Sympathetic Stupid

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Wolf Parade: Apologies To The Queen Mary

Wow, hype-a-tastic. They're from Canada. They keep playing shows with the Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse. They've been talked up on Pitchfork, on Cokemachine Glow, on Tiny Mix Tapes. They started with two EPs which kept selling out. Isaac Brock, from Modest Mouse, produced this album.

But most of these things are probably related (hey, play enough shows with The Arcade Fire and the world will beat a path to your door). At some point, you gotta actually listen to the music before deciding if you like them or not - a revolutionary idea, I know. So their first full length album had to deliver. And I reckon it does.

So it's a platter full of indie art-rock, with all the obvious comparisons, including and especially the afore-mentioned. The playing and production is by and large faultless, if not obviously virtuosic. Drums, guitar, keys and 'manipulation', with two boys singing close harmonies. But these guys are doing something really right, because it builds on solid foundations to give us a consistently great, and at times brilliant, album.

My highlights of the album have to be in Grounds For Divorce - "Look like a newlywed" into the chorus - and I'll Believe In Anything - "I'll take you where/Nobody knows you and nobody gives a damn". But almost every other track does it for me as well, except maybe the seven-and-a-half slow, guitar-jangle tinged minutes of Dinner Bells. But it does provide a welcome comedown after the frenetic pace, melodies and hooks of the rest of the album. And finally there's the Beatles-esque refrain of the last track - "It's getting better all the time" - which leaves us on a truly optimistic note.

And the drumming deserves a mention. It's so straight ahead, so thumping, reliably filling the bottom end in the absence of a bass, keeping the pace perfectly and not going overboard on the cymbals. Most notably, the almost complete lack of elaborate fills is such a refreshing a virtue; no drummer's ever resisted the temptation to hit everything in front of him, in those two beats he gets all to himself.

Yeah, this one'll last a while.

Lie Veight?

Thanks to a post on the wonderful Black Looks, The Independent has taken a look back at the Live8 concerts and Make Poverty History rallies. Warning: Parental Guidance Recommended. This gruesome story's really not for kiddies, there's too many baddies and no happy ending.

The backstory is that three months ago G8 leaders were meeting at Gleneagles in Scotland, triggering a 200,000 head rally for global justice. Simultaneously, Bob Geldof organised the Live8 concerts to promote debt relief and raise money. The summit ended with smiles all round, especially from Geldof and Bono, who praised the leaders as having taken serious action. While it sounded unlikely, I have no trouble believing that Geldof and Bono are serious in their hopes for poverty relief, so if they were happy then surely we should all be.

Tragically, it was all bullshit. Make Poverty History (MPH), the broad-based UK coalition and lobby group largely behind the rally, responded at the time: "Today the G8 have chosen not to do all that campaigners insist is necessary to free people trapped in the prison of poverty." (Just because campaigners say it's necessary, it doesn't follow that it is, but I'll let that lie for now.) Kumi Naidoo from the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) said "...the promise to deliver by 2010 is like waiting five years before responding to the tsunami".

The Independent article talks about the standard dodgy political tricks in the G8 announcement: "New aid money!" which was really already pledged or budgeted; broken promises on dropping trade barriers; from the US, promises of aid - but only if they got something in return; "100 per cent debt cancellation!" which was more like 5%; and debt relief which simply replaces aid dollars, and is conditional on subjecting to the IMF and World Bank's agenda.

The article's pretty left-wing partisan, and so it's hard to get a good flavour of the exact situation, but it seems unarguable that all was nowhere near as rosy as Geldof and Bono painted it at the time. My hope is that they continue to have their sights fixed on the bigger picture, and in pandering to the leaders of rich nations they at least keep a seat at the table, in order to get some sort of action eventually. Some real action.

Pedant's Corner

(I know at least two people will appreciate this.)

Peter Beattie, on the 7:30 Report last night:

"...asking them to get their Solicitor-Generals to have a further phone hook-up."
"The Solicitor-Generals from around Australia need to meet with the Federal counterpart..."
"...but I'm not absolutely sure until all of the Solicitor-Generals sit down...

Unless there's been some sort of royal decree, the plural of Solicitor-General is Solicitors-General.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Petrol - Dead Like The Dodo?

Thanks to, an hydrogen-car related tech breakthrough [IsraCast] which just might foreshadow a plausible pathway to a no-petrol future.

Hydrogen fuel cells still look fairly unusable for a few reasons. Infrastructure: how do we get the hydrogen in enough places so you can actually fill your tank? Storage: this can go boom quite easily, so how do we store it? Production: yeah, there's hydrogen everywhere, but how much power are we willing to spend to get it into a usable form? (As I was reminded last night, hydrogen is an energy store, not an energy source.) Cost: are we willing to pay through the nose for a fuel cell car?

Engineuity would like us to think they have some answers, especially to the problems of storage and infrastructure. The basic premise is that hydrogen is produced on board the vehicle. Bingo, the problem of storing large amounts of hydrogen is avoided! This production is done, as I understand, using pure metals such as magnesium or aluminium, and heated water. The waste from this process is metal oxide which can be collected and recycled.

To this point, it sounds magnificent. And the engine barely needs to be modified - it's only the fuel system that changes, as the car is really powered by steam (and hydrogen). What I don't understand, though, is how this reservoir of water is heated, in order to react with the metal, or more specifically where the power comes from to do this. In fact, the way they describe the process (water "heated to very high temperatures"), it's hard to see how this differs from a steam engine! Yes, it will be zero emissions, but aren't water problems likely to be a significant restriction on future society? And doesn't this rely heavily on water infrastructure? And it will also require some form of 'metal infrastructure' in order to allow the car to be refuelled (required about as often as current cars).

The idea sounds wonderful, but I don't quite see what they're getting at. In fact, the more I consider it, the more this has the taste of pure PR, especially in the phrase "seeking investors that will allow it to develop a full scale prototype". I'd like to believe, but I think more proof is required.

The Engineer-Poet has posted on this [@ The Ergosphere] with much more scientific rigour than I ever could.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Let There Be (More) Light

I like a true-blue Aussie science breakthrough, and this one's a good one (thanks, Lu!). It's all about speeding up fibre optics:

Scratches in glass break electronic traffic jam

One of the big limits on transmitting any signal over distance is the gradual 'fade' of the signal, or attenuation. To solve this, amplifiers or repeaters are used to grab the signal, clean it up, and rebroadcast it at full strength. There's no limit on how far a signal can travel if there are sufficient repeaters.

But for optical signals through fibre, this is a problem, because the cleaning up and rebroadcasting is always done with electronics. The light signals move so fast that this periodic amplifying of them is a serious bottleneck. Yeah, computers will get faster, but there's a limit to how fast you can do the processing, and it's still a lot slower than the speed of light. And that's where this breakthrough comes in.

A team at the Centre for Ultrahigh Bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems (CUDOS) in Sydney have developed a piece of glass with a scratch in it. A "carefully engineered scratch", though, which makes it an optical signal regenerator. This puts them a step closer to 'all-optical' information transmission. They're talking about the difference between 40 Gb/s and 160 Gb/s, which sounds pretty impressive.

And the next step? An optical 'transistor', or switch, which would be the basis for all-optical (photonic, baby!) computers. And then we're talking serious speed. Imagine how many CPU cycles per second Windows can waste then!

Lyrics That Grab Ya

"Then you said, have you been crying?
There was no denying,
Cause I had started up once more,
This time much stronger than before.

I dunno where it all came from,
I think I dreamed about my home."

In My Bones - Grand Salvo (from The Temporal Wheel)

It's the Land of the Free (Mostly)

Just quickly, from The Tattered Coat via Kung Fu Monkey, here's the really disturbing story of a US soldier in Iraq who's been seriously silenced by the bureaucracy. It's easy to blame the military, but the ultimate conclusion has to be that War Is Evil; there are just so many victims on all sides of this thing.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Deerhoof: The Runners Four

I know nothing about Deerhoof and only bought this album because I heard someone play a track on RRR, where it's currently (until like tomorrow morning) Album of the Week.

You've gotta get through the first impression. Of an ADHD-affected conglomeration with twee, sharp-sounding two-minute tracks and no depth. These guys regularly remind me of Architecture in Helsinki, except that Deerhoof stop for a breath every two minutes, whereas AiH are more inclined to burst through the key and style changes without stopping the madness.

And in fact, now that I consider it, there's not a lot of style or structure variations on The Runners Four. Possibly The New Pornographers are a better simile - it's predominantly straight-ahead indie-guitar power-pop, played very competently and with some catchy hooks. And those indie trademark top-register vocals. All nice production, keeping the drums back and letting the vocals soar over the jangling guitars.

But the key is the surfeit of well-executed ideas. The poppiest track is O'Malley, Former Underdog, a quick 1:45 of head-shaking and foot-stomping. Then there's the guitar crunch - it's almost a dirty rocker - of Scream Team. Siriustar is slower paced and sparse, until the big drumroll propelled chorus. Wrong Time Capsule has one of George Harrison's guitar parts surrounding an inimitable Deerhoof vocal. But Satomi's piercing vocals are shown off best on Spy On You, an unconventional ballad. And to end the album, a touch of old-fashioned rock with Rrrrrrrright.

The Corruption Race

Why is Nigeria celebrating after being named the 6th most perceived corrupt country in the world? Chippla's great blog gives a flabbergasting and scary perspective on the way much of the world works.

This is according to the Corruption Perception Index. In Australia, we're consistent top ten performers in the least corrupt country stakes, along with the usual suspects; my first surprise was Chile at 21, equal with Japan. But have a look at this map for an idea of just how widespread this problem is. The map is dark with small expanses of light, in Western Europe, North America and Oceania. In dark colours are 8 of the 10 most populous countries - China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Nigeria - with 52% of the world's population.

It's yet another ridiculously widespread problem which we just don't see in our lucky country.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Bite-Size Meaty Chunks of Global Warming

David Roberts on Gristmill extracts a great paragraph from a post by Stuart Saniford on The Oil Drum about global warming. Have a look at it - 21 links to 17 different sources makes this a great potted summary of the state-of-the-art in global warming science. (I don't got the background to know if anything's missing, but it looks good to me, anyway.)

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Slices of Worldchanging

Couple of dollops from Worldchanging have piqued my interest. (Slow day at work? You better believe it. It's so nice outside and so air-conditioned in here.)

First, more leapfrogging biz. Developing countries are leapfrogging over legacy fixed phonelines right now. Us rich countries are slowly disconnecting landlines but "(c)ell phone subscriptions jumped 67 percent south of the Sahara in 2004, compared with 10 percent in cell phone-saturated Western Europe". The real advantage of this is "not just the leap over landlines to handsets", but also "the leap over paper mail" and the implied requirements of literacy and a fixed address. It's a big market for smart companies.

The other bit is about agriculture in Africa. Traditional farming methods, refined for centuries, have developed the ability to deal with the natural cycles in the region - whether droughts, insect invasions or storms. But "(h)ow will traditional practices fare in an era of climate change"? There's work going on to make these traditional farming methods more sustainable, focusing on reducing erosion and saving water. But there is resistance from local farmers who trust their ancient expertise.

My impression is that food shortages are Africa's major problem. If this is caused by worsening climate change which the practices can't handle, then the practices need to change. It's also likely that the geology of Africa means that traditional agriculture can't support huge populations - after all, when we say (as in Guns, Germs and Steel) that population densities have always been lower in Africa than Europe, surely that actually means that traditionally a lot of people starved to death before they could reproduce?

It seems likely that if Africa's farmers could instantly begin using industrial agriculture, as rich countries do, many of their food problems would be solved. (Assuming water is sufficient, of course.) It also seems likely that the environment would seriously suffer.

Cause agriculture is a vexed environmental topic. Modern industrial agriculture - fertiliser, pesticides and GM crops - allows much higher food-per-land yields than even 50 years ago. While no-one wants more land (and rainforests, and pristine grassland, and national parks) to be swallowed by agriculture, it's unarguable that industrial agriculture comes packaged with serious environmental problems - loss of biodiversity, fish stock depletion, uncontrolled chemical runoff and aquifer depletion. The right balance between high-tech farming and inefficient farming is kinda unclear. Kinda very unclear.

So what does that mean for Africa? Maybe another potential leapfrogging opportunity? As Jamais says in the article, it seems like incremental changes, tailored to the region, will be easier for farmers to accept. Hopefully that means the correct choices will merge with traditional practices, to avoid the obvious missteps of industrial agriculture and yet keep the millennia of hard-won knowledge.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Joanna Newsom & Smog: Prince Bandroom & Athenaeum

It's been put to me that going to the same concert two nights in a row is kinda disturbing. But they were different venues! Anyway, a real hardcore fan would have gone up to Castlemaine the next night as well. And a real fan would probably've got tickets that weren't right in the back corner of the Athenaeum. But anyway.

Quite different venues, quite similar shows, an interesting contrast. The Prince Bandroom is a beautiful space, but with seats taking up the entire pit, it was a bit crushy and obscured for the kids up the back in standing room. Isn't there some sort of etiquette that says that beanpoles have to stand up the back so us shortarses can actually see?

Smog, first. Big Bill Callaghan. He's not especially prepossessing, but, as Symposiast Elanor sayeth, it's all about the charisma. He's got that sort of tall brooding funny dancing Nick Cave thing going on and it just works on stage - not surprising, I guess, as he's lasted 15 years in the game. Dry, dry, dry humour. And legs.

The legs are the real star of the show. Bill strings his guitar high, and of course his arms and torso are constantly occupied with playing it. Below, his legs, looking about five feet long, and with a high degree of autonomy; they have to support him but aside from that are allowed the latitude to go nuts. At the Prince, he was perched on an awkward stool for a few songs, and the legs propped him up, at times spread wide, clenched together, jigging or tapping. Then, when standing, there were the full repertoire of dance moves - side kicks, Elvis' trembling knees, two-steps. And all at the most incongruous times, divorced from either rhythm or melody.

And the music was very good, as well.

So, then, Joanna. Night one, at the Prince, I wasn't convinced. The harp seemed out-of-place, the vocals twee and she seemed uninterested, just playing the tracks and finishing up. In short, it was everything other people had told me I should think about Joanna Newsom. But I think this might have been more about my external circumstances.

Because the second night it was magic. Maybe the venue was more suited? It was better with the a cappella track starting the show, as it was very solid - her voice may have unconventional tone but she has good pitch and range. There were the epics, and the album tracks. The highlight of the evening was definitely halfway through Sadie, where she forgot the words and actually had a chat to the audience, something that had been mostly missing from the previous night. Maybe the music should speak for itself, but it's strange to listen to someone who barely acknowledges that you're there, for mine.

It's interesting that at a Joanna Newsom gig you probably hear - or notice - more dud notes than at any other. Despite the fact that she's obviously a harp virtuoso. But it's equally true that you probably hear more notes, in total, than at any other gig. Maybe sixteen tones a second, on average? A massive, multi-layered sound comes from the instrument. Combining this with the similarly multi-layered, non-linear, esoteric lyrics that Joanna writes, it's not surprising that a few bits go missing occasionally. It must be a pretty gruelling mental workout.

The bigger question, of course, is will their relationship last and when the baby's gonna be born... Oh, no, that's right, that's Tom and Katie. Simple mistake to make, though.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Broken Social Scene: Broken Social Scene

After hearing ibi dreams of pavement thanks to Said the Gramophone, and reading the Pitchfork review (I'll save you the click, it was 8.4), I got this album. Was I chasing cred? Probably. But, in my defence, ibi dreams of pavement is a truly great track.

So what about the album? It's not an all-time classic. It's got great tracks and good tracks and mediocre tracks. It starts with the gentle, atmospheric our faces split the coast in half, which is all muted brass and undecipherable vocals propelled by a shedload of percussion. Then the afore-mentioned big rock anthem ibi, fading from its huge brass riff into 7/4 (shoreline). Yes, it is in 7/4; duelling acoustic guitars and an urging drum line sit under the generic indie vocals, but a good riff catches this track before it falls.

Following is finish your collapse and stay for breakfast, a nothing track but not actively unpleasant. major label debut is the other great track on the album, an insubstantial yet filling dose of well-structured indie pop. (The rockier version on the accompanying EP works even better, mainly thanks to the constant drum fills.)

And it's about here that the album loses its way. fire-eyed boy starts with a promising groove then degenerates into a bit of a mess, breathy half-heard vocals the main killer for me - it reminds me of what I don't like about The Dandy Warhols. Similarly, windsurfing nation has a promising beat and hangs onto that drive, hitting a hand-clappy chorus, but again lacks in the vocal stakes, getting all post-rock and style-over-substance, with seven different uninspiring vocal lines running at once. At this point I'm really missing some nice power pop dealing half-ironically with love. On swimmers, the vocals seem particularly trite (though probably only because you can hear them) and the by-numbers music fails to arouse. Then hotel and handjobs for the holidays round out the particularly uninspiring, monotonal middle third of the disc.

Then it picks up a bit, with superconnected, a solid rocker, and bandwitch, a cleaner pop track with a good background vocal line. temoloa debut is another nothing track, but the nigh-on ten minute closer it's all gonna break, is more conventional than much of the album. And it works well. Say what you like about verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus (almost) but it gives ample room for these guys to display their talents. Because they are seriously talented, a fact hidden by the navel-gazing that wanders through the middle of the CD.

So yeah, it failed to quite hit the spot for me. Too pedestrian for too long, which is really brought home by the golden moments when everything comes together and it's a triumph.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Khancoban @ Bar Open

Khancoban played a low-key gig at Bar Open last night. I'm not usually a set list type person but I thought I'd give it a go on my phone. Andre's quite accommodating with track names but he didn't say what the new track was called. Here 'tis:

Such A Big Sky
I Wish I Was On A Plane Somewhere
New Song?
Underneath Cold Stars
I'm Gonna Steal That Car From You
Everywhere I See The Sea
These Lines Can Be Traced
Take Me Where I Might Want To Go
Smoke And The Light
I Woke Up And I Was Here

Bar Open's a funny band venue. It used to be cramped but atmospheric, but then it became a bit too comfortable. The proliferation of couches and funny viewing angles doesn't tend to make for real excited audiences. And a long setup for the sound guy didn't help matters.

But belying this, Such A Big Sky opened the set with a bang. It's rapidly becoming my favourite live Khancoban track, though the demo recording doesn't do it full justice. It builds majestically from a simple guitar riff and distant drum line, adding golden piano to the top of the track; and then the drums kick in, the guitar starts to wail and it's moving slowly yet inexorably towards a crescendo; before disappearing back into the initial guitar riff. Last night it was topped off with some experimental big distorted guitar

The rest of the gig never quite lived up to the promise of the initial track, though. The new track sounded good though finished abruptly - needs another verse and maybe a bridge, I think. Underneath Cold Stars, another slow builder, was good. And These Lines Can Be Traced is another great track, Andre sounding very Glenn Richards which can't be a bad thing. But Everywhere I See The Sea was unusually subdued - is it getting boring? - as was Smoke And The Light. And none of the other tracks have really grabbed me yet as good live.

Shame I'll miss tonight's Empress gig, but unfortunately Joanna Newsom calls.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


I liked this entry from the slightly magnificent Inhabitat yesterday. It's about biodegrabale junk food packaging, specifically, trays made from 'bioplastics' - plastics made from biological not petrochemical products. Their environmental advantage is that they dissolve with just the addition of plain water. Their theoretical disadvantage, of course, is that they dissolve after contact with moisture. So don't try to carry four full beers back to your seat on one, cause you'll be wearing them. But in practice this might not be so much of a problem; I imagine they take a little dissolving and won't fall apart after just a few drops of soft drink.

And the company, Plantic Technologies, is Australian, and indeed based in Laverton North. Most interesting is the fact that the genesis of the company was the Cooperative Research Centre for International Food Manufacture & Packaging Science, part of the low-profile CRC program. The CRC thing interests me; I know they exist, but what sort of success rate do they have? If this one's any indication, it's easy. This PDF (page 19) says the CRC was established in 1995 and got $44.2m over seven years, $17m direct from the government, at which time it metamorphosed into an innovative multinational company (offices in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK), filling a niche in the market.

(Incidentally, this is with help from TiNSHED Capital, an 'angel' investment firm which also interests me. But that's another thing.)

So this has inspired me to have a look at CRCs in a bit more detail. Are they just venture capital with similarly low success rates? Just basic research with similarly poor commercialization rates? Or something better than both? And how much cash goes into them?

Monday, October 10, 2005

Lyrics That Grab Ya

"They'll never cure this thing,
With medicine and magazines."

Low - Things We Lost In The Fire - Medicine Magazines

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Zorba The Greek: Nikos Kazantzakis

See, I never realised this was an actual work of literature. My 'Zorba The Greek' was, I think, the song as used in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (great movie), and also maybe the grapevine step dance which we learned to it at school. Turns out that the song is actually from the movie starring Anthony Quinn, which won three Oscars though none of the big ones. And that the movie was based on the book.

The book is about the dynamic between two characters, the Narrator, a book-bound Greek intellectual, and Zorba, a Cretan who becomes his friend. The Narrator hires Zorba to run his coal mine on the beautifully evoked Mediterranean island of Crete, but before long the relationship is turned on its head by Zorba's gregarious nature, endless tales and vast appetites. The Narrator, in the process of writing his masterwork, has been asking all the hard questions of life, but is smitten with Zorba's attitude, which seems to answer every question without even realising.

Zorba is, as described elsewhere, Dionysian. He doesn't bother to restrain his appetites for the good things in life, especially women, who play a passive role throughout the book. He lives on instinct and bypasses all forms of rationality. He's utterly unbearable for his gluttony, and yet at the same time his lifestyle is so attractive in the age of reason. He asks me - why bother going to work? Take the day off, start drinking at 10, end up with a beautiful woman in your bed.

The Narrator is his polar opposite, the epitome of the intellectual who can tell you the logic behind everything but nothing about how it feels. He is drawn inexorably to Zorba's irrepressible spirit, and while Zorba calls him 'boss', it seems that the Narrator develops a kind of vicarious relationship with the man, doing his best writing work when inspired by a particularly sordid or scandalous tale.

The book has a nice feel, paced well, clearly written without too much artifice, though it would of course be better in the original Greek. The obvious lesson is not to waste time philosophising about life when you could be living; but this doesn't stick for the Narrator, and hasn't for me, though I'm trying to be a little more Zorba.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Myriad Mutterings

So much time spent wandering the internet, so much time overlooking that which is under my nose. Thanks to marypage1, who pointed out in comments the new City Of Melbourne Council House (CH2). This is currently in development just across Little Collins St from the Town Hall, an imposing old edifice where I used to work. The CH2 is six Green Star certified; the only building to hit the top on that scale developed by the Green Building Council of Australia to measure the environmental friendliness of office buildings.

This sounds pretty impressive. They reckon it'll use 13 percent of the energy, and have 20 percent of the emissions of the existing Council House. (Part of this is just swapping CRT sceens to LCDs.) Solar hot water and photovoltaics on the roof, and a gas co-generation plant for power and heating. A water mining plant to recycle black water into non-drinking water. 80 bike spaces compared to just 20 car spaces, 9 showers for cyclists. And they're budgeting for a 4.9% increase in staff productivity, saving $1.12m a year! Which sounds like a fairy tale, honestly, but who knows?

Looking at the GBCA factsheet, the base building cost $29.9m and the nice bits an extra $11.3m - a 38% increase in the cost of the building. They're estimating payback in about 10 years, thanks to utility savings and staff productivity increases. It's due to be complete by the end of the year.


Cool Holiday Destinations. Yeah, it's a globalised world, but there's still plenty of places for the dedicated contrarian to go on holidays. The single qualification criteria for a certified CHD is that you've never heard of anyone else going there. Most of sub-Saharan Africa qualifies, except South Africa and some of the safari countries. Most of South America's out, every man and his dog is down there - oh, OK, you can have Suriname and Guyana, and some of the islands. Not heaps in Europe, except smaller places like Iceland and Liechtenstein. Though lots of Eastern Europe is still on the list - Bulgaria, Albania - and most of the former Russian republics - Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Estonia. Axis of Evil countries score extra points, of course, and if they're still communist that's a good sign. There's a few in SE Asia - Laos and Burma especially, but also Bhutan.

This is all a long-winded lead up to Ethan Zuckermann's interesting article about Bhutan. I couldn't even have pinpointed Bhutan on a map. It's a strangely isolated corner of the modern world which appears physically most similar to Tibet or Nepal, but politically seems most similar to Burma. Especially interesting is the development philosophy "centred around the maximization of 'gross national happiness'". This means very, very slow and controlled development - according to the national website, only 9000 tourists entered the country in 2004, and "the numbers in coming years are not expected to increase greatly". So you can count on it remaining a CHD, and a fascinating (if slightly regimented) place to visit.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Diluted Dwellings

Sarah at Inhabitat is doing a great series at the moment on houses built on water. And these are a lot more than your standard shoddy houseboat. Have a look at these from Germany, these from the Netherlands and these from Sweden.

As Sarah says, these could become much more important as seas rise. A fair proportion of the world's population lives on or near the coast - this report calculates that it's 'only' about 21%, or 1.1 billion people within 30km. If sea levels were to displace just one-tenth of those, it would be an enormous disruption and demographic shift, as this is often prime real estate. I reckon putting up a few of these babies could keep it that way.

Can We Set Our Sights A Little Lower?

Power generation is a sticky little problem. Of course consumers won't willingly curtail their lifestyle just for the sake of the future; fuck it, the future will take care of itself. So power needs aren't going to drop. And paying more for it because it comes from a wind-farm at Portland - what's the incentive? Do the volts coming out of the powerpoint actually look green?

Well, maybe we can rely on the power companies to look after the future of the ecosystem in which they operate and to work on switching the majority of their generation capacity to renewables, because that way... Hang on, would it hurt the next P&L statement? There's the door; don't let it hit you in the arse on the way out.

I guess it's up to government to do what everyone knows is the right thing (except a few economists, and scientists, and journalists, and rival politicians). A top-down approach. A Mandatory Renewable Energy Target. Everyone will gradually pay a little more for their power but the race might live a few more generations. And maybe there'll be an incentive to use a little less? Well, that's probably a fairy tale.

But governments the world over are doing this sort of thing. The EU just reviewed their renewable energy target; by 2020, they'll have 20% of power coming from renewables. Not bad, and with savings targets that might make a 33% improvement. But what's the point if Europe are the only ones to do it? The Poms don't really listen to them, but they're going for 10% by 2010.

Hang on, didn't China have a go recently? That's right, they're aiming at 10% by 2020. Not bad for commies in the fastest growing economy in the world.

Any others? Well, those crazy cats in New Zealand were sitting at 29% renewable energy in 2000, with a target of a 20-odd percent improvement by 2012. How about this list. Wacky Scandinavians, of course: Denmark 29% by 2010, Finland 35% by 2010, Netherlands 12% by 2010, Sweden 60% by 2010. Poor countries? Mali 15% by 2020, Latvia 49.3% by 2010, Estonia (!) 5.1% by 2010.

How about Australia? How does a 2% target sound? Ridiculous, right, because we don't have room for wind farms or solar panels. Or the right countryside for geothermal holes. Who are we kidding?

That's right, we're at 2% by 2020, sitting down here with Hungary (3.6% by 2010) and Turkey (2% from wind by 2010). And probably, the US, which as far as I can tell has no target whatsoever.

Fucking pathetic.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Kate Bush: The Whole Story

In breaking news, Kate Bush has been crowned the premier Bush on the planet by no less an authority than googlefight. In a related development, she remains the top diva, easily taking out Miss Minogue and Mariah Carey.

These frivolities are inspired by the impending release of her undoubtedly magnificent new album - Aerial - though a twelve-year gap since the last one produces some big expectations, as well as kilos of publicity. 35 days to go, by my count, though one day more in North America so living in the US sucks just that little bit more this year.

To celebrate, I'm catching up on the old stuff. I know compilation albums are seriously passé, and that this is only really the first two-thirds of her career, but since I was cheap enough to burn this one before I gifted it to Mum, it's what I got. (Dunno how well the 'Whole Story' can possibly be done in 12 tracks, but let's see how it goes.)

The literate, ecstatic rock of Wuthering Heights (with a re-recorded vocal?) must lead the album; the brilliance of this track is not dimmed by the years, and that big drum fill before the last chorus gets me every time. It's kinda unimaginable that this should have been her first single. It's just good for the world that she didn't do an Emily Bronté and make it a debut-swansong package.

The rest of the early tracks are the low point, for me. Cloudbusting has a good string riff but the synth and snare action is a little incongruous, and the song is generally a bit unimpressive. The Man With The Child In His Eyes always reminds me of Elton John (not necessarily a bad thing), what with its piano noodles and swelling strings. And then Breathing, a lengthy three-movement piece which doesn't really come into its own until the last minute or so, when Kate really lets herself go.

Track 5 picks up the album. Wow - track name and feeling, all in one. It's a slow builder with a big bass line and a great chorus, especially when Kate dives from the top of her range all the way down. This leads into a great drum part, the big tom riff from the start of Hounds Of Love, my favourite Kate Bush track. I love the nature imagery, especially the 'it's in the trees/it's coming!' that leads into the track. It's a mark of genius that she can find the right place for human voices barking like dogs. The only problem with the track is that, I reckon, it's one chorus short; just a little more, please, Kate?

So then we're Running Up That Hill, a good track that's only spoiled a bit by the very very 80s drum machine and synth backing. But it's another great chorus. Army Dreamers follows, a charming political statement wrapped up in a really sensitive arrangement. And then another big tom riff on Sat On Your Lap - Stuart Elliott again, I believe? This is where Kate seems to give her voice the biggest workout, spanning her entire three octaves and using such expressive intonation and shaping. All this and a big finish.

And then it's Experiment IV, the new track on this album, which is a nice late-80s slow rocker, but not a seriously great track. The Dreaming follows, pushing the boundaries a bit with some vocal percussion, didgeridoo and open political statements about the treatment of Australian indigenous people. And then, of course, it's Babooshka, the strange, strange tale of a wife who tests her husband by sending him anonymous notes signed Grandma, in Russian? At one level these lyrics are pretty straightforward, but I'm convinced I'll never quite get what she was about.

It's a great album. She's a great artist. Long live Kate; and let's hope she doesn't have any more kids so she can concentrate one making some more great albums.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Modified Frogs Leap Higher?

[Inspired by Luisa. Hi!]

So nanotech can 'leapfrog' developing countries to a better place. Yeah, it might be closer than it looks, but for now it's all very pie-in-the-sky. Biotech, on the other hand, is here now. For all those smart Aussie biotechnologists who want to go to Africa and make a difference, what are the options?

Well, biotech in Africa is overwhelmingly focused on agriculture. As this article says, the goal is to boost production so that imports of basic food items can fall, increasing the continent's food security. In this context, that means GM crops.

(Aside: Agriculture is clearly Africa's strongest industry for the forseeable future, but exports are suppressed by the huge subsidies Western countries hand their farmers - see How Northern subsidies hurt Africa. As good economics disciples, surely we expect that Africa requires incentives to improve food production, so shouldn't we drop our subsidies?)

So, GM. Us privileged few in rich countries have the luxury of consideration on issues like GM, to take time to try to balance the big-pharma spin against the anti-science horror. Unsurprisingly, the prevailing view in the West is that biotech crops are something of a luxury, with FlavrSavr tomatoes - "... reaches the consumer in an optically attractive state ..." - leading the charge to more predictable food.

But for a starving continent, widespread debate is definitely not a priority, or even particularly feasible. There's so much that GM crops can do to seriously improve the lot of African farmers, from giving pest and disease resistance, and reducing fertiliser and water needs, to improving the nutritional value of food. From India, a common modification increases cotton yield up to 80% - but with legitimate questions about sustainability.

Of course, it's not just crops that gain from modification, as still-more-controversial GM animals begin to wander the globe. We're all waiting for the GM super-intelligent monkey to enslave us all, but goats with spider silk in their milk are just plain weird. But seriously, animals that grow faster, require less feed or are more drought-tolerant must help in Africa.

Is all this necessary, though? Here's doubled crop yields; no GM, just rotation of feed crops with a weed called tithonia. It prevents erosion, builds up nutrients and can be made into mulch, firewood or animal feed afterwards. No miracle, just a natural solution to the problem.

There's no doubt GM can help Africa leapfrog forward; it's something that the West is less willing to do, for one reason or another, so widespread uptake in Africa could really give the continent an edge. But will the morning after the GM party have the mother of all hangovers, as the entire ecosystem collapses because of biodiversity reductions or runaway GM crops?

Science & Biotech @
Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International
Special Report on GM @ New Scientist
Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa @ USAID (with a grain of salt)

Sunday, October 02, 2005

West Wing Season 4

The moment when the snare drums roll for the start of a West Wing episode gets me every time. The West Wing is like love; after not having it for a while, you forget how good it can be. The pair of episodes which start Season 4 are not even among the best, they're kinda gimmicky (Toby, Josh and Donna missing the motorcade) and end in a wash of schmaltz (the same trio returning to the White House). There's not enough character interaction, some preaching (the ordinary Joe in the bar) and the climactic event (pipe-bomb attack) seems underdone (possibly because real life continues to trump it).

But it also reminds you of how good it can be. The production values are always sky-high and there's constantly impressive ballroom scenes and Air Force One shenanigans. I love the discussions of policy, and the constant jockeying between huge-picture foreign affairs and tiny-picture individual concerns; repeatedly reminding me of the scope of governing any country, let alone the indisputably most powerful. And it's almost assumed that the characters, with all their idiosyncracies, quirks and weaknesses, are well-drawn and sensibly played. And they all look so intelligent, always drawing card for nerds like me.

Look, it just all works, and if you haven't yet been initiated into the fold, steps must be taken to remedy this. For me, two down, twenty to go - maybe I'll take the week off work...

The War On Cetacea

It's just weird.

Armed and dangerous - Flipper the firing dolphin let loose by Katrina

No, that's from the Observer, not the Weekly World News. The US Navy has been training dolphins to shoot underwater terrorists! And now they may have disappeared in the aftermath of Katrina.

There's so much that's disturbing about this. Could you tell a terrorist from a recreational scuba diver? Do the dolphins just look for the beard? But there's worse. Everyone knows that dolphins are very intelligent. Until now we've been saved by the fact that they don't have opposable thumbs; what are they gonna use for weapons? But now we're arming them. I don't want to be alarmist, but remember when the US armed the Taliban? Or S Hussein?

As Rogers says on Kung Fu Monkey, the Human Age is over.