Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Issue of the year: intellectual dishonesty and ignorance

Climate change is, of course, the issue of the year. But to say why, it is necessary to look at the reasons for the poor outcomes for the Copenhagen conference.

It is easy to understand why poverty is a significant part of the problem. So easy, in fact, that it loomed large in the conference: even the complacent rich countries could understand this. If I am struggling to survive from day to day, how can I find the luxury to contemplate what the world will look like in fifty years? The necessity to survive can drastically narrow one's focus, as most people throughout history can tell you.

That's the issue writ large. Although it would be dishonest to suggest that it's a life-or-death question for everyone below 'developed nation' status, it remains that the worse off one is, the harder it is to broaden one's focus. Conversely - in theory at least - it is easier to adopt a longer-term perspective where self, heritage, and legacy stand a good chance of persisting.

That's not to say there's no intellectual dishonesty among those who are not so rich, yet have some wiggle room. They will inevitably reach for what they can get. But they do not wield the power of those in rich nations.

But why are the richest nations mired - to a large extent - in inaction? Part of the problem is reflected in what afflicts two of the more recalcitrant (albeit advancing) members of the rich club, Australia and the US. In both countries, it is because the politics of opposition reflects - to far greater an extent than is warranted by the facts - resistance to the very notion of climate change. Ignorance exists, but there is little to comfort such people other than the thought that others are making the decisions, and carrying the debate, for them.

Far greater then, as an issue, is intellectual dishonesty on the part of those whose duty it is to understand better.

I have heard enough recently from such people to make me sick. It is largely political, inasmuch as those who argue the contrarian case are largely politically conservative. And they are doing it wilfully, with no desire to properly understand science, nor how scientific theory and debate works, nor how the massive weight of evidence has accumulated over the past forty years.

It is simply put as follows. Yes, scientific understanding is a matter of constant adaption to changing facts, a revising of theories and, at times, paradigm shifts that are tantamount to revolutionary. But the way this happens is via an accumulation of evidence over time that comes to clearly delineate the new thought. But in this case, the fringe thoughts - and 'evidence' is fragmenting, and slowly dissipating over time, not uniting and increasing in significance. Each piece of 'evidence' on the margins has slowly disintegrated when further evidence arrives.

Why call it intellectual dishonesty? Because these climate change 'sceptics' have usurped the term without reference to how scepticism responds to further evidence. Because these people are mostly of a political bent. Because these people claim the right to deny the substance of the scientific debate, while clinging to the propriety of their own very particular articulation of what constitutes scientific debate. And because these intellectually dishonest people have had an effect on climate change outcomes throughout the world in the past three years that is vastly disproportionate to a) the accumulation of independent evidences; and b) the accumulation of independent analyses and voices.

To them, I ask: what burden do you place on your children and grandchildren with your intellectual dishonesty?

Are you prepared to sign your name to statements of your decisions and their ramifications, so that your descendants will know how to regard their parent and grandparent in years to come? 'Misguided' is one thing, but it is another to wilfully foist such a poor legacy on coming generations. How will your self and heritage be regarded in years to come?

Grow up. Think like an adult.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The O-Light Project: What happened?

You may well ask, where's The O-Light Project?  One cover so far, and nothing behind it.

It harkens back to recurring dreams I once had, of new Tintin adventures.  Either I'd find books I hadn't seen before, or I'd be in the middle of a new Tintin adventure - sans Tintin, but with a cinematic style directly located in his world.

Then I discovered the world of Tintin pastiches: others had had similar visions but were better able to realise them, through art.

The most faithful renditions were covers of non-existent Tintin books - just like my dreams.  The best of these were executed by a Canadian with the pseudonym Harry Edwood.

Edwood's Le Projet O-Light is my favourite new Tintin book - yet it only exists as a cover.  There are several other good Edwood covers, including Le Rocher Des Kangarous (Kangaroo Rock), in which Tintin finally made it to Australia after Flight 714 For Sydney.

But early this decade, the executors of George (Herge) Remi's estate, Moulinsart, positively stomped on Tintin tributes.  In some senses this was fair enough: some of the pastiches were appallingly executed, and several were downright contre to the spirit of Remi (including the pornographic and the downright bloodthirsty).

Yet this sent the more faithful scurrying for the hills, which is a shame because the best of them are truly worthy of licensing - including several reverent, full-colour renditions of Remi's last, Tintin And Alph-Art - the best and most complete being Yves Rodier's.

More recent searching has revealed that Edwood's Project morphed into none other than The Voice Of The Lagoon.  For which he had already executed several pages - albeit in pencil.  It is set in Madagascar; the early pages are simply picaresque episodes of humour revolving around a diving suit.

Still, the O-Light cover is a brilliant rendition of Tintin, which compels the imagination to open up.

For the best completed work, seek out Rodier's Alph-Art.  The best current site discussing Tintin pastiches is, although it helps to understand French.

08-Aug-2012 update: The comment below looks to be correct on the source of the image above.  For the record, here's Calculus/Tournesol Affair, page 31, strip/bande 1 - look carefully:

To be precise, look at the figures in the third image:

Well spotted!  It does seem to be extracted from this frame.  Not obvious at all: the rework is high quality.

From memory, the centrepiece figures in Edwood's Rocher Des Kangarous cover are extracted from somewhere in Tintin In Tibet.  I wouldn't begrudge him this.  The verisimiltude is preserved, within a well-executed background.

The tragedy in Microsoft's grammar checking software

In an email, I intended to say:

"it would be a matter of weeks before he could effect any changes.."

So Microsoft's grammar check wanted me to say:

"it would be a matter of weeks before he could affect any changes.."

(Yes, fair enough, I should have turned off the grammar check.  But I'd sucker myself if I spent all day tweaking every Microsoft annoyance.)

Oh so close but so far away.  Well not really.  They are different words, stored, analysed, parsed differently.  Rather, it suggests that the person putting together the algorithms succumbed to a simple high school error.

I acknowledge that it is valiant to even attempt grammar checking software.  But if you're game enough to release such, you must have some confidence in your product.  Or you're Microsoft, and your Quality Assurance has simply let another one slip past you.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Shortsightedness in kids: get outside!

There is an answer to the epidemic of short-sightedness - and it's not what you'd expect.

Studies of myopia (short-sightedness) tested children for the amount they read, the amount they watched computer/tv screens, the amount they played sports - none of these were factors.

What mattered was the amount of time they spent outside.

Send your kids outside more, to reduce the likelihood that they'll need glasses.

Reported in New Scientist this month.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The world is going to the dogs. Discuss.

Australia's largest carbon polluters are back on comfortable ground, spending big on advertising to persuade enough Australians that "jobs" is a better motherhood concept than "global warming" or "brace yourself for very disruptive changes".

My memory tells me that the last time the coal-based industries stomped in to defend their patch, they focused on their political muscle rather than a public campaign.  Still, they retain that in their arsenal if they aren't already using it.

And Kevin Rudd, as Australia's "more conservative than thou" Prime Minister, is gearing up for the climate change battleground by persistent abrogation of international principles on asylum seekers:
1) Continuance of  the evil John Howard policy of excision of Australia's territory (to whit, Christmas Island) from the geopolitical State;
2) fear-mongering over the Sri Lankan asylum seekers sitting in on the Australian Customs ship Oceanic Viking. -again, attempting to follow Howard's lead.

And not only does Rudd perpetuate another disastrously short-sighted Howard policy of incentives to parents to participate in a renewed population boom; he also claims Australia can fit in many millions more people over the years.  (the unspoken parameters: population is okay if it us, not them; we don't want a great influx of people who are too far removed from our culture; and - purportedly - baby booms protect us from our own ageing population, and provide the economic growth that makes us richer - that, perish the thought - asylum seekers couldn't do.

Which is all a load of alarmist claptrap, of course.

Meanwhile, the Government and Opposition are preventing implementation of any carbon emission policy by both arguing variants of the same weak stance on climate change.

Facing the pressing problems of the world... the wrong way.

This is just Australia.  You can fill in the gaps for the rest of the world.  Despite some valiant policy efforts from the European Union, nobody is going to the Copenhagen climate change talks with anything like the necessary power and will.

Brace yourself for decades of instability.  If the world's governments can't cope with prevention, how will they fare with the effects of rising sea levels?  The least of their worries will be the rich retirees already complaining about their crumbling coastline properties.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Georgie Fame and Alan Price: blink and you miss them

History barely remembers their collaborations, but Fame and Price deserve a rewrite.

Having both forged careers in the 1960s, both solo and fronting bands, Georgie Fame and Alan Price were found together for a few brief episodes in the early 1970s.

They are best known together for the 1970 song Rosetta ("...are you better, are you well, well, well"), a rambunctious song about an equally boisterous woman.  But they produced two albums*, a residency on The Two Ronnies... and 1974's gem, Don't Hit Me When I'm Down.  One of history's great forgotten pop songs, it is unlikely to have been a significant hit anywhere - and sadly never made it to CD - but it was so infectious the tune remains with me today.  It follows a strong tradition of the day, of white boys infusing a dose of obscure reggae rhythm to an otherwise white song (1973-74 was positively littered with these, which merits a whole extra post).

Watching them live, still young but well experienced, they displayed an ease and enjoyment together.  Their voices were so similar that they switched vocals verse by verse -moreover, switching lead and harmony - so smoothly that if you weren't watching them, it would be hard to tell the difference.

The scant legacy is a handful of videos that must have been culled from The Two Ronnies.  They took few risks with this gig, presenting mainly covers, but again at ease and consummate.

And the whole Fame/Price experience must have been a blithe interlude for Alan Price, who had a notable body of work both before and afterwards, including - again in 1974 - the marvellous Jarrow Song, about a 1936 unemployed worker's march to London from Jarrow, Price's home town.  Much respected since then (full discography here), too much overlooked for his time with Georgie Fame.

Discography - Georgie Fame and Alan Price
Rosetta/John & Mary (1971, CBS) UK#11, Aus#91, Wellington,NZ#15
Fame and Price, Price and Fame Together (1971, CBS):  Rosetta/Yellow Man/Dole Song/Time I Moved On/John And Mary/Here And Now/Home Is Where The Heart Is/Ballad Of Billy Joe/That's How Long My Love Is/Blue Condition/I Can't Take It Much Longer
Follow Me/Sergeant Jobsworth (1971, CBS)
Don't Hit Me When I'm Down/Street Lights (1974, Reprise) Wellington NZ#10

*For the life of me, I can't locate the other album. It certainly wasn't Superhits, which cobbles together some tracks from the first one plus a few of Fame's.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

World's largest solar power plant - where?

Australian telecommunications analyst Paul Budde noted in a recent newsletter that the Australian government had announced plans to build the world's largest solar power plant, as part of its carbon abatement strategy.  The announcement, actually dated May-09, detailed a $1.4 billion government investment, with tenders to close next year.  The planned size is 1000MW, to be commission in 2015.

Not to be outdone...

The list of "world's largest" announcements on this front actually includes at least three other projects, in California, India and China.

California's announcement: 500MW, with "options" for 900MW more (scheduled for opening 2011).

India's announcement: 500MW, in Gujarat - "may now be increased to 3000MW".

China's announcement: 2000MW by 2019.

Current world's largest solar power station is said to be 354MW - in California's Mojave desert.

All laudible. With two caveats.  First, we know from the I.T. industry that announcements do not amount to actuality (what does not transpire to be 'vapourware' often amounts to 'shrinkware').  Second, the time frame for realisation of such projects is sufficiently long that they may be overtaken by new developments, particularly technological.  Still, more power to them: a race like this can only be good.

Monday, October 19, 2009

John Howard's Graham Morris: the small man behind the small man

I chanced upon some television last Friday that pitted Graham Morris against Tim Gartrell in a discussion of the recent wave of boat people headed for Australian shores.

A debate on "illegal immigration" is hardly going to be edifying, much less one that involves ex-heavyweights from each side of politics.  And it's particularly daunting when the participants are the above two.  (For the ALP, ex-National Director Gartrell put in an especially disgraceful turn in rolling up wetness, rightwing thuggery, and knee-jerk populism into an unpalatable ball.  But that's another story.)

Graham Morris was once John Howard's chief of staff when Howard was Prime Minister.  He leaves little impact on the world, judging by his web presence, but he has been a Howard adviser, Howard defender, and now PR flak.  His latest appearance of note was on the ABC documentary The Howard Years.

And what a small man he was in the above debate.  He displayed a manner and pettiness of spirit that was directly reminiscent of... John Howard.  He could have been the doppelganger that took over from Howard when the latter got booted out - if Morris hadn't already been given the boot some years back - an apparent head rolled in the travel rorts affair of 1997.

But it's so damned uncanny!  Such a close approximation of John Howard in a man who ostensibly shared such a brief stint on stage with him.  The ingratiating yet supercilious mannerisms.  The arrogant yet populist meanness.  And the nasty streak behind him.  For someone who has been apparently out of the corridors of power for so long, he wielded attitude like a big stick.  Towards the end of his time, he appeared to directly threaten the preselection or senate position of anybody in the Liberal Party that held a view differing from the one he'd expressed.

In all, Graham Morris purveyed just the sort of dogmatic determinism you'd expect from the small man behind a small man.

Links: of the few traces I find of Graham Morris, you can pursue the following if you feel so moved:
- His entry on Zoominfo, a personal profile aggregator;

- ABC's The Howard Years is available here, although you'd have to trawl for Morris' appearances.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Obama's Noble prize

Congratulations to Barack Obama for his award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course, a number of conservatives and Americans are frantically scratching their heads over this award.

(The Sydney Morning Herald's pet conservative, Paul Sheehan, complained: about Obama being nominated before he was two weeks in office; about the number of US Democrats that had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recent years - Jimmy Carter and Al Gore too; but he mainly complained about the Afghanistan government.)

But world politics is not felt by its subtlety, so some may have missed the work Obama has done to improve the atmosphere of multilateral politics.

It's worth looking at some of the reasons Obama was cited.  The Nobel committee said (with some emphasis added by me) the award was

" for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.
Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.
Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.
For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world's leading spokesman. The Committee endorses Obama's appeal that 'Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.'"

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Wisteria: both white and purple on the same plant

I mentioned before our purple wisteria that had mysteriously turned white this season.

In fact, that was only the first shoot.  The rest of them have so far come out purple; the white flowers can all be traced to that single branch.

The plot thickens.  The best suggestion so far, from my wife, is that the plant carries genes for both, and that white branch is a sport.  I've seen wisteria in white and in various shades of purple, but never two different colours on the same bush.

The weather has been wild in Sydney these past months.  It's been spring in July, summer in September, and back to winter in October.  The unseasonably cold, wet and windy weather may have been a blessing.  Our wisteria usually flowers for only a couple of weeks each year, but the cold spell landed half-way through the blooming, so some of the buds haven't yet opened.  Hopefully they will come out when the weather turns warm again, prolonging the blooming.  On the other hand, the scent hasn't been as heady as in previous years: it really needs a full crop for the best effect.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Life on Earth is indeed a rare contingency

New Scientist reports that cosmic radiation would be too dangerous for NASA to send people to Mars.

NASA's current rules on risk aim to keep each astronaut's lifetime risk of radiation cancer to below 3%.  That limit would be reached in under 200 days, but a round trip to Mars would take 750 days.

Read the report here.

It would be relatively easy to shield a spacecraft from the sun's radiation.  But galactic cosmic radiation, comprising "protons and heavier atomic nuclei" has higher energy than the sun's, and can cut through DNA in living cells, which damage can lead to cancer.  On Earth, we are protected from such bombardment by both atmosphere and the Earth's magnetic field.

It does seem that the particular set of circumstances that fostered evolution and maintains life on Earth is a rare contingency, requiring the right combination of atmosphere, magnetic field, distance from the sun, type of sun and type of planet - even plate techtonics contributes to the ongoing habitability of the planet.

The piling up of such factors could help explain the lack of success in the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence project.  It remains inconceivable that those factors could not arise repeatedly elesewhere, but the very delicacy of balance of all these factors is a plausible explanation for why we have fould no near neighbours.

Postscript 20-Oct-09: I have come across two memes that claim to speak to this.  First, the Drake Equation, which purports to estimate the number of civilizations in our galaxy (the Milky Way) with which we could establish contact.  Seven factors are included, including the rate of star formation and  the proportion of life-potential planets that go on to develop life.  A current estimate of the solution to that equation is 2.31; however, the equation (and estimates of factors) must be seen as so conjectural that to my mind it's little more than a philosophical exercise (or something akin to economists being asked to estimate something they know very well they don't have enough information for).

There is also a claim that there are "20 factors" necessary for the emergence of life with the complexity that we know.  However, I have not found the origin for this meme, and it's debated more in circles religious (both Christian and Muslim) than logic, scientific, or mathematical - invariably to "prove" the small contingency of life.  Still, there are necessary factors, and they're worth considering - albeit some of them surely overlap in terms of contingency.  For the purposes of debate, some of those mentioned include:
 - a liquid iron planetary core (to provide a magnetic field that shields us from some cosmic radiation);
 - a moon to pull tides (and circulate oceans) - (how necessary?);
 - the sun's composition;
 - the planet's distance from the sun;
 - distance from the centre of the galaxy... etc.
A scientific enumeration (and discussion) of such a list would be interesting to read (factors in Drake's equation are rather more broad - and conjectural - than these).

Yet I'd have to point out that at least some of these factors only pertain to our version of life.  It is hard for us conceive of life emerging in radically different form (and I'm not talking SF bugs or tentacled aliens: more, different formations of cells, etc), but that doesn't mean it can't happen.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Religion is a poor substitute for ethics?

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Saturday that a fight is being waged against the introduction of ethics classes in primary schools.

The context: scripture classes.  New South Wales allows for one hour per week of religious instruction.  Those who opt out of such instruction - as many as 80% in some schools - are not allowed to be placed at an advantage by learning or revising other subjects.

In fact, the quality of the 'scripture' classes, and the availability of different religious options, is fully dictated by the availability of suitable volunteers in each school.

For example, this has meant that at my kids' school, the offerings have for some time included Anglican, Catholic - and Baha'i.  And now some parents have felt sufficiently moved to organise a Buddhist class for next year.

Meanwhile, the Federation of Parents and Citizens Association of NSW has commissioned the St James Ethical Centre to develop a pilot program to offer ethics classes for those who opt out of scripture.

But the State Government's religious education advisory panel has spoken out against the program (see the report mentioned above).

They don't want those opting out of religous classes to gain unfair advantage?  That's akin to saying that a properly focused ethics class provides kids with a sounder ethics education than religious instruction.  A rather dangerous admission?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sydney's orange storm

The kids called out to me around 6am this morning to look at the light outside. Everything was orange.

Sydney was in the middle of a dust storm, the likes of which I've never seen in my 20 years here. The dust was exactly the same fine orange dust that my mother-in-law experienced three times per summer in Peak Hill. She hated it. It got into everything, regardless of whether the doors and windows were closed.

However, this particular dust apparently came from "two flooded rivers in western Queensland"  - ie, it was the silt residue after the floods had subsided.  It was estimated that 75,000 tonnes of that dust was carried by the storm; it resulted in the worst air pollution reading on record in Sydney.

Our doors and windows were mostly closed today. But enough dust got in to leave fine traces of orange on interior surfaces. Cars were patterned with a light orange dirt, and several people this morning were walking around with dust masks.

The orange colour had substantially cleared by 8:30, but the dust was still around, and the sky maintained an overcast look until early afternoon. When the dust lifted, the skies were bright blue with fluffy clouds.

At first I thought I'd have problems with asthma (and health warnings abounded), but for those walking the streets this morning, the greater problem was eye irritation. The dust is so fine, it takes a lot to properly clean out the eyes.

The Sydney Morning Herald has press reports and more photos.
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Friday, September 18, 2009

Why white wisteria?

High up on our garden arch, white wisteria is dripping down.

For the last two seasons, the wisteria has been purple. Why is it white this season?

Although wisteria has been in bloom in Sydney for a couple of weeks, ours has only just started - and only on the arch, and not on the main bush. Ours has always bloomed much later than others - perhaps because it's a different variety. But why would a wisteria bush change colour from purple to white?

(Note that in the photo, the wisteria is surrounded by jasmine, which has already been in bloom for maybe a month. This season, it invaded the wisteria - although not to the detriment of the latter - shot past it, and climbed up the arch. If you look carefully in the photo, you might notice some extra long rose creepers, which are about to bloom in a pretty but scentless red.)

Update 10-Oct-09: The rest of the flowers have now come out purple, as mentioned here - thickening the plot.
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Monday, September 14, 2009

Cormorants, and the evolution of birds

I thought the bird I saw on Coogee beach was somewhat duck-like in size and shape - except that it held its chest high, and had a sharp beak and rather large webbed feet.  Obviously a fisher.  It was entirely black (including feet), save yellow markings around the eyes.

It was actually a Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), a widespread native to Australia.

Birds are most closely related to crocodilians, in the dinosaur clade archosauromorpha.  (Reptiles, thus, are paraphyletic - not really a true, complete evolutionary grouping, and rather just a description).

But let's take it from the top.  Or, at least, the beginning of the mesozoic (the "middle", or dinosaur era of 250 - 65 million years ago).  Archeosaurs (the precursor group to archosauromorphs) arguably became more successful at the time than synapsids (mammal ancestors) because they were better suited to the dryness of the Triassic period (250 - 200mya).  They included dinosaurs, crocodilians, and the ancestors of birds.  Crocodilians first appeared about 84mya (late Cretaceous).  Modern birds (neornithes: feathers, no teeth, hard eggs, several flight adaptions) evolved into a variety of forms in the Cretaceous (145-65mya).  The two bird groupings, palaognathae (comprising ratites - most of the flightless birds - plus the barely-flying tinamous) and neognathae (the rest) probably arose before the KT meteor event of 65mya, but radiated into the numerous different species mostly afterwards.

Now, the reason that cormorant looked a bit duck-like to me was its webbed feet and the shape and size of its body.  But they are not related at all.  Cormorants have been grouped together as pelecaniformes (which includes the pelican's family pelicanidae), while ducks are in the anseriforme order.

Although Colin Tudge (in The Variety Of Life) is happy enough with the cormorant's above classification, Wikipedia casts doubt on pelecaniformes being a true clade (that is, a single complete evolutionary grouping), and suggests phalacrocoraciformes as a more properly monophyletic clade.  The issue here is that the pelecaniforme was used to encompass all birds with fully four webbed toes.  But as we know, classification based on such a stark physical trait is dangerous, since the various species could easily have evolved separately but convergently.  If the purpose (webbed feet for paddling) is so clearly useful, that evolutionary change could have happened several times, several locations.

The names cormorant and shag are sometimes used interchangeably, but even when each is called by its proper name, there is no consistency between them.  Their collected family name is Phalacrocoracidae - but the discussion there concludes that this is not one consistent evolutionary grouping.

The cormorant I encountered was not well, if it was so near humans.  It was wandering around, not flying, and unlike the one above had most of its tail feathers missing - and appeared far too tame for its own good.  It and kids were a danger to each other.  I contacted the wildlife rescue organisation WIRES, who recommended taking it to a vet that was on the Wires register; so I took it to Struggletown in Randwick.  Unfortunately, it died within the next two days - as a result of lead poisoning.  How?  Unknown, and this was not the first bird specimen to be sent off for analysis for this issue.  Also not known what the missing tailfeathers had to do with its plight.  I was told the apparent tameness was due to lack of interaction with humans.  Still, it was the indirect effect of human activity that got it in the end.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fight Club (1999):Clever film, appalling marketing

When I saw the trailer for Fight Club, it turned me right off.  Funny, because the trailer was apparently a specific attempt to market the film differently, because the studio had lost faith in the outcome.  I, for one, would have watched it first time around if I had understood what it was really about.

And their perverse marketing effort failed, and the film was unsuccessful on first release.  (See the details of this on Wikipedia.)

It's a lot of different types of film: noir, humour, thriller, romantic (not romance per se), but above all, well-written and clever.

Warning, there are some serious spoilers ahead.

It's a slow film to take off, in a lot of ways.  Early on, the humour carries it to a fair extent.  My personal feeling is that it flags through the middle.  But the final act is the reward, which combines smart writing with taut plotting, and some really engaging revelations.

The central issue, of course, is that Tyler Durden is the alter ego of the protagonist.  But the exploration of the themes clearly set the film (and original source novel) as strongly multidimensional.

There is a strong coherency to this film.  For example, in how  the protagonist beats himself up.

There is a humour, for instance with Bob.

There is a truckload of cleverness that, like a rapid-fire comedy, it's easy to miss if you're not concentrating.  For instance in how the protagonist "obtains" the gun from Tyler.

The final act is particularly satisfying, in its coherency and cleverness.  For example, in the number of people that have been planted to achieve Tyler's goal - building management and police in particular.

The film's direction is very effective in the hands of one David Fincher, whose other films have included Seven (1995) and The Game (1997).

Also see the Wikipedia article for discussions of copycat behaviour and parallels with clockwork orange.

Wikipedia contains some particularly interesting insights into the production of the film - how the source novel did and didn't provoke interest and faith in the project, and how the leads were assembled.  It's interesting to mull over the leads mooted, and how different the film might have been.

Especially interesting is discussion in the Wikipedia entry of the source novel, which suggests that it inspired some people to antisocial behaviour, yet inspired other people positively.  Whole dissertations to be had there.  That reference also includes a quote from the source novelist, Chuck Palahniuk: on a broader level "all my books are about a lonely person looking for some way to connect with other people."

Themes of dislocation, advertising, corporate lack of ethics, and diseempowerment, are much more real than a crummy advertising campaign about organised violence.

It is worth noting that plot's depiction of successes of anarchist/revolutionary aims is rather at variance with reality: very few coherent anarchistic or revolutionary actions have ever been achieved in wealthy nations.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Citizen Band: unabashed rock

How's your day been my love
How's your day been today
How's your day been darling
Hope you've been good while I've been away...

More than thirty years before I first met my friend Derek, I saw his brother on tv.  It was in 1973 on New Faces, a sort of talent contest, and they came across as something between vaudeville, Noel Coward, and Salvador Dali.  They were called Split Ends, doing the above Sweet Talking Spoon Song.

They didn't do too well.  The clear favourite was the rollicking Bulldogs Allstar Goodtime Band, and their two slices of glorious pop (Miss September and Everyone Knows) each shot up the New Zealand charts rapidly, leaving the Spoon Song literally for dead.

Fast forward seven years.  The Bulldogs lasted little more than a year; Split Enz, as they were now known, were still taking the long, slow road to fame and fortune, and Geoff and Mike Chunn, both having served time in Split Ends (where Mike was known as Jonathan Chunn) were now in Citizen Band, and released a great live album called CB Bootleg.  I already knew them (albeit not their pedigree) from their earlier singles, and earned my respect for a driving, riff-based song called Rust In My Car.

I wore out that album.  They were a great band, with a good repertoire of mostly originals.  It was not so fashionable in 1980, but they really rocked.  And even in their quieter moments, songs such as Acrobats and SOS (no, not the bloody Abba song) were solid, friendly, and tuneful.  The record completed with a strong cover of Graham Parker's Protection, blending well with their sound.

A few decades later, thanks to Derek and his brother, I have for the first time a Citizen Band CD.  And again I find out why that music was simply so enjoyable.

Mike Chunn (who played bass as Jonathan Chunn in Split Ends) was later a music industry exec, and now apparently runs a music mentoring foundation through New Zealand schools.  Geoff Chunn, also in Split Ends, did guitar, vocals, and most songwriting for CB.  Drummer Brent Eccles was in Space Waltz before (as was CB's other guitarist Greg Clark), and subsequently in the Angels.  There's a bio of Citizen Band, and a comprehensive early history of early Split Enz on Sergent's, the most encyclopaedic site there is of 1960s and 70s New Zealand music.  And you can see and hear these original (looking so young!) and unplugged versions of Rust In My Car on YouTube. (Space Waltz' Out On The Streets here.)

A warm appreciation to all those Chunns out there for the CD, and facilitating these memories.


NZ Charts
In A Lifetime
In A Lifetime/Good Morning Citizen
I Feel Good
I Feel Good/My Pohutukawa
The Ladder Song
The Ladder Song/Martian Spaceman
Citizen Band
Good Morning Citizen/The Ladder Song/The Office Come Alive/Dig That Tex/I Feel Good/Blue Lagoon/Julia/My Pohutukawa/Heroes Roll/Out In The World/Counting The Regiments/Tex Goes To The Tinema
Somebody Else
Somebody Else/Holy Felule
Julia/Blue Lagoon

Just Drove Thru Town
We're The Boys/Rust In My Car/S.O.S./Protection/City Slitz/Another Night/A Night At The Brit/Acrobats/Snarl/Just Drove Thru Town

Rust In My Car
Rust In My Car/Dig That Tex
No Stereo /SOS
No Stereo/SOS
Home Tonight
Home Tonight/Pyjamas
live LP
CB Bootleg
City Slitz/Another Night/The Ladder Song/I Feel Good/Rust In My Car/Julia/S. O. S./The Office Come Alive/Acrobats/Protection

Rust In My Car
Rust In My Car/I Feel Good/The Ladder Song/The Office Come Alive/Julia/SOS/Acrobats/Heroes Roll / Out In The World/Another Night (Live)/Dig That Tex/The Man's A Wonder/Tex Goes To The Tinema/Blue Lagoon

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Science, the universe, and beauty

Today my seven-year old was reading an article in New Scientist about diamonds, where it discussed alternatives for harder materials, and arrangements of chemical structures.

It was remarkable that he read for more than two pages on a subject - chemistry - for which he clearly had little to no understanding.  Especially since it's only been a few months since he attained sufficient fluidity in reading.

 I have already outlined some of the basics of chemistry to my seven- and eight-year-olds, but since they have no specific interest in it, it will be slow going for a while.

But it got me considering the periodic table.  I'd only done chemistry to sixth form (age 16), and I haven't refreshed systematically since.  So I glanced at the subject in Encyclopedia Britannica - one of their rare shows of colour was the periodic table, page 952 of volume 15.

It was in discussion of the chemical composition of the earth, and the origin of elements in stars, that I realised there was a whole new area of fundamental systematics for me to absorb with adult eyes.

And then I was reminded of a piece in today's Good Weekend: in Stephanie Dowrick's Inner Life column which tends, I guess, to discuss the secular spiritual.  (I'm not generally taken by her, preferring the following columnist, Mark Dapin, who is surprisingly readable for a magazine humour column.)

Dowrick was querying one's "eye for beauty".  Looked like she was focusing on the visually beauty, but she eventually redeemed herself with other examples: children, poetry, music.

Of course, I find beauty in the analytical, in making sense of things that provide an internal logic and coherency.  The more fundamental the better, such as physics, evolutionary biology... and chemistry.  To see natural patterns and logic that are inherent and immutable: they describe a natural rhythm, a joyous music of the universe that is unsullied by human hand.

It takes a particular temperament to find joy in that sort of beauty*.  I feel privileged.

*One who does is someone I've previously mentioned, Daniel Tammet, a savant with Asperger's, who finds beauty in numbers.  That's numbers for themselves, as opposed to beauty in more complex mathematics, for which I have given a wonderful example here.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Sayings of the day

"Every time I go to Ireland, Sam Beckett dies."*


"Dad, did you have computers when  you were little?"


"You didn't have electricity, then?"

*I'm not actually sure whether it's specific to Beckett.  It may be that every time I go to Ireland, a famous Irish writer dies.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

iPhone and the future of personal devices

The future of personal devices is iPhone?

Apple's iPhone made it to the cover of Time magazine in 2007, the year it was released.  Now it has made the cover of New Scientist.  Why?

Because it's in the process of filfilling a vision I - and many others - had long ago.  That vision was for a ubiquitous device that would meet all one's digital needs - anywhere.

That shouldn't have been too hard - in theory.  I once had a PDA (personal digital assistant, a pocket-sized computer) that ran on Windows CE.  You beaut, I thought at the time, it's Windows-based and actively supported by Microsoft, so it will be a significant platform into the future, there'll be plenty of software for it, it will do everything.

That PDA only partially realised the vision.  It held music, photos, videos, spreadsheets, documents... and could connect wirelessly to the internet.  But as a general device, PDAs never grabbed the mass market's imagination in the same way that PCs, mobile phones and the internet did.

What happened?

First, a market overview.

Worldwide, there are already more mobile phone services than landlines (2005 figures, for example, were 2 billion vs 1.2 billion).

Further, there are are already more mobile phones being sold than any other devices (according to the above reference, 2005 sales were 830m mobiles, 210m desktop/laptop computers, 100m game consoles, 90m digital cameras).

Even earlier - 2004 - sales of Smartphones (integrated phone/PDA functionality) had overtaken standalone PDAs.  As of 2009, they constitute one in every seven mobile phones sold.

Back in 2004, as far as operating systems went, Windows CE was market leader at 48%, well ahead of Palm's 30% and 20% for RIM's Blackberry.

The picture is rather different now.  Latest worldwide figures (Gartner, Q2 09:
  • Symbian 51% (Nokia, Motorola, Sony/Ericsson, and others)
  • RIM (Blackberry) 18.7%
  • Apple 13%
  • Microsoft 9%
  • Android (Google's new platform) 2%
  • Palm <1%
(The bulk of the rest  - 5% odd - is Linux-based)

Ultimately, PDAs were superseded by connected devices, driven by that consumer product of choice, the mobile phone.  That's not the end of the story, but ubiquity in market penetration is gradually leading to ubiquity in functionality, and Apple is leading the charge.  The iPhone may not be the market leader, but the breadth and volume of applications is world-beating - and that phenomenon is illustrated impressively by the New Scientist article.

The other part of the equation is the loading up with communication capabilities - especially location awareness, which has sparked a surprisingly large and imaginative range of applications.

Microsoft did have a vision for its operating system which encompassed both PDAs and smartphones, but execution failed.  Although they pushed it quite strongly through their developer community, their market share is inexorably declining because they simply never caught fire with the wider public.  That especially is where Apple shines, generating momentum that fosters further innovation.

On the downside, Apple is prone to restrictions (to hardware, software, and connectivity enhancements) that are aimed at protecting its turf, including brand image, in one way or another.  That has been a downfall in the past, and a caveat that may yet unseat their current ride to glory.

The original vision stands largely fulfilled, in actuality or near-term capability.  Yet for me there remains an annoying gap in data entry.  How to transfer your digital world into the device, especially when mobile.  Fitted microphone and camera can go only part of the way.  In my original PDA, the issue was partly addressed with a fold-out keyboard that the device could be plugged into.  Still, typing as a paradigm leaves a lot to be desired.  Waiting for the next leap forwards...

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Why do we dream?

Recent mention in New Scientist filled in some more detail on dreams.

Our broad understanding is that dreams are a way of processing the day's events, cataloguing and storing them away.  And that dreaming happens only in the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep.  This accounts for about a fifth to a quarter of sleep time, in about four bursts.  I remember hearing of an experiment that found a stimulus of a ringing bell (that woke someone up) was incorporated into the final part of a dream that was quite lengthy.  The report suggested this meant dreams were actually quite rapid.

In fact, dreams have been found in both REM and non-REM states - but they each seem to have different content and purpose.

A key idea reported by New Scientist is that REM dreams are a way of dealing with experiences: good or bad, the experiences are relived (and filed away) without the accompanying stress, thus dampening down the emotional impact of those experiences, helping us to achieve an equilibrium over time.  REM dreams are more narrational, emotional, and aggressive.  The suggestion is that the dreams with aggression help us cope with real aggression.  Many such dreams involve unknown males in aggressive interaction with the dreamer.  REM dreams also improve our memory and problem-solving ability - presumably through background storage, retrieval and calculation functions.

Non-REM dreams, by contrast, often involve friendly interactions, suggesting they foster co-operative behaviour.

New Scientist report, with references, here.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Latest on Australian interest rates and economic prognosis

Australia's Reserve Bank left interest rates on hold today - but this can't last.

The news didn't filter to the forefront of the Fairfax media (the Sydney Morning Herald's analysis is relegated to the business section, and lifted from Melbourne's Age); Murdoch's Australian gives it more prominence but scant analysis (see their lead article and brief analysis), but everyone seek different devils in the detail, in this case, the RBA's statement that accompanied the 'inaction'.

In fact, analysis of the differences between phrases emitted this month and last show more heat - subtlely, but definitely - in today's release.  They all but raised interest rates, and patently flagged at least one rise in the next couple of months.

The trade deficit is worse, but business investment imports don't imply a negative.  Australia is, after all, the only major developed economy not to experience recession - which suggests bravura economic stimulus measures, albeit ones that could have been more strategically targetted (but fast action and conservative economics are not good bedfellows).  This alone can win the government next year's election - and they can be expected to ram it home.

Expect employment recovery to lag.

Hans Rosling: health insights, presentation excellence

Insights - wisdom and knowledge - are precious.  Too often information is lacking context, or context is lacking information.  News media is particularly guilty of this; most reports give scant weighting to the why over the what, and the event becomes mere spectacle.

Hans Rosling is a Swedish professor of global health.  I stumbled across his presentations in the context of software tools, but found myself riveted by Rosling's ability to communicate on his subject matter - something he brings alive, even for those who may not have an immediate interest.

Those presentations, available on the website of the excellent organisation TED (devoted to "ideas worth spreading"), are every one of them worth watching: entertaining yet full of information and insight.

In the first presentation in the above series, Rosling's discussion revolves around four dimensions: time, health, wealth, and location (region/country).  He gives his audience a good understanding of how the other three factors affect health outcomes, yet argues cogently for a more complex perspective on factors that affect health.

His second presentation is briefer, but includes an impressive feat which might seem gratuitous, yet he does it with purpose: to illustrate his point on achieving better health outcomes that "the seemingly impossible is possible".  I won't divulge the climax: something that has to be seen for itself.

Rosling is, first and foremost, a Subject Matter Expert.  But crucially he is a very effective communicator.  He presents with knowledge and clarity, in a way that engages the audience.  Part of the 'wow' factor lies in the fluid use of  the presentation software he uses, which leaves the world's Powerpoints for dead.  And if you explore the links, you'll find out that that software was originally developed by Rosling's foundation, no doubt to achieve the sort of communication at which Rosling excels.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Is evolution still happening?

Every so often, someone lands on my site specifically because they're wondering this: is evolution still happening?

Depends what you mean, really.  We hear often how viruses and bacteria mutate, seeming to generate new ways to attack us all the time.  Take bacteria (which are more readily classed as living entities).  They proliferate by dividing (binary fission), and their generations are far, far more rapid than ours.  Greater population, fast breeding, more scope for genetic change that is more visible to us.

Yet broadly we conceive evolution in terms of how we humans got to where we are today.  And that's the product of hundreds of millions of years (and elaborated in my earlier discussion here).  Saying that is one thing, but understanding it is far more difficult, because our human scale takes its measure in one lifetime.  At best, we extend ourselves to the whole of human history, which is only a few thousand years - a tiny speck on the scale of hundreds of millions.  I call this issue deanthropocentrism: the effort required to conceptually escape our human framework, and understand processes that work on vastly different scales.  To do this more than superficially is not nearly as easy as it sounds.

So some of us think, how can this be, does this evolution really make sense?  Yes, it does, just not so much in our immediate framework.

Yet the sun is still emitting radiation that occasionally knocks around with DNA in our germ-line cells, producing the odd change.  Such changes can add up over time, if beneficial for survival.  If a mutation improves the odds of an individual surviving and breeding, that mutation is more likely to survive.  In the past, this was "natural selection" - ie, mutation survived where the "whole of environment" (including climate, food resources, food competitors, and predators) fostered it.  These days, humans frequently take that role, exercising selectivity over both plant and animal breeds.

How does selectivity work today on humans?  Well, we've diluted it substantially.  By improving global health, we're over-riding natural selectivity.  We're increasing the survival rates of those who have adverse genetic outcomes.  For example, cystic fibrosis sufferers once seldom lived far beyond puberty, but survival has now been prolonged past breeding age.

Is that a bad thing?

No, because we are ethical beings, not ones to ride on the whim of random outcomes.

Over time, our technology can improve outcomes, identify potential issues before they happen, find solutions.

And we are now at the point where the environment is a product of us, not vice versa.  So what of climate change?  Although we can say human adaptions that are better suited to a hotter, more turbulent world are better able to survive, the question is whether those less adaptive are likely to survive to breed.  And our global culture no longer fosters selectivity purely on that basis - bar a calamitous breakdown of society.

So these are the issues: whether and how we intervene in 'natural' selectivity.  Such intervention can bring human evolution to a halt.  The only selectivity for breeding now is societal, and I have seen no indication so far of any specific genetic determinant on those who end up remaining single all their lives (in the sense that they produce no offspring).

In that sense it could be said that humans, for the time being, have induced their own evolutionary pause.  However, that might not be such a bad thing: natural selectivity could work in any direction, depending on environment.  Bigger (or brighter, or more complex) is not necessarily better for survival, for example - as the dinosaurs found out.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglourious Basterds and the director's form

Following film via director's pedigree can be fraught - but ultimately very rewarding.  Few people can be pitch perfect all the time, and those who succeed well can also fail big.

Take Terry Gilliam.  Aside from the Monty Python films (which are largely turkey shoots), his first major critical success was the acclaimed Brazil.  His imagination shines glorious, in both the writing and direction.  Yet he perennially suffers from an ambition far greater than a capacity to realise, so he has crashed spectacularly.  Persistence was rewarded with the wonderful 12 Monkeys, but his record remains understandably patchy... but he's still worth watching for the times he pulls it off.

Jim Jarmusch, similarly uneven.  Early winner with Stranger Than Paradise, persistence richly rewarded with Dead Man. (But how could he come up with Ghost Dog?)

Christopher Nolan.  More consistent, in that his failures are only relative to his stunning successes.  See Memento and be a fan for life; The Prestige is another payoff.  Dark Knight, for all its violence, is obviously the product of a very skilled filmmaker.

TarentinoPulp Fiction: top notch writing, top notch directing.  Some of his later films such as Kill Bill were little more than stylised ultra-violence.  But Inglourious Basterds (US, 2009) is Tarantino at top of form.  Again with more violence than necessary, but so well crafted, so well written.

You can come to a film by accident, or you can follow form assiduously.  Don't expect a payout every time, but it's worth the wait for the jackpot.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ellie Greenwich (1940 - 2009) and the soundtrack of the 1960s

Wait 'till my Bobby gets home,
Wait till my baby gets ho-ome
Yeah yeah yeah yea-eah, sure I need some lovin'
Some kissin' and a-huggin'
But I'll wait 'till my Bobby gets home.

That's the first I heard of Ellie Greenwich: her 1973 single Wait 'Till My Bobby Gets Home – a vibrant pop song.

With that came her bio, in a pop chart dated 13th September, 1973:

"Ellie Greenwich is currently having her first hit - at the age of 33, although she's far from being any newcomer to the business.  She, like Carole King and Neil Sedaka, comes from Brooklyn, New York City.  Also, like Carole King, she's divorced from her ex-songwriting partner/husband.  But to get back to the beginnings, she was a high-school teacher for a while, and she was a contracted songwriter for Lieber and Stoller's publishing company.  There she met Jeff Barry, who'd just written his first hit - Tell Laura I Love Her.  They began writing and singing together, and later got married.  The artists for whom they wrote hits included Neil Diamond, Dusty Springfield, The Crystals, Lesley Gore, and Ike and Tina Turner, and their hits included And Then He Kissed Me, Chapel of Love, I Can Hear Music, Baby I Love You, Leader of the Pack and River Deep, Mountain High.  When their marriage broke up things slowed down a lot for Ellie Greenwich, but the tremendous success of Carole King has inspired her with a similar ambition.  As a result, she currently has her first solo single on American charts, and it's now hit ours - Ellie Greenwich's Wait Till My Bobby Gets Home is this week in place 83 on the ZM Sound Survey."*

It sounds odd now, but at the time most of the above namechecks drew a blank with me.  But I had only just started listening to pop music with a verve, and it only took another seven years of listening to the radio to fully round out my education in all that was big in music since the advent of rock and roll.

Not until I did the research just now, did I find out Bobby had already been a minor hit in 1963 for Darlene Love (#26 on Billboard).  Or that she also wrote Sunshine After The Rain, a very pleasant almost-hit for Elkie Brooks in the late seventies.

She was credited with setting Neil Diamond on the road to success as a performer; she also worked with Phil Spector (writer, producer and arch criminal) on a number of their biggest mutual successes.

Despite the promise ascribed to her in the above bio, in reality Greenwich's chief impact on music was her songwriting contribution to the blossoming of the sixties.  A narrow focus, but one that shouldn't be understated.  It is a tribute to her skills that so many of those songs were later covered by so many people.

 Although her songs are well known by many, most people haven't even heard her sing - which she does creditably.  An extract from Bobby, from her second album, 1973's Let It Be Written, Let It Be Sung, can be heard here. (you can also hear Sunshine After The Rain via Elkie's version here, and Ellie's original here.  They present an interesting comparison between sixties and seventies sensibilities).  Ellie's own site is worth a look; there's also a great interview with her here.

Silly Isn't It/ Cha-Cha Charming

(as Ellie Gaye)
What A Guy
(as Raindrops, with husband Jeff Barry)
The Kind Of Boy You Can't Forget
The Raindrops
Raindrops:  What a Guy/Hanky Panky/I Won't Cry/It's So Wonderful/Da Doo Ron Ron/When the Boy's Happy (The Girl's Happy Too)/The Kind of Boy You Can't Forget/Isn't That Love/ Every Little Beat/Even Though You Can't Dance/That Boy's Messin' Up My Mind/Not Too Young to Get Married

That Boy John

Book Of Love

Let's Go Together

One More Tear

Don't Let Go


Ellie Greenwich Composes, Produces & Sings
United Artists
Beautiful People/Baby Baby Baby/ Goodnight Goodnight/Long Time Comin'/The Sunshine After the Rain/ Niki Hoeky/The Letter/ Oh How Happy/ I'll Never Need More Than This/I Want You to Be My Baby

Niki Hoeky
United Artists

I Want You To Be My Baby
United Artists

Let It Be Written, Let It Be Sung
Maybe I Know/Wait 'Til My Bobby Gets Home/Today I Met The Boy I'm Going To Marry/And Then He Kissed Me/If You Loved Me Once/ Be My Baby/What Good Is I Love You/Chapel Of Love/I Can Hear Music/Goodnight Baby-Baby I Love You/Gettin' Together/ River Deep, Mountain High

Wait 'Til My Bobby Gets Home


*Well, accuracy wasn't the forte of ephemera such as pop charts.  Bobby didn't actually make it to the Billboard hot 100 (whereas an earlier one of hers did, under her own name: I Want You To Be My Baby - a very R'n'B song, which can be heard here).  And ironically, her erstwhile partner's aforementioned song Laura was zooming up the charts that week in 1973, in a cover by Creation which reached number 4, whereas Bobby was destined to sink without trace - apart from the memories of those who heard her sing it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

SETI, Open source, and the socialisation of productivity

What does SETI have to do with Microsoft's furrowed brow?

We all know the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, whereby the universe is scanned for signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum which can be interpreted as originating with intelligent life. Some of us have run SETI@home: you download a screensaver, which runs in the background, borrowing your unused computer time to run a parcel of number crunching for SETI. Everybody wins: only your idle computer time is used, and it can have some wider community benefit - you may even be responsible for the first discovery of extraterrestrial life.

That was the first distributed grid computing project to gain widespread publicity. But the software is now available to turn any general project requiring major computer time into a socialised project. The Herald recently ran an article on Australian use of such software: specifically, BOINC, The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. The article said over 32,000 Australians were currently running BOINC projects, out of 1.7 million people worldwide.

The scope is tremendous, not just for general scientific research, but also for any community-sector project that may not otherwise have the resources to get off the ground.

For the moment, here's a list of projects you may wish to take part in. Those are all scientific research, mainly in biology, physics and maths, but there's also a World Community Grid, which is specifically aimed at humanitarian projects.

As for Microsoft, the other side of community computing is software: open source, to be specific: generally an open source project is contributed to by many, with no profit-oriented copyright - and generally available for free. Open Office may be the most famous - a direct competitors to Microsoft's Office suite. And as a method of developing software that is freely available to all, it has gained acceptance in most areas of my professional focus, business intelligence. Apart from the well-known mySQL database, there are also open source tools available for most related areas. As well as database and BI software, there's also ETL, data profiling, and so on.

Over time, you should expect prices to tumble in all types of software directly affected by open source initiatives. Yes, the likes of Microsoft can expect some buffering from these forces due to brand-name strength. But yes too, Microsoft is worried enough that they are already working on alternative revenue streams, including jumping into the cloud. Those alternatives shouldn't see a collapse of capitalism any time soon, but the long-term trend can only benefit the public, particularly those who might not otherwise be able to afford such computer resources, particularly in the developing world.

In a wider sense, distributed computing and open source are simply harbingers of a globalisation and socialisation of productivity, for the benefit of all.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

James Hardie's lack of corporate ethics

I doubt company directors and CEOs ever consider themselves thugs. Generally, they would claim their only aim is to protect shareholders' funds; often they claim that as their overriding legal obligation.

Yet James Hardie's managers indulged in thuggery - and they've been caught out.

With a significant liability on their books due to ongoing and emerging claims from their asbestos business, they sought a way to limit that liability. What better way than to sequester set funds in a trust, then high-tail it off to a foreign jurisdiction?

Which they did, reincorporating from Australia to the Netherlands. Yet thuggery it is, since they left behind insufficient cover for current and future victims.

"As a sufferer of asbestosis since 1992, I have no sympathy for their public humiliation. They brought it on themselves by their contemptible behaviour."
..."Big deal. You can guarantee they will not be driving cabs for a living."

- letters to the editor, SMH, 22-Aug-09

The specific crime was a mere technicality. The ten directors were punished because they approved a media release (claiming the trust was "fully funded") which was inaccurate, but deemed to be intended to affect the market.

Penalties were fines of $30,000 to $350,000, and being banned from CEO and board positions for five to fifteen years. The latter tends to have the greatest effect - on their careers. All have left James Hardie; some have resigned other management positions. However, a couple of them are working in the US, where the bans don't apply.

Their defence: each one of them claims they didn't read or don't remember reading the draft press release. Those claims were judged not to have been genuine.

And the James Hardie business (building supplies) has started to rebound from the recession already.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cambrian explained: early multicellular animals

The trifecta of interest in early evolution is: the emergence of eukaryotes (cells with nuclei), multicellularity, and animals.

There are signs of life at 3.8 billion years ago, just 700 million years after the formation of the Earth. I've discussed in more detail the advent of eukaryotic life here. The discussion below revolves around multicellular animals, and several discoveries that push back the timeline of their emergence. This ameliorates the picture of Cambrian-period "explosive" evolution, and replaces it with a more steady narrative. As in all paleontological tales, the evolution of understanding is a matter of both further discovery, and finer interpretation of existing evidence.

The first multicellular life (algae) dates back 1 billion years; the first multicellular animals date from 575 million years ago (the sponge-like Ediacarans).

From 542 to 520 million years ago in the Cambrian period was the relatively sudden evolution of more modern animal forms, which has piqued the curiosity of many, including Stephen Jay Gould. Gould explains the difference between Ediacaran animals and modern ones in terms of body layers: the former are diploblastic while the latter are triploblastic, essentially meaning they have an outer layer (ectoderm), a gut (endoderm) and, most importantly, a mesoderm in the middle, which lends the capacity for complex internal organs.

Traditionally, as a central narrative of animal evolution, the Cambrian explosion lacked context. However, more recent discoveries place the ancestors of Cambrian animals much further back, to about 850 million years.

One discovery concerns analysis of the bountiful Doushantuo Formation, a seabed fossil lode from China. Dating from 550 to 580 million years - latter times for the Ediacarans - tiny spheres have been found to be early animal embryos. Hard, spiky shells ruled them out as large bacteria, and those same shells, sans embryo, have been identified from 632 million years, early Ediacaran period.

This finding was reported in 1998 (Xaio, Zhang, and Knoll in Nature), and discussed at length by Gould in Lying Stones Of Marrakesh (notwithstanding his continued maintenance of special significance he previously accorded to the Cambrian).

Going back further, to 635-713 million years ago, a form of cholesterol has been found, 4-isopropylcholestane, now found only in some sponges.

Further: 850 million year old rocks in Canada (MacKenzie Mountains), which contain stromatolites (traces of cyanobacteria), have also been found to have a particular pattern of calcium carbonate which has been identified as characteristic of a collagen mesh, which only animals build. The discoverer (Canadian Elizabeth Turner) says the life form was even more primitive than a sponge: "a few different types of cells living together in a shared, collagenous matrix".

These discoveries fit well with molecular clock calculations: that is, comparative DNA analysis had already put back the advent of animals to about this time frame - yet evidential traces hadn't been identified until now. Others cast doubt on the interpretations of the evidence above, while still accepting animal evolution as dating back further than other evidence has shown.

I think a key aspect of the emergence of multicellular animals is the environmental backdrop. Photosynthetic bacteria started producing oxygen about 2.5 billion years ago, although this did not extend beyond a few metres of the ocean surface. This oxygen had been poisonous to most life to that point, but fostered development of oxygen-tolerating life. Atmospheric oxygen propelled a chain of circumstances resulted in the lower reaches of the ocean being not just anoxic, but also laden with hydrogen sulphide. Although some bacteria thrived in these conditions, the combinations would have been a "persistent brake on eukaryotice evolution" (according to the above Andrew Knoll).

Then came the second "snowball Earth" ice age, which was seen to "reset the chemistry of the oceans" to make life more favourable to multicellular animal forms. Yet conditions at first were more conducive to smaller, soft-bodied organisms - which, over time, changed the balance, perhaps by eating inimicable bacteria. On one interpretation, increased oxygenation was a result rather than a cause of animal evolution - although it makes more sense that they worked in tandem. The same is conjectured for the set of ice ages that occurred around that time: they could have been just as much a consequence of animal evolution (by sucking out carbon when buried) as a cause. It's easy to envisage a slowly oscillating set of equilibria that eventually settled to a higher oxygen, animal-rich, warm Earth - especially as there were no more snowball Earths once larger animals had evolved (notwithstanding subsequent ice ages of smaller scale).

A fascinating narrative, and one that is more appealing than sudden bursts of evolutionary activity. More detail in the New Scientist article below.

Gould, SJ (2000): Of Embryos and Ancestors in Lying Stones Of Marrakesh, Vintage, London.
Fox, D & Le Page, M (2009): Dawn of the animals in New Scientist, 2009, 11 July.

Friday, August 21, 2009

State of Play (US, 2009): an engaging thriller

Now here's an intelligent film, I thought when I watched this.

No, I don't mean Russell Crowe. I watch films despite him, not because of him.

But this one has quite an intricate, taut plot, one that keeps you working all the way through. Uncommon for a Hollywood film - then I found it was based on a British miniseries of the same name. That makes a lot more sense. This film probably draws a large amount of its credit from the original source - which was compared very favourably to the earlier Edge Of Darkness, another British political thriller - which I have seen, and which was particularly good, even second time around.

In fact, the original State Of Play was so complex the writer didn't want to sell the film rights because he thought it would be unworkable to condense it. Not to worry, he was eventually persuaded by enough money.

The film revolves around politics and journalism - set in Washington, rather than the original London. A minor theme is the tension between the new and the old of online versus traditional journalism. Somewhat overplayed at times, but it eventually resolved an acceptance of the validity of both paradigms.

On reflection, I believe Russell Crowe wasn't a great fit for his role. He was competent, but I expect others could have been more fitting. Apparently, Brad Pitt was originally up for the journalist role played by Crowe. I'm not a huge fan of his, either, although he gave a very creditable performance in Terry Gilliam's excellent 12 Monkeys. A good film can be ruined by miscasting; a great one can be dulled. Crowe didn't cripple this film, but he didn't enhance it.

In that sense, State Of Play could have been better. But regardless, it was a captivating watch; if only Hollywood were more often this engaging. Four stars.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Spaceship Earth-II: the future of Earth's life

"The earth is going to die in 500 million years!" exclaimed my eight-year-old today. And I had to illustrate to her how this is well beyond the span of our existence. Sort of a deanthropocentric exercise in reverse.

But what of it? Fundamentally, we don't like to think that there's nothing left of us - ever. But does that need to be the case? Yes, the sun is growing hotter, but we have hundreds of millions of years of technological advancement before the Earth becomes uninhabitable. And think where we've come in just one hundred years.

Last week, I was talking through a thought experiment with Mark on this topic.

Space is prohibitively large; commuting is not really an option. Even at the speed of light, the nearest star system to our own, Alpha Centauri, would take four years' travel. And it's questionable whether there's anything habitable there. It's a binary (plus) system, and the gravitational flux of two nearby suns may not foster stability.

Further, our bodies evolved in gravity, and it's not clear we'd survive for extended periods in minimal gravity environments.

In Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C Clarke posited a mammoth cylindrical body 50 kms long, with habitation on the inside. That's an overwhelming construction endeavour. I think there are easier options.

My suggestion is that to travel beyond the Solar System would take far more massive an environment than we could possibly build ourselves. It would be simpler to grab an existing body, and power that away somehow. As Mark pointed out, this is the Space: 1999 scenario, a science fiction series where the moon was torn away from Earth.

Possibilities include using something large from the asteroid belt, a moon from Jupiter or Saturn (such as Ganymede), or maybe something far out, such as that erstwhile planet Pluto.

Issues include heat, propulsion, gravity, retention of atmosphere, and other life-sustaining variables. By the time it's worthwhile thinking about it, I'd say we'd have the technology to allow us a few options.

This is the stuff of science fiction, certainly; plenty of options have already been canvassed in that milieu. Burrowing underground would provide sturdy shelter, although digging enough habitable space would be Herculean. Other options include domes on the surface - or terraforming.

Ah, terraforming. Rather what happened to our own planet. Microbial life has built up our current atmosphere and environment; we're just the evolutionary outcomes that could adjust to it. It took hundreds of millions of years to develop, but I think it's reasonable to anticipate we'll be able to engineer biological solutions that work faster.

However, out beyond the easy reaches of the sun, everything freezes. There would need to be both sufficient gravity to hold an atmosphere (or to be able to continually regenerate it), and heat sources sufficient to prevent that freezing. The latter would be most feasible through nuclear fusion sources - we haven't succeeded at this yet, but I can see no reason it won't come. It's what the sun uses.

Gravity is a matter of using a large enough body. Life on Earth is, of course, evolved for our specific gravity, and much more research is needed to understand how or whether current life forms could adapt to lower gravity, or whether we'd need to engineer alterations that would allow various forms to survive in a somewhat different environment.

Because we would want to take with us as much of the existing variety of life as we could. This could involve storing samples at the DNA level, for later development/unpacking using either technological or substitute development (incubation) methods. In any case, plants and animal life should be considered an essential part of our environment - our being - and taking that with us would not be at issue. Bacteria and viruses too, surprisingly enough. Bacteria are our microbial engineers, a fundamental tool of life. Viruses have helped us become what we are today, though infiltrating our germ lines, they have imparted in us the resilince - and functionality - that we possess today.

The Earth's variety of life evolved specifically because the amount of solar radiation both protects us from other stellar sources, and generates mutation by occasionally knocking around with DNA. Outside Earth's orbit, mutation would happen at a different rate, which we would have to account for. Lesser rates would not be an issue: we are now at the point of engineering our environment to overcome the 'need' for adaptive outcomes of mutation. Greater rates of mutation would necessitate careful screening to optimise outcomes.

Yet that begs the question: outside the Earth's specific environmental womb, would it be more beneficial to engineer adaption in ourselves, so that future generations can make the move more readily? The biggest barrier is ourselves: the fact that we are rather wedded to our current form, no matter how ill-adapted to space journeying. I suspect we would be more willing to put extra effort into optimising our environment, than to force evolutionary change on our own grandchildren.

I have great optimism that we will survive in the long run. Even if, to paraphrase Steve Kilbey, we end up as digital memory*.

None of this is a substitute for getting our own planet in order. But if we can succeed in that, we'll probably be well placed to survive past the use-by date of our planet.

*The Church: Fog, (1992 B-side to Ripple)
It hurts to think that in a hundred years
We'll all just be microfiche
Our names and the names of our songs
Cataloged and filed away

- however, compared to the fate of most of our ancestors, I'd be happy to survive in digital form.