Sunday, December 31, 2006

2006: index to posts

This page will hold an index of sorts to my posts of this year.

I'll be doing a bit of a cull, to make the list more manageable.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

2006: The notable issues

Again, some trends that are not new, but are important this year.

1. Climate change
Of course, the number one issue, thankfully. Awareness due in no small part to Al Gore and to the Stern Review. We will live to see global changes, and the only question is, how much political will we can generate, and how much we can ameliorate the change. I foresee a decrease in dithering, particularly once Bush exits. But the battle will always be there: how much action we are willing to take versus how much change we can put up with. Aside from the spoiler action of vested interests, the chief problem is that as humans, we discount the future too much - that is, we put high value on the present, and lower value on the future. At 50-odd years before we face a significantly different environment, adjusting those values is a big ask.

2. Middle east
The number two issue of the year is a clash of values between the extremes of Western and Muslim culture. The only way to bring the temperature down is to defuse the pressure points. And those are Palestine and Iraq. In that order. However, Israel's plans to build new settlements in the West Bank prove that they were never genuine in leaving Gaza: they were just regrouping. I can't see an easy solution, since Israel and its financier, the US, both have too much voter pressure to adjust their course. The tension ripples not just through the immediate region, but throughout the world.
For Iraq, it's hard to see any action that would halt the civil war. Perhaps if the US and allies left, it would stabilise faster, but not without much more violence.

3. Collaboration and the Internet

Largely covered in yesterday's post. Business is gearing up with Web 2.0; individuals are creating their own vision with MySpace and Blogs. And the two are crossing over - for example, companies (such as IBM) are seeing value in the virtual reality site, Second Life. A powerful force for global unity.

4. Economic giants wake, and shake the world
China and India, that is. Their increasing economic clout will change world dynamics.

5. US mid-term elections

This has brought about a change in the power balance within the US. The voters chiefly rebelled against corruption and the Iraq war - and ignored climate change. But without knowing the solution to either Iraq or "corruption" (hint: there are systemic issues), they simply voted out the incumbents [at the margins]. Likewise those in office (or aspiring) have no real answers. However - and this is again at the margins - the political character of the US has shifted somewhat, which will do something to ease international tensions.

6. Change at the helm in Australian politics
New opposition leader Kevin Rudd makes next year's federal election an open contest. As the election draws closer, we may see some amelioration of the worst of policies on industrial relations, health, education, and foreign affairs. Somewhat more change if the ALP wins.

(You might notice that I haven't nominated terrorism, Iran, or North Korea. However, you can see that there is some congruence between my list and that of US Associated Press editors. Sad to see that as proof that the US still doesn't really get it on climate change.)

Friday, December 29, 2006

2006: Notable technology

2006 was an exciting year in technology. Not so much for the ultra-new, but for pre-existing trends that are now more pervasive. What do you imagine the internet should be? In an ideal world, we'd have permanent online access to the world's information, and be able to communicate and work with people on a global basis. This year we can see how it can happen.

My take on the tech year is notable for the following trends, for me an essential part of our technological future, and figuring large in 2006.

Knowledge base of the year: Wikipedia (and Google)Despite what some say, Wikipedia is for me what I had imagined for the internet over ten years ago - and couldn't find. That is, an answer to any question that occurs to me. Wikipedia doesn't do that, but on the whole it comes pretty close, and acts as an excellent primer (and often more) for any subject that is not too obscure or localised, and a large number that are. Proof: Wikipedia has entered the common lexicon, not just that of the technically literate. And if you don't think it presents every side of a given story, test it out. Add content yourself. Find out how disputed points are mediated.
Google, too, has been around for some years. Some are trying to trump it, but it certainly hasn't happened yet. Also a part of the modern lexicon.

Democratisation of the year: personal content creation, via blogs, Myspace and YouTube, Digg, and many others.

Promise of the year: web 2.0 collaboration. I really don't think we've scratched the surface of what the internet can foster in the way of collaboration. This is another of the grand visions for the internet that is only just beginning to come to fruition.

Device of the year: wireless laptop. No question. You don't know what it's like until you've tried it. Open up the computer, resume, and talk to someone, find the answers from Wikipedia, or upload the information and ideas yourself.

Infrastructure of the year: two essentials here: broadband and XML.
Broadband covers any number of sins, down to communication via a wet piece of string. But access to decent bandwidth is essential for information wealth.
XML has also been around for a while, but it's become hard to avoid tripping over it (save when it's hidden behind the scenes), as it's become a standard for the exchange of information. Store it as xml and you save the form, not just the content.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006: Notable deaths

Some significant departures this year:

1. Robert Altman
A tragic loss to film: an innovative director with an inspirational body of work. My favourite is Gosford Park (so lush!), followed by The Player, but special mention to significant others such as MASH, Nashville, and Prairie Home Companion.

2. Betty Friedan - very influential US feminist

3. Coretta Scott King – civil rights activist in her own right, and widow of Martin Luther King.

4. Ahmet Ertegün - US executive (Turkish origins) of Atlantic records. greatly influential in popular music from the 1950s onwards, his name is ubiquitous. Signed Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin and others, and put the Young into Crosby, Stills and Nash.

5. Ali Farka Touré – Mali guitarist. A sublime blend of US blues and authentic African traditions.

6. Grant McLennan – Australian musician/songwriter/singer. Although he’s well known as a leading light of the Go Betweens, his best work was with Snow Job, the second album from Jack Frost, a collaboration with Church stalwart Steve Kilbey. My comments here.

7. Harry Seidler – Australian architect, responsible for some hideous travesties such as Blues Point Tower and Australia Square (some 'experts' actually like it!), but a significant modernist force.

8. Steve Irwin – for his conservation work, and the money he directed to that cause. Not for his tv personality, which belies the sophistication that is Australia.

9. Augusto Pinochet – Mass murdering Chilean dictator. Should have died rotting in jail, but was still being chased by the justice system. Wrote a letter for posthumous release that sought exculpation, but strangely neglected to mention the deaths, disappearances, tortures and child stealings that he was responsible for.

10. PW Botha – penultimate white South African Prime Minister, unreconstructed racist, responsible for repression and death.

11. Saddam Hussein [update 30-December] - the butcher of Baghdad was executed. He deserved to rot in jail. But it would have exacerbated regional tensions, unless incarcerated in an absolutely neutral - and stable - country. There's no true justification for capital punishment.

Others of note:

Music: Syd Barrett, Wilson Pickett (his Hey Jude brought Duane Allman to Derek and the Dominoes, although Allman’s work on Boz Scaggs’ Loan Me A Dime was more significant), Lou Rawls (the sultry You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine), Gene Pitney, Elisabeth Swartzkopf (opera) , James Brown, Sam Neely

Literature: Stanislaw Lem (science fiction writer), Mickey Spillane (detective Hammett)

Politics: Alfred Stroessner (the villain of Paraguay) , Lloyd Bentsen, Gerald Ford, Caspar Weinburger, John Profumo

Film: Glen Ford, Jack Wild

TV: Joseph Barbera (Hanna Barbera cartoons), Aaron Spelling, Don Knotts (‘Barney’s in jail, Barney’s in jail’), Maureen Stapleton (more than All In The Family)

Australian: Peter Brock

A league of his own: Ivor Cutler

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

2006: Notable Films

Favourites seen this year, in order of appreciation. I’ve included the best of older films that I’ve seen for the first time this year. When I look back on it, the films that were ultimately unsatisfying were mostly Hollywood blockbusters.

1. An Inconvenient Truth (USA, 2006)
At the top because it was both a riveting film, and a significant documentary. Not to mention the positive effect it had on the most important issue our era, climate change. My original comments here.

2. Thank You For Smoking (USA, 2006)
An excellent film all through. Well written, acted, directed, cast, and particularly funny. My comments here.

3. The Prestige (USA/UK, 2006)
Annoying the first time around, but ultimately very clever and challenging. You need to see it twice to understand the plot and the nuances, but it’s worth it. Rather grim in places. My comments here and later here.

4. Casino Royale (USA, 2006)
Definitely the best bond film. Had almost none of the cheesiness and cliché of the rest. Very engaging, great pace, rather violent. The only Hollywood "blockbuster" this year I really liked.

5. Children Of Men (UK/USA 2006)
A bleak but redemptive film of the near future. Some stunning scenes. Comments here.

6. Mullet (Australia, 2001)
Although small in scope, it’s a particularly good Australian film. Accept the small focus and appreciate the story. For my money, it’s better than the much-lauded Jindabyne, a similarly small-scope Australian film. Comments here.

7. Lady In The Water (USA, 2006)
A good modern fable, good storytelling from M Night Shyamalan, whose films are always unusual. Comments here.

8. Syriana (USA, 2005)
A powerful, very topical film about oil politics. And it had George Clooney, the most watchable actor of our times. Comments here.

9. Beat the Devil (USA, 1953)
Criminally underrated (albeit patchy) spoof of films like Casablanca, but the witty script is fast, so you have to listen carefully to catch it all. Get it on video to rewind as necessary. Comments here.

10. A Prairie Home Companion (USA, 2006)
Robert Altman's final film, although not perfect, was small in scope and big in heart. Some surprisingly good singing from Meryl Streep and others.

Close on the heels of the last film above were The Man With The Golden Arm (USA, 1955) and Play It Again Sam (USA, 1972).

Sunday, December 24, 2006


It’s a bit tragic when some people work themselves into a lather about Christmas as a festival season. US conservative Christians complaining (spuriously) they’re not allowed to mention Christmas, while others get worked up about whether it’s a religious holiday or not.

It took me a long time to realise that the awkward phrase ‘seasons greetings’ is meant to be a neutral holiday wish, an alternative to ‘merry christmas’. Now I’m bemused by the card we got from a Youth Off The Streets priest: seasons greetings on the outside and a Christian message on the inside.

I’m happy if everyone just embraces the spirit. Christians, by all means, can appreciate the special meaning for them; at the same time, everyone can enjoy the secular traditions of the christmas season.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Kofi Annan: wisdom in a trying role

It's a shame to see Kofi Annan end his term as Secretary-General of the United Nations.

It's tempting to say that if the Americans don't like him, he must be doing well, but there's a little more to it than a glib backhander.

In fact, he comes across as a particularly intelligent, thoughtful person, as I found when I listened to an interview on BBC radio recently.

The position is that of a diplomat, first and foremost – and a very difficult position it is. He has no real muscle, and all the while must defend the UN from US agendas and the tendency of the US to treat the UN like a handbag.

He's been vocal constantly on issues of significant peril, such as Darfur and HIV/AIDS. And in his sunset days, he gave a pointed and strong message on global warming to the most recent climate change conference, in Nairobi.

But he can only attempt to persuade, not enact. And he bore on his shoulders the weight of a relatively weak organisation that can only achieve what its members want to achieve.

It's interesting to note that a survey of US political cartoons on the UN was almost entirely negative. The only distraction for the cartoonists was the clownish departing US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton.

Still, even the US remembers at times that there is nobody else for the job but the UN. Whether America approves of the results or not, it's clear a UN presence reduces bloodshed and ameliorates human disasters. Not to mention the various agencies at work on such issues as refugees and human rights.

Convenient for all when they are needed, ignored when they are not. It's a brave job that Annan took on. Let's home the new Secretary-General (Korea's Ban Ki-moon) has the same wisdom, compassion, and diplomacy as Annan.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Climate change: Don't blame it for everything - yet

Most analysts acknowledge you need a range of solutions to improve climate change outcomes. Most acknowledge that things will get appreciably worse before they stabilise. But few are willing to use recent unusual climatic phenomena as proof. For example, the following are not generally taken as proof:

  • Hurricane Katrina devastating New Orleans: yes, weather fluctuations will be more extreme, storms wilder, but this is not necessarily noticeable yet;

  • That mammoth iceberg off the coast of New Zealand was not taken as evidence. On the other hand, the Antarctic ice shelves are definitely breaking up

  • Australia is still in the midst of the longest and worst drought in recorded history. Still not evidence that weather patterns have already changed.

However, more easily acceptable evidence lies at the the cold regions of the planet. These areas will be – are – the first to experience permanent environmental change. This includes the thawing of the Russian tundra, the retreating of the snows of Kilimanjaro [predicted to be gone by about 2020: the local ecosystem and people rely on water from the seasonal melts], the retreating of glaciers, and the vanishing ice in the seas off Alaska.

It's important to get it in perspective, and avoid blaming everything on this phenomenon. But it's also important to recognise what will change, and the devastation of whole ecosystems, which is hiding behind the headlines. Yet every incremental step we take will achieve good.

Next time around, the last hungry mile of personal responsibility: carbon offsetting, and why it is proving so difficult at this early stage of action.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

It's like a Data Warehousing genie

I met with someone this week who was working on a large Data Warehouse/Business Intelligence project.

At the large enterprise level, it's hard to get close to the ideal in a Data Warehouse. The task is positively Hurculean, to schedule feeds from a large number of data sources, cleanse the data, integrate it, and store it. The data integration task alone would be daunting, and could conceivably take forever. Why? Because if you do the right thing and involve all interested business units, it could be a neverending talkfest. Especially if there are competing interests. And much as people can talk about eliminating stovepipes (around the various business areas), there is always going to be competing interests, people concerned with building, maintaining, expanding their domains.

So I was unsurprised to hear there was a certain amount of descoping. Not enough, to my mind, to match the realities of a large business environment.

But on the positive side, ever business or technical issue I raised (on a broad level) was matched with a plan of action, or at least a firm awareness of the issue. So I'm happy to let them run with it – I'm not an enterprise architect.

But on the even more positive side, look what they were promising the data user! An array of different tools to access the DW, from (almost raw) SQL coding to (vanilla) data mining tools, and various options in between. But wait – that's not all. They were also offering the data user access to several levels of data, from modelled representations to raw tables, even as far as allowing access to the [ETL] staging area.

What does that mean? On one level, if the tool you're using doesn't give you the productivity you're after, you can go for something more gui-based. Conversely, if it doesn't give you the level of control you're after, you can go more towards SQL. And if you're not confident about the data you're receiving, you can drill behind the model, to the tables, then to the staging data.

What better access could you ask for? It's like wish fulfilment.

Prototypes are a matter of months away. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ethics: Why shouldn't they do the fighting for us?

This ethical issue popped up not so long ago in the US, distilled into the above Doonesbury cartoon by Garry Trudeau.

I'm not sure that the point is obvious enough, given the furore that generated this cartoon. Privilege will always try to get someone else to fight the battles.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Film: Beat The Devil (1953) - a must-see

Why is this film a hidden gem? Looking at a few reference books, comments on Beat The Devil ranged from ‘cult favourite’ to ‘undeserved cult favourite’.

Many people saw it as rather patchy, due to a variable pace and talkiness. But there is great enjoyment in the dry wit, and some truly superb delivery.

This is due in no small part to the script (John Huston, Truman Capote), and the presence of another hidden gem, Jennifer Jones. She delivers her lines with such charming verve that she stands out in a high calibre cast.

This cast includes Peter Lorre, Robert Morley, Gina Lollabrigida (as, well, Gina Lollobrigida) and Humphry Bogart just playing Bogart.

It was something of a parodic take on earlier Bogart films, although the “low-key nature of the comedy eluded many people”, including Bogart, who “doesn’t seem to get the joke”. He notably said “only the phonies liked it” – but it’s easy to tell the comedy doesn’t sit with him, and he delivers the lines like the dramatic adventure film it’s meant to spoof.

Lorre reprises his earlier character, while Morley substitutes for Sydney Greenstreet as seen in Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Morley is easily the other standout, with a comedic delivery unmatched by anyone here except Jones. Marco Tulli rounds out the band of rogues (with Morley and Lorre) simply because his form adds great slapstick effect to the three of them trotting around together.

The combination of script, Jones and Morley make for a cracker of a film, and the cinematic candy of Bogart, Lorre and Lollobrigida round off a very worthwhile experience.

Chelm: Now look here, this boat is definitely, most definitely, scheduled to sail at 24 hundred hours.

Italian sailor: Scheduled, Mr Chelm, but not, I fear, destined to do so.

[Bogart]: Propeller gone, or is the captain drunk?

Italian sailor: Oh but of course the captain is drunk. But the real trouble is the oil pump…

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

ALP’s new team upsets next year’s election

I can’t say Australia’s politics will never be the same, but the fact that Australia’s new Opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, can speak Mandarin, may be significant for Australia’s future.

It’s certainly momentous that we have Peter Garrett, ex-Midnight Oils singer, as the Opposition Environment spokesman. Despite the fact that he never wrote the Oil’s lyrics, he’s always been articulate and thoughtful, inclusive of a stint as head of the Australian Conservation Foundation. He was also a candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party, and is now at odds with his leader on uranium mining. But that’s quite normal in politics, despite the tabloid headlines.

Garrett will most certainly bump up the ALP vote. Yet under any other circumstance, he would have stayed on the backbenches forever. Although he was parachuted into the safe seat of Maroubra (my own electorate – yes, I get to vote directly for or against him), Garret is not aligned to any ALP faction, which is normally the kiss of death for a political career. But surprisingly, Rudd was able to break the factional stranglehold on the front bench, either through the momentum of his leadership win or because the ALP are desparate. In any case, both leadership contenders had been from the right, so it wasn’t that radical a change.

In demeanour, Rudd matches Howard’s conservatism, which should go down well with marginal voters. Yet Howard’s strength as a political player is equally his weakness as a statesman, as Rudd immediately identified: “his talents, skills and abilities are so focused on the arts and crafts of immediate political survival that he has lost sight of the nation's long-term needs, the nation's long-term prosperity”.

As the polls have indicated, next year’s election is now wide open. But as we’ve seen over the past ten years, the gap between now and the election is a lifetime in politics.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Prestige (US, 2006), take 2: Nine things I didn't know the first time I watched the film

In the end, there was so much I couldn't resolve after I'd seen The Prestige the first time, that I had to see it a second time. Comments on the first outing are here - these comments elaborate those.

***** Warning: Spoilers below! *****

1. The core motif is Obsession
When all is stripped back, the only thing left is obsession. The three main protagonists each face their moment of decision, and they ultimately cling to their obsession more than anything else. This is remarkably similar to Nolan's earlier film Memento, where the protagonist at a key juncture is so pissed off with a character that he writes himself a deliberately misleading note condemning that character.

2. Why Angier killed himself - several times
Angier was fully aware that each time he threw the switch on the duplication machine, he would be killing himself. Why was he unworried? Simply because Cutter [Michael Caine] had said earlier that a sailor claimed his near-death drowning experience was "like going home". He thought he wouldn't suffer. Yet, Caine was simply trying to comfort Angier over the death of his wife, and indicated as much later when he said that it was really agony.

3. Tesla was played by David Bowie
Having read later that Tesla was played by Bowie, I regarded the character's appearance with heightened interest the next time around. But even knowing it was he, I found it a struggle to recognise Bowie in the character. Maybe he was significantly older than when I last saw him; maybe Bowie was such a good actor, with good makeup.

4. Nearly every line in the film spoke to the secrets that were revealed later
There are some detective writers that give the reader the opportunity to work out the solution; others simply show how clever they are without giving the reader a chance. I contend that Nolan never intended sufficient clarity in his clues to discern the truth.

5. What knot did he tie?
"Part of me says one, part of me says the other." Every time Angier asked Borden how he tied up Angier's wife for that fatal trick, he was asking the Borden that didn't do it.

6. The little girl provides the only redemptive warmth in the film
It's a cold work - being so focused on obsession. The girl has her father in the end - and that's it. Caine was touched by this redemption (in fact, engineered it).

7. There wasn't any modern clothing
Contrary to my earlier recollection, there was no scene with modern-day clothing in it. The scene I recalled had relatively non-descript clothing, but it wasn't out of keeping with the time. In struggling with the hidden premise, I forged an assumption that some contemporary element was involved, but that wasn't the case.

8. It is thoroughly impossible to catch all the nuances of the film unless you see it twice
I was resisting the return trip, but there was simply too much I couldn't answer. It all fell in place the second time around. Yet I was pleasantly surprised that I could get enough out of the second viewing to consistently hold my attention.

9. It is worth seeing twice
It's a hard film, but rich and worth watching in many ways.

Monday, December 11, 2006

3G Mobile phones - not really!

3G refers to third generation mobile phone technology. Specifically, it allows for voice and data transfer concurrently. The obvious consumer-end application is video telephony.

For the analysis and planning for implementation of technology, it really helps to have some understanding how take-up is going for that technology.

Well, that's all been cruelled by a recent survey from Nielsen Media Research. Inter alia, it found that nearly half Australia's mobile phone users think they're using 3G already! The sharpest increase in (perception of) 3G use was among Telstra users, up from 14% to over 40% in a single quarter.

Among Virgin Mobile users, 41% claimed to use 3G - yet Virgin don't even provide that service yet!

This is what happens when you market heavily to teenagers.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Radiodread: ok computer simulation

Ok computer is one of the best, possibly one of the most important, rock albums ever. It is dark, complex, emotional, innovative - and consistently ranks at or near the top in popular and critic polls.*

With music so moving, so captivating, I'm always keen to hear more, further mine the vein.

To Radiohead's great credit - unfortunately - they moved on immediately, so their later music sounds more electronic, less rock - and more impenetrable.

And now there's variations on the theme from the Easy Star Allstars: Radiodread, a reggae version of the full album Ok Computer.

This is a fine line to tread: you can alienate either those people seeking true faith with the album, or those who expect something more.

Yet it works, very well. It is faithful to the original - with a reggae beat. This sweetens, softens the original mood, but presents very creditable music, good guitar - and freshens the grooves the music has worn in my mind.

Why did they do it? Apparently due to wide acclaim for their previous project - a reggae version of Dark Side Of The Moon. Looking forward to it.

*See for example, Rate Your Music, and the recent poll of Australia's JJJ listeners.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

World: Australia/New Zealand Union: not on

An Australian parliamentary committee has effectively recommended Australia and New Zealand merge.

The idea is not new. In fact, it's older than Australia. We federated as a nation in 1901, with provision in the constitution for New Zealand to become part of the federation at a later time.

There is a certain inevitability about the suggestion. New Zealand is just too small to survive on its own in this modern world.

But it's undoubtedly unpopular in New Zealand, and will remain so. Simply, NZ would be swamped by Australia. And contrary to the cartoon above, it would be simply impractical to locate the capital in New Zealand. Sure, we'd like their water, but I believe they're in something of a drought themselves, if not to the length and depth of Australia's. Still, there are certain synergies. For example, we each have our notorious redneck politician. Our Pauline Hanson is much more vociferous and, well, stupid, but theirs, Winston Peters, is... wait for it... Foreign Minister!

Seriously, there is a lot of room to move, in terms of normalising regulatory regimes - much of which has already been done. And the European Union has demonstrated how political union can be achieved, in a practical sense. Much as the EU is distrusted in the UK, what the union has accomplished has revolutionised the global political landscape both as a trailblazer and in providing a counter to the moral, cultural and financial hegemony of the US.

Perversely, given the relative size of the project, I think it would take a lot longer to achieve something similar here.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

If it's not cricket, what is it?

Adelaide. Second Ashes test, 2006. One of the best ever test wins?

I can't believe it. How can anyone so comprehensively snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory?

Well, the poms can. Imagine declaring at 551, almost too late for a result, only to collapse for 129 in the second innings! Not only that, but they can't even contain a fast chase. They've proven they can bat, but Australia - significantly - does well at both batting and fielding. It's a bit of an ask to expect anyone to consistently match Australia's fielding ability which, on the whole, is in a class of its own.

I wasn't really expecting the poms to win the second test. It was always going to be a draw. But a loss!?

My mate celebrates every victory, no matter how humiliating. Me, I think Australia has been ahead of the game for so long, that it doesn't hurt to allow in a loss every now and then. The Ashes loss last year was never going to be a new spring for English cricket. Its ultimate result was to provide some cricket tragics with the illusion of real competition.

If it's any consolation, I look forward to the day when Warne is out of the picture permanently. Regardless of his cricketing ability, a man of that calibre shouldn't be on the team. And it gives Australia the opportunity to show how strong the side is all round.

Meanwhile, the poms can always beat New Zealand.

Tech: help at hand for tech support

I was talking to a bloke who was having trouble with his broadband connection. Trouble was, there were several links in the chain (eg hardware, software, ISP), and they kept fobbing him off to someone else – ‘not my problem, it’s theirs”, etc.

Trouble is, that bloke figured I was in computers, so I could help him. All I could do was tell him I’d been in the same boat myself. I’ve paid a few times to have a support bloke come in. One time they changed the modem – because the service call was cheaper if they did so. (Now I have a spare modem that may – or may not – still work.)

I suggested there’s a fair bit of money to be made in taking on full I.T. support for people. Somewhere between an insurance policy and a support company – except they would fix everything.

I’m not that bunny. But a New Zealand telco has something that must be a breath of fresh air. Telecom New Zealand is supplying its customers with a software tool (from a US company called Motive) that will work its way through “common internet problems”. If it ultimately can’t provide resolution, it provides codes that will allow actual support people to identify the issue – as opposed to playing 20 questions with the customer.

I’d like that.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

World: Spain, Morocco, and the Devil

Bazza's mention of a holiday in Marbella, in Spain, reminded me of my trip there... a long time ago.

My main impression of Marbella was of a tourist strip unceremoniously dumped between a pleasant little town and the sea. English pubs and German tourists abounded.

I have a strong memory of a policeman saying "arriba, arriba", with wide sweeps of his arms (that was where the youth hostel was, up the hill). We also stopped at an art centre, which seemed to have some association with Picasso. I bought the pendant below, my Spanish Devil. It wasn't terribly expensive, and it's possibly made of brass. But it's memorable. Is it reminiscent of Picasso in any way? Or just some local artist's trinket?

From there, we got a wild and crazy ride to Algieciras (the bloke was probably both drunk and mad), then a ferry to Ceuta ("sway-ta"), a little-known Spanish enclave on the tip of Africa.
From there it was a border crossing to Morocco, which was a surreal experience. My friend got hassled because she had an unusual haircut (shaven at the sides!), and the guards simply wouldn't let us through.
Just as we were ready to give up, there was a sudden commotion, people yelling and rushing all over the place. I remember a bunch of matronly women in dark robes, running from Ceuta to Morocco. The guards gave some of the women a kick, but nothing really came of it. Except that we unobtrusively made our way through.
It was probably something to do with duty-free shopping/smuggling from Ceuta.

In Casablanca, we ended up locked up all day in a well-appointed flat, by a well-meaning middle-class gentleman who said he traded - what? - between Morocco and the Netherlands. He didn't want us to brave the Youth Hostel in Casablanca, and he wanted us to be safe, but not to make off with his worldly possessions. Hence the prison treatment.
For our troubles, he took us to a couple of good restaurants. He said he was Berber; the only language we had in common was French. We spent a very pleasant afternoon at a seafood restaurant overlooking the sea in Rabat. But the strain of practising my rusty French gave me quite a headache later.

Those are my main memories of that holiday (oh, and some food poisoning on the way back). I had a look for some photos to include here, but it was too long ago and far away.

All I have left, then, is the so-called Devil above. I'm keen to hear any comments on it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Tech: Sydney to get free wireless

Wohoo! The State government is planning to enable free wireless internet access.

It's been announced for the Sydney CBD, and a few other urban centres in Sydney. My guess is it would include North Sydney, Chatswood, Paramatta, and possibly Hurstville or Liverpool.

It's a real winner for personal internet access. At the very least, you can sit in a public library with a wireless laptop, and you're away.

But in particular - and this is where it's coming from - it's a powerful business enabler.

Anybody can communicate/collaborate on the go, via PDA or laptop.

Very forward-thinking.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Climate change: the good and bad of moving forward

This year has seen the mainstreaming of climate change awareness, due in no small part to Gore and Stern. The only people left to quote by the deniers are right on the fringe by now (thanks, Miranda Devine). That's the good news.

There's more to come. Legal systems are factoring it in. The NSW Land and Environment court revoked approval for another coal mine on the grounds that the environmental assessment was invalid because it didn't factor in carbon emissions.

Another article points to the increased level of public awareness and concern - but the same article also reports CSIRO findings that carbon emissions are increasing at the rate of 2.5% per year - whereas emissions are only increasing at the rate of 1% per year in the 1990s.

China registered the biggest increase, although it's far behind others on per capita terms. China is responsible for 5% of emissions to date, whereas Europe and the US each account for 25%.

The current emission rate is at the high end of IPCC modelling; their worst case scenario is looking likely.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Tech: Who survived the tech wreck?

The internet bubble started bursting about 2000. Here's an article about some of the players, and what happened to them.

In a bubble economy, value is largely built on speculation. A commodity is overpriced (for its returns or intrinsic worth), but keeps selling and inflating in value. So if you wanted to safeguard your fortune, it would make sense to hedge, by diluting your holdings and parking some funds elsewhere. Because the price of the stock/commodity is rising all the time, the temptation is to keep your investment, but there's definite warning bells if the returns are paltry compared to the net "worth" of the company.

The article suggests most of the ruined entreprenurial players picked themselves up and built again on new ideas. However, I imagine there's a lot of more mundane outcomes, ranging from early retirement to waiting on tables.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Climate change: the leading edge

"I travelled to the Alaskan coastal town of Barrow, the most northerly community in the US and past which ships travelling through Arctic sea routes would journey. There, senior members of the Inupiat community said that they had been aware of the change in the climate for the past 20 years - before the scientists' instruments had detected the shift.
At that time the sea ice should have been fixed in rigid sheets stretching towards the North Pole; instead it was forming far out at sea, 160 kilometres from the shore. 'We have been saying this for a number of years', said Eugene Brower, the local fire chief and captain of a whaler. 'In the fall, it takes longer for the ocean to freeze. By now there should be ice here.'

"The broader implications of this ice melt are extraordinary. Scientists have warned that the geography of the world's landmass could change as low-lying areas flood, that entire habitats could change and the lives of millions of people living in the most vulnerable places in the world could be threatened."

- North by north-west, by Andrew Buncombe; Good Weekend, Sydney, 11 November 2006.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Tech: Fusion and Australia's race against time

Where’s fusion at? It looks like the future lies with ITER. But don’t expect results soon.

Since Australia’s prime minister (John Howard) did an abrupt u-turn on climate change, he’s been suddenly, seriously, expounding nuclear [fission] power. It’s clean, it’s green and, due to global warming, it’s necessary.

Well, conventional nuclear power is none of those, given the exceedingly long half-life of the waste products and the propensity for disaster. There remains debate on whether fusion is clean and green(see this article for the power generation issues), but it’s certainly much safer – and has drastically shorter waste half-life – than fission.

Fusion is what the sun does. Energy is released through the fusion of lighter elements into heavier. Fission is the reverse: energy released through the breakup of heavier atoms into lighter. The break-even point sits around nickel or iron on the periodic table. For elements lighter than nickel, fusion releases energy while fission absorbs it. For heavier elements, it’s the other way around.

ITER is a consortium of major industrial nations’ search for fusion. Members are: the EU, US, Japan, Russia, China, India, and South Korea. They’ve just announced the facility will be situated in France, and take 30 years (!) to complete – 10 years for construction, and a further 20 years’ operation.

The membership of the consortium, and the timeframe, suggest it’s our best hope for fusion energy. Ideally, technological innovation would render solar power (and other renewable sources) sufficient for our energy needs.

As far as Australia goes, I see a four horse race: traditional, carbon intensive energy; conventional nuclear fission power, nuclear fusion power, and renewable sources (solar, wind, etc). All have their hurdles, with the best answers (the latter two) requiring further research and investment. But that’s where I’m putting my money. Renewable is a clear favourite, with fusion a dark horse at this point in our technological evolution.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

World: Sculpture by the sea 2

In response to the rapturous silence, I am posting a few more pictures from the exhibition Sculpture By The Sea, in which art works were positioned from Tamarama to Bondi beaches.

Fisher, by Hugh Ramage

This is my favourite; as it happens, it also won the "Director's prize". I took quite a few photos of it, but it was so popular I could never get a shot free of people. Material looks to be plywood: the lines on it are the edges of the wood.

Hot with a chance of late storm by The Glue Society. This melted ice cream van won the people's choice prize.

Also have a look at the winner of the site specific prize: cipher, by Konstantin Dimopoulos. It needed to be appreciated in motion, so I posted a video of cipher to YouTube.

And finally, details from atlas – shadow dance II by Frank Woo. Here's the base of same:

Monday, November 20, 2006

Film: The Prestige (2006): existentialist quandary

It really helps enjoyment of a film to have some sympathy for a protagonist – and this I did not.

It’s a film that may be too clever for most people. This may be what to expect from the Chris Nolan, director of the impressive Memento, which was clever enough for most.

*** Warning: Major spoilers follow the next heading ***

The Prestige revolves around two Victorian-era magicians, and the lengths they will go to for their art. The film itself goes to some lengths to reflect this, down to the near-inscrutability of the plot.

Nolan hired Hugh Jackman because he wanted showmanship, which Jackman has ably demonstrated on Broadway. But he also needed someone who could display obsessiveness, at which Jackman was notably less successful.

Neither did I find it enormously helpful to cast Christian Bale as his antagonist. His character was meant to be, by turns, loving, obsessive and, well, changeable.

The best and the worst about this film was the plot, and how it was presented. There were at least three timelines displayed concurrently. Maybe more. Although there was some expositional logic to the ordering, clues and trickery drove the plot; red herrings abounded. And if the internet forums are an indicator, few people came out of the experience feeling they had untangled the knot.

It may be relatively straightforward. And I may – or may not – have most of it. But I missed something. There were scenes where people were wearing modern clothing. The original tale was bookended by a modern narration, but was it so with the film? I haven’t seen this explored on discussion forums. I'm reluctant to see it again - despite the many impressive flourishes - but I feel compelled to seek out the answers.

The existentialist quandary

Once I drafted a science fiction story that dealt with teleportation. The crux was that it had just been revealed that one’s original self was destroyed with every teleportation, and what was left was always a copy. The scenario would have been rich for someone who mulled over existential issues.

This film poses similar dilemmas. The biggest plot device is that Angier finds himself with a genuine duplication machine. The contraption creates a duplicate of himself, a few metres away. When Angier first duplicates himself, he places a gun nearby as a safety net. When he sees his own double, he kills him instantly. But was it the transported man who reached for the gun or the untransported one?

In fact, both were the genuine article - it's just there were two of them. But for the story to follow logically, it had to be the transported man who killed: “Oh, I’m transported, and I killed the poor sod who threw the switch. Thus, in my act I can kill my double who’s left behind.” Otherwise it would be: “Oh, I wasn’t transported, and I killed my transported copy. But if I put this into my stage act, I'll be the untransported one and die.” But Angier just wasn't that obsessive.

So the trick was, that in performing the trick, he unintentionally killed himself. Every time he performed it, the bloke who threw the switch would be dropped through a trapdoor and drowned. The transported man would then feel he had escaped free. The next time he performed the trick, the one who remained would realise he'd just signed his death warrant - a few instants before he drowned.

The quandary is that, by the logic in this film, both copies of the man are equally himself. So he’s never aware that he will kill himself next time he performs the trick.

Meanwhile, his rival's trick is that there is a twin: the pair spend alternate days in their shared 'real life', then swap over to a shadow existence. For the sake of their art, each twin is doomed to live a life half-lived. With that level of sacrifice, who are you in the end? And what would happen if the act came to an end: would the one life suddenly split in two and take divergent paths? (In fact, this was resolved in the death of one. Then how would the other respond to having to live a complete life with no off days?)

Two existences posing conundrums in different ways. For all of this, it remains a rather brutal film. But it is no mean reflection on Memento.

Tech: Free broadband

Spin Internet is an ISP offering free wireless broadband to Canberra. (In fact, the first 200 MB is free; thereafter 22c/MB.)

An interesting way to market their services. Time will tell how the business case stacks up. But it means that broadband is accessible to anyone with a wireless modem.

Although Canberra is the wealthiest per capita city in Australia, this makes broadband more available to the disadvantaged end of the community, which benefits the country as a whole.

To date, this is apparently replicated in only a few other cities in the world, with Singapore, San Francisco, Taipei and a few small US cities having access to (or plans for) this offer.

Spin plans to extend this offer to other parts of Australia, possibly with some branding [advertising] to enable an increase in the limit.

Friday, November 17, 2006

World: Evolution is not steady

Many people think of evolution as a steady upward process. The phrase “survival of the fittest” is rooted in our collective consciousness, and we imagine a constant winnowing on that basis. Everything that has gone before and extinguished must, ipso facto, be inferior on the evolutionary scale.

Two – linked – concepts mitigate against this: cataclysm, and punctuated equilibrium.

Mark Maddison explained to me punctuated equilibrium, whereupon I promptly suggested punctuated evolution would be more accurate. Little did I know about the equilibrium part of the equation.

Developed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, Punctuated Equilibrium postulates that evolution happens largely in discrete bursts, separated by long periods of relatively little change. This accords in general with geological records – which Darwin noted, but ascribed to the incompleteness of research.

It’s rather at odds with the popular understanding of evolution as a battle for superiority that constantly forces change. It suggests ecosystems (local or global) on the whole tend more towards stability than antagonistic competition. [however, I would note that it describes evolution as happening rapidly at points of punctuation, but is less vocal on the rate of change at equilibrium - for example, to distinguish between stasis and slow change.]

Punctuated equilibrium still strikes me as somewhat counterintuitive. But it's easy to appreciate the role of cataclysm in the course of evolution. It’s generally accepted – and fairly widely understood – that the era of the dinosaurs came to an end when a meteor hit Yucatan (Mexico). It was more or less 10 kms wide, and caused mass extinction of many species.

This is an example of survival – and evolution – being due to a very specific event that is not intrinsic to the terrestrial environment. In effect, there could well have been species on a superior evolutionary path, but which simply couldn’t survive a given cataclysm. Note that ‘superior evolutionary path’ does not equate to ‘more evolved’. All we can say is we are, of course, the most evolved of species to date: the simple proof is that only significant human artifacts remain in the geological record. But who’s to say those extinguished species wouldn’t otherwise have evolved further or faster than us in the absence of cataclysm?

Thus singular events have wiped out a number of evolutionary paths, and one could say that we’re here by circumstance – last one standing – rather than being the undisputed peak of all prior evolutionary paths.

Still, we can take comfort that no species has evolved on earth further than us.

These thoughts are encouraging: the earth has weathered catastrophe in the past (and despite what I envisioned when younger, we don’t even have the ability to blow the planet apart). So whatever we do, life on this planet is likely to continue until the sun is dying. Puts it all into perspective.

I expect that many people - not just the strongly religious - would find this hard to accept because it’s insufficiently anthropocentric.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Tech: Collaboration, integration,... and Skype

...meanwhile over at ITToolbox, Luis Suarez has gotten all gushy over the new release (3.0 beta) of Skype. Now ya gotta admire Luis' enthusiasm in general - particularly for Web 2.0 collaboration - but he has lit some sparks in extrapolating into the future.

Other bloggers like Skype's click-to-call feature: click a phone number on a web site to call through to the person or company. Now that's integration.

But Luis likes the potential for Skype as an enterprise collaborative tool. This is because Skype has clambered aboard the hot trend of enabling (user-written) plugins. An example of a useful plugin from a business perspective is screen-sharing, for realtime collaboration.

Just as plugins can extend a browser such as Firefox to become an all-singing, -dancing complete internet intermediator, so can they extend another application which takes as its starting point person-to-person interactivity.

This year, all this may sound like a mess of buzzwords. The year after next, it may all be commonplace - that's how fast technology is evolving - and we may be wondering whether Skype is becoming Firefox, or Firefox becoming Skype.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Climate change: Anyone for back-pedalling?

Just clearing out a few outstanding references to climate change.

The Australian government is making quite a rapid U-turn on climate change – particularly on carbon trading. I expect the Stern review, coming as it did from a respectable establishment source, ultimately played no small part. Here’s an economic analyst’s view of that change, as well as on the Stern review.

A poll of voters flags the level of concern of the issue now. [However, polling voters is quite notorious for demonstrating people are a welter of contradictions, and consistently want their cake as well as eating it.]

[All this as the Sydney Morning Herald's pet "shock" columnist (Miranda Devine) trotted out her usual pet climate change sceptics - a fast vanishing breed! - as well as a superannuated politician from the far side of the world. The ice under her feet is vanishing daily.]

Meanwhile, ice loss from Antarctica is hitting 152 billion cubic kilometres per year; Greenland’s losing 112 billion per year – whereas in the 1990s it was in equilibrium in terms of losses and gains. This is where the headline problem lies.

...and what are you doing about it? We registered our concern [beyond the ballot box] at the International Day of Action recently:

Ironically, the day was drizzly, as you can see in the distance. The band was surprisingly good to these ears jaded by too many average bands. They're called Marching Room. A good family crowd overall, although my wife whisked away the kids under the pretext that the music was hurting their ears. You're never too young to rock, but much as she pretends otherwise, she's just not rock enough. Oops, strayed rather drastically off-topic here...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Tech: bandwidth - when too much is never enough

“The explosive popularity of YouTube and other bandwidth-intensive Internet operations is good news for Cisco Systems as its profits surged.”

This quick note in a telecoms industry newsletter is a neat reminder of the mantra of the future: “bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth”.

Endless data dumps, video calls, video on demand, permanent streaming video on demand,…

The applications, the demand, will never slacken. It’s the commodity of the future – and the battleground, and the dividing line between the haves and have-nots. IP bandwidth demands will intrude on all other forms of information exchange.

Anyone for investing in dark fibre?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

World: Billions consigned to the spiral of hate

I heard a disturbing documentary on BBC radio a few days ago.

In a nutshell, when the US first set up their provisional administration in Iraq, they poured billions - literally billions - of dollars into Baghdad. There were two sources: American money for reconstruction; and Iraq's own money - again billions - from oil sales. They distributed it absolutely freely, to Iraqis and to US construction contractors. Mostly without sufficient checks on the distribution, and most - nearly all - wasted.

Worse than wasted. The windfalls to American contractors - frequently without tenders - pales into insignificance. Much of it would have ended up in the hands of "insurgents" - and to fuel the civil war.

Bush sent over administrators pronto, upon the fall of Baghdad. But at the top, those he sent fulfilled two criteria: he knew them - or of them - and they were willing and able to go. That doesn't speak to the competence of those at the top in Iraq.

In fact, the financial administrator was an ex-submarine commander who in interview displayed absolutely blithe disregard to what happened to the Iraqi money in particular. "it doesn't matter. It was their money." Well, it was the people's money, which does not equate at all to it being the recipients' money.

Successive US governments have successively wasted their billions on military contractors. But never before have they channelled it so directly to the violence of others. And the result is an ongoing litany of carnage, which brutalises the whole world as news of the violence continues to reverberate.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Tech: Citizendium tries to get off the ground

Not a very catchy title.

Citizendium is a completely separate project from Wikipedia - but. It calls itself a "progressive fork", which means it sucks information from Wikipedia, then forks away. It's been set up by a former Wikipedia Editor-in-Chief, Larry Sanger.

Why? Response to the criticism (including from Citi's initiators) that Wikipedia is too free in its allowance of anybody to edit it. In contrast, Citizendium looks like it allows only named/registered users to add content, and it maintains a group of editors to oversee that content. It regularly refreshes from Wikipedia - where there is no Citi change.

Its thesis is that people will gravitate to it both to add content and to read it, as people appreciate its greater reliability.

I'm giving it oxygen, but I'm not 100% convinced, for several reasons:
1) It restricts the adding of content, compared to Wikipedia;
2) ...yet it will propagate what it sees as Wikipedia's errors;
3) Wikis in general work best when they reach a critical mass. Wikipedia's there now, but many other wikis aren't (eg ITToolbox: has a lot of good tech blogs, and attracts unofficial technical support from a number of vendors, yet their wiki effort is a dismal failure so far). It's hard to see people gravitate away from Wikipedia. (But it's certainly possible, if the product is good enough. That's what happened to google over Altavista, which used to be the top search engine.)
4) The differences between the wiki models is a bit subtle for most people, who are only looking for something consistent and reliable.
5) Wikis are a real balancing act, between freedom to add content, and the checks in place on that freedom. How many people will agree that removing the power of anonymous authorship will improve content by this much while reducing additions by only that much?
6) It could be just a grudge project. However, a fair bit of effort seems to have been put into it so far. Yet two managing editors have been announced so far, but each of them in turn pulled out.
8) It's not up. Yet. It says it plans to be up by the end of the year.

Still, the internet is a great democracy for ideas.

World: Mixed ramifications for US elections

It’s an uncanny echo of precisely six years ago. “America is Waiting…” (Byrne/Eno) was on the soundtrack for our barbecue at the time...

As we now know, that 2000 result was more significant to the pulse of the world than one simple presidential election. Why did Al Gore decline to pursue the disputed Florida results through the court? My take is that he accepted a concern that it would have been damaging to the fabric of the US constitutional system. But I think it will be some time before the full story is resolved.

Yes, there’s been a wave of change in the US. The House of Representatives has fallen to the Democrats, and the Senate is on a knife edge (1,729 votes), some saying the results won’t be known for three weeks. In a little irony, that final senate seat is defended by George (“macaca”) Allen, who has claimed he didn't use the “n” word.

Pundits are divided on how much of a change to America’s political climate this represents. However, they’re fairly universally toning down one aspect of the result. As I expected, the change masked an already-decided battle. Wars like this are fought on the front line, and behind the scenes. The latter battle – in primaries - was already settled: the Democrats to a surprising extent pitted conservative against conservative; liberal against liberal. So the political makeup has changed relatively little behind the scenes.

This may be borne out by the markets, anecdotally. I noticed a feed today said that although other countries' share markets were down, Dow Jones and Nasdaq were up on the previous day. Suggesting that although they were nervous overseas, US markets felt the result heralded no drastic change.

Note too, a lack of focus on one particular issue. Voters concerns centered around Iraq, terrorism, corruption and economy – but not climate change.

Yet there have been at least two significant effects already: the departure of Donald Rumsfeld (whose sole remaining defender seemed to be Bush), and the ascension of Nancy Pelosi into House of Representatives leadership. It's the highest post yet held in the US by a woman – third only after president and vice-president.

Interest in this is not attributable to prurience or cultural imperialism. This election has worldwide repercussions, as did the one in 2000.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Tech: Wikipedia criticisms: Plagiarism, Privacy, and malware

Because I generally find Wikipedia quite useful, I'm always keen to test the model. There's been a few criticisms come up recently that are worth being aware of:

  • Plagiarism: A regular critic of the site, Daniel Brandt, recently came up with an analysis of plagiarism in its content. In fact, the samples weren't all proven so, but some were. Wiki's defence (and legally a valid one) is to remove offending items where spotted.
  • Privacy: Incidental to the above, it is evident that the model can be seen as an intrusion on privacy.
  • Suceptibility to hacking: the German-language version was recently hacked, to lead readers to malware.

It's worth bearing these in mind when using that resource, although in mitigation it can be said that a) the offences are small in overall proportion; b) offences are removed when discovered - which can be sooner or later, depending on traffic and the amount of alerts people store for a given article.

There's also a list of miscellaneous complaints posted at SMH that's worth a read. Gives a tenor of the concerns people have.

I'm still finding it useful, though. As a quick reference, I tend to find it more lucid, accessible, and reliable than anywhere else. In the link above, several people opined that it was more reliable than the newspapers (and other media) that are widely taken as gospel and more frequently read.

Monday, November 06, 2006

World: Sculpture by the Sea 1

Every November, Sculpture by the Sea is on in Sydney. Running from Bondi to Tamarama beaches, it's probably the only chance many Sydneysiders have to view new sculpture works.

Vortex, by Charmaine Grace

Look on the web site for a few more images (under "Gallery Photo 2006") - I've also posted a second set here.

Unveiled, by Frank Malerba

Tech: Photovoltaic revolutions?

Japan’s Sharp Corporation* is investing in a sixfold increase in its production of photovoltaic (solar) cells.

The analysts reckon that corner of Sharp’s business is proving quite profitable. So why not bump it up? – renewable energy is undoubtedly going to be a significant growth area in the next few years.

Other (“second-tier”) electronics manufacturers are also moving in that direction, away from saturation-level consumer-targeted products such as LCD panels – even away from memory chips.

Buried in the report is a hint at spinoffs from increased takeup of a technology. As evident with mobile phones, a technology that experiences a significant surge in use has, down the track, unanticipated effects on the face of society.

Sharp is working to make photovoltaic cells ever thinner, which portends an increasing variety of potential applications. I don’t think we’ll be seeing every device flick out a solar panel that faces the sun, but perhaps flexible – even plastic – cells will proliferate. What about translucency – even transparent cells? One can but speculate.

*Sharp started out nearly a century back making pencils – hence the name.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Climate Change: International Day of Action

There seems to have been a sudden surge of concern over the issue in the wake of the Stern report. Even governments once in denial are now on the defensive.

It’s the ideal point to join in an international day of action to solidify for governments that real level of concern.

My wife first mentioned it to me, but she’s adamant that she doesn’t want it to be an anti-government protest. I said “There is one simple intention behind this: to show to all decision-makers the weight of public opinion behind the issue. These things are necessary part of the process.”

In Sydney, there’s an assembly at Martin Place at 11am, for a short walk to Tarpeian Way (“next to Botanic Gardens”).

In London, there’s a march to the US embassy to ask that they ratify Kyoto (some action at the Australian embassy would be appreciated too!).

The international site has details for a large number of countries.

The kids will be happy to join in. After all, it’s about them more than us. We're only on this earth for a short while.

Tech: mobile multimedia and the communication revolution

An Australian telco is providing an interesting spin on the 3G multimedia service for mobile phones. They’re streaming to mobiles the live television coverage of cricket games.

So what? Well, one of the possibilities they mentioned was for people who are actually at the match to watch the replays on their phones. For cricket tragics, this is not a bad thing at all, because replays are important here, and the big screen in the cricket ground is often woeful for this.

For non-cricket fans, so what? My feeling is that this is only the start of possible applications for multimedia via mobile phones. The widespread adoption of this consumer device has finally enabled video phone calls; live video help functions should not be too far away; etc etc.

The cricket service has gone down from $8 per month to $5 for unlimited use, indicative that pricing for such functionality is becoming more and more reachable for everyday usage.

My feeling is that video phone calls will be the prime application, though, in the immediate future. This technology represents a revolution in our understanding of communication.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Climate Change: The Stern Review 1

The Stern Review has the potential to become the most significant document produced on global warming. It is notable in that it is:
  • Focused on the economics of climate change
  • Sponsored by a major government that accepts its findings
  • Written by an eminent economist
  • Doesn’t have the need to argue the toss about the issue

It was commissioned by the UK government, and written by Sir Nicholas Stern, one-time Chief Economist at the World Bank.

The central conclusions:
  • There is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, if we take
    strong action now.
  • Climate change could have very serious impacts on growth and development.
  • The costs of stabilising the climate are significant but manageable; delay
    would be dangerous and much more costly.
  • Action on climate change is required across all countries, and it need not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries.
  • A range of options exists to cut emissions; strong, deliberate policy action is required to motivate their take-up.
  • Climate change demands an international response, based on a shared
    understanding of long-term goals and agreement on frameworks for action.

The UK government’s website for the report has comments from leading economists. The report can be downloaded; the executive summary is also available (the ‘summary of conclusions’ is identical).

Monday, October 30, 2006

Tech: I didn't even have to open the manual

"It was really easy to use," said Hernandez, who does not consider herself blessed with unusual techno-aptitude. "I did not even have to open up the book to be able to use it."

Now, I have to admit to a couple of similar posts in the past. But one of the reasons for this blog is to document ideas that have particularly struck me on the day, and the above quote really qualifies.

Why? Because we live in such a tech-intensive society that even us tech-heads really resent the time-intrusion of poring through a manual. I really, honestly don't have the luxury of time to read properly read any manual. These days I usually go through the headlines, focus on the areas of interest, and read the rest on a need-to-know basis.

What's it like for the non-technically inclined? It must be akin to torture. Even for me, it is. I get sucked into a world of irrelevances where I have to read ten sentences to find one helpful one.

The above quote is nirvana. It should be achieved through a combination of one cheat card, some wizards, tooltips, plenty of familar usage paradigms... and a decent bloody help menu!

The device in question - read about it here - actually converts vinyl records to digital music. It comprises a cable between stereo and computer, mediated by a credit-card-sized device, plus associated software.

Anyone designing/marketing hardware or software should meditate on the quote above.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

World: Sydney Harbour Bridge: alternate design

This is dated 1922, a design by Ernest Stowe. It links the city (Millers Point) with Balmain to somewhere west of current North Sydney, via Goat Island.

Any suggestions how the centre could have handled a modern volume of traffic? A roundabout would be too slow.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Tech: Science Fiction becomes reality – 3 ways

It’s a coincidence. But recently I’ve read of three scientific developments which each touch on a core science fiction premise:
When you put those together, it’s dynamite.

Unfortunately, the reality is a little more mundane. Mostly we’re talking about quantum-level experiments; and the quantum world operates under a different set of laws than ours.

Still, interesting to see if anything useful comes of any of it.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Film: Children of Men (UK/USA, 2006)

This film carries very mixed emotions for me:

For the most part, it's the saddest, bleakest film I can recall seeing; in places the directing is somewhat hackneyed or heavy handed; and it is often violent.

On the other hand, there are reasons for the extraordinary bleakness, and there is redemption. And:
  • There are some extraordinarily well-made shots in a warzone - so vivid and memorable;
  • It has an extraordinarily moving scene in it – I cried;
  • It compellingly turned on its head the typical cultural valuation of a baby boy over a baby girl, better than any overtly feminist work could do.*

For those three reasons alone, it is worth seeing. Which is strange for me to say, since they are starkly contrasting points.

The plot is simple: a near-future dystopia where human fertility abruptly falls away completely. A journey through that world with a vestige of hope.

Interesting to note that it reminds me strongly of two other films: Sleeping Dogs (one of the first films for Sam Neill), and Dead Man. I shouldn't reveal too much, but the former gives a somewhat brighter parallel dystopia, and the latter is a more spiritual journey to a somewhat similar ending.
*Note that I'm not up for a debate on how society values girl babies and boy babies. Suffice to point to current practice in India and China, to illustrate what I'm trying to say.