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."