Thursday, May 31, 2007
Listening to: Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen: a truly lovely, albeit mournful work [for 23 strings]. It rewards a careful listen, and doesn't insult one's intelligence through repetition. Yet there is a beautiful moment where it briefly resolves into melody before drifting off again. I have versions by Karajan (playing) and Stamp - preferred, as it's crisper - but they're both top notch.
Reading: Katherine Neville: The Eight: definitely a few notches above Dan Brown (see yesterday's) - it has colour and depth. Repeats some of the same errors, including a theme (chess) for which her understanding is quite superficial, despite the obvious research. Still worth reading (so far). I'll bet Kate Mosse read this before writing Labyrinth.
Heard: National Public Radio (USA) - All Things Considered: A commentator was second-guessing George Bush's motivations in referring to the events in Darfur as genocide. The commentator was punting that Bush would adopt this issue to leave his mark on the end of his term. Obviously a Bush apologist: Bush has lagged behind just about all the rest of the world in turning his attention to this mean and nasty situation.
Another commentator discussed Richard Nixon as a borderline fascist (for his attacks on the opposition [Democrats]), as a drug-taker (slurring, incoherent in the few days before the invasion of Cambodia, due to his inappropriate use of an anti-convulsant for depression), and condemning his use of the "instruments of government" on his "personal or perceived enemies".
Saw an interesting article in Wikipedia on suicide bombers: although the simplistic understanding is that they are simply religiously motivated, and the less simplistic understanding is that the phenomenon is intrinsic to poverty, there are also various strands of thought that claim: that they are the specific province of a people attempting to expel an occupying force; that the phenomenon occurs in countries at "intermediate levels of political freedom".
Also read an interesting set of anecdotes on the downside of the Howard government's Industrial Relations policies (which they've stopped calling WorkChoices solely because that brand has become so sullied).
Finally: enjoy your children while you can. Their joy and laughter are a sublime antidote for the ills of the world.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
The reason for China’s newfound enthusiasm lies in the context of its attempt to put a lid on rampant corruption. Corrupt officials (in particular) have been able to flee to western countries without expedition arrangements, including Australia, USA, and Canada. The eagerness to stomp on corruption is tied to China’s emergent capitalist economy: tainted export goods (much in the news lately) can be traced back to unenforced controls. This is quite a contrast to even the recent past (10 – 20 years back), where equivalent problems would have been due to the lack of such controls.
Western countries are somewhat split on the issue of extradition treaties. In particular, there is concern that the judicial system is not enforced fairly and/or is not independent of government directive.
To this I would add that extradition treaties should specifically include clauses debarring extradition where the charges can bring about the death penalty.
Thus, both a better, more structured economic production and control framework – and better enforcement thereof – is due directly to capitalist imperatives. And, depending on how serious China is about extradition, the same imperatives may result in improvements in the judicial system.
(This is all very interesting. It can easily be put in the context of Marx’s prediction that communism would not develop until capitalism had spread everywhere possible – ie globally.)
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
The trouble is, I'd be quite keen on a book that blended mystery, thriller, history, and puzzles. It's a shame Brown is not the answer. So, having read The Da Vinci Code, why did I persist with his previous book Angels And Demons?
Why indeed? Angels And Demons was like a wheel spinning uselessly in air. More that that, it could easily offend. (the easily offended, at least.)
Where do I start?
Why tell the reader how the protagonist feels, when you can show, by their actions, expressions, etc? Well, in Brown's case, why tell when you can both show and tell in consecutive sentences? Dammit, he does this constantly.
A & D consisted of the Da Vinci character spending the whole book a) trying to prevent the consecutive murders of four cardinals - and failing; b) trying to prevent a bomb from blowing up the Vatican - and failing (someone else did the saving); c) mistaking the villain for hero and vice versa, nearly up to the end. In fact, there's little reason for the protagonist to have got out of bed at all. Oops, Brown did pair him up with a woman at the end of the day (oops, that woman had departed again by the next novel).
What about the thorough implausibilities? Such as jumping out of a helicopter from a great distance without a parachute - and surviving.
What about the appalling science? Such as maintaining a large - visible - amount of antimatter for more than a nanosecond. Oh, and the ridiculous claim that antimatter has potential as a harnessable energy source.
In fact, Brown demonstrated very clearly - in a book whose central dichotomy was a struggle between "Science" and "Religion" - that he really, really, didn't understand either at all. And he thinks that many scientists really really hate religion, and many religious people hate science, and they each think the other is responsible for all the world's ills.
And don't you just hate the way Brown mixes history with ahistory (that which has proven to be wrong), to the point where you can't tell what's true unless you do more research than Brown did. (which isn't hard.)
Oh give up. If that wasn't enough, they're planning a film of Angels and Demons - again with Tom Hanks as lead. What less could you want?
So I've been seeking out other mystery/thriller/puzzle/history books. And there's a lot. Much of it riding on the coat tails of Dan Brown, and probably vice versa for the rest.
Labyrinth, by Kate Mosse, is readable. Not fully satisfying in the end, but certainly more so than Brown.
I might also seek out The Eight, by Katherine Neville - said to be rather good. And maybe something by Steve Barry - mass market again, but apparently a more competent writer than Brown. Also possible: The Rule Of Four by Ian Caldwell.
Friday, May 25, 2007
He was commenting on carbon charges for electricity. He posited a $50 per tonne (of carbon emissions) charge. This would, he said result in a 30% increase in electricity charges -"At that price all of the renewables become fairly competitive," he said.
What struck me was his comment that pretty much everyone has the capacity to increase the efficiency of their electricity use by 30%.
Result: no cost differential, but the necessary structural change is enacted.
Of course, that switch would typically come at a cost. [not always - electricity efficient lightbulbs cost less over the lifetime of the bulb.]
I would suggest that that cost could be socialised for those less able to afford it - ie a means-tested subsidy, coupled with an energy audit.
It's not hard.
Meanwhile, a pilot scheme with somewhat similar aims is being trialled in Wollongong, funded by the NSW government. Very promising.
Monday, May 21, 2007
Consumer confidence in Australia is at its highest level in the 30-odd years it's been measured. Why? The two most obvious reasons are interrelated.
First, Australia's unemployment level is at its lowest in about thirty years. (This is to say nothing about the quality of those jobs - ie whether they're part-time, casual, or otherwise less than a full job. There has certainly been a substantial casualisation of jobs over that time, accelerated in recent times by the Howard government's industrial relations changes.)
Employment levels in turn have been attributable at least in part to Australia's biggest mineral resource boom in 50 years, due specifically to demand from China.
Of course the government takes all credit for the positive economic indicators. As they would. But ironically, as they falsely sow, so they reap. Precisely because consumer confidence is high, the voting public is relatively heedless of Howard's attempts to portray the economy as only safe in his hands. People currently have a certain buffer of comfort from which to take a more dispassionate look at how they feel about Howard.
In the 2004 federal election, the tide was turning against Howard - until he successfully played the economic fear card.
Currently, the electorate as a whole is expressing more concern about human issues, such as industrial relations, health, and education.
And consumer confidence can explain a fair part of the difference.
There is a warning sign, however. House prices in most capital cities are substantially higher than they were five years ago. To a large degree, those people who have bought a new home in the past five years are under financial stress due to the level of commitment to their home loans. And mortgagee sales are up in recent times.
If and when unemployment goes up, we should not expect a soft landing.
Friday, May 18, 2007
When insurance replaced my laptop, they provided the best match to my original specifications, within the same brand. That means I got a computer with a dvd reader, internal wireless, and 512M memory. As a bonus, I ended up with a dual processor CPU.
Unfortunately, that wasn't enough.
The replacement computer came with Windows Vista installed, and it ran like a dog.
It was fine with any single application (bar Photoshop). But when switching, it had to page fault, and there came the rub. Sometimes it would hang for a couple of minutes at a time, and if I foolishly tried to click on something, or bring up task manager, it would remain frozen, then a couple of minutes later it would painfully run through all the mouse clicks and keyboard commands I'd entered in the interim.
Matter of fact, same thing would happen with most OS-level work.
Vista could barely function with 512M on its own, and even then was capable of a dummy spit.
I rang the manufacturer (Acer). They said that Microsoft had jumped the gun and installed Vista without consultation. They said I could cart the laptop all the way off to Fairfield for a memory upgrade, or cart the laptop all the way to Fairfield to get a de-install, and revert to XP.
The saga continued through a series of false starts, and two goes at getting 1G of memory from Dick Smith – who consistently supplied incompatible chips.
Eventually I got a Gig installed by Laptop Specialist of North Sydney – cleanly worked first time, thanks guys.
It makes a world of difference. It's like the new computer I should have had in the first place.
I note here that if you look to purchasing Windows Vista in a shop, the box will say minimum requirements include 512M. That's a lie. It will function, but in a totally unacceptable way. I don't know how 1G will work, but 1.5G will give you the usability you have a right to expect from an Operating System.
Microsoft should be more honest. They are not going to preserve their brand this way. In fact, this is simply the arrogance of a monopolist, not an organisation that cares about its reputation.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Two items in New Scientist recently illustrate some of the perils of sub-optimal solutions. On 7th April comes the claim that 625 square kilometres of newly planted trees would be needed to offset a mere 50,000 people. Never mind issues auditing the veracity or continuity of such an exercise.
On 12th May it reported from the Financial Times that some of the market in carbon offsets is going to oil companies to pump carbon dioxide into oilfields – a process they would have done anyway, to extract more oil.
In the process of industrial transformation from high-carbon-emission energy to low-emission sources, we are going to see a wide range of sub-optimal industries flourish, all with their own barrow to push. The coal industry, for example, is trying to hang on by any means. Clean coal is the major oxymoron bandied about; another is Combined Heat and Power stations (CHP) – New Scientist again, 28th April.
The key issue here is that there is so much already massive investment in dirty energy, and those investors are going to vigorously defend it. Emerging energy industries – solar, wind – are still relative minnows, and their voices and lobby dollars are consequently miniscule.
Remembering that the last ten years of climate change inaction were due in large part to the coffers of vested interests.
Another ominous voice arising – on the back of existing industry and financial resources – is biomass energy. Whereas this once revolved around harnessing waste, the loudest voices now belong to those proposing to harvest crops grown specifically for biomass energy production. This cannot be seen as a positive at all. Such activity would not only exacerbate the problems with broadacre farming by agribusinesses whose reinvestment in the soil is scant, not only will it divert agriculture away from food production – especially at the margins where food is most needed – but it will also accelerate the destruction of wilderness in places like Brazil and Indonesia.
The bottom line on energy production is not to shut down economic activity, but to switch energy production to those areas that make the most intuitive sense – properly renewable energy. And I can only see one source that is no-impact and – on our timescale – limitless.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Telstra's public campaign website, Now We Are Talking, was having the opposite effect. It had to stop a poll which had everyone blaming Telstra for the telco blues.
To be fair, there was some hacking involved. But if you look at the regular polls it ran, Telstra seems to be up for near universal opprobium. The various forms of user feedback on that site have all been heavily dumping on Telstra, and it's surprising they don't give up the whole venture as a bad joke.
The big fight is over access to Telstra's networks, and in particular the rollout of FTTN - [optical] Fibre To The Home for communications services such as broadband, tv, and phone.
When the telecommunications market was first opened up for competition, Telstra was owned by the government - ie the Australian people. The relative size of the players meant it remained a monopolistic market, and in such a circumstance it's best to have the monopoly in the hands of the public.
But now that Telstra is effectively no longer in the hands of the public, it is hard to justify its monopolistic position. It is also hard to justify - in the circumstance - the lack of ownership separation between infrastructure and service provision.
But that's where we end up now. And the monopolist is complaining about government regulation, and is trying in a number of different ways to circumvent that regulation.
It's hard to keep track of the intricacies of the stoush, but the kernel revolves around the pricing of access to that infrastructure. And the nett result is delay in investing in the fundamental 21st century communications infrastructure Australia needs.
Telstra's own attempt at public campaigning has yielded the risible result that despite its dominant market position, it doesn't have many friends.
16-May-07 Update: More proof that Telstra has no friends: a war of words with the government too.
Note, too, they took Optus to court over an ad that compared products, and found Optus' to be far more generous. Telstra lost.
29-May-07 Update: In his latest newsletter, industry analyst Paul Budde has also made the point that the only rational solution is to separate Telstra's service provision and infrastructure - and that the government is thereby the only player that can break the current impasse over pricing of access to infrastructure.
The important caveat is that it's six months away from the election.
Even so, there's good reason to expect Howard will be only the second PM in Australian history to be dumped by his electorate.
His opponent, ex-tv journalist Maxine McKew, has a high profile, is very intelligent - yet tempered with humility - and is, well, a listening sort of person.
But the most telling indicator is the general polls. With the opposition getting bad press in recent times, and last week's Budget spreading the money around, the government should expect a bounce back in the polls, at the very least.
But it didn't happen. Each successive poll solidifies the consistency of the results.
One comment made about this election was particularly apt: it's very much like the 1996 election, where PM Keating was behind. Both sides of politics were expecting him to pull a rabbit out of the hat, as he had done before.
But it didn't happen.
The clearest rationale for the poll results: voters are not listening to Howard's government any more. The Budget's largesse had no nett effect. And if the electorate as a whole can't even be swayed by money, then it's obvious that the prevailing sentiment is fundamental and entrenched.
I expect this to be the turning point. Watch the Liberals get increasingly desparate. Break ranks. Do stupid things.
Education minister Julie Bishop was not answering the questions put to her on last night's Lateline. She was instead keeping on song with the government line, ignoring the question. It is a common tactic, it has happened for years, but right now it's simply whiffy. It's not that the electorate is starting to recognise this form of dishonesty for what it is - it's more that they have stopped putting up with it coming from the government.
This is precisely the time not to play politician, but that's all they have left to do. That, and panic.
Update 16-May-07: Contrast Bishop above with Peter Costello's performance on The 7.30 Report last night. His words left no useful impact, but I certainly noticed he was a lot more relaxed than his colleagues. Of course. Election loss is the only way he'll succeed Howard as Liberal leader. Costello wins either way.
Update 29-May-07: subsequent to this post, there have been a few comments about the electorate no longer listening to Howard. Pretty obvious, really, as an explanation for the opinion polls being so sticky. Well, now Howard has cottoned on, and made the same observation to the caucus. Not that he could identify a solution... the parallels are very strong with the 1996 election, which produced the landslide that propelled Howard to power in the first place.
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
People who are skeptical about evolution (generally, bible-belt americans) don't know what the real gaps are in our understanding - they're caught up in the perception of the nonsense of it all. I think the biggest barrier to to a ready acceptance is simply time. We just don't have a real framework for understanding the scales involved.
Evolutionary changes take place over millions of years - yet we're still into a few thousand of recorded history.
There's little trace of civilisation (the neolithic revolution came with the advent of agriculture) at all beyond the last ice age - which is only 10,000-odd years ago.
Homo sapiens only emerged about 200,000 years ago.
Tools from H Sapiens' ancestor, Homo Erectus, date back up to about 2,400,000 years.
The earliest primates (from which the Homo genus emerged) were 60,000,000 years ago.
Dinosaurs lived from 230 million to 65 million years ago - lost to a catastrophic extinction event at the end of the cretaceous period.
The Cambrian explosion started about 540 million years ago. It was a sudden increase in diversification and complexity of organisms, marking the first emergence of multicellular animals, albeit nothing remotely familar to us now.
Any other life form is referred to as precambrian. Many of those life forms were as alien as they were primitive, illustrating a great variety of evolutionary dead ends.
A recent New Scientist magazine had an article on the precambrian Ediacarans, organisms that lived from about 575 million years ago, up to the Cambrian explosion. They resembled animals in some ways and plants in others, and lived on the sea floor, feeding off organic matter. They looked something between ferns and seaweed, but in a wide variety of shapes.
In 2004, it was discovered their composition was Fractal! - made of fronds composed of smaller, identical fronds, which were in turn composed of smaller, identical fronds, and so on. They were all like that, and they dominated the planet for 30 million years.
Yet for three billion years before that, life was restricted to the microbial level. The theory goes that Ediacarans emerged from the aftermath of the last great ice age of the precambrian era. Much of the Earth was frozen, and when the ice melted, it freed up a soup of organic matter, which fed and fostered the Ediacarans (also helped along by high oxygen levels).
Competing theories on these creatures held that they were either an evolutionary dead-end, or the "long fuse" that lit the Cambrian explosion. The article suggested they were both.
Why the Cambrian explosion in the first place? We're still finding out more all the time, but to my mind, it's simply another expression of the mechanism of evolution.
Evolution is a process, not a theory, and it's a long, long story. It's entirely mechanistic, but with such a lot of events, characters, mystery and plot turns that it can keep us eternally fascinated.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
I hear a fair bit of BBC news, so his situation is aired fairly often. The BBC has been keeping the issue constantly on the boil.
There’s been no word from Johnston, and no word on who kidnapped him.
Periodically, the Palestinian authorities have said “he’s alive”, but has offered nothing tangible to even suggest they've heard from his kidnappers. There's been a couple of hitherto unknown groups that have claimed responsibility variously for having killed him or kidnapped him. None of those claims have carried any proof or verification.
Meanwhile, Gaza’s been dying a slow death in part due to this issue; international [aid] workers have been in retreat, and infrastructure and assistance has gone downhill. It is clear that this incident has helped nobody. Various Palestinian and international people and organisations are doing all they can. So why does the issue remain unresolved, and why is the issue laboured so?
It’s possible that he’s still being held, with nobody taking credit. But the simplest explanation for the totality of events is that his kidnappers rashly killed him quite early in the piece.
That does rather feel like the elephant in the room. But nobody wants to say it out loud, because while there is the possibility he's alive, the best course of action is probably reckoned to be to keep agitation for his release.
Unfortunately, it's easy to imagine this issue will keep festering until it dies out.
9-May-07 Update: The latest news report carries the suggestion that he's alive. The BBC was given some items (including ID card) and demands, and the Palestinian Authority said they'd been in touch with the kidnappers, and knew where he was, but that it was not safe to rescue him.
All that evidence remains circumstantial, but does hint that the BBC had sufficient confidence to keep up a campaign - possibly in order to discourage kidnappers from killing him. Questions remain: why keep him so long in silence? [the answer that makes most sense: he's dead.] And arethe kidnappers' motivation political? or criminal? Or are these substantially blurred in such a dehumanising region?
Monday, May 07, 2007
The failure been labelled as 'disastrous' for rather obscure reasons. one reason given was that "the airline's board has already telegraphed its reserve price".
The takeover was engineered by Macquarie Bank, Australia's leading equity dealmaker and takeover merchant. Macquarie in recent years has been particularly aggressive in initiating takeovers and leading privatisation acquisitions (eg most of Australia's airports are now in the hands of ventures organised by them).
Their intention here was quite clear. Saddle Qantas with debt and extract a fortune in dividends in the first year.Of course, they wouldn't kill their own assets, but they would certainly not be averse to grinding them down to squeeze out an extra dollar.
From that perspective, it's not a bad thing at all that they failed. Their move had been endorsed by the Qantas board, but if the board was so keen on loading up with debt and distributing the "dividends", they shouldn't have needed Macquarie to do it for them.
Which suggests there more to the story than I have been exposed to yet.
At least Qantas employees were said to be happy with the outcome. Understandably.
Thursday, May 03, 2007
"We come from the land of the ice and snow,from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow."*
Ah yes, you can't beat a healthy dose of Overlord.
Apropos of nothing, there's some good help on the web for the budding evil Overlord.
If you're interested enough to pursue it, a good place to start is always a blog. There's a useful Guide for the Overlord here.
But in particular, some salient rules for the Evil Overlord been collated by a couple of people over the years, whose lists cross-fertilised and eventually overlapped. Here's one such Evil Overlord List. Some of my favourites are the following:
6. I will not gloat over my enemies' predicament before killing them.
12. One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.
17. When I employ people as advisors, I will occasionally listen to their advice.
40. I will be neither chivalrous nor sporting. If I have an unstoppable superweapon, I will use it as early and as often as possible instead of keeping it in reserve.
41. Once my power is secure, I will destroy all those pesky time-travel devices.
42. When I capture the hero, I will make sure I also get his dog, monkey, ferret, or whatever sickeningly cute little animal capable of untying ropes and filching keys happens to follow him around.
75. I will instruct my Legions of Terror to attack the hero en masse, instead of standing around waiting while members break off and attack one or two at a time.
How soft your fields so green,
Can whisper tales of gore,
Of how we calmed the tides of war.
We are your overlords.*
*Led Zeppelin's The Immigrant Song, in case you didn't know.
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
But Sydney doesn't think it's better than Melbourne - Sydney just doesn't care. Maybe because it is the biggest city.
Once, I didn't care for Melbourne, or Canberra or Newcastle. Now I'm mature enough to appreciate them – particularly what is better about them than Sydney.
Melbourne. The weather is usually milder. The city has wide streets lined with trees. And more of its grand old buildings are preserved.
You could say on the whole that it's more civilised than Sydney – in a refined sense, as opposed to a large-city sense.
Most of my visits to Melbourne have been brief business trips. On one of the few more leisurely visits, I was very pleased to stumble upon Fitzroy, an artier, more upmarket version of Sydney's Newtown. Of course, Brunswick Street is especially vibrant, but you should take some time to explore its side streets.
Last week was just a quick business trip. I flew down the night before - Anzac Day, so not much was open. The hotel could only recommend one precinct close at hand that would have a bit of food and drink – the casino and environs, just across the Yarra river.
Of course, there wasn't much to recommend. Some upmarket shops and restaurants, everything overpriced, and the casino was a bit tragic.
I eventually found myself on the other side of the hotel, more towards the city. I wandered into a tiny pub, and it was packed. There was a standup comic down the other end. He wasn't saying much about anything – sort of like Seinfeld, but funnier. Everyone was laughing.
The following day, I stole the time for a lunchtime stroll around a few blocks of the city. The traffic rules are a bit alarming for a non-native, and the trams are particularly scary, as they bowl along the middle of the road in near silence, and so can be on top of you before you know.
Still, the day was pleasant, and the vista – the buildings, the trees, the spaciousness – was quite enjoyable.
I stumbled upon a wonderful science fiction (and associated) book shop called Minotaur. It held the only shelf space I've ever seen that was given over to the entire range of Hugo and Nebula award winners – in chronological order.
As I said, Melbourne is civilised.
A great place to visit.
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
So now there's a film on The Number 23.
Spooky or what?
It might seem that the whole crux of the film is the 23 Enigma, but it's more about obsession. As Walter reads the book, we see very stylish enactments of passages from the book. As the book's protagonist gets exposed to the 23 phenomenon and starts obsessing, so does the protagonist in the film. In fact, at one point a character in the book tells a story, so we get a story within a story within a story. [and this narrative compounds the spiral :) ]
The writing is very good, and the acting brings it to life well, breathing naturalism to the main narrative, and counter-naturalism to the book sequences.
Strangely enough, the film has garnered overwhelmingly negative reviews. The most positive comment I've seen is from this review in the Herald:
"This thriller's biggest mistake is its belief that it's as clever and original as it is visually stylish."
* 23 is a relatively low number. You can easily find it in a number string, or arrive there by manipulating small number sets (such as dates) to make 23. Especially if you do it in varying and arbitrary ways.