Friday, 29 February 2008

Dead Pool February Update

Another month has passed, and no-one is yet to score in the competition. Here we are, one-sixth of the way through the year and all those nominated are still hanging on.

But over in the realms of the un-nominated, we've seen a few well-known souls drop off the perch this month.

On the 2nd actor Barry Morse passed away. He was best known for playing Lt. Phillip Gerard in the 1960s TV show The Fugitive, a role later made famous by Tommy Lee Jones in the 1993 movie (albeit with the name changed to Marshall Samuel Gerard).

On the 5th Maharishi Yogi, the father of transcendental meditation and spiritual adviser to The Beatles, died at the ripe old age of 91.

This was the very same day that the Beatles song Across the Universe (supposedly influenced by John Lennon's interest in transcendental meditation) was beamed into space to celebrate NASA's 50th anniversary.


Two days later Ray Martin's career, which had been on life support for some time, finally gave up the ghost with his sacking from Channel Nine.
And not a moment too soon.

The 10th brought the death of US actor Roy Scheider, famous for the line "You're gonna need a bigger boat" in Jaws, and for playing Heywood Floyd in 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the not-too-bad sequel to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

On the 13th Smoky Dawson, Australian Musician/Radio Star/Armchair Salesman/Legend died at the age of 94 after a short illness.

On the 19th it was announced that Fidel Castro had resigned as President of Cuba. This, of course, does nothing to address the conspiracy theory that he actually croaked a full 18 months ago.

Then at the Oscars ceremony on the 24th Brad Renfro (whose death last month shocked the entertainment world, until Heath Ledger's death a week later rendered it instantaneously forgotten) was mysteriously and controversially omitted from the Oscars "In Memoriam" montage.

No good reason was given by the Academy, apart from some lame excuses about "not being able to fit everybody in". One can only assume his death, from an overdose of heroin and morphine, was considered too sordid.

At the same ceremony, Owen Wilson looked healthy and well presenting the Oscar for Best Short Film. This maybe puts predictions of an untimely death for the actor into the long-odds category. But then again, maybe it doesn't.

Our interest was piqued on the 18th when Nancy Reagan was admitted to hospital with a suspected broken hip. But she was released two days later. Close, but no cigar.

And finally, the 19th brought the sad death at age 100 of Emily Perry, the British actress famed for her role as Madge Allsop, Dame Edna's long-suffering bridesmaid. May she rest in peace. She certainly deserves it after all that.

And that's it for February, folks. Another month down and ten more to go.

Our eyes are scanning the magazines for that magic headline. Our ears are attuned to the sound of the death knell. Our minds, which could be otherwise productively occupied, are constantly considering the implications of the tiniest events.

As soon as anything happens, we'll let you know.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Creationism and Science

In an Age article a couple of days ago, one of the government's most senior education advisers was quoted as saying that faith-based schools isolate religious groups and create divisions in society.

While I think there's some merit to this argument, that's not actually what I wanted to talk about. The article also raised the point that in some of these faith-based schools, creationism is being taught alongside evolution in science classes.

This is of real and genuine concern.

I can accept that when a school is funded by a religious group, they can claim the right to teach their theology to the students. When parents sign their kids up to these schools it's understood (or should be) that that's part of the deal.

What I can't accept is that something like science, so integral to our operation as a society, can be watered down for the convenience of a religious elite.

Faith-based schools may teach creationism, by all means. But they must do it only in the context of religious and theological instruction. Not in the science class.

To my mind, a school has two basic functions. The first is to develop a child's social, emotional, analytical and academic skills so that they have the best possible opportunity to succeed in whatever they choose to do. In a faith-based school, religious instruction will form part of this, which is perfectly fine if that's what the parents wish.

The other equally important function is to ensure that, as a society, we pass on from one generation to the next the skills required (to put it crudely) to keep the place running.

These functions are not mutually exclusive. They both go towards ensuring that each generation has a mix of people who will happily be engineers, checkout operators, doctors, cleaners, accountants, small business owners, rock stars, deep-sea diving instructors, etc. etc. Even ministers of religion.

But absolutely fundamental to the running of our society is an understanding of science. Science is what has advanced us from the stone age. Science underpins our agriculture and medicine. Science is essential for our understanding of the environment and the challenges of climate change. Science is what we use to build roads and computers and houses. Science touches every aspect of our lives.

When creationism is taught as if it were science, it devalues science. Being taught that theological dogma is science serves to remove the power of science, which is that it is open to being questioned.

All scientific claims must be backed up by observable evidence, or they will be quickly discarded. History is littered with the relics of scientific theories that were passed over for lack of evidence, or replaced with more plausible and supportable theories. (Here's a fun list to get you started).

In any science class, a student must be able to ask the question "where is the evidence?" with full confidence of receiving a satisfactory answer. Evolutionary theory can provide this. Creationism can not.

To say that creationism is science is to say that science does not require evidence. Such thinking undermines the very foundation of scientific thought.

If it were to become widespread in our society, so reliant on science for its survival, we would soon find ourselves in a very vulnerable position.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

It Begins

The discussion a few blogs ago about the future direction of television seems remarkably prescient now, with this article appearing in the New York Times today.

It's just another nail in the coffin of broadcast television. It's comforting to see that a company like ABC (that's the US one) is willing to start embracing the new world order, however tentatively.

Here in Australia we're only just getting our first glimpse of this world. DVRs have been around for a couple of years, and time-shifting is flirting with the mainstream in the form of Foxtel IQ. But TiVo has no market penetration here at all, and the stodgy old networks staffed with stodgier old men still rule the airwaves.

Bring on the revolution.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

A long long day

I spent today in Sydney. While this is something I generally try to avoid, it was for work and hence compulsory. Or something.

Got up at 5.30 this morning for a 7.30 flight. First meeting in Sydney at 10, which we only just make due to extended waits on the tarmac (at both ends) and a mile-long queue for taxis prompting us to catch the train from the airport.

Not a great deal was achieved in the morning, although there was a nice lunch at The Rocks, up close and personal with the Bridge and the Opera House.

The afternoon brought the real purpose of the expedition; a mini-conference (pretentiously referred to as a "Knowledge Fair") with a few different topical presentations to choose from.

I decided the one I'd chosen a few weeks ago looked boring, so went instead to one about climate change. Or more particularly, the opportunities that emissions trading schemes will offer the financial services industry.

K-Rudd has said Australia will have an emissions trading scheme in place by 2010, which will have a huge impact on the way heavily-emitting companies operate (in Australia, that's primarily the mining and coal power industries). Like any other commodity, carbon credits will fluctuate in value as they are traded between
(a)those that can cheaply cut their emissions and
(b)those that can't.

It'll be a complex and dynamic market, and buy/sell/hold decisions will be best left to the experts.

This'll all become second nature to us soon. In three years' time, the value of a carbon credit will be reported at the end of the news alongside the Aussie dollar and the price of a barrel of oil.

Anyway, this was followed by a plenary session about different attitudes to risk in different demographic segments, and how this affects the insurance market.

Much of it was yawnworthy, but I was interested by the observation that Generation Y, often accused of being blasé about risk, are in fact more aware of risk than any other generation. It was pointed out that Gen Y have lived with a war- and terrorism-laden worldview for most of their lives, have pretty much resigned themselves to never owning their own home, and place a low value on everything except their social network. The upshot is that transience is seen as the normal state of being, and there's just no value in traditional risk-avoidance strategies like insurance.

Sounds plausible. But Corey Worthington's still a dickhead.

At this point we left to get the plane home, which was again delayed on the tarmac for no apparent reason. What's up with QANTAS today? Drip trays giving them trouble again?

Arrived home just after 9. A long long day.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Technology and the Law

The injunction slapped on Channel Nine to stop them showing the new drama Underbelly in Victoria is yet another example of the law failing to keep up with technology.

Underbelly is a dramatisation of some relatively recent events, some of which are the subject of an ongoing criminal trial here in Melbourne. It's thought, probably quite reasonably, that the content of the show could prejudice the trial.

But anyone who wants to watch Underbelly can easily download it from file sharing sites. Anyone who didn't already know this was helped along by wide reporting of the fact in the mainstream media, and there were torrents up within hours of its broadcast in Sydney.

This sort of thing is starting to crop up more and more as the pace of technological advancement increases, and it's not going to stop.

For a long time in Australia it was illegal to put anything on your iPod to which you didn't personally own the copyright. When was this changed? Not until late 2006, five years after the iPod first appeared. It's worth noting that the same act finally made it legal to tape TV shows and watch them later, thirty years after the arrival of VHS.

But this Underbelly situation is a bit trickier. In this case it's not just the written law that's out of date. It's the process of application of the law that's out of date.

And if the former can take years to correct, then the latter could take decades.

But here we are. The question that must be answered is . . . how do you restrict the viewing of a show in a local area, when we have a global network from which to easily get it?

The short answer is . . . you can't. The technology is there. It's not going to go away and it's not going to change. It's the law that will have to change.

But of course, something like that doesn't change easily. While the change is inevitable, so is the huge amount of resistance that will accompany it.

We're seeing this sort of resistance already among the major TV networks, who are fighting tooth and nail against digital distribution of their content.

The problem there is that the networks are clinging to a distribution model developed fifty years ago when the only other things competing for viewers were cinemas and the wireless. There are now much better distribution models out there. But rather than embracing all this new technology as an opportunity to expand their viewer numbers, they're fighting to keep their old outdated models alive.

The really interesting thing is that the networks are trying to use the law to do their fighting for them. So when the lawyers start understanding that the law needs to change for precisely the same reasons . . . there should be some interesting times ahead.

Saturday, 16 February 2008


The best thing about Jumper is that it finally puts to rest this ridiculous notion that Hayden Christensen can act.

No more can people claim that his woeful performances in Star Wars II and III were all down to George's shoddy dialogue. No more can people point to his emolicious role in Life as a House or the 'potential' he displayed in Shattered Glass and claim that Brando-like greatness is just around the corner.

This is it, folks. This was his big chance. It might not have been the weightiest of roles, but it was definitely something for him to work with.

I can just see the pitch:

"Hayden, you'll be playing a 'jumper' . . . a guy who can teleport himself anywhere in the world he wants. It's the ultimate adolescent fantasy and should be a whole lot of fun."

"Hmmm. Fun. Would I have to smile? Cause I don't do that."

"Well . . . "

"I'm sure we can find the emo angle in all this."

And find it he does. What should have been a rollicking chase movie covering the four corners of the globe turns into a passable action movie intercut with Christensen scowling at the camera.

What really throws Christensen's intransigence into stark relief is his fellow actors. They're spouting dialogue of similar (admittedly low) quality, but they manage to make it sound convincing. And more importantly, Fun.

Jamie Bell, a million miles from little Billy Elliott, is great as a dimension-jumping bovver boy getting off on the power of it all. Sam Jackson, as the hunter on the trail of the Jumpers, shows us just what would have happened if Jules Winnfield had taken a government job. Even Diane Lane, criminally underused with about three minutes of screen time, manages to act Christensen under the table.

Jumper is definitely worth seeing if you're into this kind of thing, but sadly it's about half the film it could have been.

2.5 out of 5

News for Nerds: Entertainment Edition

A Shadowy New Flight

The long-awaited sequel (well, I've been waiting a long time) to legendary 1980s TV show Knight Rider will air on NBC tomorrow. KITT the talking Trans Am has been mysteriously morphed into a Mustang, and apparently KITT now stands for Knight Industries Three Thousand.

Because, of course . . . Two Thousand is so very 1982.

In a controversial move at the eleventh hour and after all recording was complete, actor Will Arnett was replaced as the voice of KITT for the new show. It turns out that General Motors, for whom Arnett has done some ads and to whom he's still under contract, decided they didn't like the idea of their guy's voice coming out of a Ford.

A case of branding gone mad, maybe, but his replacement? Val Kilmer. Serious. Geekgasm.

Between this, the forthcoming remake of The A-Team in 2010 and the just-announced remake of The Greatest American Hero, it looks like it's gonna be all Eighties all the time for a while.

The Dark Knight may not be Heath's swansong

Heath Ledger may yet appear in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the film he was making with director Terry Gilliam when he died.

This could prove a headache for the marketers of the new Batman movie The Dark Knight, who would dearly love to credit Knight as Ledger's last film performance.

Gilliam was barely halfway through filming when Ledger died, but there might just be a way to save his performance and still complete the film. Rumour has it that Doctor Parnassus is a jumping-between-worlds extravaganza, and apparently there's no reason that Heath's character need look the same on either side of the "gate".

So rather than resort to some Oliver Reed-style CGI face-pasting, Heath might be just one of a few big names playing the lead role. Some of the other names being bandied about include Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Stay tuned for more on this one.

And spare a thought for poor Terry Gilliam. He just can't catch a break when making movies. Having said that, the inevitable extended DVD doco about the making of Doctor Parnassus should be a corker.

Peter Gabriel and Wall-E

The hotly anticipated new film from Pixar is science-fiction epic Wall-E, concerning the adventures of a trash-collecting robot left alone on an abandoned Earth.

With a look somewhere between Johnny Five and the walking binoculars from Toy Story, Wall-E looks set to melt the flintiest of hearts when released in June. Check out the trailer here and you just try not to mist up.

But the news that really looks set to the put this one over the top, artistically at least, is the announcement that Peter Gabriel is involved in the music soundtrack. The extent of his involvement isn't quite clear, but whatever he does will be worth hearing. His scores for the films Last Temptation of Christ and Rabbit Proof Fence are modern classics.

You can hear the man himself talking about his involvement here. (As well as hearing all about his recent broken leg, funky new technology, 2001: A Space Odyssey and human rights).

The man in the hat is (almost) back

The trailer for the new Indiana Jones film was released last week and can be seen on the official site.

Look out for Cate Blanchett in an unconvincing wig and Shia Labeouf in an unconvincing goatee.

Other than that, it looks about as realistic as the other three movies.

And finally . . .

Jericho, one of the best new shows of 2006 has returned to CBS for its (belated and truncated) second season.

When the first season ended on the mother of all cliff-hangers and was then promptly cancelled, the fans mobilised and sent pallet-loads of nuts (an obscure reference to a line in the show) to the studio in protest.

The studio heads folded under the pressure and a final seven episodes to wrap up the story got the green light.

This success has prompted similar campaigns in support of The Dresden Files (drumsticks), Journeyman (Rice-a-Riso) and for the WGA members on strike, pencils.

Goddamn nerds.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008


PM Kevin has said sorry to indigenous Australians on behalf of the nation.

He was eloquent and forthright. The apology was clear and unqualified.

I feel proud to be Australian today. And I haven't felt that way in a long time.

Thursday, 7 February 2008


Hi. My name is Matt.

(hi Matt)

And I'm a blogoholic.

I notice this on Monday night when, coming home from work, I can't access the internet.

Sharp intake of breath.

The telltale sign is right there on the face of the modem. One of the four magic lights isn't on.

That OK. Just relax . . . unplug . . . plug it back in.

Power light comes on. Cool.

The ADSL light goes flash, flash, flash the requisite 49 times (I've counted) . . . aaaaaand ADSL is okay. Looking good.

Come awwwwwwn the PPP. You can do it, little fella.

But no joy.

Power is on. DSL is there. But the PPP? Apparently the peers can't get their point across the protocol. Or point Percy at the porcelain. Whatever.

My octopus she no working. Aaaargh.

I start to get irritable and fidgety. How am I to update my blog? I can't do it from work . . . the website's blocked.

And it's important! My readers need me . . . both of them.

OK. OK. Just breathe. It'll be OK.

I try a few more times just to be sure (and seeing as I've apparently got nothing else to do), before giving up and ringing my ISP tech support.

My first inkling that this is not going to end well is when I'm met with incredulity at my setup.

What do you mean you don't have either of your computers plugged directly into the modem?

Well, I have a laptop and a desktop. The laptop connects wirelessly, and the desktop is in a room without a phone plug. So that connects wirelessly too.

Can you plug the laptop into the modem?


OK, now go to "Start"

Uh, it's a Mac laptop


A Mac laptop. Thay make laptops.

(incredulous noises)

We don't really support Macs.

You're kidding me.

Just a moment . . . (at this point I think he's downloading the manual)

Anyway, we go through a number of reasonably obvious troubleshooting steps (most of which I've already tried) broken by large swathes of silence in which I'm waiting for the guy to tell me what to do next, while he appears to be off surfing for porn or something.

Long story short, it achieves precisely nothing and I'm instructed to ring the technical support line for the modem. Naturally, as with most hardware manufacturers, tech support is 9 to 5 only.

At this point the irritation reaches something of a boiling point. I go to bed in an extremely foul mood.

On Wednesday at work I download a copy of the modem's manual, and follow all the troubleshooting instructions when I get home. It soon becomes clear that the modem is just not working.

The manual has words to effect of . . . push this button for ten seconds. The light will go on. If it doesn't, then it's screwed.

All I can do is buy a new modem. But that's fine. There's nothing like a bit of minor technological retail therapy to soothe the nerves. Especially when there's the very real possibility of sweet relief at the end.

So one new modem (on special, quite a bargain) and a quickish set up later, here we are.

Ah. That calms the shakes.

Saturday, 2 February 2008


The recent focus on the Church of Scientology has got me thinking.

Where has all this vitriol come from? There seems to be a perception that the Church of Scientology is somehow fundamentally (ahem) different from other religions and that unlike, say, Judaism, mocking them incessantly is perfectly acceptable.

I'm not defending Scientology in any way. As you know, dear reader, I'm no fan of any religion. But it seems that Scientologists attract a particularly brutal heaping of bile that mainstream religions do not.

And I genuinely don't understand why this is.

Is it that their beliefs are way out there, and clearly the work of a failed science fiction writer? Give me any one belief of the Church of Scientology and I can name five wackier ones belonging to mainstream faiths.

Is it because they require large cash donations to advance in their organisation? So do a lot of other churches. The only difference is that Scientologists publish their fees.

Is that that their practices result in the breakup of families? This is a regular story from people who've had friends or family members join groups like Hillsong. And I saw of a lot of this myself in my evangelical Christian upbringing.

Is it that they target the vulnerable with their 'stress tests'? Vulnerable people seeking guidance and support are the backbone of mainstream religions, and have been for years.

Is it because they influence politicians and try to enforce their moral code and beliefs on people who don't adhere to their faith? Actually, they don't do that at all. That's Hillsong again.

Is it because it's a 'cult'? I'll leave aside the fact that this word is not well-defined, and simply say that every definition of cult (and there are a lot) that might apply to Scientology, applies just as well to the Catholic Church.

Is it because they use strong-arm intimidation tactics in denouncing any opposition (as seen in the fascinating short documentary Scientology and Me)? This also happens at Hillsong, and similar allegations have been made against members of the Catholic church, particularly in the latter's tactics used to cover up child sex abuse cases.

Now I'm not disputing any of these accusations. I think the Church of Scientology is genuinely scary and weird and probably a cult (whatever that means).

I just don't see how it's that different from mainstream religions.

In fact, I find them significantly less obnoxious than the Westboro Baptists. I'd like to see a lot more column inches dedicated to denouncing them.

So what's actually going on here? Why are Scientologists being singled out as the freaks of the religious community?

Am I missing something?

Suzanne Vega

The Palms at Crown, Melbourne.

It's been 15 long years since Suzanne Vega last toured Australia. And age has not withered her nor custom staled her infinite variety.

Actually, it has withered a little. But not so much as you might think. She can still belt out a tune or whisper a melody, as required, like few others.

Suzanne Vega is one of the very few acts that my wife and I both really like (the others being Air, The Decemberists and They Might Be Giants) so of course we weren't going to miss this one.

The Palms is an oddish venue for someone like Suzanne Vega. I suspect the only reason she played there was the dearth of any other venues, due to all the acts in town for the Big Day Out. That and Rufus Wainwright had already snaffled Hamer Hall.

The Palms is not a bad venue, mind. The acoustics are quite magnificent and the seating very comfortable. The setup is just a bit strange and very, very Vegas-tacky. You feel like Wayne Newton is about to come out and start crooning Me and Bobby McGee.

But back to Suzanne. She really is a great live performer. We were treated to amazing full band renditions of her old classics (Luka / Marlene on the Wall / Tom's Diner) and even the thin acoustic versions of her early 90s stuff (like Blood Makes Noise) was sort of beautiful. In its own way.

In between all this the set was heavy with tracks from her new album Beauty and Crime. And while this was no bad thing, because it is a great album, it's been 15 years! 15 years, Suzanne!

We've missed the last ten world tours and to my mind, that means there's some catching up to do before we roll on into the new stuff. Hmmm?

In fact, there was very little in the set from said missing 15-year period. Only one track was played from our favourite album Songs in Red and Gray (and that was the one my wife doesn't really like) and Nine Objects of Desire was sadly under-represented.

Then to top it off, the show was reasonably short, clocking in at only ninety minutes, which included the two encores.

I know it's all about quality over quantity, and all that good stuff. And the quality was certainly there.

It's just that a little more quantity would have been nice.

3.5 out of 5