” Baghdadi and his bloodthirsty followers, in the words of Mogahed.

The so-called Islamic State is, therefore, “Islamic” in the way the British National Party is “British” or the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) is “democratic.”

No serious analyst considers the latter two entities to be representative of either Britishness or democracy; few commentators claim that those who join the BNP do so out of a sense of patriotism and nor do they demand that all democrats publicly denounce the DPRK as undemocratic. So why the double standard in relation to the self-styled Islamic State and the religion of Islam? Why the willingness to believe the hype and rhetoric from the spin doctors and propagandists of ISIS?

We must be wary of the trap set for us by Baghdadi’s group – a trap that far too many people who should know better have frustratingly fallen for. A former U.S. State Department official who has worked on counterterrorism issues tells me how worried he is that the arguments of the Atlantic’s Wood, Haykel, Bergen and others have been gaining traction in policymaking circles in recent months. “It was disconcerting to be at [President Obama’s Countering Violent Extremism summit in February] and hear so many people discussing the [Atlantic] article while the president and others were trying to marginalise extremist claims to Islamic legitimacy.”

Mogahed is full-square behind her former boss’s decision to delink violent extremism from the Islamic faith in his public pronouncements.

“As [Obama] recently remarked, giving groups like IS religious legitimacy is handing them the ideological victory they desperately desire,” she says. This may be the most significant point of all to understand, as politicians, policymakers and security officials try (and fail) to formulate a coherent response to violent extremism in general and IS in particular.

To claim that IS is Islamic is egregiously inaccurate and empirically unsustainable, not to mention insulting to the 1.6 billion non-violent adherents of Islam across the planet.

Above all else, it is dangerous and self-defeating, as it provides Baghdadi and his minions with the propaganda prize and recruiting tool that they most crave.

 not afraid



Do not weep for the dead,
They do but sleep. See?

See. They float on a river of dreams,
gently rocked by ripples and currents.
Warmed by sun, cooled by zephyrs.
Do not even weep for their lost futures.
For their future is peace. And
when they awake, it will surely be to you.

Weep now for the sisters, leafing sadly through albums.
Touching a face, here and there.

Weep for the mothers, who hold their empty bellies.
Rocking with horror, a life unraveled.

Weep for the fathers, lips bitten through in inchoate rage.

Weep for the brothers, with no one left to tease.

Weep for the grandparents, dreams of second carings shattered.

Weep for the friends, struck suddenly dumb.

Weep for family celebrations with one chair always empty.

Weep for all who are
mesmerised by pictures,
strangled by sirens,
crying in bathrooms,
staring into emptiness,
fearful for the children,
losing perception,
casting this way and that,
picking flowers
in case it mattters.

Do not weep for the dead.
They would not wish it.
Think on them, because
you know it is true.

Weep now for the living.
The left behind.
Bind their wounds.
Listen in silence.

And weep for the world.
Wash it clean. And cleaner, still.
Make that their memorial.
And let it stand forever.

More exciting news about our nearby Universe has come to light, if you will pardon the pun, Dear Reader.


A newly discovered exoplanet has a lot of astronomers excited, and for good reason.

The exoplanet, dubbed GJ 1132b, is about the size of Earth and lives in a solar system roughly 39 light-years from Earth, a team of scientists reported in the November 12, 2015, issue of the journal Nature.

Furthermore, the exoplanet is the closest rocky Earth-sized exoplanet ever discovered, by far.


The exoplanet 'GJ 113b' is about the size of Earth. Photo: Dana Berry/ NASA

The exoplanet ‘GJ 113b’ is about the size of Earth. Photo: Dana Berry/ NASA

The planet is a real near neighbour, just over the garden fence in celestial terms. The next closest is about three times farther away.

GJ 1132b’s size and distance are what have astronomers like Drake Deming at the University of Maryland — who was not part of the study — saying that this planet is “arguably the most important planet ever found outside the solar system,” he told The Guardian.

The reason is because GJ 1132b is close enough for astronomers to point their telescopes at it and sniff out any traces of an atmosphere.

Atmospheric signatures of life

Studying the atmospheres of exoplanets for signs of life is the next big step in the search for extraterrestrial life beyond our solar system.

But it’s an extremely difficult project because most Earth-sized planets — the exoplanets that astrobiologists think are most likely to harbor life — are too distant to study in any detail.

One of the ways astronomers determine the chemical composition of gases on planets in our own solar system is by studying the light passing through their atmospheric layers, like Earth’s shown in the photo below with our crescent moon in the foreground.

Chemical compounds and molecules interact differently with different energies of light, and, as a result, each molecule leaves a unique fingerprint that scientists can see when they map out the light over what is called a spectrum.

But when an object is hundreds of light-years away, it’s nearly impossible to differentiate the light that’s passing through an exoplanet’s atmosphere from the light that’s emanating from the larger, brighter host star.


Photo credit: Reuters

A significant stepping stone

Now, GJ 1132b has changed that, offering astronomers a perfect specimen to test their instruments and methods for detecting life.

“It’s nearby, it’s Earth-like, and its star won’t interfere,” Deming told The Guardian.

This newly discovered exoplanet is, however, just a stepping stone.

The possibility of finding life on it is practically zero. GJ 1132b might be only 16% larger than Earth, but it’s surface temperature is a balmy 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Our ultimate goal is to find a twin Earth, but along the way we’ve found a twin Venus,” David Charbonneau, a co-author on the new paper and an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a press release.

“We suspect it will have a Venus-like atmosphere, too, and if it does we can’t wait to get a whiff.”

The reason for these toasty temperatures is because GJ 1132b sits just 1.4 million miles from its host star — 26 times closer than Mercury is to our sun.

It takes just 1.6 days for GJ 1132b to complete a single orbit around its star, which is very different from our sun.

The most common star in the galaxy

The star is what is called a red dwarf, which astronomers suspect is the most common star throughout our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

Red-dwarf stars are cooler, smaller, and dimmer than our sun. The one that GJ 1132b is orbiting is about one-fifth the size of our sun and only emits about 1/200th the amount of light.


Relative star sizes and photospheric temperatures. Any planet around a red dwarf, such as the one shown here (Gliese 229A), would have to huddle close to achieve Earth-like temperatures, which would change their habitability, probably inducing tidal lock, for example. Credit: MPIA/V. Joergens.

Relative star sizes and photospheric temperatures. Any planet around a red dwarf, such as the one shown here (Gliese 229A), would have to huddle close to achieve Earth-like temperatures, which would change their habitability, probably inducing tidal lock, for example. Credit: MPIA/V. Joergens.

Just because they’re different from our sun, however, doesn’t mean life couldn’t spawn around them. It just means that the habitable zone — the region in space where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface — is closer to the star than it is for our sun, as seen above.

Some astronomers estimate that red-dwarf stars comprise 75% of all stars in the galaxy. This means that most of the exoplanets in our galaxy are likely orbiting red-dwarfs.

Whether any of those planets are habitable, however, is a subject of intense debate, which is why the discovery of GJ 1132b is so exciting. And while GJ 1132b is not likely habitable, it’s possible that it has some neighbors that are.

To first spot GJ 1132b as it passed in front of the star, scientists used the MEarth-South array, a group of telescopes at the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

Now that they know it’s there, the researchers have requested time on the Hubble Space Telescope (which observes the same type of light we see with our eyes) and the for sky gazers (which observes longer wavelengths than Hubble, in the infrared range) to study GJ 1132b more fully.

With the viewing powers of Hubble and Spitzer combined, the scientists could get a much broader spectrum of light to study even more chemical compounds than they otherwise would with just one of the telescopes.

With the recent discoveries on Mars, these are exciting times for sky gazers!

(With thanks to Yahoo UK)

As reported by Melbourne’s Age newspaper, lawyers for “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin’s 17-year-old daughter Bindi must submit her father’s death certificate to a Los Angeles court to prove that he is actually dead.

Irwin’s father, who had a high profile on US television as a host of wildlife programs, was killed by a stingray barb in 2006; his funeral was broadcast on news services around the world.

But as strange as it seems, a Los Angeles court has ruled that without documentary proof of Steve Irwin’s death, it cannot proceed on the assumption that he is, in fact, dead.


Bindi Irwin has has received enormous praise for her performances each week on <em>DWTS</em>.

Bindi Irwin has has received enormous praise for her performances each week on DWTS. Photo: Supplied


At stake is Irwin’s daughter Bindi’s earnings from the reality television program Dancing with the Stars, on which she is currently competing.

Under US law, contracts with minors must be processed by a judge; during that process both parents or guardians would usually waive any legal right to the minor’s income.

But this very strange legal wrangle began when a Los Angeles Superior Court rejected Bindi’s “minors” contract with the show because the ancillary paperwork did not comprehensively prove that her father was dead.


Steve Irwin, who was killed in 2006.

Steve Irwin, who was killed in 2006. Photo: Animal Planet


Irwin’s lawyers had included in their submission a release stating that Irwin’s mother, Terri, surrendered all legal rights to any income Bindi may make from appearing on Dancing with the Stars.

But the judge has ruled that without a similar release from her father, “the court is unable to find that it is in the best interest of the minor to be bound by the terms of the contract.”

Owing to Steve Irwin’s huge profile in the US, his death created international headlines and his funeral was broadcast on news services around the world. Bindi was eight years old at the time and gave a memorable speech.

One of the most revealing aspects of the case is that it has effectively cracked open the financial terms of a reality TV contract, a rarity in US television where the details of such contracts are typically considered “commercial in confidence”.

According to the contract, Irwin is to be paid a fee of $US125,000 to appear on the show, plus $US10,000 per week for the third and fourth weeks, $US15,000 for the fifth, $US20,000 per week for the sixth and seventh weeks, $US30,000 per week for the eighth and ninth weeks and $US50,000 per week for the tenth and eleventh weeks.

At this point in the competition, Irwin has earned $US230,000. She and dancing partner Derek Hough are widely tipped as possible winners. They are the only couple in the series so far to receive “10” scores from all three judges twice. They were scored “perfect 10s” for both a rumba and an Argentine tango.

Though some media outlets are reporting that her income from the show is in jeopardy, there is no real suggestion that her salary will be withheld, though it may be delayed as the court processes the paperwork.

Irwin has not commented publicly on the legal wrangle. But we imagine the matter is rather distressing for her and her family. How utterly ridiculous. Then again, when did commonsense ever have anything to do with the American court system?

Or as Steve might have remarked: “Crikey!”

We are spending a lot more time than usual thinking about Dr Who in the Wellthisiswhatithink household.

Robert Lloyd and a Tardis made entirely of Lego. It's a long story.

Robert Lloyd and a Tardis made entirely of Lego. It’s a long story.

This is primarily because we have become friendly with a great guy who is deeply obsessed with the series and its history – Robert Lloyd.

And not least because he bears an uncanny resemblance to the tenth doctor, David Tennant, which allows the clever chap to make at least a partial living attending fan conferences as a lookalike host, not to mention producing his own very touching and funny Dr Who shows in Australia and overseas.

“Wait … what?”

Indeed, we are thinking of tracking down the real Mr Tennant simply so we can go up to him and ask “Aren’t you Robert Lloyd?”, because that’s the sort of silly joke that appeals to your indefatigable correspondent when the painkillers for our sore shoulder really kick in, and should you happen to run across the hugely talented Scots actor, Dear Reader, we urge you to do the same.

Anyhow, as we are breathlessly making our way through the new series of Doctor Who hiding behind the couch and peeping out occasionally, we have become inevitably more involved in all things Whovian, which is how we came to read fellow scriber Lee Zachariah’s review of the last episode.

It would be a shame to allow the episode to pass unremarked, as it carried a strong – some would say visceral – anti-war message, delivered by the Doctor to the leaders of the Zygon rebellion and Earth’s “Unit”. (Regular viewers will know what we are on about.) The speech is making news in the Twitter-blogo-internety-sphere thing, and rightly so.

soldierThe interesting thing is that this seminal solliloqy was timed to coincide, in the UK, with Remembrance Sunday, which we wrote about yesterday.

Lee’s review, which is well worth a read, contains this trenchant paragraph.

the Doctor delivered a more-than-ten-minute speech (go back and time it if you don’t believe me) about the pointlessness and devastation of war. It’s a sentiment we’ve heard many times before, but not like this. Peter Capaldi delivers the tremendous mostly-monologue brilliantly, and it never ditches the story for the metaphor, or vice-versa.

Which is a good point, well made, in two wises.

Firstly, it would be hard to imagine any television programme – especially one that is “popular” in the sense that it has a hugely wide and generally low-brow demographic appeal – dedicated Whovians will object to that characterisation, but fair play, you aficionados, it is prime time entertainment, you know, not the answer to life, the Universe and everything – that can weave in a ten minute speech to its script on, you know, anything, let alone a passionate and carefully constructed pacifist argument.

We were reminded of the famous attack on the current level of mindless jingoism in America by Jeff Daniels when he was playing news anchor Will McEvoy in the consistently excellent Newsroom, which was cancelled after just three short seasons (disgracefully) and which included one of the finest soliloquies ever delivered in the modern era.

It has been seen literally millions of times, and is constantly being referenced in social media. We would honestly be delighted if it was seen at least once by every American citizen. It’s also a mesmerising performance by Daniels. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and watch it now.


The second point to be made is that the speech in this weekend’s episode of Who absolutely required an actor of the staggering intensity and compassion of Peter Capaldi, the latest (and we hope long-lasting) iteration of the Doctor, both to deliver such a speech with any degree of conviction, and to hold the audience’s attention while he does.

Capaldi’s take on Who is a refreshing change from the whimsical boy-child performances of Matt Smith – he is argumentative, sometimes intolerant, excoriatingly witty, and less human.

Just as Smith emphasised the light-hearted whimsicality of a Time Lord who knows everything and nothing – but who exhibited a fine and moving line in pathos, too – and was perfectly balanced by the bubbly effusion of Karen Gillan – so Capaldi is a conviction Who for a modern era. An era that insistently offers us imminent climate change, dozens of very nasty global conflicts, an apparently unstoppable arms trade, a renewed nuclear arms race, newly intense superpower tensions, the horrors of IS and 4 million Syrian refugees.

Capaldi’s version of Who is perfectly nuanced for today. Just as his soon-to-depart companion Jenna Coleman has had a questioning demeanor and fiery temper and is thus appropriately and winningly less likely to fall for standard Time Lord snake oil shlock.

Anyway, back to the speech itself. As Capaldi fixes us with his near-manic gaze, we are commanded to listen carefully, which in turns allows the writers to try and do something serious with all that transfixed attention.

Talking to the Zygon rebel leader who is threatening to destroy humanity, Capaldi rages:

“The only way anyone can live in peace, is if they’re prepared to forgive. And when this was is over, when you have a homeland free from humans, what do think it’s going to be like? Do you know? Have you thought about it? Have you given it any consideration? Because you’re very close to getting what you want.

“What’s it going to be like? Paint me a picture. Are you going to live in houses? Do you want people to go to work? Will there be holidays? Oh! Will there be music? Do you think peole will be allowed to play violins?”

“Well … oh you don’t actually know do you? Because, like every other tantrumming child in history, you don’t actually know what you want.”

“So let me ask you a question about this brave new world of yours. When you’ve killed all the bad guys, and when it’s all perfect, and just and fair, and when you have finally got it, exactly they way you want it, what are you going to do with the people like you? The trouble makers. How are you going to protect your glorious revolution from the next one?

Well maybe you will win. But nobody wins for long. The wheel just keeps turning. So, come on. Break the cycle.”

As he hammers home his points, Capaldi traverses an astonishing range of emotion and meaning in the speech – anger, sarcasm, pleading, fear, intellectual superiority, terror, far-sightedness, urgency.

“Because it’s always the same. When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you don’t know who’s going to die. You don’t know whose children are going to scream and burn. How many hearts will be broken. How many lives shattered. How much blood will spill until everyone does what they were always going to do from the very beginning. SIT … DOWN … AND … TALK.”

Please. Watch it.



This cultural memorandum is for the attention of David Cameron, Barack Obama, Francois Hollande, Vladimir Putin, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Bashar al-Assad, Hassan Rouhani, Benjamin Netanyahu, Malcolm Turnbull, Jean-Claude Juncker, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Ban Ki-moon, Pope Francis, Xi Jinping, Abubakar Shekau, Idriss Deby, Muhammadu Buhari, Shinzō Abe, Justin Trudeau …

William Leefe Robinson

William Leefe Robinson

William Leefe Robinson, then aged 21, was the awarded the most prestigious Victoria Cross for shooting down a Zeppelin airship, the world’s first long-range bomber, used by Germany over southern England. The Zeppelins flew at a high altitude out of the reach of ground fire. And at first, they seemed impervious to air attack.

The blaze was so fierce even the framework of the Zeppelin disappeared.

A combination of explosive and incendiary bullets was the answer.

The blaze of the Zeppelin shot down by Robinson was so fierce even the framework of the Zeppelin disappeared.

William Robinson cheered by his fellow airmen

William Robinson (centre) was cheered by his fellow airmen the day after destroying the Zeppelin SL-11 over Cuffley, in Hertfordshire.

In April the following year, Robinson himself was shot down over France by the squadron let by Manfred von Richthofen, the famed Red Baron, and spent the rest of the conflict as a prisoner of war, making repeated but failed attempts at escape.

Tragically, like many young people, he died of influenza within a fortnight of returning home after the War.

Just one story from amongst millions. Lest we forget.



Hating war – arguing for a pacifist position, even one that is not utterly purely pacifist – does not mean we cannot weep for and celebrate those who fight wars on our behalf.

With the tragically costly conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Remembrance Sunday – just like Anzac Day in Australia and Memorial Day in the USA – has assumed a new significance, and a new enthusiasm from the young.


From left to right: Distinguished Service Cross, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-18, Victory Medal 1914-18, Medal for Military Valour, Mercantile Marine War Medal 1914-1918,

From left to right: Distinguished Service Cross, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-18, Victory Medal 1914-18, Medal for Military Valour, Mercantile Marine War Medal 1914-1918,


For ourselves, remembering a father who died at 46 worn out by terrifying six years of naval service, a cousin who endured tropical diseases for his entire life after incarceration in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, a Grandfather who served in the trenches in World War 1 and another Grandfather who received the DSC for trawling up mines dropped by Zeppelins in Portsmouth Harbour, we have always paused for two minutes at the appointed hour, bought our poppy to wear in our lapel, and subscribed to war casualty charities.

In our view, despite that, we are convinced that the very best way to show our respect for those we commemorate is to state, unequivocally, the old an unarguable truth.

“War will continue until men refuse to fight.”

This list of current conflicts, worldwide, makes very depressing reading. Are we really doing the best we can?

Listen to any old soldier, and simultaneously, along with their sadness felt for their injured or fallen comrades, and their quiet pride in “a job well done”, you will almost always hear them explain how the horror of war was worse than anything they could have imagined. How they often felt they had more in common with the foot-soldiers opposing them than they did with their own leaders. And always, how anything must be tried, and done, before humankind responds to a crisis by turning to arms.

Even the most significant war leader in 20th century history, Winston Churchill, who through sheer force of will saved the world from fascism and rescued democracy in its darkest hour, remarked, “Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.”

From their graves, the dead of countless wars cry out to us for attention. “Don’t do it again! Don’t do it again!”

If you are interested to purchase my collection of poems called Read Me – 71 Poems and 1 Story – just head here.

Potentially deadly.

Potentially deadly.

Dungeness and rock crabs in California have been found to contain toxic levels of an acid that can kill.

The authorities in California are advising people to avoid consumption of crabs contaminated by a natural toxin that has spread throughout the marine ecosystem off the West Coast, killing sea mammals and poisoning various other species.

Kathi A. Lefebvre, the lead research biologist at the Wildlife Algal Toxin Research and Response Network, said on Wednesday that her organization had examined about 250 animals stranded on the West Coast and had found domoic acid, a toxic chemical produced by a species of algae, in 36 animals of several species.

“We’re seeing much higher contamination in the marine food web this year in this huge geographic expanse than in the past,” Ms. Lefebvre said.

She said that the toxin had never before been found in animals stranded in Washington or Oregon, and that there were most likely greater numbers of contaminated marine mammals not being found by humans.

The guilty algae’s growth has been exponential recently, largely because of record temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Warm water causes the toxic algae to divide more rapidly and to outcompete other species in the water. The algae then becomes a more prominent element of local plankton, a kind of marine trail mix made up of tiny particles that various species of aquatic wildlife subsist on.

The California Department of Public Health recently advised people to avoid consumption of certain species of crabs because of potential toxicity. Razor clam fisheries in Washington have been closed throughout the summer for the same reason.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the California department said that “recent test results” indicated dangerous levels of domoic acid in Dungeness and rock crabs caught in California waters between Oregon and Santa Barbara, Calif.

Domoic acid is a naturally occurring toxin that in severe cases can cause excessive bronchial secretions, permanent loss of short-term memory, coma or death in humans, according to the California department’s statement. Milder cases can result in vomiting and diarrhea.

A release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries specified that “commercial seafood remains safe and state public health agencies monitor recreational fisheries for algal toxins.”

Pseudo-nitzschia, the type of algae that produces the acid, is a single-celled organism consumed directly by marine wildlife like anchovies, sardines, krill and razor clams. Those species are then eaten by larger predators, and the acid makes its way up the marine food chain.

This summer, the West Coast experienced the largest algal bloom that scientists have on record. Ms. Lefebvre said that though there was not a lot of monitoring for species that had consumed domoic acid in Alaska, it was likely that the blooms reached the Alaskan coast as well.

Michael Parsons, a professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University, said there were several hypotheses for why Pseudo-nitzschia produces acid.

“We’re not sure exactly why they do it,” he said. “Maybe it’s meant to keep things from eating them. It might be a result of stress.”

If acid secretion is meant to deter predators, it is clear that it is a failing strategy on the part of the algae. Ms. Lefebvre expressed concern that the acid poisoning of sea life would continue to spread.

“My concern is that we’re going to see an increase in the number and geographic range of marine mammals being affected,” she said.

Or in other words, global warming is killing the seas, and now it can kill you too. And that’s before we even return to the topic of ocean acidification and its affect on our food chain. Or how this news will affect commercial fishers, and restaurants.

But don’t worry, everyone, go back to sleep, go back to sleeeeeeep ….

(NY Times and others)



We are on record as long being a fan of Karen Gillan, whose body of acting work is growing but who is best known still as a hugely successful Dr Who “companion”.

She’s approachable, funny, sexy, smart and has loads on on-screen chutzpah, with a wide range of available emotions projected by those big, ridiculously perfect hazel eyes.

She also sends us video messages – well, one video message – but that’s a whole other story.

Now it turns out she’s a fine writer and director too.

Watch it. Conventional. Ten minutes of perfectly nuanced misery.

The short form of video is highly demanding. Much more demanding than many of the great, flabby two-hours-plus bore-fests that pass for feature films.

Karen Gillan knows a lot about fan conventions. Goodness: we can only hope her experience of them is happier than this very creepy little film.

We’re betting there is much more to come from Ms Gillan – keep an eye wide open.



When Robin Williams killed himself in August 2014, depression was considered the culprit.

But the beloved film star and comedian was in fact struggling with a demon even more sinister: Lewy body dementia, a little-known and often misdiagnosed disease that manifests as a combination of the worst symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia. Robin Williams’ widow, Susan Williams, shared this diagnosis, which was revealed in an autopsy, Tuesday in an interview with People magazine and ABC.

A few days after Williams’ death, his media representative, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement: “He has been battling severe depression of late.”

rubberNow we know that wasn’t the full story: “Depression was one of let’s call it 50 symptoms, and it was a small one,” Susan Williams said Tuesday, in her first public interview since her husband’s death.

Lewy body dementia, she said, “was what was going on inside his brain, the chemical warfare that no one knew about.”

And even if the 63-year-old had not ended his own life, the disease would have killed him within a few years, she said.

Lewy body dementia usually strikes at age 50 or later. Like Parkinson’s, it begins with abnormal protein deposits called Lewy bodies, which disrupt brain cells’ normal functioning and later cause them to die. The disease’s plethora of terrifying symptoms start slowly but worsen over time, and include: Alzheimer’s-like memory loss and dementia; Parkinson’s-like tremors and loss of balance; and terrifying, schizophrenia-like hallucinations. The symptoms “present themselves like a pinball machine,” Susan Williams said. “You don’t know exactly what you’re looking at.” Perhaps worst of all, at least at first, the patient can be fully aware of his or her own decline.

After it is diagnosed, Lewy body dementia usually kills a person within five to seven years. There is no cure or effective treatment.

Despite the fact that it is little known, Lewy body dementia is not rare; in fact, it is one of the most common forms of dementia, affecting more than 1 million Americans, according to the National Institute on Ageing. But because it bears many similarities to other degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, it is frequently misdiagnosed. It can take more than a year and visits with multiple specialists to get a correct diagnosis. According to Susan Williams, a coroner’s report revealed signs of Lewy body dementia, as well as early-stage Parkinson’s.

Although Williams didn’t know he was suffering from Lewy body dementia, he seemed to know he was losing his mind.

“He was aware of it,” Susan Williams said. In her opinion, she told People and ABC, his suicide was his way of taking control of an impossible situation. “He was just saying no,” she said. “And I don’t blame him one bit.”

The news may reignite the ongoing debate about “dying with dignity”. For a man of the intellectual and emotional depth of Robin Williams, the perception – even if not yet formally diagnosed – that he was losing his cognitive function would have been unbearable. Especially as we know he had concerns that his career was faltering and he faced certain financial pressures.

It may be that depression contributed to his death, or it may be that it was a carefully-considered and rational response to an awful situation that he felt would only get worse. As his wife says: “taking control”.

We will never know, but it is something to ponder … It is also worth considering that a different cultural response to chronic illness and dying might have encouraged him to hang around a little longer, and to end his life more gently, in the bosom of his family, with the people around him given an opportunity to say goodbye.

Again, we will never know.

(Slate and others)


Most of them you never see, or notice. Yet everywhere you go, quiet acts of kindness surround you.

Every day, good people live their lives with strength, with purpose, with compassion and integrity. Every day, the whole world is lifted by people who are happy to have the opportunity to make a difference.

Usually, those who boast about it or make grand promises are not the ones who are actually advancing life’s goodness. It’s the quiet, sincere kindness, from folks who have no interest in taking credit, that gives each day its special shine.

It’s hard to remember sometimes, with the relentless miserableness of the news, but the world is actually filled with good, caring people who never find themselves in the headlines and who never care to, either.

The magnitude of their cumulative kindness each day is too large and far too widespread to ever be calculated. It is the perfect tonic to those who are toxic in our life – people who should know better but are nevertheless happy to offload their personal stresses onto us, to be angry, unreasonable, venial or just plain bad.

Life is good today because so many people choose to see it as good. And in every small moment, each in his or her own way, they humbly give life to the goodness.

Quiet acts of kindness surround you, even now. So feel the goodness and quietly pass it on.

A word. A gentle gesture. A task done for someone who can’t manage it themselves. A little encouragement. Or just some simple unforced friendliness.

Feelgood psycho-babble? Nope. This isn’t just “fluffy stuff”. Living in a close-knit community and having good neighbours could have hidden health benefits and may even reduce people’s risk of suffering a heart attack, new research has claimed.

getting onResearchers in the USA said that the social support and reduction in stress levels afforded by getting on well with the people in your community could be of benefit, particularly for elderly people more likely to suffer a health crisis.

Thy found, based on a four-year study of more than 5,000 Americans over 50, that people who said they trusted and liked their neighbours, felt part of the community, and expected their neighbours would help them in a difficulty, were less likely to go on to have a heart attack.

Levels of social cohesion were rated one to seven based on people’s responses. Each one point on the scale represented a 17 per cent lower risk of heart attack, the researchers from the University of Michigan said.

Well, yesterday Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and I were at the races in the afternoon. We were having a wonderful day – our mare Khutulun won with a huge surge at the end of her race and a great time was had by all.

photo finish

But it was somewhat spoiled by the fact that all the way to the racecourse, about an hour and a half, the car had been busily flashing warning lights at us (and plenty of things that go ping were ping-ping-pinging for all they were worth) and after Khutulun had duly saluted (at 14-1 no less, thank you very much) we called the Roadside Assist guy.

He picked us up from the back of the grandstand, which was very nice of him, as by then there was the mother of all thunderstorms breaking over our head, and to find us he had to weave his way through thousands of pie-eyed drunken revellers and then take us from the track to our car which was miles away in the car park. He didn’t have to say yes to doing that, he just did. And he was chirpy, and cheery, and made us feel better because of his relentless enthusiasm.

He duly got us going, chatting cheerfully all the time dispensing little jokes and bits of folk wisdom, although the car did play up all the way home and finally conked out altogether about three streets from our house, but that’s another story.

What really struck me apart from Mr Happy Car Fixer was the little guy in his 60s sitting in his car waiting for the traffic to clear leaving the course, who got chatting to us as we piled out of the mechanic’s van – that’s when we eventually made it back to our car after narrowly avoiding running down half a dozen young ladies who obviously thought that drinking four bottles of cheap champagne in the hospitality tent somehow makes you invulnerable if hit by a truck.

He was an immigrant from somewhere or other – I am guessing Serbia or Croatia or somewhere like that from his thick accent – and as soon as he worked out we were in a fix he said “Well, I can take you to Melbourne, no problem.” He just smiled an encouraging cracked-tooth, unshaven smile and said it, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to drive someone you’ve met 30 seconds before 125 kilometres down the freeway.

We didn’t need his help in the end, but what a generous thing to say? Fair bucked us up.

As we limped cautiously out of the car park a cheerfully sloshed guy making his way through the puddles back to town called out to us “Any chance of a lift?” and Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink, entirely unsure that the car would keep going for a hundred yards let alone an hour and a half answered “No, sorry.” and I felt a little guilty after the kindness that had been shown to us.

But we had been told in no uncertain terms not to stop if we wanted to get home, so we spluttered and lurched onwards.

Sorry mate. Hit us up again next time. Just let me get the car fixed first. Which I have no doubt will cost every penny we won on Khutulun.

Funny old life. And often, a kind one.


Pamela Smedley with her mother Betty in 1990

Image copyrightP amela Smedley Pamela (right) reunited with her mother in 1990.

Up until the late 1960s the UK sent children living in care homes to new lives in Australia and other countries. It was a brutal experience for many.

In the winter of 1949, 13-year-old Pamela Smedley boarded a ship to Australia with 27 other girls. She had been told by the nuns from the Catholic home she lived in that she was going on a day-trip. In reality, she was being shipped out to an orphanage in Adelaide and wouldn’t see England again for more than three decades.

“We thought it would be like going to Scarborough for the day because we were so innocent and naive,” says Pamela, who is now in her 70s and still lives in Adelaide.

“The nuns said that in Australia you could pick the oranges off the trees, and I was very excited because I loved oranges.”

Pamela’s unmarried Catholic mother had been pressured to give her up as a baby and so she was sent to live under the care of nuns at Nazareth House in Middlesbrough, Teesside.

Pamela Smedley at Goodwood Orphanage, 1952

Image copyright Pamela Smedley. Pamela Smedley at Goodwood Orphanage in 1952.

The place was cruel and joyless, according to Pamela, and she remembers that when the Reverend Mother asked who wanted to go to Australia, every girl in the home put their hand up.

Once the SS Ormonde set sail for its six-week voyage, the girls soon realised this would be no day-trip. Instead they were allowed to believe there would be families waiting to adopt them.

“We arrived wearing our winter coats and hats and I remember being hit by this stinking 100-degree heat,” recalls Pamela. “I hated it and when we found out we had travelled 10,000 miles just to be put in another orphanage we all just cried and cried.” Anyone who has ever been in Adelaide – a desert city – during summer will have the greatest sympathy with the new arrivals.

Children en route for emigration to Australia

Image copyright Molong Historical Society. Children en route for emigration to Australia, the subject of a new exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London.

Pamela would spend the next two years at the Sisters of Mercy Goodwood Orphanage, an imposing redbrick Catholic institution, home to about 100 children.

She was one of as many as 100,000 British children to be sent overseas to Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries as child migrants between 1869 and 1970.

Run by a partnership of charities, churches and governments, the schemes were sold as an opportunity for a better life for children from impoverished backgrounds and broken homes. In reality, an isolated and brutal childhood awaited many of them.

Pamela was one of an estimated 7,000 children to go to Australia, some as young as four. They were often given the false status of “orphans” to simplify proceedings – and most never saw their homes, or their families again.

Boy on ship

Image copyright Molong Historical Society An estimated 7,000 children were sent to Australia, like this boy

“Child migrants were actively solicited in Australia as a way of building up the white Anglo-Saxon population and to give the growing economy there a boost,” explains Gordon Lynch, Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent.

This was not something which happened under the radar – the vast majority of children were sent to Australia with government funding.

“It is sometimes easy to assume childcare continuously improves and becomes more enlightened, but by the time Pamela went out [to Australia] the child migration schemes were really running against the grain of accepted childcare practice in post-war Britain,” explains Lynch, who is also a contributing curator to a new exhibition around the subject at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London.

Upon arrival at Goodwood, all the children’s personal mementos – photographs, letters, toys – were taken from them and they were left with just a Bible. Everyone was terrified of the Reverend Mother, even the other nuns, says Pamela. She recalls the big strap the nun had around her waist which her rosaries would hang from.

“It is what she’d use to beat us – at night she would walk up and down the dormitories and if you so much as twitched in your bed you’d get the strap.”

Child migrants picking peas at the Fairbridge Farm School in the 1950s

Image copyright Molong Historical Society. Picking peas at the Fairbridge Farm School in the 1950s.

When she arrived, Pamela remembers defiantly shouting out “God Bless England!” during morning prayers, rather than saluting Australia, for which she received “the thrashing of her life” from the Reverend Mother. Eventually, the nun retired and was replaced with someone much kinder and more progressive, according to Pamela.

Daily life at Goodwood consisted of early prayers, chores and then school, followed by more chores, prayers and an early bedtime of 6pm.

A few hours a day would be spent making the strings butchers use to hang their meat. “It was very coarse string and it made our fingers bleed,” says Pamela. “If you did anything wrong the penalty was an extra 100 strings and the nun in charge would hit us with her walking stick.”

Forced child labour helped schemes like the one at Goodwood to be financially viable, according to Lynch.

Boys working on building site at Bindoon Boys' Town

Image copyright Molong Historical Society The migrant children were often used as cheap labour.

“It would often be presented as an opportunity for children to learn useful skills or a trade but it was much more about providing some economic contribution,” he explains.

Pamela also remembers working in the laundry room and would spend school holidays living with a family and being worked hard throughout her stay. “The two daughters in the family were very good to me but their mother just saw me as free labour,” she explains.

Pamela says that every now and then a priest would come to check up on how the children were getting on. “The nuns would stand right beside us when we were asked questions and toys would appear in time for his inspections, but as soon as he left they were taken away,” she says.

One of the biggest failings of these schemes was that staff were often poorly trained and poorly resourced and very few follow-up checks were made, explains Lynch. Eventually, the Ross Report came out in 1956, as the result of a visit to Australia by a British team of inspectors, commissioned by the Home Office.

“It made grim reading and said that children who’d already had disruptive backgrounds and been subjected to traumatic experience in the UK were really the last people who should be sent overseas,” says Lynch. Reflecting the sensitivity of the subect, confidential appendices, containing the worst of the findings, were not publicly released until 1983.

But despite the report, children continued to be shipped overseas. According to Lynch, the reality became “an uneasy truth” – the Home Office weren’t prepared to publicly go against the Commonwealth Relations Office (who were in charge of the schemes) so they tried to discourage local authorities from continuing to send children overseas instead.

A diary of the voyage to Australia written by one little girl, Maureen Mullins

Image copyright Molong Historical Society. Pages from the diary of 12-year-old Maureen Mullins, who emigrated to Australia on SS Otranto in 1952.

“Furthering the British Empire was still very much a priority and there was also a fear of going up against not only the Australian government, but the Catholic Church,” he explains.

The Australian government soon countered the Ross Report with its own glowing review of all the homes under criticism.

Sexual abuse was a harsh reality for many of the children under the care of these schemes, including Pamela, who was assaulted while on the voyage over to Australia and while working at an isolated shearing station, aged 15.

“We were taught never to let a man touch you and that was all I knew- so I believed I was a sinner and would go to hell for it,” she says. When it happened for the first time on the boat, the nuns in Pamela’s charge insisted she was just dreaming. “I was terrified and I still go to sleep with my hands guarding between my legs,” she says.

At the shearing station Pamela had just one weekend off every six weeks and spent her entire first pay on a ceramic miniature English house. “I bought it to remind me of England,” she says.

Desperate to break free of the scheme’s clutches, she got married three days after her 18th birthday. In 1989 she was connected with the Child Migrants Trust, who helped her to be reunited with her mother Betty. For 40 years Betty had believed Pamela was adopted by a loving family in England.

They kept in touch until Betty died, and in 2010 Pamela was one of 60 former child migrants to be flown over to England to hear an official apology from the then prime minister, Gordon Brown.

“I still have nightmares about what happened but hearing the apology gave me a little bit of peace,” says Pamela. “It showed that finally somebody cared about what happened to us.”

Pamela Smedley meeting Gordon Brown after the British government apologised for the migrant programme, 2010

Image copyright Pamela Smedley. Pamela Smedley meeting Gordon Brown after the British government’s official apology in 2010.

(Story from the BBC)

Along with the “Stolen Generation” of aboriginal kids removed from their families and their attempted “whitiefication”, the forced expatriation of British children remains one of the most shameful episodes in British history.

That so many of those children have gone on to be stalwarts of their community is entirely besides the point – so might they have become had they been left with their birth parents or cared for empathetically in their home country. The stagering cruelty of the Churches and the Governments of the time beggars belief.

The same question occurs again and again – “What on earth did they think they were doing?”

And what similar lunacies are still being pursued around the world?


Wondering how God could have got all this into such a short Tale

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