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.