Sunday, 29 July 2007

Shiny New Job

I've got a new job.

After being in my current role for all of 8 months, I’m dipping out to do something else.

I'll be the reinsurance manager.
Not just a reinsurance manager.
The Reinsurance Manager.

What will I do you ask?
I’ll manage the reinsurance, you see.
If there's any reinsurance that needs managing, I'm your guy.

And what is reinsurance?
It's insurance for insurance companies.
It's on-selling the risk.
It's sharing the load.
It's spreading the pain.

And believe it or not, it's actually much less interesting than it sounds. That is, until you start really delving into the mathematical and statistical detail.

At which point it elevates from mind-numbingly boring to only slightly tedious.

But they’re paying me, so . . . meh.

Thursday, 26 July 2007


Nerds the whole net over are in a lather at the moment over the latest viral marketing campaign.

It all started with this trailer which was shown before Transformers in US cinemas.

The movie's title isn't revealed, just the release date of 18 January 2008 and the fact that it's produced by J.J. Abrams (of Lost fame). lists the fake working title as "Cloverfield".

There's an official website at, which has a pile of snapshots, gradually growing, that you can move around. As I write this, there are four pictures sitting there.

It's all prompted a ridiculous amount of commentary. One early theory was that it's a new Godzilla movie, until someone pointed out that Sony owns the rights to the big G, not Paramount. Another theory is that it's based on H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. There's also some interesting (if convoluted) theories here.

At some point the mania was linked to, a nifty little site with some cool flash puzzles to solve. But J.J. has officially denied any relationship between his trailer and this website. According to the erstwhile Harry Knowles, the Ethan Haas thing is promoting the role-playing game Alpha Omega by Mindstorm Labs. It's just a case of When Viral Marketing Campaigns Collide.

Back to the trailer. One of the guys at the party is wearing a "Slusho" t-shirt, and the other official website relating to Cloverfield is This site has some odd Japanese flash animation promoting the drink Slusho, a bizarre history of the company, and the engaging tag "You can't drink just six!".

If you send a feedback email to Slusho telling them you're happy (they ask, you see) you'll get a response saying "Slusho! loves your mails!! You Can't Drink Just Six!!!". Cute. Presumably there'll be more emails coming.

Word is that the title of the film will be revealed at the San Diego Comic Con this coming weekend.

It's all very intriguing. Stay tuned.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Tintin in the Adults Section

Borders bookstores have made the decision to move the book Tintin in the Congo out of the kids section and into the adults section of their stores.

For those who haven't read it, this is the earliest Tintin to be published in the familiar book form, after first appearing as a serial in Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle. First published in 1931, it tells the story of intrepid reporter Tintin's visit to the Belgian Congo on a hunting trip.

It's easily the most violent and racist of the Tintin books, featuring scenes of animal slaughter and some genuinely shocking colonialism. Africans are portrayed as naive children, desperately in need of the guiding hand of enlightened Europeans to achieve something resembling civilisation. While this is a genuine reflection of European attitudes at the time, it's definitely not for kids.

The thing is, I think similar charges could be made about all the Tintin books, or at least the vast majority of them.

The portrayal of Africans in Tintin in the Congo is a racist and offensive caricature, but portrayals of Chinese people in The Blue Lotus and Native Americans in Tintin in America are not much better. And these are just the most obvious ones. The Tintin books regularly deal with Arabs, Jews and Eastern Europeans in less-than-flattering terms. The only ones that get off scot-free are Western Europeans.

Hergé even has a go at white America, showing it to be full of gangsters and money-obsessed buffoons. But really, that's just funny.

The more I think about it the more I wonder, was this stuff ever really just for kids? It's cut from the same cloth as the Hardy Boys and the Famous Five, with gun running and drug smuggling two of the most common plotlines. But Tintin is much more upfront about the subject matter. People are regularly shot and killed with the guns being run, and the drugs being smuggled aren't just nameless "packages" being moved in the dead of night . . . the drugs are used as poison, or to knock people out. And even to get high. The book Cigars of the Pharaoh, about a narcotics smuggling ring, makes no bones about what this stuff is for, with some really wacky psychedelic imagery. And this was way back in 1934.

So move them all to the adults section, I say. The kids of today's iGeneration surely aren't interested in this stuff. Let's face it, the only people still buying it are boomers and Gen X-ers on a nostalgia trip.

Not that that's a bad thing.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Ying Tong

Last Friday night Budge and I went to see a play called Ying Tong. And as it's been a slack weekend, I haven't gotten around to writing about it until now.

The play is based on the history of The Goon Show. For the benefit of those living under rocks in caves with their fingers in their ears, The Goon Show was the 1950s BBC radio comedy that introduced the world to Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and the one and only Spike Milligan.

The story of Ying Tong (the title being a reference to the Goon song "Ying-tong-iddle-i-po") is centred around Spike, who is credited for writing the bulk of the Goon Show episodes. The story takes place variously in a recording session for an episode of the show, in the psychiatric hospital where Milligan was having one of his many nervous breakdowns, and in a surreal Goon-like world in which Milligan is visited by characters from the show, as well as their later incarnations, such as Sellers' Dr Strangelove.

It's a very strange play in a lot of ways, with nonlinear storytelling reminiscent of the Goon Show's famous lack of structure and stream-of-consciousness rambling. This was presumably deliberate. Much of the play is done in flashback, with the implication that we are seeing scenes of Milligan's drug-induced hallucinations while hospitalised. The visions range from simple recollections of conversations with Sellers and Secombe, to psychedelic visions of leprechauns and morris dancers. Yes really.

It's all done in a very post-modern way, though, with Milligan pointing out when another flashback is coming on, and Secombe and Sellers making constant reference to their imaginary status.

The play is mainly concerned with Milligan's breakdown towards the end of the show's run, and the impact it has on his marriage, his friends and his work. But through all this, we actually learn very little about the man himself. There's a lot of history bundled into a reasonably short piece, but it's all the stuff of public record, such as Milligan's war service, his injury and (first) breakdown, meeting with Secombe and Sellers and the pressures of writing the show. As a big fan of the Goons, I got a kick out seeing these things recreated, but I didn't learn anything new.

What surprised me was the quality of the performances. A couple of times I got so immersed in it that I imagined I was watching the real Milligan, Secombe and Sellers. For Jonathan Biggins, playing Sellers, this was particularly extraordinary. Biggins managed to pull out flawless renditions of many of Sellers' famous characters including Bluebottle, Crun, Grytpype-Thynne, Major Bloodnok, Dr Strangelove and Inspector Clouseau. The other actors also handled their complex, and occasionally frenetic, roles very well.

In summary, it's a must for fans of The Goon Show and (probably) very enjoyable for those unfamiliar with it.

Now, if you happen to be one of these unfortunates who are unfamiliar with it, then take my advice, and sit down and listen to a couple of episodes. Preferably three of four.

The first one will seem very strange, somewhat incomprehensible, and you won't find it funny at all. Sometime during the second episode you'll begin to get into the rhythm of the show, and it might raise a giggle or two. The third will have have you in stitches and by the end of the fourth you'll be ready to strap on your chocolate euphonium, don your extra-strength knees and join the Goon parade.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Working at Home

I've been working at home for the last couple of days.

What has surprised me is how oddly similar it is to working at the office. The only noticeable difference being that I don't have to get out of my pyjamas.

This could just be the nature of my work, which involves lots of writing emails and doing calculations in spreadsheets. It also helps that the last couple of days haven't featured any meetings that I desperately needed to attend in person.

I could definitely get used to this.

The one thing that would help is a little more in the way of technological linkage between home and office. At least half the time spent "working" at home (Robb assures me the quotes are a grammatical requirement) involves waiting for people in the office to email files to me.

If I had a direct link to the office LAN I could be a lot more efficient.
But hey, it's not a huge problem. At least for me. At home, unlike the office, I have full access to websites like YouTube and Facebook. They help to fill in any downtime nicely.

I've even found time to update the blog.

Efficiency be damned.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Religion in Science Fiction

The comments in Tuesday's blog got me thinking about James Blish's excellent novel A Case of Conscience, in which a Jesuit priest visiting an alien civilisation finds that they have no religion, leading to a crisis of faith.

I then went on to think about Arthur C. Clarke's wonderful short story The Star, which is about a different Jesuit priest in space and a different crisis of faith. I really recommend reading this one, actually. It was good enough to be made into an episode of The Twilight Zone. And it's only short.

From there I began to ponder some other religious conundrums which have popped up in science fiction over the years, and which may eventually become reality.

For example:

• Religious holidays are usually based on the Earth's lunar or solar cycles. So how would these be maintained for adherents living on other planets?

• Suppose a replicating machine were able to produce a pork chop, indistinguishable at the molecular level from a real pork chop, but completely artificial and not extracted in any way from a real pig. Would it be OK for Muslims and Jews to eat it?

• In a cybernetic future, where anyone has the ability to have their consciousness uploaded into a network and effectively live forever, what happens to the Christian idea of eternal life as a reward for the faithful?

In fact, all this opens a much wider, and more general question, which is about how religions in general absorb advances in knowledge and technology.

Often they just reject them out of hand, like the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which claims that the Earth popped into existence 6,000 years ago. Alternatively, they try to limit the building of such knowledge in the first place, hoping that the question never gets asked. Like George Pell's recent stance on stem cell research.

But that's probably another blog for another time.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

The Palace

As I write these words, the Palace in St Kilda is burning.

They've got the fire under control, but the building is likely to be destroyed.

After various council shenanigans over the last few months, it was unlikely to reopen as a live venue anyway, but this is the last nail in the coffin.

It's the end of an era, kids.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Perpetual Motion

I'm feeling inspired to indulge in some nerdy ranting . . . all because some guys popped up last week promoting a public demonstration of their new perpetual motion machine, The Orbo.

High hopes and a great name, but sadly the demonstration didn't eventuate.

Not that I'm accusing them of plagiarism or anything, but it looks similar to the Bessler Wheel. That particular device has a fascinating history. At almost 300 years, this thing is the centre of one of the oldest conspiracy theories still under serious discussion.

The idea of getting free energy from a mechanical device has fascinated inventors for thousands of years. The general idea is that you start your machine running, and the energy produced by the machine's motion is enough to (a) keep the machine running and (b) have a bit left over to do something useful.

The problem is that a true perpetual motion machine would violate the first law of thermodynamics. To work, the machine would have to create (out of nowhere) more energy than it uses. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed . . . it can only change form. And violation of the law carries a sentence of Universal implosion.

Attempts at perpetual motion machines have usually involved magnets or gravity, partly because these are two of the most obvious action-at-a-distance forces around, but mainly because people looking to invent perpetual motion machines are fundamentally lazy. Which makes sense, if you think about it.

Unfortunately, the motion of machines running on magnets or gravity is invariably at a right angle to the magnetic or gravitational force, so friction ends up running the machine down.

It was way back in 1775 that the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris got fed up and issued a statement saying that they would "no longer accept or deal with proposals concerning perpetual motion". In a similar vein, the US Patent Office refuses to grant patents for perpetual motion machines without a working model. Interestingly, Australia has no such restriction.

As is often the case, all this has been best articulated by Homer Simpson, when Lisa makes a perpetual motion machine under extreme stress at Springfield Elementary's closure:

You said it.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Nouvelle Vague

Last night we went to see Nouvelle Vague play at the Concert Hall. (I still can't get used to calling it Hamer Hall. For some reason I can handle calling the Tennis Centre Rod Laver, but not that. Go figure.)

Anyway, they were amazing.

Emilie Simon was the support act, and easily as good as the main show. You gotta love a diminutive French chick doing beautiful original electronica, with some Peter Gabriel and Nirvana covers thrown in. She was backed by a percussionist (whose surfaces included a washboard, wooden piano frame, and a large tub of water) and a dude looking like Mandrake the Magician who, armed with a sampler, mixer, glockenspiel, wireless PlayStation controller and theremin spent the show recording random bits and pieces and looping them back. It was even odder than it sounds, and really quite mesmerising.

After the break Nouvelle Vague came on and did their thing, which is basically two (more) hot French chicks and an acoustic jazz band doing Frenchy covers of British punk and post-punk songs from the late 70s and early 80s.

They opened with awesome versions of Echo and the Bunnymen's The Killing Moon and Billy Idol's Dancing With Myself, before heading on into the usual suspects like Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart and crossing the pond for a very danceable version of the Dead Kennedys' Too Drunk to Fuck. We had seats in the front, so I couldn't see if the grannies in the audience joined in on the chorus for that one, as we did.

Instruments included (in addition to the regular guitar, drums and keyboard), a Double Bass, Melodica, and Kazoo. I never thought a kazoo could be sexy, but I was clearly wrong.

11 out of 10

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Office confessions

I have a confession to make. It's not something I'm proud of, but it's something I need to get out into the open.

I like the US version of The Office more than the UK version.

There. I've said it. That feels so much better.

Before the predictable round of "how can you say that?" begins, please understand that I fully appreciate the USA's patchy history when it comes to Americanising UK shows.

When it was first announced, I was as vocal as anyone in expressing my outrage. We all remember the pitiful US retreads of Absolutely Fabulous, Men Behaving Badly, and Coupling.

But the thing is, the US producers of The Office get it. They really do. Everything we love about the UK version is there. And with the possible exception of romantic protagonists Jim and Pam (c.f. the UK's Tim and Dawn), the US actors are not simply impersonating their English counterparts.

Steve Carell plays the manager with the same level of mawkish awkwardness, punctuated with moments of likeable pathos, as Ricky Gervais, but in a peculiarly brash American fashion that makes it, if anything, more effective. (Sample dialogue to a new employee: "Wow, you look exotic. Was your dad a GI ?")

Rainn Wilson brilliantly channels the slimy essence of the UK's Gareth into corporate soldier wannabe Dwight. He manages to be, simultaneously, more unlikable and more worthy of our pity. (Sample dialogue: "Security in this office is a joke. Last year, I came to work with my spud gun in a duffel bag. I sat at my desk all day, with a rifle that shoots potatoes at 60 pounds per square inch. Can you imagine if I was deranged?")

The number of episodes (52 compared to the UK's 14) also means that we get to know the supporting cast of weird and irritating seatwarmers. So you truly appreciate the moments where the fat sleazy accountant turns out to be the drummer and lead singer in a band that seems to play nothing but Sting and Police covers.

If you've not seen the US version in silent passive protest at the gall of the US producers, please swallow your pride and watch it. Your funny bone will thank you.