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Car Comparison: $18000 Lexus v. Mercedes

I spent last night driving around in two different cars. Both had just been bought for $18 000.

  1. A 2001 Mercedes Benz A160
  2. A 1999 Lexus ES300

They were totally different. And the Lexus was heaps better.

The Mercedes seems to be a contrived little cross between a delivery van and a hatchback that compromises all the things a luxury car should be good at (silence, smoothness, ride, interior, safety) in order to suit people who can't be bothered learning to parallel park anything longer than a Mini.

And I suppose it saves fuel too, but if you are worried about costs to that extent why buy a Merc? Get a Camry for $6000 and the $12 000 saving will pay for about 300 000 km of increased fuel costs. For that matter, buy a Mini (which is BMWs answer to the A class anyway) and get something FUN rather than this poor excuse for a Corolla.

Compared to the Lexus, the Merc was noisy, bouncy, had suspension noise, a rough gear change, no power, less appealing interior and no boot. Not to mention the danger if an Elk were to suddenly appear on the harbour bridge.

It was however dryer. The Lexus had just been steam cleaned and the interior was all wet. I hope it dries out before it goes all moldy because that would wreck the car.



Movie Tricks: Fencing

You know how in movie sword fights, the hero is always able to somehow swirl the bad guy's sword right out of his hand and leave him defenceless? (It's always a him in movies like that. The bad female characters tend to go for poison or a pistol rather than a sword.)

You know how it always looks like total movie bullshit, that would never work in real life?

Someone did it to me 3 times last night.


It was in training of course because if you loose your sword in a real sword fight I would have one or two less lungs today. I've been doing fencing, in the Italian style.

So what is the "Italian Style"? Well based on reading about two articles, and some wild, unsupported extrapolation, my explanation is:

Classical fencing is divided into two main schools, French and Italian. Why there is no Spanish or German schools I don't know. Actually there is a Spanish school but it is not legal under current rules. It uses a dagger or cloak in the left hand for blocking. The Phillipino styles draw on Spanish style a fair bit.

The French school has 9 guard positions, the Italian has 4. This should provide some indication of their styles. The french also seem to have developed more of a Do approach, emphasising the "true" way of "pure" fencing, with its spiritual and contemplative aspects. The Italian style seems closer to a jitsu type thing.

These differences are relative, since the 1960s it's been overshadowed by the electronic scoring that just measures who was hit when and where, regardless of how "one with the blade" you were.

As of January this year, the electronics were all recalibrated at the insistence of the Olympic committee (especially Sanchez, who was an olympic fencer). This has thrown a lot of recent techniques out of whack, but curiously the old traditional style, especially Italian, has emerged as being very suitable to the new electronics. It seems the calibration has made the computers a closer approximation to a real fight, and so from my point of view, is a Good Thing.

In terms of style, think of karate where the only strike is a right hand punch, and a glancing punch from a small girl will injure the biggest man.

So how would you adapt? Well the reverse punch is out. The front fist punch has longer reach, faster jab, and you don't need the extra power. The whole fight is done from back stance (I'm not sure why.) And (I keep getting this bit wrong) you DON'T block with the other hand. (Actually my instinctive left hand blocks have been very good, catching the blade as it was heading for my chest, only to be told that I'd just lost all my fingers.)

So far I've only done Foil, which is the training version of Epee or Small-Sword. This is an ultra thin, point only weapon. Like the one they use in movies like The Princess Bride. In movies they call them rapiers, but the true rapier is a much heavier weapon that can be used for slashing as well as stabbing. All the sayings about rapiers, "rapier wit", etc. are actually about Epees, people in the 19th and 20th Centuries not really knowing the difference, at least if they were Eng. Lit. majors.

Actually there is a whole paper/rock/scissors thing with swords.

The big slashing weapons (broadswords, claymores, katanas) are needed against armour, but in normal clothes, they will lose to a rapier. This has been proved in thousands of duels to the death, involving people well trained in their weapons. (When the rapier was introduced it made duels far more dangerous. Between 1580 and 1620, 1/3 of the French nobility died in duels. (Of course part of this was the way that any deep piercing injury could lead to death from infection back then.(Medically speaking, the dark ages finished around about 1920.)))

But once metallurgy had advanced to the point of allowing the ultra lightweight Epee, well it will beat a Rapier. Not every time, especially with the development of Colichemerde rapiers (an edged, rapier style blade for the lower 1/3, changing to an ultra thin epee style for the top.) But it was enough of an edge, once again proved in thousands of fights to the death, for everyone whose life depended on it to change over.

But, if an epee faces a heavy sword like a claymore, then it is just too light to block effectively and the heavy sword wins. Rock blunts scissors.

Which lead to the vexing question of what does a thoughtful 18th Century gentleman wear? The solution is to wear an epee to fight any epee or rapier wielding Cads one might encounter, and a pistol to shoot any barbarians (Turks, Japanese, Scots) who might be carrying a heavy sword. The Epee is especially suited to wearing about every day, as it is small and light (hence the name Small-Sword) weight about 890 grams compared to the 1.5 kg of the classic rapier or up to 2.5 kg of a Broadsword.

This is ignoring the problem of warfare, where the confusion and crowds of a melee means that most people, especially poorly trained soldiers, would loose control of a lightweight epee, and so were issued with a slashing sabre, if not a cutlass. Also, in war one might encounter uncultured folk wearing armour, which would mean a heavy sword is called for. Finally a gentleman would probably be mounted on a horse in battle, and on horseback a curved sword is usually best. (Cavalry sabre, Turkish Scimitar, Japanese Katana)



Banks: Evil Bastards or Just Stupid and Incompetent? Part 2

So what have I been doing since 2 months ago when I was last complaining about banks? I've been trying to get a single letter from HSBC.

All I wanted was a simple letter to say that I had been turned down for the following reasons blah blah.

I first requested it on the 24th February. I got the letter on the 1st April! It took over a month to give me a letter. I requested it on the 24th Feb, and then on the 3rd March, 4th March, 11th March, 17th March, 24th March, and finally on 29th March. In my final call (after going through the maze described below, I informed them that I had contacted the department of Fair Trading (who, to my slight surprise, were terribly helpful, and responded heaps better than the Bank) and that if they were too incompetent to send out a letter I would



Back In Australia

I did NOT actually get back for Christmas, leaving China on late boxing day and getting to OZ on the 27th.

BUT before leaving I caught the train to the airport. To people whose experience with trains is limited to the primitive 19th Century contraptions in Australia or India this doesn't sound like such a big deal, but this was a modern train. I have a photo of the speed indicator showing 431 km/h. That is four hundred and thirty one. Kilometres per hour. It actually felt faster when it slowed down to 350 km/h for the banked curves. OK the plane was faster, but the plane wasn't at ground level. The plane wasn't running parallel to a freeway where the cars doing 110 km/h in the same direction as us were being passed as quickly as the ones doing 110 in the opposite direction. The train left me grinning for long enough to make it though the airport queues and onto the plane. (i.e.. for about 3 hours). The train took 5 and a half minutes for the same trip as took 45 minutes in a taxi. And cost half as much. I'd rate the train to the airport as one of the highlights of the whole trip.

There were others.

The food: Not so much. I was busy, busy, busy. No time for exotic restaurants. At one point I was forced to resort to KFC. On Christmas day I did have some French crepes, made by a French computer guy in a seedy run down 1930s tenement house that was so squashed in that every room was on another floor. I think my crepes are better.

The Museum. On the last day there I got time to go to the Museum. There was some fascinating exhibits if you were into metallurgy, which fortunately I am. There were cool sectioned up sword blades where they used a bi-metallic structure. Like the famous Japanese blades that used a hard cutting edge combined with a tough core, these ones combined a cutting edge of hard steel with a tough body of bronze. (This was thousands of years ago, before they could make tough steel.) No doubt the Japanese technology was based on this. There was also some neat things on lost wax and lost ash casting.

The massage parlour: That's right, for Christmas eve, the representative/translator of the company I was visiting (and she was pretty cute too) took me to what I thought was a "Bus tour" but turned out to be a "Bath tour". I didn't quite work this out until I walked into a room full of naked men. (The men and women were in separate rooms, it wasn't THAT sort of massage parlour.)

So I got naked and went on into the bath section, which had a selection of baths. These ranged from hot to really, really hot. Each one had a different traditional Chinese medicine in it, designed to cure sore bones, excessive Yin, insufficient Yang, high interest rates or whathaveyou. There was also showers to rinse off between each bath, a steam room, a dry heat room (that was too hot for me) and... a massage room. This massage was done not so much with a soothing oil as a pot scouring pad. You could see the skin coming off much like after a sunburn, but without the associated pain. Or at least, not until they followed it up with a salt and vinegar based moisturiser. (It may not have been vinegar, but it was definitely salt, and it stung in places where a little bit too much skin was removed.)

Following this, I showered again (making it about 15 showers so far) and got dried and dressed in a set of cotton pyjamas and went upstairs to rejoin the girls. There was some sort of rock concert going on (in Chinese) but featuring scantily clad dancing girls. My translator was there, with here boyfriend, who had lost his glasses in the bath section. I mentioned that she had bribed a bath attendant to hide them so that he couldn't see the dancing girls and she was so happy with this idea that she bought me another massage. This was more traditional (for one thing, not naked, (important to note because I was still accompanied by the cute translator)) she asked for one for herself from the best looking guy, but was told that only women were available. So she got the best looking girl. (This may have been an accident.) I was asked to choose which girl was best looking but couldn't bring myself to insult the other two.

This, more comfortable massage lasted for 90 minutes, and my legs are still sore from it.

Then I had a dinner (still wearing the pyjamas) before guiding the translators boyfriend back to where he left his clothes (he had no glasses remember) and then catching a taxi home. The whole night, taxis included, cost about AU$20.

At work today there is an add for massages, $25 for 30 minutes. No comparison is possible.

The buildings: As in the other Chinese cities, Shanghai makes Australia look quaintly old fashioned. If I had to describe Chinese cities, I'd say "science fiction". You could film a movie set in 2050 in Shanghai and it would look about right. Even the blade runner/cyberpunk style ultra advance/underclass (that still have advanced technology) style dichotomy.

Whereas the farms are far more traditional, living simple farming lives unchanged since the introduction of the web capable mobile phone.

So I am back in Sunny Sydney, which actually was sunny, until today which is pouring rain. Still not warm though, this would have to be the coldest summer in Sydney that I've seen, at least the cold wet weather stops the bushfires.

I spent the last week of Christmas at my sister's house which is a lovely handmade place overlooking the Hawkesbury river on 5 acres of steep hillside. We fed a lot of steak to the fish in the river (we were not PLANNING on feeding the fish, our scheme featured the fish getting caught on the hooks concealed within the meat and then being eaten by us, but the fish saw through such a transparent ruse.) Little sister was not there, she was in Cairns with her fiancť and his daughter.

She then got married finally on Saturday the 8th Jan.

It was the second attempt to marry this particular guy. And it went off with very little trouble, except that

1. It had to be kept secret from both the groom's mother, and the groom's daughter's mother, for fear that they would turn up and make a scene. Because the groom's daughter is only 3 or so, she can't keep secrets and so it had to be kept secret from her too. Naturally no-one TOLD me, or half the others, about the secrecy (because of course, it's an embarrassing thing to have such a messed up family) and hence we blabbed away to the little girl resulting in all these sudden interruptions from others where we were hustled away to be let into the conspiracy while the ever more confused girl was told some covering story.

2. The best man proposed a toast to Anthony and Melinda (not her name). Resulting in a "WHAT! What did you call me? Huh? If I could move in this dress you'd be in so much trouble!"

3. My brother stuffed up his plane bookings so he arrives today, two days afterwards. But sister was planning on murdering him anyway, this way she'll just kill the cats as well.

Now mum and dad have everyone married off, so Mum can relax and concentrate on pressuring us for grandchildren.



Greetings from Sunny Shanghai

Or at least it would be sunny if it stopped raining. And then a typhoon came in to clear away the smog. (No more smog than you would expect in an industrial city with 25 million inhabitants and no EPA.) Of course typhoons bring rain so it would have to stop raining again. Perhaps it should have a typhoon and THEN stop raining. Then it would be sunny. If it wasn't mid winter.

So why, you might ask, or at least you should, am I in Shanghai?

fTrying to get a supplier to make products to specification. Which is dificulat partly because they aren't really our supplier, they are a supplier to a supplier, and partly because the kjeyboard on the labtop is just a bit smaller than what I am used too.

So I've set up a lab in a hotel room, with about $100 000 worth of equipment. Though I went to a Uni today (it looks exaclty like an Aussie uni)to use some REALLY good stuff. I was working in a sound room that had an ambient noise level of 14 dBa. For comparison, once levels get below 30 dB it is so quiet that it is considered a health risk, the human system just isn't built for levels that quiet. This was 14dB. And note that it is a log scale, so it is about 70 times as quiet as the risk level. However I had a noisey equipment and a chatty Chinese interpreter so I was at no risk.

Prolonged exposed can cause psychological disturbance or some such rot. I just read it in the Australian standards, I didn't track down any primary sources, though it would have made interesting reading. To speculate: After a while your ears adjust and your own breathing and pulse get louder and louder. I suppose that if that disturbed you and you started to breath more and have the heart beat faster you could get a feedbackj loop.

I hope very much to go back on the 24th, but Looking a lot more wishful than hopeful at this point. :(



More Test Drives

As you do, after work last night I went and test drove a Lexus IS200.

This was practically new. A year 2000 model just imported from Japan. It had the 1gge 2.0 litre 6 cylinder engine, the Sports interior, a 6 stacker CD player with minidisk as well, it was Automatic with a nifty semi-auto control thing and it was flawless.

I didn't really like it.

For a start, the "Sports" interior means the low rent plastic one, without leather or wood. Yes it was high quality and looked pretty good, but really it just looked like a really good Corolla or Camry. It was nothing like the ES300 or Eunos 800M which told you in no uncertain terms that "this is a full on luxury car buddy, dead cows and trees, no plastic here!".

Now the MX5 has a plastic interior, so does a lot of the twin turbo 300zxs and Skylines, BUT they are sports cars selling for under $15 000. This was a Lexus for $30 000. Why pay all the extra dosh and still be sitting in vinyl?

It wasn't just the materials either, the bigger lexus (and it's Eunos rival) had a sort of seamlessness to the construction, where the leather and wood were sculpted into a 3 dimensional form where one bit sort of mysteriously opened away from the rest of the integrated whole to become a door. In the IS200 it was a flat, vinyl panel that had a handle stuck to the inside. Same design as my 1973 Holden.

Lets start it up: The engine fires up with a sort of growl. One more demerit point. Once again, a sound level that is OK, even desirable in an $11k sports car is not suitable for a $30k luxury car. Of course if this was a roaring beast of a luxury car, a Lexus IS250 twin turbo, or an IS430 V8, then things would be different. But it's a gutless little 2 litre that, even with variable valve timing still manages a pitiful 115kW which is less than the average decent 4 cylinder these days. So the very least it can do is not draw attention to itself.

This brings up a point about the engine. The owner of the car was proudly pointing out that this was a 1g engine (a six cylinder), which was a brand new design, far more modern than the 3s engine (a four cylinder) that the earlier models had. I didn't bother to point out that the 3s engine, in this model car, came with up to 40 kW MORE power, was a lighter design, and was basically a heap more desirable than the 1g. Both engines date from the mid 1980s and hence are hardly "new" by the year 2000.

Of course at this point I was only taking other peoples word for it that the 2 litre WAS a gutless wimp, so it was time to drive it and see how it went in the real world.

It wasn't really very good. It revved nicely enough, but there was nothing there. So I put my foot to the floor to see what it would do. I found that my foot was already to the floor. This gentle cruise was actually full power. The same engine with twin turbos in a 1986 Soarer was interesting, here it was just adequate. And not very quiet. The (6 years older) ES300 was really a lot more silent than this thing, AND it pulled a fair bit harder. An extra litre in capacity, an extra 40 kW in specification, and it really showed. This thing was frankly boring... in a straight line.

Which brings us to the suspension. NOW you're talking. This car had a proper sports sedan setup. The suspension was firm, with great body control. It may not have been as good at 10/10s as the MX5, but it was heaps more comfortable while still giving a sense of being screwed down to the road. I don't know about if you really hammer it, I didn't take either car to the edge, but in normal driving the IS200s balance of harshness and control was probably a lot more liveable than the MX5, which was just silly once you reach the broken bitumen and ripples that make up much of Sydney's streets. This is not just my opinion, Ping claimed exactly the same thing. "It not like MX5, that always jump, jump. Too rough."

The body felt as solid as a tank, and the whole chassis set up was near perfect for a real sports sedan... such as the 157 kW Altezza that the the IS200 is based on. Give it a real engine and it would be great for it's intended purpose, try to make it into a luxobarge and it just doesn't fit. Because in luxury car terms, it was coarse and noisy. You could feel it hit every bump and you could hear it too. It just wasn't up to scratch using that criteria. Once again, in that role the ES300 walked all over it. The midsized Lexus was silent, smooth and cruised over surfaces that were simply annoying in the smaller car. No the ES300 wouldn't handle a racetrack or a twisty mountain road anywhere near as well as the IS200, but if that's what you want you'd get an altezza, or a skyline or something anyway. And if it was a STEEP mountain road the extra power of the ES300 might get you ahead anyway.

The rest of the car? As with the other Lexi I've checked out, the IS200 and ES300 seem to have escaped the dreadful bootshrinking plague of 1989 that has so sadly destroyed the carrying capacity of the 300zx twin turbo, RX7, MR2, MX5 and the like. However they decided clearly that increased chassis rigidity that comes from a solid bulkhead is more important than having fold down rear seats. I'm not sure how I feel about that, it could depend on what I am doing with the car on any given day.

The back seat, was exactly like sitting in the back seat of a corolla. The advantages, the steering, the handling, don't apply to the back seat and so all you see is the interior.

Then I finished up the night by inspecting a rental property filled with giant hairy spiders, being thrown out of a Chinese restaurant because of some reason I didn't even understand, and finally showing a lost Russian Pimp how to get to Strathfield while turning down his generous offer of investing in his brothel.

This can be compared to the previous test of an MX5


OK. This was a white, 1989 MX5 with an aftermarket exhaust and running a stock 6.5 psi of boost.

What's that? They didn't have boost as stock? Of course they d... ummm, well they should have. Mazda clearly just forgot that. A typographical error in the Marketing Requirements document. It is clear that it was supposed to have either forced induction or a hot rotary (or both), the fact that it didn't has nothing to do with it. It would have been DESIGNED with boost, just the marketing/lawyers/accountants made the engineers take it out.

ANYWAY, this one had been modified back to stock.

But it didn't have an intercooler or water injection, so it isn't really suited to hot weather.

Today had hot weather. It still went reasonably well, with 2 guys in the car it went about as well as a modern aussie 6 cylinder family car. I'm guessing 0-100 in 8ish seconds. Apparently it goes much harder in the cold of 2 days ago. Oh, and there were sandbags in the boot, which wouldn't have helped.

One thing that really stands out is that it is a SPORTS car. You sit really really low, you get right down into the car. The suspension is hard, you have to slowly inch over all the speed bumps. There isn't much problem with the interior room for the front seats, but that's all there is. Pot holes and dodgy road repairs are obstacles to be steered around.

Of course steering around things is the entire point of an MX5, and it certainly was much sharper and neater than my car, with a smaller turning circle.

Keep in mind that all these factors are compared to a 300zx with aftermarket stiffened suspension.

The boot, was about the same size as a 300zx twin turbo 4 seater. Ie. small, small, small. But still bigger than the 300zx two seater. (The owner had a spare tyre, (which you sort of have to have) an intercooler (which he is planning on installing naturally) and two 10 kg bags of cement and sand in the boot, which was perhaps half full.)

The dash and seats was a proper sports car, but it looked a lot more modern than my car. My car is 1980s, this is 90s. Or perhaps it's just "sports car" and hence timeless. Though the Ferrari 550 I was checking out yesterday (sadly without a testdrive) looked better. On the other hand, some interior things like the rear roof attachment points looked pretty industrial, almost as though there should be a cover over them that was missing.

This car had the hardtop on, not the fabric roof. The hard top looked as though it was a bare fibreglass shell with a layer of sound proofing glued to the inside, but it wasn't much noisier than a normal sporty car. The rear window was a proper glass one, with demisting strips.

My conclusion was that on a cold day, or in the rain, or with intercooling or water injection, and with 110 kg less in the car (ie. take out the passenger and the sandbags) it would be a lot of fun.



Stealth Bombers?

Rat Brain-in-a-dish flies F22 fighter plane simulator

Not that stealty. Not if your multi-million dollar super bomber can be deflected from it's bombing run just by leaving big lumps of cheese on the mountain tops.

More importantly was the work that:

Last year, U.S. and Australian researchers used a similar neurone-controlled robotic device to produce a "semi-living artist".

In this case, the neurones were hooked up to a drawing arm outfitted with different coloured markers.

The robot drew decipherable pictures, albeit it bad ones that resembled child scribbles,

This means that the ratbot can replicate the work of all modern public funded artists, saving governments dozens of multi-thousand-dollar grants every year.

With that quality of work it could also potentially replace "reality TV" script writers, middle east peace treaty writers and the designers of Sydney's traffic flow.



Test Drives

I've just test driven two new cars: The Lexus ES300 and the Eunos 800

If you have thought that these cars have a lot in common, you are pretty spot on. What they are, is luxobarges, to a greater or lesser extent. That is, they are luxurious, ultra high quality, Japanese luxury cars, but with very little in terms of performance by todays standards. (They will beat a 5.0 Mustang or SS Commodore from the mid 1980s, but really, car designers in those days had no clue. And it isn't high technology either, because hot cars from 1970 WERE quick. I blame ABBA.)

So why, you may ask, am I investigating luxobarges? The answer is very simple. Ping wants a car, and wants one that will look a tad more impressive to her realestate and stock portfolio buying clients than a mid eighties 300zx with panel damage. (Ignoring for the fact that it was her who did most of the panel damage.)

After a brief scan of the prices and Autospeed road reports, it seems the Lexus ES300 and Eunos 800M are the go.


This car is exactly as advertised. Like a camry, but with Lexus like silence, comfort and image.

No more performance than an average 6 cylinder family car (157 kW from the 3.0 V6), but it does so in almost complete silence, with leather and polished wood and a great 12 stacker CD player drowning out the whisper of the climate control, let alone anything so plebian as engine noise.

Accomodation is good, not quite up to VT commodore standards, but if you aren't carting 5 adults you'd never miss it.

One weird thing is that the standard camry handbrake has been abandoned in favour of a foot operated emergency brake. What the ...? Apparently that's how some of the upper crust Euros do it, and so that's the way Lexus will do it. (Note that the MUCH more expensive (when new) Lexus soarer (that I still want for myself) has a perfectly normal hand brake, but I suppose it has to try much less hard to convince prospective owners that it isn't a camry.)

The end result is something that is absolutely perfect for 90% of the population. No it doesn't have RWD or 4wd handling, no it won't crack 12s in the quarter, no it doesn't have the sharp steering with the bite and nibble of something really sporty. No, My wife has no idea of what those words mean, and neither does my Mum. (Dad has some opinion on bite and nibble, without using these words, which is why he got a Jag not a ES300.)

And with Camry levels of maintainance costs, I don't see why anyone would buy say a SAAB.


The Eunos is simultaneously much better, and much worse.

All that stuff about bite and nibble in the steering, the Eunos has. It feels about twice as stiff, with a really EXPENSIVE tone to the way it feels going over bumps or corners. Similar to the purpose built Lexii rather than the Camry based ES300. You know this was designed from the start to be a Benz basher. And the steering is sharp and even fun.

All the interior stuff, equipment levels, wood, leather, it is all the same.

On the other hand, it is clearly much noisier, at least as far as suspension and tyre noise is concerned. And if you get the supercharged version (and why the hell wouldn't you?) there is also a bit more engine noise. But that also gives you more performance than the ES300, though still nothing to write home about, at least not if you drove to the test in a 300zx running 18 psi ;)

However the 4wheel steering, and funky supercharged miller cycle engine, while giving a better car to drive, may hit home in the long run when it comes to maintenance costs.

To sum up, if I was buying for myself, it would be the 800M, which is something like a 535i BMW for 1/3 the price. And as the engine is forced induction, it could quickly become like a M5 for 1/5 the price. But if I was buying for myself, I would get something that was as quick as a M5 stock, BEFORE modification. So buying for my wife, I'll lean towards the Lexus at the moment. She doesn't get it until she gets an Australian driving licence though. And she'll have to be good. (Or alternatively, bad.)



Resumption of Normal Service

I just wanted to mention the prospect of the "nanotech singularity". Some people have mentioned this as an "end of history" point of thing, but it seems to me that we have already had a couple of similar events.

By the standards of all previous history, the 19th century was such a singularity. Previously it was a fantastic feat if per capita income could double over 500 years. From 1780 to 1860 it happened in 80 years, and then again, and then again. Writers in the 1770s (such as Adam Smith) could examine history and forecast a possible, ideal future in which a manual labourer in any part of Britain might be able to earn twice the cost of enough grain to keep him alive (maybe $6-800 in today's terms).

Clearly the advances in the industrial revolution were orders of magnitude greater than anything previous, and the living conditions and industrial possibilities were likewise changed. But the major political issues just didn't change that much.

On the other hand, if you define a singularity as it is described in Future Pundit where he says something along the line of "as nanotechnology comes closer and closer, the best approach to solving engineering problems becomes wait" then this has already happened too, at least in Military affairs.

I'm talking here of course about nuclear weapons.

I'll explain it like this: Say you went back in time, and ended up military adviser to the allied leaders during World War 2. And it is 1942 and they ask "So where should we concentrate our resources? Should we be spending 25% of our war Resources in long distance bombing of the German and Japanese mainland, with a terrible loss in trained aircrew and aircraft? Should we be supplying more or less men and equipment to the campaign in North Africa? Do we go with the Island Hopping campaign over the Pacific? How much should we send in materials and resources to the Soviet Union? How much of our resources do we build up in England for an invasion of France?"

And the reply? "Stop it all."

The best thing to do in 1942 was a holding action.

So there you have it.



I'm back, and I'm Happy


To anyone who reads this, (and I suspect some people do, because the hit counter keeps going up) you might wonder where I've been since about May.

I am back from China, a respectable married man.

The wedding went off without a problem (I was going to say without a hitch, but that isn't quite true is it?) as expected. I mean weddings are dead easy things, that have evolved over millennia to be capable of being performed by anyone, stupid/illiterate/drunk/on the verge of a nervous breakdown/morning sickness/whatever. So if you don't have any of those problems it's a breeze really. Following a program that's in another language is hardly a challenge compared to those barriers. Even the speech at the reception, which I gave in Chinese. People laughed or clapped at the right places, so I assume they understood my pronunciation.

OK I did try to put the big ring on her finger, instead of the small one (because up until now, whenever I tried on a ring, I tried on the big one on myself, so I naturally picked that one up,) but no-one noticed except for the priest, and he quickly corrected me. Not even Ping noticed until I told her later.

Following this we went on a honeymoon where we visited the Li river, the Terracotta soldiers and the great wall.

Li river


You know how all the traditional Chinese paintings show a landscape of ridiculously precipitious hills? Taller than they are wide, incredibly steep to the point of overhanging, and crowded together around a beautiful, winding river? That is because they are all based on the Li river, which looks just like that.

For those who can't remember any classical Chinese landscape paintings, the closest I can describe it as is to start with the Glasshouse mountains. Now they are steep and narrow, but about 2-5 km apart. Now push them together so that the distance separating the mountains is about equal to their own height. Now stick a winding river in between them. A few hundred metres wide, no more than 2 metres deep, with clear water brimming with fish. Stick some rice farms on the banks, whenever there is a flat spot between all the mountains, cover the rest with tropical forest. Have some water buffalo in the river and on the bank with farm kids trying to drag them out of the water to make them do some work. Other farm workers are just relaxing by the river like the buffalo. Have some other people rafting along on long narrow rafts made of 5 bamboo poles stuck together, and then heated over a fire so the ends can be curved up. Some people are fishing with nets, others with lines, and others with trained cormorants that have a band around their necks so they can't swallow any large fish. And one or two groups of people doing choir practice. But the river isn't crowded, with only one or two people visible at any one time, the others are hidden around the bends and cliff walls that fall hundereds of metres down to the river's edge. Add mist to the mountains.

It's pretty nice.

And it extends for a few hundred kilometres.

Then at night, there was a concert. An absolutely spectacular concert, with entire mountains being lit up in different colours, a cast of thousands (I mean, actual thousands) and a show that has people flying from thousands of kilometres away to attend.

The Terracotta soldiers

Everyone knows what these are, the 7 000 (approximately) ceramic soldiers that were buried in vast underground caverns to protect the underground tomb of the first emperor of China (called Chinistan at the time). What is not so well known (well I didn't know it) is that they are all broken. Out of 7000, there is one so far that was not smashed. This is because the first Emperor of China was not well liked by those people who survived his reign and so they went and smashed all the grave goods after he died. They had reasons not to like him, he killed 720 000 people building his tomb for example.

However, since their rediscovery in the 1970s by some farmers digging a well, a lot of the soldiers have been reassembled. As one person pointed out, what is really the most amazing feat: Making them, or putting them back together from a jumbled mass of tiny pieces? As usual the modern technology wins hands down.

The modern people also wins when it comes to construction, the museum housing the site (built over the still being excavated holes in the ground) is more impressive in scale than the original. However, next door is the still unopened pyramid housing the actual grave, and that is pretty damn big, even if it is just an overgrown hill.

The Great Wall:

I walked all the way... to the top of the nearest hill. This was enough to convince me that the plan with invaders was to get them to walk along it, which it much harder that just climbing over it I'm sure.

As far as greatness: I'm not so sure. It looks far more impressive on TV and in pictures. I mean it is really long. And it was probably really hard to build as it is built along cliff tops and sharp, precipitous ridges (the logical place to mount a military defence) but the wall itself isn't that huge. And it gets dull after a while.

I visited it in 2 places. One was just north of Beijing, where I did the hill climbing. A 45 minute to one hour walk only took 30 minutes, but it was pretty difficult. I slipped a couple of times. I blame the intense air polution for anything that looked like lack of fitness. I later visited it again, in my wife's home town. This was the spot where the wall reaches the sea, and juts a little bit out into it. There is a major fortress at this point, involving trick false landing points to kill anyone who just swims out and around the end. At this section I was able to find a section that was unrestored, and hence more interesting. And dangerous.

General Observations

I learned many things in China, one of them was that almost any two foods will go together if you are skillful enough. Toffee will go with potatoes or taro, fried insects will go with boiled bird spit, roast dog will go with jellyfish.

One thing that does NOT go together is raw garlic with raw grain alcohol. This does not work and I do not recommend you try it. Even after you try it it still doesn't work. Even after I tried it several times it still didn't work. This did not stop me trying it again.

One interesting dinner occured when I met a man who was introduced to me as "This is my brother, he is a Billionaire." (Brother did not speak English so this wasn't quite as rude as it sounds.) So he invited us to lunch, at an EXPENSIVE restaurant. The tableware was all gold. Some of the plates were gold, some Jade. The waitresses were all totally gorgeous and dressed in traditional silk costumes that must take them an hour to put on. They were walking around on traditional 20 cm high platform shoes. The food was... well I'm told it was dreadfully expensive, all I know is that the final bill cost much the same as my airline ticket to reach China in the first place. The dish I least liked was a $150 bowl of soup.

Then he announced he was driving out to his place in the country, and would we like to go. Visions of a high speed blast in the latest AMG Benz followed by some sort of Bertie Wooster holiday in a country mansion filled my head and so I said yes. To my enourmous disappointment, the new car turned out to be...

a VW.


1.8 litre.

Not even a turbo.

The place in the country, on the other hand, turned out quite nice. Though not quite up to Bertie Wooster standards. It was on 77 hectares of fruit orchard, with chickens pecking the ground between the trees. There was a proper gate. With a gate house, and someone who lived in the gate house whose full time job was to open the gate when someone drove up to it, (providing that person met the criteria for being allowed in I presume).

The main house (that is, not the gate house, or the farm house, or any of the minor buildings holding orchard equipment or supplies, but the actual main house) wasnít quite up to the standards you see in English manor houses, but it was better than a poke in the head with a pointy bear. About 3 stories, with very large rooms and high ceilings, it is clearly the country retreat of a rich man who only goes there with his mates. Which means it has several thousand dollars worth of TV, with about 700 different channels from 3 satellite aerials. In front of these were a bunch of mega-comfortable leather couches. It has a big circular drive where his mates had parked all their Mercedes and Audis (note they donít share his VW fetish). It had a huge dining room with a fully staffed kitchen that would provide any dish you wished 24 hours/day. The dining room had an enourmous table and chairs set, made from brilliantly polished handcarved wood that may have been quite old, or perhaps brand new. The dining room also featured an enormous wood and glass drinks cabinet filled with cases and cases of exotic alcohols.

And that was it. No other room in the place had a stick of furniture. He hadnít got around to it yet. (Conceivably there was a bed in his bedroom, I didnít look.)

Anyway it was a pleasant change from a string of hotels. The fruit trees were just ripe so we could wander the grounds, eating from the trees, and looking suspiciously at the chickens (I haven't heard of any bird flu that far north, but still...).

It was in this dining room that I experienced the raw garlic and grain alcohol. I note that when seriously rich people do too many shots of raw garlic and grain alcohol, they are prone to making expansive statements like "I own this chain of restaurants, you can eat at them whenever you want without paying." And then calling over a flunky and telling them to make it so.

(The reason he is rich is that the nearest restaurant in the chain is still 9 000 km from my home, so I won't be taking him up on the offer very often... DAMN)

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