31 December, 2008

2008 Retrospective

Some year, huh?

From the Obama election win to the all-but-collapse of the world economy (see 2009 for the grand finale) there have been some major world events none of us will forget in a hurry.

On a personal level, this has been an amzing year too. I finally ran down my consultancy business and retired - just in time for my savings to be halved by the America-led economic collapse. (Thanks, guys.) In return, however, I got a full year of living on this mountain, surrounded by beautiful forest and wildlife, with nothing but peace, sunshine, and my wonderful wife to keep me company. I measure my personal wealth in terms of how much leisure I have to pursue the things I enjoy, so 2008 has been a year of immense riches.

I also got a dog. Bertie - or Gobby, as I mostly call him - is a purebred mixed blessing. Handsome, fit and happy, great fun, clownish and playful, he's also a right royal pain in the arse. Mostly, now, he can control his bladder. Mostly, he doesn't steal and eat everything in his reach. But he still likes to jump on guests and chew their faces, and he has picked up new tricks, like jumping in the dam and then drying himself on the carpet, and chasing after cars like a bat out of Hell. Has he improved my life or not? The jury is still out, but 2008 is the year I'll remember as the one in which Bertie was a wild and crazy puppy.

And then there was the writing. If you only know me from this blog and not the other one, you might not even be aware that my new career as a writer of fiction has finally begun to take off. In May I won a place on a 'manuscript development retreat' after submitting my unpublished novel Time and Tyde in a national competition. It didn't lead to publication or anything but it gave me such a huge boost in understanding of the whole writing and publishing business that, in the seven months since then, I have had four short stories accepted for publication (only one is out so far), I was short-listed in one short-story competition, and was the winner in another. I have also written and polished a whole new novel (called TimeSplash!) which I am now looking for an agent to represent. This may not seem like much, but it represents a major breakthrough for me. In the whole of my life until May 2008, I had published only one short story, and had never won a writing competition. If I can keep up the momentum, 2008 will be the year I remember as the turning point in my writing career.

And there were lots of other things too - Wifie built her first website, Daughter passed her driving test, the Large Hadron Collider came online and went off-line again, I finally got a phone line installed (at enormous expense), I got in touch with all my long-lost neices and nephews in the UK, and so on, and so on.

All in all, quite a year.

I hope your 2008 was a full and rewarding one and that 2009 will be even better for everyone (prolonged global recession notwithstanding).

23 December, 2008

Merry Christmas Everybody

OK, last post before Christmas. My daughter turns up in an hour - she passed her driving test just a few days ago and is driving herself down from Brisbane for the first time, so we're sitting here with crossed fingers and baited breath - then the festivities begin. It's also my 19th wedding anniversary today! N-n-n-nineteen, can you believe that?

So I'm going to be busy with loved ones - much, much loved ones - for the next few days.

I hope you will all have as great a time as I'm going to have.

See you on the flip-side.

Merry Christmas.

20 December, 2008

Surprise, Surprise!

Dr Jerry Burger, of Santa Clara University, has repeated Stanley Milgram's famous 1960's experiments and found that people are still willing to inflict severe electric shocks on other people just because an 'experimenter' tells them to.

Personally, I'm satisfied that Milgram did a pretty thorough job of investigating this effect and all its various parameters. Of course, it's nice to see replication of the results by others, and this should be encouraged - especially in a field like social psychology. What puzzles me, though, is the headline on the BBC's report of Burger's study: "People 'still willing to torture'." Well, duh! What do you think is going on at Guantanamo Bay? What do you think Mugabe is doing to all the opposition politicians who disappeared recently? What do you think Amnesty keeps banging on about if it isn't the willingness of people everywhere to indulge in torture?

There seems to be a belief, at least among journalists, that human beings will 'evolve' in som spiritual or ethical way and that, over time, we will all become better people. Well I'm sorry guys but evolution doesn't work like that. If not torturing people had survival or reproductive benefits, then it might happen. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Our only hope is that our cultures will evolve - or at least learn. Cultures are probably shaped by the same selection processes that shape species. What's more, cultures can change very quickly - unlike species. Yet here too, the elimination of torture from a society would need to have some beneficial impact on that society to make it stick. That is, a culture without torture would need to survive and even spread more easily than one with torture. As yet I see very little evidence for it.

But we can hope.

Madoff Treated Kindly By His Friends

A poor kid in New York who robs a liquor store and gets away with $50 would almost certainly be locked up pending trial. So how come self-confessed, $50 billion thief Bernard Madoff is under 'house arrest' in his $7 million New York apartment and not in remand? Does he have 'friends' at the Justice Department as well as at the Securities Exchange Commission?

Or is this because scum like Madoff ought to be treated better than poor kids who rob shops? Is that the reasoning? White collar crime seems to be considered OK while blue collar crime is not. It probably all boils down to the fact that establishment figures like Madoff are looked after by their own kind when their crimes are discovered. After all, it could happen to anybody in the corporate world these days. Who among them isn't doing a bit of insider trading, or cheating on their taxes, or running a little scam or two? And the big names in the corporate world are members of the same families who are running for 'high' office, sitting on the judicial benches, running the churches, and promoting each other in the armed services.

Corruption among the 'power elite' mostly goes unnoticed and uncommented. We don't see the handshakes, the nods and winks, and the seedy little conspiracies. When we do, we accept the mechanisms of privilege and preferment, even while the Gucci loafer is grinding down on our necks. Mostly, the people involved don't even realise just how corrupt they have become. But sometimes, when a case like Madoff's comes to light, we can see the elite in action.

It doesn't matter how many thousands of people have lost their pensions (and in America, that is no joke at all!) It doesn't matter how many thousands more have had the pittances they could scrape together after years of hard work, the plans and dreams that might have depended on those pittances, grabbed from them and trashed. It doesn't matter that charitable trusts and philanthropic funds had their investments in Madoff's companies, and that all the good they could have done will never now be achieved. No. Madoff is one of the boys and his mates will make sure he isn't treated in an undignified manner. After all, there but for the grace of God...

Disgusting creatures like Madoff are thick as flies these days. From the CEOs who award themselves fat 'bonuses' while their workers are being laid off to pay for it, to the out-and-out theives who find even the laissez-faire economic regulation of corporate America doesn't give them enough opportunity to satisfy their greed, the pigs are stuffing themselves at the trough.

Our global economy has a serious problem with corruption. Unfortunately, the people who have the power to do something about it - ordinary voters - are too stupid and ignorant to take the appropriate action.

15 December, 2008


I wrote to the Minister a little while ago regarding my concerns about the new Internet censorship scheme planned for Australia. His office sent me back a pro-forma PDF document explaining the scheme and the various additional measures (including additional policing and public awareness campaigns) they intend to put in place.

It was interesting and I'd love to share it with you but the communication also included this paragraph:

"The information transmitted is for the use of the intended recipient only and may contain confidential and/or legally privileged material. Any review, re-transmission, disclosure, dissemination or other use of, or taking of any action in reliance upon, this information by persons or entities other than the intended recipient is prohibited and may result in severe penalties."
Since this effectively gags me, I cannot tell you what the government's plans are. Sorry.

I might just say, though, that if the harmless publicity material they sent me had to be suppressed by threats like this, doesn't it speak volumes for the kind of people who are running the country? How can we trust them to build and operate tools that will censor the Internet when they think even their own vague and bland assurances have to be censored?

12 December, 2008

What's Up With Printers, Huh?

I bought a new printer yesterday. Funny thing is though, I only went into the shop to buy some printer ink.

My last printer (a Canon MP160) I bought after the one before that broke down. I found it in a KMart going cheap. At $67, I didn't much care what it's features were as long as it worked. And it did. Very well. When I ran out of ink, I went to but a new cartridge and found myself paying $94 for a pair (one black, one colour) - and this was a very good price. Since then, I've seen then at anything up to $120 a pair!

When I went out yesterday to buy another cartridge, I didn't have much time. I could only take 10 minutes in OfficeWorks in Brisbane in between other appointments. To my dismay, the black cartridge I wanted was $58. However, to get to them, I walked past a pile of Canon MP480 printers - almost identical spec to my Canon MP160 but with a much more attractive number - going for $99, including two full ink cartridges. It was a no-brainer really, especially when I discovered that the refill ink cartridges for the MP480 cost about half as much as those for the MP160. So I bought one. A new printer, that is.

The whole transaction has been bothering me ever since. For a start I can't understand why printer ink is SOOOO expensive. Is it just the printer companies ripping us off, or do they really make it out of orchid pollen, platinum, and the gonads of endangered bats? Something must account for why it is one of the most expensive liquids in the world, costing as much as $8,000 per gallon ($2,100 per litre) according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Secondly, since the printer, its software, its manuals and all that packaging is collectively worth about as much as one ink cartridge (because two cartridges and the printer (etc.) come to the same price as three cartridges) and it has circuit boards, lamps, motors, a colour LCD screen at least as good as the one on my 3G phone, many moving parts, and the look of something they paid an industrial designer to cast her eye over, why aren't all consumer electronics dirt cheap too?

And thirdly, given that printers are essentially disposable now (like the similarly-priced ink cartridges) where do printer companies get off not running printer recycling schemes so you can dump your old one responsibly and pick up a new one when your ink runs out?

There is something horribly wrong with this whole situation and I suspect it all comes down to massively inflated prices for printer ink. Why, for instance, are there so many different cartridge sizes? There have been printers around for decades now and nobody has come up with a standard format? And why are ink cartridges not refillable (and I mean from a bottle of ink I can pur into a reservoir in the printer)? And why don't ink cartidges say what their content by volume is? Or their content by square centimetres of printed surface? Or give any clue whatsoever what their capacity is? Could that be so that you can't make a rational choice about which printer to buy or which manufacturer's cartidges?

This has got to be a scam. Someone is cheating and profiteering. Call me paranoid but, when it gets so bad that a printer costs less than a complete ink refill, I smell a rat.

(Picture is from the San Francisco Chronicle, see link in text.)

06 December, 2008

Australian Labor Party Continues to Disappoint

While I'm moaning on about the Australian Labor Party's support for religious fundamentalist and moral pigmy James Bidgood and how this reflects on the party's ethics, I should also mention the new Internet censorship laws they're about to introduce.

Ostensibly a measure to filter out child pornography, Australia's new net censorship laws will allow the government to manage a blacklist of all the sites it does not want Australians to see and ensure that ISPs block them. The list has not been made public and, as far as I know, never will be. They simply want us to trust them that they're acting in our best interests and 'only' offensive sites will be censored.

Well I don't trust governments to know what is in my best interest (or the best interest of my children) and I certainly don't trust them to censor only offensively pornographic sites. It will only be a matter of time before political sites are on the blacklist (if they are not already). If you give the government the power to control the Internet, you no longer have freedom of information or freedom of speech. If you no longer have freedom of speech, you no longer have democracy. If you don't have democracy, you're stuffed.

The government may even think it is trying to do the right thing with this terrible law but it is not. It is creating the technical and political infrastructure that will allow totalitarian regimes to control our access to information.

This appalling state of affairs is barely mentioned in the media but it is not slipping by unnoticed. A series of protest marches is being organised for 13th November and I urge everyone who can to get out on the streets and let the Australian Labor Party and Kevin Rudd know what we think about this monstrous threat to our freedom.

As for what this says about the moral integrity of the Labor Party, someone calling themselves 'Megaport' writing on the geek site Slashdot put it very nicely. I quote him or her in full:

Just as the USA have lost their moral right to castigate countries who use torture as a tool of statecraft, so too has Australia now given up her right to criticise those authoritarian regimes who would limit the freedom of communication of their citizens.

Given that all the experts (yes, ALL the experts) agree that it won't stop anyone who actually traffics in this despicable content from peddling their filth even for a moment, can anyone here tell me what else we're buying for the price of our moral high ground on this issue?

China will be laughing their socks off at us next time we try to mention the censorship of news and internet in their country - no matter what language our leaders speak the message in.

The point about the ineffectiveness of the measure is actually a good one since there will be many ways for people who actually want child porn to get around it. So you have to ask yourself just why Kevin Rudd wants to go ahead and do this. It can only be that his government would like the general ability to censor material of which it disapproves.

05 December, 2008

Why is Bidgood Still in Parliament?

The House of Representatives Speaker says there should be no further action against James Bidgood, the religious fundamentalist MP who took a photograph of a man trying to set himself on fire and then sold the image.

This incredible conclusion was reached after the man's actions were investigated and, apparently, were found not to have interfered with 'the security situation' - whatever that means. The point is, Bidgood is clearly unfit for office - not just because of his radical religious fundamentalism - but because he has the morality of a jackall. If you see a man trying to burn himslef to death, you try to stop him. You don't take pictures. You don't try to sell the pictures afterwards. What kind of moral imbecile could think this was an appropriate course of action?

That Kevin Rudd, leader of the federal Labor Party, hasn't dismissed this moral earthworm is a serious reflection on Rudd's own character and on the state of the Australian Labor Party. I am ashamed of my government. I am ashamed of the party I have supported for so long. We got used to being ashamed of the government during the John 'lying weasel' Howard years, but I thought Kevin Rudd was going to change all that. Now what I'm seeing is the same kind of moral bankruptcy being supported by and tacitly encouraged by Kevin Rudd.

It is an absolute disgrace and a terrible disappointment that Bidgood is being defended and protected by his party.

04 December, 2008

Whoah! Nutter on the loose!

Here is an article from the Australian Online dated 4th December 2008 and attributed to Samantha Maiden.

LABOR MP James Bidgood, the first-time MP under investigation for selling pictures of a protester attempting to set fire to himself outside Parliament House, has declared the global financial crisis an act of God.

Mr Bidgood, who was carpeted by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd over his actions yesterday and apologised to Parliament, makes the new claims in a DVD, The Australian reports.

In a speech to a function held in Parliament he argues that Christian marches for Jesus in London caused the October 1987 stock market crash.

He also predicted the end of the world and one world monetary system.

"We have to say 'What would Jesus do?'," he said.

"In 1987 there was another march for Jesus. That took place in April. And guess what happened in October 1987? The stock market crashed. All property values lost one this of their value and over a million people lost their homes.

"I believe when Christians pray, God does things. I believe what is happening today is as much to do with God in economics bringing judgement."

He went on to warn that "there is God's justice in action in what has gone on here".

"I believe there is God's justice in action in what is going on here. We haven't seen the end of it.

"The ultimate conclusion is like I say, we look at Bible prophecy, we are going towards a one world bank and a one world monetary system. And if you believe the word of God and you read Revelations...you will see clearly what is being spelt out. We in the end times."
There are two things to note about this article. First is that it is choc-full of typos. This article was never proofread, probably not edited at all. From the number of glaringly obvious mistakes in the piece, Samantha Maiden didn't even read it over herself. It's atrocious! This really is not the standard that we expect from a national newspaper. It's not the standard we expect from a local free paper! This is just rubbish and the Australian and Ms Maiden should be ashamed. Australia should be ashamed!

The second is that Labor MP James Bidgood (yes, the Australian Labor Party really does spell its name that way!) is clearly a certifiable nutcase. The financial crisis is a punishment from God? And it happened because Christians prayed for it? People like this need psychiatric help. They are clearly unfit to hold jobs as burger-flippers, let alone MPs. Did he tell his constituents what a loony he is before they elected him, I wonder? Did he say, 'Vote for me guys, I'm a gibbering idiot who thinks Revelations is literally true?' Or 'I'm going to pray that millions of Australians lose their houses and their jobs because you all deserve it for being evil and, anyway, it's the end of the world soon, so there?' (Or whatever barmy nonsense this moron believes.)

Jeez, what with newspapers that can't string a sentence together and politicians who are scarily deranged, maybe we really in the end times after all.

26 November, 2008

Bertie, Lord of Chaos

Having a dog is a strange experience for me. Having spent all my life striving for order, dignity and tranquility in my domestic arrangements, my Airedale puppy, Bertie, arrived in my life like a hand-grenade.

The name, Bertie, by the way, is short for 'No, Bertie! Stop that!' He's a handsome fellow, no doubt about it. And cute! God, that nose! I often feel my life has become the emotional equivalent of rolling in syrup. He's funny too. The Charlie Chaplin of the dog world. You should see him trying to hump his big, red cushion, or with a bath towel wrapped 'round his head because he can't quite work out how to subdue it.

Yet, most of all, he's a wild, untrainable, disobedient, wilful, thuggish, stupid, farting, food-obsessed monster. And he has a serious attitude problem. Dogs are supposed to be fawning lickspittles, right? They're suppose to love it when you fuss them and hate it when you're cross. Well, not Bertie. He sees Wifie and me as a kind of interactive furniture - something to be climbed over, or chewed, pounced at, or hassled, as the mood takes him. Sure, we give him food and treats now and then - but so does the bin, and with far less fuss.

Of course, he's a handy dog to have around the place on our rural property. He attacks, bites and claws at all our guests and visiting tradespeople. He digs holes in the lawn to get at the crickets. He bites the heads off all the flowers as they come up. And he likes to chase after people's cars when they leave. He's also good with the native flora and fauna, having trampled several delicate local wild plants into the mud and grabbed up a red-bellied black snake among other creatures. (The snake is highly poisonous and might have been Bertie's last free meal had not Wifie attacked the pair of them with a stick and sent them both packing - she being by far the most dangerous of the local life-forms.)

I have to cut him some slack, I suppose. It seems a trifle annoying to me the way he bites everything in sight - including my arms, legs and face - and uses his great, bony head as a combination battering ram, cudgel and slime dispenser. Yet it must be odd only to be able to use one's head to explore things and to pick them up and move them. Where I'm used to getting things done with my hands, Bertie's equivalent is his enormous great jaw. Where I manipulate, Bertie mandibulates. I think this is where many of our little cultural differences originate.

I also have to remember - despite his size, weight, and flatulence problems - he is still just a toddler in 'dog years'. They say he'll still be puppyish for maybe another year. (Of course, one of us may have killed the other by then.) As much as I'll regret the passing of his frolicsome ways, his exuberance, and the wild, leaping dance he does around me when I bring him his food bowl, I must confess, I won't miss fighting with him to get his harness on for the car, or to get it off again, or having to stop him mauling our visitors, or to stop him waking me by bounding onto the bed, clawing my flesh to ribbons and sticking his dribbling nose in my mouth (or eye, or ear).

'Maturity' isn't a concept that seems even remotely associated with Bertie, yet I'm sure it will come, one day. Oh God, please let it come! Please, please...

05 November, 2008

One Small Step...

For eight years now, you've been a rogue state. You've held and tortured people without trial. You've invaded and occupied a country with no good cause. You've undermined the authority and effectiveness of the United Nations. You've refused to ratify important, global climate change agreements and have bullied and suppressed scientists who tried to speak out on climate change issues, delaying effective action that is urgently needed. You've allowed religious fundamentalists to dominate your domestic policies on science and education, setting medical research and other fields back many years. You have tied foreign aid to fundamentalist religious agendas concerning contraception and sex education which are known to be ineffective and which have damaged countries you should have been helping. You have created a legal and regulatory environment that has supported and encouraged radical, free market ideologies that have not only helped widen the gap between rich and poor, at home and around the world, but have directly led to the financial crisis that has plunged the world into recession. You have bullied and alienated your friends overseas, and given your enemies many more reasons to hate you.

With the election of Barak Obama, I hope this will stop, and that the USA can be welcomed back into the fold of civilized nations. This election is the first good news I've heard from America since before Bush was elected. Please, please, support the man now that he's got the job. This was just the first, small step. There is a long, long journey of reform ahead.

03 November, 2008

'English Correspondence' by Janet Davey

The mechanics of getting a book from the brain of a woman living in London to a small mobile library in a tiny village in rural Australia are daunting. In many ways a metaphor for our whole global economy. The improbability, the number of unlikely choices made across a ten-thousand-mile chain of unrelated people, that put me and that particular book in that converted coach on the same day, in the same place, is disturbing to contemplate.

Yet there we were: me and 'English Correspondence' by Janet Davey.

I've been reading a lot of low-quality nonsense lately, working on understanding how such books are constructed and how their authors use language, how to please publishers of speculative fiction, trying to learn lessons that will help me get my own writing published. But there is only so much of this I can take and I needed a proper book, one that was beautifully written, one that explored character and motivation, one that treated people as more than two-dimensional, stylised, comic-book sketches, one that used words for what they are meant for - to tell, not to show. I might have picked up a book by one of the really good sci-fi writers - J.G. Ballard, or Ray Bradbury, say - but there were none available on the library bus. In fact, there was little that promised anything but shoot-'em-up adventure or hose-'em-down romance, until I found 'English Correspondence'.

Janet Davey's book - her first novel - is one in which almost nothing happens. Time passes, the heroine moves from place to place, there are conversations, but there was no 'plot' to speak of, no three-act structure culminating in an exciting shoot-out, the hero did not get the girl. Instead there were the thoughts of a woman struggling to think her way free of a life painfully unsuited to her, a woman who had made a wrong turning many years ago and who could no longer bear the consequences, whose last prop - the correspondence she maintained with her father in England - is pulled away when he dies.

The heroine is an intelligent, sensitive person who, like most people, does not have the depth of reflection, ever to understand herself and where the roots of her unhappiness lie. Instead, her thoughts skitter about on the surface of her life, trying to make sense of patterns which are mostly epiphenomena, hoping that she will reach a safe harbour by intuition or good luck. I cringed for her, as she teetered, half-blind, on the edge of yet more horrible mistakes. I hope she makes it.

The writing is intelligent, carefully crafted, occasionally witty, and just a little odd. As I read, I was wondering how to describe Davey's terse, almost staccato style when I turned a page to find she had already done it for me. She wrote of, '... her own demarcated phrases, like tidy hedging.'

'English Correspondence' was an oasis. I have been sheltering there and refreshing myself. As soon as I've written this, I will go on across the desert of my chosen genre, looking for a path to follow. It was a lovely spot and I am grateful that I stumbled across it.

01 November, 2008

Barak Obama is not a muslim!

I've seen news items in the past few days wherein Americans were interviewed about their support for McCain and (shudder) Palin. Several people told the interviewer that they can't vote for Obama because he's a Muslim. They said it with a straight face, and I honestly don't think they were kidding. They reall, truly, honestly were that stupid.

Leaving aside the moral issue of allowing people with such tiny brains to vote and potentially decide the fate of the world economy, I just wanted to make one, final, pre-election statement.


It might help, I think, if everyone in America whose IQ is in double digits or higher, would write those words in large letters on a wall somewhere for the benefit of your cognitively challenged neighbours.

16 October, 2008

Hard Times Ahead

It's hard not to panic. Since I retired, ten months ago, my superannuation fund has fallen in value by 40%, the cost of living has gone up by 5%, and 'the economy' has become the number one item on the evening news night after night.

Of course, as my financial adviser keeps reminding me, the stock market goes up and down all the time. When it's low, the worst thing you can do is sell (unless you think it's going to go a lot lower.) The trouble is, traders seem to be selling as fast as they can punch the 'sell' buttons on their terminals – selling banks and buying commodities, then selling commodities and buying banks, then selling banks again, with the net value of the market dropping just a little more with each trade.

Economists don't have a clue. If there is one thing the past year has shown us, it is that current economic theory is a pile of horse's dung. Economists are idiots, devising ever more subtle formulae to estimate the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. And it is economists who came up with the brilliant risk management formulae – all that fun with Monte Carlo simulations they all had! - that proved that black really is just another way of describing white and that lending money to people who can't afford to pay it back is just fine, no problem at all.

Bankers are also idiots. Faced with complex formulae they can't begin to understand, they have staked the fortunes of the world on their trust of economists, and have turned investors' money into so much toxic debt that their very institutions are at risk – and, if this goes on much longer, probably capitalism itself. Not that that will stop them taking their huge salaries, bonuses, and, when they've finally killed the golden goose, their pay-offs. Which means investors in banks must be idiots too for letting idiots like that handle their investment.

Governments, of course, are idiots. For years they have deregulated financial markets, they have created 'business environments' in which capital can flow more easily, where risky investment can be freely exercised, all in the name of helping 'the market ' create wealth. The fact is that most politicians are just loud-mouthed arseholes off the street – or the idiot sons of rich families – and they have even less understanding of how market economies work than the bankers or the economists. Yet, they've listened to their economic advisors and the industry lobbyists and to every other bullshit merchant who'd like the government to help them get rich, and they've set up a legal framework that allows – nay, encourages! - the kind of idiotic speculation the banks have been blindly indulging in for so long. Now these same governments are busy splashing around trillions of dollars of our money, shoring up the very system that has so patently let us down. And when they've shovelled enough of our money into the holes, so that the world's wealth is no longer running through them like fantasies through an economist's head, when we've reached a point where enough businesses have failed and enough people are out of work and enough mortgages have been foreclosed and enough pensioners have died of hypothermia for want of a few bucks for the fuel bill, what then? Won't all that money simply mean money is worth less? Will we be looking at ten, fifteen, twenty-percent inflation, just when everyone is so poor that it will really, really hurt? Won't these same heroic governments who are keeping idiot bank CEO's in their multimillion-dollar jobs today be saying they have to cut education, healthcare, pensions, and the minimum wage tomorrow because, gee, we spent all your money saving the banks?

Well, I'm thinking of buying a goat and a few chickens, planting a vegetable patch and setting up some solar panels – before I'm too poor to do any of this.

15 September, 2008

Has John McCain Stopped Abusing His Wife?

Here's something very, very strange. Over on the Huffington Post is a piece about a Baptist Minister, Marty Parrish, who stood up at a 'town hall' meeting and asked McCain whether he had actually called his wife a 'c**t' as alleged in Cliff Schecter's book, The Real McCain. Schecter alleges that in 1992, McCain angrily called his wife a "trollop" and a "c**t" in front of aides and reporters. The quote from Schecter's book, which is to be released next month, can be seen on The Raw Story e-zine and goes like this:
Three reporters from Arizona, on the condition of anonymity, also let me in on another incident involving McCain's intemperateness. In his 1992 Senate bid, McCain was joined on the campaign trail by his wife, Cindy, as well as campaign aide Doug Cole and consultant Wes Gullett. At one point, Cindy playfully twirled McCain's hair and said, "You're getting a little thin up there." McCain's face reddened, and he responded, "At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt." McCain's excuse was that it had been a long day. If elected president of the United States, McCain would have many long days.
In the book, Schecter is making the case that McCain has a really, really bad temper - an anger management problem, you might say - and that voters would be unwise to put such an unstable personality into the Oval Office.

If this is true, I'd be just as worried about what it says about McCain's attitude to women as I would be about his twitchy finger on the nuclear button. Women who wear makeup are 'trollops' it seems. His own wife is a 'c**t' in his eyes, it seems. (Does that go for Palin, too?) Sounds more like the Taliban than an American politician.

If you're of the Chistian loony persuasion yourself, you might like to wonder what the wedding vows mean to a man who would humiliate his wife in public like that (love? honour? cherish?) or how much charity there is in a man who is well-known for this kind of vitriolic, bullying outburst against subordinates. And, of course, there is the question: if he's like this in public, what's he like in private?

According to Parrish, it is such questions about McCain's mental stability and character that prompted him to stand up and ask the question that no newspaper or TV channel dare ask. I'm sure the McCain publicity machine (as vicious and cynical a group of people as I have ever come across) will paint this gutsy Baptist Minister as a deranged trouble-maker. For all I know, he is. But why is nobody else asking the question? What has happened to the American media during this campaign?

12 September, 2008

On Crap

Lauren Conrad, reality-TV star, signs a three-book deal with Harper. Pictured here with her ghost writer.I'm a bit of a linguist, you know. Alright, I never learned to speak more than a few words of French and German and I have an awful lot of bother with all that grammar stuff, but when it comes to idle and largely uninformed speculation about words, I can't be beaten!

Take the word 'crap'.

Now, obviously, this is a very recent word, being derived from the famous Thomas Crapper, inventor of the flush toilet.

WRONG! The word is very old indeed and, in fact, has Latin roots (crappa, meaning chaff). In Old English, crappe was chaff and other rubbish trodden underfoot in a barn and eventually, in the Middle Ages, crap became a generic term for things discarded. And then it went out of use – in England. Fortunately for Hollywood, although the Brits had stopped using the word by 1600, the founders of what became the Good Ol' U.S. of A. kept it going. In fact, it became so popular over there that approximately 15% of all American writing these days is the word 'crap' or one of its derivatives.

On the Web, of course, 95% of everything your read is crap, as are most statistics, economic theories, conservative policies, and reality TV shows. Only the world's great religious texts, however, are 100% pure crap.

(The picture above is of Lauren Conrad, reality TV personality, who just announced a three-book deal with Harper. Now that makes me feel really crap.)

11 September, 2008

A Pig With Lipstick On

Maybe I shouldn't get so upset about American politics. I mean, I'm living in Australia. It's not my problem, right?

Wrong. The half-wit they have as President at the moment has led the whole world into recession after screwing up the USA's economy about as badly as is humanly possible. He has stalled and delayed everyone's attempts to tackle climate change, leaving us teetering on the edge of irreversible climate damage. And he has dragged the West into an inexcusable invasion of Iraq, killing tens of thousands, ramping up global terrorism, and encouraging countries like Iran and North Korea to push ahead with nuclear deterrence.

Of course, the half-wit is on his way out. Praise be to the twenty-second amendment!

Yet look at who is lining up to replace him: John McCain and Sarah Palin. McCain might not be quite as loony, or as stupid as Bush but he's still loony and stupid and has been a firm supporter of Bush for many years as he climbed the slippery pole to political power. As for Sarah Palin, she seems to be even more loony and even more stupid than Bush himself. Her political views are to the right of Genghis Khan's. Her personal morality is suspect to say the least. (Did she fake a pregnancy - i.e. lie to everybody who voted for her - to cover her teenage daughter's indiscretions?) And there is a distinct possibility that she has committed a gross abuse of power by allegedly pressuring Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan to fire her sister's husband before sacking him when he wouldn't. (I suppose Monegan is lucky she didn't shoot him. She loves firing guns and killing things. She thinks it's fun.)

These people are not just ignorant (did you know that Palin has never travelled outside the USA except to visit US troops in Kuwait?) , they are not just religious bigots (do you know that McCain is a Baptist? that Palin wants Creationism taught in schools as if it was science?), they are not just cruel and uncaring (do you know Palin does not support abortion for any reason whatsoever?) they are not just cynical (look at all that deliberate misunderstanding of Obama's 'pig with lipstick' comment), they are completely and utterly sordid in the way they clamour for and abuse political power.

Yet there is a good chance the American people will elect them, a good chance this pair of sordid, stupid, uncaring, unpleasant, ignorant bigots will be running the USA in a few months.

How low can a country sink?

03 September, 2008

Is Sarah Palin a Liar?

Barak Obama is right to say that it is wrong to politicise his opponents' family problems. That kind of politics is about as low as it gets. However, I think he's missing the bigger picture here. Sarah Palin's 17-year-old, unmarried daughter is five months pregnant and that's a shame and, frankly, who cares? She's probably a very screwed up young woman - what with a mother who is in politics and who has such nasty, Christian conservative opinions. It should, of course, be a lesson to Sarah Palin that her approach to reducing the number of teenage pregnancies - encouraging abstinence, not teaching children about sex, and keeping contraceptives away from them - just doesn't work. However, we'll let that one pass too.

The real issues is whether Palin pretended to be pregnant with what may or may not be her fourth child, to disguise the fact that it was actually her daughter's baby. This piece of information is one that is of crucial importance to the American voters. If her last pregnancy was a fake, then Sarah Palin is a liar and a deceitful person. She is someone who believes that fraud is acceptable. She is someone who believes that to avoid embarrassing herself and her family, she is justified in deceiving her constituents.

Politicians who preach honesty and integrity deserve to be dragged through the streets and pelted with rotten fruit - or the tabloid press equivalent - if they don't hold themselves to the same standards they want to impose on everyone else.

With any luck, running as John McCain's VP will sink her career and also McCain's.

31 August, 2008

McCain Makes A Hideous Mistake

I've mentioned before what an idiot presidential wannabe John McCain is. Well this week he rose to new heights of folly by choosing Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running-mate.

What makes a man - even a man who can't think straight - choose a woman who is known as 'the barracuda' to help him run the country? Why, when America is reeling from the right wing fundamentalism of George Bush Jr., would he think that picking a tough-minded, right-wing ideologue would help him win the hearts and minds of the voters. This woman has a lifetime membership of the National Rifle Association for Heaven's sake! She likes shooting things - living things! She thinks it's fun to kill animals! (Not foetuses though - she's a rabid anti-abortionist, of course. But I imagine she approves of the death penalty so she won't mind killing grown-ups. She definitely thinks the Bush Administration is being to soft on polar bears by declaring them a protected species and would prefer the great hairy things not to be around eating fish and hanging out while her friends the oil companies ravage Alaska.)

Let's face it, McCain is no spring chicken. If anyone is dumb enough to vote for McCain, this woman could become President!

Can I make a plea to all my American readers: for your own sakes, don't vote McCain. Now that he has this Palin creature gnashing and slavering at his heels, his presidency could turn into something even worse than Bush's. And if you don't believe me, talk to anyone who was alive in the UK during the reign of Margaret Thatcher. It was a dark, dark time and I still shudder at the memory of it. Thatcher was a vicious thug in a skirt, a monster that wore lipstick. She crushed civil liberties wherever she found them. She trampled on democratic rights. She terrorised and politicised the civil service. She took the country to war. She was the worst Prime Minister ever to blight the British Isles.

Right-wing fundamentalist gun-loverRight-wing fundamentalist union-hater

Don't, please don't, put a woman like that in a position where she might become President of the USA. You will regret it.

30 August, 2008

Telstra Wastes Another Day of My Life

I see that Comcast, over in the States, has just put a cap on its broadband packages of 250 Gb/mo. SprintWireless, however, still has its service uncapped for $50/mo. This puts into grim perspective the awful day I had yesterday but to appreciate it, you'll need a bit of background.

I'm a Telstra NextG wireless broadband customer - by necessity - there are no other broadband suppliers in my area at all. Since the NextG service stared, 2 years or so ago, Testra has insisted that each customer has a separate account, a separate modem, and fixed the technology so that you could not use a router. This made the service hugely expensive. For a 1Gb/mo. download limit, Wifie and I paid $80 each (yes, each, plus $250 each for our modems). Then, a couple of weeks ago, Telstra announced that it would actually supply a router with the service so families could have a single account and share it - welcome to the 21st Century, Telstra!

Since Wifie and I also have a Telstra NextG mobile phone and a Telstra land-line (don't get me started on that!!) - as I said, Telstra is our only supplier out here - we decided that, with the router now available, we could bundle our services and save money. In fact, since we only needed one NextG broadband account, we could now get the absolute top-of-the-range package which has a 3Gb/mo download limit and costs a mere $109/mo.. So we ordered the router and set up the bundle. Rather than wire the house for ethernet, I also bought a wireless PCI card for my desktop machine (Wifie is a Mac user so already has bluetooth and WiFi as standard.)

Yesterday was the day when all the equipment arrived and we could plug it all together. (I won't dwell on Telstra's cock-up with the parcel delivery, or the online parts shop I first ordered the Wi-Fi card from which lied about the part's availability.)

It took seven hours work yesterday and another hour this morning to get it working. Now that may just be because we're both stupid (which we're not) or because we have non-standard equipment (which we don't) or because the network we were building is vastly complicated (which it isn't) or because I didn't have the necessary 25 years in the IT business needed to sort out the problems (oh, hang on a minute, I do have 25 years in the IT business).

The real reasons it took so long were:
  1. The Telstra router came with no instructions beyond saying you should follow the instructions in the software wizard on the accompanying CD. The wizard, of course, helps you cater with the simplest possible case then dumps you. Naturally, it has no trouble-shooting guidance for when things go wrong.
  2. Telstra's phone support covers only one computer attached to the router. To anyone except a marketing executive, this might seem ridiculous as the only point of having a router is to make a network consisting of multiple computers. Still, I suppose it saves Telstra money, so that's OK.
  3. The Telstra software was (as always) poorly designed and completely unhelpful. Still, it has nice graphics and zoomy logo things. As I ran through the set-up sequences over and over again, I couldn't help thinking that you can never have enough of seeing a company that is currently shafting you, advertise itself and its products over and over and over again, at the expense of your time and frayed nerves.
  4. The Telstra business systems that should have made all this easy, were a mess. (I spoke to four different branches of their software support group before I got the one that knew anything about doing an installation on a Macintosh - and I only got to them because I shouted at the poor guy in the third group and got him to take ownership of the problem of routing me to the right support group. Then it turned out that the sales group which set up our username and password had stuffed up and I had to be guided through a little secret technical magic to reprogram the router!)
  5. The fifth problem wasn't Telstra at all - which was a refreshing change. The software that came with my Chinese PCI card didn't work properly and came with no instructions whatsoever. Like all driver software, it is designed for propeller-headed geeks with nothing better to do than to learn hexadecimal codes and stick their noses close to hot chips. I tried the Wi-Fi card in three different PCI slots, reinstalling the driver each time I moved it, before I found one that it liked. Since I did most of this sitting on the floor, I had the additional joy of having my 4 month-old puppy, Bertie, slobbering excitedly in my ear and attempting to jump into the innards of my computer.
But that's all behind us now. The router works, our two computers are talking wirelessly to the Internet and all's well with the world.

Except that all we get for all this effort and stress is a low-speed broadband service with a 3Gb download limit. Gee, thanks, Telstra.

When is Comcast coming to Australia?

09 August, 2008

We don't play cricket with Zimbabwe because...?

Never mind that they throw dissidents in prison. Never mind that they routinely use torture and execution. Never mind the corruption, the oppression, the people who were thrown out of their homes to make way for Olympic venues. Let the games begin!

Of course we all know that China is a dictatorship. We all know that human rights there are allowed or disallowed at the whim of the ruling politicians. We all know that the oppressive regime in China sees the 2008 Olympic Games as a massive propaganda exercise to to give itself credibility and respect in the world's eyes and to bolster its progressive image at home.

But we will suspend our revulsion because sport is such a great way of bringing people together. It breaks down national boundaries, it does away with prejudice and it helps us join hands in peaceful pursuits. Whatever the cost of our tolerance is to oppressed people in China, whatever the value of our support is to the ruling party there (and the value in dollars alone is just staggering), we know in our hearts that engaging China in such global events will, in the long-run help to bring them into the fold, to integrate them with their neighbours (oops, almost mentioned Tibet) and to hasten the rise of democratic institutions in the biggest dictatorship the world has ever known.

After all, it worked so well with Hitler and the Third Reich back in 1936.

04 August, 2008

Atheists of the World, Unite!

Hey! Guess what I've found. An Atheist Blogroll.

Cool, eh? Now I can support a poor, oppressed minority - people who are not insane - by adding the blogroll to my blog. You'll find it down at the bottom on the left. To quote the blogroll's organiser;

The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

At the time of writing, the atheist blogroll is a fairly new idea but has already accumulated about 750 names. The curious thing to me is that it has any names at all. Being an atheist is just being a normal, sane person. So why would anyone want to declare their normality? Well, because the crazy people number in the hundreds of millions - possibly billions - they're highly organised, extremely wealthy, vociferous, influential and powerful. (Scary, huh?) When one finds a few brave souls willing to stand up to all this organised madness and say, 'Yo! I at least am not one of the fruit-loop majority,' one just feels the need to offer them one's solidarity.

So, all you atheist bloggers out there, I want to see your names down on this blogroll. Your fellow sane people need your support - and, let's face it, come the next Inquisition, you might need theirs.

28 July, 2008


It's snowing!

Big white flakes of wonderful snow are drifting down out of the sky. It is something I haven't seen for twelve years, not since I lived in Switzerland.

Snow isn't completely unknown in Australia - they even have skiing here on the high ground around Canberra - but it's quite rare in Queensland. In fact, it's only because I live at 1,000 metres in the most southerly part of this enormous state that there is any chance of it at all. Even then, snow is a moderately rare phenomenon and can't be relied on most years.

Yet here it is, drifting down among the gum trees, settling on the backs of disgruntled lorikeets and cockatoos, falling on my little cactus garden. It's a miracle. No, a blessing. A kindness. Yet another way to experience the beauty of this amazing place in which I live.

I suppose I ought to stop gushing and get back to work but Oh Lord! it was wonderful.

19 July, 2008

Can You Drown In Yoghurt?

You could knock me over with a keyboard! I made it to two hundred blog postings! And you, my probably first-time visitor, are looking at number two hundred. So, as I always do in my 200th blog posting, I'll take the opportunity to reflect on blogging and the nature of life in the tag clouds.

I started this, you may recall, because I wanted my voice to be out there with the tens of millions of others who take part in this pandemonium we call the blogsphere. I'd read a lot of stuff and wise old heads at the time said give it a couple of years – about 200 posts – to gather a reasonable-sized readership. Well, here I am and where are you?

Actually, I'm not complaining. I get about 5 unique visits a day to Waving Not Drowning. That's 150 unique visitors per month, mostly from Australia and the USA but also the UK, Canada and India, as well as places I didn't expect, like Greece, Poland, Moldova, Romania and the Philippines. As far as I can tell, about a third of my visitors each month are regulars and two thirds are drop-ins. It's not roaring success by any means but it's a great feeling to think there are people all over the world who click by to read what I have to say about life. It's an even better feeling to know that there are some who keep coming back for more. (Thank you, all of you – especially those of you who have been interested enough to leave comments.)

It's also a source of guilt. In the past six months I've been letting the blogging slip. I post once or twice a week now (not quite the two or three times of my first year) but there have been weeks on end recently when I didn't post at all. All I can say is I had a lot of stuff to do and a big change of lifestyle to get used to but I'm getting back into the swing of it and I hope to do better in the coming months. When I was posting at a rate of 15 to 20 posts a month, I was getting 50 to 100 visitors every day. This was quite exciting but it's hard work finding something different and worth saying every other day. I don't really see the point in just blathering. If I haven't got something interesting to write about, I'd rather keep my fingers to myself.

In the course of my 200 postings on Waving Not Drowning, other blogs of mine have come and gone. I've had music blogs and writing blogs and user interface design blogs but I've hardly used them and have shut them all down except the UI design one (which I haven't posted to in ages.) I have, however, just started up a new blog about writing (which you might care to go and look at) and it seems to be more successful than the others. (More successful than this one, too, according to Google and Technorati – both of which rate it as twice as popular and 'authoritative', even though it gets only two thirds the traffic – go figure.)

In all I'm getting 350 visits per month for my three blogs (about 11 per day). It may seem unambitious of me, in a world where popular blogs get thousands of visits per day, but I'm very happy with what I've got. Fewer might make me wonder what the point of it all was but many more and I would start feeling pressured. I can easily imagine 11 people stopping by the house each day for a chat. I'd be hiding behind the sofa if there were a thousand queueing up the drive. I'm also pretty pleased with the standard of the comments I get. I've had a few excellent arguments over the years.

So here's to the next 200 posts, to the many great bloggers who have inspired me to join in, and to all my readers, without whom I would be talking to myself (you don't think I'd shut up, do you?)

Oh yes, and the title of this post. One of the many interesting stats I get from Google Analytics to help me interpret traffic to my blogs, is a list of the Google queries that have led people to come here. And, yes, one of them was, 'Can you drown in yoghurt?' I certainly hope my blog helped with that.

15 July, 2008

The Saddest Olympic Games Yet

Don't you think it's sad that the Chinese feel they have to take dog off the menu in Beijing during the Olympics? I mean, for heaven's sake, this is your country, people. If squeamish American tourists don't like what you eat, tell them to stay at home and eat Macdonalds.

Sadder by far, however, is the fact that so many people will be going to China to watch a bunch of people throwing things and jumping things and running round and round. It will inject plenty of money into the Chinese economy of course (maybe the organisers will celebrate afterwards with a nice dog dinner) but of all the things to spend your money, time and energies on, trailing out to Beijing to watch sports seems like just about the most futile I can imagine. (All the people trailing out to Sydney for World Youth Day has it beat but WYD is so exceptionally stupid it isn't a fair comparison.)

Even sadder than all this, however, is the fact that, while the Chinese want to avoid offending Westerners by keeping dogs off our dinner plates, they don't seem to feel the need to release political prisoners, to stop torturing people, to leave Tibet alone, or to allow free and fair elections - even for the two weeks while we're in town. They obviously understand that such things don't offend us anywhere near as much as fried pets.

05 July, 2008

Peaking into the Future

If you want to know why petrol costs so much these days, you need look no further than the phenomenon of 'Peak Oil'. This refers to the point in time when we are extracting the maximum amount of oil per day from the world's reserves. And that point in time appears to be with us. In 2005 we reached a rate of extraction of 74 million barrels a day and we have stayed there ever since. Oil fields are running dry and new discoveries are not keeping pace. Soon, the rate of extraction will start to fall. In anticipation of how valuable that will make oil, the price has begun to rise. It will go on rising as the oil runs out and demand stays more-or-less level. (Demand is already well above the extraction rate at 88 million barrels a day - the difference being met by liquified natural gas - until we hit 'peak gas' too. It has been increasing exponentially until now but rising prices are likely to counteract that trend.)

Since agriculture depends heavily on oil and gas to fuel equipment and to produce fertilizers, we are almost certainly approaching 'peak wheat' - the point where we just can't afford (or even find) the energy to grow more food. It is no coincidence that there is a world food shortage happening just after we hit 'peak oil'. The price of oil is part of the cause but the frantic (and half-arsed) attempts by the US government and others to reduce oil imports by turning farmland all over the world from food production to the production of biofuels is the rest.

And there is little anybody can do about it. Your vote counts for nothing when every candidate on offer supports stupid, ill-conceived, industry-pandering plans that amount to 'business as usual'. Your personal efforts to reduce your oil consuption will come to nothing if you must commute to work because of the way cities are laid out (everything in the middle and all the affordable housing way, way out on the fringes) and you can't switch to public transport because there isn't any, and using a hybrid car is actually no more fuel efficient on average than using a deisel car. Your personal efforts to reduce energy consumption in your home might be worthwhile, if you don't mind spending a lot of money on it, but this only helps the oil crisis if your local power station is oil-fired.

In the end, it is down to our politicians to force industry to make the changes we desperately need. And they are either too stupid (such changes would require them actually understanding the science and economics involved) too greedy (most politicians are in the pay of big business one way or another and they all want those chairmanships and consultancies when their political career is over) or too selfish (they would rather hang on to power than do anything good or worthwhile that might make them unpopular) to do what must be done.

Perhaps what has really happened is that we have reached 'peak intelligence' - the point at which the society we have made has become too complicated and difficult for our limited little brains to manage. It certainly looks that way.

24 June, 2008

A New Look For WND

What do you think? I haven't personalised it much yet but I like the look. The columns are a little wider than the old layout, all the navigation and fun stuff is now on the left (the jukebox is still at the bottom though) and I've rearranged the order of things. You will also notice the absence of ads. What the heck. They were making more money for Google than for me and only cluttered up the place.

(Anyone who has had any experience with Adsense (Google's ad placement service) will also know what fun it is trying to keep scumbag advertisers off your pages. Every time I mention 'evolution' or 'god' in a blog, the ads are taken over by loony religious organisations with more money than they should have, trying to sell their insane ideas to a readership I'm sure would only find their rantings embarrassing. To stop them you have to create lists of advertisers that you want to block. Very tedious. It's far better that they just have no opportunity at all.)

I'd like to replace the background graphic (one day when I feel up to working out how to do it) with something a bit more meaningful but it will do for now, I think.

For those among my regular readers who hate change and can't stand surprises (you know who you are) I can only offer my sincerest apologies and hope that you will take this opportunity to flame me in the Comments section.

19 June, 2008

Magical Thinking

An uncharacteristically brief posting from me today I'm afraid, but I wanted to tell everyone about a great article I just read. It is called Magical Thinking and it is by Matthew Hutson. (Actually, the wrap-up on the last page is a bit lame but the rest is excellent.)

One of the pleasing things about modern psychology is that it seems to have taken on board the task of explaining superstitious and religious thinking. It's about time! Hutson's article does an excellent job of summarising current thinking on the subject.

Sadly, he offers no cure :-(

14 June, 2008

As Cute As Three Roos

Getting a new puppy is not unlike having a baby. Our new puppy (pictured below) arrived on Thursday, age: 8 weeks, weight: almost nothing, sex: male, breed: Airedale, name: to be decided - but probably 'Bertie'. It was a difficult labour.

We set off on the Wednesday and drove to Brisbane, stopping first at Warwick and then Toowong to buy a bed, cushion, bowls, chews, toys, food, harness, lead, etc., etc., etc.. We stayed overnight with Daughter at her new house. Since we'd left our Brisbane street map at home and were too cheap to fork out $25 for a new one, we wandered around the northern Brisbane suburbs, lost, for the first part of the evening. Then, in desperation, we used our 3G phone to call up maps and directions over the Internet. These were tiny to the point of farce but they were all we had and, I confess, they got us there in the end.

On Thursday morning we headed off to Chermside Shopping World (or somesuch name) to see what folks in the big city can buy these days and to wait for puppy's plane to get in. It's a mall about the size of a small town but our 3G maps led us off into strange and unwanted places where we spent the morning wandering and cursing. Finally, when the cursing had clearly failed, we decided we'd buy a map and hang the expense. Fortunately, when Wifie told The Nice Man In The Garage our predicament, he pointed out that we were just a couple of kilometers away from our goal on the road we'd just turned off.

It was at the mall that we got a call from Melbourne to say that the people dispatching the puppy by air freight had missed the planned flight and had booked him onto a later one. This was a catastrophe since the delay meant we would be picking up the dog in the north of Brisbane in the late afternoon and would have to cross the whole city in the rush-hour to get onto our southbound road home. And so it was. Puppy arrived on time in a gigantic, lime-green box and we cooed and fussed the dazed-looking creature for a while and then set off. (I'll skip the part about driving around the airport for the un-signposted freight depot and Wifie having to run into the domestic terminal to ask someone.)

It took us over two hours to cross Brisbane and get onto our homeward-bound motorway and then another three to get home from there (including a wayside stop to eat a Macdonald's cardboardburger as quickly as we could.) During this time, puppy sat on Wifie's lap. And that's not all he did. We had a large blanket with us and a towel and Puppy managed to drench both of them and Wifie's skirt. And I mean drench. I've never seen any animal urinate so much since I saw an elephant let rip once in a zoo when I was a child. I've also never eaten a cardboardburger in a Macdonald's with a woman whose skirt was quite so urine-soaked as Wifie's was that night.

But we made it home and that, as any parent knows, is when the real labour starts. It was soon obvious that puppy was completely feral. He may never have seen the inside of a house before and possibly not another human being apart from the one who lifted him out of his pen with a pair of tongs and dropped him into that lime-green box he arrived in. He has no conception of bladder or bowel control. His only mode of interaction is to bite whatever comes within reach. His metabolism turns the shoes, rugs, magazines and fingers he chews into urine and faeces at a rate that defies the laws of thermodynamics.

After our two-day, mapless trip to collect him, we were exhausted but after sleeping with a puppy lying on our heads (he likes to sleep that way) for two days, after running up and down the garden with him, cleaning up his endless torrent of excreta, letting him in and out and in and out, feeding him, pulling shoes and feet and furniture out of his jaws, retrieving his toys from underneath things (one fist-sized rubber blobby thing called a 'Kong' has disappeared completely - which is impossible) and looking around anxiously to check on what he's up to, like a pair of meerkats performing for a wildlife documentary, we're just beginning to realise what exhausted really is.

When I think of all the preparation and planning - thinking about names, wondering how we'll raise him, whether we'd be good 'parents', whether he'd like us, gazing misty-eyed at the pet sections in supermarkets, imagining the patter of tiny little paws, scanning the Web for guidance on how to raise a happy, fulfilled puppy - you'd think we'd have been ready. But, just like having a baby, the reality is a thousand times more overwhelming than you think it will be.

In those far-off days when we were contemplating 'starting a family', I remarked to Wifie and Daughter that having a dog on the property would probably mean that the local wildlife would start avoiding the place. This was a major 'con' as far as I could see because I like waking up to find a family of wallabies or kangaroos grazing in the garden, or seeing them come bounding over the bluff in the evening. The roos often come in threes - a male, female and youngster - and they are so cute you could just run out and hug them. It seemed to me, therefore, that to be worth having around, a dog would need to be at least as cute as three roos. A pretty tall order.

Yet, despite all the trouble he's been, despite the exhaustion and the sleeping with a creature that farts in your face all night, he is. Our puppy is definitely as cute as three roos.

So that's alright then.

01 June, 2008

Focus Fusion: Will It Save Us?

I've been reading a bit lately about focus fusion – a radically new approach to producing power from fusion reactions. The research is spearheaded by Eric J. Lerner and his company Lawrenceville Plasma Physics Inc. (LPP) and has been financed mostly by Government organisations like NASA and the Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission .

The basic principle is to use Dense Plasma Focus (DPF) to confine a proton-Boron mix (pB11) at extreme temperatures (a couple of million degrees) so that a fusion reaction can take place. The DPF technology has existed for decades but the theoretical work needed to enable a controlled fusion reaction has not existed until very recently. Now, LPP has received a USD600,000 grant from Swedish firm CMEF (the first part of ten million dollars if all goes well) to develop a proof-of-concept reactor.

Focus fusion has none of the major drawbacks the Tokomak programme has laboured under. It doesn't suffer the plasma stability problems Tokomaks do, it does not generate 'hard' radiation like Tokomaks, and it can feed electrons directly into the grid without the need to generate heat to drive turbines. It could potentially generate electricity at a hundredth of the cost of existing power generation techniques. It is also suitable for small-scale, distributed power production (a 5MWatt reactor could fit inside a garage). That means focus fusion reactors could power railway locomotives, lorries, ships and aircraft. What's more, electric cars would vastly outperform petrol (economically). If focus fusion works, we could easily be looking at a completely petrol and coal free world in just a few decades!

Obviously this would be a disaster for the Middle East and for the big petrol and coal companies (and, hopefully, the governments they prop up). It would probably also be a disaster for the major coal-exporting countries like Australia – which is a bit unfortunate since that's where I live. It would also mean the end of renewable energy technologies (I don't suppose anyone will be sad to see the end of wind farms!) and it would, at last, kill off nuclear power as a viable commercial concern.

All-in-all, it would be a miraculous technical breakthrough that would save us from global warming and make electricity virtually free for the whole world. It is estimated that there is enough boron in the world to keep us in power for a billion years and the only wast emission you get from focus fusion is Helium – an inert gas with no greenhouse effect.

Too good to be true? In a world already beset by food riots and the first petrol riots, a world that is just a few decades from a catastrophic climate change tipping point, where the first resource wars have already been fought, for all our sakes, let's hope not.

26 May, 2008

Thank You NASA

Just congratulations and thank you to NASA for continuing to inspire the world. Their Phoenix spacecraft touched down in the Martian arctic last night (zulu) after a damned-near perfect flight and descent. The ship has travelled 422 million miles and was right on target! The pictures are starting to come in now but it's the science I'm waiting for.

Part of Phoenix's brief is to drill into the Martian permafrost and study the ice below the surface. There are lots of reasons for this. Partly it's to see what resources might be available to later crewed missions, partly it's to look for signs of ancient life, and partly it's just plain old curiosity. This is the first time we've been so far north on Mars (68 degrees) - talk about terra incognita!

So, thanks guys. Outstanding work! And I hope the rest of the mission goes as smoothly.

22 May, 2008

Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Herbalist To Live

Does US Presidential candidate John McCain believe in witches, I wonder?

I ask because on Tuesday night, local time, a mob rampaged around a district in Kenya with a list of suspected witches burning down their houses. They burnt 30 houses in all, killing 11 women in total, most of them between 70 and 90 years old. And it got me thinking.

It's always shocking to me when people let their fantastic beliefs get so out of hand that they start killing people. It must have been even more shocking when Christians were doing the same thing some years ago in Europe and the US. (The last execution of a witch that I know of in Europe was in 1738 when two German women were executed. However, the last bit of witch-hunting I know of in the West was December 1999, when a student in Oklahoma, USA was suspended from school accused of casting spells. Of course, it still goes on in Africa and the Middle East – but then, what doesn't?)

So back to my question. If John McCain is elected president, can we expect a more vigorous clamp-down on witchcraft in the home of the brave? I ask because John McCain – one of the saner Republican politicians as far as I can tell - is a Baptist.

This means, for instance, that he believes, “The Scriptures, consisting of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, are the infallible Word of God. They were written by holy people of God inspired by the Holy Spirit and have supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.” (This quotation is from the Baptist credo as approved by their 1979 Assembly, amended to gender inclusive language following 2002 and 2003 Assemblies.) And therefore, this means he must follow the injunction in Exodus 22:18, namely, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.'

I've mentioned some of the more ludicrous passages from the Bible before, so I won't dwell on how screwed up you'd have to be to believe this nonsense. Let me instead use their creation myth as an example. Since McCain believes that Genesis is “the infallible Word of God”, he therefore, I suppose, believes what Creationists believe – that the world was made by a magical being sometime around six thousand years ago. Human beings were made then, along with all the animals, all the plants, our planet, in fact, everything. Fair enough. Lots of loonies believe such things. However, consider this, McCain is also an advocate of reducing carbon emissions to help mitigate human-induced climate change. How does he square this with the fact that most of the evidence for climate change depends very heavily on the assumption that the Earth is rather more than 6,000 years old? I can't imagine. Even the last ice-age – something extremely recent in geological terms – ended 13,000 years ago. For Pete's sake, the original settlement of his own continent happened more than seven thousand years before McCain believes the world was created!

So, if a man like this, steeped in magical fantasies, who regularly talks to invisible beings (I don't know if they talk back to him), who can think ten contradictory things before breakfast, were to become head of state of the United States of America, might he not feel it is his duty to persecute witches? It seems quite plausible that a man with such beliefs might do any crazy thing.

Incidentally, there is an interesting article by Alexei Kondratiev on the Proteus Library site suggesting Exodus 22:18 was mistranslated and that it is 'herbalists' not witches who are the bad guys that God wants us to persecute. Wow, I think if I was an American herbalist, I would definitely vote for the other guy!

16 May, 2008

What is going on at Blogger?

I'm getting pretty fed up with Blogger. It has been nothing but trouble in the past week or so.

One of the big problems is in the page layout code. I can't change the layout on my pages and I can't add new page elements. Irritatingly, the error message is simply 'errors on page'! Not exactly user friendy! Blogger's 'Help Centre' is a morass. There is almost no chance of finding a fix there. I found two other people who had reported an identical error - but that was back in 2007 and no-one had posted a fix. Someone who had posted a similar error got a reply saying stop using Internet Explorer and change to Firefox. So I tried this and, with Firefox I couldn't even log on to my blog admin page. This time the error message was an alphanumeric string of about ten random characters! Gee, thanks, Blogger.

The other big problem is that AdSense - Google's advert placement scheme - keeps telling me it can't 'crawl' my blog pages because it has been denied access. This means no revenue! The AdSense help pages explain how to adjust my settings to make it work - but only for a hosted domain of my own, not for Blogger or any other hosted blog site. Wonderful!

I've had good service from Blogger for almost two years now and I'm reluctant to switch - but this is becoming so frustrating that I may have to. Other people I know seem to prefer Wordpress - and perhaps I can see why now.

09 May, 2008

There's More To Life Than You Can Imagine

David Attenborough is someone I admire immensely. I saw an episode of his latest series Life in Cold Blood the other day and I was impressed all over again by the incredible complexity, diversity and beauty of Life. It's enough to make you feel sorry for those poor people who believe in gods.

There was a frog in the episode. The male, who looks about a quarter of the size of the female, is too small to get his arms around his mate's body, so he can't hang on while they have sex. So the little guy exudes glue from his belly and sticks himself to the female's back! What's more, these frogs live in a hostile, arid environment and they need to be underground sheltering from the heat rather than frolicking on the surface like moonstruck calves. So the female frog digs a burrow, with her prospective mate still glued to her back, and they mate underground.

Now this isn't the weirdest thing in Nature. Not by a long chalk. But who could have imagined such a way of life? Not us, for sure. Our imaginations are just not that good. Which is why I feel sorry for the poor god worshippers. Since none of their beliefs about the universe are real, they are limited to what people can imagine. Worse, they are limited to what people once imagined at the time their sacred texts were written, and are now fixed (barring a little embellishment by theologians from time to time). Of course, the old fantasists certainly had their moments – the world on the back of a turtle, twenty-seven virgins for every martyr, the creation of the world happening just a few thousand years ago – but mostly it is all stultifyingly dull and simplistic. Childish, actually.

When you compare these ancient yarns with what Nature shows us, there really is no comparison. Consider the fractal beauty of a tree, the bizarre but elegant 'standard model' of quantum mechanics, the existence of shrimps that pick up grains of sand and drop them into holes in their heads to use as ballast, the grand, swirling ballet of stars, dust and gasses in a galaxy, the deep mystery of electromagnetic fields, the way the brain uses cilia in a spiral cochlear to sense different frequencies of sound, the many kinds of blood chemistry that exist for the transport of oxygen around so many different kinds of bodies, the existence of quarks, the sheer number of things – atoms, stars, brain cells, species of nematode worm – and the incredible sizes of things – the distance from here to the Oort cloud, the spacing of molecules in a quartz crystal, the 'walls' of galaxies that span the universe, the nano-fibres on a butterfly's wing that give it such iridescent colours.

It is all so breathtaking and astonishing and none of it, none of it at all, was dreamed of by the people who fantasised about gods instead of looking with open minds and receptive hearts at what is really out there in the world.

And the little guys in the picture above are pine processionary caterpillars - 16 of them - photographed by me this morning. They walk around in nose-to-tail processions like this at this time of year, looking for a good place to pupate. Now which religious text ever imagined anything like that!

06 May, 2008

So now I'm a writer. Maybe.

Thing is, I write all the time. I write this stuff. I write stories. I write books. Trouble is, I'm a disillusioned, cynical writer who feels that getting anything published is such a lottery that it isn't worth even trying. I don't buy lottery tickets, or scratchies, or raffle tickets, and I don't submit my writing to publishers for the same reason - the odds are too long.

So how come I'm here at a 'writer's retreat' on beautiful Bribie Island off the Queensland coast? Well, it's a long story - which I won't bore you with - but, basically, I won the lottery (a writing competition) and the prize was this.

And for the first time in my life I have spoken to a publisher, a very charming lady called Bernadette Foley at Orbit (the speculative fiction bit of Hatchette Livre in Australia). Not only did I speak to her but we spoke about my latest manuscript - a novel called Time and Tyde - which she'd read! What's more, she had read it carefully and said such flattering things about it that she's achieved the unthinkable and given me hope. Of course, I may live to curse her for toying with my emotions like this, but right now I'm thinking 'Well, maybe I should give this publication thing another go.'

And what does that mean in practical terms? Have I rushed out and stuffed a dozen envelopes with short stories and novels and cast them on the winds of chance? Not a bit of it. What I've actually done is to start another blog (how many is that now?) This one, called 'Graham Storrs' (that's me, by the way) is intended to chart my progress as I try to get Time and Tyde published and to talk about my other literary endeavours.

It seems us writers need to market ourselves. Our names must become a brand. Our work must generate 'buzz'. So I thought I'd start with a bit of a blog, just to get the ball rolling. Later - probably if the book is published - I might start a whole website. But let's not go mad, eh?

So, if you'd like to follow the ups and downs of my budding literary career, you might like to click your way across to Graham Storrs: The Blog and scratch your itch. And, for the dedicated reader of Waving Not Drowning (that's this blog for those who don't read banners) don't worry. All the juicy stuff in my life will still be here.

13 April, 2008

Unix and the Asus EeePC

Almost 25 years ago, I got my first experience of using an Apple Macintosh computer. Until that point, I had used various other machines, each with its different operating system. My favourite, at the time, was Unix, with which I had become quite proficient. Yet the moment I saw the Mac, I realised that command-line operating systems were dead and buried. The new windows-based operating systems were a quantum leap forward and there would be no going back.

How wrong I was! Even as Xerox, Sun and Apple tried to drag us into the future, IBM and Microsoft threw out a massively heavy anchor – the IBM PC, running DOS – that held the world back for 15 years while Microsoft slowly, painfully, caught up to where the great pioneering companies had long since been. Eventually, Microsoft Windows became a very good, windows-based operating system with high levels of usability.

In the years since I first saw the Mac, I have used only MacOS and (from Windows 3.1 onwards) Microsoft Windows. I've also used 'palmtop' or hand-held computers for writing with (as I have mentioned before). These each had their quirky little operating systems but I never did much with them so there wasn't much to learn, or complain about. The last of these, my HP Jornada 720 is a Windows CE machine – close enough to desktop versions of Windows that it was easy to use. I've been looking for a replacement for it for a couple of years now and there just isn't one. So when I saw the Asus EeePC advertised, I realised this was about as close as it was going to get and grabbed one. (Well, Wifie bought it for me as a present, actually, knowing how keen I was.)

The Eee is a little miracle – a fully-fledged laptop that is just a little bigger than a DVD box (that's it on the left as I was showing it off to some friends). It's twice the size of my beloved Jornada but packs in so much more – for so much less money - that I was willing to give it a go. The operating system on the Eee is Unix (although you can install Windows XP if you want to) but not the Unix I used to use 25 years ago. This is a modern Unix with a proper, windows-based graphical user interface (GUI). The machine has all the networking capabilities you'd expect in a modern laptop (including Wi-Fi) as well as three USB2.0 ports. All it lacks is optical media (DVD/CD reader) and the kind of fat memory we feel we need these days. For my purposes it is ideal. I only want it for writing on. What's more, it comes with the Open Office.org applications pre-installed – and they are the ones I use all the time now anyway (as I have also mentioned before).

Let me say right now that the Eee is exactly right for my purposes. The only drawback is that it has Unix installed. What I've discovered since using the Eee is that Unix with a GUI is still the same old Unix it always was but with a prettier face. Unix, it seems, is not a patch on Windows XP. It is not a patch on MacOS X either. It looks superficially similar, it has windows, it has pointers, it has Help, and so on but it's usability is awful. When things go wrong, one discovers the Help is badly-written, minimal and obscure. The way things are done is hopelessly complicated – 'user hostile' is the phrase that springs to mind.

I'm an extremely experienced computer user, one-time programmer and one-time Unix user, yet I have been completely unable to solve trivial problems on the Eee – like loading and installing a new printer driver. (I won't bore you with this but it is so fabulously complicated that I have had to spend two days trawling through online tutorials and user-group forums just to get to grips with what I need to do. I haven't tried to do it yet – I'm saving that for when I have most of a day to spare!) I also haven't yet managed to get my Eee to network with my Windows desktop (partly because of the added complication of my crappy Telstra wireless broadband modem but also because the copious and well-written Windows XP help files assume you're connecting to another Windows machine, while the minimal, useless Unix help files assume nothing will go wrong with the simple wizard process that a child could follow without instructions.) I've spent about a day in the online forums on this issue too – enough to convince myself I will never solve it and I'd better call in a network guru.

Part of the problem with Unix today seems to be the plethora of slightly different versions that exist. If your printer company, for an example close to my heart, only produces a driver for one Unix version, you can't install it in another. Well, actually, you can but first you have to translate it using another piece of software. But then you discover this piece of software is written for yet another slightly different version of Unix than the one you have and you'll need to download and install a sizeable software environment all of its own just to make it work (which some experts in the online forums say you should really avoid doing if you can help it – which you can't).

Another part of the problem is usability. Usability is a deep and fundamental property of a system. It isn't a gloss you add to the surface. Apple has always understood this. Microsoft has gradually come to understand this. The Unix community just hasn't got a clue! However good the GUI on a Unix implementation, it will never have the usability of MacOS or Windows if the underlying user tasks are not themselves usable, or if the user support infrastructure (labels, layout, instructions and help) is not fully cognizant of the users, their mental models of the system, their tasks and their task knowledge, or if the underlying file systems and command structures are not fully consistent with the user's task model.

Finally, and this is also a usability issue, part of the problem is the shallowness of the GUI. It is assumed in the Unix world that, as soon as something goes wrong, or as soon as something complicated needs to be done, the user will abandon the GUI in favour of a command-line interpreter! I have only had my Eee a few weeks but I now have on my wall a summary of the Unix command shell syntax and a table of Unix commands. All you Unix evangelists out there, please take note. People will keep buying Windows (and MacOS) in preference to using Unix for free as long as Unix feels like a horrible, unfriendly kludge instead of a well-organised, intuitive appliance.

To be fair to Unix, its main audience comprises techies and nerds. You only have to look at the Unix online forums to see this – all those propeller-heads gabbling away to one another in impenetrable jargon. These are people who like to live with their heads under the bonnet. They are actually happy to see inside the machine and fiddle with the cogs and levers. But if Unix is ever going to make it into the real world, where people don't have the time or inclination to type hieroglyphs into 1970's-style 'Teletype windows' – a world where most people find even the complexities of Windows XP seriously challenging and completely irrelevant to what they need to achieve – then Unix is going to have to clean up its act.

This is obviously not impossible. The Macintosh itself is now a Unix machine but still (almost) as usable as it has ever been. So why isn't the Asus Eee?

One of the sad things about the Eee's usability failures is that it is a fantastically popular machine. Its price-performance level has made it a truly desirable little computer and it is selling like hotcakes. Which means that hundreds of thousands of people – eventually millions – will be getting their first exposure to Unix through the Eee and, I confidently predict, they will not be enjoying the experience. In fact, it will probably drive them quickly back into the arms of Microsoft. Soon, someone will have a machine out at the same price-performance point but running Windows out of the box and it will grab Asus' market away from them in a flash. I also predict that Asus will soon drop Unix altogether as a the OS for the Eee and will only sell it with Windows installed.

Frankly, Unix deserves this treatment. It is still a very long way from being a mass-market product.

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