Friday, May 29, 2009

Death of a Tamil brutaliser

Recently, both sides finally agreed that the leader of the Tamil Tigers is now dead. He had been killed in the recent action by the Sri Lankan army that, amidst a great deal of civilian anguish, elimanated the remnants of the Tigers as a (current) fighting force.

Velupillai Prabhakaran was apparently a rather obsessive man, at one time saying he'd instructed his people to shoot him if he ever deviated from their goals.

Prabhakaran is arguably credited with instigating the modern phenomenon of suicide bombing, the unpleasant rash sweeping the world.

It is easy to understand the level of desparation running through the populace in arenas of greatly uneven conflict: decades of brutalisation and privation, for example, have brought the Palestinians to where they are today. Motives of suicide bombers are the subject of much disagreement in a range of wildly conflicting studies, but it is clear that oppression - or its perception - is a key factor in most cases. And this directly equates to uneven conflict, which is where the suicide bomber's victimhood lies.

It is such an insidious, indifferent weapon. The prime perpetrators are those who consign the bombers to death, and there should be no sympathy for them. They are - in general - far too willing to murder people whose culpability in the conflict is negligible to none. Indiscriminate killing brutalises all sides: if there emerges any victor in such a conflict, they would have to preside over further decades of a violent society that they inflicted on the collective psyche.

The worst I've heard was reported by Owen Bennett-Jones, a BBC journalist with a strong reputation. He told of a family (in Pakistan, I believe) who recruited a 13-year-old boy to be a suicide bomber, who duly followed his orders. Although the boy was led to understand he would become a religious martyr, the root intention was far more prosaic: a single personal dispute.

All it takes is people who are too easily led (lack of education certainly helps, but it's not a prerequisite), plus someone who is lacking enough in humanity to propel someone else to certain death rather than do it themselves.

And this is not to neglect the greatest victims: those many civilians whose only crime is to try to live out the life they found themselves in.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Of polls, presidents, and kangaroos

An informal readers poll in the Sydney Morning Herald gave some interesting results for kangaroos and presidents.

The sample size given was 1256. Of those, just over three quarters felt that kangaroos "should be killed to provide meat for human consumption".

Of the quarter that didn't agree, doubtless some of them thought kangaroos were just too cute and furry. But the environmental debate is all but won by the carnivores.

Assuming there is a certain amount of inevitability about meat consumption, it would make more sense to harvest kangaroo than cow. They're lean, and built for the Australian environment - and so have far less effect on the Australian environment - and the global one, for that matter. Most overseas-originating arguments against it seem somewhat specious*.

And how do you think President Obama's going? About one in seven thought he was brilliant - somewhat less than I might have expected. Most just thing he's good. Some don't know, some go for the average... but less than two percent think he's performing poorly. That's surprisingly low, especially as one could expect there to be a reasonable number of partisans from the right in that sampling. And Obama has already been faced with a high number of no-win situations in a short amount of time.

I still contend that he imparts wisdom more consistently than any other players around him, but I would think that the mass judgment counts wins more than anything else. And it's hard to say that what clear wins he has had.

With any luck, the general public is collectively trying to use a bit of wisdom. Now that would be about as much of an ask as calling for a wise leader...

*Update 29-May-09: There have been some instances of bad industrial ethics/practices in the kangaroo industry (including brutality and lack of hygiene), but these are certainly not intrinsic to the issue of kangaroos vs cows.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Counting your enemies in Australian politics

Arch conservative nitpicker Gerard Henderson is now one of the longest running columnists in the Sydney Morning Herald. He's happiest when the Liberals are in power, of course, but he's never beyond giving a spray to either side of politics, the ALP for the all the perceived failings of the left, and the Liberals for, well, just not being conservative enough.

Recently, he was rather miffed that the Greens won a state parliamentary seat in the Fremantle by-election in Western Australia. He was comforted by his own analysis that the Greens would never win a seat outside the inner city electorates. But what really got his goat was the Liberals' part in the affair: they didn't run a candidate.

Fremantle was, admittedly, a safe Labor seat. And there is a strong tradition of major parties not turning up in by-elections where a) they cannot hope to win, b) the overall poll numbers are not finely balanced, and c) there is no topical scandal.

So by Henderson's numbers, Labor got their usually tally, while "nearly all" traditional Liberal voters [must have] voted Green. He shafts responsibility home to the Liberals' practice of preferencing the Greens over Labor in close-to-the-wire electorates.

Of course, this assumes that Liberal voters either a) do what they're told, or b) see Labor as their worst enemy, and in either case, c) are pretty stupid if they're meant to be conservative or right-wing, but end up voting for a good solid left-winger.

Henderson characterises the Greens as "Australia's only left-wing party" - which, despite some on the left agreeing with that, is more a measure of his sniping at Labor (something he does at every opportunity). Of course, there are plenty of left-wing parties, but none (to my knowledge) have parliamentary representation in Australia, bar the Greens and the Australian Labor Party.

But it really depends on the conversation you are having as to whether you call the ALP left or right. Certainly anyone with clear left-wing sympathies would consider them right, but come election time, if it's a choice between two evils, left preferences mostly end up with Labor. Of course, there are those left fundamentalists who would rather attempt to foment revolution by ensuring those Labor quislings are out in the cold and waiting until the Liberals are sufficiently on the nose.

Unfortunately for them, the Australian electorate as a whole is rather conservative, and so will never - as a whole - go any further left that the ALP. Cold comfort for Henderson, whose nose is put even more out of joint by the actions of the Liberals at the margins.

The margin in this case is how-to-vote cards, which can have some influence on outcomes. From a purely party-political perspective the Liberals, of course, see their fundamental enemies as the ALP. So they will do anything to reduce their parliamentary presence, even so far as to encourage their own voters to go over the heads of Labor, even further left to the Greens.

So it depends who you consider your enemy - and this is where the equations go perverse. Labor is the enemy of the parliamentary Liberals, a fair few people on the left, and Henderson when it suits him. The Greens are the enemy of the far right, and the ALP when the Greens are too close at their heels. The Liberals are the enemy of the left and parliamentary Labor.

And Henderson, at times, seems to profess to being surrounded by enemies.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What is a missing link? (the new Darwinius)

Recent publicity over a new fossil, Darwinius masillae, effectively touted it as a missing link.

Is there a link that is missing, just waiting to be found? Has it not been found already? Why do 'they' keep talking about it as missing?

The term is not precise. In general, people have used it to refer to an evolutionary link between humans and.. well apes, monkeys, mammals, or the rest of the evolutionary tree in some way.

It's effectively a lay term for a transitional form between one species/grouping and another. In the sense that there are an awful lot of transition to go through, and the fossils found so far represent only a fraction of them (Tudge, 2000, p462 estimates that there were several thousand primate species, of which only about 250 have been found). Yet the reality of evolution is never in dispute, as the evidence is already overwhelmingly incontrovertible.

Evolutionary progress is best defined in clades, complete groupings of all species originating from a given ancestor.

Modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) emerged as a distinct species very recently - about 100,000 years ago. We're sufficiently close to neanderthals (Homo sapiens sapiens, extinct about 30,000 years ago) that we have some neanderthal DNA.

There were a number of other Hominid species since they first appeared about 4.4 mya (million years ago). Humans are grouped with their closest relatives, the great apes, as Hominoids, first dating from about 14mya. Anthropoids (aka simians), the clade that then includes monkeys dates back about 34 million years. Primates, the clade that then includes lemurs, tarsiers and more, dates back to about 55mya, going by the fossil record. Yet other analysis (see Tudge, p463) concludes that primates must have originated around 70mya, which puts them past the KT (meteor) threshold, to the time of dinosaurs.

All this places modern humans as a particularly recent species. Many transition fossils have been found to trace a steady evolutionary trail.

The new fossil, Darwinius masillae, dates back 47 million years. It is prosimian - ie, a primate that is not an Anthropoid [prosimian is descriptive, but not a clade, since it doesn't include an ancestor and all descendant species]. This fossil is extraordinarily complete, due to the particular circumstances of death and preservation - and that is perhaps its most remarkable feature. Anything more is just publicity - paleontologists are as prone to publicity as any profession. While it contains features features of some simians, and lacks some features of some prosimians, whether it is a direct ancestor of humans is definitely not yet resolved. It could have branched off the primate line before it led to the simian Anthropods, as did other prosimians.

22-May-09 postscript: In passing, I heard some comments on a radio programme that may speak more directly to this fossil's significance. First, that it may fill in a gap in the direct human lineage (if it is verified to be situated directly in line) - and that's always helpful. The bloke (whose name I missed) also suggested there were aspects of the growth detail of this fossil - being as finely preserved as it was - that are particularly useful in a specimen this old.
[Ironically, my ears first tuned into the words on the radio when I heard the phrase 'missing link' - which characterisation that bloke, too, was hosing down.]

Useful references include:
Dawkins, B (2004): An Ancestor's Tale. Phoenix, London.
Tudge, C (2000): The Variety of Life. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Wikipedia entries on simian, prosimian, Darwinius masillae, Homonid, etc.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Star Trek 11

The concept was clearly an inspired one.

The cachet behind the Star Trek narrative may seem to be standard science fiction fare writ large and well-known; but it's more than that, and more than space opera (that is, simple action/adventure in a space context). But looming above all that is a character-driven and symbolistic language that at its worst can be wooden and self-derivative, but at its best can have an archetypic significance.

To explore the original nexus of the ensemble of archetypes can be as lucrative as it can be banal, which is why the idea was sensible. But, in fact, the writing of this film of the origins of the Star Trek crew is good (if not stellar), and the direction has a consistency and some high points that make this film one of the best in the series.

It is dynamic; it is not wooden; and if it is at times prone to cliche (as they all are), the highlights and the overall narrative make this film a very satisfying experience.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

How to: successful marriage

Dr John Gottman, who is in Sydney this week, is apparently famous for his longitudinal research into marriages. Amongst other things, after watching couples interact for 15 minutes, he could tell with 90% accuracy whether they would divorce within six years.

One of his findings is that a strong predictor of a happy marriage was a husband's willingness to compromise in disputes, and accept his wife's influence.

So it's up to you, blokes.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Windows: pirated, owned, bugged

Interesting to hear news that botnet malware is being found in pirated copies of the new Windows 7.

Here's the translation. Windows 7, not released yet, has been getting better press than the previous Windows Vista. Beta copies have been released by Microsoft, including the latest one available free from their website for the past few days. It's called "Windows 7 release candidate", and it's probably going to change very little for the proper release later this year.

But beta copies are pre-release, given to people for testing purposes: there could still be a few bugs in it. And W7rc is available from Microsoft's website, free. So why would anyone go for a pirate copy? In this case, they're being downloaded from a peer-to-peer, bit torrenting site. This means a much faster download: the bitstreams come from a number of sources, and so it's likely to be fast, not being dependent on a single server - or Microsoft's web site, for that matter.
Moreover, there'd be a number of people who are so used to downloading from such fast sources that they'd source their needs - licit or illicit - from there.

But some enterprising soul has hacked the W7rc code, just days after it was released. And they inserted into it code that compromises the computer it's loaded on, rendering it part of a botnet - a network of compromised computers that could be hijacked at will for any number of nefarious purposes, such as emailing spam or partaking in attacks on other computers (eg DDOS, distributed denial of service). And that hacker figured others in the shadow internet world would be sufficiently tempted.

And they were. Not only downloaded, but loaded, operational, and calling home to the specified target for orders. Dambala, an anti-botnet organisation "managed to grab control over" the server the hack was directed to, and noted that a peak of 550 infected computers per hour were calling in.


It should be one big bounty for Microsoft, in its quest to get everyone to pay them money: "But a genuine copy, or you'll get infected/compromised". This concept should also provide an even better bounty for evil hackers. Why stop at botnets? Why not a hack that allows for eavesdropping, so you can grab a user's personal information, hopefully bank accounts, etc.

Piracy will never be the same again.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

3D TV now - at CeBIT

CeBIT Australia is a business technology exhibition event, an offshoot of the one in Germany, which is the largest in the world.

It can be somewhat dry however, despite attempts to jazz it up with bright colours, baubles, takeaways, giveaways (especially iPods, about a year or so back), lollies, and - this year - the surprising appearance of a few women with obviously more experience with - well, appearance, than say software skills or hardware marketing.

Yet one of the most arresting sights this year was hardware. The company was a Korean one called Pavonine, and it was marketing a range of 3D screens called Miracube. The first screen I looked at required special glasses. And the film loop it showed was quite impressive - albeit it reminded me of a recent 3D cinema release I took the kids to, Monsters vs Aliens. The usual tricks of objects projecting out of the screen, and the occasional item flung out at the viewer. That film was more effective, but it was still quite impressive to see it on the small screen - 3D TV at home, potentially.

But the second screen was even more impressive - it was displaying 3D with no need for special glasses - naked, as it were. A real wow effect.

There were some caveats, however. The loop displayed on the screen was a selection of static images - yet still in 3D, with some features projecting out of the screen. However, to maintain the effect it was necessary to focus in a certain way at the screen. It was rather like that fad about ten years ago for printed 3D pictures. The trick there was that the backgrounds were always patterned; the final image was actually generated by computers to achieve the effect; and you had to focus on the page in a certain way. Many people found it difficult to see the hidden 3D image, but I usually had no problem - it was a matter of relaxing the gaze: in fact, it was achieved by moving the focal point of ones eyes away from the surface of the page.

I'm not sure whether this screen worked in the same way. I could tell however that the effect was achieved by providing different images - based on horizontal lines - to each eye, exploiting the (relatively small) distance between the eyes. Yet if I moved slightly, the effect was lost and the image jarred; I also had to maintain a particular focus to achieve the effect.

It would be great if the effect could be achieved without the riders. Although it was a bit of a strain in the end, the effect was really awesome. However, if I'm right and it is based on vertical lines, it may prove a problem translating the technology to a broadcast situation - which is, I believe, based on scanned horizontal lines.

Later, as luck would have it, the first person I started describing this technology to was Adam, whose stereoscopic capabilities are negligible, since it looks like his eyes focus differentially - that is, they don't work together. He said the best way for him to look at 3D was to close one eye - which rather defeated the effect.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Don't fear the geranium

I tell the kids a weed is just a plant that is not wanted. That would make geranium a weed in my eyes. Not only do they not have a scent, but the flowers are weak in visual appeal. Worst of all is the foul smell given off when the stems are broken - which is very easy to do. I imagine the only reason they're popular is that they grow and propagate easily. They're popular with my kids simply because they liked to burrow through the vegetation in that corner - which is now rather sparse. Yet burrowing can't be high on the list of reasons geranium DNA has lasted so long.

I was finally given permission to to remove the evil geraniums in front of the house, to stop them choking the Geraldton Wax bush (a Western Australia native, whose flowers last well after cutting). Of course, the main problem with this job is the geranium stink. Weighed against that was seeing them gone forever.

I had tried to cut it back a few years ago, but was eventually driven away by the perverse protecting of the scrubby Geraldton Wax. By this time, there was a surprising amount of geranium - some of it over two metres tall - yet hardly any flowers to be seen. Truly a weed.
Fortunately the root ball - and another branched off one - proved very easy to remove: I just speared a hole beside the root, then pulled it away in a few pieces. It helped that the ground ther

Throughout the rest of the day, I kept seeing geranium branches before my eyes. That's what happens when the task involves spotting and rooting out all of a particular form [it's the same after a session clearing out Wandering Jew (Tradescantia fluminensis) or privet seedlings]. But it was also because there were bits strewn around for some time. There was too much to fit in either the compost bin or the garden waste (rubbish) bin, so it had to be corralled.

So, the worry remains now: that the great detritus in the compost bin will propagate into an unwieldy horde at the opposite end of the property. I'll be waiting.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

James G Ballard dies

It had not escaped my notice that JG Ballard had died recently, aged 78.

Yet when I was young, reading all sorts of science fiction, it did escape my notice what was different about Ballard. This was because what I read of his fitted into the general pantheon, so he was absorbed along with the rest. It takes a lot of reading, for example, to identify Ray Bradbury's particular lyricism, Clifford D Simak's wry humour, Philip K Dick's (very instructive) paranoia, Robert Heinlein's right-wing libertarianism - or even AE Van Vogt's Scientology sympathies.

First, Ballard was British, where not many regular names were. Although science fiction is ostensibly - and should be - a universal language, in practice the writers are informed by their cultural background. Do I detect a certain reserve in Brian Aldiss' characters? A less gung-ho attitude to the stars in Clarke's?

The overwhelming echo for me in Ballard's work is the image of a lone, alienated figure (often an airman), wandering across a desolate landscape. Not always the desolation of a nuclear war: the environments were so different across his works, but the barrenness - physical or metaphorical - seemed a constant. Others characterise his oeuvre as an exploration of disturbing distopias.

Of course, Ballard by now is best known for his works that were translated to film: Empire Of The Sun, semi-autobiography set in Japanese-occupied China, and Crash, a Cronenberg film wherein the protagonists have an erotic fixation with car crashes. That latter story is taken from his collection Atrocity Exhibition, whose title was borrowed for a harrowing Joy Division song (on Closer).

And what does it say of environment in the imagination of an author, that he lived over 50 years of his life in the same suburban house?

Some said he was a quirky writer, but that should be no more than a decent science fiction writer gets anyway. Yet he was certainly more literary - and metaphoric - than many writers in what I consider the golden age of SF, the 1950s and 60s. That was still the era when raw ideas trumped writing quality. But not for all; some meshed both.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Financial crisis and Marxist mis-steps

On ABC Radio National recently, I listened to a discussion on the financial crisis, between an orthodox economist, a Marxist, and a mediating compere.

The crisis has taken different characteristics by turns:
- from the aggressive selling of mortgages in the US to people who could not afford to service the loans,
- the wrapping up (and obscurement) of those non-performing loans into complex financial instruments which were sold around the world, led to
- a crisis in confidence between financial institutions, who could not sufficiently trust other institutions, leading to
- a great slowdown in the circulation of financial capital, which caused
- a collapse of the viability/stability of many financial organisations (due to bad debts and reduced access to credit), which caused
- globalised recession, with the attendant bankruptcies and unemployment.

Only the last point (but not specifically global) is a recurrent feature of capitalism – the booms and busts so usually cyclic. The others are a particular chain of events. The fact that the complex, toxic financial instruments were circulated around the world is what led to the crisis becoming deep and global.

Because the crisis has been deeper than anything since the 1930s depression, governments around the world have been taking uncommon action to reduce the impact of the recession. This includes classical Keynesian stimulation measures (to encourage faster circulation of money to get the system pumped up again). But it has also included governments supporting major industries: as well as financial institutions (which supply the lifeblood to capitalism), industries that are core to a nation's production - the US auto industry, for example.

Some assistance to industry has taken the form of loans, some as guarantees, some as handouts - and sometimes governments have taken a stake in the corporation - partial or full nationalisation.

Now this is where the debate comes in. Classical Marxist analysis points to a crisis of over-production - too many goods produced, too little money in the hands of workers to purchase the goods. This in turn leads to the evolution of capitalism eventually into communism. Government nationalisation of industry - for capitalistic reasons (which somewhat precludes the recent nationalisations in Latin America by left-wing governments) - can be seen to be a direct harbinger of the classical crisis.

Be that as it may, the Marxist in the radio programme - a visiting Canadian professor - was asked for some insight into the current crisis. The best he could to was the classical viewpoint, that it was a crisis of overproduction. Which it is not. Recession can be characterised like that, to an extent. And in this case, it is quite stretching the point to shoehorn the current events into classical Marxist crisis theory.

It would have been very hard to predict the emergence of the particular characteristics of this crisis. Yet Marxian analysis takes many forms, of which prediction is only one.

In the article Crisis in capitalist society, David Held, a British analyst of globalism, writes*:"a distinction must be drawn between, on the one hand, a partial crisis or collapse and, on the other, a crisis which leads to the transformation of a society or social formation." Held notes that government attempts to “regulate economic activity and sustain growth”, especially from the 1950s to the 1970s, “deepened the state's involvement in more and more areas”. But the trend after that was largely towards deregulation, bar regulatory regimes intended to foster competitive (rather than anti-competitive) corporate behaviour. Held characterises several forms of crisis, based on loss of political (popular) legitimacy. Ultimately, however, he calls for “a differentiated analysis of international conditions which form the constraints on, and the context of, the politics of modern societies”. Held himself concludes that it is hard to see that an analysis of transformation crises can “take the form prescribed by classical Marxism with its emphasis on, for instance, history as the progressive augmentation of the forces of production or history as the progressive evolution of societies through class struggle**.”

Which would tend to suggest that Held is not (or no longer) a classical Marxist (and his final sentence is a giveaway: "the theoretical tools of Marxism are inadequate as a basis for a theory of crisis today"). All this is to say that therein lies a multitude of differential interpretations from the Marxist end of the spectrum – only one part of which adheres to the traditional analysis of ultimate crisis.

In particular, to suggest that the current crisis is a classical one of overproduction is laziness, at the very least, and intellectual dishonesty at the worst. Don't expect all Marxian analyses to have the same faults.

For what it's worth, I don't see any clear endgame in current events; so far, it seems like just a major hiccup in the course of capitalistic history. Will there be any significant transformative changes by the time economic systems return to balance? I can't see that, although I would suggest the biggest potential effect may relate to the hangover of government debt. And government is, I contend, the main arena for class struggle today.

*Held, David: Crisis in captalist society, in Bottomore, Tom (ed.), 1991: A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (2nd ed.), Blackwell, Oxford.

**I would here note that class struggle should not be simplistically characterised as, for example, struggle between manual workers and wealth owners, but better the struggle between people qua wage-earners and forces - and people - that specifically propel the agglomeration of capital.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Climate Change Australia: bad policy goes worse

Having Kevin Rudd as a Prime Minister has meant an era of management rather than leadership. Evidence is the revised but still tragic climate change policy: the Emission Trading Scheme is being delayed past the next election, emission prices are to be set at a low $10 per tonne, and industrial polluters are compensated even more.

Activist organisation GetUp! has the facts of the new policy. The Sydney Morning Herald gave an environment perspective and a political perspective on this change, which has been variously characterised as a backflip or a watering down of action over climate change.

The original plans were fundamentally flawed from an environmental perspective, such that Ross Garnaut, author of the government-commissioned report on the subject, said it might be better to hold off on implementation - in the hope that public pressure will yield better policy. Be careful what you wish for, Ross. Public opinion has had a long tradition of clamouring for contradictory outcomes, effectively leaving key issues up to those they vote for.

Rudd was juggling a number of balls over the issue: industry concerns (peak bodies had been holding the previous labour government to ransom on this specific issue, even before Kyoto), economic crisis, and pressure from environmental voices. That last was the weakest pressure, because traditionally the ALP has the environment vote in the bag (would you rather vote for something even more conservative, hey?). They also figured that the buildup of pressure on climate change remained weak despite the mammoth publicity over the last three years. Some justification for this view exists in the voting record at the last election, where green votes did not surge to reflect the apparent level of interest. Again, the public agrees there is a problem, but want "someone else" to do "something". How to break this toxic nexus? Same as ever, I guess: hope for good leadership, participate in public pressure (via GetUp!'s campaign, for example), and vote right. Political vision entails hard choices for the right reasons, and persuading the electorate to follow. Rudd was elected for a raft of reasons other than that, unfortunately. I have little confidence in anyone on Australia's political horizon (whilst holding judgment on Julia Gillard and Peter Garrett, who may well be hamstrung); fortunately, there remains hope in Obama.

06-Sep-09 Update:  Two important points I mention in a later post:
1) There is a truly evil effect of the government's plan: any attempts by individuals to reduce their carbon emissions is used to offset the burden of the large corporate polluters, thus rendering individual action worse than useless.
2) The original bill for the Emission Trading Scheme was knocked  back by the Senate; to date the government intends re-introducing it with little substantive change.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Coogee's flash flood

Walking down from the cinema after a Saturday night film, the path was blocked by a 30 cm high bank of dirt that wasn't there two hours ago. That was the first sign for me of a flash storm in the area, which apparently delivered nearly 8 cm of rain in two hours. The dirt came from a hilly construction site; it's lucky the excavator didn't get washed onto the road.

And Dolphin St, Coogee was flooded - it looks like a river in the photo.

Coogee is a basin surrounded by hills on three sides. It all washes out to the beach. If you go right to the back in the very middle, you'll find a small park (at the end of Albi Place) where a constant gushing sound is heard from a culvet. There must have been a stream there once; the only sign left now is that culvet and a small flow of water out the northern end of the beach.

From that culvet, through the properties between Coogee and Dolphin Streets is a significant gouge. Not the ideal area to buy a house. That depression opens out to Dolphin St, on past the Mount St intersection of the photo. Clearly the path for any deluge; I'm not surprised Dolphin St looked like a river rather than a road. In fact, the side streets to Dolphin (Mount St is in the photo) must have acted like natural river beds too, all feeding particularly to the point in the photo. The bowling and tennis clubs just beyond must have been devastated.

Two days later, and there were still a few cars askew.

I also looked at the run from Albi Place to that intersection: there were a lot fewer signs of deluge than I expected. Nothing at Albi, and scant leaves and debris lower down. It turns out to be only at that point in the photos that experienced the full force. A resident opposite, Peter, said it almost lapped up to his house, but he'd parked around a side street that night, so his car happened to be safe. He said that it might be a one-in-a-hundred-year occurrence, from what a longtime resident said to him.

Still, if you're living there you may be lucky, and the localised flooding might not recur... for some time... Yet it remains that the biggest threat to that very spot will be climate change. Peter joked that he could eventually have a waterfront property. This was several blocks from the beach... unfortunately, current collective will suggests to me that it will not stop there...

Monday, May 04, 2009

Michelle Obama on the parent's challenge

I came across an interview with Michelle Obama, dating from the election campaign. Inter alia, she says (with the emphasis added by me):

"[amidst the maelstrom of the campaign] we're always measuring our progress by how our kids are doing. And I think, in that way, we're probably not unlike most parents. We're as good as our kids are. If they're happy and whole, they're feeling confident and loved, and they're doing well in school and they have friends, and, you know, they have a sense of centredness about themselves, then I feel like whatever else is happening, it doesn't really matter."

I have to admit that until I became a parent, words such as that were just truisms. I think they would remain so for most people until they are cemented by personal experience.

The emphasised words could be construed two ways. On one reading, the parent is feeling good if the children are feeling good. Another interpretation, my preferred, is that the outcomes for the children reflect how successful the parents are at parenting.

Of course, it's not as simple as that. Children are not interchangeable, malleable material. They all come with their own challenges, and some are clearly far more challenging than others.

Still, it's immensely rewarding to witness positive outcomes that you can, at least in part, take some credit for. Or that, in your absence, outcomes could have been notably worse.

Parenting calls for a great amount of time, effort and personal engagement. But the returns - affirmations of one's efforts - can be commensurately great.

8-May-09 Afterthought: I am also reminded of the Roberto Benigni film Life Is Beautiful where, during the second world war, a father manages to shield his son from the external ravages for as long as possible, by making it seem like a game. That shelter is very meaningful to younger children, and while children need to be brought gently into the world, childhood is best when it's a happy, secure treasure.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Epidemics: making money, and losing it

Already, people are making money from the "swine flu" epidemic - both the nefarious and the opportunity-grabbers.

This is to be expected in a capitalistic world. You try to make money at the margins of opportunity. In this case, those margins are a) the fears of a population mass, and b) the attention of a population mass, respectively.

If I was superstitious, I'd be concerned that the first Australian case of this flu was a man who comes from just down the road (Coogee), and who contracted it from a holiday in Puerto Escondido, Mexico - where I too have holidayed. But I'm not superstitious.

It reminds me of the near-hysteria of the SARS epidemic six years ago. Epicentre Honk Kong, which contains a good mass of superstitious people. I told my colleague from Hong Kong that a good way to make money would be to market a potion claiming to prevent SARS, guaranteeing to pay a penalty compensation if it didn't work. You'd make your money from the large numbers sold, as against the small number of purchasers who subsequently contracted the illness.

Sure enough, a few weeks later a Hong Kong business was marketing a soft drink claiming to prevent SARS - or your money back (not even a penal return promised).

Efforts of the World Health Organisation are credited with breaking the back of SARS - which is why WHO has reacted so strongly to this Mexican outbreak. Still, my feeling has been that this is over-reaction, particularly since the number of fatalities has been small - and revised down - and has so far been confined to Mexicans (one of which was resident in the US).

SARS was far more virilent - the death rate was higher. I can't help wondering whether the main outcome of this current epidemic will be reduced economic activity - and a small prolonging of the current global recession.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Upcoming films

Saw trailers for a few upcoming action films...

The trailer for the new Terminator film (Salvation) made it look like something of a cross between Mad Max and PK Dick's story Second Variety (although I rather doubt that is so).

The new Star Trek film had a surprisingly fresh feel. A series reboot (at film number eleven), it came across as more dynamic and less space-oriented than the earlier films. Promising.

And despite what I said yesterday, I could be sucked into seeing Angels And Demons. It's probably not a lot more preposterous than a lot of Hollywood boys films.

Why bother? Probably something to do with some of what I got out of the main feature, the new X Men film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Not a great film in the pantheon (of Hollywood films, even). Yet it was entertaining, the narrative was competent enough, but more important, it's pure escapism. Nothing else but a film at a cinema can so completely transport the spectator for a couple of hours. Sometimes that in itself can sometimes be worth the price of admission.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Angels and Demons... of film and book

Recently I saw a trailer for a film called Angels And Demons.

It is based on a book by Dan Brown. The film's a sequel to The Da Vinci Code - but the book was actually written and set prior to the Da Vinci narrative.

On the face of it, the trailer might suggest Angels And Demons is a happening sort of action film.

But I know better.

You might have thought Da Vinci Code was a preposterous load of tosh - some did. But at least it had an engaging puzzle for a narrative thread. At least Brown had learnt something by then - by comparison, Angels And Demons gives Da Vinci Code a shakespearean wit and moral fibre.

Yes, Angels And Demons is real load of tripe. Unbelieveable, in both the plot arc and the individual scenes. It's also what got the Catholic church up in arms over Da Vinci. Angels And Demons is far more scurrilous than Da Vinvi - downright inflammatory, to go with its incredulous storyline.

But I suspect Brown's profile was substantially lower at the time Angels And Demons was published. So the Catholic hierarchy probably let it slip by. Much to their later chagrin, no doubt.

The book Angels And Demons was likely constructed with Hollywood in mind. It's effectively one long car chase through Rome, punctuated with episodes of extreme violence. Oh and there's the conspiracy behind the events - perpetrated by the pope, naturally. And for good measure, there's that absurd fall from the helicopter - undoubtedly included in the film too. And the villain, that evil pope, gets his in the end.

One wonders what Brown has against institutional catholicism. Plausibly, nothing in particular - he just happened to pick a target. Or did he want to provoke controversy, to sell? I'll never know, because it's not worth bothering to find out.

(I'd also note that in the book, Brown tries to set up a 'science vs religion' argument - but again, the execution is so clumsy that it's not worthy of debate.)