Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Dead Pool April Update

Another scoreless month, although we've had at least one that could be described as a gimme.

On the 5th we farewelled acting great Charlton Heston at the age of 84. From biblical epics in the 1950s to some dodgy disaster movies in the 1970s, Heston was always memorable, even in the most forgettable films.

He'll be missed by both cinephiles and redneck gun nuts alike. And there aren't many people you can say that about.

On the 8th the Hon. John Button passed away, also at 84. Button was purportedly the 'best prime minister Australia never had'.

On the 13th theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler, the man who coined both the terms 'black hole' and 'wormhole', passed away at the age of 96. We therefore have Mr Wheeler to thank for the film The Black Hole, the classic Red Dwarf episode "White Hole", and that cool wormhole effect in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

And apparently he wrote some books and stuff.

The 24th saw the death of Tristram Cary, a pioneer of electronic music, but not the composer of the original Doctor Who theme, as was reported in some newspapers.

On the 26th, Fairfax journalist Pamela Bone passed away after a long illness. Ms Bone was an outspoken and fearless commentator, which won her both a legion of fans and a phalanx of detractors. Not sure which side won in the end, although the beautiful obit in The Age suggests that she did.

And finally, Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann passed away on the 29th. He was famous (infamous?) for synthesising the first batch of lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.

May winged monkeys with the face of Camilla Parker Bowles carry him to his rest.

And he was 102, so even if anyone had picked him, there were no points in it.

And that's it for another month. Is it wrong to hope we see some scores soon?

Monday, 28 April 2008

Rolling Deafness

Something very strange is happening in my head.

It's not in my brain or in my mind or anything even vaguely existential like that. It's actually in my head.

A gluggy mass of mucus is rolling back and forth, through my eustachian tubes, from my left ear to my right ear and back, over and over again.

The result is that I'm almost completely deaf in one ear . . . for a little while. Then it seems to get better and both ears are kind of OK. Then the hearing in my other ear slowly disappears.

This has been going on since Saturday morning. And it's really starting to get to me.

It's odd, though. I'm not really sick. The doctor looked in my ears just now and tells me there's no infection and it'll get better (although she was a little non-committal about precisely when).

But it's kind of thrown me off-balance, both literally and figuratively. And as a result, I'm very, very irritable.

So irritable that I can't even be bothered updating the blog.

So there. That's all you get.

More tomorrow. Maybe.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Watching the FuelWatchers

K-Rudd's 2020 summit is all over bar the shouting, and it'll be interesting to see the fallout over the next few days.

In a successful political move for the week leading up to the summit, a successful distraction has been achieved in the form of the proposed FuelWatch scheme.

The proposal, for those living under rocks with their fingers in their ears, is that vendors will be forced to publish their petrol prices a day in advance, and then stick to that published price for the whole day.

The benefit to motorists is clear. Those inclined to spend the time can fill up today if the price is going to rise tomorrow, and work out where the cheapest petrol is before heading out to do it.

But this whole thing has been interesting for a few reasons.

First, as alluded to above, the timing was clearly intended to distract the Federal opposition from attacks on the 2020 summit. And it worked.

Second, the naysayers of the scheme (who, predictably, are the ones who have the most to lose from it) have precisely zero decent arguments against it, yet keep pretending loudly that they have.

And finally, I'm surprised more people aren't pointing out that it's just an exercise in futility. It's rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

All the FuelWatching in the world isn't going to stop the price of petrol from going up. And up. And up.

Watch out for the milestones . . . There'll be headlines when it hits $2. Then $3. Before very long the purported 2c-per-litre saving from FuelWatch will be laughably immaterial.

But I suppose it's good to get all this stuff out of the way now. There'll be a bit more of this playing around the edges, but eventually it'll be realised that no more can be shaved off the price.

Eventually it'll be understood that the days of the petrol-powered car are numbered.

And eventually, we'll realise that we need to start seriously thinking about what the hell we're going to do then.

I wonder if they covered that at 2020.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Gordon Ramsay

Inspired by some recent comments, I went looking for Andrew Bolt's latest missive. The idea being, of course, to disagree roundly with him in my usual indignant yet amusing fashion.

Sadly, it was not to be.

Bolt's latest is an oddly upbeat little column about celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, and what an inspiring model for conservative values he is.

I don't agree with the analysis (I laughed out loud at the observation that Ramsay is not "the sharing and truly caring type we conservatives generally are and admire"), but I must admit to my own sort of fascinated-yet-wary fondness for Ramsay.

Reality television generally leaves me cold, but in Kitchen Nightmares Ramsay seems to have come up with the perfect formula. It's truly great TV, and as Bolt's article shows, strangely wide in its appeal.

But maybe it's not so strange. The characters are interesting, particularly Ramsay himself. The formula is simple, doing away with the usual gimmicky complications that dog so much of reality TV. And the conflict, which in so many other reality shows is clearly manufactured, is very very real.

I must agree with Bolt (there's a phrase I don't use too often) that Ramsay's passion for his work is truly admirable. But I think painting him as a poster boy for conservative values is going a bit far.

I really can't see John Howard sticking a Gordon Ramsay poster up next to his framed photo of Don Bradman and his signed pair of Margaret Thatcher's knickers.

Thursday, 17 April 2008


It's been pointed out that my previous posts on religion are somewhat hostile.

Indeed they are. And I don't apologise for that.

But in the interest of openness and rational debate, I would like to clarify precisely which aspects of religion I am hostile towards. It's not the whole thing.

Once that's done, I lay myself open to your slings and arrows.

As a society we gain a great deal from religion. Studying our ancient myths and writings can give a real and genuine insight into morality and ethics, and it can teach us ways to build and sustain our communities. I don't for a moment question the great value of this.

But I want to make a clear distinction between this philosophical side of religion, and the belief side of religion, which is a very different thing.

Religious belief, specifically unfounded belief in the supernatural, is something that I have a very real problem with.

Now let me be very clear on this point: I am not talking about the spiritual beliefs of individuals. If a person chooses to believe that a deceased loved one is still present in their lives, or believes that Jesus is their saviour, and from that derive meaning and comfort, then I have no problem. These are personal views and no-one can tell anyone what they should think in that arena.

What I'm talking about is the Church's institutionalisation of supernatural belief, where preaching and dogmatism changes a belief from being a mere framework for discussion and comfort, into edict and law and an irrational basis for discrimination and punishment.

Let me use my own experience of Christianity as an example.

Christians claim, as I claimed once upon a time, that there is an entity called God that watches us and cares for us and listens to our prayers. That's fine and comforting and harmless.

Then, they go on to claim that this God has a purpose for us and that we need to follow the instructions he's laid down. Anyone who doesn't follow these instructions is damned to an eternity of hellfire or to a harsh sentence on Judgement Day, depending on which flavour of Christianity you prefer.

In individuals, this kind of belief might still be harmless. But propped up by the authority and ritual of the Church, this kind of supernatural carrot-and-stick starts directing the actions of people who wouldn't come up with this stuff on their own.

I know this from firsthand experience. When you're focused on an apocalyptic endgame, particularly what God will say to you on Judgement Day, then treating someone well here on Earth quickly becomes secondary to helping them, or helping yourself, secure a place in Heaven.

At a personal level, the worst thing it generally does is lead to obnoxious behaviour, of which I was as guilty as anyone.

If anyone annoyed me by saying my beliefs were bogus, I'd get a twinge of anticipatory schadenfreude from the thought of them burning in hellfire. I even said as much to some people. Charming, I know. And far from charitable.

At a community level, I’ve seen this sort of fixation overwhelm all the very valuable social justice teachings in the Bible. I've seen friendships and families torn apart because of disagreements over meaningless supernatural minutiae.

Ironically, this fixation means that a lot of Christians, and I was included in this group, don't end up following the core teaching of Jesus at all, which was to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you".

But, you might say, people do so many good things because of their beliefs. They act charitably and selflessly because they believe that's what God wants and there's the promise of a greater reward after death. Surely, on balance, the good outweighs the bad?

No, it doesn't. Of course religious people do good things in the name of God. But without God, these people would do good things anyway.

We don't need to conjure a mysterious God to make people be nice to each other. It's just not necessary. The benefits of co-operative behaviour are self-evident to all but the sociopathically insane.

We can see around us a functioning society built on the secular values of mutual respect and community spirit and basic common courtesy. Most of us don't do it because we believe it'll get us into Heaven. We just do it because it's the easiest thing to do.

Of course there are sociopaths among us, but for the extremes of bad behaviour we have a secular system of laws and punishments. And that's all we need.

There is no inherent upside to making rules based on supernatural beliefs.

But there is a genuine downside. It can make good people do evil things, and often with the best of intentions.

There a thousand examples of this, but to take just one: Mother Teresa refused to provide contraception to women in third-world countries. This caused unnecessary pain and suffering for thousands of women, through infection and unwanted pregnancies. And why? Because the Catholic Church teaches that God doesn't want people to use contraception, and will punish anyone who does.

Mother Teresa, driven by love and compassion and genuinely believing it was the right thing to do, followed this irrational rule and it achieved nothing but suffering.

My point is that taking a hard moral stance about anything because it's 'what God thinks', is nonsense. Stating that a particular behaviour is wrong because ‘God says so’, is just nonsense.

When we think about morals and ethics, we should only consider how our behaviour affects ourselves, how it affects others, and how it affects our communities and our world.

The opinions of our religious leaders are very valuable here, because they think about this stuff a lot. But we must never bow to an invocation of 'God's will' as a reason to do anything.

If following what we believe to be God's teachings leads us into doing good works, then that’s a great thing. But we need to realise that those good things are worth doing because of their own inherent value. That we can come to the same conclusion without invoking God.

And we need to realise that if an idea doesn’t stand on its own earthly merits then we don't need it, regardless of how many people believe God said it was so.

Doing anything purely to please God is irrational and dangerous, and can lead to arbitrary acts that are really damaging.

This is the part of religion that I'm hostile towards.

And when I talk about religion being evil, this is what I mean.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

A Sense of Wonder

I grew up in a very religious household, and Christianity (a peculiar modern version called "Pentecostalism") was very much a part of my daily life.

Even after I left the Church, which wasn't my decision at the time, everything I had been taught stayed with me for a long, long time.

I was able to let go of my belief in the Church as a worthwhile institution almost immediately, largely through my anger at being thrown out. But that was the easy part.

Letting go of all the theological belief I had absorbed was much harder.

That was fifteen years ago. I can now look at the world as a true non-believer, and compare it to the way it looked when I believed.

As a believer, everything in the world seemed to be awash with miracles. I could colour all my thoughts with a veneer of holiness, and I could see everything that happened in terms of the Master's plan.

To me, the universe was a playground for the Almighty. I felt special and chosen, because I was one of His children. When I stopped to think about it, which I did often, I got a sense of awesome wonder and crushing humility.

I felt superior to all the poor damned souls around me who didn't believe as I did. I had a sense of unbreakable belonging to the small community that felt the same way. I had an immediate connection with anyone who shared those beliefs, and I felt unbridgeably separated from anyone who didn't.

I remember exactly how that felt, and I can understand exactly how someone still in that mindset might see me.

They would see someone whose faith was not strong enough to withstand the Devil's temptations. They would see someone who decided that the broad path of sin was easier than the strait and narrow path of righteousness. They would see someone who had closed their mind to The Truth.

But now, the real truth is that I have left that very narrow world, and because of that, I can see so much further.

I can look around me and see all the amazing things that we, mankind have achieved, without the help of any God to guide us.

Under our own evolutionary steam we have worked our way up from the primordial soup. We have gotten stronger and stronger, generation upon generation, our achievements building upon the achievements of those who came before.

We have done this. You and I and all the others we share this planet with. It's our own achievement, and we should be so proud.

And it's not over. Far from it. Our evolution as a species has not ceased. This point in time is just a moment in our great epochal story.

We stand on the brink of a new chapter, as we take our first faltering steps towards the stars, and get the first inkling of what it might be like to leave this world behind.

All this is so much more awe-inspiring to me than anything any religion can offer. The sense of wonder that it gives me is so much greater than anything I've ever heard from the pulpit or read in an ancient text.

Instead of belonging to a small elite group bound together by belief in the evil of Man, I belong to Humanity.

And I marvel at the place we are forging for ourselves in our universe.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Aches and Pains

I'm starting to appreciate that I'm not as young as once I was.

Yesterday, we had another visit from the personal trainer we'd seen at our work offsite a few weeks ago.

Like these things usually pan out, I'd been all keen after that first session, and actually did some of the exercises at home for the first couple of days.

Then it kind of dropped off to every second day, then every third, until I was occasionally doing only, you know, the stretches that were easy and felt good pretty much immediately. None of the hard ones.

So yesterday we went through the whole box and dice again, just as a refresher. And I was reminded of how much it hurt the first time.

I cursed myself silently (at least, I hope it was silent . . . I was in a roomful of people) for not having been more conscientious as my recalcitrant muscles refused to move where they were told.

So now I am in the same position again. I'm all keen to continue and do the exercises every day and half-believing that it might really happen.

I even got up early this morning to run through the whole sequence before I went to work.

And as a result I've had aches and pains all day.

This better be good for me.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Expelled: A Preview

A new film called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is being previewed in the States. This is a propaganda film promoting Intelligent Design theory (a.k.a. Creationism) and claiming that a number of teachers and academics have been fired from US colleges for teaching Intelligent Design.

The film says that the scientific establishment is holding dogmatically to its evolutionary theory because it's too frightened, or something, to consider the possibility that it might be wrong. And anyone daring to question the established order is summarily removed from the equation.

But some reviewers have said that the people claiming discrimination in the film have not actually been sacked at all, merely moved to different departments, or refused tenure. I suspect they are simply a bunch of incompetent whingers.

But this is the tack ID activists are taking now: passing themselves off as the next Galileo or Copernicus. They're claiming they are the ones with the radical new ideas being unfairly dismissed simply because they're unpopular.

It's all bollocks of course. Anyone trying to pass a theological argument like Intelligent Design off as science deserves all the ridicule they get. Note to any aspiring Einsteins: radical new theories require either observable empirical evidence to support them or at the very least, a soundly reasoned and testable argument. Preferably both. Intelligent Design has neither.

But back to the film. Even before its release, Expelled has been whipping up a lot of controversy.

A number of the scientists appearing in the film, including science blogger PZ Myers, bestselling atheist Richard Dawkins, and editor of Skeptic magazine Michael Shermer have all claimed that they were misled about the film's content when they agreed to take part.

Apparently it was sold to them as a documentary called Crossroads, which would be looking at the intersection of science and religion and presenting a balanced view of both sides of the Evolution/ID debate.

Last week Myers and Dawkins went along to a premiere of Expelled in Minnesota, and while waiting in line, Myers was asked by security to leave the theatre. Amusingly, they let Dawkins in, apparently not recognising him. Dawkins and Myers discuss the whole thing here.

The film is being promoted by Motive Marketing, the company that was incredibly successful with campaigns for The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia, specifically targeted at Christian groups. Expelled is being promoted in the same sort of way, with private screenings for church groups and cash prizes offered to churches and schools for the largest group bookings.

Because of this, it's almost certain to get some traction in the States and get the commentators talking. And no, I don't think it's a coincidence that this is all happening in a US election year.

Expelled is due for release on April 18. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

V Festival

Royal Melbourne Showgrounds, Flemington.

Last year's V Festival in Melbourne was a truncated affair, being simply two longish concerts over two evenings at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.

It was good, featuring Pixies, Phoenix and Jarvis Cocker (among others) but kind of anti-climactic.

It must have been something of a success though, because this year Mr Branson has deigned to give Melbourne the whole shebang, with a full day on four stages at the Showgrounds.

Kate and I had a difference of opinion as to the acts worthy of our time, so after watching Roisin Murphy (late of pop act Moloko) we split up. Kate to see Air (again), Duran Duran and The Presets, and me to see The Jesus and Mary Chain, Queens of the Stone Age and The Smashing Pumpkins.

I think I made the right choice. Although Kate assures me Duran Duran were awesome.

The Jesus and Mary Chain were suitably dour, although not so much as back in the day. They did actually speak to the audience a bit.

Brothers Jim and William are starting to look their age, but can still rock as well as anyone. And their particular brand of noisewall was very well received.

The crowd then swelled for Queens of the Stone Age. And the crowd went off. The energy only dipped briefly at one point when they went into some of the old-school first album, but it came back to end on a rip-snorting version of No One Knows.

Another short break and the crowd swelled yet again for The Smashing Pumpkins. This was the one I'd been waiting for.

It's been a while since the Pumpkins toured Australia, and the anticipation was palpable. Thankfully, we were treated to a nice broad cross-section of their history, as well as the sort of antics that only someone with the self-assuredness of Billy Corgan could successfully pull off.

(a) Standing in Christ-pose on the foldbacks, shrouded in a spotlight;
(b) Introducing the band by announcing "In the beginning, there were . . . drums!" (and bass! and guitar!) followed by the announcement "let there be rock!";
(c) And finally, spending ten minutes (before the encores) seeing how much feedback he could generate by bashing his guitar against the amps. A lot, it turns out.

And none of this was done ironically. It was all ridiculously overblown, unashamedly pretentious, oh-so-1990s, and I loved every second of it.

The thing that carried it though was the extraordinary musicianship that Corgan brings. Every single number was arranged to within an inch of its life.

From the bombastic orchestrals of Tonight, Tonight, to a beautiful solo acoustic version of 1979, to the gothic punk of Bullet with Butterfly Wings, at no point did it feel like anything was there just as filler.

It was a great festival, and hopefully the powers that be will be bringing it back again next year.

Friday, 4 April 2008


Palais Theatre, St Kilda.

Listening to one of Air's albums is a divinely confusing experience. A mood of consuming tranquility gathers you up and sweeps you along a mesmerising electronic journey that will, by turns, calm you, jolt you, make you feel small and insignificant, then make you feel like you're the centre of the universe.

It's hypnotic. But Air's true genius is in making electronic music that feels somehow perfectly naturalistic.

La Femme D'Argent, the opening track from their 1998 opus Moon Safari loses you on a wet and windswept moor, before the rest of the album takes you on a journey through space, through time and through the darkest recesses of your own love and lust.

Imagine the music of an advanced artificial intelligence, deeply in tune with the human psyche and lovingly producing an aural accompaniment to the range of human emotion.

Each of Air's albums is a masterpiece of complex production and engineering, employing a bewildering array of instruments: electric, electronic, sampled and acoustic.

Because of all this, you might be tempted to think they're just a studio band, but their live show proves otherwise. With banks of keyboards, from the latest Korgs to the earliest Moogs, plus the simple trappings of a garage band, they can recreate that sound in the live space perfectly.

And they do more than just recreate it. They expand on it. They amplify it. The music wraps around you, enters you, lifts you up and carries you far away to a place you've never been before. At some point it stops being a simple concert and becomes a transcendent and meditative experience.

To go in to a show with high expectations is risky, and to have those expectations exceeded is a joy. But this was something even more than that.

It would have been unreasonable to expect what we ultimately took away from this show. I don't think I'll ever see anything quite like it again.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Bagging Andrew Bolt

Everyone's favourite misanthrope Andrew Bolt had a little rant yesterday, about Borders bookstores daring to charge 10c for plastic carry bags.

The upshot was that Bolt stormed off in a huff after rudely refusing a bag, choosing to carry his books rather than, as he saw it, donate 10c to some goddamn hippy environmental group.

The delicious irony in this story, for those of us interested in such things, is that Mr Bolt has illustrated perfectly why a plastic bag levy is such a good idea.

It's not about the measly 10c. It's not about whether or not it's donated to an environmental group. It's not even really about the bag itself.

What the levy does, and what Mr Bolt has shown, is that it makes people stop and actually think about what they're doing.

Some will think "well, I'll just pay the 10c". Others will think "I'll pay the 10c but remember to bring my own bag next time".

Still others, like our Mr Bolt, will apparently think "screw you . . . I'll carry my own goddamn books and never shop here again."

All are valid responses. And that's the point: to get a response. To stop everybody blithely taking plastic bags just because they're offered.

The message is that if you don't need one, then don't use one.

Mr Bolt, you have have illustrated the point beautifully. Well done you.