Thursday, August 30, 2007

Music is the essence of life

Across Australia today, in an event organised by the Federal Government, thousands of children all sang the same song at the same time. Apparently, this initiative was prompted by a finding that large numbers of schoolchildren don't regularly experience music personally.

What struck me in the report I heard was one girl who said “music is the essence of life”.

I think music is really the most basic, the strongest, expression of human emotion.

Here's an arbitrary list of 21 pieces of music expressing a wide range of emotion. If you haven't heard any of these, let me know.

Call me – House Of Love
Unforgettable fire – U2
Last goodbye – Jeff Buckley
Famous last words – Tears For Fears
No love lost – Warsaw
Good morning how are you – Moir Sisters
Flower duet (Delibes, from Lakme) – Lesley Garret
Non, Pagliaccio non son (Leoncavallo, from Pagliacci) – Pavarotti
Miss Sarajevo – Passengers
Sketch for summer – Durutti Column
Metamorphosen (Richard Strauss) – Richard Stamp/Academy of London
Whole of the moon – Waterboys
Myrrh – The Church
Cousin/Angel – Jack Frost
Born to run – Bruce Springsteen
Surf's up – Beach Boys
She speeds – Straightjacket Fits
You don't own me – Lesley Gore or Dusty Springfield
Ship song – Nick Cave
Randolph's going home – Shayne Carter & Peter Jeffries
Theresa's sound world – Sonic Youth

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Worldwide Gun statistics

The Swiss Graduate Institute of International Studies just released its 2007 Small Arms Survey.

Using a variety of methodologies, it ranks countries by the proportion of the civilian population with guns.

Confirming the centrality of its loopy gun culture, the US is top in terms of both the total number of firearms, and the number of guns per head of population. By a long shot.

In the US, there are 90 guns for every 100 civilians! That's nine for every 10 men, women, children and babies! For a grand total of 270 million guns.

Second, per capita: Yemen (!), with 61 guns per hundred people, then Finland (!!), with 56. Unsurprising, recent conflict results in a deluge of guns: Iraq is fifth (39), Serbia sixth (38).

In the English-speaking world, Canada has 31 guns per hundred people, Australia has a surprisingly high 15, while England has an eminently sensible 6.

A gun culture is a travesty. Unfortunately the world is flooded with it, courtesy of Hollywood and the rest of American culture.

The study doesn't paint a clear link between gun ownership and violence, although I would expect homicides to be well up in countries with high gun ownership. Inter alia, it also says gun ownership increases as the wealth of a country increases [surely with notable exceptions], and it notes that factors in violent cultures include rapid urban growth, poverty, and ineffective policing.

Update 14-Oct-09: Something that may surprise some Americans: New Scientist reports that carrying a gun makes one more than four times more likely to be killed.  And when the victim had the chance to defend themselves, the odds of being shot were even higher.  As the article mentions, the US has the highest rate of gun homicide in the world.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Unsophisticate voters rule. What's new?

Couple of small items in the Australian Financial Review today speak quietly but sigificantly about our political landscape. The news is not the best.

First, Family First. They're one of many parties over the years that got a State or Federal upper house seat without significant profile or support. Give your party a motherhood-type name, then spend all your time making preference-swapping deals with other micro parties. Electoral analyst Anthony Green had a very good writeup on how they got in.

Well, they're aiming for a full slate of Senate candidates in the upcoming Federal election. They're hoping to gain the balance of power in the Senate, which is not beyond the pale, given their good fortune last election.

They're largely a conservative party, although they take some leftwing positions sometimes. Although “family first” is their purported doctrine, it can really cover a multitude of sins from left to right. It's plausible they may gain a position of power in the Senate, but it's hard to imagine it lasting. Like many populist parties – especially those that mix left and right – they have a strong capacity to become riven by competing elements within the party. This tends to be followed by splits, explosions, then annihilation. Often leaving a trail of sub-optimal legislative outcomes.

The other article gives an ominous reading on the electorate's imperfect understanding of climate change. A poll of swinging voters in marginal seats by Ipsos found that 42% believe the ALP could better manage climate change, versus 20% for the Coalition. However, quite a high proportion (38%) felt there was no difference between the major parties on climate change policy.

True, “swinging voters in marginal seats” must constitute one of the less informed group of voters in any electorate. But those very people tend to make and break governments. It is an ominous indicator of the lack of understanding that persists regarding the issue. This suggests that John Howard's obfusticative policy on the issue has been quite effective in its core aims: to do nothing while maintaining a semblance of serious concern. It's been enough to mislead 58% of the electorate.

I favour compulsory voting in the expectation that it bumps up the participation rate, and encourages people to consider issues more carefully. Sometimes I feel I'm being sentimental.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

What NEXT, PK Dick? (SF1)

When I was a lot younger, I decided that one of my favourite science fiction themes was the one where “everything is not as it seems”. The neighbour is an alien, there's a tunnel under the world, our world is actually a construct, etc.

Then I realised that Philip K Dick was the master of that sub-genre.

Hand in hand with that, goes PARANOIA. Everyone's out to get you.

Yes, folks, PK Dick was a sadly paranoid person, not usually a high-class writer, and responsible for a body of the most highly imaginative sf ideas. A riffle through his five-volume set of short stories will cement these views. Some of the stories are quite directly about paranoia. Try Shell Game and Null-O (both 1953) for two very different takes on it, which ably demonstrate that he was at it from an early age.

So, funny isn't it, that his is the most fertile science fiction brain that's ever been picked by Hollywood. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? [Bladerunner]; We Can Remember It For You Wholesale [Total Recall]; Paycheck; Second Variety [Screamers]; Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly...
And now, The Golden Man, upcoming as Next.

A strong theme running through much of Hollywood's exploitation of Dick is that they tend to take the germinal idea, and completely rewrite it. Next is no exception. In fact, the original protagonist (who can see the future) was a mutant to be feared, not a Nicholas Cage-type action hero. And so it goes. It's not going to stop me seeing the film; nothing is.

Funny enough, but one of his works that is most overlooked, The Man In The High Castle, is the one that won him the Hugo Award – SF equivalent of an Oscar - in 1963. It's an alternative reality where the Axis powers won the second world war, and for some reason it is quite rare in bookshops and libraries. Worth hunting down.

A man of ideas. Which is, after all, what distinguishes science fiction most strongly.

Jim Reilly in Space

Yesterday at work, astronaut Jim Reilly gave a presentation on his experience.

Half the time was spent giving a potted narrative to a video compilation which covered the full range of a space shuttle flight to the international space station and back.

The other half was, of course, questions.

It was a great opportunity to get a first-hand flavour of life in space. And to understand better. For example: what are the longer-term health effects of living in a (weightless) environment that our physiology is not geared for? What did he personally feel were the biggest risk factors? And how did he get there, from a doctorate in geosciences?

Unsurprisingly, he was still quite starry-eyed about the experience, and reckoned he had at least one more mission ahead of him, before shuttles are phased out in the next three years. All the astronauts in his intake were people who had spent their whole lives aiming for that very thing. When I was a kid, the standard career path was fighter pilot to test pilot to astronaut. However, that’s not strictly the case these days. Although Jim did initially get some fighter pilot experience, the bottom dropped out of the war market at the time. He went on to do geological work in harsh conditions such as Antarctica and in submersibles, and so by the time he actually applied, all his experiences proved useful.

Age is not a barrier. He was selected at about 40, and he'll be about 55 on his next trip. He pointed out that the astronauts were of course fit, but not superfit - there were a variety of experiences and exercise regimes.

But certainly there's a whittling-down process. With an intake of 20 people who were (presumably) just as well qualified as he, only about 10 made the final cut.

He noted a few health-related points. First was the reorientation necessary: from an earth-centred perspective to a “head is up, feet is down” perspective. This can be disconcerting. You turn around to answer someone behind you, only to find they’re upside down. Gravity, when he first got back, made it hard to navigate through doors – he might easily hit the doorjamb as he went through. And he told of one astronaut who forgot himself while watching tv back home. He put his glass in mid-air, only to have in crash to the ground. So short term, the effects are disorientation. He also noted that the three most definite desires when he would get back to earth were, in strict order: a hot shower, a cold beer, and fresh food.

I asked him about risks. He’d had long experience in risky environments, and he was constantly analysing all the risks in each situation. And at any point in time, he’d analyse most of it away, to be left with two or three things that he’d just have to accept could happen on a bad day.
He noted however, that there was always a team on ground, also constantly analysing risks and looking after them. So, in all, he said his heartbeat tended to stay pretty even through the experience.

One unexpected point was about stars. Most pictures of the shuttle or space station didn’t show stars, simply because the luminosity of the vehicles’ surfaces tended to obliterate the background light. But when he looked away, away from the sun, the stars were much more numerous and bright than we would imagine. All different colours, too: blue, pink red… and staring long enough, you could resolve blue blobs into whole galaxies.

Well, you can capture that in a photo. But it's not the same.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The English Channel Flood

Another one from New Scientist:

Britain was last connected by land to continental Europe around 500,000 years ago - by a chalk ridge across the English Channel. From Dover, of course.

What destroyed that last land connection? A megaflood, whose root cause was the retreat of an ice age - the third-to-last one. That retreating ice resulted in a large glacial lake in the south of the North Sea. Of course, sea levels were down with the ice age, and once the glacial lake had reached a critical level - the top of that connecting ridge - it breached. This happened some time between 200,000 and 450,000 years ago. The flooding lasted several months; Gupta and Collier of Imperial College London calculated that through those months, a million cubic metres per second poured through the breach. This gouged deep valleys in the English Channel - the evidence left behind.

This was also proposed back in 1985, based on a low resolution sonar survey. The latest finding used much higher resolution, and convinced past skeptics - one of whom said he was a convert, and ready for his sackcloth and ashes.

This timeline of glaciation lists the past ice ages. The most recent ones are:

- 12,ooo to 110,ooo years ago;

- 130,000 to 200,000 years ago;

- 340,000 (+/-) to 450,000 years ago

Of course, the ice ages simply meant that habitable areas were reduced to more equatorial regions. They didn't halt evolutionary or technological processes, but just reduced the ranges through which animals and hominis - Sapiens, Neanderthalensis, etc - could live and spread.

Which puts the African origins of Homo Sapiens into some perspective.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Where the sky doesn't touch the land

Walking home today, I gazed at the horizon. A pale blue sky and a rich blue sea. A most calming vista.

It might be said that nature abhors a straight line. Despite the curvature of the earth, though, the semblance was there, and a brilliant sight it was.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

I'm just a singer in a rock'n'roll band??

Back in 1975 in New Zealand, a band released a single called Vermillion Cellars, which flopped. Sort of prog-rock. They eventually wandered over to Australia, where the money is.

Meanwhile, a New Zealand pop singer was doing considerably better, scoring a big hit with a Vanda-Young composition, Yesterday Was Just The Beginning Of My Life. He had a healthy career there for a few years, as successful as you can get in a market as small as New Zealand, before eventually wandering over to Australia.

That band, Dragon, went on to do very well in Australia, becoming rather an institution as a straightforward rock/pop band. That singer Mark Williams, saw considerably less success, eventually forging a living in session work.

So Dragon's singer, Mark Hunter, died about nine years ago.

Everyone's gotta make a living, so the band continued on, eventually as "Dragon Acoustic". With that erstwhile pop singer, Mark Williams.

Friday, there was a bit of a party at work at the tail end of the day. Something of a celebration/team build/morale boost, everyone having recently relocated to the new workplace in northwest Sydney.

And Dragon played there. With Mark Williams. Strumming an acoustic guitar, not singing. And Todd Hunter was singing, not playing bass guitar.

Funny old world, innit. As I said, everybody has to make a living somehow.

Actually, to close the loop, a look at Dragon's website reveals that Williams has a throat condition at the moment, and would normally sing.

It also shows quite a full booking schedule, so they must be doing reasonably well at that living. One of those bookings was later in the day on that Friday - in Melbourne! It's a hectic life for a jet-setting band...

More discussions on 1970s New Zealand music: Citizen Band; Toy Love.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

arrivederci Antonioni

Two down, 49,998 to go. Filmmakers beware!

First it was Bergman, now it's Michelangelo Antonioni. They were roughly contemporaries, although Bergman's influence on English language cinema was more indirect, whereas Antonioni made films in both England and the USA.

Blowup was filmed in England, with David Hemmings wandering listlessly through late 1960s London, observing without ultimately seeming to have much effect on anything. Fashion, murder, Yardbirds, Vanessa Redgrave undressed, and an invisible tennis game, and he's back where he started, perhaps wondering what he has achieved, apparently musing on what is real, what is not, and what can't be proved.

Zabriskie Point, set in the USA, was either too long ago or not sufficiently memorable for me, although I do recall a young couple wandering aimlessly around, then rolling in the sand. Then a house blew up. I might not be doing this film justice, but it's certainly not as high in the pantheon as Blowup, or a later film, The Passenger.

In that film, Jack Nicholson... wandered aimlessly throughout Spain. Languid, but harried.

Of the Antonioni films I've seen, the silent, lingering shot figured frequently. Unsurprisingly, one of his frequent themes is said to be a general purposelessness in the protagonist. Their ultimate effect is more of a mood than a plot, and they do that pretty well.

Blowup (titled from Hemmings' photographer who does greatly enlarge his pictures at one point, seeking answers that are ultimately withdrawn) was remade in the US as Blowout, a Hollywoodish admixture of Blowup and Chappaquiddick, focused on a tyre's blowout. The plot was given greater definition at the expense of mood and contemplation.

Which, to turn that last sentence around, is perhaps a reasonable approach to Antonioni's work.