January 31, 2005
What I Did On the Weekend
Sorry for the hiatus. Apparently, I'm a lazy, lazy man. I could claim my mind's a blank as a result of having a pointless day-and-a-half argument with one of my favourite bloggers, but really - I'm a lazy, lazy man. And I spent Saturday at WaveAid, sweltering in the pitiless Australian sun, as a collection of sterling local muso's played me (yeah, and 49,999 other people) a bunch of great songs. Well, except for Kasey Chambers' "Am I Not Pretty Enough?", a song which always brings back painful memories of hearing that song. OK, that's mean - she was there for charity, after all. It's just a shame she only plays both kinds of music and I've never particularly liked either.
It was, as my friend Agador* remarked, interesting to contrast the pleasant but rather forgettable noodlings of many of the performers in the earlier part of the day with the music of the Finn Brothers, who came on and stamped their mark on the proceedings with some honest-to-God tunes. To be fair to everyone else, however good you are (which reminds me - memo to self: buy Pete Murray albums), it's difficult to measure up to the craftmanship of an opener like "Weather With You", the first song of the day nearly all the audience could sing without help of accompaniment. There followed a set of incomparable pop anthems each one more than capable of blowing the top off the Old Grey Whistler's head.
Oh yes, it was a great day, appropriately finished off with a pounding swan-song from the greatest pub band ever, fronted by Agador's Federal MP. (What a strange country I live in.) And who, as they said in the Herald this morning, would have thought all those kids would know the words to rock standards now (oh my gawd) twenty-two years old? Well, anyone who understands how recording works, but that's besides the point. The Oils will never die, my son!
First time I've ever seen them live, by the way.
And then Chuggy** came out and swore at us a bit more, and told everyone how great they were, and we all went home. In my case, on foot. I really have to stop thinking I'm still twenty.
Couple of points: the Sydney Cricket Ground isn't really a great summer rock venue, as one would expect in a place where you have to careful with the grass. The plastic griddle-mats laid down to protect the turf got bloody hot in the sun, and people were ripping them up to build little plinths with, anyway. The real problem was access. Either bulldoze a few more entrances into the place or rethink the ticketing arrangements. Yes, yes, I' realise this was a last-minute once-off, I'm just saying, for future reference.
Of course, getting in and out, and to and from the amenities, wouldn't have been so much of a problem if you hadn't had needed to force your way through all the idiots seeking, buying and drinking beer. It was one of the hottest days of the year, you pillocks, the last thing you needed in your system was alcohol. Could this country just bloody grow up and stop being such a pack of fecking dipsos?
But these are minor quibbles.
On Sunday, I recovered.
* Not his real name.
** Rock promoter Michael Chugg, the magnificent bastard who put it all together.
January 24, 2005
It's Really More About the Vibe...
President Bush's inaugural vow to spread freedom and stand with the oppressed against tyranny was not meant to signal a shift in U.S. foreign policy but to elaborate on a long-term goal, a senior U.S. official said on Saturday.
Bush's second inaugural address on Thursday raised questions about what measures he might use to bring about his vision of freedom.
Some experts wondered if it would cause strains with nondemocratic allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan or alter the U.S. relationship with Russia amid Washington's concerns the country is backtracking on democratic reforms.
"The speech builds upon our policy," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It states very clearly the long-term goal we should always be working to achieve."
The official said there was a recognition that not all countries would be ready to embrace freedom and that furthering the goal would sometimes involve quiet diplomacy.
January 22, 2005
John L. Hess
Sad news. John L. Hess, former New York Times journo, WBAI commentator and one of my favourite bloggers, has died.
Here's the announcement from WBAI with links to some of his commentaries, and an obituary from Counterpunch.
January 20, 2005
Pray, Mr Babbage
I found the intriguing extract below in Babbage's Intelligence by Simon Schaffer. The article is mainly about how Babbage's theories fit in with the development of Victorian machinofacture and the alienation of labour consequent on the emergence of industrial capitalism, so I wouldn't recommend you read the whole thing unless you are particularly interested in such matters, but these paragraphs on the Difference Engine and Babbage's notion of the miraculous caught my eye:
It was, perhaps, inevitable that Babbage should ultimately teach the supreme value of machines possessed of foresight and memory by attributing these powers to the Deity. Natural theology was the indispensable medium through which early Victorian savants broadcast their messages. The dominant texts of this genre were the Bridgewater Treatises produced in the early 1830s by eminent divines and natural philosophers under the management of the Royal Society's presidency. The treatise produced by William Whewell, then mathematics tutor at Trinity College Cambridge, was among the most successful of these works and included a claim about the relation between mathematics, automatism and atheism which Babbage decided he had to answer. His machine philosophy was here assailed from a perspective in complete contrast to those of the radical artisans. Whewell, a moderate evangelical and follower of Coleridgean politics, argued that whereas the great scientific discoverers were men of faith, because their acts of induction would inevitably prompt them to identify divine intelligence in the creation, mathematical deductivists might falsely hold that the laws of the world could be spun out by analysis and that the world itself might seem to be an automatic system. Whewell maintained a consistent hostility to the implications of mechanised analysis: "we may thus deny to the mechanical philosophers and mathematicians of recent times any authority with regard to their views of the administration of the Universe". Worse was to follow. Whewell brutally denied that mechanised analytical calculation was proper to the formation of the clerisy. In classical geometry "we tread the ground ourselves at every step feeling ourselves firm" but in machine analysis "we are carried along as in a railroad carriage, entering it at one station and coming out of it at another.....it is plain that the latter is not a mode of exercising our own locomotive powers...It may be the best way for men of business to travel but it cannot fitly be made a part of the gymnastics of education". Unsurprisingly, I thought of this:
These remarks were direct blows to Babbage's programme. He called the reply to Whewell he produced in 1837 the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise and labelled it "a fragment". It contained a series of sketches of his religious faith, his cosmology and his ambitions for the calculating engines. It amounted to a confession of his faith that the established clerisy was incompetent, dangerous and innumerate. Babbage had shown that memory and foresight were the two features of intelligence represented in his machines. He now showed, using resources from his calculating engines and from Hume's notorious critique of miracles and revelation, that these features of machine intelligence were all that was needed to understand and model the rule of God, whether based on the miraculous work of the Supreme Intelligence or on His promise of an afterlife. "Foresight" could be shown to be responsible for all apparently miraculous and specially providential events in nature. Throughout the 1830s Babbage regaled his guests with a portentous party trick. He could set the machine to print a series of integers from unity to one million. Any observer of the machine's output would assume that this series would continue indefinitely. But the initial setting of the machine could be adjusted so that at a certain point the machine would then advance in steps of ten thousand. An indefinite number of different rules might be set this way. To the observer, each discontinuity would seem to be a "miracle", an event unpredictable from the apparent law-like course of the machine. Yet in fact the manager of the system would have given it foresight. Whewell's Bridgewater Treatise appeared at the start of March 1833. Less than two months later Babbage had already worked out an experiment using the Difference Engine to print the series of even integers up to ten thousand and then increase each term in steps of three. The sudden discontinuity was both predictable to the analyst and yet surprising to the audience. Babbage drew the analogy with divine foresight, whether in the production of new species or in miraculous intervention. In May 1833, therefore, Babbage was ready to show a mechanical miracle.
His onlookers were almost always impressed. The dour Thomas Carlyle was predictably sceptical, and thundered his complaint about Babbage's analogy between thought and steam power. But as early as June 1833 Lady Byron and her daughter "both went to see the thinking machine (for such it seems) and were treated to Babbage's miraculous show of apparently sudden breaks in its output. "There was a sublimity in the views thus opened of the ultimate results of intellectual power", she reported. Two years later George Ticknor was treated to a lecture of three hours on the topic of programmed discontinuities: "the whole, of course, seems incomprehensible, without the exercise of volition and thought". Here, then, was the theological equivalent of the systematic gaze. In answer to Whewell's boast that only induction might reveal the divine plan of the world, and that machine analysis could never do so, Babbage countered that the world could be represented as an automatic array only visible as a system from the point of view of its manager. The world-system was a macroscopic version of a factory, the philosophy of machinery the true path to faith, and the calculating engines' power of "volition and thought" demonstrated to all.
The mechanical metaphor for miracles, creations and extinctions was, of course, profoundly influential on the actualist naturalists among Babbage's friends, including Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin. In the Ninth Treatise Babbage reproduced his own views on crustal elevation and stratigraphy and two crucial letters from John Herschel on the uniformity of earth history and the production of life. He sent copies to figures of political eminence, including both the new Queen Victoria and the Piedmontese premier Cavour. He also sent the text to the gentlemen of science. Lyell predicted that "some people would not like any reasoning which made miracles more reconcilable with possibilities in the ordinary course of the Universe", while the American mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch told Babbage that "when you carried me from the simple machine made by a man to the grand machine of the Universe I wish I could express to you one half of the enthusiasm I felt....I want no priestcraft, but I want high feelings always to exist in men's minds in regard to God".
On two occasions I have been asked, 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.Recognising that the behaviour of the Difference Engine is the natural consequence of its structure and settings and nothing else, Babbage's preprogrammed miracles are merely an artifact of the audience's ignorance of the rules that ordained the event. With Babbage's approach, there is no reason, necessarily, the rules behind other miracles should be no less learnable. Babbage's problem in reconciling a machine universe with miracles remains unchanged - if there are rules, there need not be God.
January 19, 2005
For no reason at all, here's a selection of links to Tom Lehrer related material:
Interview with Paul Lehrman 1997
Interview in the SF Weekly 2000 - Page 2 seems to missing, and the piece takes an inordinately long time to stop talking about Greg Proops
Interview in the Onion AV Club 2000
Interview in the Sydney Morning Herald 2003 Hopefully to access the article you won't be required to provide photo ID and have your hard-drive engorged with cookies
Entry in St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture
Entry in Wikipedia I wonder how long this bit will survive community editing:
Fans of rapper Eminem have also noted some similarities in Em's style to that of Lehrer. The style comparison is best evidenced on Em's South Park parody "The Kids" with its piano backing, clever use of syntax and off-beat rhyming, and even references to torturing small animals similar to that of Lehrer's notorious "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park".Heh
Compendium Page: "Bright Tom Lehrer Days"
Flash Animation of Lehrer's Song "The Elements"
Site about Tomfoolery, the 1980 revue based on Lehrer's work
January 13, 2005
Blockbuster video conducted one of those non-polls over the Christmas period and ascertained that the funniest scene in cinema history is Reg's "What have the Romans ever done for us?" rant from Life of Brian. Given some of the more unpleasant examples of religious craziness distilled by recent tragic events in Asia, I found it almost nostalgic to recall the comparatively benign offense taken at this film and it's allegedly blasphemous content all those years ago.
Anyone who knows the film well realises that its chief satirical targets were not the religious so much as lefties, with all our least endearing traits - sectarianism, empty gestures, endless deliberation - all deservedly lampooned. The film made fun of feminism and identity politics, and it's not too much of a stretch to take the sketch mentioned above as a swipe at anti-colonialism, not that I'd want to argue the Pythons injected that subtext deliberately (although... they were all members of a generation old enough to watch their own country lose an empire of its own - no, no, that way madness lies!) Nevertheless, the religious griping took the limelight, unsurprisingly given the film's setting, and what with what was potentially the most controversial scene wisely jettisoned, known only to those who bought the published script.
Robert Hewison's interesting little book Monty Python: the Case Against details the backlash against the film, and the attempts to suppress it. While pointing up some of the more absurd aspects of Britain's common law provisions on blasphemous libel (legal precedent suggests it's a bad idea to compare Christ to a "conjuror"), the book demonstrates that the essential problem with censorship is the subjective nature of interpretation. For example, the book reproduces an extract from a speech by Roger Fulton, pastor of the Neighbourhood Church in New York, (unfortunately only the first page) detailing what he considered objectionable about the film. The first item was always my favourite, clearly showing the Rev. Fulton understood the value of leading with your strongest gag:
The mother of Messiah (Brian) is a man in woman's clothing, in direct violation of the Holy Scriptures.I guess we couldn't expect a New York fundamentalist to be familiar in 1979 with the well-established British cultural tradition of drag, but you have to wonder how Fulton confused casting a man as a woman with the notion the character was intended to be a transvestite (which means Fulton's understanding of Terry Jones' performance in the stoning sketch was that he was a man playing a man playing a woman playing a man). But I've always liked the phrase "in direct violation of the Holy Scriptures"; it's important to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's, and who knows how many members of Fulton's audience would not have known the Biblical account makes that clear. It's just possible Fulton was referring to the Biblical prohibition on cross-dressing - OK, no, it isn't but I'm looking for a closer.
At the time these people seemed beyond the pale, with their cinema protests and their friendly suburban book-burnings; but compared to the present mob, they look like a harmless joke. I have a hideous feeling that's my only point. Aren't you glad you stopped by?