Francis Vierboom's Blog

A blog about things. Mostly news, ideas, and Sydney

Archive for January 2010

Wednesday links

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Happy Straya Day to all.

– I’m not actually sure I am a republican, since I honestly rather like the ironically anti-authoritarian notion that the seat of Australian power is occupied by a distant feudal lord. But I do think Australia should change the flag. The Flags Australia site has a few suggestions. I quite like the green and gold ones – particularly the Wattle Flag by Geoff Coulin from 1989 – but apparently polls suggest that changing the colours will be more difficult that just changing the flag. In that case, does anyone like the design I just made?

– At any rate, Shaun Carney probably has it right that we won’t be a republic or have a new flag any time soon.

– Best blog I have seen recently: Unhappy Hipsters, captioning photos from some arty lifestyle slash design slash architecture magazine called Dwell.

– Psychology experiment of the day, from 1967:

Brock and Balloun played a group of people a tape-recorded message attacking Christianity. Half of the subjects were regular churchgoers while the other half were committed atheists. To make the experiment more interesting, Brock and Balloun added an annoying amount of static (a crackle of white noise) to the recording. However, they allowed listeners to reduce the static by pressing a button, so that the message suddenly became easier to understand. Their results were utterly predicable and rather depressing: the non-believers always tried to remove the static, while the religious subjects actually preferred the message that was harder to hear. Later experiments by Brock and Balloun demonstrated a similar effect with smokers listening to a speech on the link between smoking and cancer. We silence the cognitive dissonance through self-imposed ignorance.

Discussed by Jonah Lehrer in an also-worth-reading discussion of a new study about people’s tendency to tune into cable news that confirms their own beliefs. Oddly enough, it probably makes sense that I watch Fox News so often since it confirms my pre-existing belief that the USA is home to an unfortunately large and vaguely coherent body of atrociously stupid people.

Written by Francis

January 28, 2010 at 12:54 am

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Democrats planning to respond to MA senate loss by stabbing themselves in the face

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At times like this I am glad I am not a US citizen, despite my ever-increasing admiration for the spectacle of their politics. Republicans have won Ted Kennedy’s former blue-ribbon Democratic senate seat, giving the Republicans a 41-seat blocking minority. The deafening consensus from Washington commentators is that this was a referendum on healthcare reforms, and now it must stop. This is in spite of the fact that Massachusetts already has pretty much the exact reforms in place that are being proposed at a national level, reforms that are broadly popular and even supported (at the state level) by the new Republican senator.

So, despite the fact that the US House could still just pass the bill without making any revisions that would require another senate vote, it looks like Democrats are going to do their best to make the worst of it. Jon Stewart is pretty annoyed, although still hilarious. And frankly if I was Obama I would probably be hurling some chairs against the wall in the Oval Office.

At this point I was glad to find a Sydney food blog where someone had made a Mondrian cake slice. How cool!

Written by Francis

January 20, 2010 at 4:26 pm

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Up in the Air: overrated movie of the year

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Stephanie Zacharek pretty much explains what is wrong with Up in the Air in her Salon review, which, to my amazement, got the Golden Globe for best screenplay last night. It amazed me because the problem with the film is the script: self important, overwrought, underedited and bland. Clooney plays a consultant who flies all over America as a hired gun to fire people (a made up job). The problem with the story is that he could be selling pot plants, or credit cards, or even doing insurance assessments like the similar character Edward Norton played in Fight Club, but it would make no difference to the story whatsoever. The movie essentially accessorises the current unemployment crisis to lend ‘meaning’ to a movie about a person who (maybe, but not really) realises he has an absurdly shallow and underdeveloped life philosophy. It takes him the whole movie to do this, whereas Fight Club organised this in the first 20 minutes.

The acting is impeccable from all the leads, but I couldn’t help thinking even Clooney thought some of the lines he was saying were pretty terrible. Vera Farmiga was gorgeous and charming, but even her character turned out to be completely inexplicable and irrelevant.

Things I like much better from the past week:

The Big Lebowski, as written by Shakespeare – brilliant if you are a fan of the movie, and if you are not a fan of the movie, you obviously haven’t seen it yet.

Was Mitchell Johnson’s mother a Cuban agent or a CIA plant? A suitable response to John Passant’s unintentionally hilarious Marxist analysis of the Australian cricket team’s loss in the Ashes.

Blasted spam pigeons!

Written by Francis

January 19, 2010 at 12:46 pm

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The appalling standard of Australian punditry

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Paul Sheehan has a column on the SMH online today with a fairly random grab-bag of ‘bloody wet liberals causin the terrism’ points. I really don’t want to link to it because that is exactly why the Herald publishes this garbage, but the article goes something like this:

  • Adorable British town called Wootton Bassett is full of good upstanding white villagers who stand to attention for fallen British soldiers returned from Afghanistan as their hearses pass through town.
  • Upstart, ‘parasite’ Muslim lawyer Choudry has the audacity to A. organise marriages under Islamic sharia law and B. protest in the same village with fake coffins representing innocent Muslims killed by the British actions
  • Foolish, wet, liberal Western media and politicians respond to Choudry with condemnations, rather than physical violence as suggested by the far-right racist BNP
  • Terrorism is cheap but fighting terrorism costs billions. (I am not sure it was the wet liberals who decided to spend billions on fighting terrorism, but whatever)
  • Wet liberal human rights laws in Europe meant MI5 couldn’t tell the USA that they had ‘concerns’ about Abdulmutallab. (Although the USA already knew anyway)
  • The 9/11 bombers are really getting let off easy because they are being tried in a regular US criminal court.
  • Terrists are using ‘lawfare’ by clogging up the courts.

In the middle of all this crap, there is a stunningly sensible graf:

For the marginal and the fanatical, the idea of being feared in the West is an end in itself. It is a victory. This challenge thus needs to be fought with more subtle and practical intellectual weapons: better language, better legal responses, better security intelligence and more stealth.

So the point, in this tiny shaft of light, seems to be that we should not respond out of fear, but using the things that make Western democracies powerful, and usually rather nice places to live: the rule of law, the power of Enlightenment ideas about humanity and rights, the power of the media, and our technological advantages. However, the actual suggestions Sheehan makes are:

  • Ban Muslim protesters from nice English villages, and let the BNP thugs go to town on ’em
  • Tell every security agency in the world everything about anyone that does anything vaguely un-British
  • Try the 9/11 bombers in special secret session trials

If that is not showing fear and giving the terrorists a victory then what is?

Really, can’t we just take a second to appreciate the fact that the mighty Al Qaeda is so operationally and ideologically crippled that they can only just manage to set their own underpants on fire, in the only attempted major attack on the West in several years? The 9/11 trials in New York will lead to life sentences for some horrible criminals who will, like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussien, be shown to the world as a regular brand of impotent and distasteful crazy person. The USA, through the (often dubious) power of democracy, is now run by people who are not extremely excited about invading the Middle East. So Paul, take your own advice, and keep calm and carry on.

If you really must read the article it is here.

Written by Francis

January 11, 2010 at 10:18 am

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Cool links for 2010

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Happy new year! I have one or two ‘decade in review’ posts in mind but for now:

  • From the awesome uses of flash graphics dept, an analysis of letter distributions in various bodies of English – dictionaries, Scrabble games, spoken word, 19th century literature. (Via Applied Statistics, an excellent new blog I just discovered.) The Scrabble distribution has a lot of unusual concentrations around rare letters like X and Q and Z, for obvious reasons, but I thought it was interesting that spoken words seem contain an unusual number of Ts, Ys, Hs, Os and Us. Presumably this could be blamed on the word ‘you’, which is said a lot more than written.
  • Chad Hagen’s Nonsensical Infographics.
  • The Howard Impact, an extract from a new book called ‘How Australia Compares’ by Rodney Tiffin and Ross Gittins, which looks at how Australia’s economic performance stacks up against other developed nations, and makes clear that really Howard’s government was just tracking the international numbers. The book itself sounds pretty interesting – ‘offering comparative data on as many aspects of social life as possible, from taxation to traffic accidents, homicide rates to health expenditure, and international trade to internet usage.’
  • The Dachshund of Time, explaining all the periods of human history. ‘The Olden Days eventually gave way to the Old School, which in a historical context is usually regarded as anytime between the invention of the internal combustion engine and the point at which beating children fell out of favor.’
  • There are about 6.8 billion people alive today, but how many people have been alive in the history of the world? Apparently 106 billion.

Written by Francis

January 5, 2010 at 3:50 pm

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