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31 March, 2007

What Is Happening To America ?

After five years in Guantanamo Bay, David Hicks will be released within the next two months. Under the terms of a disgraceful deal he has made with the American government, he will serve nine months of a seven-year sentence back home in Australia. The rest of the sentence will be suspended. In return he has had to agree not to sue them, has had to sign an agreement to say that they did not torture him, has had to agree not to give interviews for the next year (who is that one protecting, Mr. Howard?) and has had to agree that if he sells the rights to his story, the Australian government will get the money. In the words of Amnesty International Australia:
Amnesty International believes David Hicks has been denied justice. The military
commission is a shabby show trial and David Hicks has pleaded guilty to
trumped-up charges in a kangaroo court.

Holding a man for five years without trial in appalling conditions obviously isn’t enough. Now he has to be gagged and denied his rights to free speech and legal remedies.

I have no time for people like David Hicks. They are idiots at best and vicious killers at worse – and probably both. It’s America that I care about, and Australia (whose government has been complicit in Hick’s illegal detention all along). A free country cannot condone imprisonment without trial for anybody, whatever they have allegedly done. It cannot condone torture of its prisoners, for any reason, whatever the provocation. And it cannot strip people of their civil rights to suit its own political expediency. If it does so once, I fear that it will find it easier to do so again, and even easier the next time. Until in the end, it isn’t a free country anymore, just another damned tyranny.

The continuing existence of Guantanamo Bay is a blot on America’s reputation. It is a shocking testimony to the abuses of power the USA continues to indulge in. A free nation, a leading democracy, should not be locking people up without trial – no matter what. It is a violation of everything that country is supposed to stand for. It is a shameful, disgraceful way for a civilised country to behave - especially one that used to stand as a beacon to the world. All Americans should hang their heads in shame that they allow this to go on.

30 March, 2007

Bush Turns US Energy Policy Into A Corny Joke

It’s quite possible that George Bush is genuinely insane. After all, he does believe that he can hold conversations with invisible beings, and he did seem to believe that the Iraqi people would welcome the ‘liberating’ American army – something almost everyone else in the world could see was a mad delusion. The scary thing though is that, because he’s the Commander-in-Chief of the biggest military force on the planet and the veto-in-chief of the world’s biggest economy, people actually take him seriously. Invading Iraq was clearly the work of a madman – whatever his real motives, it was just mind-bogglingly stupid – but his more recently-announced plan to replace 20% of the USA’s petrol consumption with ethanol produced from corn is just breathtaking in its idiocy.

Such staggering amounts of corn would be needed to achieve even a tenth of this goal that it will completely distort and disrupt world agriculture. It will send the price of corn through the roof (it has already doubled since the January 2007 announcement) and will cause widespread hardship throughout the world – especially the third world. Even here in the West we can expect price rises in many staples including meat and dairy produce as high feed prices work their way up the food chain.

Now, I’m not saying that 3 billion people will die of starvation, as Fidel Castro did recently, but I am saying that there is going to be a lot of disruption and a lot of suffering and probably a lot of starvation (easily enough to put the death toll in Iraq well into the shade). There will also be some inflation. And there will be more negative reaction from around the world, reinforcing the impression that Americans are selfish and callous and careless of the way even their domestic policies can affect poor countries.

Even domestically, replacing petrol with ethanol is a slightly longer-term option as it relies on some technical problems being solved first – and they all require more energy to produce than you get back from the ethanol!

It’s not all bad news. Bush won’t be president for much longer and all his savage, neo-con cronies will be dumped along with their disastrous policies at the next election. Maybe the new Democrat government will reverse this particular policy and find a less destructive way of reducing domestic petrol consumption. We can only hope. Sadly, there are no left-wing governments anymore, it’s just a matter of how far right they are. So I’m not expecting too much compassion from the new administration – but some would be nice.

And can we have someone at least half sane in the Oval Office next time, please?

29 March, 2007

Spaceport America Takes Off

Sometimes a piece of news just bucks you up. When I read today that Spaceport America had secured US$33 million to start construction, I must say I got a real thrill. Just think about it; the world’s very first commercial spaceport! What’s more, Virgin Galactic will have its world headquarters there from which it will operate the world’s first scheduled passenger spaceflights in just a few years’ time.

Situated 45 miles (72.5 km) North of Las Cruces, New Mexico, the 18,000 acre (7,284 hectares) Spaceport America will be operated by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority – and isn’t the existence of such an institution a wonder in itself? As well as Virgin Galactic, it has attracted several companies in the fledgling commercial spaceflight business. UP Aerospace made the spaceport’s inaugural launch in August 2006 and describes it on its website as ‘our launch facility’ and Spaceport America is the official venue for the annual X-Prize competition. The New Mexico State Governor, Bill Richardson, is clearly backing this important development to the hilt and, what’s more, securing some very high-profile participation.

This first decade of the 21st Century is clearly the moment when commercial passenger space operations finally take off. Spaceport America may be slightly ahead of the pack but other passenger spaceports are planned for Singapore (near Changi International Airport), the United Arab Emirates (at Ras Al-Khaimah), as well as others in the USA – e.g. Wallops Island, Virginia, Kwajalein atoll (from which SpaceX currently launches) and California and Oklahoma. There is even one in Sweden (Kiruna) and several more are being considered all over the place.

Are these exciting times or what? (Unless you are looking forward to an Australian passenger spaceport, that is...)

Of course, it can’t be a coincidence that Spaceport America isn’t too far away from Roswell.

28 March, 2007

Productivity Commission Challenges Government on Science Funding Administration

Australia’s Productivity Commission released a report yesterday on science funding. Generally, it struck me as a fairly complacent piece of work - but who knows what constraints they are working under. The PC seems to think the paltry $6 billion we spend on science and innovation funding is adequate, mainly because it broadly matches the paltry sums spent by other OECD countries. It also seems a bit soft on the Rural R&D sectors. Of course, ‘productivity’ is all about return on investment so the PC steers clear of issues of quality and public good. In fact, it reserves its criticisms for some particular programmes and the way they are administered. So no surprises there.

One particular criticism it raised, however, did strike a chord with me. I quote from the ‘Key Points’ section:

“The net payoff from the R&D Tax Concession could be improved by allowing
only small firms access to the 125 per cent concession, changing the thresholds
for tax offsets, amending the base for the 175 per cent incremental concession
and considering a narrower, more appropriate, definition of R&D.
This should increase the amount of new R&D induced per dollar of revenue and
achieve more spillovers.” (my italics)
In other words, the system is being widely abused by industry, especially the larger corporations. From my own personal experience, I can vouch for this. I know of a major corporation where, each year, the company’s tax accountants go round and interview managers, to try to discover any work their departments may have done in the course of the year that could possibly be represented as R&D under the very broad and inclusive definition the government uses. They saw this as ‘money for nothing’. The work had been done. It would have been done anyway. But, if they could describe it in such a way as to meet the government guidelines, they could get 125% or even 175% of the cost back as a tax concession.

This was obviously ‘bending the rules’ in that it completely subverted the intention of the legislation and the tax concessions but it was also quite legal. The attitude within the company’s management was that it was up to the Tax Office to challenge the categorisation of costs as R&D spending and the accountants were quite confident that they could represent an awful lot of ordinary business expenses that way.

Sometimes I have cynically supposed that this was just another right-wing government scheme to give money to the big corporations – after all, the politicians will join their friends and relatives on their boards one day and receive their large salaries and productivity bonuses. Sometimes I even think that governments don’t care about research and innovation and are only bothered about short-term gains – preferably for themselves. After all, a 40-year concept to market cycle for ‘blue-skies’ research must have almost no meaning at all to people who think in terms of three- four- five-year terms in office, and when even a hugely successful party can expect two or three consecutive terms at most.

But that’s just me. I’m sure the government will tighten up the R&D Tax Concession rules now that the PC has raised the matter of this ongoing swindle and it has received comment from far and wide.

27 March, 2007

The Pathway Code - Part 2: Advanced Techniques

(Read Part 1 first.)

Yesterday, I looked at a few simple rules for pedestrians so that we can all use the streets a little more safely. Today, I consider some rather more advanced techniques.

My own view is that walking about without a license should be a criminal offence—but nobody listens. Once you’ve mastered the basic techniques, you should be able to walk in a straight line, turn a corner and stand still. For most people, this is enough. For some it is too much (these people should avoid standing still in public unless they have a competent friend to help them). However, for the few who find themselves unsatisfied with this, here are the rules for the more advanced pedestrian skills.

First: walking backwards. You might ask, as I often do, why on Earth anyone should want to do this. Yet there it is. The length and breadth of your nation, people are causing mayhem by suddenly reversing direction or, more frequently, starting out backwards from having stood still (hole-in-the-wall cash dispensers are death-traps as almost everybody leaves them walking backwards). I can only think of two reasons why people do this. One is that they have to concentrate so hard on standing still, or walking in a straight line, that they grow confused and forget which way is forward. The other possibility is that people suffer frequent, brief delusions that they have inexplicably found themselves in the presence of the Queen (perhaps the delusion is triggered by shocks—like finding a working cash machine). Anyway, if you want to walk backwards, here’s how it’s done.
  • Look all around you. If there’s nobody there, proceed. If there are people you might walk into, don’t move.
  • When walking backwards, try to keep your speed down and don’t forget to keep checking all around you as you go.
  • If you bump into someone, don’t just apologise profusely—get therapy (it’s probably a good idea to get therapy anyway).
Second: walking with other people. This can be a real challenge. People who walk in pairs are bad enough. Two people side-by-side is enough to block most pavements. Many people, however, following some atavistic herding instinct, like to wander the streets in gaggles of four or five, or even more. This kind of thing presents a real problem for the legislators because, while behaving in such a mindless way is clearly anti-social, it might seem over-rigid to compel families and groups of friends to walk in neat, single-file crocodiles like schoolchildren on an outing. The best that seems achievable is a Code of Conduct but, herd animals, beware, if this fails to have results, I shall be lobbying for legislation.
  • When walking with one or more others, try to bear in mind that none of you is immaterial.
  • Contrary to what seems to be believed, staring straight ahead with a glassy-eyed, fixed expression does not make oncomers disappear.
  • If a pedestrian approaches you, maneouver to avoid him or her (he or she can’t avoid you, you see, because the pavement is packed with your half-wit family or friends).
  • Never attempt this with small children. It is just not possible.
  • Never stand still. You simply cannot find a spot that is out of the way for two or more people. All that happens if you stop is that you become the object of the collective hatred of the five hundred people who have to struggle past you before your group lumbers back into motion.
  • If you encounter another herd coming in the opposite direction, do not panic. Just wait patiently until the emergency services arrive and sort things out.
Finally: the evasive maneouver. This is perhaps the most difficult of all the pedestrian’s skills and yet one which is so frequently necessary. You need it almost every time you pass a cash dispenser as someone is bound to walk backwards into you. Then you have to execute either the Emergency Stop or the Little Sideways Dance both of which will invariably land you in more trouble as a little old lady carreens into your back or you find a 150 kilo salesman in the spot you needed to dance sideways into. Only the following advice can be offered.
  • Be vigilant. Walk defensively. Never let your attention wander for a moment.
  • If you are approaching a hazard (like a herd of accountants on their luch break, a cash dispenser, or a shop doorway) slow down. Proceed with caution and be prepared to stop.
  • Keep to the road side of the pavement. This will keep you out of the way of window-shoppers and other menaces.
  • Use the Saab Tactic. Wear heavy boots, a crash helmet and padded clothing. This will ensure that, should anyone catch you unawares and make a collision necessary, they are the one who is going to come off worse.
Well, there it is. I can do no more for you. Learn the rules. Practice the techniques and let’s all be a little safer on the pavements this year. Mind how you go.

26 March, 2007

The Pathway Code - Part 1: The Basics

Following the huge success of my series on driving in Queensland, I now tackle the problem of the heavy traffic on the pavements* of our cities. This is part one of a two part series. More tomorrow.

Of course, what consenting adults do to each other in their own homes is between them and their local security agencies. It’s when they’re out in public that they need to be controlled. I’ve given up hoping that the behaviour of motorists can ever be improved. I think that most motorists just simply want to kill people and that’s all there is to it. Instead, I’d like to try to get some order into the way people on foot use our streets. That’s why I’m proposing a code of conduct for pedestrians: The Pathway Code.

The idea is simple. Using a pavement as a pedestrian may not be as lethal as using a road as a driver but it is damned irritating to be barged into, to have your way blocked and to be trodden on every time you step into the street. People just don’t seem able to control themselves or to show the kind of civility and consideration required on our busy streets. I generously assume that it’s because they are all stupid and ignorant rather than that they are deliberately malicious, so I therefore propose a set of simple rules, that even the thickest could follow, to ensure that walking through a city street becomes more like walking in the country and less like trying to make a fifty-yard run against a psychopathic rugby team.

The Basics

First we’ll tackle something simple: walking in a straight line down a straight pavement. Sadly, most pedestrians cannot manage even this. So this is how you do it:
  • Walk in a straight line at a constant speed.
  • Do not stop suddenly to tie your shoe laces or to ponder the meaning of Life. Do not weave from side to side like a drunk. Do not stick your arms out sideways to point out interesting sights to your friend. Do not start walking backwards for any reason.
It would probably be a good idea to mark out lanes on pavements to guide the feeble-minded and make walking in a straight line easier for them. Anyway. Having mastered this, we can go on to the other basic skills: like turning a corner. The universal rule is this:
  • If you’re going to deviate from a straight line, look over your shoulder before you do to check that you’re not going to barge into somebody.
This is a deceptively simple technique but sadly lacking from most pedestrians’ repertoires. Surprisingly, it isn’t adequate on its own to prevent collisions. What is needed is an additional rule:
  • If you see someone that you might collide with, or who might have to take evasive action if you turned in front of them, don’t do it.
I’m sure you’ve seen it. You’re walking along the pavement and the person in front of you decides to turn. They glance over their shoulder and see you and they can tell at once that if they turn, you’re going to fall over them. Then a look of bovine idiocy suddenly blanks over their features as their feeble brains give up the attempt to cope with this simple problem and they turn right into you.

Finally, in this section on basic rules, we must consider the one that almost everybody gets wrong: standing still. This causes endless problems and I’ve seen appaling examples of sloppy standing still as far apart as London and Los Angeles, Brisbane and Bangkok, Ottowa and Oslo. Again, the rules are straightforward.
  • Only stand still where you will not be in the way.
  • Do not stand still in the middle of busy streets—especially in herds of five or more. Do not stand still in doorways. Do not stand still in the middle of narrow passageways while you read your map or look in your shopping bag for your purse. Do not stand still in the entrances to subways or bus stations. Do not stand still in turnstiles, however confusing they may be—step aside while you ponder the mechanism, watch a few people go through first, then, when you’ve got the hang of it, progress straight through.
Stepping out of a shop seems to have a completely paralysing effect on many of our more intellectually challenged pedestrians. They take one step into the busy thoroughfare and then seem to be hit by instant brain death as they stand, gazing blankly about them. This has the threefold effect of causing pedestrians on the pavement to have to swerve around them, forming a small crowd of people on the pavement who are trying to get past them into the shop, and creating a blockage inside the shop of people trying to get out.

So, that's the basics. Go out and find yourself a quiet place to practice. In Part 2, we tackle the hard stuff.

(*American readers should keep in mind that the rest of the English-speaking world speaks English. In English, 'pavement' means 'sidewalk', 'road' means 'pavement' and 'shop' means 'store'. But don't worry, if you can just bear with it for a few more years, we'll all be speaking American anyway.)

25 March, 2007

Confabulation To The Max

I’ve written before about confabulation – to my mind, one of the keys to understanding human nature. Once you are tuned in to the phenomenon, you start spotting it everywhere. In the past couple of days, I have come across two extreme examples: one in the medical literature and the other in fiction.

The medical one first. I came across this on the British Psychological Society website. ‘AD’ is a 65-year-old man who suffered a cardiac arrest which caused damage to the fronto-temporal region of his brain. This brought on a number of ill-effects, including anterograde amnesia (the inability to remember things that have happened since the cardiac arrest). The really interesting thing about AD, however, is that he now tends to adopt different personalities depending on his social setting. His doctors set up some scenarios to test it. In a cocktail bar, AD immediately assumed the role of bartender, inventing an elaborate story to explain his presence there. In a hospital kitchen, he became the head chef, again with a complex story to explain himself. His doctors describe his condition as a form of ‘disinhibition’ but to me this is just an extreme case of confabulation, probably in response to the amnesia. In the absence of any memory of why he is where he is, AD seems to be confabulating plausible stories. The strange part is why he always chooses to be a central character in the situation. It may be no coincidence that the guy was a politician before the heart attack.

The fictional example of extreme confabulation is the film ‘Stay’. I watched this mostly because it has Naomi Watts in it – possibly my favourite actress – but I had fairly low expectations. As it played – a story about an art student (Ryan Gosling) and a therapist (Ewan McGregor) who becomes obsessed with trying to prevent him killing himself – I was finding it interesting enough but nothing special. In fact, as the story began to grow increasingly weird and the identity of the student seemed to be merging with that of the therapist and the direction become more and more David Lynch-like, I was beginning to get a bit irritated with it. I’ve had too many films that go all surreal and ‘deep and meaningful’ on me and I didn’t like the idea that I’d wasted my time with another. Then, in the last five minutes, a wonderful twist was revealed that redeemed the whole thing and turned it into one of the best films I’ve seen in ages. And the confabulation thing? Well, I’m sorry, but if I told you that, I’d give away the twist. But trust me, it’s there.

23 March, 2007

The Ideal Man For My Daughter Would Be…

It seems that my recent piece about Daughter has upset one of her exes – for all I know, it upset all of them. It might have been the tactful way I referred to them as ‘losers’, or the endearing way I mocked their aspirations. Apart from the weirdness of Daughter’s exes reading her father’s blog (does my egg in, John) I must say, the point of the piece wasn’t to mock or belittle them – however much it may seem that way – it was actually to explain something about the experience of parenthood.

Discussing this with Wifie as we sipped chardonnay and watched the sun go down this evening, she suggested I write down just what kind of chap I would like Daughter to take up with. Never being afraid of a challenge that doesn't involve scary things and lots of my blood seeping out of open wounds, I herein muster my thoughts.

Firstly, I have to note that I seem to have a powerful genetic tendency to dislike any male companion of Daughter's, real or imagined. This caught me completely by surprise when she first started dating and I find it very disturbing. I am comforted only by the fact that I have been right, so far, to dislike or distrust or dismiss every one of them. Perhaps my reactions are not entirely irrational. That said, this is what Daughter’s beau should be like.

  • He should be utterly and completely in love with her. (To help her spot this, I have supplied her with a definition of love.)
  • He should be manly, masculine and strong, yet also sensitive, kind and gentle. If you think this is a contradiction you are wrong. There are men in this world with the strength of character as well as the physical strength to care for and protect a woman, with the sensitivity to appreciate and understand her, as well as the gentle, loving nature to treat her well. They are rare – most men are simple brutes (like most women) – but they can be found.
  • He must be highly intelligent, cultured, broadly educated and funny. If not, frankly, she’ll be bored in no time flat - and so will I.
  • He must have drive but not be ‘driven’. I don’t too much care about success, as long as he is achieving what he feels is important and worthwhile, and obnoxious creeps with petty ambitions for wealth, fame or power need not apply. Any man who feels his success is more important than Daughter’s happiness might just as well hang a target on his arse.
  • He must be responsible. I want Daughter in safe hands. I won’t always be around. Yes, of course, she can look after herself. But if she is going to take a life partner, I want her to have one who can make a living, who feels responsible for both their welfare and happiness, and who will take it upon himself to fix things in their life together when they go wrong.
  • I suppose, I want to see Daughter’s man as a welcome addition to our little family, someone I can respect and trust, someone who will add to our family, make it better, not worse, bring good and valuable things and appreciate what he gets from us in return.

Surely that’s not too much to ask?

21 March, 2007

Recycled Water - Suck It Up Queensland!

If there is one thing the people of Queensland have got to do, it is to drink recycled water. There is just no other option for them. Not enough rain is falling here. People are moving into the State at the rate of 1500 per week. The Brisbane reservoirs are down to 20% capacity and still falling. Watch my lips, Queensland, there is no more water. You’ve drunk it all! You’ve poured it on your fields, you’ve boiled it in your power-plants, and you’ve sloshed it through your mines and smelters. You’ve washed your four-wheel drives with it, you’ve filled up your swimming pools with it, and you’ve even washed the leaves off your drives with it. And now there is none left. It has gone and there isn't enough coming to replace it.

The time has come to stop being so precious about drinking recycled effluent and accept reality. Squeamish idiots running scare campaigns against the idea are a complete irrelevance. There is just no alternative. If you want to live here, you have to stop squandering your water. And that means recycling it.

Full stop.

19 March, 2007

It All Comes Down To Socks

Since I gave up working for a living, there have been many positive changes in my life. I no longer commute 2 hours (or more) each day. I now sleep SO much better. I have not experienced a single moment of boredom since it happened. I spend masses more time with Wifie. And I write more blog postings (well, I think that is positive, anyway.) All of this was what I expected – and why I did it. But one thing I did not expect was that I have not worn socks at all since I stopped working.

Actually, in the Brisbane climate, it isn’t at all unusual to see people with no socks on, or, indeed, shoes, or even shirts! It gets pretty warm here. But don’t worry, I haven’t taken my freedom that far – yet.

The strange thing is that, I have discovered, simply by not doing it, that I don’t need to wear socks and I don’t want to wear socks. As the poet Theodore Roethke says, ‘I learn by going where I have to go.’ (Mind you, this is the man who also said, ‘Mips and ma the mooly moo.’ So maybe not the best person to explain Life.*)

If you’d asked me a few months ago, I would have professed almost complete indifference to socks. ‘They have their uses,’ I might have said with a nonchalant shrug, or even ‘I dunno. They’re alright, I suppose.’ Yet, when it came down to it, when the chips were on the table, when all was said and done… I totally rejected them. I now have a drawer-full of them, rolled-up and gathering dust, like woolly, hibernating, multi-coloured penguins, waiting for cooler weather, or soft, misshapen, stuffed-toy eggs, incubating for a winter hatching. If I listen hard in the dead of night, perhaps I’ll hear them snuffling and shuffling and snuggling against one another.

Who would have guessed that the sock is an expendable garment? I knew it about ties – the most stupid piece of clothing ever invented – and the waistcoat only hangs on because suit jackets are so useless at keeping people warm. But the sock?

Actually, now that I think of all those outcasts, those exiles from my life, huddled together in the dark, comforting one another in their misery, it occurs to me that their story may not be over. A leader may arise and gather his people around him (all my socks are male), giving them hope and filling their cotton hearts with pride. Yes, it will be a sock puppet epic to rival the Lord of the Rings. ‘I must go now,’ my right hand cries, fingers flapping. ‘My people need me!’

(*In fact, despite what I said, I think Theodore Roethke is a fine poet and the poems these quotes come from have long been among my favourites.)

17 March, 2007

Why Ordinary People Make Intelligent Kids Unhappy

‘Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.’ (Ernest Hemmingway) Thus starts an article by Bill Allin called ‘Why Intelligent People Tend To Be Unhappy’. The gist of the piece is that the social and emotional development of intelligent children is neglected or even hindered by a society that cares only about the achievement of wealth and sporting excellence. It is a confused and lightweight piece (although it has had a wide readership since it was published) but it reflects a strong feeling among intelligent people that they are undervalued, rejected and disliked by everyone else.

I know the feeling very well myself. I was singled out at school for insults and bullying by the other kids. One or two teachers liked me but the vast majority – even the ones that were not games or woodwork teachers – did not. At home, I was lucky that my mother was intelligent and liked me but very unlucky in my father, who was thick and did not. One of my aunts positively despised me and the rest of my parents’ siblings and their spouses were mostly just cool and distant. It’s a miracle that I didn’t grow up twisted as well as bitter. I put down my emotional survival to an incredible self-confidence. Being intelligent has always made me an outsider but I have somehow always had the good fortune to believe that the rejections were due to other people’s inadequacies, not my own.

Allin’s article (and its sequel) focuses on what society does to intelligent children and doesn’t really try to explain why they are treated so badly. For what it’s worth my own thoughts amount to this: intelligent people actually earn the dislike of their peers and carers in a variety of ways. Briefly:

  • Intelligent kids notice the bullshit. If you’re a clever child, you can’t help seeing the hypocrisy of your parents, and other adults. You can’t help seeing that the things they believe are often hollow or distorted. You can’t help spotting that they lie and that their self-justifications are frequently spurious. People don’t like being caught out and kids are too naïve not to mention their observations.
  • People hate to feel stupid and they hate even more being made to look stupid. A smart ten-year-old who can explain how a telephone works better than his or her teacher or parent makes everyone feel uncomfortable and resentful. A clever seven-year-old who wants a chemistry set and plays a decent game of chess is excluding most of their peers and carers from interacting with them and is clearly beyond the resources of most adults to teach. Bright kids don’t learn, until it is too late, not to show off their skills – they’re too busy seeking approval to realise they are engendering resentment.
  • Grown-ups like to feel superior. It annoys and frustrates people when the areas in which they naturally excel over children – size, strength, hand-eye coordination – are clearly boring to the bright child, who likes running about and kicking balls as much as anyone but who also has a million other more challenging things they want to get on with. It also scares adults when the other main areas in which they should excel – knowledge and wisdom – begin to look scant and feeble in comparison to those of the young intellect they are dealing with.
  • Intelligent children display moral deviance. The codes by which most people live are learnt by rote and are accepted unquestioningly but the intelligent child can’t do that. He or she is congenitally incapable of just accepting what people say. Everything is examined and compared, turned over and over in the bright child’s mind until it is understood, or revealed to be nonsense. Intelligent children will question moral precepts, they will doubt the existence of gods and the supremacy of heroes. They will argue with things which, to everyone around them, are undeniable truths. It makes such kids seem weird, creepy, not really one of us.

The net result is that the intelligent child alienates most of the adults and children they meet, offends and humiliates them in ways the child cannot yet begin to understand. Gradually, the child moves outside the circle of its family and neighbours, outside the confines of its culture. It is rejected and disliked but, often, the child becomes a willing participant in its own ostracisation as it seeks other exiles and out-groups to give it the acceptance it needs.

Without the protection and support of intelligent adults and peers, it is almost inevitable that intelligent children will have a rough ride in life and, yes, many will end up unhappy.

15 March, 2007

The Best Thing About Children

Perhaps the best thing about children is that they make you feel grown up. At 51, I still feel that I am ignorant, my ideas half-formed, my experience limited and my character immature and underdeveloped. Yet compared to my 20-year-old daughter I feel as if I have the wisdom of Solomon!

Not that she’s daft or uneducated or especially childish. In fact, compared to most 20-yer-olds, I’m pleased to say she’s pretty damned great. It’s just that she’s still growing and still learning. Her brain has only just finished its development and her experience has only just begun to accumulate. She is still making the kinds of mistakes that she still has an excuse to make because everything is still happening to her for the first time. She has barely begun to chip away at the great mountain of things there are for her to know.

I’ve tried telling her things, of course, and so has Wifie. Mostly, though, the light of our own condensed and refined understanding reflects off the surface of her shiny new mind. But I like to think that some small fraction is absorbed, to colour her new experiences and guide the learning process. Meanwhile, I have to watch and wince as she takes the emotional knocks that will eventually hammer her into shape. I can also smile indulgently (if anxiously) at her interest in Aleister Crowley and Robert Anton Wilson, her liking for beat poetry, and her choice of boyfriends, knowing (with fingers crossed) that she will eventually make it through all this to somewhere rather less fantastical and unstable.

The worst thing about children is that they remind you of your own youth. At 20 I was living in a run-down flat, in a disastrous relationship. I had just started university after taking my entrance exams at night school – having dropped out of high school to go to sea on the trawlers and then having spent a couple of years in casual labouring jobs. Without a doubt, I haven’t got a leg to stand on and I must take my place down here in the foothills of the moral high-ground. All I can say that isn’t entirely hypocritical is that it would be rather more efficient and far less painful and uncertain for my daughter to take a different approach to career development than her old man took.

Or maybe the worst thing is the conflict between wanting them to be safe and secure and wanting them to be happy. I’ve always told her how important it is to make a career out of something you really, really enjoy doing. The reality is, however, that almost everything that would guarantee financial security is tedious and boring. So when she tells me she wants to go to film school, or be an artist, or run an orchid farm, I’m torn between ‘Great! Go for it!’ and ‘What? You want to be poor all your life!’ I’ve always told her she should settle down with someone she really likes and gets on well with. So when she wheels out the latest loser boyfriend with career aspirations to be a rock star or a shop assistant, I oscillate between ‘Whatever makes you happy, darling.’ and ‘Oh my God, couldn’t you do better that?’ And, of course, that’s probably exactly what my own girlfriends’ parents thought about me when I was that age!

Anyway, she’s catching up fast. I suspect that wisdom is achieved exponentially. The curve climbs fast for a few decades and then starts to level off. In another ten or twenty years, there won’t be that much difference between us. By then, of course, I’ll be starting to slip into senility and it will be her turn to feel smug and superior.

14 March, 2007

Timothy Ball of Confusion

I noticed in the Telegraph (a UK newspaper) that Dr. Timothy F. Ball has been receiving death threats. This is because he does not believe that climate change is caused by human activity. I was appalled by this. No-one should be threatened with violence because of what they believe, or what they say. If we condone such behaviour, we have no moral credibility at all.

Moral outrage aside, it was surprising to me that there are still people around who don’t accept what science is telling us about what we are doing to our world. Even the world’s right-wing governments (and let’s face it, they’re all right-wing these days) are beginning to accept it (the Dick Cheyneys and John Howards excepted, of course). The highly-conservative views of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) are far from alarmist and represent a global consensus by scientists that we need to act now to prevent serious degradation of our environment over the next 100 years. Even the economic argument that we would ruin our national economies by responding to the climate change threat have been trashed recently by the Stern report which shows that failure to act will have far worse economic consequences. Yet there are still people like Ball telling us that man-made climate change is not happening.

Ball is not just a ‘climate sceptic’, he is a vociferous advocate of his position. He is a member of the right-wing Fraser Institute which also argues against any response to climate change. He is also Chairman of the National Resources Stewardship Project – a Canadian lobby group against climate change control. His views are summed up in Global Warming: The Cold Hard Facts, if you’re interested.

I really don’t get it. Ball seems to believe quite genuinely and passionately that CO2 does not contribute significantly to global warming, and that all those thousands of other climate scientists, chemists and physicists have simply got it all wrong. Ball’s various arguments (solar cycles, urban hot-spots, fudged data in the famous ‘hockey-stick’ graph, errors in the satellite data, etc.) have all be systematically studied and dismissed by the scientific community. New evidence, new studies, by dozens of different research groups suggest that Ball is wrong on all the evidence he cites in favour of his position.

Which is not to say that Ball is actually wrong. I’m no chemist, physicist or climatologist. I’m in no position to judge the evidence. However, I do have confidence in the self-correcting nature of science itself. It is quite easy for scientists to go haring off in the wrong direction, led by a few exciting results to believe they are onto something. However, as new evidence mounts, incorrect interpretations quickly become untenable, the error is spotted and the excitement fades. Over the past thirty years, the evidence that climate change is caused by our own activities has overwhelmingly corroborated the hypothesis.

Having read what Ball says (no scientific evidence, as it happens, but lots of assertion) I get the impression of someone who is a bit of a nutter who is being used as a pawn of the energy industry to promote anti-climate change ideas that they would dearly like us to believe. The fact that he receives funding from Canadian oil and gas companies (money that has been passed through the Calgary Foundation, to the University of Calgary, though a body called the “Science Education Fund,” and on to another lobby group with which Ball is associated called Friends of Science – according to the Globe and Mail, as reported by Jim Hoggan in desmogblog.com) is neither here nor there. Why should he not accept their funding when he has completely congruent objectives? And, frankly, who else would fund such a fringe position?

Unfortunately, right or wrong, Ball is doing the wrong thing about it. If Ball is wrong about climate change – and the chances seem excellent that he is – he could be doing terrible harm to everyone by lobbying governments to ignore the evidence. If on the off-chance he is right that it is a natural phenomenon and nothing to do with us, then he should be out there lobbying even harder to cut CO2 emissions because the world is still warming up – even he doesn’t deny that – the icebergs are still melting and the droughts, storms, floods, disease and starvation are still coming, and we still have to do what we can to save ourselves.

13 March, 2007

Driving in Queensland - Part 2

Yesterday, I explained how the Rules of the Road for driving in Brisbane were not quite as the Queensland Government tells it. After years of observation, I have pieced together the real rules for driving in this lovely city. I have already covered the topics of lane discipline and signalling. Today, I conclude with a discussion on Positioning your vehicle on the road.

Positioning

Coming up to a junction, you might be tempted to position yourself to the right if you are turning right and to the left if you are turning left. In Brisbane exactly the opposite is the rule. As you approach a junction, keep your speed up, keep your eyes away from your mirrors, then, at the last moment, brake hard, swing your vehicle in the opposite direction to the one in which you intend to go (ensuring that at least two wheels cross any white lines on that side), then swing back hard and make your turn. Don’t forget to flick your indicator as you go round the corner.
Even if you have to stop, at a T junction for instance, be sure to position yourself on the left if you are turning right, and on the right if you are turning left. This will make it easier to turn the corner sharply, cutting across any white lines you may need to cross. (Remember: do not signal until you start moving.)

Because of the mandatory lane-changing rules, positioning on ordinary roads and motorways has very little relevance for Brisbane drivers. The important rule of thumb seems to be that, if you have a turning coming up, it is better to swerve suddenly across three busy lanes of traffic when you get there, than to position yourself in the correct lane well ahead of the turn. This way you do not risk staying in one lane too long and maximise the number of white lines you cross.
A corollary to this rule is that if you see a ‘left lane must turn’ sign but you wish to go straight ahead or turn right, you must enter the left lane, drive as fast as you can and then swing back into the lane to your right at the very last minute. Flicking your indicator as you re-enter the traffic is not mandatory as other drivers are obliged to brake or swerve to avoid you anyway.

Concluding Remarks

Once you get the basics down, the rest is really quite easy. The fuss that other states and countries make over road markings and signage is really quite foreign to the Brisbane driver and almost everything can be safely ignored. In fact, ignoring things is at the heart of the Brisbane driving regime. If I have learned one thing from these years of patient observation, it is this. The golden rule is to behave as if you are the only person on the road. Forget about all those other road users. Just put them right out of your mind.

Remember, Queensland is the Smart State, so they’re bound to have a great hospital system if things go wrong. Right?

12 March, 2007

Driving in Queensland - Part 1

Like many Brisbane drivers, I moved here from another state. In my early ‘culture shock’ at the curious style of driving here, I obtained a copy of the 'Rules of The Road' to see what it was all about. However, this book is clearly a joke, or some kind of spoof, as it bears no relation to what is really going on out there. But, like all those other suckers, I fell for it!

Since there doesn’t seem to be a serious publication of this type, I decided to observe actual Brisbane drivers in action and deduce for myself what the real rules must be. It has taken a few years to work it out but here are my main conclusions, set out as a guide for other incomers. This is part one of a two-part guide (more tomorrow). We'll start with the basics.

Lane Discipline

Whatever they might mean elsewhere in Australia – or the world for that matter – in Brisbane, solid white lines on the road are intended to be driven across. It is actually mandatory to cross solid white lines as often as you can. When following a road, for example, a certain amount of weaving across the lines on both sides of the lane is required. If the road bends to the left and a solid white line marks a shoulder, the driver must cut across the line, preferably with all four wheels, before returning to the lane once the bend has been negotiated. On a right-hand bend, only two wheels need cross the line.

Switching lanes is compulsory every 500 metres (or every five minutes in slow-moving traffic). To change lanes in Brisbane, the driver must wait until they feel in the mood, then swing out into the other lane, flicking on the appropriate indicator only after the manoeuvre has started. Checking your mirrors, or signalling ahead of the manoeuvre is strictly forbidden.

Changing lanes whilst on a roundabout is strongly encouraged in Brisbane and is considered good style. In fact, the rule is that you should always enter the roundabout in the wrong lane for your exit and then change lanes at your leisure, preferably without signalling.

The only time sudden and arbitrary lane changing in heavy traffic is forbidden, is if you are travelling below the current speed limit in the outside lane of a freeway or motorway. If you find yourself in this situation, you must stay in your lane, no matter what, and start making mobile phone calls to all your friends.

Signalling

Many newcomers to Brisbane are confused by the rules about signalling. If you have been taught that signalling is to let other road users know what you intend to do well before you do it, you might find the switch to ‘just too late’ signalling a little difficult. Essentially, the rule is this: Signalling on Brisbane roads is strictly forbidden except during a manoeuvre when you may signal as a warning to other road users to slam on their brakes and get out of your way. Also known as ‘why bother’ signalling, the practiced driver can keep the number of times their indicator flashes to just once or twice as they execute a right-hand turn or change lanes. For those of us new to the practice, it is best to remember these simple rules: never signal before you brake and, when in doubt, don’t signal at all.

It should be obvious from this that, if your vehicle is stationary, you must not signal for any reason. So, standing at a junction, waiting for the lights to change, you must cancel your indicator if for some odd reason it happens to be on. Similarly, on pulling away from the kerb, you may not signal until the vehicle is safely in motion.

The rules about signalling on roundabouts are particularly complicated. The fundamental rule is: always signal right, no matter where you are going. However, if there is a full moon, or during Hindu religious holidays, you are allowed not to signal at all, or to signal at random. I know this is hard but I have observed that the police have no interest at all in such transgressions, preferring to make their money from speed traps, so do not worry. If you make sure that, as you leave the roundabout, you are either signalling right, or not signalling at all, you should be OK.

So far so good. If you are still alive tomorrow, I will be covering 'Positioning'.

11 March, 2007

Aberystwyth

Advertising copy writers are not nice people. They lie and exaggerate, they twist and hide the truth, they play on our fears and hopes for their own ends, and they invent words like ‘pinta’. It is advertising copywriters who gave us such twisted phrases as ‘genuine rum flavour’ and ‘95% fat free’. On the moral ladder they are sitting in the mud with the politicians and the pimps, gazing up at the unreachable first rung.

So it was a bit of a shock to find that the book I’ve just finished reading and which I had enjoyed greatly, was written by just such a one. The book is ‘Aberystwyth Mon Amour ’ and the ex-copywriter who wrote this little gem, is Malcolm Pryce.

I’m sure you’ll agree, ‘Aberystwyth Mon Amour’ is not a title to inspire confidence. Derision, perhaps, incredulity even, but not confidence. Yet this book, set in the back alleys and seedy night-clubs of a Welsh seaside town dragged down by organised crime and tea-cosy shops, manages to rise above its dodgy title like the smell of beer rising above a rugby prop forward. And yes, if you think I’m being a bit colourful, you are dead right. The book is so full of this kind of Chandleresque, tongue-in-cheek purple prose that I’ll probably still be writing like this for days to come.

It’s the story of a hard-bitten private detective, alone, broke, and drunk, caught up in a web of intrigue and ice-cream, haunting the 24-hour whelk stalls and sinister sea-front promenades of this dark and dangerous holiday resort, trying to unravel the mysteries of a dead schoolboy’s essay and its significance to the druid crime boss, known to the town as ‘the Welsh teacher’.

It may sound silly. It may sound very silly. But if you imagine a first-class Raymond Chandler spoof with a heavy dash of Monty Python thrown in, set in the most unlikely place on the planet, you have ‘Aberystwyth Mon Amour’ – and a few hours of very odd entertainment.

I can only hope that you will rush out and buy this book. If we can keep Malcolm Pryce fed and clothed through book sales, perhaps he won’t ever turn back to the dark side and start writing ads again.

10 March, 2007

A Devil's Dictionary of Web Terms

Sorry, guys, I’ve been neglecting you. Two days without a posting is quite unforgivable. My only excuse is that I have been excitedly working on the plot for my new novel and this has been obsessing me for days. However, just to show I have been thinking about you, below is an extract from a help file I have been working on to accompany this blog. I know I use a lot of technical terms and many of you are not technical folk, so I’m writing a dictionary of Web and computing terms to help you out. This lot is just the first batch. There will be more. Meanwhile, if you have any terms you would like explaining, please let me know so I can deride your ignorance in public (er, I mean include them, of course).

Back Button, n. 1. The most frequently-used button on a browser or Web page. 2. A metaphor for our whole society having clicked the wrong link somewhere along the line.

Denial of Service, adj. A type of virus attack where a huge number of infected computers (see zombie) attempt to access a website, overloading its servers. The name is inspired by the credo of the major telecoms companies (see telco).

DVD, n. The basic unit of software quality. Nothing less bloated can be taken seriously as a useful piece of software since it would fit onto a less capacious storage medium.

HTTP, n. A slow, primitive, lowest-common-denominator communications protocol on which most of the Web relies. If it got any more simplistic than this, we’d be lighting signal fires on our rooftops.

Java, n. Just another stupid programming language. Really, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. (See also Ruby, PHP, C#, etc., etc., etc..)

JavaScript, n. See Java.

Outsource, v. 1. To send jobs to poor countries where workers can be more easily exploited. 2. To provide a vital customer service in an impenetrable foreign accent.

Phishing, v. 1. Nigeria’s main export industry. 2. One of Nature’s most recent punishments for the greedy and stupid (see also lotteries and online gambling). The greedy and clever, of course, continue to go unpunished and are often found running phishing scams and/or large corporations.

Pornography, n. The main purpose for which the Internet was invented. It is a common mistake to believe that a US government research agency called DARPA funded the Internet’s development. In fact it was a Nigerian organisation called Digitally Assisted Rapid Porn Access.

Standard, n. See Microsoft. Also, any agreed format, method or protocol ignored by Microsoft.

Vista, acronym. VIrtually the Same Thing Again – only this time requiring a major hardware upgrade to run it and featuring VIRUS (Very Intrusive Redundant end-User Security).

Wireless, n. A big brown box with knobs on from which crackly, distorted music emerges (see also Windows Media Player). Also, adj., A method of networking components of a computer system such that they each interfere with one another, your digital TV, and the neighbour’s pacemaker.

YouTube, n. A dumping-ground for the outpourings of millions of wannabe pop-stars, porn-stars, actors, stand-up comics and news-readers. The distilled essence of human craving and lust for fame. The Matmos of the Web.

Zombie, n. 1. See helpdesk. 2. A re-animated corpse, mindlessly roaming the streets looking for human flesh to feed on (see salesperson). 3. A computer infected with a virus that can be directed to perform insidious and evil tasks by a third party (see Windows XP).

07 March, 2007

Gina Ford Clobbers Mumsnet

Apparently, Gina Ford – the American childcare ‘guru’ – has had enough of the "relentless personal attacks on her" by people who write into the Mumsnet website.

Mumsnet was set up a few years ago by two mothers (later joined by a third) and is a place for mothers to share information about parenting. Described by Junior Pregnancy and Baby magazine (which may no longer exist) as, "engaging honest, and above all reassuring...more like a chat with friends than being told what to do," it certainly has a cosy, middle-class, working mums kind of feel to it. So how come its normally restrained readership has been viciously attacking Gina Ford?

Well, it’s probably because they care a lot about babies and don’t want to see them put through the kind of upbringing Ms Ford advocates. The Mumsnet ladies seem to have a down-to-earth, practical approach to most of the childcare issues they discuss and generally advocate deferring to the child when it comes to deciding when to eat, sleep, or defecate. Not so Ms Ford. She seem to prefer that the child be brought up to a strict schedule with feeding, play, sleeping and, well, everything decided by a rather rigid timetable.

My recent piece about Jean Liedloff’s Continuum Concept means you can probably guess which side I come down in favour of here. Liedloff’s approach is the exact opposite of Ford’s. I find the idea of raising a child according to a ‘routine’ to be completely unacceptable. No doubt such routines help busy, working mothers cope with their stressful lives, but let’s not pretend that they are for the baby’s benefit. However many good things Ms Ford advocates (and there are plenty - breastfeeding to name a very important one) the enforced scheduling of a baby’s life is not a practice that anyone should follow.

Would Ms Ford approve of someone who had absolute power over her, forcing her to eat, sleep and play, at times that suited them? Would she benefit from this routine? I hardly think so. It’s the kind of thing we do to prisoners in order to make their management more convenient. So why does she advocate doing it to a baby? The whole idea has a horribly Victorian ring to it and I had hoped we were moving away from such practices.

Naturally, with views like this, Gina Ford has upset a lot of people and they have responded in highly emotional ways. Several have been personally insulting to Ms Ford. Which is why she has been threatening Mumsnet with lawyers lately. She says she doesn’t mind the criticism but doesn’t like the personal attacks. Mumsnet, not having Ms Ford’s resources, has crumbled. All mention of Gina Ford has been removed from its website. Another victory for the rich over the (relatively) poor.

I’m sure it is very irritating to have strangers calling you names in print but it seems to me that if you set yourself up as a guru in an area as sensitive as this, you are bound to make some people angry. And let’s not forget how important all this is. It is the psychological wellbeing of little babies and future adults we are talking about here. If a few mothers get a bit overheated trying to defend children from what they see as a terrible threat, isn’t that to be expected? If Gina Ford wants to put forward such proposals, maybe she should accept that many will see them as inflammatory, that she is in fact offending a great many people, and take the backlash on the chin. Either that or stop doing it.

06 March, 2007

Telstra NextG Broadband Problems

It’s a pity that the only way to get broadband in my Brisbane suburb is by 3G wireless from Telstra. I say that because the Telstra service is two or three times as expensive as an ADSL (1) equivalent and has several other major disadvantages. These include:
  • Extremely low download limits. The package I have has a 1 gigabyte limit and costs as much as a 20 gigabyte ADSL package. The biggest package they offer is 3 GB and costs about $150 per month! That means if you wanted to download films or TV shows, you would almost instantly exceed your limit.
  • Very low speeds. The package I have is the fastest they offer and it is alleged to ‘average’ between 500 Kbps and 1.5 mbps. I have never had a connection that runs faster than 500 Mbps and it often runs slower. Today, for example, I am getting just over 250 Kbps – at 10am on a Tuesday with ‘excellent’ signal strength, you would think that Telstra could do a lot better than this.
  • Badly-written software. My Telstra Connection Manager (CM) software crashes about twice a day. It used to bring down my whole operating system with it but I discovered that this was an incompatibility with my graphics card driver. I downloaded and installed a new driver (41.5 Mb of download allowance used up just for this) and now the CM only crashes itself. Even the CM installer package is dodgy, installing all kinds of programs it shouldn’t which then have to be deleted by hand!
  • Incompatibilities with common software I have installed. It is hard to believe but the Telstra software does not work with Norton Anti-Virus (NAV). I actually broke out laughing when the Telstra ‘technical support’ drone told me this. As a result, I could not send emails because the NAV outgoing email scan was failing. I’ve disabled this in NAV now and my email works again but not properly. I still have problems because the Telstra software doesn’t work with Outlook 2003 either! Apparently, it is only guaranteed to work with Outlook Express.
  • Minimal modem functionality. Telstra only supplies one kind of modem and it is a very simple affair (and very expensive for what it is). What I actually want is a modem and wireless router unit so I can have other computers in my home connected to the Internet too. Modem/routers like this are available off-the-shelf from several manufacturers for ADSL but not for the Telstra 3G network.
  • Having to deal with Big Pond. Big Pond is the Telstra ISP that provides the broadband service. I have now spent many hours working through my many problems with seven different Big Pond ‘technical support’ drones. Some of these were absolutely useless. The rest were mostly useless. Between them all, I managed to identify one or two causes of my problems and fix them (about as many as I identified for myself and fixed). As for the remaining issues, they ‘escalated’ the problem 8 days ago and I have yet to hear anything more from them.
I could go on but you get the picture. I am paying almost $1,000 a year for this rubbish and you can imagine how much I resent it. If there was another supplier of broadband to this suburb, I would switch like a shot! Why isn't the government doing anything?

05 March, 2007

A Vapor...An Accident...

What is it about ‘celebrities’ that makes them interesting? Our fascination seems to be a kind of vicarious stalking. We actually pay people (tabloids, celebrity sites and paparazzi) to do the stalking for us and we then read their reports and gawp at the pictures.

I can sort of understand why guys would want to ‘stalk’ people like Britney Spears through the media (even to this extent). She is, after all, an attractive woman. The same goes for Kylie, Nichole Kidman, Scarlett Johansson, etc., etc.. But what makes Britney so popular? Did you know that ‘Britney’ is the number one search term on Technorati. Does this just say something about the stalker mentality of Technorati users? I don’t think so. Is it just that when she first started in show biz she emphasised her youth, appearing in school uniforms and going for the paedophile vote? Probably not – because there seem to be far more women interested in Britney and her type than there are men.

In fact, if you glance through the stalker magazines (Hello, Cosmopolitan, all the TV mags – you know the ones I mean – and the websites) you’ll see they are almost entirely aimed at women and yet most of the celebrities they drool on about are also women. Their pathetic lives, their ostentatious homes, their poor children, their miserable partners, all seem to excite a horrible, voyeuristic interest. It is all very creepy.

And it isn’t that our own lives are dull or uneventful. Everyone who reads these stalker reports has lives in which family members are sick, where loved ones die, where friends fall out, where spouses cheat, where marriages fail, where children take drugs, where hearts are broken, where there is betrayal and loss.

Perhaps it reassures us that, even if we were beautiful and filthy rich, we would still be frail and vulnerable like they are. Maybe it is simple vicarious living. We watch the rich and beautiful living the degenerate and debased lives we wish we could have for ourselves. Or maybe it is something worse.

Maybe because we are primitive pack-animals at heart, we look up to these exaggerated, overhyped people as pack leaders, to be adored and followed, to be worshipped almost, in the way of craven dogs, lapping up the very mention of their names while waiting to tear out their throats at the first sign of weakness or fear.

(PS Just in case you think I've gone mad, mis-spelling an easy word like vapour, the title of this piece comes from a quote by Mark Twain, "Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion." Mr. Twain, of course, spoke only American.)

04 March, 2007

The Rise of Skiing Addiction

Why is everything an addiction these days? I ask having just read a ludicrous piece on the BBC news site claiming we’re all becoming addicted to ‘portable technology’. (No, they don’t mean pruning shears and bicycles, dear, they mean PDAs and iPods.) The Beeb interviewed some idiot (Nada Kakabadse, a Professor at the Northampton Business School) who claimed that, “The symptoms are, like with any other addiction, that people spend more time using their technology than spending it in socialising or in family time.” But that is not a symptom of addiction. If it was, going to work would be an addiction – and so would sleeping. In fact some people – men in particular but, increasingly, women – spend so little time with their families it can be measured in minutes per day. It isn’t hard then to be addicted if this is your standard.

And who is Nada Kakabadse anyway to be making such pronouncements? She’s a Professor of Management. Yes, management. It seems she has a BSc in Mathematics and Computing, a Graduate Diploma in Management Sciences, a Masters Degree in Public Administration and a PhD in Management. Strangely enough, I don’t see any medical degrees in her résumé, not even a degree in psychology. So why on earth would the BBC roll this person out as an expert on addiction?

It may be because she lists one of her research interests as “addictive effect of ICT” (never mind the grammar, she’s only educated to PhD level and can’t be expected to write proper English) so maybe the Beeb found her on a fishing expedition with Google. I looked at her published research and all I could find of relevance on the Northampton Business School site was this:

Korac-Kakabadse, N., (2003a), An Addictive Perspective on Technology and Work, Seventh International Human Resource Management (IHRM) Conference, Limerick, Ireland, 3-4th June 2003.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the text for this online. However, it is telling that there are no co-authors listed, so Professor Kakabadse didn’t collaborate with anyone – like a doctor, for instance, or an addiction expert. The rest of her research is about management stuff – boards, governance, leadership, outsourcing, that kind of thing – so I wonder where she gets her data for the statement that “people spend more time using their technology than spending it in socialising or in family time”? People spend an awful lot of time socialising, even at work – a point she and Andrew Kakabadse make in their book ‘Intimacy’ (sub-titled; ‘International Survey of the Sex Lives of People at Work’.) Does she have figures to show they spend even more time emailing on their Blackberries? I somehow doubt it.

So what is the BBC up to, writing such a silly article and quoting such an irrelevant source? Well, it seems this drivel comes out of a conference in Geneva, Switzerland called ‘the LIFT 07 technology conference’. Could it be that a BBC journalist wanted a free trip to the ski slopes and used this as an excuse? Or is it that journalists really can’t tell the wheat from the chaff when it comes to science reporting?

03 March, 2007

Want Is A Vector

Have you ever had one of those discussions that go:

Spouse: The Pope’s invited us to lunch. Do you want to go?

You: If you want to.

Spouse: You don’t want to go.

You: I do if you do.

Spouse: Yes, but you don’t really want to do you?

And so on. Of course, if the conversation was between me and Wifie and the Pope had really invited us to lunch, my first response would be a resounding ‘No!’ on the ground that I try to avoid the company of ageing fascists. On the other hand, I know that Wifie loves Italy and would love a chance to pop over in the Papal private jet. To be honest, I’d also like to have a look around the Vatican – I’m sure it is as beautiful as it would be infuriating. On the other hand, we’d need to find a sitter for the cat, it’s the middle of winter over there, and I hate having to dress to other people’s expectations. On the other hand, we’d be handy to visit some friends in Spain, so however boring the lunch was, we might get a decent trip out of it. On the other hand…

The point is that ‘want’ is a vector. It is the sum of many, many different wants, all pulling in different directions. Wikipedia has a pretty unfriendly definition of a vector in the sense that I mean it. Maybe the best way to think of how a vector works is to think of some physical system in which different forces are acting on an object in different directions and with different stregths. A ship at sea, for instance, has a course and speed that is partially determined by its engines and rudder but also by the ocean’s currents and the winds that are blowing on it. These three forces (engine, wind and current) might work all in the same direction or all at odds with one another, making the actual course and speed (the ship’s vector) the product of the speed and direction of each of them.

And that’s what wants are like. I might want to please Wifie and that will pull me in one direction but I also want to avoid religious nutters and that would pull me another way. I might want to satisfy my curiosity about just how stinking rich the Catholic church is but I might also think travelling 15,000 kilometres for an Italian meal is a bit excessive – each pulling me in other directions. The result – what I say I ‘want’ after all this deliberation – is the vector of my desires in a complex, multidimensional, psychological space.

It’s no wonder that conversations like this happen all the time.

02 March, 2007

Give Me Hope, Goanna

Sometimes days just go well.

There was no particular reason why this one should have been special but it was. I set out with Wifie to do some shopping. We had breakfast at the mall, had the usual brain-in-neutral trip round the supermarket and headed home. Wifie suggested we stop off at the Mount Coot’tha Botanical Gardens on the way back since we hadn’t been there for a while and I readily agreed since it is a wonderful place. It’s huge and it hardly has anyone in it (especially on a week-day) and it has a great collection of succulents. I snapped the picture on the right with my cell-phone when we were in the succulent garden. The thing that looks like a space-ship on the right is the geodesic dome of the greenhouse.

We took a stroll round the lake (all the water-lilies were in bloom and it was a blaze of colour) then through the succulents, then the cactus house (which also has bromeliads and orchids) and then to the café where we bought macadamia nut ice-cream cones and went back to the lake to watch the ibises fossicking for insects. It was a beautiful day – so sunny and bright. Too warm to sit in the sun but not unpleasantly hot.

We came home feeling we’d had a nice time and I went off to do some work. About ten minutes later, Wifie called me down again to see something. So I grabbed the camera and hurried and was just in time to see a metre-long lace monitor walk off our terrace and into the garden. I followed it for a while and got a couple of snaps. Watching this beautiful lizard (right) was such a treat and we both felt elated at having had the privilege.

I came back to my office feeling happy only to hear Wifie calling yet again. This time the lace monitor had come right up to the house, tried the door and was wandering around on the veranda. Seen close up in all its splendour, the lace monitor really is a very beautiful animal. I assume it was the lacy patterns hat cover it from head to tail that gave it its name. They are reasonably common in this area and you sometimes see them in picnic areas, especially in the bush – although in nearly ten years we have never seen one in our garden. There is a close relative, the Gould’s goanna, that is much rarer but its very restricted territory does include our suburb. Maybe we’ll see one of those one day. Even if it takes another ten years, it would be worth the wait.

All that remains now is to finish this and go back down to join Wifie. I know exactly how the rest of the day will go. We will sit side by side under the sun umbrella, drinking a nice Chardonnay and chatting about Life and lace monitors as the Brisbane River slides quietly by. Slowly the sun will go down, the hills opposite willl turn golden, the fish will start jumping and the welcome swallows will race them for the insects over the water. The cat will come out and lie down nearby, the cicadas and the frogs will sing their hearts out and gradually, imperceptibly, the warm, breezy night will fall.

Sometimes days just go well.

01 March, 2007

The Invisible Man

I started reading ‘The Invisible Man’ by H. G. Wells today and what a pleasure it is to read first-class writing again.

The last book I read was called ‘Shock’ by Robin Cook and it was rubbish. Cook has several books in print but I can’t understand why. The man is almost illiterate. His grammar is awful, even for an American, and he has a habit of making up stupid words even when perfectly good ones already exist. He also has a preference for using words like ‘exited’ and ‘commenced’ instead of ‘left’ and ‘started’. I don’t know if it is pretentiousness or what but it is very jarring on the mental ear. Cook is also one of those stodgy, ponderous writers who likes to tell you a lot of trivial and irrelevant rubbish about someone boarding a plane, or buying a meal, in minute and excruciating detail, while leaving out everything interesting or relevant they might have said. The characters were wooden and silly in the extreme – especially the two heroines who, although both had PhDs, were like stupid and naïve schoolgirls living a ripping yarn from a 1930s novel of an English boarding school.

Publishers Weekly describes 'Shock' as, “a crudely conceived, ineptly written and most damning of all totally unexciting story.” My advice: don’t ever read a book by Robin Cook. Instead, read (or re-read) everything you can find by H. G. Wells.

I read a lot of Wells as a teenager and loved it all (except ‘Tono Bungay’ – I could never get on with that one at all, for some reason I now forget.) Although much of the science in the stories now seems quaint, Wells himself probably wouldn’t have minded. He believed that invoking ‘fantastical’ scientific developments was exactly like invoking magic in his stories – a way to create more extreme and challenging situations in which to examine the nature of people and of society. Despite his wholehearted acknowledgement of the work of Jonathan Swift as inspiration, Wells pretty much invented this kind of science fiction. In Wells, the science is very much beyond the realm of what is possible (then and now). Unlike his near-contemporary Jules Verne, he wasn’t concerned with realistic extrapolation to potential new technologies. The whole point of the technologies Wells invokes is to create a magically altered world for his stories in which he can pose the questions; ‘What would people do if this were possible?’ and ‘How would society react?’

Which is, of course, what all the best science fiction writers have done since.

What makes Wells stand out, though, is not that he did it first, or that he was so imaginative, but that he did it so well. As soon as I began reading ‘The Invisible Man’ I was thrilled by the quality of the writing and also by the sudden memory that this man was a consummate storyteller. Which is probably why they still keep making films of his books (although the films seem to get worse with each iteration! Avoid the Tom Cruise version of ‘War of the Worlds’ like the plague.)

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