Sunday, 31 August 2008

Dead Pool August Update

With four months to go until the end of the year, August has been characterised by some celebrity deaths that might best be described as . . . unexpected.

On the 9th comedian Bernie Mac passed away at the age of 50, which prompted an outpouring of tributes from everyone he'd apparently ever met.

Then on the 10th musician and sometime voice-actor Isaac Hayes passed away at the age of 65. 'Shaft' to his older fans and 'Chef' to his younger fans, this prompted yet another outpouring of tributes.

On the 17th Dave Freeman, author of 100 things to do before you die, died after a fall at his home. And apparently he hadn't done all 100 of the things. Awkward.

The 27th saw the tragic death of All Saints actor Mark Priestley, who committed suicide by jumping from the window of his high-rise hotel room in Sydney's CBD.

And finally, on the 28th tech news website Bloomberg published the obituary of Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc.

He wasn't actually dead, and the document was quickly withdrawn. But it was up for long enough to get copied and re-published elsewhere and it's now available all over the web for all the world to see. Have a read.

And that's it for another month. The rankings haven't changed, with Kate still leading on 16 points.

An Innocent Russia Writhed

St. Paul's Cathedral. Flinders Street.

One of the final events of this year's Melbourne Writer's Festival was a reading this afternoon of works by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

Akhmatova lived through some of the greatest upheavals of the twentieth century: the Russian revolution, two world wars, the rise of the communist state and the awful tyranny that accompanied it. These were the times that unalterably shaped the political landscape of Europe and the world.

Her poems were banned for many years by the Central Committee, and hearing their passion and power it's not surprising. They capture the feeling experienced by a people trapped by their history, and a people powerless to fight the forces arrayed against them.

But while her words reflect the despair for what has been lost, they also shine with the hope for what may be retrieved.

It's a celebration of the human spirit, best summed up in this beautiful piece read by Helen Garner.

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,
Death's great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?

By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses --
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.

Anna Akhmatova, 1921

Friday, 29 August 2008

Actuaries Gone Wild

It's been a whole year since the last one, and so this week it was time once again for our annual actuarial company dinner.

The venue this year was the Rendezvous Hotel in Flinders Street, which featured lots of alcohol, some passable food, and a waiting staff whose command of English was roughly comparable to John Howard's command of Klingon.

"Can I get a beer?"

blank stare


blank stare


nervous sideways glance

"Oh, never mind."

For some reason the entertainment (once again provided by those "fortunate" enough to have completed their actuarial training since the last dinner) sat at the let's-get-the-crowd-involved end of the spectrum, rather than the more palatable (for the audience, at least) let's-put-on-some-silly-costumes-and-do-a-skit end.

And so it came to pass that the people at our table had to construct a story and improvise a play using some found objects, including two small suction cups, a bottle of liquid paper, a roll of yarn and a hot pink fright wig.

The details are too tedious to recount, so I'll leave it there.

Anyway, thank God there was beer.

At least, there was once I found a waiter who spoke Klingon.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

When Idols Cry

In the wake of the sad train wreck that was Big Brother 08, Australian Idol has reared its ugly head once again.

Like most years, I feel compelled to watch the auditions, if only for the occasional musical gem hidden amongst the festering pile of people who've clearly never bothered to actually listen to themselves sing.

Mercifully, the hideous multi-headed beast that is the judging panel has been downgraded from a four-headed Hydra to a mere three-headed Cerberus; somewhat appropriate given their (purported) guardianship of the gate of musical quality.

The prize is still a recording contract, although that must have less and less appeal for contestants.

Once upon a time such a thing was the only way for a young artist to get an album made and distributed, but that's just not the case any more. Any teenager with talent and some bootlegged software can record a track in their bedroom and sell it all over the world.

The only real benefit Australian Idol imparts upon its contestants, and admittedly it's not an inconsiderable benefit, is publicity. But all the contestants get that, or at least the final 12 do. It's not just the winner.

In fact, I could see someone going into Idol with the clear intention of getting kicked out before the final three.

They'd get all the publicity, no parasitic record company leeching off them afterwards, and an independent album where they get to keep all the profits.

Sounds like a plan.

Friday, 22 August 2008

This is what it feels like

This most excellent cartoon by artist Justin Bilicki was the winner of the 2008 Science Idol competition.

I'll think of this every time I read yet another climate change denial article by Andrew Bolt.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Doomsday Delayed

I posted previously about the Large Hadron Collider, and some of the talk surrounding it, vis-a-vis its potential to destroy the Universe.

Some of you may have noticed that two-week deadline came and went, and we're still all here.

Don't worry, it's only because the switch-on date has been pushed back to September 10.

So we've got another 20 days at least.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

The Burlesque Hour

fortyfivedownstairs, Flinders Lane

Moira Finucane has returned to Melbourne with her latest show, combining grand old saucy burlesque with some other stuff you probably wouldn't show your granny.

Borrowing elements from gothic horror, Virginia Woolf and Japanese lolita culture, it manages to cross every line you think of, some you don't, and ultimately plays like Cirque de Soleil on magic mushrooms. There's acrobatics, dancing girls, nudity, adult themes and some violence.

The revue format is good, mainly because it means that if you don't like this act, the next one is not far behind. Also, there's no common theme, except in the most general burlesque tradition of sex-as-comedy.

And make no mistake, it is very very funny.

Some will find the show offensive, but those will invariably be the same people guilty of taking sex far too seriously. The show is more or less designed to offend such people.

In fact, the beauty of this style of burlesque is that it dares to treat sex precisely as it should be treated . . . as something wonderful and something to be enjoyed, but at the same time something very human, a bit grotesque and most importantly, faintly ridiculous.

3.5 out of 5

Cool Warming Vase

Science meets art in this cool vase.

Produced by artist Nathan Martell, the shape is based on this graph showing average world temperatures over the last 150 years:

The apocalypse as art. Eat your heart out, Albrecht Dürer.

On a related note, people like Andrew Bolt are fond of showing only the last few lines of this particular graph, dominated by the El Nino peak in 1998, and claiming that warming has stopped.

If you find someone who insists on doing that, smack their fingers out of their ears, force their eyes open, and show them the whole thing.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Monster Wine

On the weekend Ty and Debbie dropped in from Sydney. Which was awesome. Particularly the dinner we had on Saturday night at St Jude's Cellars in Brunswick Street.

Their coffee venison is worth a blog of its own, but I'll leave that to my loyal commenters (if they care to expound).

Instead, I wanted to mention some of the wine we had. One bottle in particular caught my eye:

It's a Riesling from the Clare Valley, on the Some Young Punks label. Check out the website.

I've no idea what it tastes like. Haven't cracked it open yet. But really, that doesn't even matter.

Nerds and wine. A beautiful symbol of a great weekend.

Area Blogger Returns to Home, Sanity

The final three days of the BLP were much like the first two.

We stayed inside as it rained outside, we studied case studies, we played roleplays, and we stopped semi-regularly to watch the Aussies win gold.

Like most of these sorts of things, there was a certain amount of useful and practical information, tempered with lots of touchy-feely bullshit.

Whether it makes me a better manager is yet to be seen. I'll let you know if my minions see any difference.

All in all it was a good week, but it was truly lovely when I managed to escape on Friday afternoon, and come home to my lovely wife and furkids.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Merely a BLP

Two days into the Business Leadership Programme, and the part of my brain that deals with acronyms and buzzwords is full.

My personality has been analysed, my coaching style matched with its corresponding learning style, and we've had a rousing game of Simon Says.

In the midst of all that I've probably learnt something, but I've no idea what. Ask me at the end of the week.

On the upside, the food's not bad and I can honestly say I haven't been bored yet.

But there's still three days to go.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Gone Leadin'

Next week as previously reported, I'm off on a Business Leadership course.

It's a multi-day extravaganza, so it involves being away from work (and home) for a whole week . . . and I'm not sure what else.

It's all a bit Secret Squirrel with previous participants being irritatingly tight-lipped (so as not to spoil it . . . oh please) and the pre-reading is, it seems, deliberately vague.

Preparation has been minimal but interesting. Last week I got the results of a personality assessment, based on a survey of my workmates (boss, peers, and minions). This was followed up by a deconstruction of same with a psychologist, who pretty much managed to figure me out in one 55-minute session.

And apparently the personality flaws highlighted from all this are what I'll be working on next week. Can't wait.

So it sounds like I'm in for a week of delving into my own head, with the occasional excursion into someone else's to break the monotony.

The one thing that might keep me sane is if I'm able to blog from within the compound (yes, I'm choosing to think of this as an embedded-in-a-war-zone thing).

If not, I'll have to gather up all my thoughts and post them in a single diatribe when I get back.

I don't think anyone wants that. Here's hoping they have WiFi.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

A Very Probable Controversy

Brisbane schoolteacher Jim Dooley has taken a group of kids to the races as part of a maths lesson on risk and probability.

What a truly brilliant idea.

Horse-racing odds are a fascinating application of probability theory. And where better to learn about how it works, and how much it's a mug's game, than there in the midst of sweaty panic and soul-crushing dismay that is the pointy end of the gambling world?

He should follow it up with a trip to the casino.

They can talk about the probabilities of the roulette wheel, the fact that in the long run the house will always win, and point out the desperation in the eyes of the pensioner feeding the last of her housekeeping money into a poker machine.

If it's done right the kids will learn a bit of maths, and learn a lot about the risks, personal and financial, of gambling.

But like so many brilliant ideas, it's been roundly criticised by self-appointed moral crusaders.

In easily one of the most inane comments I've ever heard on this topic, Australian Family Association state secretary Michael Ord said "one may question why you would need to involve gambling to teach maths".

Has this guy ever studied maths? If he has, he clearly wasn't paying attention.

Probability theory is all about flipping coins, choosing lottery numbers and the chances of getting a Royal Flush.

You can't study probability without studying gambling. Gambling is why probability theory was invented in the first place.

And when you get down to it, it's just about the only practical application it actually has.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Bootleg Teaser for TR2N

Twenty-six years after Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner donned their unitards and mounted their light cycles in TRON, we're finally getting a sequel.

It really says something about the anticipation surrounding a movie when shaky footage of the teaser, handycammed at a convention screening, is being bootlegged.

Looks like Jeff's back (note the cheer from the crowd) but sadly there's no sign of Bruce.

What the hell's up with that? It's not like he's got heaps of other stuff on.

Atheism and Me - Part 1

It's hard to define atheism.

The simple statement "atheists don't believe in God" is problematic. For a start, it's loaded with the assumption that there is a God for atheists not to believe in.

And so what is atheism? Is atheism the belief that there are no Gods?

Or is atheism just disbelief in all the Gods currently worshipped in our culture?

Or is atheism, as the name implies, simply the rejection of theism as a worthwhile practice?

The short answer is that atheism means different things to different people. Atheism, unlike a religion, is not a single set of ideas shared by a group of people.

Every atheist is different.

So when I say I am an atheist, what do I mean?

Well, it's pretty simple. I believe there are no Gods.

This is a simple statement, but it carries with it a few corollaries:

I believe the Universe came into being through completely natural processes; processes that can be understood if we study them for long enough.

I believe that every religion is just a conflation of the politics, personality and culture from which it grew, and should be understood in those terms.

But most importantly, I believe that we're on our own out here.

There's no supernatural deity calling the shots. The deferral to a God who refuses to show Himself is just a waste of our time.

We're in charge, and it's up to us to make our own way in the Universe.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Parlay Voo Too

Saturday morning French lessons are great.

It's the highlight of my week at the moment, which either says something wonderful about the place I'm learning it, or it says something a little sad about my life.

No, screw that. Learning another language is terrific.

The amazing thing is how much it's teaching me about English. I've learnt more about English grammar by studying French than I ever learnt by studying English at school.

But it's even more than that.

Going from one language to another is not a simple word-substitution exercise. The meanings subtly change. Statements become loaded. The culture that underpins the language, and the assumptions that go along with it, come out.

Learning another language teaches you that the way you express yourself, and ultimately the way you think and feel, can be controlled by the words you have available.

Orwell knew this, and wove the fact into 1984 with devastating effect.

In learning a language, you learn so much more than words. You learn about a people, you learn about a culture, and you learn about yourself.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Dead Pool July Update

It's been a relatively quiet month in the celebrity mortality stakes, but we have nevertheless seen our first score for the year.

On the 3rd Larry Harmon, otherwise known as Bozo the Clown (the original one), passed away at the age of 83.

The 4th saw the death of controversial conservative US politician Jesse Helms. Apparently quite a few liberal-minded Americans saw his death as an excellent reason to set off some celebratory fireworks.

On the 7th Democratic congressman Clem McSpadden passed away at the age of 82. No particular reason to mention him, except that he wins for having the funniest name this month.

He was closely followed by Canadian ice hockey player Peanuts O'Flaherty, who passed away on the 16th at the ripe old age of 90.

On the 12th the world farewelled Olive Riley of Broken Hill. At 108, Olive was the world's oldest blogger.

And finally, Kate is now the proud owner of sixteen points having successfully tipped the legendary Estelle Getty, who sadly passed away on the 22nd at the age of 84.