Shame and Iraq

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:13 pm

Excellent article from Salon’s Gary Kamiya about American responsibility for Iraq as it is now: http://www.salon.com/opinion/kamiya/2006/10/31/shame/


Brakes, Speed Limits and Climate Change

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:29 am

I notice it more on the bike than I do in the car – some people seem never to get off their brakes, judging by their brake lights. Every downhill stretch, every corner, the brakes go on. Doesn’t bother me much, but I wonder why they do it, and I also worry about it a bit for the reason outlined below. I suspect there are two reasons for it:

  1. Some people go flat out on the straights and painfully slowly around the corners, necessitating lots of braking. On the bike I wanna go around corners fast, so that’s annoying, but it also means they’re going too fast to overtake on the straights where overtaking is possible and holding me up through the corners.
  2. Speed limits – I think a lot of the ‘riding the brakes down hill’ is caused by people trying to stay within the speed limit, rather than (as would be more natural and better) allowing the car to speed up a little on the downhills and slow up a little on the uphills.

Why is it worrying, apart from the irritations described above? (And the concommitant urge to overtake where I really shouldn’t.) Well, what happens in your car is that the engine converts (pretty inefficiently) the chemical potential energy stored in the fuel1 into kinetic energy (motion) of the car. Then, when it’s time to get rid of that energy, friction between the brake pads and disks (or drums) turns that energy into heat energy, which is wasted into the environment. A car is a very efficient machine for turning fuel into heat… the transportation can be regarded as a side effect!

So every time you touch the brakes, even lightly, you’re burning off some of its kinetic energy and turning it into heat energy. That wastes brake pads, but even more it wastes fuel… because then you’ll have to accelerate again to speed back up to the speed you want to travel. I’m not saying ‘don’t use the brakes’, of course – they’re essential. I’m just saying ‘minimise your use unless you’re stopping’… because every time you brake you waste more fossil fuels.

Speed limit enforcement should probably take this into account… even if it’s just by not siting speed cameras on downhill stretches. Because it’s actually more environmentally friendly to speed up on the downhill and carry that energy into the next uphill. Not holding my breath on that one, though…

  1. Which started out as solar energy a long, long time ago, captured by photosynthesis, pressed underground, … our cars and bikes burn ancient sunlight



Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:13 pm

Interesting comment from ‘englishvoodoo’ on the William Gibson Board:

Funny how the illiterate kids always call those who can spell and punctuate “nerds”. I guess that’s because they come from a society where intelligence is a thing to look down on, and of course, the intelligent kids would never stoop to calling the illiterate ones who have no grasp of science or logic “retards”.

Fair comment?


Life and the Cost of Living

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:42 am

A year or a bit more ago I applied for a job at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and was shortlisted for it. We looked at houses to rent in the area, at the climate and a whole bunch of other factors, and also at jobs in Australia, and I ended up withdrawing my name from consideration for the Scottish job.

I was just thinking this morning, sitting out by the pool in the warm sunshine having breakfast, that even the smallest and simplest of the houses we looked at in Aberdeen was 1000 pounds a month, or the best part of $3000 Australian. And there are beaches there, but the water is generally about 4 oC. It’s pretty much cool or cold and rainy or drizzly the whole time, so definitely not bike climate.

I’m sure Aberdeen’s a lovely place, but at about the same salary and half the rent for a *really* nice house on an acreage with a pool, I really feel like we made the right decision in coming here.


A little gloom, a lotta doom – and some hope

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:56 pm

From Salon, a look at the strong possibility that climate change is getting a lot worse a lot faster than we expected… as well as at some of the possible solutions:


Undead Theories 2: Undeaderer

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:37 am

We had a little bit of a ‘book launch’ in our School yesterday, with each of the profs who has published a book this year showing off the book and saying a few words about it. We were each assigned 5 min to talk about our book, and I think I was the only one who stayed within that alotted time… some talked for more like 10-12 min. The book I published this year was called ‘Undead Theories’, and I’ve talked about it and quoted bits from it here before. My closing joke in the presentation was that this book was a retrospective of the first 10 years of my career, and maybe in another 10 years I can publish the sequel: “Undead Theories 2: Undeaderer”. Actually, I probably have over 20 years left in my career, so Undead 3 is not out of the question!


Making the Links

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:33 am

Helping Cassie with her homework this morning. She made a (very cute, with painted foam balls and fuzzy pipecleaners) model of a butanoic acid atom for science at school, and had to do a little report about its properties, comparing them to the properties of butane.

Butanoic acid is a liquid at room temperature and boils at 164 oC. Butane, with the same number of carbon atoms, is a gas at room temperature and pressure – it boils at -0.5 oC. If you’ve ever played with a clear disposable lighter you’ve seen liquid butane: it’s held under pressure in the ligheter which allows it to be liquified, but it turns into (flammable) gas as soon as you press the lever and let it out into the outside world.

Here’s a simple diagram of butane (top) and butanoic acid (bottom) so you can visualise what I’m on about:

All the bonds should be about the same length, except the double bond, which should be shorter than the others, and wherever there’s an empty bond you should imagine a hydrogen (H) atom on the end of it – it’d just be too cluttered if I drew them all in.

So there are two reasons for butanoic acid’s higher boiling point – a simple one and a more complicated one. The simple one is molecule size – larger molecules in general have higher boiling points, and adding two oxygen atoms (and removing two hydrogens) means butanoic acid has a molar mass of 88 while butane’s is 58.

The more complicated reason is that oxygen is more attractive to electrons (electronegative) than either carbon or hydrogen. That means that any bond (a bond is a ‘shared pair’ of electrons) that includes an oxygen will not have the electrons shared out equally – they will spend more of their time near the oxygen than near the other atom. Since electrons are negative, this means the oxygens will end up with a small negative charge, and the linked atom – in this case most importantly that hydrogen on the end of the ‘acid group’ (right hand end of the bottom molecule above) will have a slight positive charge. These charges will atract each other on the surrounding butanoic acid molecules, causing them to tend to ‘stick together’ more than the butane molecules, which don’t have these small charges (because they have no oxygen or other electronegative atoms in them).

OK, that’s pretty long-winded and technical, but what it means is that the different butanoic acid molecules tend to be attracted to each other much more strongly than different butane molecules. That in turn makes it harder (requiring more energy) to boil butanoic acid… and that’s where the linkage (which is actually my theme for this post) comes in. Cassie knew the ‘kinetic model’ of solids, liquids and gases, and the ways particles move in various states, and why it takes energy to change phase, and… but it was really only our discussion this morning that enabled her to link that up with her knowledge of bonding and elecronegativity to really understand the different properties of butanoic acid and butane.

This is one of the Big Ideas of chemistry – that what happens at the molecular level is what determines the properties we see. Good science teachers are very good at linking knowledge from different areas of the syllabus and even from different subjects, to help students understand the Big Ideas, but it’s much too easy for students to learn things by topics and topic tests, and to fail to explicitly make the links for themselves. Hopefully some of them do it spontaneously, if not in class maybe later, but it’d be great if we could find more and better ways to help students link up their knowledge.


No Sequel to ‘Khe Sanh’

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:34 am

I’m sure most Americans don’t even know, and most Australians (except the vets) have forgotten too, but Australia followed America into another misbegotten imperialist adventure turned disaster nearly 40 years ago… Vietnam.

The great song from the great Aussie band Cold Chisel talks about the experience of some of the vets:

I left my heart to the sappers round Khe Sanh
And my soul was sold with my cigarettes to the blackmarket man
I’ve had the Vietnam cold turkey
From the ocean to the Silver City
And it’s only other vets could understand

About the long forgotten dockside guarantees
How there were no V-day heroes in 1973
How we sailed into Sydney Harbour
Saw an old friend but couldn’t kiss her
She was lined, and I was home to the lucky land

And she was like so many more from that time on
Their lives were all so empty, till they found their chosen one
And their legs were often open
But their minds were always closed
And their hearts were held in fast suburban chains

And the legal pads were yellow, hours long, paypacket lean
And the telex writers clattered where the gunships once had been
But the car parks made me jumpy
And I never stopped the dreams
Or the growing need for speed and novacaine

So I worked across the country end to end
Tried to find a place to settle down, where my mixed up life could mend
Held a job on an oil-rig
Flying choppers when I could
But the nightlife nearly drove me round the bend

And I’ve travelled round the world from year to year
And each one found me aimless, one more year the more for wear
And I’ve been back to South East Asia
But the answer sure ain’t there
But I’m drifting north, to check things out again

You know the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone
Only seven flying hours, and I’ll be landing in Hong Kong
There ain’t nothing like the kisses
From a jaded Chinese princess
I’m gonna hit some Hong Kong mattress all night long

Well the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone
Yeah the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone
And it’s really got me worried
I’m goin’ nowhere and I’m in a hurry
And the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone

Soldiers who thought they signed up to defend their country but got sold out, and came back to vilification they never deserved. The American experience of returning Vietnam vets has been explored extensively, from David Morrell’s ‘First Blood’ and the Rambo movies it spawned (though only the first was on this theme) to Peter Straub’s ‘Koko’ to a number of movies. The Australian experience was pretty similar, though perhaps a bit more low-key.

But I really just hope that the Iraq vets don’t get the same treatment. Yep, the war was wrong, immoral, illegal and they should never have been there. But blame George Bush and John Howard for that, and welcome our men and women in uniform home as the heroes they are.


Happy Birthday

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:28 am

This blog is 2 years old today. Here’s the first post, from October 18, 2004. For complicated reasons to do with setting up the blog, which I can’t actually remember right now, that post was numbered as post 6. And here’s the one year anniversary post from last year.

This is post number 658. Given that there are 730 days in 2 years, and that about 100 posts were lost in a server crash, the average is still up over a post a day. If you look back across this month you’ll see I’ve got much better at staying off the computer on the weekend, so that average will likely drop, but as long as I keep having something to say, the blog will go ooonnnn (ack, get this Celine Dion out of my head!)


Debates in Education

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:42 pm

Chatting with Sue’s nephew (and my friend) Craig yesterday at a birthday party, and he was talking about how English teachers are using ‘contemporary texts’ from newspapers and other sources, including web-based, unpublished sources, in their classes, and how that is leading to reduced ability to read and write in English on the part of graduating students. I made two points to him in response to that viewpoint:

  1. In a sense it’s not the origin of the texts that’s important, but what you do with them. That is, Shakespeare can be taught by a bungler and teach the students little about language or about life, while humorous chat transcripts from bash.org can, handled skilfully, at the very least offer a ‘this is what you should not do’ lesson in English expression (and maybe something richer and stranger and more.)
  2. I personally tend to put a lot more of the blame for students’ poor English writing and expression skills on the fact that very few of them read for pleasure. It’s by reading a lot that our minds storehouses are filled with the rules of well constructed sentences, and with examples of interesting and communicative ways to write. When kids spend all their time watching TV and playing computer games, and never sit down with a novel or a non-fiction book or even a newspaper or a magazine (at least one with more words in the articles than in the ads), then it seems like blaming the kinds of texts English teachers choose is barking up the wrong tree.

I’m sure there are trendy teachers who fail to address the basics, or even who aren’t strong on them themselves, and I think there’s always a balance to be struck between teaching (and having kids practice) basic skills versus more creative approaches that draw on their own interests. But this is one of the problems with ascribing credit and blame for achievements on the part of students: what influences are there, in addition to what happens in school? And can schools be expected to ‘fix’ all the ills of society and address all the needs of society?

Radical changes to the curriculum that drag us ‘back to basics’ and turn schooling into a regime that’s mostly about preparing for the ‘accountability’ of standardised tests don’t seem to me to be well calculated to actually yield the desired results. Convincing parents to read to and with their kids, and to set an example by reading for pleasure themselves, is much, much more difficult – but much, much more likely to be effective.


Hacker Haiku

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:04 am

A new poetic form I’ve been playing with a bit. The first one I wrote both illustrates and explains the form:

Then two
Four syllables
And the next line needs at least eight
Themes and topics can be various, but things cyber are welcome
Rather than get impossible
Reduce power
Back to

The line lengths go 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1 syllables: hackers among you will realise that this is the sequence 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 23, 22, 21, 20… which explains the reference in the first one to ‘Reduce power/Back to/Zero’.

Here’s the second, which is more of a poem:

Steel thumb
Whirred slowly, sure
Counting each syllable, cadence
Monotonously creating art (or artifice). But ??
Cure for exceeded moduli
Stress fracturing
A steel

(∼∃ means ‘there does not exist’, but needs to be read as ‘not exist’ for the count to work!)

Yes, as a matter of fact I am a hopeless geek!


Kim Jong Il, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Sanity

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:25 am

It’s tempting – very tempting – to treat those who are opposing us as though they are insane and completely unpredictable. Their motivations are painted either as psychoses or as some form of near-psychotic fundamentalist mania. And it’s true that Kim in particular does some very bizarre things by anyone’s standards. The recent nuclear weapon tests seem to fall into that same category, and people ask what he gains from them.

But it seems to me that genuinely psychotic people aren’t running major governments, they’re mumbling homeless on street corners. That is, they’re not together enough to be much of a threat to anyone, except perhaps in a one-on-one attack. I’m certainly no expert on mental illness, and I realise that some of these people could be psychopathic or sociopathic without being psychotic.

Of course, there’s the medical but there’s also the theological: ‘they do it because they’re evil’. This can shade into racism/ethnocentrism: ‘they do it because those kind of people are inherently evil’ or ‘they do it because their culture/religion is evil’, or it can be ‘they do it because they’re demon possessed, or in league with the devil’.

But I think it’s much more likely that they’re just humans, sane humans (albeit ones on whom very few limits are placed by those around them, which is unhealthy for anyone). Their motivations are different from our own, but they are comprehensible to us, if we’re willing to make the imaginative effort to try to understand. Here’s something I wrote yesterday to try to explain Kim’s actions:

A 6’5″, 250 pound guy with a long history of violence has publicly circulated a ‘hit list’ of his enemies, with only 3 names on it, and repeatedly threatened them. Then one of the other two people on the list is brutally attacked, and is on life support, fighting for his life. Don’t you think you might buy a gun?

This is not some sort of bleeding-heart screed calling for ‘understanding’ of these guys that means we excuse their crimes and excesses: even if you understand someone’s motives, sometimes it’s essential to stop them from carrying out their plans. But the approach of just treating them as dangerous, unpredictable psychos boils down to an approach where we send the men in the white coats (or blue helmets) to try to sedate them and lock them up every time… and that’s not working so well.

It is possible to negotiate with people like Saddam and Kim and Ahmadinejad… and to treat people like Osama as the criminals they are. In particular, national leaders, even dictators, can be dealt with by understanding their motivations and finding solutions that work. And bullying doesn’t get the job done, as both Iran and North Korea show.

Oh, one other thought – those of us on the left will get further by thinking in the same way about Bush and his ilk: not evil, not crazy, just humans with particular, understandable motives. Doesn’t mean they’re good motives… the recent documentary ‘Iraq for Sale’ and a friends .sig line that says ‘Bush is in charge, let the looting begin’ are nice examples of people who understand the goals. But it still seems to me important to think about peoples’ reasons for doing what they do, rather than just ascribe them to some kind of mania or other.


Passing on passing it on

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:49 pm

As I was riding to work this morning the words of an old Christian song from my youth were running through my head:

That’s how it is with God’s love;
Once you’ve experienced it, you want to sing
It’s fresh like spring, you want to pass it on.

I dunno – I just don’t find it’s that way for me. Maybe I haven’t experienced God’s love in such a way that I want to pass it on. I just don’t know.

I understand the idea that love is more powerful than selfishness, and I try to live it out in my life, but Christianity itself – which is what we’re often urged to pass on, and measured in terms of by other believers – doesn’t feel ‘fresh like spring’ to me. It feels stale and tired and wrapped up in guilt and dissatisfaction and ridiculous conflicts about things like jewellery and Sabbath-keeping and rules and self-righteousness and judgement and…. Not to mention that Christianity seems inextricably tied in with the worst excesses of capitalism, xenophobia and militarism.

I guess we can think and talk about stripping all that stuff away and getting to the essence… but part of the problem is that a lot of that stuff is in the Bible too, so then you get into all the arguments about literal interpretation and so on…

In the final analysis, what I tend to pass on – to speak about and try to share by example – is two things: the notion of love as the antidote to fear and to selfishness, and a certain kind of socialism that seems to me (but apparently to few other Christians) to be the natural consequences of loving our neighbours as we do ourselves.


The Sensible Centre

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:35 am

Australia’s Education Minister, Julie Bishop, in a speech late last week, talked about how (she claimed) school curricula around Australia have been ‘hijacked’ by leftist ideologues in state education departments. She said Australia should have a nationally mandated curriculum, designed by a panel of educators from the ‘sensible centre’, appointed by the federal government.

This is that federal government that forced an ideologue who denies the ways in which Aboriginal people were massacred in Australia’s past onto the board of the national broadcaster. Their definition of the ‘sensible centre’ is very likely to be ‘to the right of Atilla The Hun’. Scary stuff, scary times.


The Institutionalised Inefficiencies of Competition

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:58 am

It happened in Canada too, but it seems to be much more prevalent in Australia, or at least at UQ1. What I’m talking about is the process of applying for competitive funding. I’ve been doing a lot of research grant applications lately, and that’s kind of something I expect – the public pays for university research, and has some right to expect that the funds will be directed to the best researchers, working on the most relevant and productive research projects. The process of applying for a grant also forces me to really think through the project in detail and have a very clear understanding of it as well as how it fits with other research that’s been done. So application – and competition – for research funding is OK, even if the applications end up becoming incredibly bureaucratic and massively time consuming in terms of pulling together teams, getting documentation, getting signatures, making multiple copies and handing them in.

But I’ve also been involved in a number of funding applications and competitions for things like refurbishing the science labs in our building and providing extra scientific apparatus, and just for fitting out a room in which we can teach some science because there are tiles rather than carpet on the floor and a couple of sinks.

These applications take a huge amount of time, with no assurance of success and funding… and the trend is to do more and more of them, rather than to simply fund the necessary infrastructure to allow us to do our jobs. I can see it as a law of diminishing returns – more and more work time going into applying for funding to do our work means less and less time actually doing the work… until eventually all our time is about the funds and none is about the work of teaching and research. It’s the application of a particular ideology and a particular model – ostensibly from business, but I think most businesses that are successful go at it much more sensibly – in a field where it really doesn’t apply well.

  1. I shouldn’t generalise to all of Canada from Alberta, which is much wealthier due to its oil. I actually feel safer generalising about Australia, but realise that UQ is actually a lot wealthier than many other universities, so the trends I’m seeing are probably worse in other places if anything.



Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:47 am

The unfinished ‘stereotypes’ post has kinda been holding me up from posting anything new. Will go back and finish that off now, then post a couple from the past few days, so please read back a bit… Then regular service should be resumed.


The Return Of ‘The Nuggery’

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:48 am

When my friend Paul stopped blogging a while ago, I think I may have said something along the lines of ‘you’ll be back’. So his e-mail to me today said: “Dave, I hate it when you’re right. I was hit with a fresh wave of inspiration for blogging, so the Nuggery is back up and running. Thanks again for your frustrating unfailing wisdom and foresight.”

Not so sure about the ‘unfailing’, but Paul is back in business at http://nuggery.blogspot.com/, and I highly recommend his stuff to you. Added the link back in the blogroll on the right too.


Celebrities I (apparently) look like

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:53 pm

I got this from the fact that Lorne did his and linked it. You can do yours by clicking on mine. I think Suzie will be pleased to know she’s married to a guy who looks like Jude Law. 😉

Edit: D’oh, Jude is not one of the Top Eight. Oh well, Jensen Ackles, maybe.

From top left to bottom right: Robin Williams, some pretty boy whose name I can’t recall, Jason Alexander (George from Seinfeld), Jack Dempsey, Jack Osbourne, the lovely Amish Patel, Jensen Ackles (from Dark Angel among other places) and singer Robbie Williams.



Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:23 am

My younger brother Paul preached the sermon at church yesterday, and did a fantastic job. He used an anology from mathematics about how ellipses have two focal points and circles have one to make some sophisticated points about balance in life and in faith. He used a lot of scripture as well as some Ellen White (an early Seventh-day Adventist leader) and even quoted from SDA rule books.

The sermon was in many ways a throwback to older styles, rather than more modern approaches that concentrate more on humour, story-telling and a more simple (or possibly simplistic) approach. At the same time it was very compelling, and had everyone from my usually very bored daughters to the 80 year olds in the congregation listening raptly for 40 minutes or so.

It comes down to something I’ve been thinking about for a while in relation to church: in many ways there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the ‘old way’ of doing things – and in fact it had many strengths and things to recommend it. It was just often done incompetently and without skill or care. Moving to more ‘contemporary’ approaches in preaching as well as in music and other parts of the worship service will lead to nothing good if they are similarly executed without skill and care.

Paul is an excellent speaker and communicator, prepared massively for his sermon, knows his Bible and other sources back to front and inside out so that he can use them knowledgably, and is thoughtful. His presentation was passionate and engaged, and balanced emotional exhortation with intellectual challenge (which was good because that’s one of the forms of balance he said was important!) It was connected with everyday life in very practical ways.

Church is one context where this plays out, but I think it’s true in a number of areas: we change something radically, not because the fundamentals are broken, but because there is a lack of skill and commitment in the execution. Better maybe to do it better than to do it differently – or at least to have that option on the table.