Tuesday, December 30, 2008

FSM bless Us, Every One!

At this time of year I always indulge in a viewing of A Muppet Christmas Carol, at least once, and often any other version of the delightful workings of Mr Dickens' original story. This year saw my discovery of a recent British version, featuring the thuggish Ross Kemp as a loan shark on a London housing estate. I watched it three times, forcing different family members to sit with me each time.

This may seem a bit strange to those of you who have to deal with my usual "Bah! Humbug" attitude to Christmas with all of its modern trappings, but I will defend myself (of course). It is not the notion of a Christian Christmas that Dickens and I want to espouse, but the spirit of the season--the idea that every human being has intrinsic value; that every person has something to give, from the little drummer boy to the most exalted saint. This is the basic philosophy of humanism:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
which is the opening sentence of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (my emphasis).

Here in Australia, the government's response to the current global economic crisis included a one-time cash payment of $1000 per child to every family earning less than a certain income threshold.* The government encouraged families to spend this money on goods and services in the lead-up to Christmas, with the idea of boosting the economy.

I have found the Scrooge-like reactions appalling. One relative, who will remain nameless, complained that her family did not qualify for the payment because their household income was too high: "It sends the wrong message," she said, "to single mothers with five children by six different fathers, who think they can just go out and have more children and the government will give them more money." (That's a loose approximation, not a direct quote, but you get the gist.) "While hardworking people like us get nothing to help with our two mortgages and cable television subscriptions and air-conditioning repairs," she continued in the same vein. In my mind, I could hear Scrooge: "My taxes pay for the poorhouses and prisons, let them go there!"

There have been numerous news stories about families hit by the economic crisis. Last night, a family of four on the television news were shown sitting in front of their widescreen television and wondering how they were going to afford holidays next year when their mortgage payments go up. The other day a couple in the newspaper complained because it was becoming too expensive for her to drive their 4WD from the inner city to the outer suburbs four times a week to visit an elderly parent, while he claimed he had tried taking public transport to the movies instead of driving, "but it is so annoying because sometimes I have to wait for a train". I just want to grab these people by the shoulders and shake them, while shouting, "You are not poor! These are not sacrifices!"

I think it's partly the media's fault for encouraging the whingeing. It doesn't sell newspapers if you have headlines saying, "Poor people still unaffected by mortgage rate rises" or "Tax breaks no help for chronically unemployed" or "Pensioner spends government handout on food and clothing".

As the old year passes and a new one begins, I will be making a resolution to "honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year." I will be thankful for what I have, seek opportunities to share it with those less fortunate, and look for the unique gifts that every person in society can offer. I hope you will too.

* Disclaimer: we didn't qualify for the payment because we earn too much, a fact which makes me both proud and humble.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Missing child

You know how you always get those emails about missing kids but it turns out that they're not missing at all or the information is several decades old...

Well, I know this one is real. In fact, the father of the missing four-year-old is one of His Honour's colleagues. Our local news media has recently run the story and I have a copy of the court order allowing the publication of the information.

Please look at this website and, wherever you are in the world, look for the mother and child. It is thought they may be in Europe, as they were last seen in Germany.

Note that you are asked not to approach them if you see them, but to contact the Australian Federal Police.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Imperial America

So, I'm reading Death from the Skies, and I come to this footnote (page 142):

* Just to be clear, mass and weight are different. Mass is a property of matter; you can think of it as how much matter there is, and we measure it in grams or kilograms. Weight is the force of gravity on that mass, and we measure it in pounds. A cannonball has the same mass whether it's on the Earth or the Moon, but on the Moon it weighs one-sixth as much because gravity is one-sixth as strong; on the Earth 1 kilogram equals 2.2 pounds, but on the Moon it weighs about 0.36 pound.
I wish to argue this point with my American friends (and that means you, Farmer Pete). The distinction between mass and weight is valid, but you noodles must remember that you guys are just about the only ones in the world who measure weight in weird, old-fashioned units, such as pounds and slugs.

The way Phil has put it is confusing to those of us in the real (read: rest of the) world, where mass is measured in kilograms and weight is commonly measured in kilograms. For instance, in Australia, 1 kilogram of mass equals 1 kilogram of weight. Except perhaps at the top of Mount Kosciuszko, where it might weigh just a little more, or at Lake Eyre, where it would weigh a smidgeon less, but probably not enough to tip even the finest calibration of kitchen scales.

Furthermore, to be really technical, weight is a measure of the force of gravity on the mass of an object (weight = mass x acceleration, for those of you who can't recall high school physics) and it is actually measured in newtons, the SI unit of force. 1 newton is, appropriately, approximately the weight of a small apple at the Earth's surface -- 102g -- and therefore the weight of 1 kilogram at the surface of the Earth is 9.8 newtons, and on the moon, 1.63 newtons.

I raise this point--not as a criticism of Dr Plait's book or his reasoning, which is otherwise entertaining and excellent--but only because that small footnote cost me a couple of hours of brain strain and kept His Honour, AFSM, awake for at least half an hour while I bent his ear about it in bed. The text above is a distilled version of my research and reasoning that I hope will save you the same brain strain when you read the book. Which you should, because it's a great read.

I also wouldn't mind if it alerted some of our US friends that they are about two centuries behind the rest of the world when it comes to a sensible system of weights and measures, and they shouldn't just assume that "we measure it in pounds" when they are writing for an international audience.

On another astronomical note, the Hair Dude and I went to see "Time Warp", a show about space, time and magic with Dr Fred Watson from the Anglo-Australian Observatory and Matt Hollywood, magician. It was entertaining and informative, and the Hair Dude got his copy of Why is Uranus Upside Down? autographed by the star himself. I'll bet Dr Watson doesn't fool around with pounds and slugs in that book, but I'll let you know when we've read it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Last night this gorgeous sunset greeted me when I trudged up the hill with my camera. I was so annoyed! Why?

Because it was blocking my view of a celestial phenomenon that won't happen again for 18 years! I hung around for a while in the hope that the wind might blow the clouds away, but unfortunately it only seemed to be blowing them in. The following (digitally enhanced) shot is the best I was able to get through a thin patch of cloud. At least the three players (the moon, Venus at the top of the frame and Jupiter, faintly on the right) are visible, if not clear.

The one good thing about the night was that I discovered an amazing viewing spot for future use, with 180-degree views to the western horizon. And no, I'm not telling you where it is.

Maison Martin Margiella

I want to shop at this store. When am I going to Paris?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Grumpy old lady rant

Last night I went to the Sydney Opera House to see Sting and Edin Karamazov perform the beautiful Elizabethan lute music from the album Songs from the Labyrinth. I bought the album when it came out last year and loved the arrangements of John Dowland's music, so I was pleased that I managed to snaffle one of the last seats in the Concert Hall for this one-night concert. When I rang the box office to book, they made a point of asking if I was aware that this was not Sting doing his own music, I suppose to avoid disappointed fans.
Nevertheless, the audience on the night was fairly obviously not made up of regular Opera House patrons, judging by the number who had difficulty figuring out where their seats were and exhibiting the following annoying behaviours:
1. Flash photography in the Concert Hall. As if it's not bad enough that they ignore the signs on the foyer walls and the instructions on the back of the tickets, there was an announcement before the start of the concert asking patrons to turn off their mobile phones and refrain from photography -- and the key words are "for the enjoyment of other patrons". Despite all this, in a very dark concert hall with only low spotlights on Sting and Edin, bright camera flashes went off intermittently all night, even during the songs! Apart from the strain it was putting on my retinae, what kind of photos did they think they were going to get anyway? Dim, blurry pictures of two blokes on a dark stage -- the flash doesn't even reach that far. And what is it about Generation Y that they have to have photographs of themselves at every possible occasion? Are they afraid they'll forget where they've been?
2. Mobile phones. Not only did someone's alarm go off during the concert, but in the dark auditorium it was easy to see the subtle blue glow every time someone checked their phone for messages. Again, what is it about Generation Y that they can't even go for an hour and a half without being in touch with their absent friends -- during a concert, for god's sake?
3. People who, despite the box office warning, only came to hear Sting sing his own music. When they had worked through the Songs from the Labyrinth/John Dowland material, the performers left the stage. I expected an encore, because they had not played the lute version of "Fields of Gold" from the album, for example. But some people chose to leave at this point, as is their right. When Sting and Edin returned to the stage, they played some beautiful Elgar, some folky Vaughan Williams, then "Fields of Gold" and a haunting version of "SOS". The latter two songs gained more applause than any other songs in the whole concert. One guy in front of me commented to his friend, "Those people who left before he played his own stuff will be pissed off if they find out." I wanted to smack him in the back of the head and say, "Maybe they actually came to hear the Elizabethan lute music that was the main reason for the show, dumbarse." And here's another Generation Y complaint: did they really pay $140 each to come to an Elizabethan lute concert on the off chance that Sting might play a couple of modern tunes? They do have more money than sense!
Phew, now that I have that off my chest, I'm off to listen to Songs from the Labyrinth again, now with memories of an exquisite live performance to enrich the experience. Sting was absolutely charming, Edin was a lute genius, Stile Antico were brilliant (when they came on stage, Sting said, "These aren't my children, although they're the same age" -- so perhaps there is some hope for Gen Y after all). Slava Grigoryan, David Berlin and Allan Zavod were the support act, playing evocative impressionist-style compositions arranged for guitar, cello and piano. All-in-all, it was a memorable and marvellous concert.