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.