18 November 2010


Every time I see cars stop and start at traffic lights, or I'm driving
and find myself constantly pulled up by red lights, I have a recurring
I imagine all the cars of the world (nearly three-quarters of a billion
of them at last count) melded together into one enormous block of metal
and plastic, miles high. Imagine this huge cube of metal, surely rising
into the clouds, visible on the horizon. You get closer and closer,
speeding along the massive strip of bitumen that leads towards it. In
its shadow the air is colder. You have to crane your neck to see the
top. Giant wheels, hundreds of metres high carry it along - their scale
daunting, but at least comprehensible in comparison to the monolith
groaning along above you. Deep inside is an enormous engine, each pulse
of its hidden pistons consuming Olympic swimming pools of petrol, a vast
exhaust belching smoke and haze from the rear.
So when I pull up at the lights, or I'm walking and see a line of cars
pull up next to me, I imagine this stupefying behemoth of metal in my
imagination stopping, starting, stopping, starting all day long. I
imagine all our ingenuity and resources pouring into this ridiculous
monster, the enormous amounts of energy needed to overcome its inertia,
get it moving, accelerate it for the length of a football field... and
then slow it down and stop it. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

15 September 2010

Mewling in the Face of My Own Oblivion

I have never experienced any paranormal activity. No strange presences in an empty room, bumps in the night, lights in the sky. Sadly, until I do, I must conclude that such things are the purest hokum.

Don’t mistake me. Nothing would thrill me more than to watch a glass of water move mysteriously across a table, or see an inexplicable object streak across the night sky. I have a deep chagrin that nothing like this has ever manifested itself to me. Even if I were to be attacked by some malevolent spirit, or abducted by beings from Alpha Centauri, such a terrifying experience would still be tempered by the knowledge that I was witness to something, anything, para (“outside”) normal.

I know many people who have experienced such things, from pictures of their dead mothers inexplicably falling off mantels and bodies refusing to rot, to lights chasing each other in the sky. Some of these people’s word I take with a grain of salt, others’ I have no reason to disbelieve. They are intelligent, trustworthy people I have known for many years who have sworn that what they have seen is absolutely true. But, nevertheless, until I have seen or experienced such a thing for myself, and seen that there can be no rational explanation for it, I cannot believe.

I suppose such things can be broadly categorised as “psychic abilities” (something I am highly sceptical about – perhaps, perhaps, perhaps under extreme duress and in the most exceptional of circumstances a person might effect the physical world with nothing but their thoughts, but otherwise, no), “contact with the dead” (I suspect we do nothing more than rot in the ground once we are dead, and that any ideas to the contrary are just people mewling in the face of oblivion, but I do not know), and “UFOs” (this to me seems the most probable. Certainly it is a mathematical certainty that technologically advanced life lives elsewhere in the universe. Whether they’re visiting Earth, and whether it’s possible to travel faster than light in some fashion, is another matter entirely). Of these, “contact with the dead” and “UFOs” are by far the most exciting to me. Really though, these are simply contact with the ‘other,’ and my wishing for this is nothing more than my own mewling in the face of my own insignificance and mortality.

Skepticism and rationality is presented as enough. Why look to a life beyond this one, when life itself, here and now, both existentially and biologically, is so stupendously amazing? This is true, but life shorn of the palimpsest of imagination that we have been laying down for thousands of years is certainly arid sometimes.

30 July 2010

8 Anecdotes about John von Neumann

The following problem can be solved the easy way or the hard way:
"Two trains 200 miles apart are moving toward each other; each one is going at a speed of 50 miles per hour. A fly starting on the front of one of the trains flies back and forth between them at a rate of 75 miles per hour. It does this until the trains collide and crush the fly to death. What is the total distance the fly has flown?"
In a strict mathematical sense the fly actually hits each train an infinite number of times before it gets crushed, and one could solve the problem the hard way with pencil and paper by summing an infinite series of distances. This is they way that most trained mathematicians will solve the problem. Conversely a mathematical novice will most likely solve the problem the easy way - since the trains are 200 miles apart
and each train is going 50 miles an hour, it takes 2 hours for the trains to collide, therefore the fly was flying for two hours, at a rate of 75 miles per hour, and so the fly must have flown 150 miles. Easy.
When this problem was posed to John von Neumann, he immediately replied, "150 miles."
"Ah, I see you've heard this one before, Professor von Neumann. Nearly everyone tries to sum the infinite series."
"What do you mean?" asked von Neumann. "That's how I did it!"

An MIT student cornered the famous professor in a hallway:
Student: "Er, excuse me, Professor von Neumann, could you please help me with a calculus problem?"
John von Neumann: "Okay, sonny, if it's real quick -- I'm a busy man."
S: "I'm having trouble with this integral."
JvN: "Let's have a look." (a brief pause) "Alright, sonny, the answer's two-pi over 5."
S: "I know that, sir, the answer's in the back - I'm having trouble deriving it, though."
JvN: "Okay, let me see it again." (another pause) "Yep, the answer's two-pi over 5."
S (frustrated): "Uh, sir, I know the answer, I just don't see how to derive it."
JvN: "Whaddya want, sonny, I worked it out in two different ways!"

"Johnny was the only student I was ever afraid of," the mathematician George PĆ³lya once recalled. "If in the course of a lecture I stated an unsolved problem, the chances were he'd come to me as soon as the lecture was over, with the complete solution in a few scribbles on a slip of paper."

Von Neumann was the subject of many dotty professor stories. He supposedly had the habit of simply writing answers to homework assignments on the board (the method of solution being, of course, obvious). One time one of his students tried to get more helpful information by asking if there was another way to solve the problem. Von Neumann looked blank for a moment, thought, and then answered, "Yes".

In the 1950s, von Neumann was employed as a consultant to IBM to review proposed and ongoing dvanced technology projects. One day a week, von Neumann "held court" at 590 Madison Avenue, New York. On one of these occasions in 1954 he was confronted with the FORTRAN concept (the first 'high level' computer programming language); its developer, John Backus, remembered von Neumann being unimpressed and that he asked "why would you want more than machine language?"

"The spectacular thing about Johnny was not his power as a mathematician, which was great, or his insight and his clarity, but his rapidity; he was very, very fast. And like the modern computer, which no longer bothers to retrieve the logarithm of 11 from its memory (but, instead, computes the logarithm of 11 each time it is needed), Johnny didn't bother to remember things. He computed them. You asked him a question, and if he didn't know the answer, he thought for three seconds and would produce an answer." - Paul Halmos, Mathematician.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, John von Neumann was strictly logical in his thinking. One afternoon his assistant, Paul Halmos, dropped von Neumann off at home. "Since there was to be a party there later, and since I didn't trust myself to remember exactly how I got there," Halmos recalled, "I asked how I'd be able to know his house when I came again. 'That's easy,' he said. 'It's the one with that pigeon sitting by the curb.'"

Henry Ford had ordered a dynamo for one of his plants. The dynamo didn't work, and not even the manufacturers could figure out why. A Ford employee told his boss that von Neumann was "the smartest man in America," so Ford called von Neumann and asked him to come out and take a look at the dynamo.
Von Neumann came, looked at the schematics, walked around the dynamo, then took out a pencil. He marked a line on the outside casing and said, "If you'll go in and cut the coil here, the dynamo will work fine."
They cut the coil, and the dynamo did work fine. Ford then told von Neumann to send him a bill for the work. Von Neumann sent Ford a bill for $5,000. Ford was astounded - $5,000 was a lot in the 1950s - and
asked von Neumann for an itemised account. Here's what he submitted:
Drawing a line with the pencil: $ 1
Knowing where to draw the line with the pencil: $4,999
Ford paid the bill.

19 July 2010

Saint Philby

Think famous spies and you think James Bond. Think harder and you hopefully think of Kim Philby He was an English spy who turned double-agent and spied for the Russians through the Cold War. He was a very naughty boy, but he's not half as interesting as his dad, Harry St. John Bridger Philby, usually known as 'Saint.'.

Saint was the your archetypal man of the British Empire. He was born in
1885 in Sri Lanka, he went to school at Westminster and then Cambridge,
where he was friends and classmates with Nehru - later prime minister of
India. He was a clever little bugger who got into the Indian Civil Service (no mean feat, a sample question on the entrance exam read: "State the arguments for and against Utility, considered as (1) the actual, and (2) the proper, basis of morals.") and learnt to speak 5 languages.

Anyway, during WWI he and some other gung-ho chaps went over to what is
now Saudi Arabia with the aim of a) helping the Arabs rebel against the  Ottoman Empire (which was allied with Germany with which Britain was
fighting), and b) protect the oil-fields at Basra in modern day Iraq so the Royal Navy could continue getting oil.

That was all well and good, but if you wanted an Arab revolt, you had to have a "King of the Arabs" - Britain wanted a guy called Sheriff Hussein, who was leader of the Hashemites, an Arab dynasty. Lawrence of
Arabia and an archaeologist and explorer, Gertrude Bell (who taught Saint the finer points of espionage), had been building up the Hashemites for years, primarily as a group who could rule Iraq - but Saint was friendly with Hussein's bitter rival, Ibn Saud, and thought he was the man for the job.

That all ended up going nowhere in the end, because at the end of WWI Britain reneged on her promise to hand the Middle East over to a King of the Arabs, and instead parcelled the remains of the Ottoman Empire up between herself and France, with nominal free governments, but really run as British and French colonies.

Saint did well out of this - being appointed Internal Security Minister of the newly formed Iraq (or British Mandate of Iraq - their new name for a colony). He whipped the Iraqis up a constitution and other  democratic accoutrements, but was pretty embarrassed that Britain had gone back on its word. He then moved over and ran the secret service for the British Mandate of Palestine, but he was still keen for a "King of the Arabs," and thought his mate Ibn Saud was still a contender. Eventually the British, who still supported the Hashemites, got sick of him and chucked him out of the Foreign Office, but old Saint still had lots of friends in high places, and so could advise Ibn on exactly how far he could go in conquering Hashemite territory before the British Empire would get pissed off enough to intervene. In this way Ibn created Saudi Arabia, and Saint handled the coronation.

Saint was sitting pretty now, he was best mates with the king of Saudi Arabia, the king's advisor on all matters British, and could spend time pootling about Saudi Arabia mapping things, exploring, and bird-watching (he liked to name the birds he discovered after women he admired). To get into the swing of things he converted to Islam in 1930.

Oil was growing in popularity, and in 1933 Saint helped negotiate an exclusive contract between Saudi Arabia and America's Standard Oil to drill for oil along the Persian Gulf. Britain won't listen to your opinions and continue backing those fucking Hashemites and bloody Lawrence of Arabia? Well, let's see how they like missing out on massive oil reserves in favour of their successors to the rule of the world, America. He continued in this vein for the next few years, undermining Britain's interests in Aden, and then facilitating a merger of Standard Oil, Texaco and the Saudi Government to form ARAMCO, today the world's largest oil company with revenues of more than US$200 billion/year.

This anti-British stuff all got a bit out of hand when before the start of WWII Saint had meetings with the Nazi Adolf Eichmann and put forward a plan for neutral Saudi Arabia to sell oil to pretending-to-be-neutral Spain who could then sell it to definitely-not-neutral Germany. While supporting the Nazis on one hand, he also came up with the "Philby Plan," which included unlimited Jewish migration into Palestine, as long as the Jews supported Ibn's son, Faisal, as the heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia. In return Saudi Arabia would also chip in to resettle the Palestinians.

Strangely, Saint then returned to Britain, which he must have found bloody freezing, and ran for election to the House of Commons on a peace platform. He lost that, went to India, and was arrested as a Nazi  Sympathiser. His mate (and most influential economist of the 20th century) John Maynard Keynes spoke up for him though, and he was released.

Back in Saudi Arabia things started to go downhill. When Ibn heard about the "Philby Plan" he was less than impressed, as Saint hadn't consulted him on all the details, and began to suspect Saint was perhaps more
interested in Britain's, or possibly the Jews' interests, rather than Saudi Arabia's. They started having massive arguments, largely provoked by Saint, who thought that all that oil money had turned his old mate Ibn into a wanker. To keep himself happy Saint went and got himself a second wife, a 16 year old slave he bought at a market near Mecca.

Ibn Saud died in 1953 and Saint's choice for successor, Faisal, was pipped by his brother, Saud, who Saint had openly criticised. Saint was exiled to Lebanon where he lived with his son Kim, whom he introduced to
many of his contacts in Arab politics. Eventually he was reconciled with the Saudi royal family, but in 1960, while he was back in Beirut visiting Kim, he died in bed, with Kim at his side. His last words were "God, I'm bored."

8 July 2010

The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore

Carryl and I are heading to Dunkeld for a quiet weekend away soon. Playing around on Google Earth I noticed there was a rail line passing nearby. I started investigating and soon found that Victoria formerly had an amazing amount of rail lines to all corners of the state. This is the network in 1947:

These lines were used less and less as Victorian agriculture became more centralised; freight was moved more by truck; and people tended to drive rather than catch public transport. With the downturn in profitability, and the rise of a more right wing take on political economics, corporatisation, and then privatisation, has led to this:

It's more profitable, and patronage has increased, but I can't catch a train to Dunkeld any more.

6 July 2010

Trimming de fat from de DoD

Earlier this year the former Chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant
General Peter Leahy, suggested that the Department of Defence's annual
budget of $27 billion should be cut and the money directed to diplomacy
and foreign aid. This amazingly sensible proposal takes into account the
fact that the current role of our defence force is not to prepare for
some sort of invasion from China or Indonesia, but to stabilise
countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where militant factions and
political instability currently serves as both an indictment of the
West's wars in these regions, and a base for terrorism. When it comes to
stabilising a country, erecting a fortified structure in an area like
Tarin Kowt, running daily patrols, finding the odd 'Improvised Explosive
Device' and shooting a few goat-herds turned Taliban guerrillas will
probably cost more, and achieve less, than putting diplomatic pressure
on Afghanistan to adhere to transparent political practices while giving
them concrete aid to do so.
Leahy's proposal was picked up and run with by exactly no-one, despite
the fact that in the preceding months a number of negative reports about
DoD spending had hit the news. These included:
- The National Auditor, following up on a 2006 audit, found that the
Defence Materiel Organisation (the bit of the DoD that buys the bullets)
had failed to tighten its procurement process, despite promises in 2006
that it would. The audit also found $1.2 billion worth of munitions were
not ready for battle, being either broken, in need of maintenance, or
past their use-by-dates.
- The fact that the DoD has replaced its fleet of Leopard-class tanks
(which had never seen battle, Australia never having been invaded by
land) with a fleet of 59 second-hand Abrams-class tanks at a cost of
$550 million, despite the fact that these tanks were prone to engine fires.
- The revelation that, in line with the DoD having to publish all
private sector contracts worth more than $10,000 to the internet:
a) $37,000 had been spent on horse transport. The private
contractor named had no record of said contract.
b) $30,000 had been spent on "stuff" from a marketing and
promotions company.
c) $33,000 had been spent on hiring a Lear jet. The private
contractor named had no record of said contract.
d) $250,000 had been spent for one night at the Hyatt Regency Hotel
in Adelaide. The Hyatt had no record of this contract.
Such waste and lack of concern for public accountability is more
important than the non-issue of Asylum-Seekers which is currently the
focus of public debate. The DoD obviously has money to burn. The
Australian people need to take back $7 billion or so and direct it in a
smarter and more productive direction.

1 July 2010

Fluorescent Girl Dream

I usually walk. Today I had driven; parked in a steep, grassy vacant block that I knew from my walk.
Afterwards, making my way to where I had parked, one of my students, Quoc, ran up to me and asked if he could get a lift. He had run hard to catch me, and when I asked him where he was going I saw a look of alarm cross his face between the ragged breaths he was taking.
“You usually go through town don’t you, sir?”
“Well, into town then. Just drop me somewhere convenient.”
I told him that was fine and we picked our way down the slippery hillside to where I had parked. Nearing the car I saw him glance back up the hill; once again a look of alarm crossed his face. Following his gaze I saw a teenager with a bright purple bob coming towards us quite quickly.
“We should get in the car, sir.”
Something in his tone made me do as he said, almost thoughtlessly. As soon as I let him in he locked his door and, finding the car had no central locking, nearly shouted at me, “Lock your door!”
As I pushed the lock down I saw a flash of bright purple in the side mirror and suddenly the teenager had her faced pressed against my driver’s window. She was pale and quite pretty, but in an abstract way, like a china plate can be pretty. Her eyes were completely abnormal, flat and dull, and her head moved back and forth as if she were a snake about to strike. She tried to open the door, found it locked, and tried again, yanking the handle back and forth with such force that the car rocked.
I knew I had to drive. To start the car, put it in gear, and get away from this strange, fluorescent haired girl-thing as soon as possible, but then she put her face to the glass and said a nonsense word. It was cold but the word made no mist on the glass.
With the word, I knew that I had to unlock the door and let her into the car. I reached for the lock but Quoc grabbed my hands and held them firmly in his own. Outside the car I saw that Quoc’s brothers and, even more bizarrely, his father, were arranged on his side of my car – outside, but seemingly unafraid of the girl-thing. His brother Truoc, fat and almost painfully shy, was licking the bonnet.
“Say ‘Bethish,’ sir. Say it quickly.”

A kitchen. Quoc’s brothers and his father are at the table sitting on mismatched chairs. On the table are two houseplants. The one on the left is brown and withered, the water it is sitting in is black like oil. The brothers and the father are staring intently at the plants. Truoc is licking half an onion.

“Say it, sir. Say it. Bethish. Say it. Bethish.”
It seems unimportant, not nearly as important as opening the car door, but to please him I say the word. He was always a good student.

The black water that one of the house plants is sitting suddenly turns clear. Immediately the plant begins to look healthier, green flushing its leaves.


21 June 2010

Happy Solstice

Today is the Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. It is a
dislocated solstice. My ancestors, for hundreds of thousands of years,
huddled in the darkness of Winter and hoped that once again the Sun
would begin to travel higher in the sky, the days would get longer and
warmer, and humanity would avoid freezing to death on an icy plain in
the eternal blackness of some apocalyptical night. It was the time when
Sun gods and goddesses turned their chariots, the time for purification
and for sacrifice.
But that all happened in December - the 21st or 22nd to be exact. When
my (somewhat less distant) ancestors moved to Australia the time of cold
and darkness was suddenly inverted. Long days and sunshine baked the
midwinter festival of Christmas, and the already ailing midsummer
festivals sickened and died here in the antipodes. Modernity and
capitalism ground away these ancient festivals and rites. Where is my
anxiety over the return of the Sun today? Why aren't I rubbing butter on
my front fence and slaughtering a white animal in the backyard tonight?
Even Hallmark has failed me.
I hope the sun sets tonight and never comes up again. Science is left
witless. Civilisation collapses. Prophets and mad men will gather huge
crowds. We will burn everything in huge bonfires; throw virgins and
babies to the flames. And when everything and everyone is burnt and
frozen and dead we will not know why.

4 June 2010

Demon Core

When the Americans were developing the atomic bomb in the '40s under the
auspices of the Manhattan Project they had to find out how fast
different masses of fissile material would go critical. They did this by
getting some plutonium and steadily surrounding it with a 'neutron reflector' - a substance that reflects the neutrons that the plutonium is pumping out back on itself, which makes the plutonium throw out more neutrons, on and on, till you get Hiroshima.
But because this was the '40s and they didn't have health and safety
they just put the block of plutonium on a stand and stacked up bricks of
tungsten carbide around it till their Geiger counters started going nuts. The
guy doing this, by hand, one day accidentally dropped a tungsten carbide brick
onto the block of plutonium, so the plutonium went 'prompt critical' and
threw out enough radiation to kill the dude.
Later, they'd refined their technique a bit and had the same lump of plutonioum
inside two hemispheres of beryllium which, amazingly, they had a guy
hold open with a screwdriver. Of course the screwdriver eventually
slipped and the 2 hemispheres closed to form a sphere, the plutonium went
prompt critical again, and the guy holding the screwdriver, Louis
Slotin, felt a burning pain in his hand, a sour taste in his mouth, a
wash of heat and saw the air glow blue around him. He managed to yank
the hemispheres apart again, luckily stopping everybody in the vicinity
from dying horribly, but he had received a dose of radiation equivalent
to standing about a kilometre and a half away from an exploding atomic
bomb, so he died a few days later.
The lump of plutonium, really the hero in the tale, became known as the
'demon core.' Luckily we showed it what for, blowing it up in the 'Able' nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in 1946 (although this and other tests have made Bikini Atoll uninhabitable).


So I was sitting in Cinema Nova watching Let The Right One In when I hear this noise that's obviously not in the soundtrack, a sort of scritching noise. Carryl and I were the only people in the cinema, so I said, "sounds like something's got into the walls, I'll just go check." She's like, "Fine, whatever..." so I get up and prise some grating off the wall where it sounds like the scritching noise is coming from.
I couldn't see anything because it was so dark, but it looked like there was some light around a bend in ducting, so I managed to crawl inside and shimmy along inside this metal pipe. The whole time this scritching sound's getting louder and louder.
Anyway, eventually the ducting I was crawling through started sloping down, till I was nearly sliding along. This goes on for probably 500 metres, till I'm thinking I can't possibly be still in the Nova, and then suddenly I pop out into this plush, velvet box, quite small, with a little TV and a fridge and stuff, and there's this little animal, like from a Dr. Seuss book, all stripy and cute, sitting there watching 'Deal or No Deal' and going 'Scritch, scritch, scritch' to itself.
As soon as I popped in it freaked out and started scritching much more loudly. I tried to calm it down but it just got more and more agitated. Eventually I tried making some scritching noises myself, a calming sort of scritch if you know what I mean, and that worked wonders. We sat there for probably 20 minutes having this conversation in Scritchish. I didn't know what the hell I was saying, just going 'scritch scritch' pretty much randomly, but this little beast lapped it up - laughing, interjecting, at one point he even got me a beer from the little fridge - this stuff called 'Scritch' in a can about as big as a glue-stick. Tasted horrible.
So eventually I got bored. I thought of grabbing him and taking him back for medical science and probable money and fame, but he'd given me the beer and everything, so in the end I just turned around, gave him a little wave, said 'scritch' a few times and climbed back up through the ducting and out into the cinema. Very odd.

Killer Monkeys

I've been thinking about monkey experiments. What would happen if you gave a .38 to a troupe of macaques?

"As Lionel had expected they were all, especially the young males, intensely curious about the new object in their enclosure. The male they had named Bobby was the one who eventually managed to pull the trigger, blowing a hole in a log and scattering screaming monkeys in every direction. After that the gun lay on the ground and was given a very wide berth by the whole troupe. Eventually though Bobby began playing with it again, at first gingerly, but after some weeks with increasing confidence, until eventually he grasped the fact that if he pulled the trigger then there was a loud, frightening noise, and a piece of the enclosure would explode. Lionel had doubts that Bobby would ever make the conceptual leap that would allow him to aim the weapon, but he was proved wrong one morning when Bobby, trying to mate with one of the females was chased off by Matumbo, the alpha male, and then scratched and bitten when Matumbo chased him into a corner from which Bobby could not escape. Lionel watched, fascinated, as Bobby scampered across the enclosure, picked up the weapon and sat, turning it in in his nimble, leathery hands. Bobby sat for a full minute, rocking, turning the gun, then moved across towards Matumbo, dragging the heavy weapon through the wet grass. Matumbo, seeing his approach, began to go into classic aggressive dominance poses, puffing his chest and baring his teeth.
Bobby lifted the gun, aimed and shot him in the head, then dropped the weapon and ran.
After this horrifying incident the whole troupe ostracised Bobby, who became withdrawn, and refused to eat. Then, 4 days later, one of the immature juveniles picked up the gun, which had lay in the long grass since Matumbo's death, and began playing with it. Curious, he twisted it in all directions while his mother screamed a warning from behind him. Lionel decided the experiment was over when the juvenile sniffed the handle, looked carefully down the barrel and pulled the trigger."