Strange Days Indeed

So I have become accustomed to the recent Marvel movies having a relatively thin story-line when it comes to tricky moral questions. The movies are still exciting adventures in escapism, but the moral questions posed, “Is making weapons bad?”, “Is it okay to kill one life to save many?” and “Should we put ultimate power in the hands of a computer program?” are fairly well-traversed terrain with answers that don’t challenge the average viewer too much.

If found that Dr Strange, staring Benedict Cumberbatch, was a delightful diversion from this formula and tackled some of the genuine problems that face those who follow a spiritual path.

Those who go to Tibet sincerely in search of the Dharma
may settle down there once they arrive—those are true

 – Li Hongzhi, Zhuan Falun, Lecture 4

As a practitioner of an eastern cultivation system myself, I found this movie fascinating. It provided a faithful recreation of many of the challenges facing someone who is seeking answers to the questions that our present science struggles to explain.

In the quote above, Master Li Hongzhi, speaks about the importance of Tibet, and the surrounding region to people seeking a spiritual path. We don’t have to go far to find movies that have made use of this theme, Bulletproof Monk, The Shadow, Johnny English Reborn and Batman Begins.

Batman Begins is unique in that the other movies all use the premise that spiritual cultivation in Tibet is genuine and the Masters of the Tibetan schools have something worthwhile to teach. Instead, in Batman Begins, Bhutan stands in for Tibet and the mystical eastern school is devolved into an equivalent of Al Qaeda.

This is woeful American misinterpretation of culture based on a superficial knowledge and subsequent misrepresentation as a plot device. Anyone who had done the most basic study into Tibetan Buddhism would know that these schools shun involvement in the conflicts of society and seek to detach themselves from the struggles of humanity.

** Beyond here be spoilers. **

Back to Doctor Strange, there were so many issues raised in this movie so I will try to select a few examples. The story covers the challenging relationship between student and teacher, the availability of knowledge and the underlying conflict between eastern and western science/medicine.

Zhuan Falun or Turning the Law/Dharma Wheel is the key text of the spiritual/cultivation practice of Falun Dafa. The text is a compilation of a series of lectures given by the founder of the practice, Li Hongzhi, in china from 1992 until 1994. The reason I mention this text in the context of Doctor Strange is that a large portion of the nine lectures is general commentary on the various spiritual cultivation practices that have been taught over the past 2500 years. Some of the lessons closely correlate with the issues raised in the movie.

The first lesson is around the relationship between student teacher, beginning with the reason why individuals seek out a spiritual teacher in the first place. In the movie, Stephen Vincent Strange, is set on this path by a car accident which destroys his hands.

As a neuro-surgeon, even science’s ability to restore some function to his hands is not enough to stop him from descending into a downwards emotional and financial spiral. His search finally leads him to a secret school in Kathmandu, Nepal.

There is a very poignant moment where the door to the Kamar-Taj school, which is very plain, sits opposite an ornate temple entrance with colourful Ascetics out the front. Students of Buddhism will remember Sakyamuni’s time with the Ascetics before finding his Middle Way. Here we see the lesson that finding a genuine school is often not about the loudest, shiniest or most colourful peddlers of spirituality, but the quiet, hidden and un-assuming.

While in this movie the motivation is health, there are a number of other reasons which prompt a spiritual search, including a great personal loss, a thirst for power or possibly just the feeling that what you have been told doesn’t add up and the true answers must be somewhere. It has always intrigued me, as someone drive to search, the way that some people accept the dogma of their parents/society’s faith without question and others are driven to question and search more widely.

The next step is the moment where the wise teacher has their ‘everything you know is wrong’ moment with the student. In the case of Doctor Strange, this is a very in-your-face demonstration of other-dimensions, opening of the Third Eye and an explanation of how this physical world is just one of many.

My favourite one of these in other movies has to be the levitation of the X-wing by Yoda in Empire Strikes Back.

Interestingly, the average student of a spiritual practice may spend a lifetime, or several lifetimes, experiencing nothing before a moment of enlightenment like the one portrayed in Doctor Strange. The relative ease with which Mordo reveals all this to Stephen should have been an indicator that all was not well in Kamar-Taj.

Some groups, which are not genuine spiritual schools but just thinly disguised pyramid schemes, are very careful about controlling the dissemination of knowledge. Freemasonry and Scientology immediately come to mind. The rule in Kamar-Taj that “no knowledge is forbidden”, as explained by librarian Master Wong, is quite unusual and brings me to the second topic of interest.

The dissemination of knowledge is a fascinating topic in spiritual schools. Some schools guard their secrets carefully, either because they want to charge ridiculous amounts for their piecemeal release or because they are genuinely concerned about the dangers of untrained use.

There is an episode of the excellent animated children’s series Kung Fu Panda : Legends of Awesomeness, Fluttering Finger Mindslip, where Po reads ahead in the teaching scrolls and wreaks havoc with some advanced mind-control techniques. The running joke in Doctor Strange is that in the books the warnings are written after the spells.

There is definitely something to be said for careful management of a student’s education, whether spiritual or academic. Then again, reading a text on advanced quantum mathematics probably won’t hinder your ability to grasp basic addition. However, breaking out the nuclear reactor kit on the first day of high-school chemistry could be disastrous. The shenanigans around Allegri’s Miserere is a good example of how powerful religious institutions seek to control access to knowledge, in this case in order to preserve the mystery.

I think that Doctor Strange did a good job of presenting this issue in the screenplay, as I was not ever exposed to Doctor Strange in comic book form as a child, I’m not sure how much of this was the screenplay writers and how much they were lifting from the original content.

The third aspect of the movie that I wanted to discuss is the difference between eastern and western medicine. The divide is probably not accurately portrayed geographically as there is evidence that western traditions, such as druidry had a certain degree of similarity with eastern philosophy in their understanding of the body.

There is a section in lecture 7 of Zhuan Falun where a comparison is made between western and eastern efforts when it comes to tooth extraction. One approach uses needles, drills, pliers and hammers resulting in lots of pain and blood,  the other uses a magic ‘drug’ that causes the tooth to come out easily. This story references a similar case in India but frustratingly makes no mention of testing or synthesis of the ‘drug’.

During Doctor Strange’s first encounter with the Ancient One, played to perfection by Tilda Swinton, she flips through a book of ‘alternative’ medicine showing Chakra’s, Acupuncture and then an MRI scan. The implication of the conversation is that each way of viewing the body is only part of the picture. This concept of reality being made of multiple layers of perception, where the broadness of the view equates to the level of attainment is key in some spiritual teachings.

As an engineer, this concept is practically demonstrated in the limited capacity of the human eye to detect the full spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. We spend our lives perceiving in a tiny sliver of the full reality of what our world looks like.

These three small examples are just some of the ways that I found this movie enjoyable as someone who has spent a lot of time studying spiritual paths. It was definitely not what I was expecting from a Marvel movie.

The film is also full of in-jokes from the spiritual world. The Master/Servant switch to generate confusion in the new initiate, the ‘sink or swim’ nature of the training, the commercialization of enlightenment in Kathmandu and the assumption that spiritual equals cult.

I look forward to the inclusion of Doctor Strange in future Marvel efforts.





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Culture Wars

My Place

I don’t see you. Walking through my place,

I don’t see your run-down shops or cars and power-lines,

I am walking on the red earth, not this artificial stone.

I look through your Ray-Ban stare to the black cockatoo in the distance,

Foretelling rain or the spirit of an ancestor, or whatever,

you don’t deserve to know the secrets of my dreaming.

The skyline isn’t Woolworths and McDonalds,

Pizzas, two for ten on Tuesdays.

My skyline is ancient rock, marked with the hands of my ancestors.

This is my place, has been for 40,000 years before your mob

turned up to chain and rape and kill, the land and my people.

What is it you see in your cycle of consume, control, pollute?

Always grasping for more than what the mother gives,

the land that is always enough.

My veins might pulse with your poison,

But in my heart I am still dancing the brolga and emu around the fire,

Telling and preserving the dreaming of my place.

Your place is a phantom, a shambles of broken and fragile things,

I wait for it to fade, for the day I wake up,

and you come to my camp asking for a handout.

The poem above is in response to spending a few days in Darwin and Katherine in the north of Australia. I have traveled to quite a number of places around the world where native populations have come to an uncomfortable but stable balance with a colonising invader. Whether it be Hawaii, New Zealand or America, I have sensed that a portion of the original people has found a way to coexisting with the new population. It is never without a sense of loss, but in each of the other countries there has been a way for all the local people to take pride in their culture and balance commercialisation for the tourist dollar with genuine and powerful preservation of identity.

To a certain extent this type of arrangement is even true of the Australian native peoples in New South Wales and Victoria. In the Northern Territory, however, it is a tragic disaster. The people wandering the streets of Katherine seem to behave as though the white people and their town appeared last week and they are wondering when the apparition is going to disappear.

Maybe it is purely an issue of time, and that the peoples of America, Hawaii and New Zealand split from the common European ancestor a few hundred years later, allowing them to adapt to the Western mindset more easily. Could it be that an extra 10,000 years of development has left the two populations in an un-reconcilable state?

I should make it clear that I am not preferring one culture over the other. Yes we have superannuation, iPhones and advanced medical treatment, but few of us know the lives and exploits of our parents, let-alone our great-great-great-great-grandparents. Fewer still could name the grasses, trees and shrubs in the area where we live, or the history of how the land was formed. In our branching of culture, we both lost and gained.

Wherever I have traveled, I have tried to learn some of the history of the local people, understood the reverence with which King Kamehameha is held, the language of Hula, the significance of the Marae in Maori society. In the case of Australian first people’s society, it feels like I don’t even have the mental capacity to begin to understand. Yes I know about boomerangs and digeridoos, even the Rainbow Serpent and song lines, but it still seems like I am missing the point.

A friend once explained to me that the peoples of Micronesia have a cosmic view that white people are aliens and that the complexity, strength and pervasiveness of their culture meant that western style democracy and society could never function there. I definitely now feel that something like this is true of the people in Northern Australia.

What is that answer? I don’t have one of course. I know it isn’t stealing their children and giving them to abusive catholic priests. I know that whatever is being done in Darwin and Katherine isn’t working. I also feel that hidden in the flesh and bones of a 40,000 year old people is the secret to our culture learning to live on the planet without destroying it.

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Miranda – Keep the Cameras Rolling

With everything that has happened since the surreal inauguration of Donald Trump on 20th of January, I have found myself feeling paralysed and numb. The string of ridiculous Presidential Executive Orders this week has dashed any hope that maybe the election rhetoric was just puffery to get him elected.

As Trump surrounds himself with ignorant and dangerous extremists, it is hard to see any good in the coming four years for America or the world.

Petty and angry responses to the coverage of the inauguration, termination of the Acting Attorney General, Paula Yates, with terms like ‘betrayal’ has given any undergrad psychologist enough information to diagnose Trump with a narcissistic, paranoid, vindictive personality disorder. This is the man who now has his finger on the Nuclear Button.

This compounding week of unbelievable events unfolding has left me dazed.

It feels like all the voices of reason, compassion and tolerance are stammering incoherently. It is as though the scale of the insanity, the crazed support of a blinded and increasingly belligerent right-wing populace has left us speechless and despairing.

Usually when I see an injustice in the world, I can write a song about it. But the song that came to me this week is about the absence of a song, I have no words to suggest that we look at the positives or we maintain hope in the future revival of humanity.

We are not in new territory here, the consequence of demonising a portion of society can be starkly observed in the Jedwabne progrom in Poland, 1941. This atrocity wasn’t perpetuated by the Nazi’s, but by 23 Polish men who burned alive at least 340 Jews from their own town. It is not by accident that I pick this example from World War II. The comparisons between the rise of Trump and Hitler have already ready been widely made. Others have suggested Mussolini as a more fitting parallel, neither one bodes well.

Trump has demonised women, reporters, Mexicans, Muslims, environmentalist and I am sure I have missed many more. This type of incite to hatred has real, and often fatal, consequences.

Here in Australia the same rhetoric is coming from the One Nation Party, and has already been popularised by the UK Independence Party leading to the vote to leave the European Union. Five years ago, these groups with extremist views still existed, but they were on the fringe, with a tiny following. Now they are setting the agenda, drawing a sizeable following, and having centre-right parties borrow from their policies.

Humanity is undoubtedly undergoing a crisis of faith. Not religious faith, but faith in the principles of kindness, tolerance and honesty; principles that underline the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is increasingly being ignored in favour of commercial and political interests.

Anyone who thinks that this is purely an ideological issue and part of the small swing from left to right that happens with democratic elections should look at the treatment of the members of the media that reported on the Women’s March held alongside the inauguration. Trump is set on ushering in the era of post-truth, alternative-facts and double-speak.

It is not that analysts, commentators and human rights activists are not pointing out the problems, it just seems that their words are lost in the wind of hate-speech and ignorance.

The one light I can point to is the behaviour of the US National Park Service tweeting about climate change in defiance of Trump (another great article). I suspect that a generation of young people inspired by Leslie Knope have joined the Park Service, and hold Leslie’s values as their own. Life imitating art in a glorious way.

As paralyzed as I feel, I must continue to record what is happening and how I feel about it, just like the last of the colonists on Miranda.

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From Leopard to El Capitan in 20 Easy Steps

I recently had the challenge of trying to install a current operating system on an iMac7,1 (2007). Here is my story.

The initial challenge was that the machine was running OS X Server 10.5.8 (Leopard) and I didn’t know the password for any accounts. Fortunately a reboot with Command-S gets you into single user mode (root) with the ability to reset the machine back to defaults (guide here).

Unfortunately, this meant that the software license key needed to be re-entered. Fortunately the key is stored in plain text in:


The next challenge was to purchase a copy of Mountain Lion at AU$30 from the apple store. Only after purchase did I find out that the installer can only be downloaded from the Mac App Store, which only became part of the OS in Snow Leopard.

So the challenge was to get a running instance of Snow Leopard without breaking the running OS (Leopard). Here you have several options to get hold of the Snow Leopard installer:

  • Download the *.dmg install image through a Torrent (illegal)
  • Pay for the physical media from apple (an extra $30 and a few weeks wait)
  • Download the Mountain Lion *.dmg from another Mac running Snow Leopard (or later)

As a rule, I am very sensitive to ethical issues relating to Software, and while I will find cheap (legal) ways to get hold of Operating Systems (e.g. free upgrades, student deals, employer sponsored deals) I am reluctant to use Torrents. This is not just because of the legal/ethical aspect, but also because Torrented media is notorious for malware infection. You can use hash checks to confirm a download, but are then relying on the integrity of the place you found the hash.

Incidentally, this process introduced me to the Apple Disk Image (*.dmg) file format. This format is very useful because it allows the packaging of an *.iso/*.img along with a hash and other disk information. As someone who is frequently imaging hard drives, this seems like a very useful construct, not normally found in operating systems but common in professional forensic software. Being able to confirm the consistency of a Hard Disk/CD/DVD image without carrying around separate MD5 checksum files seems sensible.

I will leave acquisition of the Snow Leopard installer disk image as an exercise for the reader. Rather than install Snow Leopard on the single Mac that I had access to, I used a version of VirtualBox (great free product from Oracle) to create a new virtual machine running Snow Leopard hosted on the Leopard machine. Release 3.0 of VirtualBox is the only one that would still run on Leopard.

I also attempted to get Snow Leopard working under VirtualBox on Windows, but complications with the hardware layer made it far too challenging. I understand people have had success, but it seems to be highly dependent on your Windows OS, hardware and the version of VirtualBox.

After the virtual Snow Leopard was updated to 10.6.8, the app store was running and I was able to download the Mountain Lion installer. For some reason Snow Leopard would not go from initial install to 10.6.8 on its own, the rolled-up 10.6.8 update had to be separately downloaded and manually installed before the app store appeared.

It was not possible to use the Mountain Lion installer to directly update Leopard, I had to use a USB drive to create Snow Leopard install media (guide here). I did a full backup of the Leopard system (and my virtual machine) to a HDD using SuperDuper (excellent backup tool, free version did the job).

Next step was to install Snow Leopard on the iMac, wiping the HDD. The process to update this OS to Mountain Lion (purchased) was now possible through the installer downloaded inside the virtual machine. Once Mountain Lion was installed and working, the update to El Capitan was available.

So now I have a Mac7,1 happily running El Capitan. Even though the hardware is 9 years old, it appears to be running very well. As someone with a background in Unix, Linux, Windows, it was an interesting journey into the world of Apple.

You will note that there is very little code/”how to” content in this post, because I found the guides in the Apple user community on blogs and forums to be very helpful and accurate. I could not find a complete guide detailing the process that I had to follow, but it was made up of numerous simple steps available with a bit of searching. As always in the technical world, don’t try this at home, check your command lines three times and backup before every step.






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Review of The OA (Spoilers)

*This Blog Post Contains Spoilers*

I have just finished watching the first season of the Netflix original The OA. Not since Lost have I watched a TV series that questioned the fabric of human existence in the same way.

With only 8 episodes in the first season, it doesn’t take too long to watch. Brit Marling co-wrote the show with Zal Batmanglij and is also the lead actress. For a Netflix series I was impressed with the production, acting and scripting. It was especially nice to see Phyllis Smith from the The Office back on the screen, she plays the awkward middle-American school teacher brilliantly.

Production aside, what really interested me about the show were the themes and philosophical questions posed.

Hippocrates is famous for the oath which bears his name, and is still at the core of modern medicine. Wikipedia supports my lay-person’s understanding that it can be summarised as ‘do no harm’. We can assume that this applies only to humans, as much of our advances in psychology, neurology, and many other medical fields are owed to the lives (and suffering) of countless rats, mice, monkeys and other animals. When it comes to people, however, there is generally still a strong negative feeling regarding harmful, non-consensual experimentation on humans.

This is not to say that it hasn’t happened, the activities under the Nazis being just one example. The West is also far from unblemished as the MKUltra program run by the CIA in the 1950’s revealed.

In case you missed my spoiler warning, the core of this season of The OA is Doctor Hunter Percy, creepily played by Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), who is experimenting on captive humans who have undergone Near Death Experiences (NDE).

Dr Percy is selecting NDE victims/subjects because they have a better survival rate when killed/revived multiple times. The supposed goal of the experimentation is to prove the existence of an afterlife. This topic is old ground and already the subject of significant real-world research, the Wikipedia page on NDE’s cites numerous studies relating to cardiac arrest survivors. Many of the aspects of NDE observed/recorded by science are faithfully depicted in the show.

Prairie Johnson, played by Brit Marling, becomes one of Dr Percy’s prisoners and through a series of lucid dreams / death experiences decides that NDE sufferers are angels and that an entity from the ‘other side’ is giving them physical movements that can allow them to escape.

This is the part that held my interest, the connection between human movement and spirituality. My children and I enjoyed watching both Avatar: The last Air Bender and the follow-on series, Legend of Kora. In these two shows, the Eastern belief that physical movement is not just about fighting but can also be used as a vehicle to control the elements is central. In my own practice of Qi-Gong (Falun Xiulian Dafa), this idea is also fundamental.

I have frequently visited Hawaii, and every time I see Hula performed I feel that this cultural practice has a much deeper meaning. Rather than just telling stories, or practicing fishing techniques it seems like there is some Sympathetic magic going on, just as there is in the dances of the first Australian People.

This idea is not without at least some recognition in the field of science. Mirror neuron research has shown that our brains have the capacity to observe movement and have it directly impact the motor centres of our own brain. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense for the young of a species to quickly learn from their parents simply by watching what they do. At its most basic level, when you watch sport and pay attention to your own body, you will find yourself mimicking the movements. Thus the reason young boys will instinctively cover their own groin when witnessing a peer suffering an unfortunate impact.

The OA uses the sequence of attaining new movements as a plot device, and two movements allow the captives to revive a dead captive and heal a terminal illness. One of the other interesting concepts is the idea that these movements are gained by swallowing something while in a near-death state. The White Snake, collected by the brothers Grimm is one of many examples from folklore where wisdom can be obtained by eating a specific animal. The Greenwood Encyclopaedia of Folktales and Fairytales, by Donald Haas, has a whole disturbing section on food in fairy-tales, especially the cannibalism that has been largely edited out in the Disney versions.  I spoke a little about the importance of movement to religious/spiritual experience in my post on David Bowie’s Blackstar.

The season is full of plot-twists and hide-and-seek timelines common to any thriller, however, I didn’t have any moments where I thought “well that is just ridiculous”. I don’t know what it is, but some people seem to live their life without an overriding discomfort with religion and science’s inability to explain our existence coherently, whereas people like myself are constantly driving by this discomfort to wonder, search and postulate.

Entertainment like The OA prods at those uncomfortable grey areas of our knowledge and bids us to look into the darker corners of our consciousness.


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Wolf at the Door

Amidst all the Happy New Year well-wishing I was feeling distinctly un-optimistic about the future of humanity. I tried to capture the feeling in this song, Wolf at the Door. I’m not sure if I have ever properly understood the meaning of the ‘wolf at the door’ motif, despite its extensive use in popular culture.

After all, wolves probably can’t open doors and if you are in a house with a door then you probably aren’t going to be scared of wolves. Wolves knocking on doors is a common theme in fairytales, such as the Three Little Pigs and the less well-known (in English-speaking culture), The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats. Given the dialogue and door-knocking, these are clearly cautionary tales for children using anthropomorphism.

These stories serve two purposes, firstly instilling a well-deserved fear of wolves if you are a young child, and, secondly, instilling a healthy fear of humans that knock at doors. There is no shortage of children’s stories where the wolf is the bad guy, Peter and the Wolf and The Boy Who Cried Wolf being just two examples. Incidentally, I remember first hearing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf when I was only three, the wolf music still gives me the creeps.

The Wolf at the Door motif is often used in the context of poverty or starvation, which would suggest that the wolf in this case is a stand-in for a more intangible foe.

This experience got me thinking about other songs which have spoken about impending doom on a global scale. My list is by no-means extensive, and I would appreciate any additions in the comments. I am interested in the songs, why they came about and what, if any, effect they had on people.

Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival

This was the first song that came to mind, and a little research revealed the fact that John Fogarty wrote this after watching The Devil and Daniel Webster. This 1941 film is about a farmer in dire financial straits who sells his soul to the devil and subsequently gets rich but alienates and enslaves his friends. Strangest of all, the protagonist has a desire to become President of the United States. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Not Dark Yet – Bob Dylan

As with most Dylan songs, getting an in-depth analysis of the song from the author is unlikely. I only have the lyrics to go on. The song could just be about a temporary depression relating to the particular girl that Dylan has received a letter from, but my feeling is that this song strikes at a deeper depression with the general state of 21st century society, especially given the fact that it was written in 1997 when millennial fear was building.

It’s the End of the World as We Know it – R.E.M

I may be wrong, but I think this song might fit in the same box as Billy Joel’s, We didn’t Start the Fire, where the author is saying that bad stuff has been happening for thousands of years and whatever impending doom you are fearing is probably insignificant. These songs were recorded in 1987 and 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and an end to the nuclear terror of the Cold War. Listening to both these songs as a teenager in the 1990’s, I loved them because they felt like two fingers in the face of the older generation, “this mess isn’t our fault”.

Across the Hills – Leon Rosselson
Eve of Destrucion – Philip Sloan
We Will All Go Together When We Go – Tom Lehrer

I have grouped these songs together as they all related to the period in the 1960’s when nuclear destruction was on people’s minds and the Vietnam War was dragging on. Tom Lehrer, in his usual acerbic style makes a joke of the matter, while Leon Rosselson paints a beautifully dichotomous dialogue between the optimist and the pessimist. I particularly love the phrase:

And it shall reap a hellish harvest
Make the desert of this land

I had always attributed Eve of Destruction to Barry McGuire, but it was written by Philip Sloan. It was interesting that the conservative Right in America felt strongly enough to attack the song directly, even claiming that the song aided the enemy in Vietnam.

I should say that I have no intent to minimize Tom’s contribution because it is funny. Humour has always been a way of coping with horror. Here is another great one from Tom about the subject.

Doom Further Back

I cannot think of any songs from before the 1950’s that relate to a feeling of impending doom about the future of the world. I know that comets and eclipses have had that effect on cultures for thousands of years, but I can’t find evidence that people sat down and wrote songs about it. It may be that television, the Internet and instantaneous global reporting have compressed our vision of the future in a way that previous societies have never imagined. It does feel like a weight on our minds that we could do without.

I must acknowledge the following websites as sources for some of the songs of doom:

Please post other suggestions in the comments.

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A Magical Voice

My wife and I were discussing when we first saw Wendy Rule, I thought it had been a single concert but the alternate story is that I saw her first and then insisted that we both go along the next time. I guess this is what 40 feels like when it comes to remembering things that happened in a semi-drunken state in my 20’s.

In any case, the concert that I remember in Canberra around 1996/1997 was terrible; terrible because it was in a downstairs club with the house music on and a bunch of patrons talking loudly over a truly incredible voice. I had never before heard someone use their voice like that, conjuring images of a sacred and mystic world, bringing the audience into an ancient grove, a Greek oracle in the mountain mists, an incense filled Egyptian temple. The only experience I have ever heard that comes close to it is the work of Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance.

In the late 90’s I was embarking on a short foray into life as a druid/solitary witch. Reading the work of Scott Cunningham and Douglas Monroe was where I started. Monroe’s 21 Lessons of Merlyn has since received some terrible reviews from those in the druid community. This was one of my greatest frustrations with neo-paganism, each group insisting on the supremacy of their order and the credentials of their texts and practices. In any case, the advent of a singing Witch coming to Canberra was too good to be true for my young self and after hearing Wendy sing I knew this was something special (and genuine).

For all its failings, the books by Douglas Monroe spoke about the importance of music and song to ancient ritual. Whether the chanting of a shaman, the choir in a church or the team song at a football match; there is no denying the capacity of music and song to heighten human experience. As a singer/songwriter, I know there are moments when my voice and the music combine to generate something which makes your hair stand on end and your heart leap into your throat.

If you ever get to attend a concert with Wendy she is quite up-front about the relevance of her singing to ritual. The corners are called (horrendous Hollywood example) with song, and at some concerts Wendy has spoken about using song as a tool of transformation.

In general, I am a sceptic, as I have unmasked and seen the unmasking of too many charlatans to remain trusting. However, just like my experience at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, there is something undeniable about the power present when Wendy sings.

From a scientific point of view, I am fascinated by the question of whether the words are largely irrelevant and the quality of tone, rhythm and power (RMS not the mystical kind) is what generates the experience. In much of Lisa Gerrard’s singing with Dead Can Dance, there are no discernible words, yet the emotion seems to be clearly conveyed.

From the point of view of someone who does meditation in the Buddhist school, I know that intent is also a significant part of any action in the magical world. Both in the magical imaginings of David Eddings and Christopher Paolini the combination of Will and Word is critical, as it is in the more practical world of Aleister Crowley.

I had the great fortune to see Wendy again in Adelaide in 2013, along with Spiral Dance and Kellianna at the Singing Gallery (a very special venue that I also saw Damh the Bard at). Please don’t misunderstand, Kellianna and Spiral Dance are a pleasure to listen to, they have beautiful voices and are musically accomplished, but they don’t do what Wendy can in terms of the conjuring of experience.

In all the heights of human endeavor in music, the Nessun dorma from Puccini’s Turandot, Allegri’s Misere, Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach, it feels like we are touching on the surface of an ocean of potential. Potential that Wendy Rule with the same black Yamaha guitar has been conjuring for 20 years now.

Unfortunately the ‘witch’ label has meant that many people probably won’t get to experience the divine pleasure of sitting in a quiet room and listening to Wendy sing. At the concert Wendy played in Canberra last night I had to chuckle at the ‘what are YOU doing here’ response I got from one of the local neo-pagan community in attendance. Me in my Hawaiian shirt with five kids, what business did I have being at a witchy concert? I smiled and said that “yes”, I was here to listen to Wendy Rule.

If you ever get the chance to see Wendy play live, don’t miss it, even if you aren’t a neo-pagan. And if you can’t make the concert, Black Snake is Wendy’s latest, dark but cathartic and re-awakening, album. The subject matter is human existence, and her talented mastery of the voice is incredible to experience.wendy







Note: My research takes me to some funny places, here is a Sydney Morning Herald article, not even sure if it is tongue-in-cheek, about pagan opposition to Kosher/Halal treatment of meat. Wendy is cited as a random Australian witch, probably because the stock photo was ‘witchy’.


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To Avoid Hitting a Mockingbird

I know this isn’t a folk music related post, but having just finished Harper Lee’s long, long awaited second (or first) novel, Go Set a Watchman, I feel the need to talk about it. Like most high school children in Queensland in the 1990’s, To Kill a Mockingbird was part of the curriculum. I honestly can’t remember if I read the book or just cheated and watched the movie, but the theme of the story certainly stuck with me.

Be warned that if you haven’t read Go Set a Watchman already, I will be spoiling it for you.

As a teenager, I admired Atticus. He was a stern but fair man of principles, the type of father-figure that children of the 70s and 80s could only dream about. Doing the right thing in the face of social angst was something that stuck with me, even to the point where sometimes it didn’t matter so much if it was right, but more that the well-to-do folk didn’t like it.

As a novel, Watchman is a journey of painful self-discovery for Scout, rather than a simple observation of the goings on around her. The idea that people can just be put into the category of bad-racists and good non-racists is challenged in the book. In some ways I think this was a more powerful message than the ‘shining knight defending the peasants against the selfish and ignorant mob’ style of Mockingbird. What struck me as so strange about this book from 1957 was that it could well have been written about a modern day New Yorker going back to their Trump supporting town in Ohio.

I have to wonder why, if the suggestions that Watchman was an early-draft Mockingbird are true, the book didn’t get published in the 1950’s in its original form. After all, racial segregation did not end in the US until 1964. If this book was finished in 1957 it could have added significantly to the debate, maybe Mockingbird was thought to be a milder message and would thus have a better chance of acceptance.

Wikipedia has a good summary of what happened in the US between the end of the civil war and the institution of legally enforced equality in 1964. I have had the good fortune to travel in the South of the US more than the average Australian and it was a sobering experience to walk through the relatively new display next to the Liberty Bell in Pennsylvania back in 2014. The small but enlightening display is focused on recording the lives and treatment of African slaves.

I have also been to Williamsburg in Virginia and seen the depiction of life as a slave in pre-revolutionary America, to Boone Hall Plantation in South Carolina where the history of African American emancipation is played out in the tiny slave huts that spread out from the plantation owner’s mansion. Driving through Augusta Georgia, and some parts of Charleston, South Carolina, it was clear that some forms of segregation are still lingering. On one of the trips to the US I was reading Uncle Tom’s cabin, so seeing these places in person definitely enhanced my understanding of the world that these events happened in. I didn’t have to drive far out of Charleston to find a barbeque restaurant with revisionist Southern propaganda on the tables.

While Mockingbird is about Scout seeing her father stand up for the legal rights of an African American, Watchman is about Scout coming home from New York to find that her father is a racist. The end of Watchman is a slap in the face, literally and figuratively. After being confronted with Scout’s father’s confirmed racist view she prepares to flee the town in disgust but a slap in the face from her uncle puts her back in her place. I cannot condone violence against women and could not reconcile Atticus’ views.

The sentiment that did stick with me was that we cannot combat racism and bigotry in our society by running away from it. In 1930’s America it was African Americans, in 2016 Australia it is Muslims. In the media, on Facebook and in our parliament we have people spewing the same vile racist views (yes I know Islam is not a race). Atticus argued that it is better to have these views out in public, rather than behind masks (or hoods), but I fear that the ears of impressionable youth, or ignorance don’t benefit from a diversity of views.

What can you do with a populace that isn’t capable of choosing between a rational humanitarian tolerance and hate-fuelled xenophobia? Scout’s uncle begs her to stay in the town because it needs more people like her, but I fear that people like Scout cannot do much but stand by and witness the carnage. The voice of reason seems to be whispered by the few into a howling gale.

I am not naïve, I know that the move from a society where few people are privileged and many people are in poverty is not easy. We have been failing at it for centuries, look at the French Revolution, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, the destruction of the British Monarchy. All bloody, all just passing the reins to a different bunch of crooked thugs. But it felt like with the establishment of equality in law, the living wage, education and healthcare for all despite their wealth, that we had started to head somewhere good. Now we see that if you take away the shackles, we go back to killing and demonising each other quicker than you can say “Make America Great Again”.

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Dawning of the Donald

Two things prompted this post, one is the behaviour of Donald Trump and the other was a search for an early ballad to record. I have written before about my own journey out of misogyny and also about the topic of misogyny in folk ballads.

In searching for a ballad, I found a version of The Dawning of the Day printed in broadside and probably published in 1853. I have found two versions from this era, the lyrics are largely the same except one includes an additional final verse. The full lyrics are available here, along with an image of the broadside. The shorter (by one verse) version is available here.

I had originally only been exposed to the shorter version on the Wikipedia page cited above, which includes a Gaelic version and English translation of a song about a man besotted by a young beauty who tells him to “sod off”. Most folk-revival performers have recorded this shorter version, examples being Tommy Makem & Liam Clancy and a much earlier recording by John McCormack.

My recording of the full version goes for 10 minutes!

The Trump connection here is that in the full version of the ballad, after being refused the man rapes the young milkmaid and continues on his way. When he comes back seven months later he spurns her because she is dropsical (swollen, i.e. pregnant). She is, of course, expecting him to marry her but he tells her that he has married someone else for 300 pounds and that she shouldn’t have left her father’s house so early in the morning.

It is easy to feel outrage at the sentiment expressed in this ballad, but possibly understand that the world was a different place in the 1800s and a woman had few rights in the society. If you don’t believe that, be sure to watch the 2015 film Suffragette.

What is far more outrageous is that the man running for President of the United States has been caught on numerous occasions expressing the same attitude towards women as presented in this ballad. I’m not barracking for Hilary Clinton here, in my opinion her and her family, with their sense of elitist entitlement and complete dislocation from the common people, are not much better. If I, or the American people, had any say, I would prefer four more years of Mr Obama or Bernie Sanders, as expressed in this song.

I would be interested to know if the Irish origins of this ballad only ever included the first verses, and that the broadside printed in England grew from a translation of the initial verses and then later addition of some self-serving endorsement of rape-culture tied with victim shaming. It would be hard to know whether the initial collector of the Gaelic ballad truncated the verses for fear of censorship, especially if the ballad only existed in memory. Fortunately, the complete text of Edward Walsh’s Irish Popular Songs published in 1847 is available here and the fact that it predates the broadside and only has the initial verses would support my initial hypothesis (blame the English).

In any case, Mr Trump, a locker-room is not a justification for any objectionable behaviour and I would expect the leader of the free world to be a gentlemen both in public and behind closed doors. I despair at Donald’s example and despair more at the many people trying to justify it.


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Turning Wave 2016

As I listen to the horrendously funny re-interpretation of the Lord of the Rings, as performed by Martin Pearson, and savor the vision of several people walking out on his rendition of ‘The Vati-Can Can‘ performed in the Catholic Lovat Chapel, I am thinking back on the wonderful weekend just gone in Yass. This is the 5th year that the Turning Wave festival has been held in our small town in New South Wales.

This year the guest from Ireland was the delightful and talented Lydia Warnock, here she is winning the all-Ireland Fiddle title in 2013. Lydia made some interesting comments at her opening Masterclass performance and also as part of the closing concert. The subtext of what she was saying very politely was that Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, while a fantastic way to introduce young children around the world to an Irish culture, which by the 1950’s was in decline after many years of overt or subtle attempts by the English to stamp it out, could come across somewhat stilted in its uniformity.

Lydia played with a passion and feeling for the music which she described as coming from the people in their 70s from her local area who taught her the music they had learnt by ear in sessions, rather than in a room of thirty other toddlers with fiddles. I’m not sure what the lesson is here, but Ireland is not the only place that a society has attempted to revive or cling to its own historic culture in a way that can strangle the life, or at least the diversity, from it. We witnessed something very similar during our visit to Kazakhstan, where attempts to revive the dress and song post soviet occupation sometimes came across as contrived. This is not a criticism of the attempt, because I see it as a heartrendingly tragic thing for people to be cut off from their culture of hundreds or thousands of years. Lydia also praised Comhaltas for what they have managed to achieve in Ireland.

Some highlights of the festival for me included listening to the Spanish flavoured Señor Cabrales, both at their formal concert in the beautifully restored Lovat Chapel and again in their Sunday morning pub session. Hearing musicians as talented as this play together is a rare experience.

This particular festival was important for me because one of the locals involved with the festival put in the effort to organise a showcase concert of local talent. I have written previously about the song I wrote to commemorate the Sisters of Mercy who came to Yass from Ireland. A local choir had asked me for a song with an Irish connection to the town and I arranged the song for choir (with the help of a member of another choir that I am in). It was a very moving experience to hear 30 voices singing the piece to the 100 people who had stayed around for the closing concert.

Extending myself further beyond the singer/songwriter mould, I was also part of a four-piece Cèilidh style group made up of a local schoolteacher (who performed the magic trick of picking up a concertina 9 months ago and then flying through a set of 9 jigs and reels), a seasoned Irish Flute and Whistle player (from Ireland, her accent lending us some credibility), one of the pillars of the Irish/Folk scene in Yass on Bodhrán and me doing 3-chord percussion on guitar. While getting through the sets without obvious mistakes in front of the audience was a great experience, what I enjoyed most was a 40-minute practice session at a local cafe beforehand. Another comment made by Lydia Warnock was that Irish music is for the community, played in dance halls and pubs, it was never something designed for a stage with a large audience watching on with serious faces and an awkward head-nod, leg jiggle or thigh-slap. Unfortunately our group will be disbanding before reaching the peak of its fame as our Bodhrán player is leaving for Cobargo. Hopefully the festival and the concert will trigger enough interest in the town to establish a more regular session.

The newly formed TRIOC were a delight to listen to, they don’t have their own album but Matthew Horsley, the piper in the group, has a great album Australian Waters, which has also been on my post-festival playlist. You can listen to what they have recorded on soundcloud.

The last highlight for me was sharing the stage with and meeting Lugh Damen as part of the Yass showcase concert. I am already a big fan of Damh the Bard and Wendy Rule and didn’t realise we had a pagan inspired singer/songwriter living so close to Yass. Lugh’s album, Faerytale, collaborating with fiddler Retaw Boyce, is one of the finest examples of this style of music I have heard.

If you happen to be in Australia next September, don’t miss this very special festival.yass_rainbow

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