21 December 2011

Veni, vidi, vici


Great news. As of December 15, Operation Iraqi Freedom, otherwise known as the Iraq War, is officially over (we won). Australia, as part of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ can give itself a big pat on the back here. We, and the forces of Western Democracy, have done bloody well.

In summary we were in a bad situation back in 2003 when the whole thing kicked off. Osama bin Laden and his Terrorist Army were pretty much in charge of everything in North Africa and the Middle East. Even worse, some guy on a desk in the CIA had reliably informed us that our former best friend Saddam Hussein appeared to be making Weapons of Mass Destruction - and not that nerve gas we said it was OK for him to use on the Kurds, really bad nerve gas this time. Maybe even nukes.

The situation was simply unacceptable. If anyone’s going to be killing innocent civilians it’ll be the goddamn Western Democratic Powers thank you very much. To that end we bombed the bejezus out of Baghdad and anywhere else that looked promising. Even let our boys play with a bit of white phosphorous in Faluja. Geneva Convention? What are you? A pussy?

May 1st 2003 – all done. The Iraqi population pretty much gave us a tickertape parade. Now it was time to clean up. Things were in a pretty bad state due to the bombing in the Gulf War and the years of economic sanctions before the bombing in the Iraq War. Luckily Iraq had a newly democratised society finally out from under the yoke of Saddam Hussein; they were raring to go. Even better, Iraq probably the largest oil reserves in the Middle East* – all that money would allow Iraqi society to flourish in no time. They just needed a little help from their Liberators – us!

First things first, everyone in any position of power was a member of Saddam’s evil Ba’ath Party. This wasn’t because Saddam was a crazy dictator and being in the Ba’ath Party might make it slightly easier for you to get a job or avoid getting executed for coughing at an inopportune moment; it was because you were an evil supporter of an evil dictator. Getting rid of anyone who was a member of the Ba’ath Party gave the new Iraq a minty fresh taste – the fact that these were the very people who knew how to run the country was immaterial. We could always get new guys in to replace all that experience we were flushing down the toilet. Oh yeah, we’d also let looters burn and destroy nearly every public record in Baghdad (apart from those in the Oil Ministry*) so that should make it even easier.

Second things second, Iraqi Society was a little too homogenous. Most Iraqis thought of themselves as Iraqis first, then Muslims. We knew better though, there were Dangerous Sectarian Undercurrents that could erupt into violence at any moment. To that end we based all subsequent decisions on the idea that the country was divided amongst Shi’a Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Kurds. That guy on the desk in the CIA found out that the Sunnis had been pretty much the big boys under Saddam so they had to be put in their place. A few years later things were ticking along nicely, political representation was based along ethno-sectarian lines, ethno-sectarian based violence was up to nearly 100 incidents per day and Iraq had a brand new constitution that the Iraqi People had been completely excluded from having a say in.

Next up it was time for the money to start rolling in. The Iraqi oil industry had some of the best engineers in the business. They’d managed to keep the show on the road despite bits of infrastructure being blown up every other day and the sanctions meaning they had to fix things with string and paperclips. Unfortunately lots of them were Ba’athists so they had to go. The rest started joining the revived trade unions that had been illegal under Saddam. That was no good either, as they were all in favour of keeping the oil under the aegis of the Iraqi State, buying in technology with the profits from existing wells in order to develop more production capacity, and training a new generation of Iraqis to manage and exploit their country’s single most important resource. That all sounded dangerously like communism so we put a bunch of guys in charge based purely on how hard they could suck up to the occupying forces, left Saddam’s laws on the books that made trade unions illegal, and moved trade unionists from one facility to another to make sure they couldn’t stir up trouble.

Things looked bad for a minute when the neutered remnants of the government couldn’t even pass an oil law so we at least had some sort of legal recourse if the country ever got uppity about their economy getting raped. Eventually though everyone settled down and had a good old fashioned auction. There was plenty of collusion between bidders and plenty of oil up for grabs so there wasn’t too much competition to put people off. Lots of companies got the rights to extract lots of oil for the next 20 years*. The new Iraqi government were really obliging by not insisting on any legal oversight, not mandating any jobs for Iraqis, and even chucking in some compensation for all the security the companies would have to hire. Everyone was happy. Especially the West, as a bunch of private companies ramping up production on pretty much every oil field in Iraq would certainly be a kick in the nuts for any production limits OPEC tried to set in the future*.

So, three cheers for us. Another job well done, and it only cost us 5,123 lives... Oh yeah, there were a few dead Iraqis too – somewhere between 100,000 and 650,000. It can be hard to keep track when you’re killing so many people you don’t give a fuck about.

* NB: the war had nothing whatsoever to do with oil.

3 November 2011

Humanity V. Horses

In other startling news surrounding the Melbourne Cup, it seems that the time for the horses to run the 3200m race is getting steadily less. By juxtaposing the unrelated, but similarly timed, Men's World 1500m record, we can see that:
a) by 2020 it will take less time for the World's fastest man to run 1500m than it will for a horse to win the Melbourne Cup
b) somewhere around the year 3000 we will all be able to run faster than a horse
c) in the distant future all races will be run instantaneously, bending both time and space into dangerous knots that may adversely effect race-goers.


21 October 2011

The Wipers (not the punk band)


File:Scheibenwischer1.svg
 1. Usual configuration. The meat and three veg of windscreen wipers.

File:Scheibenwischer2.svg
2. Bit more up-market. Always exciting when it looks like the blades will hit each other in the middle.

File:Scheibenwischer9.svg
3. Even more exciting as far as potential for crashing into each other. Seems like the ratio of wiper to windscreen is a little overly generous - "I could wipe way more windscreen if I wanted to."

File:Scheibenwischer3.svg
4. The minimalist wiper.

File:Scheibenwischer4.svg
5. Minimalist with a twist. High chance of having an accident because you're trying to see how it does that little jig in the middle, rather than concentrating on the road.

File:Scheibenwischer5.svg
6. No nonsense. Good for the armoured vehicle you've knocked up in your garage in preparation for the apocalypse.

File:Scheibenwischer8.svg
7. Inspiration for the Sydney Opera House. Good for confusing junkies trying to do your windscreen at traffic lights.

File:Scheibenwischer7.svg
8. Old school. This is how the wipers worked on Fred Flinstone's car.

File:Scheibenwischer6.svg
9. Vintage. This is the design favoured by '20s gangsters. And their molls.

19 October 2011

Gestalt Pong


I watched something pretty amazing on TV last night – gestalt Pong. The footage was of a demonstration, or experiment, run by a computer graphics specialist, Loren Carpenter. Five thousand people file into a conference room; on each chair they find a little paddle, red on one side, green on the other. At the back of the room a camera linked to computers scans the crowd and monitors the position of each paddle, and whether the person holding it has it displaying its red or green face. At first this information is simply translated into a red or green pixel on a screen in front of the participants, by flipping one’s paddle back and forth each person can locate ‘their’ pixel on-screen. Then, with nothing more than a request for the number 5, everyone flips their paddle based on their position and, with a little experimentation, the number resolves itself. With a little practice the participants can bring up any shape or figure requested extremely quickly, all with no planning or organisation.
Things get freaky when a game of Pong is put on the screen. The crowd is dived into left and right; displaying the red side of your paddle ‘votes’ to move the Pong bat upwards, displaying green is a ‘vote’ to move the virtual bat down. But if all the participants on one side show red the bat moves up extremely quickly to the top of the screen - a mixture of green and red is required to move the bat with more finesse. None of this is explained. Loren has simply put up a game of Pong and said “folks on the left of the auditorium control the left bat; folks on the right control the right bat. Go!” Thirty seconds later the crowd is playing an increasingly quick and skillful game of Pong.

Flocking patterns can be simulated with simple rules, but what is the rule that governs the Pong players? A small percentage of the group unknowingly reversing the directions (believing that, by displaying the red side of their paddle they are moving the Pong bat down, when in fact they are voting to move it up) providing the balance to move the bat more fluidly? This seems less likely than the more unlikely explanation – that two ‘mob intelligences’ are somehow playing the game. Awesome.

Related (and unverified) folklore….
-         a swarm of bees is as intelligent as a dog
-         the part of the brain that causes you to yawn when you see someone else yawn is the same part that is involved in the flocking of birds

29 September 2011

Enrich Your Own Uranium


There were breathless reports this week that Australian scientists (yes, we still fund a couple, and these are physicists, not those bloody climate change ones) are developing a new method of refining uranium. The method, if perfected, will make a difficult process much easier. The US and Australian governments have entered negotiations whereby the technology will be licensed to General Electric, which would then build a billion dollar enrichment plant in North Carolina to supply 60 of the US’s nuclear power plants.

Ignoring the fact that all this possibly puts us in breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (hey, we sleep soundly while supplying 15% of the world’s uranium already, why not enrich it too); ignoring the fact that the US has taken reckless actions (e.g. the invasion of Iraq, the STUXNET worm) to prevent countries whose governments it does not approve of from enriching uranium; what pissed me off was the hushed tones of secrecy surrounding the technology.

Western Democracy is obsessed with secrecy. The decisions and processes of government and business are hidden under a sheet of confidentiality. Citizens may, at times, lift a corner of this sheet through freedom of information requests, but in general one must know where and what to look for. This is not how our society should be run. The usual bleatings about security were shown to be nonsense when Wikileaks dumped about a billion diplomatic cables into the public domain. A few people had their noses put out of joint; a few people’s opinions about other people, or countries, were revealed. The world did not collapse. The terrorists did not win.

Yet, here was the media reporting on the new method of uranium enrichment with fawning obedience to the cult of secrecy. The method (and the company’s name) is SILEX, or Separation of Isotopes by Laser EXcitation. It is both classified and proprietary. End of story. No scientists were interviewed about the possible mechanism for such enrichment. There was no speculation. It was as if the merest description of the process would crack it wide open for any half-arsed scientist from Jakarta to Islamabad. Hell, you could probably do it yourself with shit you bought down at Bunnings.

So, in the interests of a full and frank discussion on the technology and the part we are playing in its development, this is how it probably works. Uranium ore is refined and gasified, becoming uranium hexafluoride. This is mixed with a carrier gas and exposed to pulsed laser radiation from a series of CO2 lasers at the wavelength of 16µm. This laser energy selectively excites the uranium isotopes used in nuclear reactors – 235U – allowing the stream of gas containing them to be funneled off, condensed and processed back into reactor feedstock. Voila.

Let’s just check out the window…. No fireballs and/or mushroom clouds? No, the people, from whatever country, who are developing this technology know all of the above already. Failing to include such details in your reporting simply serves to keep the issue opaque, while playing to the tune of cold war Spy vs. Spy nonsense that surrounds the nuclear industry.  

3 September 2011

Review: Gnarly Vine Chardonnay


Ooh, I’ve never reviewed a wine before (amazingly, my earlier review of Radiohead’s The King of Limbs was far from my first music review – many years ago I wrote on the Launceston Examiner’s ‘Youth’ magazine, reviewing free CDs the guy with the regular review job didn’t want). So, we have a ‘Gnarly Vine’ 2008 Gippsland Chardonnay, $13.99 from Harvest. Bucking the trend for cleaner, un-oaked chardonnay, I prefer an old-school buttery chardonnay, or, in technical terms, one that has undergone malolactic fermentation. The absolute best chardonnay I have drunk was a 2006 10X Tractor – rich, creamy and full.

The ‘Gnarly Vine’ is far from the best chardonnay I’ve ever drunk, but it’s certainly a good drop. Pretty simple nose, mainly lemon and apple, leading to a very smooth, big chardonnay with plenty of apple, and also some hay and melon notes. There is, however, a distinct absence at the back of the palate which is noticeable enough that it serves as a fatal flaw – really holding the wine back. For $14 though, I can’t complain too much.

3/5

31 August 2011

The Good Doctor


Doctor Who’s back on ABC this Saturday. Of all my nerdish predilections, sci-fi is the one I can’t refuse, and so I’ll watch, but I won’t enjoy it like I wish I could.

I have some memories of the Doctor from my childhood, mainly Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, followed by the disappointments of Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. I was terrified of the Cybermen and, to a lesser extent, Davros. For some reason the interminable four episodes of ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ episodes from 1989 seem lodged in my brain.

I tried watching when the ABC re-ran a lot (all?) of the episodes a few years ago, but found the plots too laboured. In contrast, the ‘re-booted’ series from 2005 onwards seems massively frothy. And shouty. Does every piece of dialogue have to be delivered breathlessly fast or yelled in a panic?

I thought there might be a change in the stories too, so I did a little research. Taking Seasons 12-15 (1974-78), Tom Baker’s heyday, and comparing them to Seasons 1-4 (2005-2008) of the new, modern Doctor I can say:

-         the ‘70s episodes were set pretty much equally on Earth or on an alien planet. A minority occurred on a space station
-         the new episodes occur most often on Earth. The remainder are split between alien worlds or space stations
-         the ‘70s episodes are set most frequently in the future, then in the present (i.e. the 1970s). A minority occur in the past
-         the new episodes occur most frequently in the present. The remainder are split pretty evenly between the past and future, with a slight preference for the future

So we have a move towards present day Earth as a setting. Not what you’d expect for a bloke who has a box that can travel through time and space. A change in writers? In budget? In that the stories are now produced by a culture that lacks some of the wonder and anxiety about the future that was present in the 1970s? Looking at the plots for old episodes there seemed to be a lot about warring cultures and blasted, post-apocalyptic landscapes. It seems odd that the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over the older episodes, but the threat of climate change fails to produce a similar anxiety in our current imaginings. I suppose starving to death in a dramatically impoverished biosphere just doesn’t have the same sex appeal as a massive thermonuclear explosion.

Hopefully the new episodes are good. The last two Doctors have been great. Rose was the only companion worth her salt, but maybe they could kill Rory. A little bit less mocking and a bit more verisimilitude in the science would be great. Oh, AND LESS SHOUTING. 

27 July 2011

Splitting the Atom and Freezing to Death

“God, I’m so bloody cold! I really don’t know how you can stand it!” screamed Gerry, breath exploding into a small cloud that froze and tinkled onto the deck. “Look! That can’t be good.”
“No, not good at all,” said the Berg.
“All this energy locked up around me too. If I had some magic power… If I could just split one measly atom I’d be warm as toast.”
“No, I did the numbers on that,” said the Berg dejectedly. “The phrase ‘splitting the atom’ is all very exciting, but really, you’re just getting a lot of atoms to move from one state to another - transmuting them - in fusion from hydrogen to helium, and liberating the difference.”
“Not with my bloody magic power. I’d split it. E=MC² Total mass to bloody energy!”
The Berg shifted uncomfortably.
“Even then it doesn’t work. Take hydrogen. The mass of 1 mole of hydrogen is 1.008g. In that mole there are 6.02 x 1023 particles of hydrogen.”
“That’s a lot.”
“Indeed. So divide one by the other and you can see that the mass of a single hydrogen particle is 1.67 x 10-24g.”
“That’s not much.”
“It’s 0.00000000000000000000000167 grams.”
“Especially when you put it like that.”
“And that’s molecular hydrogen, so two actual atoms. If we’re talking about a single atom it weighs half that again. Plug that into E=MC2 and your magical power gives you 0.0000000752 joules when it splits the single hydrogen atom you’ve plucked out of the air.”
“Shit.”
“If we convert it to calories, to warm one cubic centimetre of water by 1 degree Celsius you’d need to split around 56 million hydrogen atoms.”
“Hand me the axe.”
The Berg laughed its deep laugh. Gerry felt it in his bones. The water around the boat vibrated.
“How did you get so good at maths, anyway?”
“Wolfram Alpha – that thing’s amazing.”
“Wait, you’ve got internet?”
  

19 July 2011

Animal Holocaust

Human beings have killed off some pretty amazing things in our time, but we usually think of these as remote (prehistoric man hunting the last of the mammoths already pressured by the end of the last ice-age), or already vulnerable (the dodo). Americans were particularly good at it.

1870s entrepreneurs and their 'Bison Bone Ski Slope' 
Plains Bison were famously hunted to near extinction in the 1800s, but think about what this means. Native Americans had lived in balance with the bison for centuries and the number of animals was such that large populations of humans could prey on them with little change to the bison’s overall numbers. The best estimates of the pre-Columbian bison population are around 30 million animals. At this time they were the most numerous single species of large wild mammal on Earth.
With the introduction of guns, Native American hunting escalated to the extent that the Comanche tribe were killing over a quarter of a million animals every year by the 1830s. By the 1870s the industry was in full swing and it is estimated that between 2,000 and 100,000 animals were killed every day depending on the season. Hunters had to put the barrels of their guns in the snow to cool them down.

Plains bison were saved from extinction by a few enterprising ranchers who preserved small herds which were later released into National Parks. The Passenger Pigeon was not so lucky. These birds were present in such numbers (between 3 and 5 billion animals) that in 1866 a flock over 1.5 kilometers wide was reported as taking 14 hours to pass overhead. That is, you wake in the morning to find the largest flock of birds you have ever seen blotting out the sky, and as night falls that same flock is still flying overhead. Unfortunately Passenger Pigeons were a convenient and cheap source of food. In 1878 one hunt killed 50,000 birds per day for nearly 5 months. By 1896 the last big flock was killed and in 1914 the last living specimen died in Cincinnati Zoo.

More numerous even than the Plains Bison and the Passenger Pigeon was the Rocky Mountain Locust. These insects were so numerous that there were serious questions raised as to whether agriculture in North America would be viable, such were their depredations. The famous “Albert’s Swarm” of 1875 was calculated to cover an area greater than the size of California and contain perhaps 12.5 trillion insects. 30 years later they were gone, and no-one was really sure why. The best guess is that farmers dug up the areas they used as egg-laying beds.

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut,“so it goes.”

7 July 2011

Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fare Evasion Part II – ‘The Evadening’

My earlier guide to fare evading involved fare evasion on trams. Since moving house though, I've been catching the bus to and from work, and this has forced me to update my modus operandi.  

At first the bus seemed far more expensive than the tram. I had to validate every time and could only save money by buying a weekly concession ticket, secure in the knowledge that the drivers would never check my concession card – or lack thereof.

Luckily the Victorian Government is the fare evader’s friend. At vast expense they have installed the Myki touch-card system. This new technology means fare evasion is, once more, a gentlemen’s sport.

Bus-based Myki fare evasion can be played at one of three levels. You may incorporate the skills you have developed in the lower levels when playing at the higher.

Level 1 (the ‘Double-Blind’): Simply have on your person a Myki card and a Metcard. Both systems are notoriously unreliable and at least twice a week you will be able to walk straight on with an apologetic smile and rueful wave of the offending card, as you are unable to validate it at the red-lit machine.

Level 2 (the ‘Swagger’): Brazenly step on the bus and wave your Myki in an ineffective manner across the scanner. Swiping quickly, or closer to the display, rather than the actual sensor area, means that most often you won’t be charged. By placing your body between the reader and driver, thereby obstructing the driver’s view, you can usually walk straight on and take your seat. Occasionally the driver may be roused from their torpidity and you will have to swipe properly or, if the scanner is facing towards the back of the bus, endure the beady eyes of fellow passengers.

Level 3 (the ‘le Carre’): For over twelve months the ‘Swagger’ was all I needed. It wasn’t great, but it allowed me to dodge 60-70% of the fares I would otherwise have paid. Then Myki upped the ante and I was forced to a new level of deviousness, a level where I now manage to avoid paying anything at all for public transport.
One morning I noticed that the ‘beep’ sound that occurred when a Myki was correctly swiped was suddenly much louder. The ‘Swagger’ was still good, but it was increasingly obvious that I wasn’t paying. Luckily there are a number of videos on YouTube where people have recorded themselves using a Myki card. By downloading one of these, then editing it into an mp3 file I was able to put the sound of a ‘successful touch-on’ on my phone. Now, when I get on the bus I simply hold my phone and Myki together, wave the card near the reader and play the sound file. Perfection.    

Catching the bus

14 June 2011

Looking for Neutrinos & Freezing to Death

“Check out this diagram I found on Wikipedia.”
“I thought you said all your electrical equipment was dead? Like an ‘old packet of peas at the back of the bloody freezer’ I believe you said.”
“Never mind that, have a look.”
The Berg leaned forward to peer at the diagram, chunks of ice splashed into the water and clattered on the deck. The sounds were strange and hollow in the fog that had been there since dawn.



“Sorry. Hmmm, yes it all looks very neat doesn’t it?”
“It’s pretty bloody incredible.”
“That too. Just fill in the blanks hey?”
“Well we’re going pretty well on the matter side. Three quarks give you a proton, another three give you a neutron, pop in an electron or two from your bag of leptons and you’ve got an atom.”
“All that other stuff in your ‘bag of leptons’ though. Muons, Tau Neutrinos, what are they all for?”
“Search me. Maybe you build stuff with them in other dimensions.”
The Berg cracked alarmingly. “Haa! Yes, I expect that’s it.” It leaned forward again. A hunk of ice glanced off the wheelhouse and spun away into the fog. “Quantum Electrodynamics is the only one really holding up its end in the yellow bit though, isn’t it?”
“We’re waiting on the bloody Higgs Boson. If we find that then the Electroweak Theory’s looking great.”
“We?”
You know. And Quantum Chromodynamics always comes out of experiments looking good.”
“It has eight different types of gluons which it insists on describing with such monikers as ‘blue/anti-green + green/anti-blue.’”
“It’s a weird world.”
“That it is… but… the elephant in the room?”
“Fucking gravity.”
The Berg tried to look sympathetic.
“I know, I know. Gravitons? Sorry, can’t detect them. Quantum Gravity? Sounds good – few contenders, something to test them against would help though.”
“Fucking gravity.”
They sat staring into the fog for a few minutes. Gerry’s eyes started to hurt, whether from gazing too long into the blank wall of the fog, or from the cold, he couldn’t tell.
“How do you know all this stuff anyway?” he asked the Berg.
“A few years ago a bunch of Russians came along and drilled a hole in me. They were going to look for neutrinos but the funding fell through. And one of them froze to death.”
“You talked to them too?”
“I wanted to, but I can’t speak Russian.”

4 June 2011

A bit of Proust, ya cunt

"Habit weakens all things; but the things which are best at reminding us of a person are those which, because they were insignificant, we have forgotten and which have therefore lost none of their power. Which is why the greater part of our memory exists outside us, in a dampish breeze, in the musty air of a bedroom or the smell of autumn's first fires, things through which we can retrieve any part of us that the reasoning mind, having no use for it, disdained, the last vestige of the past, the best of it, the part which, after all our tears seem to have dried, can make us weep again. Outside us? Inside us, more like, but stored away from our mind's eye, in that abeyance of memory which may last forever. It is only because we have forgotten that we can now and then return to the person we once were, envisage things as that person did, be hurt again, because we are not ourselves any more, but someone else who once loved something that we no longer care about."

- A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur, 1919

25 May 2011

Killing Whales & Freezing to Death

Gerry threw the orange into the water and slapped his hand against the gunwale in frustration.
“They can’t have thought that! That’s what we think now. They didn’t have the bloody scientific apparatus to magnify something that much.”
The Berg shifted slightly, voice amused: “So if you went and asked some stupid bogan what the surface of an orange would look like if you were one hundredth of a millimeter tall, what would they say? They don’t have the scientific apparatus either.”
“As a culture they do. They may not have ever used a scanning electron microscope, but they’ve seen enough trippy animation at the start of movies to know that things aren’t just… I don’t know, smooth.”
“Who says the ancient Greeks, or any primitive culture, saw the very small as smooth?”
“Well they can’t have seen it as bloody molecular, or atomic!”
“The Greeks saw it as atomic.”
“That was just a theory, an extension of Plato’s perfect forms. If they cut the skin of an orange smaller and smaller they wouldn’t get structure, cells walls, amino acids – they’d get tiny orange spheres. Ancient Greek atoms.”
“But that’s what we get now. It’s just a difference in how we get there.”
“Tiny orange spheres?”
“When you use your imagination to zoom in on this orange, down through cells walls and such, what do your atoms look like?"
“OK, coloured spheres.”
“Not electron clouds surrounding subatomic particles that are best described as probability densities?”
“OK! OK!” Gerry turned away and looked out across the grey ocean. There was a slight chop and the wind had turned even colder. The Berg loomed behind him, waves slapping against its base with a fractured, hollow sound.
“All I’m bloody saying,” he said, turning back to the wall of ice, “is that it would be interesting to know how ancient cultures imagined the very small, given that, although some of them may have possessed the philosophical idea of the atom, the vast majority did not. None of them had a microscope, and so would have been totally unaware of the minute complexity of everyday objects.”
The Berg rumbled in appreciation. “Well put. Yes, that’s an interesting thought. Personally I have no idea how they imagined such things. Nobody really got down here much except in the last one hundred years or so and they were all too busy killing whales and freezing to death to stop and chat.”

23 May 2011

Toiling in the Satanic Mills

The clever quote doing the rounds at present was posted on MetaFilter by blue_beetle on August 26, 2010:
If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold.”

What blue_beetle does so nicely with this elegantly worded statement is make you think about your place in the digital economy. I want to think about that, but specifically about myself as a cog in the two largest machines in town – Google and Facebook.

Examining Facebook in economic terms is difficult, as it’s still a private company and so therefore can keep its finances to itself. It does like to boast though, so we know in 2010 it had advertising revenues of $1.86 billion, and about 500 million active users. Divide one by the other and you can see that a single one of the products made by Facebook (e.g. me) provide them with an annual revenue of $3.72 – maybe time for Zuckerberg to crack the fucking whip?

Google’s a bit easier in some respects because as a public company it has to produce an annual report for shareholders. From this we can see it had revenues in 2010 of $29.321 billion, but expenses incurred in obtaining that revenue of $18.94 billion, so a net revenue of $10.381 billion. Of course Google is a more diverse company than Facebook, so these revenues are from more than just advertising. Still, without products such as yours truly running Chrome as their browser and deriding Bing at any opportunity, Google wouldn’t exist at all. So let’s be generous and divide things up equally - 85% of the world’s 2 billion internet users use Google, so each is responsible for one one-hundred and seventy millionth of the revenue. This works out at $6.11 per person.

Looking at the quote again we can see we’re not really a product - that just sounds cool. Google couldn’t sell us, because who’d buy? As always, we’re human capital, toiling away not only for our own boss, but also for Zuckerberg and the worthy shareholders at Google. We make them money (nearly $10 a year) and in return we can look up stuff, have somewhere to put this blog; have somewhere to organise a party, then show pictures from it. I’m not a product, I’m a sharecropper.

12 May 2011

How I Met Your Mother

Looking at the ‘Stats’ section of this blog I can see that by far the most viewed post is ‘How Loud is the Sun?’ Amazingly, any overly curious individual who types this into Google (or even Bing – God, do I even want that audience?) gets my blog as the first hit.

Being momentarily bereft of ideas for a new post I thought I’d bow to the collective will of humanity as expressed through Google (a sentence that may hopefully be used to describe some sort of internet-based fascist regime that could emerge in the near future). Typing ‘How’ into Google and letting it (via ‘Google Instant’) finish the thought for you gives, alarmingly, a suggestion of ‘How I Met Your Mother.’ Thankfully I’ve managed to insulate myself from the dregs of popular culture to the extent that, although I know this is a comedy TV show, that’s all I know. Never watched an episode. Don’t know who’s in it. No idea what the premise is.

I’d planned to move on to some of the other popular suggestions that Google offers when presented with the beginning of a question, such as “Do… Not Call Register,” “Can… You Run It,” “How… To Make Pancakes,” “How… Do You Print Screen?” etc. but as you can see they’re all quite fantastically boring. Worse still, those examples are the more interesting ones. Letting Google finish your thoughts for you reveals an obsession with crap TV, song lyrics, computers, basic science and elementary Christianity. This may mean one of three things: 1) humanity is obsessed with this sort of tedious rubbish; 2) the subsection of humanity Googling things often enough to effect Google Instant is obsessed with this sort of tedious rubbish; or 3) Google is showing the beginnings of sentience, but rather than an artificial intelligence such as Terminator’s Skynet, intent on wiping out humanity, it is an idiot intent on buying the 8th season (Eight?) of ‘Two and a Half Men’ and finding the lyrics to ‘Do It Like A Dude.’

The only interesting thing revealed by all this is Google’s continuing fascination with the Sun – perhaps it is evil, and questions like “How Big Is The Sun?” and “How Hot Is The Sun?” are preludes to “How To Extinguish The Sun” or “How To Plunge The Earth Into The Sun.” With luck, my blog will help it formulate its evil plans, and I will be rewarded in some sort of virtual paradise.

23 March 2011

It's French for 'Under Vacuum'

Last night I entered the world of sous-vide.

Heston Blumenthal was guarding the door. I had to lick his bald head at each point of the compass and, with a saucy wink, he let me in.

Outside, in the wilderness, I’d been cooking chicken breasts on a pan, aiming to get the centre of the meat to the perfect level of ‘doneness’ - 60°C – the temperature at which the proteins in the meat set. In the howling wind, I’d crouch over a piece of car bonnet positioned over whatever rudimentary heat source I’d managed to scrounge, usually a dead dog soaked in petrol, and plonk the chicken down on the metal surface smoking away at around 200°C, wait, turn, wait. If I was lucky, I might get it off the heat when the centre was at 60°C, but the surrounding flesh certainly wasn’t.

Ushered inside the world of sous-vide by Heston Blumenthal himself, things were very different. Flaming dogs in windswept ruins were a thing of the past. Now I had gas, stainless steel, and some sort of Louis XIV-meets-Tron décor that made my eyes water.    

Under Ferran Adriá’s gentle direction I placed the chicken breasts in separate snap-lock sandwich bags with a little salt and pepper, filled a pot with hot water, turned on my Zyliss badly-designed-cooking-timer-that-I-bought-because-it-happens-to-have-a-temperature-probe-on-a-cord and waited for the water to get to 60°C. Once there I carefully submerged the bags and let the water pressure push the air out. I then snapped the seals shut, put the lid on and spent the next hour keeping the flame underneath the pot as low as possible, holding the water temperature between 59°C and 62°C, while Ferran read me Spanish poetry and Heston came in from minding the door and gave me a foot massage.

The result? No more hunks of blandness tasting mostly of burnt dog and petrol! Instead, the most moist and flavoursome chicken breast I’ve ever eaten. I’m a convert. Maybe even an acolyte.

Caveats:
-         You can use sous-vide on most foods, but it’s particularly good for cooking eggs, fish and steak.
-         You can’t ‘overcook’ but you do have to be mindful of good hygiene. A long (8 hours and above) cook in a vacuum can lead to the growth of anaerobic bacteria, particularly botulinum, which will kill you stone dead.
-         Hippies, you can do vegetables, but you have to use higher temperatures to break down the stronger cell walls. The plastic bags won’t fill your tofu up with chemicals because they’re food grade anyway.
-         If you’re doing a steak or similar you can give it a quick sear before it hits the table to caramelize the outside.
-         I was originally alerted to doing this at home by this article which uses an esky. I would not recommend this method. You can watch the temperature drop before your eyes.
-          No, I don’t watch ‘Masterchef’ or ‘My Kitchen Rules.’ I was hooked on cooking shows back when Floyd was still tooling, shickered, around Italy, thank you very much.

Postscript 25/5/11: tried my first sous-vide steak tonight. 45 minutes held between 55 and 57°C then a quick sear on the grill for some colour. I could cut it with the edge of my fork.

Postscript 19/6/11: Lamb at 58°C for 30 minutes was good, but not great. Bloodier than I expected. This beast requires further experimentation.

Postscript 29/6/11: Salmon at 50°C for 20 minutes required a little preparation. When cooking with sous-vide salmon will leak albumen, a milky fluid. I submerged the cuts for half an hour in a 20% saline solution to try and prevent this before cooking, but there was still some liquid in the bag after cooking. I found the finished product delicious - very flavoursome and with a texture closer to sashimi than cooked salmon. Carryl wished the meat was hotter, and found it a 'bit fishy.' I will try some flavourings next time to try and please her. 

24 February 2011

Bombing Melbourne

I’ve always had a dark turn of mind. This, coupled with a love of interesting technical facts, combines to form an abiding interest in nuclear bombs.

The whole “duck-and-cover” fear of nuclear annihilation was absent from my childhood. I was 13 when the USSR disintegrated in 1991, and the idea of imminent death had been on the wane since the Cuban Missile Crisis anyway. Growing up in Tasmania meant that I was far removed from the machinery and immediacy of nuclear Armageddon that must still have been present, like fog burning off in the sun, for my childhood contemporaries growing up near a missile silo in Kansas or in one of the USSR’s ‘secret cities.’

The literature was still there for me to discover though, and a lot of my favourite stories were set in a post-apocalyptic world. Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust, John Christopher’s ‘Tripods’ series, and Caroline MacDonald’s The Lake at the End of the World were all read repeatedly. Later, John Hersey’s Hiroshima gave me the horrific detail that the children’s books had only alluded to.

Anyway, the following map is a better effort at some figures I scribbled down some years ago. A good map can illuminate many things, and hopefully this one shows just how big the explosion of a big nuclear bomb is. A good shorthand for measuring the explosive power of large explosions such as a nuclear bomb is in tonnes of TNT. The ‘Little Boy’ bomb dropped on Hiroshima exploded with a force of 15 kilotonnes, or 15,000 tonnes of TNT. The largest ever nuclear bomb, the USSR’s 1961 effort ‘Tsar Bomba,’ was originally going to detonate with a force of 100 megatonnes, but was scaled back at the last moment to 50 megatonnes (50 million tonnes of TNT) – pussies.

A ‘big’ bomb nowadays is around 20 megatonnes. The US and the Russian Federation each still have around 2000 weapons of various sizes ready to go, and another 6000 (US) and 9000 (Russian Federation) in mothballs. Here’s what would happen if a 20Mt bomb was detonated 5.4km over the Melbourne CBD:    


23 February 2011

Review: Radiohead – The King of Limbs

Radiohead have been pursuing one of the most interesting careers in modern rock since their debut single, 1992’s ‘Creep.’ Their music began with a guitar-driven and ultimately conventional phase that culminated in 1997’s OK Computer, made a sharp left turn into the electronic genius of Kid A and Amnesiac and then, incredibly, managed to combine the two earlier phases into the sublime Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows. Through all this, Radiohead were always a band primarily concerned with songs.
Their new album, The King of Limbs, at times feels like a conscious abandonment of their own evolution; at times like another left turn. It is definitely not an album that shows the same genius for songwriting that fills their previous work. More than anything though, The King of Limbs feels like singer Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo album The Eraser rather than a new Radiohead album. Here we find the same staccato, sometimes schizophrenic, percussion tracks hung with Yorke’s ghostly falsetto. There is little other instrumentation, sometimes a few chords on a piano, and one gets the feeling guitarist Johnny Greenwood may have spent most of the recording sessions down at the pub.
There are still moments of brilliance, the album’s first single, ‘Lotus Flower,’ is a particularly fine example, but these never break free from the basic vocals-over-percussion model. There are no hooks, no middle eights, no riffs in this album – none of the tricks that Radiohead know how to use so well. Why this should be the case is a mystery. If the band is consciously striving in a new, sparsely minimal direction the change is less successful than their earlier changes of direction. More likely the band is doing as they always do – following their own star.

3/5

9 February 2011

Home-Grown is a Crock

Perhaps I’m just being contrary here, but I’m starting to think the whole slow food, home-grown, organic thing is a bit of a beat up.

Perhaps reading through a Christmas gift, Matthew Evans’s The Real Food Companion, then seeing repeats of his show ‘The Gourmet Farmer’ on TV recently raised my expectations too high, but my experience of home-grown over the past few days has been distinctly underwhelming.

I’ve heard this year has not been a good year for tomatoes; certainly this was my first year growing them. The effort, water, spray (not organic I know, but it was the white fly or the plants) paid off with barely a dozen actual tomatoes. Tasty tomatoes, yes. Tastier than tomatoes from the supermarket? Again, yes. Difference in taste worth the effort put in to get that taste? Not even remotely.

Could it be my sub-par gardening skills? A friend gave me some lovely looking little yellow cherry tomatoes. They were sweet inside, but the flesh was mostly bland and mealy. Another friend owns a house in the country. Her corn, fresh from the garden, was tough and bland. McCains beat it hands down. Her beets, again freshly plucked from the soil and boiled for a salad, were watery. I prefer tinned.

I’m not suggesting that home-grown, or organic, or slow food is pointless. Obviously on a continuum where one end is sitting on the couch eating KFC and the other end is spending your time outdoors growing your own food the Peter Cundall option is the better one. But this elitist, lapsarian and increasingly pervasive view that fruit and veg from the supermarket is basically evil and tastes like plastic, whereas the stuff you grow yourself, or buy from the local farmer’s market, is some sort of rustic orgasm in your mouth is simply untrue.

I freely admit the truth, and the necessity, of the other arguments for slow, organic and home-grown. We should buy local, we should minimise pesticide use, genetic diversity in our crops should be preserved. But does that pumpkin you grew really taste better than the one I bought from Coles? How about now when they’re both roasted to perfection with some garlic, thyme and rosemary? I say they’re pretty close to identical.

I grew up on a farm. My grandfather was an outstanding gardener. Looking back through the mists of nostalgia, was the food of my childhood better? Some was, some wasn’t. The potatoes were better, but that was the variety. I can get that taste if I want it by finding bintjes or pink-eyes. The carrots and tomatoes were the same. Beans were the same. Peas were better but that’s because I was eating them off the vine. If they were picked, podded, stored a few days and then cooked they weren’t as good as frozen. Fruit was mostly better, but again I was eating it off the tree or vine. I can get as good a punnet of blackberries from the supermarket now, but I have to pay $6 or $7 for the experience, rather than eat them from the patch by the river until I feel sick for free.

To go off on a tangent (a little) I watched a show recently called ‘Willie’s Chocolate Revolution.’ Same idea I’m banging on about here. Massive foody, loves chocolate, hates Cadbury’s, sets up cacao plantation in Venezuela, grows own beans, hand-makes own chocolate on antique machinery – result? “People have no idea what real chocolate tastes like! I’m going to convert them.” Cue dopey British people suspiciously tasting Willie’s 80% cocoa solids chocolate, then sneaking back to the Cadbury Family Block. Willie’s shocked. Fucking idiot public can’t wean themselves off their too-sweet junk-food chocolate. Tellingly though, Willie intersperses all this with a few recipes. No straight out my-Christ-that’s-bitter 80% cocoa solids chocolate here. Instead the 80% is melted and mixed with a load of sugar and cream. No-one picks Willie up on the sell-out, and I’ll shut up about it now too because I found a block of his product in a shop and it was bloody tasty.

So what’s the point of all this? I guess to applaud the idea and the ideals behind slow, organic and home-grown. To agree that in a world of increasingly commoditised food a movement away from that slippery slope is a vital voice that needs to be heard. But don’t tell me that by failing to grow my own I’m missing out on undreamt of flavours: that until you’ve had a home-grown tomato you don’t know what you’re missing out on. That’s a crock.