Police State Australia
Canaries in a Coal Seam
“I woke up this morning in a curfew
Oh Lord, I was a prisoner, too…”
- Bob Marley
I could hardly breathe, gasping for breath, a landed fish on a beach of dreams, stranded amid bucket seat flotsam and road trip jetsam, twisted inside a scrum of blankets deflecting the cold night air that poured down through the open windows. The atmosphere seemed thin, devoid of oxygen, and not enough of it was making it past my windpipe.
Such things are scarcely surprising to an invalid. Sometimes, when the rainy season has filled my rainforest home with off-the-chart humidity that induces phosphorescent fungi to sprout abundantly and the air is translucent with rare, unclassified moulds, breathing can become a conscious effort. But this was something else, like the full-blown asthma attacks I’d often seen in others but never experienced personally; like breathing underwater through a narrowing straw. And I was far, far from the rainforest.
A hideously noxious odour assailed my flaring nostrils and a cogent thought emerged from the fading dreamscape of bravely desperate tenement dwellers on the edge of a tumbledown town in far-off Argentina;
Someone vomited in the car?
Who could have vomited in the car?
While I heaved air into my chest with tremendous effort, waking mind circled, expanding in ripples that brought some kind of local reality into clearer focus. The most likely source of this olfactory malaise seemed to be the young son of my co-conspirator Alius. The boy is bright and wonderfully engaged with the world, along for this ride through dry western country halfway to the fabled Never Never - but the eight year old certainly wasn’t in the vehicle. He was happily ensconced in a caravan with his father a hundred paces away. And still I couldn’t breathe!
Maybe, if I could get away from whatever was making this terrible smell, breath would come more easily. I popped the rear door and leaned into the darkness, but the flatulent, crapulent odour pursued me so I swung my legs into the back and onto bare dusty ground, pulled up my jeans and gasped for air.
When my body stepped away from the vehicle I felt dry dust well up between my toes and recalled that the car was parked in a huge steel shed with an open side. No wonder it was so dark! Yet the toxic, vomitous, bilious smell was everywhere. It came from all around me, denying all breath. I stepped out of the shed but the night was still black as the proverbial cat in a coal mine and breath came no easier. The moon had set and a sheet of clouds concealed the stars, a mist that descended to the flat dry ground. And then I realised – the smell was coming from the mist. With the mist.
It was a smell that belonged deep in the earth, far from the lungs of human beings or any surface dweller on this good green planet. The terrible smell and the lack of air were harbingers of the disaster unfolding all around us in the darkness.
Now I recognised that odour. I’d smelled it before, in disused basements, antiquated fireplaces and school excursions to steel mills and ports as a child. It was the same smell that pervaded the ruined old gasworks we’d climbed through ripped fencing to play in as children, so long ago on the northerly shore of Sydney Harbour. It was the smell of fossilised death.
This was the stink of coal – or more precisely, a coal mine. Coal dust was pouring down from the sky with the morning dew, seeping into and condensing onto anything and everything, including my struggling lungs. Yet the mine was miles away!
Now that I knew what the formaldehyde stink was, I felt far more calm. There was nowhere to go to escape it, no easy way to flee. It was thoroughly pervasive. I sat on the dirt in the starless void, ignored the smell and practiced breathing, a primordial lungfish bent on survival in a hostile new world - opening my airways with full, deep breaths drawn all the way from the base of my belly, expanding my diaphragm and chest ’til my sternum popped. I practiced life-saving yoga and awaited the coming dawn.
By the time the Sun pinked the eastern sky with a pale pastel palette I could breathe quite easily; almost normally. The smell had faded into the world, my skin, my blood and tissues until I could hardly smell it at all. In a few days I wouldn’t even notice it, consciously - just like the locals who live with it every day for miles and miles all around, on every side of the forest that has become a deep, dark pit in the once fertile land.
An entire, ancient, irreplaceable living forest has been clear-felled - now, in this enlightened New Millennium -bulldozed and burnt and dug up and destroyed, root and branch, erasure way and beyond scorched earth and salted soil, all gone, for a transient coal mine on what remains of Australian soil. The critically endangered White box eucalypt habitat that once existed here is endangered no more. It’s gone. The state government declared it ‘unendangered’ before bulldozing it. The koala colony that had somehow survived in this island of forest surrounded by sunblasted scrub and dry scorched plains was also bulldozed into the ground. Now there will probably be no koalas left in the entire region.
That’s progress, as many who profit from this ecocide still claim in the distant warrens of toxic cities. ‘Coal is good for the planet’, our now disgraced former Prime Monster assures us.
And in defence of this obscenity our cherished freedoms have been erased overnight. Anyone who seriously objects to their crimes is now officially an ecoterrorist. Protest is illegal. Now we can be jailed for years for trying to prevent this destruction. Suddenly, the police have the ability to prevent anyone they deem unfit to avoid public places and property. They can conduct warrantless searches and seizures of anything that may conceivably be used in a protest. We now inhabit a full-blown Police State. In this State, here, now, these laws have been passed specifically to forestall successful protests by Lock The Gate farmers and green environmentalists against coal seam gas drilling – and coal mining – here in the distant Pilliga.
We should have known what was to come when the newly elected government abolished its Environment and Water Resource departments on gaining office. The intrusion of well bribed plutocrats has rendered the entirety of New South Wales a police state, and all of the filthy coal is going to the biggest police state of all - China.
Once upon a time democratic nations refused to trade with undemocratic totalitarian regimes. Our grandparents knew better than to enrich and encourage bastards whose human rights records are among the worst on the planet. Now we welcome their cash with open wallets and become just like them in a rush to the trough and a race to the bottom; the real meaning and result of ‘globalisation’.
Coal is one of the main pollutants of land and sea. Burnt coal is the reason the fish in our oceans are so full of mercury they’re unsafe to eat. It’s one of the main causes for the incredible heat waves and climate instability that’s slowly rendering our lives unliveable. It’s death incarnate, fossilised forests dug up for outmoded, smelly, poisonous fuel by heartless, brainless fossil fools.
And the treadmill-bound urban Munchkins of Oz stay glued to screens in their toxic bunker boxes, mantled in govcorp-bullshitted ignorance, uncaring as long as the circus rolls on and the poisoned loaves and fishes don’t kill them outright. Worked to exhaustion, indebted to the eyeballs, strung out on crippling mortgages, shrinking superannuation and ruinous rents, what chance have they to think, much less protest?
But I am free and footloose and fully informed, and my wife is away on the other side of the globe. What excuses have I not to act, to object, to protest? (A bevy of incurable conditions that render me weak, feverish and barely functional, an invalid pensioner, an ossified sack of skin and bones? Bah!) Onward!
This was Leard Forest (until now)
We wove a path up the Great Divide, the ancient worn mountain range that fringes the entire east coast of the continent. Half the nation’s population inhabits that green fertile eastern fringe, and most of the rest live in large cities and towns strung out at great distances around the circumference of the continent. Only a hardy relative few inhabit the inland beyond the Divide.
Coming down the western side of the mountains is a much shorter drive than the route winding up the tree-covered eastern ridges. Unlikely as it may seem, Australia is, on average, the highest continent on Earth. High and dry. The Western Plains roll off into the distance. Much of this unprepossessing pasture and cropland was once well forested and inhabited by indigenous tribes, but the forests and people were slaughtered to make way for cattle and sheep by brutish British colonists over the last two centuries. Nowadays many inland graziers deny the forests ever existed here, and they’ve ensured little evidence remains to dispute the fallacious claim. But all around the wide flat pastoral acreages their ancestors stole, remnants of forests still cover the hills they deign too hard to clear, giving lie to their specious denials.
But there’s no point blaming the pioneers of the past – not when 3.2 MILLION HECTARES of tree cover has been ‘lost’ on the Australian continent in the last fifteen years alone. Not when one of the world’s richest, best edumacated nations can’t seem to survive without practicing even worse slash and burn aggrocultural techniques than those we ridicule the poor of the ‘Third World’ for enacting. Not when one state alone – Queensland – has felled and trashed so many trees in one year alone that all the nation’s carbon abatement strategies have come to naught.
Not when we’re a nation of drunken jugheads ruled by a coterie of expensively tailored boofheads. Not when it’s done on our purblind watch.
We watched for roadkill all the way, but it wasn’t until we arrived in the Pilliga that we saw our first dead roo by the side of the track. Twenty years ago we’d have passed dozens, scores, even hundreds of carcasses of kangaroos, possums, lizards, birds, wombats and wallabies, cats, dogs, foxes and rabbits, but not anymore. These days there are hardly any dead animals on or beside the road, and that isn’t because they’ve learned to look before leaping. It isn’t because the roads are swept and verges cleared more diligently. It’s because there’s hardly any wildlife left. That simple. We’ve destroyed and poisoned so much habitat there are hardly any canaries left in the global deforested coal mine.
There are hardly even any insects smashing their lives out on the windscreen. But of course, hardly anyone notices anything by its absence, and most people notice nothing at all of substance. Their hearts and minds, ears and eyes are thoroughly screened. We drove half the day and most of the night until we arrived on the leading edge of the Ends of the Earth - drying scrub, dustbowl farms, desiccated plains leading on and on to the full-blown deserts of central Australia.
This is the Liverpool Plains, a major food bowl for the entire nation and the world beyond. Crops line up in monocultural plenty, stretching across laser-flat fields to the distant scrub covered hills, drenched in biocides and nightly baths of coal dust. Only precarious underground aquifers make farming a realistic proposition out here. Only the subterranean bounty of the Great Artesian Basin makes any agriculture or any sustainable ‘modern’ life possible at all further west.
Now avarice and thoughtless greed have slunk back into Gomerai country (home to indigenous clans that somehow survived the onslaught of guns, money and desolation) from far off lands to threaten it all, and we follow in its grimy tracks, prisoners of our consciences.
Alius has called ahead, to warn Cliff of our late arrival. Cliff Wallace doesn’t usually encourage people to turn up on his place after ten at night, and we’re arriving after three in the morning. But Alius is well acquainted with the tall rugged farmer, who’s ready for us when our tiny urban commuter finally trundles down the rough gravelled road that runs past his gate. We turn into the rustic yard beside his classic wooden farmhouse. Man-high spiralling rolls of dry cut grass stand sentinel alongside the dusty road.
In ridgy-didge Aussie style everyone seems to refer to him as ‘Cliffie’, but that affectionate diminutive can’t detract from the fact that this robust yet elderly gent is indeed a towering cliff of a man. He greets us with a scarf wrapped round his neck against the early morning chill, suspiciously eyes another couple of passing vehicles on the remote stretch of road and invites us into his kitchen, where an antique woodburner stove emits congenial warmth and heats water for tea beneath a high tongue-in-groove wooden ceiling.
Cliff has endured years of struggle to save his land from impending destruction. The Leard Forest coal pit is only a few kilometres from his door and is slated to expand all the way into the aquifer he uses to water his crops and stock in the unforgiving terrain. He regales us with updates and anecdotes from the front line of global destruction. He sadly shakes his head at the prospect of the fine young people who’ve travelled so far to help being faced with lengthy jail terms for their troubles – along with himself and his farming neighbours.
The entire eastern half of Australia is now a fully functional police state. All the eastern states have enacted anti-protest laws which are unacceptable in any democracy. By definition, fascism is government by corporations, thinly veiled or otherwise, and that is what’s happened to this country over the past few months and years. Democracy is gasping for breath like a canary in a Chinese coal mine, along with freedoms of speech, assembly, protest, personal privacy, sovereignty and, well, me.
The oldest and most populous state, New South Wales, is run by a COALition of two parties. Put simply, the ‘Liberal’ Party is a party that serves the interests of bosses large and small and the well-to-do, and its lesser partner the ‘National’ Party (previously the Country Party of the nation’s vanishing smallhold farmers) effectively works solely for Big Aggroculture and huge transnational resource extractors and ‘developers’ – loggers, oil giants, chemical corpses and miners who dig up resources and ship them off on a gargantuan scale.
The Opposition Labor Party has been up against these two affiliated right wing parties for most of its existence and yet somehow still manages to occasionally take the reins for a while when the COALition becomes too egregious even for the tastes of its rusted-on supporters. Yet the once mighty party of the workers has almost as little time for environmental causes as the other two miscreant parties that have ganged up on it so successfully for so long.
Both sides scream ‘JOBS!’ as though work absolves all sins, as though temporary throwaway jobs can be balanced against the destruction of irreplaceable natural wonders and national resources. Both cite ‘the economy’ as the ultimate arbiter of truth, but neither can tell you how to follow this fictive entity’s apparent dictates without trashing everything that makes life worthwhile. They all think they live on a throwaway planet.
And for decades now the biggest corporations have effectively paid NO tax. Every few years someone trots out the stats, but no-one does anything and they’re soon forgotten. The truth is that ludicrously corpulent corporations steal everything they can get away with, leaving the rest of us to pay for and pick up after them – and they can get away with anything and everything they like, because they own our ‘governments’ and everyone in them, lock stock and barrel, offering our elected ‘representatives’ the choice of taking the money or getting the gun; being bribed or having their sins exposed.
Almost every man Jack and woman Jill of our representatives in government are bribed, blackmailed or otherwise coerced by big corporations, and/or so thoroughly corrupted by power they can’t remember what they’re actually supposed to do or be any more. They bury whatever vestiges of conscience remain, forget representing the people who voted for them and follow the party line to hell if necessary.
Hardly any of them could come up with a real solution to save their lives – or yours. They allow the population to be drenched with poisons and scammed by mobsters in clubs and casinos. They jail half the indigenous men in the country and keep stealing what remains of their land, laughing all the way to the bank with lifetime pensions and golden handshakes paid for by witless taxpayers. They allow property developers to get away with murder as they sell out the nation. And they take bribe after bribe from corporations huge and small without ever being caught or brought to book by a hopeless, corrupt judiciary.
Politicians are almost all zombies, half-dead lawyer people with little actual life experience stumbling through a sleepwalking daze and sleepless nights, and the few that are still alive and vital won’t last long amidst their ranks. Those who join to change the system are invariable changed or destroyed by it.
To quote our sometimes friend the great Benny Zable, famed for wearing his slogans on a black death grim reaper costume from Times Square to the Pilliga, silently peering through full-face gas mask on podiums around the world - a living Masque of the Red Death before the banquet tables of the elite - “There are no jobs on a dead planet”.
Out here, out of sight, this mine is even allowed to leave the gaping pit where the Leard Forest once stood wide open – a blot and scar on the landscape forever after. The government doesn’t even bother to lie about ‘mine remediation’ here. All the vast expansive expensive mess will be left for taxpayers to clean up – or more likely not.
Farmers like Cliff now have nowhere to turn politically, except to the Greens of all people (ironically, the erstwhile nemesis of the nation’s farmers has become their only ally). He fills us in on latest developments before we all grab some shut-eye – and a lungful of coal dust.
So here we are, at the ends of the Earth, trying to turn back the tide with brave thoughts, words and deeds as the bedrock of our freedoms crumbles beneath our feet.
Lock The Gate has had huge success further east in the state, where a giant gas corporation foolishly attempted to frack prime agricultural land in the hippie heartland of the lush Northern Rivers. The Bentley blockade of farmers and greens stopped them in their tracks, but this great win for sanity and the environment put the wind up the desperate dim-witted state government. Now another foolish giant has the unquestioning backing of the state’s premier buffoon and all his gormless ministers.
The drive to the main Pilliga camp passes through amazingly flat sun-blasted country that may seem dubiously marginal to untrained eyes, but underground water supplies make it extraordinarily rich in crops and livestock. A few weeks back a savage bushfire caused the evacuation of the protest camp, and as we approach we pass through completely black trees, scrub and shrubs. Green shoots of rebirth cover almost all the vegetation, creating a livid contrast to the blackened wood and deep red soil. The bush out here is extraordinarily resilient.
The fire stopped only a few hundred metres from the campsite. It’s an extraordinarily well-run operation, redolent of a thoroughly organised army bivouac. The site is hosted by concerned local landholders, replete with a huge camp kitchen, stage, media hut, meeting area and sundry other spaces, public and private, all covered with expansive tarpaulins, powered by solar panels and surrounded by a small tent city that stretches out beneath scrubby trees. A staunch core of seasoned protesters and Lock The Gaters keeps everything together for the larger groups of supporters and protesters that sporadically arrive for specific protests at the nearby site of corporate destruction.
Sanitation is carefully observed by everyone – even the independent ‘pirate camp’ of ferals a short distance upslope. Toddlers play in the shade of the trees, enjoying the bush, swinging rope, sandpit and other amenities. A true child of protesters, Alius’ patient, longhaired young son is in his element, right at home.
The camp can easily accommodate hundreds, but only a score or so are here when we arrive. They await reinforcements who’ll arrive the next day for a dawn action at nearby toxic water holding ponds, where an illegal processing facility is about to be constructed without as much as an environmental impact statement by the truculent gas corporation. Acutely aware of the incoming laws, the protesters are nonetheless ready to be arrested – just like the brave souls who climb atop a coal train at Leard Forest today, holding up the extraction process even as we arrive at the Pilliga camp a few horizons distant. (I decide not to shoot the arrests with my little HD camera; under the current circumstances there’s no point supplying ammunition that may be used against the defenders of Gaia in court.)
The staunch core is always in danger of burning out – not merely being burnt out by suspicious bushfires, but the even more common burnout factor which applies to pretty much everyone who has tried to maintain the rage against the machine for any extended length of time. All remote protest camps are always in dire need of reinforcements. Your planet needs YOU! If you’re genuinely unable to make it to a place where activists are putting their lives and freedom on the line for everyone else, you can always take advantage of crowd funding opportunities – but make sure the funding goes directly to the camps on the ground and beneath the canopies, not to distant ‘environmental organisations’ who already have enough money to pay their CEOs six figure sums.
We returned to Leard the next day, to witness the (hopefully temporary) closing of the protest camp there. Unlike the expansive Lock The Gate protest site, the hardy few camped near Leard have virtually no support at all after Greenpeace pulled out and declared the action to save the forest ‘over’. Cliff and the handful of other locals become even more isolated in their endeavours, even as the film ‘Black Hole’ – which tells their story – does the rounds of cinemas and meeting halls to inform farflung handfuls of interested Australians. Maybe you’ll get to see it on Youtube soon, before the forest is utterly annihilated instead of merely totally decimated (in the modern sense).
Another thousand kilometre trek home to the eastern foothills– taking a different scenic route to give a lift to Aquitaine, one of the dreadlocked feral protesters. We wind down the eastern face of the Great Divide, much of it along slow, twisting forest roads through monoculture tree plantations that have replaced the real native forest with elegant but now commercially useless Flooded gums – another legacy of past govern-mental stupidity. The truckie in front of us throws piles of litter and garbage from the driver’s window. It bounces straight into the forest and ‘disappears’.
And yet, as we pass through a stretch of wide, tall trees in a nature reserve ringed by plantation Flooded gums, a strange creature scuttles across the road directly in front of us. Aquitaine and I have both done quite a bit of fauna survey work in remote forests, but neither of us recognises the strange marsupial that prances through our headlights. It looks very like a Brush-tailed possum, or its recently classified Northern Short-eared cousin, except for the fact it’s completely black and seemingly a little more robust; a black, nocturnal marsupial that’s probably never been officially classified in these rich unique forests that are felled, destroyed and replaced without so much as a fauna or flora survey beforehand…
My father took my brother and I to the protests against LBJ when that US president toured Sydney in 1968 amid full-blown riots against the Vietnam war. The local New South Wales state premiere had scowled at the crowds and told his driver to “run the bastards down”. Anarchists poured bags of marbles onto the street while police horses charged into the crowd. My father dragged his young sons into the nearest doorway to avoid the rioting. It was one of those long-gone ornate cinemas, a movie palace for the people near Sydney’s Town Hall, and as the staff locked the doors we entered to watch How To Steal A Million (starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole)while the battle went on outside.
Perhaps little has changed after all.
My grandfather, who ultimately escaped two life sentences in Siberia to finally make it all the way to Australia with his wife (who’d been jailed in another concentration camp in30-below ice and snow) thanks to his hard working son, was very proud of his political activities.
How can I explain to my father – a man now in his nineties – that the totalitarian police state he managed to escape has finally pursued him here, to this once free country at the farthest ends of the Earth?
If only we had a Bill of Rights, many of these struggles would be over before they began. Australia is the only Western nation that hasn’t bothered to write one. While everyone here bleats about ‘constitutional reform’, rewritten preambles, republicanism and symbolic heads of state, the most important element of a modern constitution is completely missing in action, its absence almost thoroughly unremarked. What a bunch of gormless dorks we are!
None of our rights or freedoms have ever been given willingly by our self-styled, self-important political or economic ‘masters’. Today’s ‘rights’ enjoyed by Western women, workers, the poor, indigenous people and segments of the natural world have been dearly bought with the sacrifices of undistinguished and largely unremembered individuals. Our ancestors fought tooth and nail for every tiny advance, every little step towards a fair and just society. It’s never been easy, and it’s almost always depended on a few brave, foolish prisoners of conscience who eternally fight to keep the bastards honest – or at least accountable.
Be one of us. Please.
Now I sit here in my little handmade hardwood cabin, typing on my laptop, carefully husbanding my limited solar power supply to keep writing this little screed. I eat feijoas – pineapple guavas – and cherry guavas straight off the trees I planted years ago, just outside the door. Soon I’ll jump in the river filled with fish and turtles that still flows through this land – because twenty years ago dozens of strangers came to this remote forest to help me save the creek’s headwaters from logging destruction.
“What did you do in the war against our planet, daddy and mummy?” Little wonder there are so few remnants of Paradise on Earth remaining – but a few survive amidst the desolation wrought by mining, logging and ranching, tucked out of sight of human ‘progress’. We’ve saved a few – for now. We’ve saved a lot for our children to save, when their time comes to stand against the machine.
If we stand up for Mother Nature we have a chance. If we don’t, no-one does. Please go out and see the world while it’s still there. It’s really a very beautiful place, far more lovely than anything indoors or in cities. You may even decide to save some of it for later.
Just leave all the crap behind. It’s worth it.
- R. Ayana
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