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Historical Analogies

There has been a lot of blogging lately about the corruption and future collapse of various modern nations.

People always bring up the decadance of the Roman empire and how this led to the fall.

What they ALWAYS fail to mention is the timing. If Rome reached peak decadance with say Caligula, or Nero, then the fall of the (Western) Empire took another 450 years.

Of course it might have taken a lot less time if there was a real, military threat. But there were only a bunch of poverty striken barbarians that couldn't take over until the entire structure basically collapsed.

Sure sounds like the only threat to modern Europe that I can think of.

Of course the proximate cause of the fall of the Roman Empire was that they were relying on the Gauls (French) to protect them from the Germans. Like that was ever going to work.




Random Thoughts from an ANZAC day housewarming party:

  1. I didn't like Vanilla Coke when I first tried it. But when it is warm, it is better than warm normal coke.
  2. The chinese hosts of this BBQ do not seem to have grasped the Australian concept of keeping drinks cold.
  3. Or covering food to keep the flies off.
  4. The concept of lots of BBQed food and heaps of alcohol... they have no problem with at all. Probably because these were Chinese traditions centuries before they were Australian ones.

Random Thoughts from a film industry party, later that weekend, somewhere in Paddington: I have some questions

  1. Why have I gone somewhere that has a $15 cover charge so that I can buy $2 cokes?
  2. Why are these models wearing fibreglass clothes?
  3. What do the clothes feel like?
  4. Contrary to their popular image, the model I was chatting to actually seemed rather cluey, and interested in the technical aspects of fibreglass construction. She also seemed very tall. And good looking.
  5. OK. Now how do I explain to my girlfriend that I was only feeling the models clothing as a purely scientific experiment? I'm a materials engineer, it's my job to check out that skirt. Good thing I didn't choose the model wearing a bikini.
  6. The models said the clothing was comfortable, but I notice that the very second they finished work, they changed into clothes made of normal material.




People are still going on about the looting that occured after the fall of Baghdad, and this lead me to make the following comment.

A suspicious person could also suspect that, in a lot of the looting, there was reason for the Americans to JOIN IN.

If I was CIA, and I wanted the documents in the French and German embassies, and I knew very well that American troops would not be allowed to get them... well popping a towel on your head and joining in the "looting" would be an ideal situation.

Once you start thinking that way, all sorts of doors open. Any Chinese/Indian/Russian operatives in the area would have the same motivation. And how many priceless artifacts ended up in some Iraqi's living room, compared to being deliberately targeted by groups that already had buyer waiting in Russia/Taiwan/New Zealand.

I mean there is ALWAYS looting after a war. Anyone with the manpower and lack of morals could have been organised months in advance.

No idea if I'm right or not, it's just an idea.




The trees outside my flat have turned red and are dropping their leaves. This happened very quickly. They didn't look red at all on Saturday. Then at 7.40 Sunday morning one was Red, but no leaves were dropping. At 9.00 the same morning, the ground was covered with leaves.

This is probably all very normal to people who grew up in cold climates, but to someone who spent the first 29 years of his life in the tropics, it is still very strange. I would only encounter this sort of thing in books and movies (which are mainly set in England and America) so the whole Autumn leaves thing is still like something out of a book or movie to me.

Snow and ice REALLY feels weird.




As of last night, I too know the feeling of a dislocated knee.

In about the last minute of Sambo training we were wrestling on the floor, I was against some 60 kg Russian guy with years of Jujitsu training.

We got to a position where I was holding his leg and he was holding mine, and then he flipped upside down. Clearly if he had slowly rotated I would have tapped out, but the flipping meant I didn't have time.

I was able to walk to the bathroom and stick it under a cold water tap for about 10 minutes, the closest I could get to ice, and this made it feel so much better, as though it would be all better in a week. Today however I'm not so sanguine.

Ice is helping though. In many ways ice is better than any non-prescription pain killer.

On the other hand, people at work are criticizing me for mocking another guy at work who recently broke his leg. They don't believe me that I injured the same leg and so have to limp in the same manner.



TV Jobs

It is a curious fact of TV and movie life that 95% of all characters are Cops, Lawyers, Doctors/Nurses, Criminals, Journalists or Advertising Executives. The first 4 choices are obvious: These are jobs where there is drama and life-or-death decisions to be made everyday. The stuff of which TV shows are made. But what about the last two, especially the Advertising. What is going on there?

Let us not forget the writers. Who writes all those TV shows? Writers do. So when they want to think of a boring job, they come up with... advertising. What a writer does when they have a boring job. And so every show from "Sex in the City" to "Bewitched" has advertising executives as the standard, boring job.

And when they want to have a hero, they have... a journalist. What a writer does when they see themselves as heros.

Superman is a journalist. So is spiderman.




Saturday night I went to a party (of course). This started at a Russian restaurant and ended up in a Korean Karaoke studio, where I discovered that even the most artificial of modern pop stars are still very good singers compared to the general public. Sure your Kylies or Spice Girls may have gotten where they are by looks and a big promotional campaign, but compared to just about everyone I've heard doing Karaoke, they actually are pretty good singers.

Of course compared to a Kamal or Elvis, the average boyband or girlband is not that good, but that is kind of like saying that most of the Australian touring car racers are not as good as the top Formula 1 car drivers. Or that Jeff Fenech couldn't beat Mike Tyson in a boxing match. It is true, but it doesn't mean they aren't very good compared to you or I. (Assuming Alain Prost or Mohammed Ali are not reading my blog.)

Lastly, the above paragraph does not mean that I am a Kamal or Elvis fan. I am not. But they are very good at singing. My objection is to their choice of soppy love songs with mushy lyrics. So who has good lyrics? Roger Waters writes good lyrics, so does Dire Straits. But the best, most intellectually stimulating, clever use of wordplay in modern music is in the good Rap songs.

Just listen to what Eminem actually has to say, and how the word sounds fit in with the rythm. Rhyme, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, metaphor... all the great rhetorical developments of the last twentyfive hundred years are exploited to the full by the more advanced rap artists. I doubt whether most other pop singers have ever heard of them.

And why is this? I think it is because they can. Listen to a rap song and you will find that the information density is unbelievable by pop song standards. In the time that a soppy love song takes to say

A rap song has time to say:

That's 39 words in the same time that a pop song takes to say 5. No wonder the rap artists have a lot more to say, and spend a lot more time working out how to say it.

(Lyrics above only have a passing resemblance to actual lyrics).




I am a technological enthusiast, a supporter of space exploration, and someone who would rather vote for money to be spent sending 6 government employees into space than sending 6000 of them around our cities providing positive emotional experiences to school children or whatever crap they are doing these days. But I do not support the renewed calls for a mission to Mars.

What does Mars offer?

I am not suggesting that Mars wouldn't be a scientific bonanza, but 10 billion dollars to get a few scientists on Mars for six months would produce far fewer results that one million, 10 thousand dollar, six month research grants doled out to one million bright young PHDs. Or 250 000 lots of a 40 000 dollar research grant. That sort of thing.

People talk about the need for space exploration, and the need to move out into space. But I don't see how Mars does this. What does Mars give us that say... Antarctica doesn't? How will having people on Mars advace space technology?

GETTING to Mars will result in new technology, but the Mars part doesn't. What we need are settlements that aren't at the bottom of a gravity well.

If we had colonies on Asteroids, or Comets, or even (to a lesser extent) the Moon, then we will be able to begin the construction and development of real space technologies. Space mining, Zero G construction of interplanetary transports, industries... You know, the sort of thing that might actually make a profit.

Noone can make a profit from Mars. Even if the surface was found to consist of Gem quality diamonds or something they would still cost too much to bring back. And the word "Profit" just means that you get out of the enterprise more than you put in, allowing you to go back for a second time without begging for more money.

Oh don't get me wrong, Mars will almost certainly be worth a lot in the future, but not for many decades, and not until the Zero G technologies I've been talking about above are developed.



Word Meanings

Michael Jennings has a complaint about the way "Generation X" keeps getting younger.

When it was first coined it meant people born between 1960 and 1965. The tail end of the baby boom.

Then it came to mean the generation AFTER the baby boom, 1965 to 1978.

Now it is used to mean the generation after that, 1980ish to 1990.

Clearly the fault is of the illiterate cretins who write the news and opinion pieces in mass media.

However I have a complaint that I have added to Michaels Comments. I reproduce it here.

I too have noticed that X-generation is used to mean "young people" and that as I got older, I outgrew my generation, or something.

But [Michael] has used a similar mistake in his article. He used "technology" to mean "the internet and mobile phones". He surely doesn't really believe that the Baby Boomers grew up without technology, sleeping in trees and eating their meat raw? (Well maybe after a lot of drugs.)



Another Stupid Quiz

Like most real geeks, I scored in the high 40s.
You are 48% geek
You are a geek liaison, which means you go both ways. You can hang out with normal people or you can hang out with geeks which means you often have geeks as friends and/or have a job where you have to mediate between geeks and normal people. This is an important role and one of which you should be proud. In fact, you can make a good deal of money as a translator.
Normal: Tell our geek we need him to work this weekend.

You [to Geek]: We need more than that, Scotty. You'll have to stay until you can squeeze more outta them engines!

Geek [to You]: I'm givin' her all she's got, Captain, but we need more dilithium crystals!

You [to Normal]: He wants to know if he gets overtime.

Take the Polygeek Quiz at Thudfactor.com



Orion Project

Another article on the lost Orion project. This was the nuclear space drive system designed in the 1960s that was capable of launching 10 000 tonne spaceships from Earth, and then accelerating them up to 2% or in some designs 10% of the speed of light. That sounds like science fiction but it was all calculated and designed using 1960s technology. Using modern materials and nuclear technology it would probably do a fair bit better than that.

It was never tried of course, because it requires the detonation of nuclear bombs, which became polically incorrect in the mid 60s, and, (according to this article) because Apollo project took all the resources.

But I wonder, would I really be surprised if there was one prototype Orion ship built, fuelled, and sitting in an underground launch pad in some American desert, just waiting in case there comes a time when it is really, really needed. If a global killer comet or meteor is heading for the Earth, and the only hope for mankind is the attempted settlement of another planet, would the bunker doors open and a bunch of brave volunteers take off for a combined first test flight/final chance mission?

It would be nice to think that someone thought that far ahead.



Orthorexia Nervosa

Orthorexia Nervosa is about the most socially acceptable disease to have these days. I am talking of course about the compulsion to eat foods that are seen as "good". Salads not chocolate, low fat, high fibre, boring stuff.

A lot of people, having abandoned traditional faiths, have raised righteous eating to the level of a religion to try to fulfil the needs that earlier people answered with a real religion. And so we see current culture:

Have we ever seen anything like this before? Of course, the Puritans, and before that the monastics and hermits. They too saw any pleasure as sinful, though they were able to come up with some connection to real spirituality in their theology. Here too, boring, tasteless food was seen as "good". This leads straight into the greens as puritans theme that I mentioned below.

But in our society we have a powerful force working against the sort of puritan, spartan ego worship that has dominated many societies in the past. That force is of course capitalism, where the marketing branches slave night and day (or at least over long lunches) to encourage consumption rather than miserliness.

Hence the prawn salad.

The rise of the pasta salad is a clever end run around the dogmatism of Orthorexia. One can go into a restaurant and order a chicken and advocado salad, or a pasta salad or potato salad, and you are brought something that consists of layers of meat, or seafood, pasta and rich, fatty goodness. But it is called a "salad" and so you can gobble all you like, content in the knowledge that you can truely claim "I just had a salad for lunch."

Likewise, the "fat free" cookie or desert. It consists mostly of sugar, but "fat" is the evil one, sugar is just one of the lesser demons, so that is the way people go.

It is of course just a rerun of the medieval Indulgences. And we all know how that turned out. As a non-believer in this new, secular religion, I shall watch in an interested way from the sidelines. Eating chocolate.



Greens and Drugs

The news is currently featuring conflict within the Greens party about the legalization of drugs.

This cuts right to the heart of the contradiction inherent in the Green system. By tradition and in theory they are pro-drug, hippy types. But by temperment and in practise they are straight laced puritans. After all, the whole point of the green party is "you can't do this, you can't do that". They are all about enforcing a limited, no indulgence lifestyle.

Take one look at Senator Bob Brown, and try to tell me you can't see him dressed as an Amish preacher. "You shall not waste food or use electricity. It is a wasteful indulgence and an abomination in the eyes of [the Lord/the Mother Earth]." Indeed the actual lifestyle preached by the Greens is very similar if not identical to that practiced by the Amish, except the Amish are not vegetarian as far as I know.

Hence the conflict now the Greens have actually reached the point of having enough power to talk about introducing legislation. The old standards of Green tradition say "legalise marijuana" but the innate personality of the green leaders, who have been enforcing puritanism for years, screams "No! Burning plants for personal pleasure HAS to be wrong!".



Move Review

I went to see Chicago last night. My opinion is that it is like Moulin Rouge, only more so. So whether you like it or not depends on your attitude to Moulin Rouge. I liked it a lot. And Chicago had better music.

I didn't think it was too great until the anti-heroine faked her first fainting spell and made her "dramatic announcement". Then it became really exciting and fast paced, and I laughed for the rest of the movie. Well except for the death scene.



Machines Showing Initiative

With machine getting ever smarter, we are now encountering the problem of them showing initiative. This is brought to mind by the office photocopier. This morning my boss went to copy an A4 sheet twice. The first came out as a copy on A4, the second enlarged onto A3.

Last night, I went to copy some papers, from one side. But the photocopier noticed there was writing on the other side too and so copied both sides.

Why? Who knows? Oh sure, if we wanted to sit down and read the 3 volume instruction manual from end to end then we could work it out, but we don't want to. And neither does anyone else. It's a photocopier, 99% of the time we just want a straight copy of whatever we put into it. The fact that we have to select 3 buttons to get what we want 99% of the time is just plain bad design. It should default to a straight copy to A4, not look at what you've put in and then take a guess that you might want it expanded to A3 size or print what is on the other side of the paper this this time.

And don't get me started on VCRs. OK, I can program it, and I don't actually know anyone who cannot, so that's one urban myth out of the way. But why on Earth do you have to put them into a special "now record what I programmed" mode before it will obey the programming. Why can't it just work normally, and then start recording when the time comes? It means of course that you have to remember to program the VCR, and THEN remember to turn it to Record mode when you last finish watching TV.



Chinese Food: A Study in Heat Transfer

Last night I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant eating Steamboat, when I noticed a very interesting engineering effect.

With steam boat, for those who don't know, you use your chopsticks to pull bits of meat, vegetable etc. out of boiling water from a pot in front of you. You then dunk the food in a bowl of sauce and eat it.

Now the sauce in this case was sesame oil mixed with garlic oil. And this is where something happens that is out of keeping with expectation. You dunk a small piece of boiling hot meat in the oil, and then pull it out half a minute later... and it is still hot.

If you were dropping hot meat in water or a water based sauce, it would be quite cool by then. This really emphasises the enourmous heat transfer one experiences with water. This is usually overlooked because almost everything we deal with is water based, but compared to most substances, water is an absolute champion at making things cool.




Today I finally got my anti-terrorist pack from the government, with the infamous fridge magnet. Conclusion, it tells me nothing, and the fridge magnet doesn't even hold it's own weight when I tried to stick it to my fridge.

If this is the government's anti-terrorist effort, then we really do need to get a (illegal) gun and defend ourselves.

Frankly, the government would have done much, much better just to use the 15 million as reward money for terrorists turning in their buddies.



More Politics

Now that John Howard has stated he will stay as Prime Minister until the defeat of Saddam Hussien, will the Australian Labor party begin to call for the immediate invasion of Iraq?




I generally try to avoid political commentary, largely because so many others actually know what they are talking about. But last night on SBS's Frontline, there was an interview with that staple of journalistic information: another journalist.

In this case it was the infamous Robert Fisk.

It was interesting to see how the SBS guy, following standard aggressive interviewing practice, was able to get Fisk to contradict himself in every second sentence. He didn't ask the REALLY hard questions though. It went something like this:

FiskThe Arab leaders are terrified. Their own countries are brutal dictatorships and they see this invasion of Iraq as an US/Israeli plot to destabilize their own despotic regimes.

Here we see the Fisk is in EXACT agreement with various rightwing commentators, though he implied that bringing down dictatorships is a bad thing. The SBS guy failed to ask why the destruction of brutal, terrorist supporting despots is not a good and noble thing. He even failed to ask why this doesn't prove that the invasion of Iraq isn't in fact a strike against terrorism.

FiskThe invasion of Iraq will be swift and effective, but the Iraqi people are hard and fierce warriors, they will be impossible for the Americans to control.

SBSBut isn't that exactly what you said about Afghanistan?

FiskUmmm..... Yeah.... But... Wait!... Afghanistan IS impossible to control. You don't know what is really going on. The Americans lie to you.

SBSBut Afghanistan now is better than under the Taliban.

FiskYeah, well clearly. Well no. They smoke drugs you know. And they're violent, the Afghans have always been violent. But the new guys are on our side and that's bad because....

When the Americans try to set up their own dictatorship in Iraq and steal all their oil, the Iraqis will not stand for it.

The SBS failed totally at this point to note that the Americans never claimed to want to set up their own dictatorship and steal the oil. Here I see where he is going. CLAIM the Americans/British/Australians/UN want a puppet government and to steal the oil, despite them saying otherwise, and then when the Americans/British/Australians/UN don't do that, you can loudly shout that they failed.

I can see why people enjoy beating him up.

Meanwhile, on Another Channel

Of far more immediate interest, Buffy the Vampire Slayer starts again next Monday.

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