Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An Awful Waste of Space

SETI shuts down alien-seeking radio dishes just as new planets are found

Just think -- if intelligent life exists on worlds beyond Earth, how many different Astrology systems there would be! Sadly, we may never find out because SETI Institute is shutting down its alien-seeking radio dishes.
SETI, which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has made a mission of exploring the nature and prevalence of life in the universe since the mid-1980s. It’s best known for its Allen Telescope Array of radio dishes, which Jodie Foster made famous while playing a SETI researcher in the 1997 movie “Contact.”
Foster’s character, a scientist who believes in extra-terrestrial intelligence, was best known for stating if there aren’t other intelligent worlds out there, it would be“an awful waste of space.”
Problem is, the government thinks it’s an awful waste of money. As SETI CEO Tom Pierson told the Silicon Valley’s Mercury News, they’ve now put the radio dishes into hibernation mode because of inadequate government support.
The timing is ironic, considering recent news has been filled with reports about new planets and scientists becoming more supportive and open to the likely possibility of alien life. Seriously. This isn’t just the stuff of conspiracy theorists and UFO fanatics anymore.
Just this spring NASA astronomers announced they found 1,235 new planets, with somewhere between 5 and 50 of them being in a “habitable zone” like Earth that could possibly support life.
TIME magazine also ran an article this week about the booming field of “astrobiology,” and Washington Post news reporter Marc Kaufman has a new book titled “First Contact,” both detailing the fact that scientists are more confident than ever that life does exist out in the universe. In his book, Kaufman predicts scientists will discover life on other planets within this century.
Too bad without SETI’s alien-seeking radio dishes we can’t listen for it sooner. (SETI is asking for donations from the public if you want to help out, by the way).
What do you think? Is there intelligent life on other planets?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

April Meteor Shower May Be Outshined by the Moon

Joe Rao, Skywatching Columnist, 

One of the "Old Faithful" of the annual meteor showers will be reaching its peak this week: the April Lyrids. Unfortunately, this year the moon is going to interfere with getting a good view of these celestial streakers. 
Lyrid meteors may be seen any night from April 16 to 25; they are above a quarter of their maximum in numbers for about 2 1/2 days of this time. [Spectacular Leonid Meteor Photos]
The April shooting star display will hit its peak on Friday night (April 22) and during the early hours of Saturday. During that time, as many as 15 to 20 meteors per hour might be seen by a single observer under dark, clear skies.  
The paths of these meteors, if extended backward toward their apparent origin point in the sky, seem to diverge from a spot in the sky about 7 degrees southwest (to the lower right) of the brilliant blue-white star Vega in the little constellation of Lyra (hence the name "Lyrids"). Your clenched fist held at arm's length measures roughly 10 degrees in width. 
To be precise, the Lyrid meteor shower's center, called the radiant point, is on the border between Lyra and the adjacent dim, sprawling constellation Hercules.
Moon muscles in
While hardly a rich display like the August Perseids or December Geminids showers, the April Lyrids have been described as "brilliant and fairly fast." They also tend to leave a shining trail behind it for a few moments. 
Unfortunately, as we alluded to at the onset, this year the moon is going to be a problem for prospective meteor watchers. 
It will be in its waning gibbous phase, approximately 68 percent illuminated and rising around 1 a.m. local daylight time on Saturday morning and thus will spoil the whole "morning end of the night" and shining not very far southward from Lyra in the sky. So moonlight is likely to squelch all but the brightest Lyrid streaks. 
Your best chance of seeing any will come in the hour just before dawn breaks: 3:30 to 4:30 a.m. local daylight time. That will also be about the time that the Lyrid radiant – where the meteors will appear to diverge – will be almost directly overhead from the southern United States, and not far off it for anyone in the mid-northern hemisphere.
Born from a comet
The orbit of the material that creates the Lyrids strongly resembles that of Thatcher's Comet, which swung by Earth during the spring of 1861 and has an orbital period of approximately 415 years. In 1867, astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle confirmed the link between this comet and the Lyrids.
So the meteors that we see from this display are the tiny particles that were shed by Thatcher's Comet during its previous visits through the inner solar system.
There are a number of historic records of meteor displays believed to be Lyrids, notably in 687 B.C. and 15 B.C. in China, and A.D. 1136 in Korea when "many stars flew from the northeast."
On April 20, 1803, many townspeople in Richmond, Virginia, were roused from bed by a fire alarm and were able to observe a very rich display between 1 and 3 a.m.  The meteors "seemed to fall from every point in the heavens, in such numbers as to resemble a shower of skyrockets." [Mystery of Green Fireball 'UFOs' Solved]
In 1922, an unexpected Lyrid hourly rate of 96 was recorded and in 1982 several observers in Florida and Colorado noted rates of 90 to 100 on April 22 of that year.  As British meteor expert Alastair McBeath writes in the 2011 Astronomical Calendar, "Lyrids give no clues as to when another such outburst might happen, hence the shower is always one to watch."
So if the skies are clear early Saturday before sunrise, and if you're in a sporting mood, why not head outside and try to catch a few "falling stars?"
Good luck!
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Easter’s has many pagan roots

The Christian holiday bears remnants – from eggs to bunnies – of earlier faiths, traditions

By Lane Lambert

Easter is everywhere now. Christian believers are preparing for midnight vigils, sunrise services and other observances of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The faithful are ordering traditional white Easter lilies, too. Along with many who do not attend church, they are putting up bunny decorations and planning egg hunts for their children – and as they follow those rituals, they will be evoking age-old, pre-Christian practices so familiar that few people give them a second thought.

No one knows this better than Kendra Vaughan Hovey of Duxbury, a former Wiccan priestess who is now Christian. She sees reminders of her former religion at every turn this time of year, and she still embraces much of it.

“It’s a holiday of new life,” she says of Easter. “There’s a beauty in that.”

Hovey notes that even the name Easter has a pagan source – most likely from Ostara, the ancient Norse goddess of spring. Ostara’s festival was always around the spring equinox, which is still used to calculate Easter Sunday dates.

Hovey and Stonehill College religious studies professor Mary Joan Leith said brightly colored eggs and bunnies are among the most ancient and widely found spring symbols, though they were part of much more serious fertility observances thousands of years ago.

Leith, who teaches a “Pagans and Christians” course, said the closest contemporary comparison to the seriousness of ancient practices is the ritual use of boiled eggs as part of the Jewish Passover seder.

Hovey noted that the white lilies are also borrowed from the “earth faiths” of the ancient European and Mediterranean world as symbols of motherhood and purity. Lilies are also mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, but it is unclear whether those would have been white lilies.

While those rituals live on as folklore, Leith said one other Christian practice disappeared more than 1,500 years ago: “House church” groups often observed the eve of Easter at family burial tombs.

She said Christians of the 2nd century A.D. adopted the practice from Roman religion, which included “meals with the dead” several times a year.

Leith said the Saturday night gatherings could be rowdy, until the mood settled down for a Eucharist service at sunrise on Sunday. Church leaders criticized the cemetery parties, but did not succeed in replacing them with reverent church worship until the late 5th century, 150 years after the emperor Constantine issued an edict protecting Christianity in A.D. 313.
Leith said Christians of that era were in constant contact and competition with Greek and Roman mystery cults, including the worship of Mithra and Attis, two Middle Eastern deities whose myths featured similar stories of rising from the dead.

Christians did not borrow from those religions, but Leith said the similarities would have given Christians an opportunity to try to convert pagans.

As a convert herself, Kendra Hovey understands how persuasive those appeals could have been.

“Even Paul called to the pagan community,” she said of Christianity’s first great missionary. “He had to find a way to speak to them in their own (religious) language.”

Hovey is not interested in combining her previous Wiccan practice with her current faith. But she is not a bit troubled by the popularity of pagan relics like eggs and bunnies.

“There’s no reason to fear it,” she said. “Let’s make it part of our tradition.”

Lane Lambert may be reached at

Connecting with spirits

Communicating with beings who have moved on to another world might sound weird, strange or even crazy to some. However, those who specialise in the paranormal believe that this form of communication can actually heal and holds the key to various questions that need to be answered.
Explains Shailaja Nivaan, a tarot card reader and a psychic healer, “Getting in touch with people from the other world is often synonymous with various elaborate rituals that are enough to scare people away. However, one can do this with something as simple as meditation or using a combination of clairvoyance and psychic skills.”
She also goes on to explain how people often mistake certain signs to be a sign from the spirits. “Things like a door suddenly opening or finding misplaced keys need not necessarily be the work of some spirit. These could be mere coincidences. To communicate and receive signs from a spirit one needs to feel the vibes from them and feel their presence in one’s daily lives, only then do these signs have some meaning.”
For ages, communicating with spirits has been associated with occult methods, one of the most common ones being the Ouija board. “Communicating and intercepting messages from guardian angels is also a form of getting in touch with spirits,” says Megha Nair, an angel therapist and healer. “There are people who can “hear” things said by spirits, others are able to “see” things in their mind when they think about the future. One needs to develop these qualities in order to take full advantage of it.”
While experts say using meditation and breathing techniques take a long time to develop, these are best suited for beginners or those who want to communicate with the dead only occasionally. “There are some people who are gifted — like those who are “clairaudient” (can hear things from spirits) and “claircognisant” (those who know things about the future due to their ability to communicate with spirits). These are people who are born with these gifts and they use this to unlock mysteries about the future,” says Dr Madhan Rao, a psychiatrist who employs alternative healing techniques in his practice. “Often we get people to communicate with their loved ones who have moved on to another world because just knowing that they are happy puts a person’s mind at ease and goes a long way in relieving tension. Employing techniques like hypnotism where one can communicate with spirits by traveling into their world for a brief few moments can do this. Apart from just assuring one of their well-being, these spirits also sometimes give a person certain clues about the future and indicate how something will shape up or give them guidance about how to handle a particular situation.”
Trained healers who often communicate with spirits underline the fact that getting in touch with them using one’s own abilities are always better than relying on other means like tarot cards or pendulums. “When you do this on your own you can be sure that the results are 100 per cent true. Using tools like the pendulum can be tricky because there are a lot of external factors that influence the outcome, for instance even the movement of the fan can cause the pendulum to swing in a different way. Another thing that people often do is visit so called healers in a bid to find out about their loved ones in another world. However, one needs to remember that messages that are passed through another person aren’t always fully accurate. Therefore, it is always important to take such things with a pinch of salt and check the credentials of any healer or practitioner when one approaches them for other worldly communication,” says Shailaja. At the same time, experts are also of the opinion that one’s dreams are the strongest way to communicate with spirits.
“Often people get messages in their dreams and when they wake up, they realise that this is the solution to a problem that they have been looking for. This message might have come from a deceased person or it may even be so that one doesn’t remember who “communicated” with them. But dreams do tell a message and it will help if one focuses on them a little more instead of just dismissing them,” adds Dr Madhan.

Perennial vegetables: Plant once and eat always

Perennial vegetables are a beautiful, low-carbon alternative to sowing from scratch every year, says expert edibles grower Mark Diacono

By Mark Diacono

The neighbours think I’ve lost it. For the past few weeks they’ve seen me kneeling in the garden, head close to the ground, looking like Jack Nicklaus lining up a winning putt. What they don’t know is I’m at the head of a line of asparagus, looking for the first green noses to break the surface. The first harvest of the growing season – and to my mind the best.
The secret to the finest asparagus in the world is time – getting it from plot to plate as quickly as you can. If you’re a bit of an anorak you’ll have the water boiling before you cut the spears so that you can enjoy them sweet and succulent before the rapid conversion of sugars to starches takes over. Taste home-grown asparagus once and you’ll never reach for the year-round Peruvian supermarket stuff again.
This month, buy year-old plants (known as crowns), and when they arrive choose a well-drained space. Dig a trench to a spade’s depth and width, incorporating a little compost or well-rotted manure, and create a 4in tall mound along the floor of the trench.
Space the crowns 20in apart along the ridge, backfill and water well. Allow 30in between rows. You can even sow sorrel and chicory (both delicious, perennial salad leaves) in the space between rows. The rows will need weeding once in a while but other than that you’ll just need to sit on your hands until next spring when the spears poke through the soil.
However tempted you are, don’t cut any – let the crowns establish. The torture of the wait is more than repaid by decades of springtime eating, starting the following year when you can slice off the wonderful spears that keep popping up for a month or so. When growing such fine food is this easy it almost feels like cheating.
Easy peasy
So good, so early and so effortless… so why aren’t we growing more food that works like this? Planted once, then harvested for ever and a day? Most fruit and herbs are perennial but when it comes to veg, a combination of history and habit seems to dictate a frenzy of planting and sowing from scratch every year.
We copy commercial growers who’ve relied on cheap energy, once provided by horses and now by fossil fuels, to do all the turning of the soil, sowing, weeding, watering, fertilising, harvesting and collecting of seed that goes with growing annual vegetables.
This has reached such an extraordinary state of affairs that the food we buy takes around 10 times the energy to produce as the energy it gives us. According to research carried out by London’s City University (An Inconvenient Truth About Food, Soil Association, 2008), its carbon footprint is huge, due in large part to the use of man-made nitrogen fertilisers – a tonne of which requires one tonne of oil and 108 tonnes of water to make, releasing seven tonnes of greenhouse gases in the process.
Rising prices and dwindling resources are further incentive to grow some of your own food, but if you take out the oil you have to replace it with elbow grease. The alternative is to grow more delicious, low-maintenance, low-energy perennials like asparagus.
Perennials are an increasingly important part of how we feed ourselves and how we garden. They offer the ornamental garden productivity and the productive garden beauty.
Many allotmenters tend to graduate to perennials having served their apprenticeship on annuals; newcomers to edible gardening are often interested in permaculture and low-carbon growing; others who just fancy delicious food without the slog are increasingly starting off with them.
Low carbon food has some compelling arguments going for it – but perhaps the best reason to grow perennial edibles is this: when you can be eating the very best home-grown asparagus, rhubarb, sea kale and garlic cress right now, it’s hard to think of a reason not to.
Plenty of choice
There are dozens of perennial vegetables from every corner of the vegetable world to choose from, and to suit all sizes of garden, including salad leaves, brassicas, roots, onions and edible flowers.
If you’re looking for something architectural, you could do worse than globe artichokes, with their ragged grey/green leaves and towering flowers. It not only looks a treat, but the flesh of the immature flower heads is delicious.
The almost identical cardoon will serve the same ornamental purpose, but it’s the main rib of those huge leaves that makes it to the kitchen. Both can be raised easily from seed or bought as fast-growing, hardy plants.
There are wonderful perennial alternatives to the staples – of the many perennial onions, my favourite is the Egyptian walking onion. You can snip off a few early chive-like leaves, leaving the rest to grow on into spring onions. Pinch some off to enjoy in April and May – the rest will grow taller and begin to develop bulbils on the end of the leaves.
As these grow, the leaves struggle to hold them up and bend slowly to the ground, where the bulbils take root. Harvest a few and allow some to grow into new plants that repeat the cycle as they “walk” around your garden. At the base of the original plant you’ll find shallot-like bulbs, making four harvests every year from the one perennial plant.
And if you’re looking for an alternative to the potato, try oca, another South American tuber that resembles a new potato but tastes a little lemony when just picked, sweetening if matured in the sun, and immune to blight.
There are perennials to harvest at any time of year, but where they really come into their own is early in the season, during the “hungry gap” when few annuals have germinated, never mind grown. This week you could be enjoying garlic cress, sea kale, asparagus and forced rhubarb.
Things of beauty
Generally speaking, perennial vegetables tend to be more beautiful than annuals – or rather, we allow them to be.
Think of day lilies, globe artichokes, cardoons, Jerusalem artichokes – all make a striking presence in the garden, largely because we don’t chop or dig up the whole plant in its prime.
Our relationship with them is quite different from annual veg – it’s in our interest to keep the plant alive and healthy, harvesting a little each year while nurturing the plant for the next.
They’re around for longer, which allows you to include them as a more enduring part of a garden. Being there year-round, in varying states, also broadens their ecological value for a wider range of other organisms.
The soil is also nurtured when growing perennials, as it is rarely, if ever, left exposed to the forces of erosion, rain compaction and nutrient leaching. Digging – which can upset a perfectly balanced soil ecology, expose weed seeds for germination, as well as releasing carbon into the atmosphere – is also minimised. You’ll generally find disease and pest problems much reduced as most perennials out-compete weeds and resist slugs.
I’m not advocating a wholesale move of your garden or allotment over to edible perennials – well, I would but most of you would ignore me – but I am encouraging you to integrate some with the annuals and ornamentals.
Add a few true perennials, some edible prolific self-seeders such as nasturtiums and sweet cicely, along with some cut-and-come-again leaves and you’ll have a productive, beautiful and low carbon garden.
  • For more information on Mark Diacono’s approach to low carbon gardening and a range of unusual edibles by mail order, visit his website

Friday, April 15, 2011

Vikings' crystal clear method of navigation

by Andy Coghlan

Viking sagas may have been more truthful than we realised. Crystal "sunstones" could have helped Viking sailors to navigate even when cloud or fog hid the sun.
Vikings navigated using sundials calibrated to show the direction of the North Pole. While there is no physical evidence for the navigational techniques adopted on cloudy days, there are references in the Viking sagas to "sunstones" being used.
In 1967, Danish archaeologist Thorkild Ramskou suggested that sunstones may work by creating a pattern of light that revealed the hidden sun's location – although sceptics countered that the method is unwieldy, if not unworkable.
It is only within the last 10 years that Ramskou's theory has been put to the test, and the results, summarised in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (vol 366, p 772), claim to demonstrate that the sunstone method does work in cloudy or foggy conditions.
Sunstones – translucent crystals of minerals such as calcite – are potentially useful because both they, and the atmosphere, behave like natural Polaroid filters. This means they polarise light, causing its photons to vibrate in only one plane. Crucially for this navigation technique, the atmosphere leaves sunlight polarised in a series of concentric rings centred on the sun.

Pinpoint the sun

It is this pattern that can be detected using a sunstone – at least in theory. When the crystal is pointed skywards and rotated, the theory goes, the light passing through it progressively brightens and dims, depending on whether the crystal's direction of polarisation is aligned or misaligned with the polarisation rings in the atmosphere. When the two are aligned, the crystal appears at its brightest and points towards the sun – even if the sun is hidden. Taking two readings at different points in the sky should enable a navigator to pinpoint the sun's position.
Once the position of the sun was established, Ramskou speculated, Viking navigators could hold a lighted torch in the correct position above their sundial, giving them the required shadow reading on the dial.
However, critics say that too little polarised light passes through clouds to take accurate readings using a sunstone. So to settle the dispute, Gábor Horváth at Eötvös University in Budapest, Hungary, and colleagues studied polarisation patterns under cloudy skies and foggy conditions in Hungary, Finland and within the Arctic circle.
Using a polarimeter, which determines light's angle of polarity, Horváth's team found that the atmospheric polarity patterns can be detected even under cloudy skies or foggy conditions, suggesting that the Vikings could have made use of them. The patterns are difficult to detect under completely overcast conditions, however.
Despite the latest evidence, not everyone is convinced. "The sky is strongly polarised only in certain regions relative to the sun," says Tom Cronin of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and an authority on polarisation. "If the light's not very polarised, the sunstone won't get [bright or] dark enough [when rotated]," he says. "So I think it would work, but not very accurately."
Also, Horváth and his team have yet to demonstrate that real sunstones – crystals mined in Scandinavia or Iceland – could detect the weak patterns under cloudy skies as well as their sensitive polarimeter can, which is something he is now investigating. If they do, Horváth will have compelling evidence that the Vikings possessed both the ways and the means to navigate under cloudy skies.

Pluto Retrograde 2011: April 9 – September 16

ON APRIL 13, 2011

Pluto is the planet of destruction and regeneration, and now that it is in retrograde motion (beginning April 9, 2011, it will be retrograde until September 16) we will spend the next nearly six months re-examining old patterns in our lives.
Retrograde periods don’t have to be scary (as I’ve often extolled about periods of Mercury retrograde); instead, while things have a tendency to get muddled with other retrograde planets (with Mercury, for example, the ruler of communication, things in that arena tend to go haywire), Pluto retrograde is a time of slowing down to experience internal reflection. Retrograde periods are time to break out the “re:” regeneration, renewal, reflection….you get the point. Add “re” to the beginning of a word, and you have a way of positively using a period of planetary retrograde motion.
Pluto represents those pieces of ourselves that we need to “destroy,” or clean up and clear away, before we can experience the new. The Plutonian energy is intense, especially during these next few months of retrograde motion, so be prepared to reflect heavily on what it is you might need to clean out of your metaphoric closets. Now is the time to deal with things (and parts of yourself) that you may have been putting off.
While these coming months may be intense and find us dealing with some scarier shadow parts of our selves, we can also experience the regeneration and transformation that Pluto is known for.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Press Release: Modern Day Witchcraft is Alive and Well

This May, Reality Films is releasing  Witchcraft: The Magick Rituals of the Coven - The History and Craft of Modern Day WitchesThis new documentary features Karen Frandsen from Eerie Investigations, interviewing Jeanette Ellis, lecturer on traditional British Witchcraft, member of PEBL, and author ofForbidden Rites.
In this detailed DVD, Jeanette reveals the truth and history behind Witchcraft including:

- The history of traditional Witchcraft in the United Kingdom.
- How Witches practice their craft.
- The infamous “Witchfinder General,” Matthew Hopkins and how he persecuted supposed deviants called “Witches.”
In addition, Witchcraft also features an investigation in the town of Mistley, home to Hopkins, including a visit to the infamous Swan Inn, the very location of the witch trials. The inn is believed to be the place where Hopkins “swam” his victims as well as where he is allegedly buried and has been haunting ever since.
To view the trailer:
Members of the media should contact Laura Croyle at or 530-367-6055 to request review copies or to schedule an interview.

Magical friends on the trail of a killer


Los Angeles Times

"Akata Witch" by Nnedi Okorafor; Viking (352 pages, $17.99, ages 12 and older)
The protagonist at the center of the young-adult novel "Akata Witch" lives in many worlds. She is, in the truest sense, African American: Nigerian by ancestry, American by birth. Born in New York, she moved to West Africa with her parents and brothers when she was 9.
But Sunny Nwazue is also albino, with skin the color of "sour milk" and "hazel eyes that look like God ran out of the right color." Complicating matters further, she's a witch.
It's these intriguing and frequently at-odds attributes that drive the action in the latest novel from Chicago-area author Nnedi Okorafor, a Nebula Award nominee who was born in the U.S. to Nigerian immigrant parents and has spent much time in the West African country. In an increasingly globalized world, Okorafor's outsider perspective offers a refreshing Afro take on the popular coming-of-age fantasy genre.

Sunny does not know she has mystical abilities when she first moves to Nigeria. Like a lot of tween girls her age, she just knows she feels awkward and out of place. She is routinely taunted not only for her ghostly skin color but for her origins. She's an "Akata," her schoolmates tease, using a pejorative West African term for foreign-born blacks.
"Akata Witch" is told in the third person, but the focus is clearly on Sunny. Her parents are overly protective, especially her father, who embodies the African patriarchy in his lax oversight of Sunny's brothers while insisting on a curfew for his daughter. Granted, Sunny is just 12. There's also a serial killer on the loose who has been targeting local children.
Outcasts tend to find their way toward others who also don't fit in, and Sunny is no exception. She befriends a boy named Orlu who came to her defense after a particularly unpleasant altercation with a classmate. Through Orlu, she then befriends Chichi, a mischief maker of a girl who senses Sunny may be a "leopard person."
Leopard people are gifted with mystical abilities, or magic. They value learning and prize individualism, unlike "lamb" people who care only about money and material goods.
Most leopard people come from magical families, including Chichi, Orlu and another boy Sunny befriends named Sasha, whose parents sent him to Nigeria from New York as punishment for inappropriate use of his "juju" powers. Sunny, however, is a rare "free agent" - "a random of nature, a result of mixed-up and confused spiritual genetics." Her mother is a devout Catholic who doesn't seem to appreciate magic.
Tapping in to her powers is mostly a matter of learning and practice, which Sunny does with the help of her new friends, a mentor and a book called "Fast Facts for Free Agents." Pages of this juju primer serve as the lead-ins to chapters of the book, as do Nigerian symbols for words like "welcome" and "nighttime," foreshadowing events to come.
After the friendships have been established, "Akata Witch" becomes something of a quest story, with plot similarities to James Patterson's "Witch & Wizard" series and other fantasies, as the kids hone their individual magical abilities in a bid to thwart evil. Bound together as a coven, the quartet of young sorcerers have been brought together, it turns out, to stop their town's serial killer.
The book is similar in theme to many other coming-of-age fantasies, but the details are distinctly African, the language unrushed and elegant. The dresses the girls wear are crafted from traditional raffia ribbon. The sounds of Fela Kuti and other Afrobeat musicians are often playing in the background of the action.
"Akata Witch" is a much-needed addition to the many titles featuring Caucasian protagonists - one that will appeal to readers who are interested in foreign cultures, tradition and beliefs, or those who live between cultures themselves.

Read more:

Town column: Background as a 'witch' helps to connect past and present

The Heretic's Daughter: A NovelThat I -- Sara Carrier Clarkson -- am a direct descendant of a documented witch came as no surprise to my husband.
"Explains a lot," he shrugged.

This conversation was held last fall, and witches were on people's minds not just because of Halloween but also because of the supposed Wiccan pursuits of a certain candidate for the United States Senate.
In my family, witches were under review because my daughter and I were getting ready to head to a large family reunion in Salem, Mass., where the descendants of Martha Carrier were meeting. Salem is the site of the famous Witchcraft Trials in the early 1690s where Martha Carrier and 19 others were found guilty of practicing witchcraft and ultimately put to death.

Until a few months ago, I was under the mistaken impressions that by "put to death" that meant that they were burned at the stake and that the only past tense of the verb "to hang" is "hung." Wrong on both counts. Those found guilty of witchcraft, with the exception of Giles Corey who was pressed to death, were hanged, the past tense of the word "hang" when hang means that someone is executed with rope and scaffolding. My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha Carrier, was hanged on Gallow's Hill in Salem on Aug. 19, 1692, after a trial in which she bravely faced her accusers and the judges and said, "I see no devils but those seated before me." She had the courage of her convictions with her when she went to trial and when she went to her death, and while some of that courage is documented in New England libraries and courthouses it is also relayed through generations of her family, ensuring her immortality.

Last November, about 200 of Martha Carrier's direct descendants gathered in Salem to commemorate her life and death and to meet one another. We were also there as part of a book launch for the prequel to Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter, a 2008 novel which was an account of Martha Carrier's family, life, trial and death. The newly released prequel, The Wolves of Andover: A Novel is a fictionalized account of the life of Martha's husband, Thomas Carrier. The author of both novels, Kathleen Kent, is another direct descendant of Martha and Thomas, and she, like me and obviously many others in our "family," grew up hearing the stories of Martha and Thomas. He was supposedly 7-feet tall, lived to be well over 100 years old and may well be one of the executioners of King Charles I in England. Thomas Carrier's place in history is not nearly as well documented as Martha's, and if he was indeed an executioner -- a tall one who would live a long, long, time -- there is no paper trail.

Both people fascinated Kent, who did meticulous research on them. Martha, Kent said, was by all accounts a ferocious woman who again and again proclaimed, "I am wronged" in the Salem courts even though many of the others accused finally relented and admitted their "witchcraft" after being worn down out of fear for their families. Martha, who was perhaps not a warm and fuzzy person, refused to lie or to bear false witness against her neighbors. Two of her five children testified against her, and The Heretic's Daughter not only posits explanations for their betrayal but authentically and compellingly describes life in a Salem jail as well as in a Puritan Massachusetts town during the late 17th century.
At her death, Martha left behind her husband, Thomas, and five children. My own family is descended from her middle son, Thomas, his son Thomas, his son Thomas, his son Darius, his son Edwin, his son Albert Heath who married Sara (for whom I am named), their daughter Catherine (my grandmother), her daughter Mary Ann, my mother. I brought my daughter Sofia, the ninth generation. Our little clan of Carriers included my mother, her brother and their three first cousins all of whom bear the surname Carrier. These five people, one in his late 60s and the others in their 70s, are descended from Albert Heath Carrier and his wife, my namesake, Sara Robertson Carrier. The Robertsons came to the U.S. in the mid-1700s so are sometimes poo-pooed as the Johnny-come-lately family.

While Kathleen Kent's books provided the impetus for the reunion, our own Carrier needs to affirm our connections with past generations as well as a desire to see what seven, eight, nine, ten and even more generations of Martha Carrier's children might look like, spurred many of us from around the United States to attend. Here's what we look like: some of us were old, some young; some were tall like our forefather Thomas and some quite petite like my own grandmother, Catherine Carrier; some were blond and some dark; some heavy and some thin; some had multiple degrees and others carried a laminated copy of their high school diploma in their wallet. We were a motley crew and a microcosm of the U.S. population in many ways. While we sought a connection with the past, we came armed with our own stories of the present to identify us.

One of the descendants is an artist from Colchester, Conn., (a town which Thomas Carrier co-founded after Martha's death) who had a sweatshirt made up which read: "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"
"Neither," says the answer. "I am a Carrier."

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Original Article on Sun-Times Media