Friday, 27 January 2012

Favourite Things

I follow the blog Life Of An Architect among others, and recently an occasional guest poster, Scott Taylor, decided to introduce himself by providing a list of his favourite things. You can find his complete list here:

Scott Taylor

If you don't want to follow the link, here is a summary:

Favourite Furniture: Eames Chair And Ottoman
Favourite Pen: Paper Mate medium
Favourite Designer Item: Eames Plywood Leg Splint
Favourite Car: BMW 2002
Favourite Poster: Lebowski Fest, 'Richard Nixon Bowling' by Shepard Fairey
Favourite Architect: Carlo Scarpa

The blog owner, Bob Borson, decided to respond by posting his own list of favourite things, largely but not completely following the schema provided by Scott:

Bob Borson

If you don't want to follow the link, here is a summary:

Favourite Furniture: Eames plastic chair with eiffel base
Favourite Pen: Sharpie Ultra Fine Point
Favourite Deserted Island Food: Egg Rolls
Favourite Car: 1969 Jaguar XKE II Sof Top
Favourite Poster: 1934 Guinness "Guinness Is Good For You"
Favourite Movie: Raising Arizona
Favourite Architect: Bob couldn't decide

The favourite Deserted Island Food needs some explanation: when you are washed up on this deserted island, you discover it has a magical machine that delivers a plate of your favourite food whenever you want. The problem is you select the food to begin with, and then that is all you can have. So what is the food that you would be prepared to eat day in, day out?

So I decided I would post my list of favourite things here, again following the schema set by Scott but deviating a little.

Favourite Furniture

As it happens, I own my favourite furniture but I couldn't decide on just one, so here's all of them:

Eames Chair And Ottoman

You got that one right, Scott, and they not only look terrific, they are really comfortable too.

Parsons Table

Named for the Parsons New School of Design, it was actually designed by Jean-Michel Frank at the Paris Atelier (the Paris branch of the Parsons School) in the 1930's. The point of the design is that the rails supporting the top are the same face dimension as the legs, which are square. I have two - a coffee table and, more importantly, a dining table that I made myself. Due to a slight confusion as to what was a saw guide clamp line and what was a cutting line the table is not exactly the size I originally planned, being more square. Both tables are black.

Breuer Cesca Chair

Six of them go with my dining table.

Carlo Bartoli Storm Chair

Mine are black and go with my family room table, which is about to be replaced with another table I will build myself as soon as I discover a suitable flitch of timber for the top.

Favourite Pen

Rotring Tikky in 0.2mm, 0.5mm and 0.8mm. Well, that's what I have, anyway.

Favourite Deserted Island Food

Steamed Mussels With Crusty Bread. I cook these with chilli, onion, garlic and white wine (half in the pot, half in me) as often as I can.

Favourite Car

Couldn't decide, so here are two.

1969 Jaguar XKE II, the soft top version. You got that one right, Bob.

1967 Lamborghini Miura. Words fail me. I came close to tears when one was shoved off a cliff in the original version of The Italian Job.

Favourite Movie

Alien by Ridley Scott, Director, 1979

I saw this more than a dozen times at the theatre, and watched it another half-dozen times once I bought the DVD.

Favourite Architect

Casa Mila (La Pedrera) by Antonio Gaudi, 1910.

I could have used almost anything by Gaudi as a representative image. I can imitate the work of many architects as a design exercise, but Gaudi is beyond me.

Favourite Motorcycle

2009 Kawasaki Z750.

Mine is a slightly darker blue and a lot dirtier, but otherwise identical.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Technological Singularity

The Singularity, as it is sometimes called, is that moment when machine intelligence exceeds human intelligence for the first time. I quote Wikipedia here:

" Technological singularity refers to the hypothetical future emergence of greater-than-human intelligence through technological means, very probably resulting in explosive superintelligence. Since the capabilities of such intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the occurrence of a technological singularity is seen as an intellectual event horizon, beyond which the future becomes difficult to understand or predict. Proponents of the singularity typically state an "intelligence explosion" is a key factor of the Singularity where superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds.

" The term was coined by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity. The concept is popularized by futurists like Ray Kurzweil and Terence McKenna and it is expected by proponents to occur sometime in the 21st century, although estimates do vary. "

You can read the whole Wikipedia article here:


Now Ray Kurzweil has been forecasting that The Singularity will occur in 2045, but recently I've started to wonder if it might not happen sooner. Here's why.

Recently I had dinner with some very nice people, and the conversation turned to politics, as it sometimes does, and in reference to Tony Blabalot, one person said, dismissively, "Oh, Mr Budgie-Smugglers." I might have been in a contrary mood, I don't say I wasn't, and I immediately asserted it was 'Budgie-Snugglers'. Everybody derided this, and one person immediately jumped to a Internet-connected laptop nearby (not his own) and looked it up in Wikipedia, to confirm that it is indeed 'smugglers' not 'snugglers'.

So what could have occupied several people for several days as they phoned their friends and relatives trying to get a consensus was suffocated at birth. OK, fine, I was wrong (I kind of suspected I might have been) but it was interesting. First, Wikipedia had an entry and it was definitive; I mean, the bloody expression wouldn't have got past the front gate of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Second, his immediate response to the debate was to find a nearby Internet connected computer and refer to Wikipedia. If he had a smart 'phone he would have used that. Effectively, instead of cluttering his brain with facts, he was happy to refer to Wikipedia's 'memory'.

Is it really going to take another 33 years to achieve a kind of brain-computer interface that can look up Wikipedia just by thinking about it? I can't believe that. In terms of the brain-computer interface Verner Vinge was originally talking about, I think we could get there by 2020 if not sooner. Worth thinking about.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Comments On This Blog

Some people who have tried to post comments on this blog have reported that they can neither see comments from others nor their own. I cannot post comments myself using Firefox or IE8 (the comment form appears but the comment is not saved), but if I use Google Chrome it works just fine, and others have reported the same thing. And one of my followers has reported they never get notified when there is a new post, even though that is exactly what being a follower means.

All very weird.

Some of these problems emerged after I turned off comment moderation, so I've turned it back on, and now invite anyone reading this to try and post a comment. It doesn't matter what you say because all of this is going to be deleted shortly, so feel free to say what you really think :-)

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

A Tale Of Two Books: Part 2

The second book was published a little earlier, in 1972: The Limits To Growth, attrib. to Donella H. Meadows and others, collectively reporting as the Club of Rome. The book was a report on the outcome of a series of models of the possible future state of the planet, given a variety of input conditions and a variety of assumptions about growth. The models were run in a computer program developed at MIT called World3.

The results were depressing enough in 1972: in the majority of models, human society collapsed some time in the next 100 years. The only models where that didn't happen were the ones where growth was deliberately stopped. These conclusions aroused a perfect storm of controversy, particularly from economists, who complained that Malthus had said much the same thing 170 years ago and he had been proven to be wrong by technological development increasing the means of production i.e. technology would save us this time too.

But the Limits authors had tested for that. Quoting the No 2846 edition of New Scientist here:

" In some runs, they gave World3 unlimited, non-polluting nuclear energy - which allowed extensive substitution and recycling of limited materials - and a doubling in the reserves of nonrenewables that could be economically exploited. All the same, the population crashed when industrial pollution soared. Then fourfold pollution reductions were added as well; this time, the crash came when there was no more farmland. "

No matter what the researchers did to introduce technological magic to solve the problems, exponential growth was simply prolonged until it overcame the magic. The only thing that worked was limiting growth, effectively to zero; doing that resulted in a stabilised system rather than a crash.

Nobody has improved the World3 program since 1972, partly because the controversy put people off doing global modelling, and partly because it is difficult to improve. Taking advantage of the power of modern computers to make the model more complex (and therefore more realistic) just doesn't work, because as the models become more complex, it becomes harder to figure out why certain outcomes have arisen. World3 remains a pretty good, and useful, approximation.

So what happens if you update World3 and make the present conditions the input, rather than 40 years ago? The answer, sadly, is that the time to have gone for one of the scenarios that yielded stabilisation rather than collapse was 1972. Quoting New Scientist again:

" There will be no more sequels based on World3, though. The model can no longer serve its purpose, which was to show us how to avoid collapse. Starting from the current conditions, no plausible assumptions produce any result but overshoot. "

Wait, what?

Collapse is inevitable? Yes, exactly, collapse is inevitable, and most probably before 2100.

Here is a graph that compares a typical run of World3 (solid lines) with real-world equivalents (dotted lines):

(The source for that graph is New Scientist again).

1977 was my final year at university, and I was very busy. I somehow managed to read this important book, accept its conclusions and then completely forget about it for 35 years. I was so glad that some tentative steps were being taken to deal with global warming that I overlooked the fact that global warming is a symptom rather than a problem in its own right. The problem isn't global warming or pollution or peak oil or water supply; the problem is growth itself.

Collapse means a lot of people are going to die. Perhaps the people doing the dying will be them, not us, but it is the people most estranged from the sources of food production that are most likely to die, and that sounds more like us than them. And when I say " a lot of people are going to die ", I mean billions; if the maximum sustainable human population on this planet is, for example, 4.5 billion, then at least 2.5 billion people are going to die in the collapse, be it from warfare or a pandemic or starvation or whatever.

Get yourself a copy of the 7 January 2012 New Scientist and read Debora MacKenzie's article for yourself. Or go here:

Doomsday Book

You'll have to register with New Scientist if you do that.

Monday, 9 January 2012

A Tale Of Two Books: Part 1

When I was a young(ish) university student I read two books, on apparently completely unrelated topics, which changed my thinking about everything. I read them in the same year, 1977, and it might have been better, for me and perhaps for all of us, if I had read them when they were first published.

The first book I want to talk about is the newer of the two: Platform For Change by Stafford Beer, first published in 1975. It consists of the text of a series of talks Beer gave as the President of the Operational Research Society during the period 1970 - 1973, augmented by several sets of overarching narratives containing methodical explanation and historical connections. His thesis was that, by using computers, cybernetics could make a useful contribution to civilian society. Cybernetics, developed during World War II, attempted to match industrial production to wartime (primarily battlefield) needs. So, for example, if Theatre A had a plan which required 10,000 bombs, cybernetic methods would be used to coordinate bomb production and deliver the bombs to Theatre A in time for the plan.

Beer argued that you could just as well apply the same principles to civilian production. In the process of explaining how this could be done, he addressed and solved a great many issues. The idea that, for me, stood head and shoulders above the rest was this question: "Why do bankers and TV game show hosts get paid enormous salaries while people who contribute far more to the general good of society, such as nurses or teachers, get paid a pittance?"

Of course, if you take the view that the total bucket of money available is the same in either case, then bankers get paid more because there are fewer of them. But Beer asked the question a different way: the injustice here is obvious, but why do we put up with it? Particularly, why do the people getting paid a pittance put up with it?

Beer's answer was that your reward for doing a job comes in two parts: money which includes things like annual leave, bonuses and superannuation; and eudemony which is the happiness which comes from doing good, and which is next to impossible to measure. Nevertheless, teachers are rewarded by the knowledge that almost everything they do contributes to a better society, whereas bankers are confronted with the knowledge that practically nothing they do contributes. Beer argued that the total eudemony of the society could be increased by creating jobs that contributed and eliminating jobs that didn't.

He got his chance to prove that his cybernetic theories could be applied to a real world economy when the newly elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende in Chile invited Stafford Beer to come to Chile and implement his Operations Research ideas. Allende's belief was that Marxism had failed everywhere else in the world because invariably these societies had become military dictatorships. He was going to do something different: he was going to let the people decide what they needed, and, via Stafford Beer's computers, the government would direct the factories to produce and deliver what was needed.

It quickly became obvious that what the people thought they needed was more schools and hospitals, and fewer tanks and machine guns. The military and the elite hated this, and, on the 11th of September 1973, the military staged a coup and killed Allende - they claimed he shot himself in despair, but how he managed to put a .45 calibre hole in his head with the .22 calibre gun purportedly found in his hand was never explained. The Chilean military had a great of help and support from the United States of America, particularly the CIA, and while the Americans had been trying to bring Allende down since 1970, there remains the possibility that they became particularly energetic when they realised Allende was fashioning a Marxist society that might actually work.

Platform For Change finishes before the coup, although it was published later. My deep and abiding hatred of American government agencies, particularly the CIA, dates from the time I read this book, knowing as I read it what had happened. For the avoidance of doubt, if your memory doesn't reach back to that time, the US President at the time was Richard Nixon, the Secretary of State was Henry Kissinger, and the dictator who took over after Allende was General Pinochet.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

ATEMA: Reflections

Would I do it again? Too right I would. In fact, I'm planning the next trip already. Would I do it again starting tomorrow? Er, um, perhaps not, got to get some things sorted first.

The Weather

December is the second wettest month of the year in SE Queensland and NE New South Wales (January is the wettest), so this was a pretty silly time of year to make that particular trip. As it happened I was very lucky on the way up, since I was following the rain band, one day behind; had I left one or two days earlier the trip up would have been wet and miserable. Actually, if it was raining on the way up, I probably would have stayed longer in Sydney if it wasn't for the fact that I had made bookings at O'Reilly's and Mooloolaba.

LESSON 1: Research the climate before planning the trip.
LESSON 2: Don't make bookings unless there is absolutely no choice.

The Luggage

One tank bag, two soft panniers, one pillion-pad pack, all up may be 100 litres (maximum volume with all packs expanded may be 160 litres). You'd think that would be plenty, but it was barely sufficient. I carried 6 days worth of clothing (t-shirts and underwear) and did my washing twice on the trip; stuffing in more clothing wasn't practical.

All of the luggage presented problems beyond flimsy or lost raincovers. The tank bag creates turbulence, particularly when expanded; the panniers tend to droop, meaning the right hand pannier wants to rest on the hot exhaust pipe; and the pillion-pad pack makes mounting and dismounting very difficult. If I had left behind the fleecy track pants (didn't use), the first-aid kit (ditto) and the camera (barely used), I wouldn't have needed the pillion-pad pack; in fact, I could have put the camera into a backpack.

The problem is that this luggage solution is the best there is for what is essentially an unfaired sports bike.

LESSON 3: If you're going to tour you need touring luggage.

The Cost

Not counting wear and tear and damage repair on the bike, I estimate I spent about $2,200 for a 13-day vacation, or about $170 per day. I made no effort to be frugal; if I wanted wine with dinner (and I did), then that is what I had. When I was in my mid-twenties I rode up from Adelaide to the Sunshine Coast on my TX500 with a tent, a sleeping bag and a few essentials in a backpack, so I'd done frugal, I didn't need to do it again.

Staying home might have cost $200 (I don't count the rent, since that still has to be paid whether I'm home or travelling), so the $2,000 difference has to come out of the bank account. That's the air component of the long-dreamed-of but probably-never-gunna-happen Europe trip, spent on a bike ride.

LESSON 4: Be realistic about the cost.

The Bike

Since the Canungra drop was entirely my fault, the only mechanical problem on the whole trip was the locked-up engine cooling fan in Mooloolaba. The riding position was perfect for me, and the hard seat was no problem at all once I perfected the art of standing up to ride every 75k or so. The bike had way more power and braking than I was ever likely to need, and the wide chicken strips on my Pirelli Diablo rear tyre show that I'm a bit timid when cornering, so there was plenty of lean angle in reserve if I ever needed it (or had the courage to use it).

Kawasaki claim a top speed for the Z750 of 240 km/h, which is more than double the maximum speed limit of any road in Australia except for the Northern Territory, so there's no shortage of power. I was getting about 6 litres per 100km, which is hardly frugal for country riding, but it's not very expensive either.

So would I recommend the bike for touring? Well, no. I mean, you can do it, obviously, I just did. But the luggage problem, and the fact that you can't adjust or even lubricate the chain (because there is no centre stand) means that the bike is less than ideal.

LESSON 5: Expecting a UJM marketed to hoons to be a capable tourer is a bit silly.

So I'm noodling about replacing the bike with something more suitable, but I'm really hesitant to get onto the slippery slope to a Gold Wing or BMW, since those massively heavy lumps just don't entice you to get up at 6am and go for a fang.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

ATEMA Day Thirteen: Crescent Head To ... ?

It was still raining when I woke up, but it stopped while I was showering (the irony not lost on me) and I was able to pack up and head off in the the dry. The leg from Crescent Head to the Pacific Highway was fun, with sweeping bends, but all too short, and when I got to the Pacific Highway it started raining again.

Today I had two plans: Plan A was to ride down the Pacific Highway to the junction with the Oxley Highway, then up the Oxley to Tamworth, then via a few back roads to Bathurst for an overnight stop - this was the fine-weather option. Plan B was to ride down the Pacific Highway as far as I felt like riding, and if that turned out to be Sydney, well and good - this was the foul-weather option.

I barely saw the junction with the Oxley because of the rain, so that made the decision for me. I revised Plan B as I continued south - I would now push on to Sydney, ride into the centre of the city, find a 5-star hotel willing to accommodate a damp motorcyclist and treat myself to a very expensive dinner. I might even book a spa treatment and allow somebody to massage my damp skin with therapeutic unguents, although that being something that never happened in my life previously did make it a little unlikely. Energised by these pleasant dreams I zoomed down the highway - well, actually at 100 km/h, but the only times slow moving trucks appeared ahead of me was at the beginning of an overtaking lane, so it felt like zooming.

I fuelled up at Bulahdelah, and it stopped raining. However, it started again as soon as I took off, and kept up until the traffic chaos which marks the start of the F3; unsurprisingly, 10km down the F3 the rain started up again and continued all the way to Sydney. The traffic on the F3 didn't slow down at all for the rain, so I didn't either; on the F3 you either keep up or get squished. A fair indication of what the weather was like was that I was wearing my fleecy top under my motorcycle jacket, and at no point was I too hot.

As I approached Sydney I estimated that I would reach Hornsby a little before 12 noon. Plan C now entered my head: fuel stop and a sambo from a servo and push on. I figured 45 minutes to cross the back half of Sydney via the Cumberland Highway, then 3 hours down the Doom Highway - I could be home before 4pm. Thoughts of a 5-star hotel, grand dinner and spa treatment vanished in an instant. Another 4 hours and I could be HOME! Suddenly I very much wanted to do that, and even if it started raining bricks I wouldn't be stopped.

As it turned out it stopped raining as I reached Hornsby, so I fuelled up in the dry. Heading off via the Cumberland Highway with fully 50% of Australia's entire fleet of trucks for company I was much more cheerful. The cheeriness lasted until I suddenly found myself almost the sole vehicle travelling down a six-lane road into downtown Parramatta, the trucks apparently having moved to another dimension.

I stopped at another servo to get directions ("Go the way you were going for another few blocks until you see the signs for Cumberland Highway, then turn left") and the sambo I had forgotten at the fuel stop, and wandered out to the edge of the forecourt to see a heavy rain band heading straight for me. The combination of Sydney truck traffic and heavy rain didn't appeal in the slightest, so I shoved the half-eaten sambo into the tank pack and left in a hurry.

As it turned out that rain band didn't catch me, but it didn't make any difference, because as I got onto the Doom Highway outside of Liverpool I ended up in another one instead. By now I had perfected the technique of standing up on the footpegs for a few minutes every 75km or so, which relieved the numb bum and allowed me to feel as if I had stopped for a break between fuel stops; I tried to avoid standing up when I was in the midst of a fleet of vehicles in case my actions were misunderstood. I didn't get any wetter standing up, but it did feel a bit precarious at 110km/h in the rain.

The fuel stop this time was Marulan, and as I approached the Heavy Vehicle Checking Station, it stopped raining. I was used to this by now - it stops raining whenever I stop, but returns with redoubled force as soon as I get moving again. This time, however, it didn't. A couple of light sprinkles between Marulan and Goulburn, and then it stopped altogether. In fact, by the time I reached the southern end of Lake George I could see a patch of blue sky, and as I rode up over the last hill near my house the sun was shining, the birds were singing, the air was warm and I was now too hot in my fleecy top.

So after about 720km of riding in the rain, non-stop except for fuel, I'd finally found somewhere warm and dry. It was just before 4pm when I got off the bike for the last time, and I felt as if I could have kept going for another 300km if necessary. I had taken the precaution of putting a beer in the fridge before I left, and it hadn't gone off in the time I'd been away, so all was well with the world. I even finished the not-at-all tasty servo sambo as I scanned my mail.

I went out for dinner, since there wasn't any food in the house, but I wimped and took the car, so the meal doesn't count as part of the trip, which is a pity, because I cleared my plate, making the meal rank with O'Relly's. And that in a restaurant I had never tried before, in keeping with what I had been doing on the trip.

And when I got back from dinner I came over all sentimental and gave the bike an affectionate pat, and muttered something complimentary.