Sympathetic Stupid

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Music From The Other Continent

If your main experience of African music is Graceland, this is the music blog for you. Benn loxo du taccu is Wolof for "one hand can't clap".

'The Wolof are one of the largest people groups that inhabit modern-day Senegal.'

It's an apparently broad spectrum of African music, though it's damn hard to tell with absolutely no perspective. Some funky stuff on the site, with the only downside being that most of the old links are broken. Interesting to also get some snippets of Africa coming through the posts.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Inequality Kills

... and on the same topic, here's an explanation of why inequality is bad.

This Peter Wilby article from the Guardian is a decent read, though I suspect that looking at the source, The Impact Of Inequality by Richard Wilkinson (social epidemiologist? what does the conjunction mean?) would be more illuminating. Just a few points from the article:

- tax credits for poor working families in the US from 1994 produced up to a 16% gain in reading test scores.
- life expectancies for US 16-year old white males in rich areas are mid-70s, in poor areas less than 60.
- families on less than £10k are twice as likely to argue daily than families on more than £20k.
- life expectancies in Japan and Sweden are high; they're also two of the most equal societies.
- violence is more common in societies with higher income differences.
- more unequal US states seem to have higher homicide rates, racial hostility, discrimination against women.
- involvement in community life like voting is highest where inequality is lowest (US and Italy).

Seems like the same status anxiety which is an economic 'incentive' to consume is higher when there's less equality, logically. The more status anxiety, the less happiness, therefore the more anti-social behaviour. This is obviously conjecture but something's behind the figures.

This post on the excellent Environmental and Urban Economics blog shows the relationship between deaths from natural disasters and income. Guess what? 'Fewer people die from comparable shocks ... in richer nations relative to poorer nations.'

Reducing Inequality and Graham's Startup Obsession

Paul Graham is an interesting guy. He's regarded as a guru in the computer science field but is smart enough to realise that compter programming can't exist in a bubble (or a black box). As an enabling tech, it needs to consider the social consequences of the work it enables. However, I think he can be quite wrongheaded.

This one's on inequality.

The basic principle: reducing inequality means taking money from the rich. You can't just make the poor richer (especially by increasing productivity) because that just means bigger markets for the rich to employ and sell to. No net increase in equality. It's kinda hard to decrease productivity of rich people (which would have the right net effect) so you need to take away a portion of their surplus resources and distribute it equally.

Fair enough.

Here's the leap of logic. Risk-reward tradeoff. If the rewards of being rich are less, the risks taken to get there will be proportionately smaller. So logically, there's a whole class of risks which are no longer worth taking; especially starting new companies.

Here's the IT connection. IT startups looked dead after the tech-boom-crash but are still around, and Graham had a successful one. His argument is that reducing inequality means no more venture capital and therefore no more startups. The government can't do it because it's too risky and unjustifiable after the fact. And not only that, that it's no longer worth it for startup founders, because they can't get much out of the hard work and stress of the startup.

So therefore, too much equality means there'll be no new companies, therefore no growth or innovation, because established companies are less likely to innovate than startups (cf Microsoft). Finally, he redefines the problem. Corruption, not wealth, is the problem; the connection between wealth and power.

I can't argue that corruption isn't a problem, and fixing that, while not trivial, is probably doable. But I'm not convinced about the rest.

A single example of innovation from a big company would be Xerox Labs - laser printers, Smalltalk, client/server, networks, GUIs and mice, photocopiers, worms. Innovation from the public sector? DARPA invented the Internet. Here in Australia, the CSIRO just participated in a nanotech breakthrough. I think you can innovate in an institution, if the institutional climate is correct. R&D tax breaks are a good start, incentive for the company to 'throw money away'. Get enough smart people together in one place and magic happens, look at Xerox, or MIT, or Stanford.

And my other issue is the implied claim that the only incentive for smart people is money. Certainly this is true for some, but throughout history, the smartest people have been those motivated primarily by curiosity or elegance - Einstein, Da Vinci, Torvalds. So removing the money as a primary incentive should remove those motivated by money, like the guy who wants to make a slightly better system for measuring click-throughs. It will leave the most important group; those geniuses who will innovate no matter where they are and what they're doing.

The whole article seems to be too strongly coloured by Graham's own experience. He's extremely intelligent, the type of person the human race needs to progress, and he enjoyed his time in a startup and came out of it well. But for each who succeeds there are hundreds as intelligent who fail, often not because of the technology but because of unrelated financial matters related to the economic imperative of quick success. How much of that cash was spent on letterheads, business cards, marketing and organising 'face time' with important people so as to get their money? Startups are a preposterously inefficient road to innovation because they waste so much talent.

On inequality, I think Graham is dead wrong.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Lyrics That Grab Ya

Sime Nugent:

'If I could take you there
I would tell you something
That I'm not just channel surfing
So give it a chance baby
and I'll be a happy man'

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Our Posthuman Future: Francis Fukuyama

The subtitle and theme is Consequences Of The Biotechnology Revolution.

Heaps of current issues are harbingers of the coming biotech revolution. Cloning. Genetically modified foods. Antidepressants and theraputic stimulants. Stem cells. The Human Genome Project. Genetic basic for sexuality. Inherited intelligence, propensity to violence, personality. Nature vs Nurture. Aging populations. Cancer.

Fukuyama maintains that progress in this area will cause thorny ethical, moral and social issues. It's likely to lead to us posthuman status, where we're no longer the same species we once were. Maybe we'll split into different species; one specialised for intelligence, one for manual labour, as in The Time Machine. Maybe we'll become dehumanized, a la Brave New World; everyone exactly equally happy but without any unique qualities. Whatever the outcome, it's likely the world will be substantially different.

He covers a lot of territory.

First, there's what the technology may enable. Prozac and Ritalin lead the wave of neuropharmacology; medicating against something you can classify as a 'disorder'. Genetic engineering can be used to remove dangerous genes, maybe that for Tay-Sachs or Downs Syndrome. This paths leads to more disorders being discovered and more genes becoming dangerous. The obvious one is homosexuality. As he argues plausibly, most parents wouldn't choose to have a gay child. So when 'designer babies' are possible, will homosexuality be bred out? Or will we be able to medicate against it?

This leads to the question of human nature, which goes deep into centuries of philosophy. What do we understand as human nature? Where do human rights actually come from? Is it 'natural' for some people to be depressed, and does that mean that we should question the medication of it (possibly like Scientology)? What do we lose in the Brave New World scenario of everyone being identical; are we still human? But as John Rawls argued, 'the unequal distribution of natural talents is inherently unfair'. For us to be human, does that mean there has to be someone at the bottom who gets genetically shafted?

As genetic engineering of humans becomes more feasible, there are two likely scenarios. One is that genetic inequality will grow, that the rich and well-educated will be able to afford, and inclined towards, designer babies, while the poor don't understand the process and can't afford it anyway. In the limit, this is where the species splits. The other scenario is growing genetic equality, because GE becomes subsidised and easy to access so the bottom of the gene pool actually rises.

He makes an interesting statement: '... it is hard to see how growing genetic inequality would fail to become one of the chief controversies of twenty-first-century politics'. But I don't find it hard at all. Why is growing income equality not topical? Because the agenda-setters are the beneficiaries. Surely this is similar with genetic inequality.

He doesn't present a solution to the dilemmas posed, but does see regulation as the enabling mechanism towards the answer. I tend to agree that this technology has to be regulated strongly, in a similar way to nuclear weapons (although biotech is infinitely more affecting in the long term). There's a great deal of detail on current regulatory systems and how they should be improved. I skimmed most of this, I'm sure it's important but it's not especially interesting.

I really enjoyed this. Fukuyama is great at synthesizing information and drawing super-rational conclusions, and explaining in clear terms the issues and possibilities. This revolution is still some distance away, but it could also be too close for comfort.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Attention Gap

This is a really important interview, linked through the WorldChanging Retro series.

My reservations are centered around the way he keeps talking about the blogosphere and the blog community because I'm not completely convinced about the overwhelming power of blogging. Many blog 'networks' seem to be simply online reifications of offline social groupings. But we'll see how that turns out.

However, it's self-evident that the more visible the developing world is to the developed world, the harder it is for atrocities and corruption to occur. The pin up boy is obviously Salam Pax, who gave a voice and face to the people actually being fucked up in the invasion of Iraq. The problem, of course, is where was the public attention when he was living his life under a dictator? (I can't remember if he started before or after that.) How do we get attention to everyday blogs throughout the world instead of just in the privileged West? 'Blogging is an elite technocratic culture.'

The initial problem is likely to be lack of motivation; why blog, in fact, what is a blog? Lack of technology. Lack of a common language. More basic, lack of literacy in any language. So this is hard.

The other theme of the interview is getting technology to developing countries, to bridge the digital divide. You end up with similar problems of reference points. I couldn't start to know what's needed in a developing country where the power goes out four times a day and all we have are 386s and it's too hot for the machines to run anyway and few can read and many fewer are techno-literate.

His final quote is well-honed:

'We've got income gaps and technology gaps, sure, but ultimately, I think the attention gap is the biggest of all.'

The Darling Downs: How Can I Forget This Heart Of Mine

This is truly country music.

Most of this album feels like it could have been recorded under the stars, in front of the campfire, just two boys missing lost or absent loves. Whether it soothes or aggravates what ails ya, this album is great. And yet it's probably best genre-ised as alt-country.

It's sparse and lonely music. The Darling Downs are a pedigree two-piece; Ron Peno from Died Pretty and Kim Salmon from, well, everything. These boys know how to make music, leaving space between the notes, leaving most of the production behind in the studio. The tunes are the thing.

Peno sings, his high, flawed voice giving a sound to loss. Salmon accompanies on guitar, playing no more than is necessary to keep the song moving, occasionally stepping to the mike to highlight the vocal. Minor percussion is unobtrusive at the back in some tracks, but that's it.

And it works. My highlight is Waste My Time, where they almost reach the bluesy territory covered by Tex Perkins with the Dark Horses.

But I've got to stop buying albums just after a gig which I've missed. It's very disappointing. Though to highlight how good Melbourne is, they both live here now, Peno from Sydney, Salmon from Perth. So more on the way, hopefully.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

New Buffalo @ The Northcote Social Club

I've been looking forward to this for weeks, so a lack-of-sleep headache wasn't going to stop me. I skipped the support and a coupla Panadol got me down to the Northcote Social Club, where it was dark and soothing to my throbbing neurons. I stood in the dark and thought evil thoughts about Triple J kiddies and the couples surrounding me and my head and work and being single and the strange tingling in my left arm and sundry other disappointments.

It all went away when Sally wandered on stage at the stroke of 11pm.

Yeah, it was probably just the Panadol kicking in but it felt like she was healing me, especially when I found an empty couch at the back to stand on, and so had a panoramic view of the stage.

Sally wandered around the middle of the stage, switching between a couple of mikes, one hand usually on the keyboard, occasionally playing guitar, often just clutching the mike. Accompanying were two multi-instrumentalists (one is Rae Howell, the other not sure), playing everything from percussion to keys to vibes to guitar to flugelhorn. And what an evocative instrument that is.

But not as evocative as the main instrument of the band; as I've said before, it's Sally's voice. She didn't sound worn out by the tour, hitting all the notes perfectly, and messing with the tunes just enough to convince the crowd it wasn't a DAT tape.

My highlights were the reorchestration of I've Got You And You've Got Me from the EP that opened the show, and a playful version of Time To Go To Sleep, but hell, they were all good. The band were professional and well-drilled, a couple of small flaws, especially in Rae's ridiculously tricky vibraphone part in Trigger, but hey, it's her track, so she should get it pretty close.

They played exactly an hour, doing every track from the album and the EP. Maybe one old track, I think, which I don't have, and two new tracks? But this was the quickest hour I've seen in a long time; back maybe to Wilco's three hour masterpiece.

She's great, this girl.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Two 5am starts in a row have kinda knocked me out (Triple R radiothon, subscribe now!).

And also I'm busy reading a 'best-of' series on WorldChanging, a great site about how the world is changing, from a sustainability and 'better future' point of view. The contributors are all quite smart, with Jamais Cascio, who apparently never sleeps, the standout for his breadth and depth of knowledge. I want to be that guy. In fact, I want everyone to be a little of that guy.

It's the sort of site that makes you feel like a better person just for reading it. (Of course, there's issues with just reading and not participating, but that's for another day.)

Go there.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Very Very Very Small Breakthrough

Nanotube Sheets are the product du jour.

See, nanotech has been coming for ages without really changing our lives. But now it looks like that light at the end of the tunnel is actually a miniscule yet disproportionately powerful train.

Some guys at the Uni of Texas (and one guy at CSIRO, good to see) have devised a process which allows them to make these nanotube sheets much faster then ever before. Previously it was more like paper-making; mix a nanotube solution, filter it, dry it, peel it off the filter. Slow. Now, they can produce up to 7m a minute (at about 5cm wide). By my calculations, that's about 504 square metres a day.

Not bad.

Nanotubes have been cool for a while, but why?

Well, for a start this material is about 50nm thick; just the bare 2000 times thinner than paper. (Watch your fingers, that'd slice to the bone in no time.) And it's stronger than steel on a strength-for-weight basis. A square kilometre of it would weight about 30kg. It's also flexible and transparent.

Most importantly, it conducts electricity.

So how about this one; sandwich a nanotube sheet between two pieces of glass. It just looks like glass, but it could be used as an aerial. Or a heating element. Or a light source. Or a heads up display for your car; you don't need to look down at the speedo, it comes up in your peripheral vision.

Since it's flexible, how about we make a rollable screen? It feels like a piece of paper but it's got nanotech smarts and a wireless internet connection, so it can give you a newspaper which updates in real time. (Yeah, it reminds me of The Diamond Age as well.)

How about solar sails? These things are light enough that they can be propelled by sunlight. That's right, by light itself. That might not work on Earth so well, with gravity and whatnot, but how about in space?

How about as a bendy electrode for use in artificial muscles? Because they're carbon, the body doesn't mind having them implanted. Pick me to be the Six Million Dollar Man!

I like solar cells, but they're so expensive and environmentally unfriendly to make. Enter nanotube sheets. They're invisible and pretty efficient. Paint them on the house. Bring tha noise.

Obviously this is all a little pie-in-the-sky still right now, but it's suddenly a lot closer than it was. I'm kinda excited and kinda trepidacious (smartass, just wanted to use that word, I just mean scared).

Just don't drop these things. You'll never find them again.

Here's some articles:

Science News

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

When a relationship breakup is beating you into the ground, what could be better than to listen to music that depresses you more?

I think it helps, actually. Knowing that someone else has been through this and eloquently expressed the pain seems to validate the feelings and make them seem normal. And you know you'll get over it, sooner or later, because they did.

As far as wallow-in-breakup albums go, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is about as good as it gets. I'm sure there's some melancholy Lucinda Williams background behind this, but honestly it doesn't matter either way. The music captures my feelings, that's all that matters.

Two tracks. The first is Can't Let Go, for the lyrics:

'Told you baby, one more time,
Don't make me sit all alone and cry,
Well it's over, I know it but I can't let go'

But the music belies that sentiment. Uptempo, it feels more defiant than sad; perfect for those up days where you can see the feelings from the outside.

The second is Metal Firecracker. Lucinda remembers the good times; the relationship flashes before her eyes. And then the chorus:

'All I ask,
Don't tell anybody the secrets,
I told you.'

That's it, in a nutshell. The hardest thing. The connection is broken, but those close-held confidences and heartfelt assurances remain, a lonely thread stretching between long after you've parted.

One more. Still I Long For Your Kiss.

'I know I shouldn't, but I want you so bad,
I know it couldn't be, but I want what we had,
I know our love is gone and I can't bring it back,
Still I long for your kiss.'

Oh yeah. I'm rational to a fault, but where does logic come in? That's for the head, not for the heart. Not so easy.

Thanks, Lucinda.

Freakonomics: Levitt & Dubner

'A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side Of Everything'

So I like pop economics, is there anything wrong with that? Slaving through reams of economics jargon and stats doesn't necessarily make academic texts better. What can make them better is the rigour and understanding the author brings.

Well, Freakonomics is the pinnacle of pop economics. While I have issues with the inclusion of gushing media quotes about Steven Levitt, I can't argue that he's not special amongst modern economists. And the writing of Dubner, as a journalist, is clear and gives Levitt room to tell his story.

He does economics in the grand, admirable tradition of Adam Smith. Economics as seen in the media today seems heavily steeped in econometrics; everything is slave to the numbers. Smith started out in logic, moved to philosophy, and just happened to publish on economics.

Levitt originally considered studying psychology. It seems that he's more interested in the motivations than the numbers, though he does use them to back up his arguments. And he takes a conspicuously centrist position on the world, which I find attractive.

The most impressive argument in the book links the decline in US crime through the 90s with the legalising of abortion in Roe vs Wade in 1973. Here's an interesting sentence:

In other words, the very factors that drove millions of American women to have an abortion also seemed to predict that their children, had they been born, would have led unhappy and possibly criminal lives.

It seems kinda callous to promote abortion purely because it would lower crime; I can imagine Karl Rove using this to convince Dubya (indeed, the Bush Administration did offer Levitt a position working on crime). But his conclusion is eminently sensible:

What the link between abortion and crime does say is this: when the government gives a woman the opportunity to make her own decision about abortion, she generally does a good job of figuring out if she is in a position to raise the baby well. If she decides she can't, she often chooses the abortion.

This is pro-choice argument well expressed. Not what you'd expect in an economics book.

And there's lot of other interesting bits. The numbers show that cheating is rife in sumo-wrestling. Real-estate agents get better prices for their own houses. Obsessive parenting can't be shown as beneficial. Drug dealers don't actually make much money. Players on The Weakest Link discriminate in surprising ways.

Friday, August 19, 2005


Triple R's radiothon starts today.

I like RRR. They're not as overtly political as 3CR (who I also like and who also deserve donations), but they do play a lot of music you probably haven't heard, and support events you probably want to go to. They don't get any cash from the government so pledges are how the station keeps running.

I'm doing six shifts on the phones so that'll be interesting. Two with the Breakfasters; I have fantasies about being asked to fill in when they're all struck down with pleurisy. Luckily for the listeners, this is unlikely.


Thursday, August 18, 2005

The 10th Planet

This whole new planet thing is kinda exciting. It's like finding a wholly unexpected $20 in your pocket. Or not, because the planet's not actually going to be useful for anything.

New Scientist had an article about how the planet might be bigger than expected. Why? Because last time they looked at it, the telescope was pointing in the wrong direction. Possibly the astronomer had also forgotten to eat his lunch. And wasn't wearing any pants.

And they polled the top ten names for it:

1. Persephone/Proserpina
Greek/Roman. Apt because there's a Pluto connection. But already taken by an asteroid.
2. Peace/Pax
Because peace is very far away. (Boom-tish!) That'll never get past the powers that be.
3. Galileo
Could be a good go though it's not consistent. Already used for a ship.
4. Xena
This was the internal name in the team that discovered it. I'd prefer Buffy.
5. Rupert
Surely no truth to the rumour that Murdoch sent a memo telling everyone to vote for this... There's actually a Douglas Adams connection.
6. Bob
Works for me.
7. Titan
Cool, but already taken by one of Saturn's moons.
8. Nibiru
Ancient Babylonian, with a good story. But given the recent history of the Middle East, unlikely.
9. Cerberus
Quite dark, like the planet.
10. Loki
Everyone loves Loki, right? Similar to Pluto but in the Norse pavilion.

I'm a devil for consistency, personally, so it definitely has to be a god. Nibiru sounds good, but my personal vote is for Chronos.

I just think it's cool, that's all.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Big Holes

Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple Goes Geothermal from Treehugger.

Looks like an impressive building.

I really like the sentiment behind this idea. It smells like another small step on the road to buildings being able to go 'off-grid' and be self-sufficient with regards to power. The stats say 'reduce reliance on fossil fuels by up to 80 percent'. This is a pretty nice number.

But how did they do it? A ground source system which takes air from under the ground (where it's hotter) to start the heating process. Fair enough. But necessary to support that system is 26 wells, each with a depth of 300 to 400 feet! That's a lot of bloody deep holes. Sounds pretty expensive and space-consuming, though I'd like to be wrong.

I still prefer solar.

Hilliard and Alberici

The 7:30 Report last night had a long interview with Poor Roy Hilliard, the man who apparently dumped Steve Vizard in the shit. But did he?

The motives throughout this are murky, but ultimately pretty base.

There's no doubt Hilliard fiddled the books. He says it was cos Vizard wanted it, this sounds plausible. Rich people want to minimise tax, some are more aggressive than others, some break the law, some even get caught. Vizard's denied it, but let's assume that it's true.

Hilliard was getting a good cut of this untaxed cash, by his own admission. He had to spend it on consumables because he couldn't purchase assets with it, cos people might get curious.

Did he also steal money as Vizard asserts? Why would he bite the hand that fed him? How about cos he didn't think Vizard had the guts to prosecute and risk all his own dodgy activities being dragged out? Sounds like a fair assumption; there's no honour among thieves. I reckon Hilliard probably did take liberties with Vizard's "stash of cash".

Why else would Vizard bring the charges? Especially knowing that Hilliard would flail wildly on the way down and probably dig up some rotting refuse better off deep underground?

How about this. Hilliard talked last night about a tax audit; "There was some suggestion something like that was in the offing". Vizard is connected, he knows all the right people. Doubtless, if there was a poo storm heading for Toorak, he would have known.

So is it possible that Vizard was trying to muddy the waters? If it was all going to come out anyway, he desperately needed a good scapegoat. Who better than his bookkeeper? He couldn't be expected to know everything about what Hilliard was doing; that's why he hired him. So it's vaguely plausible that it was all Hilliard's fault?

(Similar to Skilling and Lay's defence at Enron that it was all Fastow's fault, as the CFO. They didn't know what he was doing. Yeah, right.)

The missing man in all this is Greg Lay. He's the one who saved Vizard from jail by refusing to sign his witness statement. (Why is that even possible?) He was probably another candidate for scapegoat, but he's remained loyal so doesn't get fucked up.

There's another theory. Conspiracy central.

Maybe Hilliard and Lay are both doing exactly what Vizard wants.

Where is the other $2.5m? Maybe the whole point of this case was that the waters would be muddied, Hilliard would get a slap on the wrist in exchange for the $2.5m, stashed in a location only he knows. Vizard could have sent him down if he'd testified; but then he would have incriminated himself.

In the worst case, everyone testifies against everyone else, they all go to jail, all the money disappears.

But this is probably the best possible case. Vizard and Hilliard both get a slap on the wrist, Lay gets no penalty. There's still plenty of money floating around for them all to play with.


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Doug Henwood: After The New Economy

I've been inspired to read some economics by a nice conversation with a very intelligent economist. Well, that's probably a bit harsh, economist is practically pejorative these days, and she's actually a true generalist. But anyway.

After The New Economy is by Doug Henwood, the editor of the Left Business Observer. Yes, he's a journalist, but he writes clearly and gets close to the heart of some complex concepts. (Is there a difference in meaning between 'complex' and 'complicated'?) It's very US-centric, but it's good to read a left perspective on economics.

Written in 2003, the work discusses the aftermath of the 'New Economy' hype of the mid- to late-90s. I wasn't especially aware of this idea at the time, but I was aware of spiralling stock prices and the ensuing crash, based mainly around tech stocks. So, OK, this was just your standard boom-bust, mob psychology thing, there's not a lot you can say about this. This time it was based around computers and the Internet, but that's not special. It's happened before, it'll happen again.

So the pure New Economy speculation and analysis is actually the worst part of the book. But I still found it useful and interesting. It gives good explanations of a number of concepts which I didn't previously know a lot about, and quotes some very interesting figures.

For instance, productivity. Productivity is the ratio of output to input, if output increases or input decreases, your productivity has increased. Computers are supposed to allow everyone to be more productive. This means businesses can fire heaps of employees, or they can produce more for the same money.

Of course, this hasn't actually happened. He looks at some of the assertions made about this; "that 'advances in technology and dramatic increases in productivity' will render 'human labor far less important'". Which seems logical to me, but there's no evidence to support that claim. Jobs are still growing at a high rate as economies grow.

However. He talks about equality. Yes, there are plenty of jobs around, but they're being increasingly segregated into low-wage and high-wage, with little in the middle. He introduced me to the Gini Index which measures income equality. By his evidence, the US is one of the most unequal countries in the world (Australia is close behind).

Interesting figures show growth in incomes for each fifth of the income distribution since 1977. The poorest 20% are on 9% less than they were then; the richest 20% are on 43% more. The richest 1% are on 115% more! Or: 'had the growth in the top 1%'s share been distributed among the bottom 20%, their incomes would have more than doubled, from a paltry $8,800 to a respectable $20,000'.

He also discusses income equality amongst the sexes. It's nowhere near parity, but his figures show women now earn about 80% of the white male wage, up from 60% 25 years ago. Similar effects are shown with black and Hispanic workers. So it's not all bad.

There's also an arresting and disturbing discussion of poverty. Poverty hasn't dropped despite the apparently increasing affluence of US society. And there's a case that the poverty line should be much higher. The rate could justifiably be as high as 26%.

And then globally. 'The poorest tenth of Americans have average incomes higher than two-thirds of the world.' And: 'The ratio between the average income of the world's top 5% and world's bottom 5% increased from 78 to 1 in 1988 to 114 to 1 in 1993.'

These aren't enjoyable figures. Living in an unfeasibly wealthy first-world country like Australia, this is so far from the forefront of my everyday thoughts it's a scandal.

The chapters on globalization and finance are good, but it was the poverty and equality that really caught me.

It's an absorbing read. He mainly avoids getting bogged down in the numbers. It convinced me that I can continue to read on economics. And hopefully that I can actually act.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Vanishing Point

This site - Vanishing Point - is proof that Flash is useful for something other than stupid splash screen animations which make a site take fifteen minutes to load. (This post is proof that I really should be doing more work.) Thanks to WorldChanging for the link.

It's a map of the world with shading proportional to the 'visibility' of each country. They've taken the last 50 days worth of top news stories in the G7 countries and pulled out all the references to other countries to get a measure of their visibility to the population of the G7.

Africa disappears from the map. The G7 nations themselves are darkest. There's a fair bit of Russia, China and India, and of course Iraq, Iran and Israel. Australia is kind of dim. (No, I mean on the map.) As the WorldChanging article says, it'd be interesting to have a better breakdown. Anyone want to bet that 99% of US stories aren't purely local?

It's a valiant effort. Reading the methodology, they've looked at just 11 papers in the 7 countries, so it's not exactly thorough. I'd be interested to know what percentage of the population that could possibly relate to. And the system's fully automated, with data coming straight from the RSS feeds. This also skews the results, as obviously only the top few stories are put on the feed (looks like the NY Times has only about 6 stories a day, for instance).

But maybe this evens out. I reckon the vast majority of the population has a small appetite for news. If they're watching half-hour TV bulletins instead of reading the paper, they'll probably only get about 6 stories. And, despite the hype that papers are a dead medium, there's still only a small percentage getting news from the Internet.

On another topic:
Incidentally, Gideon Haigh is a magnificent writer. He just happens to be writing about cricket here.

Guns, Drugs, Sex and a Psychiatrist

The long wait for the next season of The Sopranos is nowhere near over. March 2006 still seems a long long way away. But there's some good news, see the Age.

Eight more episodes in a mini-seventh season? Excellent. But they have to contain Gandolfini. Have to. Because without Gandolfini, there's no Bracco. And everyone knows she's the best character.

Sure, it's easy to write him out. He's a mob boss, he can get killed or arrested in a flash. Simple. But then who takes over? Chrissy? Hey, I like Imperioli. And he could use a psychiatrist. But it's too implausible. It would have to be either Carmela or Junior. Nah, I hate it.

I'll tell you who would have worked: Steve Buscemi. Shame he didn't stay around longer.

So listen up, Chase. Pay Gandolfini What He Wants. Simple as that.

In other Sopranos news, apparently the producers are leaving. 'They are reportedly concentrating on their new HBO series, "Powerball", about a family that wins a $300 million lottery jackpot.'

Wow, that sounds just vaguely familiar.

It'll fail. If it's only as bad as Las Vegas, I'll be surprised.

Kung Fu Hustle

Saw Kung Fu Hustle. I don't know the genre inside out, but it was talked up as 'the best kung fu movie ever'. (Haven't even seen Shaolin Soccer, how bad is that?)

I liked two points especially. One was the knife-throwing scene. Hi-larious. It had me in stitches. 'Hey, who threw this handle at me?' I love a bit of stupid slapstick.

The other was the love interest, Huang Shengyi, who is out-of-this-world beautiful. Gratuitous proof:

I just wish I could pronounce her name correctly. Damn Occidental mouth.

Anyway. What was I saying?

Oh, the movie, right. Yeah, lots and lots of over-the-top violence. Some pretty cool moves involving breaking the scenery. Quite a lot of humour. Cinema full of school kids (what's with Nova on a Monday night, last week was the same?). Not a heap of plot or character, but I preferred it to, say, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon precisely because this didn't take itself too seriously.

Oh yeah, the other good part was the musician/assassins, they made their fight scenes interesting. There's only so much you can do with a martial arts fight scene, I guess. I'm sure Yuen Wo-Ping is a genius, but my eyes sort of glaze over when the hero fights innumerable bad guys. Again.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Raymond Carver: Where I'm Calling From

In most of these stories, little happens and there's no resolution. They hang on the characters. They're well-drawn, acutely imagined, ordinary Americans. And they're enduring a quiet hell. Mostly this involves a complicated disintegrating or destroyed relationship. The only goal is happiness, but it's never easy.

He finds the heart of life perfectly. The situations are perfectly imaginable and the inner feelings of the characters are even more so. Fever was my highlight, describing a man enduring the lonely, draining time after his wife has left him. (Yes, I see the likeness.) Feathers was a close second. This account of a routine meeting between two couples gets right at the improbable juggling act of a long-term relationship.

But all the stories are good, though I felt they improved towards the end. The last seven or eight, which were published for the first time in this volume, are consistently amazing. His prose is so spare, short sentences, few adjectives, no clever punctuation. And the tone matches that of the internal monologue. Truly a magnificent writer.

Aside: He's a very American writer. Amazon's 'Customers who viewed this book also viewed' section for this volume includes two CDs: Illinois by Surfjan Stevens and Funeral by The Arcade Fire. Very American music, despite AF being Canadian. Only missing Wilco and Bright Eyes, really.

Aside 2: Hot Tip: The Arcade Fire might be here for the Big Day Out. You heard it here first.

Ode For The Imperfect

This is from the TISM album De Rigueurmortis. I was inspired to post it by Guy's Josh.

I'd Rather Be Me

I'd rather be a cack-eyed awkward knob than you,
For all your perfect teeth and hand-jobs.
I'd rather be the silently resentful weird one,
Than the back-slapped chest-poking young gun.

For every moment you've had of adolescent bliss,
I've spent ten regretting everything I've missed.
For every stroke, every goal, every glance and kiss,
There were blows, failure, mockery and less.

Yet, I'd rather be me.
You preening dumb tool.
You vacuous, confident, ignorant, poor dumb tool.

Who wants to be me?

They sell magazines with how-to guides, people shell out money, jog,
get surgery, but mainly just dream of the day they will be more like you.
Grass green, never greener, grows over the fence between us.

Penis length, I'm sure, is in your favour. Your penis, in fact, is the hero
of this and every other hour, and can access all orifice, stink-box, blurter
and growler.

They didn't break the mold when they made you, mate,
That mold was mass-produced.

Does it grate?
That on every corner, and in every bar, there's you?
You have never said one thing completely new.
Not thought one thought not thought before.

You Cleo mag, Channel V, as-seen-on-TV bore.
You schoolkid's idea of bliss.
You teen idol.

I would rather be me, despite my self-disappointment.
I would rather be me, because of that disappointment.
I would rather be me, unknown, weak, bent and poor.
I would rather be me, with every mistake and flaw.

I would rather be me, because, in the whole universe of us,
In the galaxies of people, in the glowing, incalculable nimbus,
You provide the great system with naught.

Whilst, from afar.
And nearly invisible.

A star.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Saints v Kangas

This was always going to be a tough game. I was pissed that I missed it but a poker tournament waits for no man. And Fox Footy gave me some small window on the game.

A number of times (um, three, exactly) in the first half of this year the Saints were in front most of the day but overrun near the end. Geelong and the Kangas were the two standout examples, as well as Brisbane. And all year, but especially in the last two weeks, North have consistently allowed a big deficit but have taken over in the dying minutes.

So it went basically to the script; but the Saints showed character, as they did against the Dogs, to keep the lead when challenged in the last quarter. As expected, it was a very tough game. Total disposals and marks were both below the norm. 50 frees for the match sounds like a lot, and a number I saw on TV looked horrible. A 50 metre penalty to Petrie was especially bad, but no worse than some of the decisions to Gehrig against Leigh Brown.

And again, the Saints dominated the scoring shots (28 - 20) without quite winning by enough (23 points). Harvey was clearly best on ground with 28 touches, Gehrig's five goals were certainly handy (though four behinds continues his run of bad kicking), Riewoldt took a lot of marks. All the on-ballers were apparently decent, the forwards were a little erratic (Milne, Kossie, Riewoldt all missed relative sitters), the defence was disappointing. Hudghton is needed back ASAP.

So votes would probably be:

3 - Robert Harvey
2 - Luke Ball
1 - Fraser Gehrig

Others: Riewoldt, Hayes, Baker, Jones.

New Buffalo: New Buffalo EP

I've become quite smitten with Sally Seltmann, the voice and mind behind New Buffalo. This is their new EP, which they'll be launching at the Northcote Social Club in a couple of weeks. It doesn't quite match the relentless brilliance of the album, but is a great fix for New Buffalo junkies.

The standout track is a new arrangement of I've Got You And You've Got Me. An almost empty mix with just the gorgeous vocals over a sparse, fuzzy guitar line gives the song exactly the space it needs to shine. Trigger is a new track, an understated ballad with double-tracked vocals over vibes and trombone, which works well. Sally's voice is the band, and these arrangements give it space to shine. The remix of Recovery is again a quieter, cleaner electronic mix of what was already a great track. This makes the upbeat original into a wistful piece.

Inside becomes a moving, jazzy track with sax and piano over drums. The lowlight of the album is the appearance of a male voice in the chorus; I'm assuming this is Jens Lekman as credited on the cover. His voice is fine, but it suffers in contrast to that Sally's pure, languid vocals. The Beginning Of The End takes the disc down to the ground to finish off. It's a country-tinged girl-and-her-guitar track in the vein of the greats; think maybe Lucinda Williams although more alt.

Can't wait for the concert, on the 24th of August.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Martin Scorsese Is Really Quite A Jovial Fellow

Since I'm on a TISM kick at the moment, this blog is the needed link.

They're a regular poster on thecraplist and know their TISM stuff. And they're going to post mp3s of tracks which I don't have, so I'm quite happy about that.

In other news, missed both gigs last night because I fell asleep in front of the cricket and never went anywhere. But good to see England kicking some bum.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Telstra Schmelstra

The sale of Telstra was botched in the first place, and it's not getting any better with subsequent proposals to get out of it. (Unless Trujillo's latest plan is good; don't hold your breath.)

What happened?

Once upon a time there was Telecom. It was a government-owned monopoly. Monopolies are bad for consumers. To encourage competition some deregulation was needed; fair enough, this hasn't really hurt. But as it seems unlikely to have the government regulating an industry in which it is the major player, privatisation seemed logical.

This was the big mistake: they shouldn't have sold off the whole damn company.

Australia's a big country. It's kinda expensive to get infrastructure out to the many remote areas. Fair enough, it's hard, but these people pay taxes and deserve their share. So they get roads. They get power lines. They get, wait for it, phone lines.

When Telecom turned into Telstra, it owned the copper phone lines. Sounds good for Telstra, right? Well, these need to be maintained cause they degrade. And apparently there are more people who want to be connected. That's OK though, because we've got a state-of-the-art copper network which covers the whole country. And because no-one else has got one, we can charge what we like for use of it. It's still a monopoly.

But suddenly, copper's not so cool anymore. People want broadband; well, the only broadband you can get over copper is ADSL. If the stars align correctly. And it turns out mobile phones are making fixed lines obsolete. So all of a sudden the unimaginable amount of copper sitting all over Australia is a rapidly depreciating liability.

OK, we'll just replace the copper with optic fibre. But we're run for profit, so we'll do it in the profitable places. Cities. Rich suburbs of those cities. Why aren't we doing it in the country? It's not cost-effective. You can't tell us what to do, we're a private company.

We're a rich country. Everyone in Australia should be guaranteed certain basic services. A road. Electricity. Running water. A phone line. (A fair go?)

Telstra shouldn't own the infrastructure, the phone lines. At the time of the original privatisation, the company should have been split into infrastructure and business. The infrastructure should have stayed in government hands. This could guarantee the basic service, and allow the government to invest in the country's future by upgrading the network with our taxes.

The Telstra business could than have been fully privatised easily. It would just be another customer of the infrastructure. Market forces could do whatever market forces do. (Judging from the Telstra culture, send it bankrupt.)

Is it too late for this option? Probably. I can concoct a scheme where the government buys the infrastructure from Telstra, giving as consideration the rest of the shares, which Telstra then floats or cancels, as it wishes. Probably cancels, seeing as the company would have shrunk.

But I'm not running the country, so that won't happen.

TISM Top Ten: Thoughts On The Candidates II

Father And Son

Hear the cry ring to the Moorabbin sky,
Nothing can stop it:
Winmar, Winmar, Winmar to Lockett!

Objectively? Dunno. But this track gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. This track is planted solidly in late eighties Melbourne, and even more specifically appeals to St Kilda supporters who went to Moorabbin during those final dark years. I was one; this track belongs to me. It's one of TISM's strengths that their songs are so anchored in their time, and probably a weakness as well. They were never going to succeed in America.

As the highlight of an otherwise bog-standard album, and a sentimental favourite, this has every chance of slipping into the list.

Mr Ches Baragwanath, State Auditor-General

There ain't nothing colder than a tap on the shoulder and a voice of authority says:
"Name's Baragwanath, I'll cut you in half - my friends they call me Ches."

The music's not great. The lyrics are amusing. Best song about a public official? I believe so.

Hard to make a case for this.

Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The House Of Representatives

Questions without notice
Are burning in my soul -
When you're in a double dissolution
There's no time for rock'n'roll.

A magical two minutes, forty-one seconds of dance-rock; soon will come Machiavelli. 'Gimme gimme gimme bicameral legislature' is probably TISM's best bridge ever. My foot won't stop tapping when I listen to this.

A really good track on a strong EP. Good tip for the top five.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Dead Frenchmen: When Ghosts Take Over

Got this one cause they've got a gig tomorrow night and I needed to know whether I should go. The other option is Glenn from Augie March in a solo show. Dead Frenchmen are supported by Dragonlord who are buzzing so they might come out on top. But Glenn never plays solo.


Anyway, the EP. Haven't heard any Dead Frenchmen before, but the cliched comparison is to Franz Ferdinand and Interpol; two fairly competent bands. And yeah, it's apt. They play their instruments well and have a coupla good songs. Driving guitar lines, dirgey Smiths-style vocals, it's all there.

Politics is the stand-out track. Good groove, anthemic chorus. And the video clip makes itself; grab some tapes of Question Time and throw the track over the top. 'So stop debating the politics, cause you can't get your kicks other ways. And I know you bide your time while the blind lead the blind anyway.'

Tokyo's not a bad track (or city, from what I hear, see Serepax). Yeah, the lyrics don't mean anything, but everyone can't be Sally Seltmann. When Ghosts Take Over, the title track is their epic, at a whopping 4:43. Again, not a bad track, though seems to lack a little inspiration. And the quality drops marginally from there. Though the slightly post-punk Sleep Of Reason does finish in a decent if overlong breakdown.

Not a bad debut. I reckon they'll do a pretty good gig. I'm leaning that way. See how depressed I feel on the night.

Sky City, Tokyo

This is an amazing plan. Sky City, here and here.

Another plan for the tallest building in the world, this time in Tokyo. (Anyone willing to bet that these schemes are always thought up by men? It's all a big pissing contest, really.) But this one is slightly different.

The idea is to build three identical towers in a triangle. There'd be a stadium between them on the ground. And they'd be connected at the top, with a huge suspended, um, platform? with a central 'core' descending fifty floors or so.

I can't imagine the scale of this project. 1000 metres is three times the height of the Eiffel Tower. Nope, that doesn't really help. Covers 800 hectares. Weighing six million tons. That's no better. Housing 35k residents and 100k workers daily. So big that no factory can fabricate girders, so they'll be forged on site in a factory that is lifted as the tower grows.

I can feel it in my testosterone.

It's got some interesting credentials. To mitigate high winds, it's rounded and shaped in lumps, with big gaps between every group of floors. And because it's vaguely pyramidal, it should be earthquake/tsunami tolerant. They're talking up the saving in ground-based construction; which 'could free areas of a city like Tokyo for greenery, perhaps lowering temperatures and reducing pollution'. That I'll believe when I see a developer or three selling their land back to the public for use as a park.

I like this: 'Even a rounded building will sway, and Sky City engineers would have to design massive counterweights ... or active dampers on a scale never attempted'. Sounds like a minor technical problem.

It's an awesome plan. I like having the boundaries pushed; this should lead to advances in construction and engineering technology. Though I can't help but think that possibly nanotech could make all of this a lot easier. But who knows how far away that is?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

TISM Top Ten: Thoughts on the Candidates I

Defecate On My Face

There's trouble brewing in the Warsaw Pact, so hurry up Eva and move your intestinal tract.

I've never owned this on an album, only stolen the mp3 back in the days when Napster was alive and file-sharing was innocent. The music? Hand claps and an eighties synth arpeggio at the start, leading into a good disco track. The lyrics? It's a big idea; what was Hitler's sexual preference? That's right, coprophilia (never thought I'd get to use that word). Not sure where this fits into the full Freudian analysis, but it seems plausible to me.

It was a single, and with good reason. Has a very good chance of making the final list.

Special mention to the Country Version. Funny in a pre-semi-post-anti-ironic sort of way but doesn't hold a candle to the original.

Mistah Eliot - He Wanker

TS Eliot thinks he's famous because he's a genius.
Well don't you know I'm ambivalent about the modernist achievement.

Likely to go down in history as the best vitriol ever directed at a Nobel Prize-winning poet in New Romantic song form. This is an early appearance of TISM's intense hatred for celebrity, genius, success. You can feel it in pervading every piece of Ron's body as he screams 'you can be quoted in Heart of Darkness, Mr Eliot'.

Unlikely to make the final list; the music doesn't stand up that well, and the lyrics are a little too obscure. Still, it makes me feel clever when I listen to it.

The Back Upon Which Jezza Jumped

And so all you men of small ability and mediocre skill,
All those of you who, in the race of life, are left standing still;
Those who must always know others are unquestionably better -
The second class, the also ran, the unsuccessful go-getter;
All of you huge race of men with mind or body dismembered
Never forget the name of the man who will never be remembered;
And beware!, all who have hopes of happiness you pathetically nurture,
Lest you forget the back upon which Jezza jumped, the giant Graeme "Jerker".

This track is really just a backdrop for a spoken word Ron diatribe. But the music works well, and it's a great diatribe. This track introduces another of TISM's favourite themes; the human condition. You're not going to be happy, someone's always better off, you're only on earth to provide a foil, a kind of comic relief for other people, more successful, happier.

The production lets this track down; the vocals sound a little like they were recorded in the toilet. But other than that it holds up well. A good outsider for the final list.

Death Death Death (Amway Amway Amway)

The last track was simply a platform for the vocals. Death Death Death is pure fun. The recording on Gentlemen, Start Your Egos, recorded live, starts with 'The Massed Pipes of TISM'. What a gig that would have been. Then it kicks into the groove, driving drums, random percussion, vaguely competent guitar. Meaningless vocals. In concert, it goes nuts. Even in the lounge, with the volume turned up to eleven, the energy of the track shines through. This is the future of TISM; a flash-forward to Machiavelli.

Another single, and another very strong track. Keep safe.

Shortlist: Best TISM Songs

This is the current shortlist for the ten best ever TISM songs. With the caveat that I don't actually have Great Truckin' Songs Of The Renaissance or Hot Dogma.

Great Truckin' Songs Of The Renaissance
Defecate On My Face

Gentlemen, Start Your Egos
Mistah Elliot - He Wanker
The Back Upon Which Jezza Jumped
Death Death Death (Amway Amway Amway)

The Beasts Of Suburban
Father And Son

Australia The Lucky Cunt
Mr. Ches Baragwanath, State Auditor-General
Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The House Of Representatives

Machiavelli And The Four Seasons
(He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River
All Homeboys Are Dickheads
Lose Your Delusion II
What Nationality Is Les Murray?
Greg! The Stop Sign!!
[There's Gonna Be] Sex Tonite
The Parable Of Glen McGrath's Haircut
I Might Be A Cunt, But I'm Not A Fucking Cunt

Att: Shock Records Faulty Pressing Do Not Manufacture
My Brilliant Huntingon's Chorea
Julius Seizure (Act III Scene ii Verses 73-118)
Professor Derrida Deconstructs
Ya Gotta Love That

De Rigueurmortis
If You're Not Famous At Fourteen, You're Finished
Five Yards
Schoolies Week
The Mystery Of Genius Explained
Fourteen Years In Rowville

The White Albun
Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me
Diffident Strokes

That's 28 tracks all up so some culling needs to be done.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

New Buffalo: The Last Beautiful Day

'Recovery. Looks like it's gonna be OK. It's a new day.'

Sally's beautiful, expressive voice has me actually believing that everything will be fine. The track wanders along, always moving, everything unobtrusive and perfectly measured.

And then we're slowing up, easing into I've Got You And You've Got Me (Song Of Contentment), and she's making me cry with wistful longing and loss.

This is truly an amazing album. It's beautifully produced, with clarity and plenty of space for the main attraction; Sally's voice. The backing is provided by a bit of everything, mostly acoustic but a bit of synth and electric guitar. I especially like the strings and brass which wander through the tracks, doing their bit for the black and white movie feel.

I get the impression of Sally wandering through the world, that I'm inside her head with her internal monologue, as she navigates the sea of relationships.

This hit me in just the right spot. Though I probably should try not to cry at work.

Sin City @ Nova

This movie is really quite brilliant. I haven't actually ever glanced at the comic books, but Sin City feels exactly like my vague impressions of the novels. Probably because Frank Miller actually collaborated on it.

The obvious comparison is Pulp Fiction, and it's an apt one. Not just because Tarantino was 'special guest director'. It's a series of semi-related vignettes from the world of Sin City. And this world is stark, evil, compelling and totally magnificent. It reminds me hugely of those Calvin & Hobbes strips where he does Tracer Bullet. So presumably if I was more culturally competent it would remind me of film noir or old detective novels. But cause I've got no idea on them, it doesn't.

The visual style. It's black and white (but filmed in colour, I think) with unexpected splashes of colour, like in people's irises. Blood is cartoon-like in a much better way than the blood in Kill Bill, which was frankly ridiculous. This blood splashes rather than spraying. And every shot is perfect, angles capturing exactly the vibe of the scene.

Of course, it's got that whole voice over thing going on, the internal monologue of the current subject. This is apparently a genre staple. It works well. The men are all-powerful, the women are busty and gorgeously (yet tastefully) lacking in clothes. I think there's some feminist-type issues here but I don't have the smarts to discuss them.

Great film. My only complaint? I wanted more Michael Madsen. Hollywood really should make more use of him.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Diamond Age: Neal Stephenson

Stephenson writes well-researched, erudite works of sci-fi/fantasy/history. And he writes them well. The Baroque Cycle is an especially amazing achievement (even if 3000 pages might have been slightly too long). So I reckon this is his worst.

I love the world he sets up here. His tribal 'phlye'-based society seems a likely future for the globalised world of today. Without research, I'd make the assertion that our world is as, maybe, amorphous? heterogeneous? as it's ever been. The tribes are getting smaller and smaller; one might be 'early twenties Fitzroy politically active Green-voting street artists who like hip-hop' or 'late thirties South Melbourne commerce-type Liberal-voter interested in football and rock and porn and violent movies' or whatever. The only thing that seems to hold nations together as a social grouping is either sport or a combined loathing of the government. Is this a sustainable state of affairs? Tribes of various sizes have been the social grouping a la mode forever. Can they continue to get smaller till they disappear? Or will they, as Stephenson outlines, simply become more global?

Speculation, futurism and technology are the reason I like sci-fi. The first two-thirds of The Diamond Age overflow with these. Nanotech is almost a cliche but there's no doubt it will be important in the future. And he weaves stories of some variously well-drawn characters through the description of future society. Nell, as the heroine, is especially compelling.

But he loses the thread in the last third. Time has passed, it's now fifteen or so years later, so the characters must have changed. But he never really recaptures them. All the sections involving the Drummers come across as too wordy; it's description for the sake of description without any real benefit for the plot. And I found the whole Drummer concept a little wishy-washy, as if he'd had a decent idea but had never really gotten to the heart of it. Things happen, the world changes, the story finds resolution, but it's not a convincing resolution and it left me unsatisfied.

It's still a good work. But it's definitely not great.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Bit By Bats, Damn Arms, The Pharaohs @ Ding Dong

In terms of merit, this bill was upside down.

I loved The Pharaohs, who from the bottom of the bill played a magnificent, hard-rocking set. The highlight was probably the sound; Ding Dong has an impressive audio system and the engineering was such that the music never got lost in a sea of distortion. Being a three piece helps this, I guess. Definitely chase them up. Damn Arms have a solid reputation, and they lived up to it, playing some big bouncy rock-dance tunes.

Bit By Bats were headlining, so they got the slot when people are actually starting to arrive. At this point I start to get the feeling that most of the crowd is far more coked out than me. And everything's kinda falling apart at the edges anyway as I haven't managed to drag myself fully awake from a late-afternoon nap. I'm ambivalent about Bit By Bats and they didn't change my mind last night. Yeah, they certainly do lively post-punk, and yeah, it's competently done. But it continues to go straight over my head. Maybe next time.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Nick Larkins & The Bones @ The Rob Roy

Now this, as compared to the Epicure gig, was just a real fun rock gig. Nick Larkins, on guitar and vocals, and Phil Collings, on drums and occasional backup vocals, rocked the small crowd in Fitzroy. Some originals, some covers. The closer was the obligatory ironic Hit Me Baby One More Time which still couldn't touch the Mr Bungle version; but what can?

The support was Catnip, who provided a complete contrast. Slow, atmospheric, laid-back pieces. They're a three piece, a smooth contralto backed by a drums and guitar. The drummer had brilliant touch and consideration for the music, getting to all corners of the kit to really give the tracks space. An interesting band, though definitely not one you'll be hearing on commercial radio or even JJJ anytime soon.

Epicure @ The Corner

I've been a big fan of Epicure for a long time, and I still am. I think most of their recordings (except the patchy Airmail which is the really early stuff) are very good quality. And I've seen them live probably six times.

But I'm not convinced they're going the right way. Their live performances have been steadily waning for a long time. Ever since they stopped playing the rockers from Fold, the sets have wanted for excitement. And the new album seems to sit right on that trendline, if Friday's gig is any measure.

Now, admittedly they had excuses. Juan had a cold so he couldn't go for those pure high notes. The crowd was rude and uninterested; between songs you could barely hear Juan on the mike for the chatting. They haven't played live for months. And they haven't played any of the new tracks live. The gig wasn't bad. But they remind me of no-one so much as 2003-era Art Of Fighting, playing that shoe-gazing sort of rock which really doesn't excite me in concert.

They played all the singles from The Goodbye Girl, the new single and about five new songs. The new tracks sounded pretty good but a refinement of the last album's sound rather than a real progression. But I'll have to wait until the album's released and they have a chance to polish them up live before a verdict.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Saints v Cats

The executive summary is: 31 scoring shots to 15. In practice, it was only a 41 point margin. 13.18 is wasteful in the extreme. But it was a tough match, and the points are safe.

The good bit: Aaron Hamill showed that, despite missing the last quarter, lacking match fitness, he's as good as ever. 4.1 and about 8 contested marks, and a lot of the granite that he shows when playing well.

The bad bit: Apart from the kicking, Maxie going down with a hamstring. He's really very important, and now he won't be back until into the finals; if we get there.

Best: Hamill, Hayes, Riewoldt, in that order. Hayes will win the best and fairest; he's played 19 good games out of 21.

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room

Another piece of MIFF. This one reminded me a lot of Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism. Slick production values, commentary on the corporate system, scary implications.

OK, so the basic Enron story is that they started out selling natural gas. Then they hired a pretty clever guy with big ideas, who helped them to realise that they could sell gas futures.

[Future: an agreement to buy or sell something at a given date for a given price. So instead of just selling the gas you mine this year, you can get money for next year's gas as well. If the price of gas goes down before you have to actually deliver the gas, you're ahead (because you would have got less otherwise). But it gets a lot more complicated than this.]

Not satisfied with this simple financial concept, this guy also got them to use mark-to-market accounting rules.

[Mark-to-market says that assets are valued at what you'd get if you sold them. All well and good. There are problems if there's no real market. What value would I get if I sold my soul? No idea. Let's call it $100m. Now I'm worth $100m. If there's no market, you need a model of what you'd probably get. But it gets a lot more complicated than this.]

They started buying and selling gas futures and started making money. Then they branched out, into power futures, into bandwidth futures, into (wait for it) weather futures. The traders became the heart of Enron; they were actually making the (fabricated) money. All the while, their accounting was becoming more and more complex. And, apparently, more and more dodgy.

And the corporate culture was rapidly reaching a lowest common denominator. They had this great process where they fired (I think) 5% of their employees every year. It was systematic. Performance evaluations would be done by peers and bosses, and those in the bottom five percent were out. I reckon this probably fixed some particular values in the heart of the company; like winning is everything.

And eventually, as everyone knows, it all fell apart. Suddenly someone realised there was very little money coming in, the share price dropped from $76 to 40c and the company filed for bankruptcy. Indictments all round. Of course the top brass cashed in their stock at the top; why not? And of course the retirement funds of all the employees completely disappeared, because it was all invested in Enron stock.

That's what happened.

The most interesting part of the movie for mine was during the California power crisis. California was having blackouts, the price of power was going up, Enron was making money. If the traders knew the price was going to go up, they could profit from it. So they started to engineer power shortages by shutting down power stations.

What they didn't seem to realise or care about was that the price of power going up hurt everyone, but of course hurt most those who could least afford it. There were recordings played in the film of Enron traders discussing the power shortages. Hoping for earthquakes, for tidal waves. These guys just didn't care. Why not?

Corporate culture? From the top down, the place was built on being smarter than everybody else. And the whole point of economics and finance, where numbers are king, is to dehumanize goods and services. Because they hired smart kids, they mainly hired nerds. Nerds aren't known for their social skills. Does that also mean they have less empathy than the average bear? Certainly, they were cool now, and would do anything they could to stay cool. We heard recordings about them being hoping to retire at 30.

It gives me a decidedly pessimistic view of human nature, just like Outfoxed did. Maybe worse, cause I can understand a few people being sociopaths willing to do anything to get ahead, but how do you end up with an enormous company full of them? Natural selection, I suppose, the periodic firings refined the workforce so they all thought alike: 'How can I get ahead?' And the management had convinced them that what's good for Enron is good for you. The stock price was posted in the elevators!

Maybe, as Maynard said, 'The only way to fix it is to flush it all away'.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Orange Juice: The Glasgow School

It's important for my street cred that I buy something that Pitchfork reviews, at least one a week. Once a fortnight at the outside. After all, if I don't know who Wolf Parade are before their first album is released, then the world must have passed me by. (No, don't even mention PopMatters.)

And any review that even peripherally mentions Belle and Sebastian is guaranteed to get my attention. So I bought the beautifully packaged The Glasgow School by short-lived Scottish post-punk band Orange Juice. I'm not sure exactly what qualifies as post-punk, but these guys were recording mainly in 80/81, and they call themselves post-punk.

(I actually just saw a doco at MIFF on the Sheffield Scene. This was going on in Sheffield around the same time, producing more or less talented bands like The Human League, Heaven 17, ABC and Cabaret Voltaire. And Def Leppard. And Pulp, later. This gave a good background to the time; punk dying, music springing back up in its wake. So I guess that's post-punk.)

They definitely have my most recognisable characteristic of post-punk; barely musical vocals. I'm a fan of adventurous, musical voices, whether it's Glenn from Augie March or Bjork or Stuart from Belle and Sebastian or Mike Patton. The boys from Orange Juice have half-spoken, almost-monotonal, low-timbred styles, and the lyrics have lines where the metre doesn't quite add up. 'Melodramatics' squeezed down to 'meldramtics' is one I just heard. I found this off-putting. At first.

But there's some great tracks on here. Consolation Prize is my favourite at the moment. I like the line: 'I'll be your consolation prize although I know... I'll never be man enough for you'. Seems somewhat pertinent right now. Not to mention Lovesick, Poor Old Soul, um, I Don't Care...

This makes the band sound much more early Belle and Sebastian than they are. While early B&S is decidedly melancholy, the feel of Orange Juice is in fact a long way from that. It's mostly upbeat and, if not quite happy, at least optimistic. Poor Old Soul is a great track which apparently was a single but didn't quite hit the big time. Three Cheers For Our Side changes up to a funky chorus backed with a choir. Wan Light, belying the slightly depressing title and refrain 'Is this what life is all about?', comes away with a lively feel, similar almost to mid-eighties New Romantic. This is in 81, remember. Blokes On 45 has a great rhythm section, electronic hand-claps and a big bassline, under some funky rhythm guitar work.

As the booklet says, 'Orange Juice's Big Idea was to somehow try to combine any disparate influence we felt like embracing...'. From this distance I've got no way to know whether they were actually pioneers. It stands up pretty well to the test of time, though.

Clinkerfield + Floyd Thursby @ The Cornish Arms

I missed seeing Clinkerfield on Sunday at the WWWWW gig, but I'm loving Gravel Road off the sampler. So I wandered along to the Cornish Arms last night for their acoustic set.

For a start, the Cornish Arms at 8:30 on a wet Wednesday gives a new meaning to the word dead. There were more people around the pool table than listening to the gig. So they didn't have heap of atmosphere to work with. But anyway, it was acoustic, just three of them (Jimmy, Matt and possibly Dan?). I guess they're country/alt-country/folk if you have to classify. I enjoyed it. I'll be trying to catch a bit of Jimmy's gig at the Empress next Tuesday before my French lesson (which, conveniently, is about 8 metres from the Empress).

Then Floyd Thursby and The Definite Article, who I did see on Sunday. They played a similar set, and were pretty good. Guitar/lead, cello/backup, kit. Not sure what the future holds for these guys, as that was the cellist's last gig; the band will be completely different without him so I'm betting break up.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Right to... no?

I reckon this decision kinda sucks:

Court upholds ban on release of tax papers

Freedom Of Information legislation should mean that the public has a right to know what's going on in our government, and we can ask for that information at any time, for no good reason. Of course, in practice it's never quite that simple, as it can be a slow process getting anything out of a bureaucracy (don't try spelling that on without a good run-up).

Well, the decision outlined above makes it a shedload harder:

Judges Brian Tamberlin and Peter Jacobson found that all the Government needed to block access, once a certificate was issued, was for a senior public servant to give evidence that there was a good reason why the documents should not be released. They also found that when a senior public servant gave evidence there was one public interest ground not to release the documents it would not matter what other strong grounds existed in support of releasing documents.

So, in my understanding, if a hypothetical government wanted to keep completely innocuous, or possibly damaging, information from its loyal citizens, all it would have to do is have a single public servant willing to stretch the truth a little.

Sounds unlikely.

Is there any point ever making a FOI request, then?

Queens Of The Stone Age: Songs For The Deaf

See, previously I thought I didn't really like Queens Of The Stone Age (QOTSA, I guess). But then this album popped up in JB for like $13, so why not give them a go? Lots of cool people like them, and I'm cool, so therefore I must like them. Right?

Now I officially, from a position of knowledge, don't like them.

I mean, the album isn't bad as such. I don't like the (fake) radio bits, but that's not a killer; I liked Stay Human by Spearhead despite the silly fake storyline running through it. The music is decent, nothing really special, just straight down the line heavy rock. But not heavy or melodic enough to be interesting. Maybe the production is too slick. I hate the vocal style, the sort of drony, I'm-too-stoned-to-emote schtick. And the lyrics themselves are trite, and there aren't enough of them. I don't mind an instrumental, but don't just repeat the same phrase over and over again.

So at least I got something for my 13 bucks; I'm now not pissed off that I missed the gig.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Nick Bostrom: Existential Risks

Apparently there are an infinite number of PhD students and an infinite number of Windows boxes. This guarantees that a well-researched, overly long thesis will be written on every topic.

That's probably unfair on Nick Bostrom as this paper is a well written, dispassionate analysis of the future of humanity. And it's really quite readable and not too long. His basic thesis is:

Because of accelerating technological progress, humankind may be rapidly approaching a critical phase in its career. In addition to well-known threats such as nuclear holocaust, the prospects of radically transforming technologies like nanotech systems and machine intelligence present us with unprecedented opportunities and risks.

His paper is an analysis of the 'existential risks' which become more common as technology becomes more powerful. There's some boring ones - nuclear holocaust (yawn), asteroid or comet impact (double yawn), misuse of nanotechnology (of course), badly programmed superintelligence (is there another kind?) - and some more interesting ones. I like we're living in a simulation and it gets shut down. Although from my perspective it's more likely that we're living in a simulation and it crashes because it's running on a Windows machine. Sorry, cheap shot.

(Hey, maybe Microsoft's dominance of the world is saving us from the Matrix possibility; they can't even protect their OS from eight year old script kiddies, how can they create an all-encompassing super app? And who else has the power?)

But it's not just the big ones, the bangs that are possible. There are also crunches, which the race would survive but losing technology so set back by thousands of years (that's right, even the Internet). I've always liked dysgenic pressures. Basically, we'll breed ourselves dumber:

It seems that there is a negative correlation in some places between intellectual achievement and fertility.

Speaking from experience, Nick? I hear ya.

Then there are shrieks; which restrict the race to but a small fraction of our potential. The easy one is a repressive totalitarian global regime. And I'll leave that there.

And lastly, whimpers; these tend to be more insidious. For example, our potential or even our core values are eroded by evolutionary development. In other words, we evolve into a suboptimal situation. His example is a colonization race, where all we do is manufacture and send out colonization probes. But of course this raises the question of what 'optimal' life is. Tough one.

I could go on for hours, it's a very interesting paper.

One last nugget; the Fermi Paradox. We've seen no signs of extraterrestrial life, therefore Earth-like planets generally don't cause the evolution of life which can colonize the universe. If they did, we would have seen some signs. This leads to the conclusion that there must be at least one Great Filter, an event or development stage which species never get past. 'If the Great Filter isn't in our past, we must fear it in our (near) future.'

To me, that's kinda scary. But apparently the consensus is that it's probably in our past; mainly because we haven't seen any other life forms. Wait, is that circular reasoning? I don't quite get it. If it is in our past, the human race is unimaginably improbable, and so very, very special.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Modest Mouse: Good News For People Who Love Bad News

JB had done it again when I saw the latest Modest Mouse album for just $12. I've liked these guys ever since Nick slung me a couple of tracks from this album, so I thought it was a prudent purchase.

Well, it turns out I'd already heard the three best tracks, but it's still a good album. I think of the band as being happy-sounding; it's probably the unconventional vocals. But the first track The World At Large has one of the most poignant feels of any track I've really heard. It becomes apparent why this is on a glance at the lyrics. It's about a drifter who starts again in a new place every season. The philosophical lyrics seem to catch modern life perfectly: 'still haven't gotten anywhere that I want', 'I didn't know what I had that day', and the closer 'I know that starting over is not what life's about, but my thoughts were so loud I couldn't hear my mouth' speaks of a sensibility very similar to my own.

I liked it, anyway.

So that's a great track, but I'm in pain. The follow-up, Float On, picks me back up and inserts me back into life. It's a big anthemic, bouncy sort of drug, with exuberant vocals and a big lush arrangement. Classic track.

And so we're 8 minutes in. The quality inevitably retreats from this high. The other standout on the album is Bukowski, about a great American poet, who I'd previously never heard of. Thankfully, Mouse is there to edify me. The rest of the tracks seem background music, on just a few listens. Give them time, though.

Good album. There's a small chance I'll buy more Modest Mouse.

The Corrections: Jonathan Franzen

I was put off by the 'Oprah's Book Club' logo on the front of the book, but that's definitely an unfair, Pavlovian reaction.

It's just as well I overcame it. This is a magnificent book. It's a big portrait of an American family. There are five main characters, each getting their own section and story, and Franzen finds all of them with perfection. It's the story of a chunk of the life of Enid and Alfred Lambert, and their three children, Gary, Chip and Denise. Nothing too outlandish occurs; it's a simple plot, very well executed.

The plot, and the characters, really seem to be hooks on which Franzen can hang a scathing criticism of modern relationships and capitalism and prescription drugs and keeping people alive. But it's all done so well that I never felt he was too preachy or didactic. He writes decent dialogue, but it's the inner thoughts and feelings that he skewers. The bits portraying headlong flight through a rollercoaster of emotion are unputdownable.

A really satisfying read, despite Oprah's recommendation.