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14 July, 2007

Has The World Gone Mad?

It's been a strange week.

In the southern Iraqi town of Basra, fierce giant badgers are roaming the docks. The locals believe they were introduced by the British Army to spread panic but local experts say the animals are indigenous – just not often seen in the city. Giant, killer badgers are odd enough but what is much, much more disturbing is that people could think for a moment that the Brits set them loose on the town. What possible chance do the invading armies have of winning the 'hearts and minds' of the Iraqis if the conquered have such a complete and utter misconception of who their conquerors are?

Meanwhile, a 45-year-old man in Sydney has been on a rampage in a restored tank. He drove his tank at dead of night through several Sydney suburbs apparently targeting mobile phone towers. He managed to take out six mobile phone tower sheds and an electricity sub-station (easily confused with a mobile phone tower in the dark) before his tank stalled as he tried to demolish a seventh. Apart from trying to keep people out of his way, there wasn't much the police could do about it except watch. Now, I hate mobile phone operators as much as the next guy, but to spend all that time and money on buying and restoring a tank just so you can have a little rampage and knock down a few towers seems just a little over the top. Surely it would have been easier to start a socialist party, sweep the country in a landslide election and nationalise them all without compensation? Far less bother and so much more satisfying.

And then there was the guy in China who got married this week. The bride a normal-sized Chinese woman, 1.68m tall. He is the world's tallest man, Bao Xishun, who is 2.36m tall. It seems he's a really nice guy under all that enormousness but was driven to advertise for a wife – probably for all the obvious reasons. Curiously, he only got 20 replies. Now, if it had been the West, they'd have built a 'reality' TV show around it and had thousands of female contestants being slowly and tediously eliminated for months before finally picking some completely unsuitable extravert with outsize breasts to appear in the season finale on Mr. Bao's arm. As it was, there was a quiet courtship and the bride seems like a very nice person. Bao is famous not only for his record-breaking length but also for saving two sick dolphins by using his very long arms to pull plastic rubbish from their stomachs. But the really odd thing is, he's Chinese. Aren't those guys suppose to be small?

Finally (Ha! Finally! I didn't mention the mystery philanthropist in Japan who has left at least $40,000, in envelopes each containing $100, in public toilets around the country. Nor the fact that a member of the pop-group Queen has just finished writing up a PhD thesis he started in 1971 and which was rudely interrupted in 1974 when he took 33 years out to become a worldwide global mega rock guitar hero.) Finally, I should mention that Dr. Mohammed Haneef has at last been charged with 'recklessly providing resources to a terrorist organisation.' Dr. Haneef has been infamously held without charge in Australia for 13 days while being questioned by the police about alleged involvement with a UK terrorist group responsible for recent botched car bomb attacks. The strange thing is that, after all that questioning by Australian and British anti-terrorist police, the charge is that Dr. Haneef 'recklessly' (not intentionally) gave a phone SIM card to the terrorists. Stranger still, this kind of recklessness, under the new anti-terrorism laws (America's finest export to the world) could cost him a further 25 years in gaol. Of course, in law, 'reckless' implies that Dr. Haneef didn't care if the terrorists blew people up. That is, that he was indifferent to the consequences of what he did. The common usage of the word to mean something like 'foolishly unthinking' isn't what he has been charged with. It is quite possible, the charge says, that he could clearly foresee what would be done with the SIM card but he just didn't care. Which is a pretty strange thing to charge him with in itself, don't you think? The anti-terrorist laws have the concept of conspiracy to commit a terrorist offence. So why not use that? Presumably because there is no evidence for it – only evidence of the doctor's indifference.

06 July, 2007

Beachcombing With Kurt

I was talking to Wifie the other day and I pointed out that the length that hair grows to on different parts of your body is a function of the speed at which it grows and how long (on average) each hair lasts before it falls out. She looked at me in surprise and asked, 'How do you know that?' I just shrugged, and said, 'I dunno. How do I know most things I know?' Meaning, I just pick these things up, mostly from things I have read.

I am, in fact, a vast repository of arcane knowledge. For example, I know that the centre of our galaxy is in the direction of the constellation Saggitarius, that the wavelength of green light is about 500 to 550 nanometres, that the average length of a marriage in the West these days is under ten years, that Groucho Marx once said, 'I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception.', that Karl Marx is buried in Highgate Cemetery, London, and so on and so on. I have no idea where most of it came from. I read a lot of stuff.

However, I noticed myself learning a piece of trivia today. I'm reading A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut and he mentioned in passing that Marco Polo brought back pasta (to Italy) from the Chinese. This struck me as such a singular fact that I know I will remember it. And this must be how I have learnt so much of what I know – by picking up interesting tidbits from novels, histories, biographies, science books, magazines, even TV shows and films. For example, I'm also reading Master and Man, a collection of short stories by Leo Tolstoy (and, yes, I often have two or three books on the go at once) and I'm discovering all kinds of interesting background about 19th Century Russian society, the care of horses, cobbling, how to navigate a horse-drawn sled in a snow-storm at night, and so on. Some will stick. Some will not. It's hard to tell, at this point, whether I will have retained anything from the experience in a year's time.

But the pasta-from-China thing will stay with me. I'm sure of that. As will the terrible sense of sadness that A Man Without A Country communicates. It's awful to think that Vonnegut was so disillusioned at the end of his life and so ashamed of what his country had become. It makes me want to have been able to comfort him – with something like, 'Don't worry about it. Nothing we become will even remember what America was in a million years' time,' or 'So what? We were just monkeys, playing a bit too roughly maybe. None of it really mattered.' You never know, it might have helped.

Anyway, I plan to keep A Man Without A Country handy and hope that, as I re-read it over the years, something more substantial than facts about pasta will stick to my neurons.

03 July, 2007

The Most Popular Posting On Earth

Is popularity among your goals, plans and hopes? Well, here is the blog posting that is going to make me famous, the one all my friends will be blogging about in their own relatively unpopular blogs. And I don't need to waste your time dealing with boring topics like sport, Iraq, jobs, work, careers or Microsoft. I don't even need to post a photo. All I need to do is write a couple of empty paragraphs that contain the top 100 most popular tags from Technorati's current listing (each shown in green bold text here). What fun! What entretenimiento! (which is entertainment in Spanish by the way, no need for your school or college Greek on my Weblog!)

Of course the easiest way to be popular on the Web is to talk either about movies, TV and celebrities, or about technology and the Internet. Articles about art and photography, religion and philosophy, science and politics all have their place but if you really want to score big, just mention Apple, Google, MySpace, podcasts, or Linux, or regurgitate any item of tech news you can find about events involving them. The blogsphere clearly devours a daily smorgasbord of culture, current affairs, fashion, style, shopping, music, photos, videos, reviews and sports but it is computers and the Internet that really click a blogger's links.

Perhaps someone should make a movie of the life of a blog reader. He (of course it's a he) would be at home, pursuing his tech hobbies, taking an online quiz perhaps, but plagued by dreams of the supernatural. Concerned about his health and wellness, his diary, or journal if you will, shows an increasing obsession with parties and nightlife, pets and animals as he slips into a personal hell of random romance and relationships. He tries travel, shooting terabytes of video, writing awful love poetry and worse software in exotic places. He neglects his business in the automotive industry, spurns his family and starts work as a survey design specialist for a media and marketing company that gets bought up by YouTube. Yet miscellaneous (misc.) thoughts, like pictures from his favourite multiplayer games, return to haunt him. The mysterious word 'moblog' runs in his head like música in a Spanish film (or la musique in a French one). In the closing scenes, he is saved by writing 'My Life in Food' and other funny books ('Allgemein Noticias' being his most popular and the best example of his quirky, multilingual 'humor'.)

There now, that should do it. I can hardly wait for my readership to go through the roof!

01 July, 2007

Relatively Simple Book On Relativity

It bothers me sometimes that I don't have a really good grasp of relativity. So much so that I was driven recently to read Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified by Richard Wolfson. I've got to say it was probably the clearest exposition of special relativity I have ever read but was a real let-down when it came to general relativity.

Interestingly, it was one of those attempts to present the argument for relativity rather than just to blast away at the reader with maths. As such, it was almost just what I wanted. I tend to believe that when somebody tries to explain something and what they're telling me sounds confused or dogmatic, it is usually because they don't really understand their subject well enough to explain it. If I'm right, Wolfson certainly has a good grasp on special relativity since he was as clear as could be. If I have one criticism, it is that he tended to repeat himself an awful lot in his attempt to keep his audience with him. However, having done such a sterling job on special relativity, his treatment of general relativity was pretty sketchy. He seems to think that he can't present the reasoning behind general relativity the way he can with special relativity. Maybe it's true. Maybe there's so much else you need to know to get through the arguments that he knew he couldn't get it all into a slim paperback but, honestly, I'd have been happy to go through it all even if the book had been ten times as thick.

The lack of maths was also a bit frustrating. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather hear arguments in words rather than symbols any day – and I must admit, my facility with maths is verging on pathetic – but there were points where I simply needed it. For example, Maxwell's equations are so important in the argument that I wish he'd put them in (instead of just talking about them for several pages) and I really would have liked to get into the geometry of spacetime, even if it is hard. But all is not lost. I have found I can supplement a well-argued book with articles from Wikipedia – which tend to be very short on explanation and quite heavy on maths. (Check out special relativity, general relativity and the Maxwell equations for example.)

I finished the book with the feeling that I hadn't actually learned anything new (well, maybe a couple of new insights or emphases). This, I suppose, reflects the fact that I've actually read lots of other layman-oriented material on the subject. At least it shows I've understood what I already think I know! It also shows, I suppose, that if I want to learn any more about it, I'm going to have to get into more heavyweight books. Wolfson suggests a few and, having established his credentials as a teacher with me, I'd probably accept his recommendations next time I feel the urge to dig deeper into this.

Meanwhile, if you are looking for a very easy-to-read exposition on what relativity is all about – even if you don't know anything about it and gave up maths as a lost cause years ago – Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified by Richard Wolfson is the book for you. As for me, I could really do with knowing more about quantum mechanics...

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