Sympathetic Stupid

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Sustainability Deity

Bleeding edge technology calls to every geek bone in my body, but when that new car smell has faded, it's all about finding clever, sustainable ways to use it. That's where savvy, conscientious people come in. Number one on the list: William McDonough. (Link through Gristmill.)

(Unfortunately, no relation to Blair McDonough from Big Brother and Neighbours. As far as I can tell.)

Trained as an architect, he's transcended that label to become so much more; look at his awards for Sustainable Development, Design and Green Chemistry. He started designing the first solar-heated house in the world, in Ireland. His famous book is Cradle To Cradle, written with chemist Michael Braungart, which apparently talks about eco-effectiveness - "designing from the ground up for both eco-safety and cost efficiency". I haven't read this, but the 'cradle to cradle' of the title is about a cycle whereby goods are created, recycled and used again without losing any material quality. As opposed to those which hit landfill in months. Sounds like an admirable aim, and an interesting tie in with nanotechnology.

He's got strong corporate credentials, which is the only way to get the message across. This article on the Triple Top Line talks about the Fractal Triangle (no shortage of catchphrases), relating any proposal under consideration to all of economics, equity and ecology. This mitigates against gravitating to the extremes - capitalism, socialism and ecologism - which by definition neglect the other two points of the triangle. As it mentions, he's worked this concept with companies like Ford, BASF and Nike; not sure with what sort of success, but that's cred right there.

Here's an interview from Newsweek, providing a good summary of the guy. The quote which grabs me the most is about a story I've seen somewhere before, from the Rohner textile plant in Switzerland. They designed a fabric safe enough to eat, they "screened 8,000 commonly used chemicals and ended up with 38. When inspectors measured the effluent water, they thought their instruments were broken". Who knew there were so many chemicals in fabric? Not me, certainly, but why use 8000 if you can do it with 5% of that number? Less inputs to the process must be a good thing, as he says, they reduced the cost of production by 20%. This is no niche product; it's the seat covers on the new Airbus A380.

Look, there's so many good ideas just in that article, this guy has really got his shit together. Read the article, then imagine what he could do with decent molecular manufacturing. Like, wow.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Miniscule Help For Developing Countries

Gee, nanotech's cool. It's like, little robots which can do, like, anything. Like you could get nanotech implanted in your skin to give yourself a dermal display on the back of your hand! Imagine getting that all over your body, you could have constantly mutating tatoos!

But nanotech's not just about decadent Western body art. Leapfrogging is a concept I've seen popularised through the most excellent and ubiquitous WorldChanging site. It's where developing areas can skip semi-obsolete technologies and go straight to the cutting-edge, jumping past developed countries which are struggling to replace their legacy tech. Examples. Mobile phones are more common than land lines in much of the developing world, because they're cheaper to install. A developing public sector could adopt Linux throughout rather than Windows; again, it's cheaper. From this article, solar power rollout can give a decentralised power grid. If you've got few petrol stations, it's easier to transition to hydrogen. It's about the infrastructure can be created when there are few legacy considerations.

So, industrial manufacturing economies are passé; why not go straight to information, or better, straight to nano? Is this possible? Is it desirable?

It's definitely desirable, and it might even be vaguely possible. Molecular manufacturing promises to be more precise, which means there's less wastage of materials and power, in the process and the products. Lower power needs are most important as this allows the use of solar cells - there's your decentralised grid, especially in the tropical band which holds many developing countries. In general, nanotech should allow advanced lifestyles with less environmental burden, making it vaguely feasible that people across the world have similar privileges.

And similar life expectancies. There's no doubt nanotech will revolutionise medicine - apparently it's now possible to get early-warning on cancer. Whether this will be subject to leapfrogging is debatable; it seems less likely to me. But water is important, or rather, lack of it is deadly, as are water-borne diseases. 100% effective filters at the nano scale would allow both the reclamation of waste water and the reduction of environmental impact. I wonder how little water a person could survive on, if they had a quick, effective nanofilter - maybe 1 cup, recycled indefinitely? Where to get the filters? How about the local nanofactory? These would require a relatively small initial cost outlay, and little infrastructure; the missing piece of the puzzle is the chemical supply. One nanofactory could provide manufactured goods to an area with nothing. These could also produce cheap, effective greenhouses, increasing agricultural efficiency.

Here's a list more comprehensive than mine, from the Eureka Alert.

It's all positive, right? But it's never quite that easy. New tech comes packed with potential downsides. Remember cars before carbon emissions? Or spray cans before CFCs spoiled the party? Or antibiotics when noone knew about superbugs? Or the internet before porn, spam and identity hacking? Nanotech side effects are an order of magnitude worse than any of these, but the techniques for dealing with them will be similarly more powerful. Yes, care is needed, as with GM crops (I'm on the fence on that one). But I'm convinced that technology is still, as always, the answer to many problems.

The key problem is that capital invested in nanotech will search out those regions where the profit will be highest. No, that won't be sub-Saharan Africa. Yes, that will be the US and Europe. So there's a big challenge in getting it to where it's needed most, to facilitate the leapfrogging behaviour which could produce such dramatic developmental results.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Warren Zevon: Genius [Track]

My appreciation for the Warren Zevon oeuvre is restricted to that Werewolves Of London. A mental short circuit connects this directly to the Teen Wolf movies and so to Michael J Fox and then... Anyway, it just seemed like a throwaway novelty hangover from my Triple M flirtation in the mid 90s.

I've just listened to the track Genius nine times in a row. I'm a words junkie, and two lyrics in particular seem to do it for me:

"There's a face in every window of the songwriter's neighbourhood,
Everybody's your best friend when you're doing well, I mean good."

A nice little pun delivered perfectly straight.

"Albert Einstein was a ladies man,
While he was working on his universal plan,
He was making out like Charlie Sheen,
He was a genius."

This one always tingles my spine. Einstein must be the least disputed genius in history but seems one-dimensional in a way famous people can't be in the Information/Tabloid Age. Whether this is true or not, I love the thought of Einstein wandering down to a club after a hard day slaving over the atoms. And the delicious juxtaposition with Charlie Sheen is excellent.

Throughout, the song equates success in love with genius. Through Mata Hari and Einstein, to "You broke my heart into smithereens/And that took genius". Which is probably why this song appeals to me at the moment, that's right, it's a breakup song, underneath the elaborate images and tales. Though there seem to be a number of breakups conflated into this, she left him for the hairdresser, or for someone who could help her career.

As for the music, it's well produced, very clean with a nice slow groove, on assorted percussion, behind accompaniment from strings. Zevon's voice floats over the tune with some standard but tasteful studio magic messing with the vocals.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Cold War Fairytales

From my profound understanding of human nature, it seems ridiculous that the race could have survived the Cold War. So many big red buttons, each with a nervous finger poised over it. The Cuban Missile Crisis is the highest profile of the 'mutual assured destruction' possibilities, but there must have been many more times that nervous men in the field had the authority to launch.

One was on this day in 1983. A guy called Stanislav Petrov (thanks, WorldChanging, yes, I know I'm lazy) was sitting in a bunker near Moscow, with a shedload of computers telling him that there were missiles on the way over the Pacific. All he had to do was ring the Kremlin (presumably on a red phone) and I wouldn't have lived to see my fourth Christmas. So we can all thank Stanislav for having a more sceptical view of computers than many. The Russian satellites had been confused by high-altitude clouds reflecting the sun; obviously this was something so rare they didn't need to test for it. And just like that, we didn't all die.

So thank the heavens for that. Despite everything, I'd much rather be red than dead.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Lyrics That Grab Ya

"Is a look when you look look look into somebody's eyes,
And you know that they'd just as soon kill ya as smile."

Augie March - Song In The Key Of Chance

Friday, September 23, 2005

Coconuts And Swedes

Oil is top of the pops right now, and god forbid I don't post what everyone else is. Both of these are from WorldChanging (if you haven't seen it, you should).

Another clever fuel for diesel engines is coconut oil. This is even better than the previous biodiesel because it works straight out of the shell without any kitchen shenanighans, though adding a little kero helps. It's just as clean as the other stuff. This is going on in Vanuatu, where they have lots of coconuts and not many refineries, so it's very good for their trade balance. Get rid of those dependencies on foreign oil! In fact, that's probably on the best features of biodiesel; it should create a focus on local production in many poor countries, saving money and creating jobs. This stuff's probably only useful in equatorial countries, as it solidifies below about 22°C.

Am I the only one who wishes I was born in Scandinavia? Those wacky, progressive kids are always conceiving something enviable. The top 14 of the UN Development Programme's Human Development Report contains Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, as well as Belgium and the Netherlands which are on the periphery. Though Australians can't complain as Australia is apparently third on the list, highlighting how ridiculously lucky we are to live here.

(And I'm going to ignore the fact that the media here mainly reported these superficial numbers, and ignored the important in depth discussions of inequality, poverty and conflict in the report.)

Did I have a point? Oh, yeah. So Scandinavian governments tend to be cool. And that's been reinforced as Sweden aims to end fossil fuel dependency by 2020. As they say, global warming affects the areas near the poles most, so the onus is on them to do something about it. They're increasing spending on energy research and subsidising enviro tech exports. Taxes will be reduced for cars running on more enviro-friendly fuels - in obvious contrast to certain Australian governments who are lowering rebates, not taxes.

You're the man, King Carl XVI Gustaf!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Deep Fried Fuel

McDonald's are making a mistake introducing new healthy menus; that oil in their deep fryers could be the solution to the world's energy crisis!

In the same way that biomass power stations are a real green option, biodiesel is a true alternative fuel. Diesel engines, without any modification, can run on a fuel made completely of vegetable oil, avoiding completely the environmental negatives of mineral oil. Metaefficient has a great FAQ on the subject.

As they say, biodiesel can be made from "soy or canola oil, and can also be made from recycled fryer oil" which means fast food restaurants everywhere could be sitting on a gold mine. As far as I'm aware (judging from where I've worked), the oil is just disposed of after a day (or three) in the fryer. Any further value extracted from it is pure profit. And they could even do this themselves; as Sarah at Inhabitat shows, you can make this fuel in your own kitchen!

And this fuel has other advantages. Chief among them must be that your exhaust smells like popcorn, and more seriously has far less emissions of all kinds, though similar amounts of carbon. It's relatively unflammable, um, nonflammable, well, hard to burn, and very non-toxic. A downside is that, similar to diesel, it's not great in cold weather as it can start to solidify.

Cost? According to the FAQ, making it yourself costs about US$0.60 a gallon - that seems like about AU$0.21 a litre. Not taking into account the effort, of course, but still damn cheap. However, it's not that simply in Australia. According to this article from the Biodiesel Association of Australia, you can't manufacture biodiesel, even for personal use, without paying an excise to the ATO. That's AU$0.38 a litre. So that would make it almost 60c a litre; still cheap, but what about the hassle of dealing with the ATO? And it's illegal to do it at all without a licence.

Commercial cost? In the US, where it's available, it sells for between US$1.90-$3.50 a gallon, which is about AU$0.86-$1.34. But it's hard to compare as they have a different tax regime. It looks like it sells for a 10-25% premium on mineral diesel, so you'd assume here it would be at the upper end of that range. And of course these prices rely on some economies of scale being achieved.

Availability? In Australia? Practically nowhere. The most interesting development seems to be by the company Axiom Energy, outlined in this Age article. They're expanding a 10m litre plant in Laverton to a 100m litre plant in the next year. But it seems they're concentrating more on producing low-sulphur diesel from waste plastics. Not sure about the environmental implications of this; reduced sulphur levels are good, and it reduces the amount of plastic in landfills, but it does nothing for emissions. Everyone else in Australia is doing the ethanol thing, which seems shortsighted.

Smog: A River Ain't Too Much To Love

I've been trying to work out why I prefer this album to Sime Nugent's The Undertow which I've also been recently listening to. My conclusion seems to be that it's the difference between roots and folk; and possibly also the difference of a decade or so of experience in making albums. Nugent plays bluesy roots, it's mainly quicker and busier, more instruments and sound. In some ways it seems that he tries to oversell the songs. It's a pretty good album, as I've said before, but by no means a classic.

Callaghan, however, has crafted a very good folk album from minimal ingredients. Just the staples; most of the tracks are guitar and voice, with occasional drums sneaking in, and a little fiddle and piano. The words often mean Dylan-eqsue-ly little, but the phrasing and delivery is just idiosyncratic enough to be interesting, while Callaghan's deep and musical voice is compelling. He speak-sings his lines without a surfeit of emotion, putting a bit more effort in when necessary.

The initial highlight of the album is The Well, a prosaic tale of Bill wandering into the woods in search of a bottle he'd impulsively tossed in there. It's a narrative of nothing, building up to the understated climax where Bill gives 'my red rage/my yellow streak/the greenest parts of me/and my blues' to the black of the well, because 'black is all colours at once'. I Feel Like The Mother Of The World has Bill telling the world, as his mother once told him, 'it does not matter/just stop fighting'; a naive but well-meant political statement in the grand tradition of folk. My favourite track is I'm New Here, a nice picked guitar part reminiscent of McCartney's Blackbird underpinning some nice advice: 'no matter how far wrong you've gone/you can always turn around'.

It's a happy, or at least optimistic album. And it has tunes to match the best that's out there. Wholly enjoyable.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Chrysalids: John Wyndham

Wyndham's books can only be classified as science fiction, but there's no hardcore science in the Kim Stanley Robinson mould, with fiction as a sideline. Wyndham writes tales which just happen to be set in a possible future, or even an alternate present. And he writes, as the quote on the back of the back says, 'with a sort of hyaline simplicity' which keeps his books oh-so-readable, even fifty years after publication. That said, The Chrysalids remains a book of its time - the mid-1950s, with the world zipping headlong towards destruction as the Cold War escalates.

The setting is Labrador in the far east of Canada, in a miniscule community swamped by a post-apocalyptic world covered with Badlands, where the chances of 'breeding true' - without mutations - are less than 50%. It's an unsubtle flash-forward to a nuclear future. The community' run by theocrats who preach the creed of purity, getting rid of any human, animal or plant with mutations.

The star of the show is David, who grows up in the most fundamentalist family in town. He appears normal on the outside but has telepathic powers which he shares with a small clique in the area. He befriends a girl who he later discovers is a mutant and so discovers that mutants are only human too. Eventually, his group, with the help of his more telepathically powerful younger sister, gets in contact with a much more advanced society in New Zealand. In the climax of the book, this society steps in and rescues them from a clash between outcast mutants and an establishment army, by the use of overwhelming technological force.

The plot sounds prosaic; well, it sounds similar to Harry Potter, I suppose: boy grows up in unhappy family, discovers special powers, ends up somewhere more appreciative. The skill is in the telling, in the understanding of human nature that Wyndham brings to the task. The obvious possiblities for moralising and preaching, on tolerance and respect for life and evolution, unsubtly push the plot aside in a few places. But clear language and solid pace win the day.

Incidentally, isn't it time for another movie version of Day Of The Triffids? Hollywood, are you listening? Modern special effects could possibly even get it right!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Fly Me To The Moon - Play It Again, Frank

NASA have mocked up some plans to get back into space, in the wake of the retirement (in somewhat worrying circumstances) of the shuttle fleet. This has been coming since last January when Bush promised 'to the moon by the end of the next decade'. Otherwise know as the Where's-My-Cold-War-Textbook plan.

New Scientist - NASA unveils vision for return to Moon
NY Times - NASA Planning Return to Moon Within 13 Years
CNN - NASA unveils moon program
USA Today - NASA to detail plans for trip to moon

So, OK, here's the deal. It's "Apollo on steriods". People are having a go because it's basically the same plan as came to fruition in 1969, 49 years before this one's planned to get there in 2018. Yeah, I'd like us to have colonies on Mars and Venus as well, but this is some of the hardest stuff anyone tries to do. It's not surprising we (the human race) are barely managing to get off the planet.

In fact, I think the Apollo program gave us a misleading view of the quality of the tech. There was so much effort pumped into getting up there that development was accelerated; but this is similar to bringing forward spending, in economics. Example: if big-screen TVs are on special so you buy one today instead of next month, that doesn't mean you'll still buy one next month; the same amount of spending's been shifted forward. I think it's the same with space travel research. A lot happened in the 60s but this combined with no inconsiderable amount of luck and sheer hard work to get success. There were plenty of gaps in the technology and the knowledge, and these are still being filled in. It was always going to take about this long for solid moon trips to begin to be made, but Neil Armstrong's step made us think we were more advanced than we actually were.

In favour of this argument are the stats of the new vehicle. It's a lot better than what we had then: a bigger craft that holds more astronauts, can stay on the moon longer, can land anywhere not just on the moon's equator. It'll be 10 times as safe as the shuttle (1 in 2000 crashes as opposed to 1 in 220). And it's budgeted, inflation-adjusted, at 55% of the cost of the Apollo Program. The technology is getting to a better point. And there's some other good aims here. A priority will be to learn to live 'off the land', to be able to make fuel and oxygen from lunar materials (helped by landing near possible ice at the moon's south pole). This aims at a semi-permanent moon presence, like the sadly-neglected International Space Station.

I reckon it's exciting. But there are arguments against. Many space junkies feel that NASA is inefficient and over-buereaucratic; these posts from Rand Simberg Apollo 2.0 and Mission Costs give a feel of this. It seems that it's possible that it could all be done orders of magnitude cheaper by private corporations. I'd love to believe that. Maybe NASA should be rearranged so that it simply provided funding and support for private enterprise. But maybe space flight is just hard and it just costs a lot (though these guys know more about that than me).

Of course, the other reason for continuing the US space program is because Russia and China can - it's national security, stupid. And the European Space Agency, while it hasn't got human spaceflight capabilities, is sending probes to Mars and Venus as we speak. NASA remains the public's space icon, but they might be dropping off the pace in the hidden public sector space race.

It'd be interesting if it turns out like when you're playing Risk 2210 (the board game). What can happen there is that you dominate the earth but fail to take notice of the moon, and someone else takes that over then starts to seriously challenge your dominance of the earth. All great empires have to end somewhere...

Monday, September 19, 2005

September The Nineteenth: A Word

Today's word:


adj: Resembling glass, as in translucence or transparency; glassy.
n: Something that is translucent or transparent.

Apparently John Wyndham "writes with a kind of hyaline simplicity". Which, once explained, sounds like how we should all aspire to write. Shame it's so hard.


A quote from the editorial in today's Crikey says:

The Latham Diaries – a "riveting chronicle of life inside politics" – hits the stores today, and it's going to be a publishing smash hit.

Is it going to be a 'publishing smash hit'? I don't know what the threshold for smash hit is, but surely it's at least 100k copies, though Melbourne Uni Press will probably get their money back on about 5-10k. I always wonder if the media just assumes that everyone cares about national issues like politics just as much as they do. How many people actually care about the tale, enough to get the wallet out? Most politics books just don't sell, do they?

Judging from the underwhelming electoral performance, a significant proportion of the population don't like him. And it's likely that a similarly significant chunk of Australia knows nothing and cares less about politics. Does Latham retain enough cred among the self-professed politically-savvy that they'll but the book (if only to see if they're named)? Or will the publicity surrounding the vitriol drum up enough interest?

I reckon it'll be disappointing for the publisher.

Architecture In Helsinki: In Case We Die

See, I bought the Like A Call single when it came out, and it was really good. Sorta IDM, almost Postal Service, nice and dancey. And then I bought the LP, Fingers Crossed and listened to it for a while, cause it wasn't just the same as the single. It was kinda schizophrenic and had some OK tracks but many of them seemed to miss. It was, I guess, electronic pop-folk, but the vocals were a bit twee and the music was a bit light and fluffy; it all sounded OK the first few times, but rapidly fell off to not much more than annoying.

The Fiery Furnaces entered my consciousness, with the initial reaction being 'that sounds like AiH', followed soon after by rejection. Not helped by the fact that it's nearly impossible to do any work when listening to something so seemingly indiscriminate. Eventually, however, the Fiery Furnaces shtick stuck in my eardrum.

I'd been hearing Do The Whirlwind a little on the radio. In the tradition of Like A Call, it was a dance-pop gem with a great bouncy beat and nice melodic chorus. Eventually, as it was written in the pig entrails, I picked up a copy of In Case We Die.

So Helsinki are still similar to the Furnaces, mainly in structure. Symphonic multi-movement songs, yep, with tempo and key changes strewn throughout. Hundred part arrangements which would have been completely impractical before cheap, competent mixing software became widespread. Riffs almost stolen from songs both great and poor, which pass before you can really grab at them. Clean production which deftly keeps the clarity of the mix foremost.

But there are big differences. AiH have a wide range of instrumentation, as featured in the liner notes, easily besting your common-or-garden orchestra. And Helsinki go with two to four minute ditties rather than twelve minute epics. More than once, this album made me think of The (seemingly-departed) Avalanches and their tour-de-force Since I Left You, but also of the Beatles' White Album. It feels like childhood's mythical sunny day stroll through a fairground, with too many delights on every side to allow concentration, and no immediate prospect of an ending.

Yeah, it's a good album. Staying power remains something of a question, but it seems to me that these guys are starting to come into their birthright. Let's just hope the intra-band chemistry remains solid until such time as they release their ultimate masterpiece. (Or at least through the US tour until I see them at Meredith.)

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Novelog? Booklog? Book Blog?

I don't know what the hip term for these things is, but Dingo, by Michael Alan Nelson, is a book being posted in blog form one chapter per week. Currently at Chapter 2, it seems a bit like airport Easton Ellis. Plenty of sex and consumer culture, and the promise of dollops of violence and drugs. Well enough written and quite enjoyable. And of course there's a twist coming, looks like that'll be around chapter 27 and chapter 28 will wrap it all up; say March-April next year? Simple, really.

Stuff Happens @ Comedy Theatre

It's hard to do politics in art. This play's based around the events leading up to the Iraq war, starting from about the election of Dubya and finishing a little after the invasion. It's hard, but I think David Hare's taken the easy way out with the structure of the play. He's said elsewhere that it's not a 'live-action documentary', but unfortunately that was how I saw it.

For a start, all the characters are real people, which is easy for the playwright but hard for the actors. The performances in this show were mostly exceptional, especially Greg Stone's spot-on Bush. Yeah, he's an easy target, but he still had to nail it - the constant half-smile which says 'I'm sorta listening' was just right. Rhys Muldoon's Tony Blair was most disappointing for mine; it seemed he was trying to avoid doing a caricature and skewed too far the other way, completely avoiding the halting speech patterns Blair often exhibits.

Much of the speech is taken straight from the mouths of the participants, on the public record. The rest is 'behind-the-scenes' conversations in famous locations like the Oval Office and Camp David, or indeed 10 Downing St. This is where I start to take issue with the structure, as I think these necessarily fabricated conversations, which simply reinforce the stereotypes of their character, give too much scope for attacking the play. It's obvious from the start how these people will be portrayed (fuck, it's obvious when you buy the tickets) and they don't have a lot of depth beyond that. Naughty characters: Bush is dumb, Cheney and Rumsfeld pull the strings, Wolfowitz is egocentric and incompetent, Rice is a yes-woman. Nice characters: Powell is their conscience, Blair just wants to do the right thing, Blix is hard-working and conscientious. He could've written them in his sleep, and it's all preaching to the converted anyway.

There are things the play does well. Contradicting my earlier statements, I liked the portrayal of Blair as a guy who just wanted to help and was effectively railroaded by the US. And overall, we get the impression that the focus is just on getting the thing done, rather than asking whether or not the thing should be done. This is a useful insight. Hare's left-wing bias is obvious but he does give the hawks their best arguments in favour. It's staged and performed very well. And the closing monologue portraying an Iraqi exile is a good conclusion to a tough piece. But overall I felt the form gained nothing over a documentary which would allow the characters involved to dig their own graves. If it had to be a play, I'd rather some subtle yet strong political allegory.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Grow Pot For Power

If the surfeit of research is any indicator, we'll have replaced oil in months. This one [from WorldChanging] is about growing crops of elephant grass as fuel for biomass power stations.

This is good for global warming because biomass is essentially neutral in emissions terms; it grows and extracts carbon dioxide from the air, then as it burns (or indeed rots), the carbon dioxide is released back in to the air. It's good for farmers because it can be interleaved nicely with growing food crops so making the land more productive - assuming the sale price beats the production price. One underlying concern would be about increasing the possibly ecologically damaging use of agriculture (fertiliser, pesticides, erosion, salinity), but sustainable farming practices are another debate.

Talking of carbon-neutrality brought me to a hitherto unrealised, um, realisation. There's a lot of carbon in and especially on this planet. It's in maybe three different forms: solid - animals, plants, minerals like coal, liquid - minerals like oil, gas - natural gas, carbon dioxide. Overall, the amount of carbon is roughly constant, but it's constantly transitioning from one from to another. We love it when plants grow and leech carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - gas to solid, but we hate it when hydrocarbons (gas, oil) are burned and turn into gas - solid or liquid to gas. Why? Because carbon in gas form fills the atmosphere, rising to form an insulating layer which heats up the Earth - this is the Greenhouse Effect.

The important point, however, is that the overall amount stays about the same. So the problem with burning fossil fuels (produced by animals and plants being compressed over millions of years) is that it removes 'safe' carbon from the ground and turns it into 'dangerous' gas. It's not the carbon itself that is the problem but the balance. The more carbon we can store in safe places, like in solid or liquid form, or underground, the more the Greenhouse Effect will be mitigated. (This is partly where geosequestration comes in and starts to sound less stupid; though why not use that carbon to make something, like pretty plants?)

Coal and oil are pretty safe places to store carbon, but we like to use them for other things. Plants are safe for a while but when they die and rot or burn, the carbon is released, so it's only temporary, and it takes a lot of plants to store much carbon. They're not a panacea. But that's where this option comes in. Grass releases its carbon so quickly that it can barely be counted as a store. So let's make the most of that and proactively release the carbon as part of a process which also generates useful energy. The most important point is that it's renewable. As the carbon is released, more grass is growing and taking it back in, keeping the system closer to stable.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Rubicon: Tom Holland

The Triumph And Tragedy Of The Roman Republic

Now for some pop-history. 'Pop' only because of the great readability, but don't underestimate his academic achievement in synthesizing so much information.

As Holland acknowledges in the Preface, 'the comparison of Rome to the modern-day United States has become something of a cliché'. By the end of the Republic in AD 14, which was its zenith, Rome directly ruled Spain, France, half of Germany, most of the Balkans, most of Greece, Turkey, a good portion of the Middle East, Egypt and half of the Mediterranean Coast. The US - the premier modern-day republic - has less territory but arguably more influence; the Pax Romana seems an obvious parallel for the Pax Americana.

But 'parallels can be deceptive'. The sociopolitical circumstances may be broadly similar but the culture and assumptions are completely different. I'm sure a comparison can be found for the Roman arena - maybe reality TV? - but that's stretching it. And even the seemingly similar Senate differs, I mean, in those days only rich people could be involved in politics, which these days is... Well, sure, politics was a lot about horse-trading, and populism was preferred but... Oh, OK, they had a tradition of great oratory. You don't see that these days.

So, anyway, they may be similar but I preferred to read the book without too much reference to modern-day sociopolitical parallels. In fact, what mainly ran through my head, especially during the second half of the book, was Asterix.

Yep, all the big names are there. Julius Caesar. Vercingetorix. Scipio. Brutus. Mark Antony. Ptolemy. These guys all made an appearance or three in the classic comics of Hergé. I never realised how close he got to the actual events of history. The description of Vercingetorix laying down his arms in front of JC seemed identical to the comic book. And the world itself was right: belligerent and multifarious Gallic tribes, scary encroaching Goths, well-drilled Roman legionaries, exotic Egyptians and marauding pirates. The two pictures are painted in a completely different way but similarly competently. I'm inspired to go back to the comics (preferably to help me with my French) and this time I'm going to call them graphic novels.

Anyway, the book. The first two chapters are quite bitsy, the worst part of the book. He's trying to briefly set the scene by covering a couple of hundred sparsely documented years in not many words. We don't get a great sense of the characters involved or much background; Romulus killed Remus, Hannibal had elephants, Gaius Gracchus was greedy, but it's not really their story. The rest of the book covers the next century, and this is the interesting part.

It's readable because the characters are well-drawn. We know enough of their backstory to have an understanding of their motivation, foibles and strengths. Caesar, especially, seems to have been extensively documented. In his early years, he was a dandy, a snappy dresser and a very charismatic man. He had a weakness for women: 'lock up your wives, our commander is bad news/He may be bald, but he fucks anything that moves', and possibly for men too. Marriage was for convenience and not for love.

It's interesting to contrast how these traits were seen. Dressing well, in the days of the metrosexual, is an advantage, but then it turned the old conservatives off him. These days, fucking anything that moves is a trait of the alpha male, but the Roman troops perceived it as weak and feminine to be too interested in sex. This was, however, counteracted by his habit of always being at the front of the battle, of eating his rations in his saddle, of sleeping on the ground with everyone else. It seems fairly likely that they loved him all the same. And marriage for convenience? This was the way the Roman world worked.

There are many other strong characters in this era. Pompey The Great was the only plausible rival for Caesar's dictatorship, being his equal as general but not as politician. Cato was the upstanding pillar of conservative politics. Cicero was a commoner who became a great orator, politician and lawyer (these were inseparable). Octavion, Caesar's son, was the megalomaniac who became Augustus. Mithridates was an irrepressible King of the East. Cleopatra, while probably not the most beautiful woman in the world, had a certain je ne sais quoi which ensured she'd get her way. Mark Antony was Caesar's 2IC and protegé and a similarly capable sex god. Crassus (Croesus?) was very, very rich. Sulla was the initial dictator prototype.

It seems a scary time to live in, and so the account is compelling. The world is enormous, human life is worth little, politics is a ruthless game and relationships are worth no more than what they produce. The Romans are the pinnacle of pragmatism, happily trading off human rights and social good for status and power. The continuation of the Republic is paramount.

If you like history, you'll like this.

Friday, September 09, 2005

TISM Top Ten: Thoughts On The Candidates III

Well, it took a month, but I'm now looking at the next 5 tracks in the TISM Top Ten shortlist. It's Machiavelli And The Four Seasons, and five big tracks.

(He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River

'Heroes explore to give us hope:
River pushed back the envelope.

It's got the irreverent celeb-bashing that comes so naturally to these boys. But most of the lyrics are incidental, in fact, the phrasing of 'Armstrong did moon, was not the same' make the line impossible to get without reading it. It's the sheer energy of the track: thumping 120 bpm electronic beat, driving guitar riff, unimaginative bass line. And how to guarantee that all 15 year old private schoolboys will request it at the social? How about some drugs in the chorus? This is the sound of selling out. Goodbye Springvale, hello Toorak. Goodbye RRR, hello MMM. This is where they contracted the germ of an idea that became Shut Up, The Footy's On The Radio.

Despite that? It holds up beautifully. An all time classic, this will have trouble missing out on top spot.

All Homeboys Are Dickheads

'"Know your enemy well enough
And you will pity them instead" -
In The Brothers Karamazov
That's what Dostoevsky said;
And pity soon will turn to love
Is what Jesus Christ once knew:
They both changed their minds the day when
They met a homeboy crew.

I love a good faux-intellectual literary reference, cause it makes me feel smart. And I like other people to challenge accepted truths, because I haven't got the guts. This track defines the nature vs nurture debate in simple terms: 'I know his Dad's abusive and his Mum prefers the daughter ... but the reason he's a homeboy is because he's a dickhead.' It's not environmental, it's genetic. The music is smooth, a contrast to the frenetic pace of the previous track, just as electronic, but with Humphrey's sweet vocals over the top and a nice harmonised chorus.

Another great track, possibly the third single from the album? Must be in the top five.

Lose Your Delusion II

'Why continue to keep trying,
To separate the real news from the lying?

This second version of this track is superior to the earlier first, with slicker production and clearer vocals. It answers a perennial question of the young leftie, about commercial news and current affairs: 'Who watches this crap?' The answer, of course, is 'You do, son'. As we age, it becomes more and more effort to separate the facts from the company line, so eventually we give up, and 'watch Ray Martin not Mary K'. Yes, that's 9's Ray and SBS's Mary Kostakidis; plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

This track nicely articulates the eternal parallel between conservatism and age, but the music is somewhat underwhelming. Should definitely make the top ten, though.

What Nationality Is Les Murray?

'Karl Marx played on the left; Ayn Rand played on the right;
But there's a much bigger problem. It stops me sleeping at night.'

Hey, it's a one-gag track and the gag's pretty much done once you've read the title, but it's a great one for sports fans. To kill it with explanation, Les is the SBS sports presenter. He's omnipresent, omniscient and has a feather-light Eastern European accent. He's definitely not a true-blue Aussie, but he's so diplomatic and cosmopolitan in his commentary that he could be from anywhere. So that's the punch-line, OK, get it? Ah, fuck ya.

Yeah, good track but not great, might sneak into the ten but is unlikely to get much higher.

Greg! The Stop Sign!!

'The rich kid becomes a junkie,
The poor kid, an advertiser :
What a tragic waste of potential -
Being a junkie's not so good, either.

Were they trying to appeal directly to disaffected teenagers? Fuck yeah. I can't remember exactly the context, but I think the graphic TAC ads had just begun to be shown, and this track's title is a direct quote from one. This is self-affirming school-age stuff, it's all about how the popular kids never get anywhere and it's the dropouts who make it (that subject'll come back later). The lyrics are great for all of us who weren't a prefect. And the music - the hardcore Beach Boys style choral break goes well with the bouncy dance beats to make another great rock dance track.

I think this was the second single. Top two? I think so.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema

I hate it when I accidentally read the Pitchfork review of a CD that I was obviously gonna buy anyway, especially when they give it 9.0 (which is really quite high). Cause I don't want to be one of those gauche people who are dependent on some website to tell them what to listen to. Especially one that takes itself so seriously. And I don't need a clue as to whether the album is good or not, I should be able to work that out if I've got any taste at all, which I obviously do. Since I know they said it was good, I'm now obligated to say it's bad, right?

(Ah, us cultural supersnobs lead a hard life. It's hard to clutch onto that tiny shred of cred.)

Um, it's actually kinda magnificent.

They were already the monarchs of the realm power-pop for mine. Both their previous albums - Mass Romantic and Electric Version - have the property that when a song plays, I have to break into the shuffle and switch to the The New Pornographers playlist for an hour. Yeah, I know I should listen to the new EP from that underground experimental hip-hop/funk/death metal combo, but sometimes pure sonic sugar is just what you feel like.

But this isn't just sonic sugar. The crystal production conceals the manifold nature of the tracks; on the seventh listen, suddenly you discover a funky piano bass line at the bottom of the verse in Sing Me Spanish Techno, or a cello in the back of These Are The Fables. And then there's the drums, as eulogised in the Pitchfork review; listen to Jackie, Dressed In Cobras and the drums just play rolling fills for the entire bridge, while the guitars move the track along easily. Not to mention, in the same track, the fucking with time, I'm sure that's a measure of 7, a 4, then an 8. And the harmonied chorus of Falling Through Your Clothes has been cut up and stuck back together in a questionable way. But it works!

Every track on the album has moments like this. It's a desert island disc; constant random walks through the disc don't kill it but only make it stronger. By the Law Of Inverse Attractiveness, it takes a while for the ear to attune to their frequency, but then it's magic, with Sing Me Spanish Techno as my absolute highlight.

My only regret is that every time I hear these tracks again, I'm one listen closer to the Death Of The Album, the point at which you're inured to the magic. But, fuck, make the most of it while it lasts.

September The Eighth: A Word

Quiet day today which must mean I'm actually doing some work. And conversely maybe that The New Pornographers are making it impossible for me to concentrate on anything. Today's word:


adj: Tending to irritate; repellent.
adj: Serving or tending to repel.

Practice: 'I find G W Bush rebarbative.' Say it loud and say it proud! And say it to his face; he won't get it.

I came across it in a book on Programming Ruby, of all things. Nice language, good book.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Miracle Mouse Minnie?

A new era in medicine? I'm surprised this hasn't had more publicity, as it appears one of the most amazing scientific achievements ever.

'Miracle mouse' can grow back lost limbs (The Times)
Out on a Limb Tissue regeneration should be treated cautiously (The Times Of India)

"Scientists have created a 'miracle mouse' that can regenerate amputated limbs or badly damaged organs..."
"...when cells from the test mouse are injected into ordinary mice, they too acquire the ability to regenerate."
"...the prospect that humans could one day be given the ability to regenerate lost or damaged organs..."

This is computer game, science fiction stuff. For anyone who's ever wondered wy their D&D character heals when they rest overnight, this is obviously the answer. The only organ that didn't regenerate was the brain, so it's not all good news, but being able to regrow a heart or lung or arm or toe or liver is pretty impressive.

Looking deeper, it's actually not quite as farfetched as it sounds. We can regrow our liver, and of course skin. And many fish and amphibians can regrow internal organs. So the biological pathways are in place. It's interesting that "the MRL mouse seems to have a higher rate of cell division", which seems to be the key. The hypothesis is that this could also confer greater longevity. Seems to me it could also result in higher cancer rates, but that's pure speculation right now.

Now, there's huge ethical problems. Most of us can ignore that fact that these mice were being cut up and tortured to see if they could recover. There'll be bigger conundrums with making this useful in humans. The way ordinary mice gained regenerative powers was through having foetal liver cells from these presumably genetically engineered mice injected into them. So to do that in humans, you'll probably need to create a foetus, mess with its genes, harvest some liver cells and kill the foetus, if I understand the process correctly.

And then there's the broader problem, as explained in the Times Of India article. "Why did the ability devolve in the first place? Was there a survival benefit in delimiting its use? Could its reintroduction bring about mutations?" And the question underlying genetic engineering; is it right to play God? Some of these questions are quite answerable; it seems likely that longevity was actually detrimental in the Good Old Days. If no-one had enough food, what's the point keeping you alive after you've stopped reproducing? From an evolutionary standpoint, the lifespan of primitive man should logically have been around 30-35 years, enough time to pop out a brood of babies and have at least two survive to propagate the species, but not enough time to drain resources. That probably answers two of those questions. In the Western World, these things are generally not a problem. In the Third World, that's nowhere near true.

Which leads to the bigger issue, of whether creating 'supermen' who can regenerate would result in the human race splintering into two separate species, the supermen and the underclass; if you like, it's the Time Machine scenario. Given the inequality between rich and poor, and the fact that this science is guaranteed to be expensive, it's hard to see that not happening.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Oliver Mann: Sings

Oliver Mann most certainly does sing. This scary-beautiful album marries folk songs and classical music to beget a chimera dissimilar to either.

As the title suggests, Mann's voice is the centerpiece. He's classically trained as an operatic bass, but the range of his voice belies this; A Book is the better part of three octaves above Swan-Singing, but he sounds equally comfortable - and flawless - in either register. The sparse instrumentation and clarity of production pushes his voice and stories to the top of every track, with the exception of Swan-Singing which is a pastiche of samples, mandolin, squeaking clarinet and background voices. The track reminds me of nothing so much as Mr Bungle's The Bends, Mike Patton being a completely different vocalist but with a similarly wide-ranging musical sensibility. All this, and an Australian accent, something you don't hear much on any recording.

Herringbone Blues was the track that drew me in to the album. A fishing fable comparable to any other, Mann tells the poignant story of his trip to pick up herring for to feed his sleeping family, and his encounter with a trawler, against his "solemn wish". The accompaniment on mandolin and guitar builds up to a rootsy blues at the climax, before dying away; and the multi-tracked vocal accompaniment is special.

The other great track is Shoe Of Leather, an epic fable. The narrator is arrested in Beijing for carrying smack, escapes from prison and has to walk to Hong Kong, vocalising his musings as he walks, an excuse for Mann to go on a seemingly improvised jaunt above the solid guitar accompaniment. Mann's whimsical, slightly surreal narratives are as much a drawcard as the music and special voice, for mine.

A magnificent, unexpected ride through the world.

The Take

Ah, capitalism. The undisputed top of the -ism pops. Feudalism ruled when no-one knew what it was but gradually paled. Socialism? Seems the USSR messed that up. China's communism seems to challenge but there's every suspicion that capitalism's behind the scenes in the Grand Vizier role. That said, criticism could give them all a run for their money. And feminism, racism and cosmopolitanism have always been popular. Terrorism's fighting a war. Metabolism is indispensable. Tourism? Cynicism is probably my favourite. (Blast you, Wikipedia!)

But I digress.

The Take is another high-profile documentary (cf Mike Moore, The Corporation, Super-Size Me, Control Room), with similar anti-capitalist themes, made by the movement's power couple, Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis.

It focuses on Argentina in 2002, in the aftermath of the country's bankruptcy and fiscal crisis, an undoubtedly horrible situation for all involved. Argentina was a rising star in world economies and was borrowing heavily to get itself there. Then the government began to miss debt interest payments, so no-one would lend them more money to fund continuing budget deficits. The mostly foreign banks started to pull money out, companies started to go bankrupt, multinationals pulled out, exports dried up leading to increasing imports, and the exchange rate was worsening. It all fell apart; possibly because of weak regulation and strong corruption, probably a fixed exchange rate with the US dollar was bad. The crisis was probably worsened by the fact that most of the government borrowings were in foreign currencies and so as declining world confidence killed the exchange rate, payments got correspondingly higher. And possibly the IMF contributed, sparking the anti-globalisation interest.

None of this background is given in the film, which was slightly disappointing as context is always important. But regardless, Argentina ends up with a lot of empty factories because they've been closed down by both multinationals and locals, because there's no-one to sell to. The slogan is 'Occupy! Resist! Produce!' and it means that the ex-workers take over these empty factories and get them running again. The film focuses on a couple of factories in this process.

So there's two sides to this. One is that, in modern society, property rights are foremost, as seen in New Orleans with looters being shot; don't protect the people who're trying to feed their families, protect the store owners and shareholders' capital. So from this point of view, a company or individual has spent a great deal of time and money and effort in setting up a factory, and then had to close it when it becomes unviable. So the factory is still theirs if they want to reopen it, or if they want to pull it apart and sell off the pieces.

The other point of view says that the building of the factory has been heavily subsidised by the community, that often public land is given away, tax breaks are given, union concessions are made, as seen in Australia with competition between states for new projects. And also that the jobs provided by the factory help the community to function. The factory 'belongs' to the community. Capitalistically, this is a hard case to make. Socially, it's obvious.

So as Avi says in an interview, taking over a factory puts "the onus on the authorities to stop people from working". Capitalism says that everyone should work and consume, so the system finds it hard to reconcile forcing people out of work when they want to and have the means to (unless it increases profits, which isn't even a benefit in this case).

I'm undecided about this film and this concept. The film had some good footage and ideas but wasn't especially well made, for me, ignoring much of the overall context and not presenting the other side of the story at all. There were a few gratuitous shots of Klein (especially) and Lewis; I like my documentary cameras one step removed.

It does seem that if you can provide jobs that can only be a winning situation for everyone, so the only person who loses is the chump who started the factory and ran it into the ground. Especially given that these eneterprises can be run to break even rather than for monetary profit, as they produce widespread social profits. And because workers in autonomous enterprises should tend to have better motivation and a sense of collective goals, rather than slaving away for someone else's pocket.

The obvious downside is in the overall and the long term. First, it's hard to see a community getting together the seed capital to start an autonomous enterprise, even if it were possible to identify the need. Buying land and equipment, and training workers is expensive, but a proactive government could support this. Second, the running of an enterprise is easy in the short-term but not so easy in the long-term; that's why these factories are empty. There needs to be overall planning for replacing plant and equipment, which means setting aside a bit of cash each year instead of breaking completely even. And also for coping with technological evolution of products. If the product you're producing suddenly becomes obsolete, there's no option of keeping the factory open.

What the scheme effectively does is by removing the boss, it creates a better synergy between the workers and the owners of the enterprise. Ideally, this could be done elsewhere, although it's hard to see it coexisting with a profit motive. I'm interested to know if having union representatives on boards, as I understand it works in European social democracies, helps realise this synergy. Because it's important to realise that everyone benefits from a business, but that those benefits should be similar in magnitude; surely this is basic economic theory?

Monday, September 05, 2005

Joanna Newsom: The Milk-Eyed Mender

Words! Voice! Harp!

It's kinda a shame that I'd heard Bridges And Balloons on the radio, because the first impression of the album, when Joanna's voice first hits you, after a few bars of gentle, understated harp, is somewhat blunted by knowing what's coming. I often think I'd love to be able to have another first listen to a great album such as this, but in fact the first listen is often a little underwhelming, by the Law Of Inverse Attractiveness.

It's hard to get what makes the album the first time through, which is a good sign because of the afore-mentioned law. Newsom's voice makes it hard; the music is at turns sublime and bombastic, but her squeaky pixieish, unconventional voice is always at the top of the mix. Big lumps of enthusiasm and emotion don't make it any easier, and in this time of Idol-style pure voices she'll never get superstardom.

But once you're attuned to her otherwordly tone, the music reappears. The harp is widespread, of course, as that's Newsom's main instrument, and is especially impressive when it underpins the great The Book Of Right-On. Then, the faster, more immediately appealing tracks have bouncy piano (Inflammatory Writ) and harpsichord (Peach, Plum Pear) parts. Production's prefectly clear, and all the musicianship is exemplary, suiting her voice, with the odd track out being Three Little Babes, a fairly standard arrangement of a folk song, which for mine just misses. Possibly it's the male voice singing harmony, or else the fact that the recording quality is a little more primitive than the rest of the album. It's still not a bad track, but it interrupts the flow of the album.

And the lyrics themselves, which are what keeps me listening. They're reminiscent for me of the best of Glenn Richards; dense, literate, prosy fables. The album opens with: "We sailed away on a winter's day, with fate as malleable as clay; but ships are fallible I say, and the nautical, like all things, fades." The lyrics are truly timeless, evoking pieces of ancient times and truly modern themes: "While across the great plains, keening lovely & awful, ululate the last Great American Novels". Who else can use 'ululate' or 'dirigible' or 'gasplessly'?

Every track on the album deserves a thesis; I could rave on the pretty modern star-fable of Cassiopeia or the wistful horror-music theme of Swansea, but the album can only speak for itself. Give it a chance and it will reward.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Adam's Navel: Michael Sims

Readings' Famous Bargain Table was the source of this nice little non-fiction volume. It's A Natural and Cultural History of THE HUMAN FORM.

It's a brief tour of the entire outside of the human body; no analysis of (for instance) the brain, the heart, or the origins of bilious and splenetic, which could all have been fertile ground. It discusses: hair, the face, the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth, the arms, the hands, the breasts, the navel, the vagina and penis, pubic hair, the bum, the legs and the feet.

An exhausting catalogue, and all in just 300 pages. As a result, none of the sections are particularly detailed, simply skimming the surface of millions of years of humans inhabiting bodies, but this is not bad. Sims makes up for this lack of depth with a great breadth of sources, quoting from not only academic and research papers, but from literature, from the classics to modern writers, and even from music, films and politics.

The obvious unifying theme is the body, but the barely concealed secondary theme is sex, as befits the 21st century milieu. Everything aesthetic can be related to sex appeal, sexual function or reproductive suitability, as the tenets of Darwinism proclaim. On a side-note, it's kinda surprising that sex is more important than ever in the modern world, given that we've apparently bypassed natural evolutionary process. (This is another point where I put forward my favourite theory: dysgenics, specifically that currently intelligence appears to have a negative correlation with reproductive attractiveness, which will make future generations dumber.)

And it's well-written, not without humour, as befits the subject. I mean, how can anyone discuss the frankly ludicrous penis or nose without giggling? Full of factoids sure to bore friends and colleagues.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Khancoban @ Dante's

It's been a whole month without seeing Khancoban since I happened to catch their set at the big Clinkerfield-organised gig at the Rob Roy, and they became my new favourite Melbourne band. So they played a set at Dante's, in the lunch break of the Australian Rationalist Conference. I'd originally intended to wander in to a couple of sessions of this, but didn't feel like it on the day, so just went up for the gig.

And the guys were pretty good, despite the makeshift nature of the setup. They were squashed into a corner in the dining area, a couple of metres from the kitchen; Jemima's back was against the window, Andrew was most of the way through a door, Andre was in the way of people walking in from outside and Jen's back was inches from the diners. Added to that, they felt pressure to be kinda quiet, fueling Andre's levels fixation, and leading to restrained versions of good tracks.

But despite these caveats, it was a good gig. The band are sounding tight, probably thanks to all their rehearsing for the EP. Andre said hopefully it'll be recorded in October but is unlikely to be out until February. Hopefully once it's in the can we'll see some summer gigging. I don't know song names, except for Everywhere I See The Sea, but that's certainly an excellent tune. Andre's vocals reminded me again of Glenn Richards, which is definitely a good thing. He's got a solo show coming up, at the Empress next week, which will be interesting.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Sime Nugent: The Undertow

There seems to be something missing from this album. It's nice. But for me it never gets any further.

Nugent's clean acoustic music oscillates between blues, country and folk. He does the acoustic singer-songwriter thing well; as always, this raises the question of why the likes of Jack Johnson or John Mayer have been quite so popular. The answer must be the hype. They certainly share obvious influences, say Nick Drake, or Dylan, or even James Taylor.

All the songs are very listenable from the start, which by my theory of Musical Diminishing Returns says that they won't last. And that's basically what happens. They tell nice stories, the production's very smooth, Nugent's voice wanders nicely over the music, hitting all the notes, organ, piano, harmonica, banjo noodle away in the background...

But the emotion is mostly missing. I think I'm aligned more to female voices at the moment (Joanna Newsom is working better than Sime Nugent), but he seems to fall into the bluesy trap of singing well but with style replacing real emotion. Emotion is hard, doubtless, but also necessary when the music's not spectacular and the voice has to carry the day. It just seems like he's almost got what it takes but isn't quite getting to the heart of the songs.

Still a nice album.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Simon Singh: Big Bang

This is pop-science and Singh does it really well. It's a trip through the damn cool science of cosmology, starting from creation myths and working up to the Big Bang (or, as I prefer, the Horrendous Space Kablooie).

I may be a geek, but even I start to nod off when books get all hardcore science. Singh avoids this trap and makes it all about the people. Stars (boom-tish!) include bankable names like Aristotle, Galileo, Einstein and Hubble. In fact, it's probably not quite sciencey enough for my taste, which might mean it's just right for many people.

The question is, where did the universe come from? Two overall cosmological theories existed for a long time, the Big Bang model and the Steady State model. Briefly, the Big Bang says that a long time ago, everything was compacted into a very small point from which it then exploded, causing universal expansion which continues to this day. The Steady State model says that the universe is constant, it expands and stars expire, but they are constantly replaced with new matter. Both, for a long time, had pros and cons (and in fact still do).

The means of choice between these highlights just how good the scientific method is. You can't prove a theory, only disprove it, as you're never sure about that piece of evidence just around the corner. If a theory doesn't fit the available evidence, it's out. Otherwise, it can hang around and see how it goes against new evidence. This is of course topical as Intelligent Design is a magical theory which can't be disproved. Which makes it extremely robust in the face of logic.

Neither the Big Bang nor the Steady State model are completely accepted, though the Big Bang has the street cred. If the Big Bang is correct, there was some seriously weird shit going on in the first seconds of the universe. If Steady State is correct, there's some seriously weird shit going on every day, like where does all that new matter (to keep the universe steady) come from?

My favourite bit of the Big Bang theory is this question: what happened before the Big Bang? This is why organised religion likes the theory; it leaves a big, big hole open for a Creator. I'm more in favour of hundreds upon thousands upon millions upon billions of parallel universes, personally. And if quantum computing comes through, this might be upon us sooner than we realise.

Any science interest? Get into it.

Land Of The Dead

I don't know zombie movies. Yeah, 28 Days Later was enjoyable (though it had Christopher Eccleston which is cheating), and that Dead Creatures was fairly disturbing and yet quite good. So when Land Of The Dead is apparently the greatest zombie movie ever, I've got little context, but I can give an objective view.

Yeah, it's quite nicely made, all very slick, decent performances, Simon Baker's not too bad, and I like Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo (thought both seem a little subdued). Plenty of explosions and gore, and fireworks for that matter. It seems to do the zombie thing pretty well.

Then there's the *ahem* subtext. Can you still call it subtext if it's splashed all over the plot? For a start there's the repeated juxtapositions of birds in cages with rich people in their impenetrable apartment building safe from zombies. Not especially subtle. Then there's the actual plot.

So there's these zombies, right, and they threaten civilization. The decadent citizens pretend that this doesn't exist and sit atop a social pyramid where the immense underclass is oppressed, and contract out their protection to a mercenary army. This mercenary army is led by a Baker, an all-American nice guy, and paid by Hopper, an evil rich man (is there any other kind?). Internal fighting in the mercenary army leads to the zombies getting in and ravaging rich society, while Bakes is off doing Hopper's dirty work elsewhere. The underclass survives to create a better world. The parting thought is that zombies are only human too - Bakes: 'They're just looking for a place to go'.

No parallels AT ALL with current world events. Unrecognisable. Could be a different world.

So it's maybe a little preachy. Not one for the thinkers.

Funky Palestinian Hip-Hop

Ethan Zuckermann's great blog always ties together strands of African and Middle Eastern culture that you just don't get elsewhere. Through him, a link to Yazan Malakha's blog, presenting some Palestinian hip-hop tracks, some in English, some (I presume) in Arabic?

Following the great traditions of hip-hop, these are nice and political. It's just possible that Israel might get a mention. And here's a great (translated) quote from one of the DAM tracks:

it’s a pity how things have turned,
if our grandfathers saw us they’d roll in their graves,
they invented the zero and that’s what we’ve become

Nice work. Comfortable middle-class Western white boy respect to ya.