Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Warning: Images

Henson is esteemed for his consistency of vision and artistic sincerity, never deviating from his poetic invention through the several tides of fashionable theory that have washed away the integrity of visual language in contemporary art.

The Age, Entertainment, April 27 2005 (link)
DETECTIVES converged on a Sydney art gallery today as they investigated whether photographs of naked children, which were to go on display last night, contravene any laws., News Limited, May 23 2008 (link)

PHOTOGRAPHS of naked underage girls at a Sydney art exhibition shut down by police are revolting and have no artistic merit, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says.

The Australian, May 23 2008 (link)

KEVIN Rudd's handpicked arts mentor Cate Blanchett yesterday co-signed an open letter urging the Prime Minister to rethink his public comments about artist Bill Henson's work.

Blanchett, co-chair of the Creative Australia group at last month's 2020 Summit, was joined by other summiteers including Nobel Prize-winning writer John Coetzee, Museum of Contemporary Art director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor and economist Saul Eslake in expressing dismay at last Friday's raid on Henson's exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Sydney gallery.

The Australian, May 28 2008 (link)

Bill Henson

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Towards a Retroactive Future Australian Commonwealth Republic Empire

I can guarantee this article contains no annoying hyperlinks to Wikipedia.

Step into my swirling machine with the flashing lights now as I take you back to the long ago year of 1999, when men were men and marriage was sacred and unpopular. As we descend toward Brisbane we find a younger me in the to-be-demolished Festival Hall (where I first learned to love live music), moshing in a very different mosh pit. Twas the first referendum in god knows how many years, and I had an opinion to vent.

My apologies. The machine has settled in the toilet stalls. Follow me now out through the antiseptic haze of scents into the main arena where the tangy waft of stale atmosphere still holds the odor of last nights fight between Costa and Fennick. Wait, let me disengage the Extrapolator. Okay, now we have a more accurate reading. This massive space just stinks of stale air and thousands of voters still reeling from the oh-so-wonderful-and-can't-ever-see-such-a-landslide-victory-ever-ever-occurring-ever-ever-again liberal voters shuffling in ques of jurisdictions, and in the morass, me almost a decade younger.

Our mission, my absent audience, is to slay this young tool.

There I am, at the voting poll now. I am deciding not to go with the republic, basically because I don't agree with the the preamble to the Constitution which talks about "Mate ship" and other "Australian" shit like that.

I'm behind me now. Ready to slide the knife between my ribs...

And now here I am with my shiny, spinning machine. Shit, grandfather paradox.

Okay, I'll have to take some time to reconfigure the machine to go to the future. Hopefully, I'll only need a few months. I just need to make sure that the debate about a change of governing style, from a constitutional monarchy to a constitutional republic, isn't confused by a stupid debate about the continuation of the Australian flag. That we don't care about our long and wonderful history as a penal settlement of Fantasy Island, sorry, Great Britain. That we actually do what's right as opposed to what we've always done, and that we realise it doesn't mean we can't still beat every one at the commonwealth games.

I'm off to the future now, and I'll let you know how it all went in just a second...

Censored By The Department Of Chronological Conservation

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Book Reveiw: The Algebraist by Iain M banks

The space opera is a genre that's hard to get into if you aren't already an enthusiast. The stories are often long and character driven, and some times seem as long and involved as a version of War and Peace set in the Kuiper belt of some star system thousands of light years away. Critics call them 'escapist', as if any form of literature isn't. But can a space opera be grounded in real characters who the reader might know, or want to know?

Even if these people are nine meter tall aliens that live on gas giants?

The Algebraist is a great place for some one new to science fiction to get a taste of the space opera. Iain M Banks, the science fiction writer who by night fights for democracy and for Scotland as the mainstream literary writer Iain Banks (his disguise is dropping his middle initial), has forged a reputation as a master of the genre with his novels of the Culture. The Algebraist is a departure from the universe of the Culture, being a stand alone novel where most of the rules are different.

In the novel it is the year 4034 AD, and Fassin Taak is a "slow seer" cultural ambassador to the mysterious Dwellers of the gas giant Nasqueron, many light years away from Earth in the Ulubis system. After the worm hole link to the rest of the civilized galaxy is destroyed, Ulubis is cut off, stranded by one hundred light years of empty space, and it becomes a target for conquest by the Stravling Cult, led by the psychotic Archmandrite Lusiferous. Speeding toward Ulubis on a rescue mission is the Summed Fleet of the Mercatoria, the galaxy spanning civilization of "quick" or short-lived races, differentiated by the "Slow", ancient races to which the Dwellers belong with life spans measured in billions of years. The reason all these forces are rushing toward Ulubis is that Nasqueron holds the key to the Dweller List, the alleged location of a secret worm hole network known only to the Dwellers, linking more than two million systems and, apparently, connecting our galaxy to another. By order of the Mercatoria, Seer Taak has to go into the clouds and heavy gravity of Nasqueron to talk to the Dwellers to get the legendary List.

Banks writes hyper intelligent species with a lot of humanising wit, charm, and ridiculousness. Anyone familiar with the Culture novels know that the Minds, artificial intelligences with god-like powers, love to prank and interfere with less intelligent humans, basically only to amuse themselves. The Algebraist is different, in that the Mercatoria pan-species civilisation long ago fought against AIs in a great and terrible "Machine War", similar to the Butlerian Jihad from that classic of the space opera genre, Frank Herbert's Dune. AIs are routinely fought with by the Mercatoria in a war similar to the "ethnic cleansing" we are so familiar with here on Earth, but the machines are good at hiding, and The Algebraist asks us to validate these proto-Minds as personalities or beings possessed of the same right to exist as biological intelligences.

Great age is a theme in The Algebraist. The Dwellers and other slow species (including a memorable character of a sentient gas cloud many light-years across whose thoughts take days to manifest) are nearly immortal, their civilisations beginning when the universe was still cooling down after the big bang. For the quick species, three forms of longevity are explored. All the main characters are above the 200 year age range. Fassin Taak, as a slow seer, lives his life on the same time scale as the Dwellers he frequently interacts with. His friend, the wealthy industrialist Saluus Kehar, gets there through gene manipulation procedures. And their mutual friend Tanice Yarabokin, a captain of the Summed Fleet, spends most of her time travelling near to the speed of light, where time runs slower. This age bracket is necessary because the rules of physics apply in The Algebraist. The speed of light cannot be exceeded, so travel to distant suns can take hundreds of years. As a civilisation, the Mercatoria need a glue.

Banks introduces a pan-religion called The Truth, which essentially holds the disparate systems of the Mercatoria together even when the worm hole network is destroyed (which is frequently done by the Beyonders, branded as evil because the ally themselves with AIs, as terrorists are considered evil in our world). The Truth is a philosophy or statistical truth that holds the universe as a computer simulation. The more people who hold in their hearts "the truth", the less reason the runners of the simulation have to keep it running, and so the will release the prisoners of the simulation out into the "real" world. It is exactly this universe spanning solipsism that the Culture novels are often about disproving, which makes me as a reader believe that The Algebraist is actually a simulation run by one of the Culture Minds, just for fun.

The best thing about The Algebraist is the Dwellers. They are built up for a quarter of the novel as this ancient and infinitely wise, though infinitely frustrating super power, who then for the next 200 or so pages appear as complete buffoons unable to settle a debate about the common galactic language that for all other species in the novel was decided a billion years ago. Banks shines in his dialogue with the conversations between Fassin and Y'Sul, his Dweller contact, and give human perception on the Dwellers through Col. Hatherance, also evolved on a gas giant, but only a dweller, lacking the capital "d". Towards the denouement, the Dwellers seem much less silly.

I recommend The Algebraist to people who haven't read space opera, or who haven't read Iain M. Banks. I envy those who first came to Banks through this book and then moved on to the Culture novels. As a final aside, his next book, Matter, is almost exactly the opposite to The Algebraist.

I give this book 20 Kudos.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

In the Year of Our Folly

The future I see is different than the one I grew up with.

A family man leaves for work in the winter time, wearing a woolen tunic with wooden toggles, woven pantaloons his wife patches with scraps of leather, carrying a vinyl briefcase he inherited from his grandfather, dating from a time when such things could be made. On the way out of the living room he stumbles on the wooden models of soldiers his young boy likes to play with, kicking one aside so that it fetches up against the foot of the hulking, crystalline computer nerve centre that dominates the room like a grandfather clock. It shows the time to be 9 am, and the outside temperature is 5 degrees. On his way out the door he pulls on a heavy woolen great coat.

This family lives with three thousand others, all working in a kind of rota system. The family man in on his way to the office, to work on administration. In summer he works in the feilds. But now, there is a new shipment of grains and meat arriving from the north, as well as some luxury items like coffee, sugar, and rice. Unfortunately they have a shortfall in kilowatt hours, the basic unit of currency, which old fashioned dollars have become a symbol of. The recent wind harvest has been poor. There have been a lot of foggy days, and they haven't seen a shipment of enriched uranium for the power plant in more than one hundred days. They owe the grid power. The man has to find somewhere to cut costs.

The state is a nine hour walk from one side to the other. They have 90 horses, 20 plows, one micro-nuclear reactor and 200 wind turbines scattered throughout, perched on roof tops or out in fields. One good days they hum loudly, a welcome sound, because it means more for the local economy. On days like this, with the air thick as cold soup, the triple bladed turbines are silent, and missed.

This is a city state, one that isn't doing so well as the summers grow shorter, the winters get colder, and the rains still fail to fall. This used to be a part of a great sprawling city of three million, built on a river flowing into a wide bay. The only ships that visit these days are powered by the wind and the sun. The only news that comes from the more livable north arrives by horse and carriage. Sometimes, it doesn't come at all, because as cities break up into smaller, more insular city-states, the spaces in between become badlands, stalked by highwaymen and killers. Our family man once won an award for his design of the local walls, which are made of wood and stone cut from the quarry, strengthened by tar mined from the old bitumen roads.

There was no war here. There are still some old cars around, and on festival days during the festival days over Christmas they charge the old hybrids up with a few kilowatts so they can crawl down the dusty main street towing floats from which the beautiful girls wave at the happy children. And at least they are still connected to the grid, fed by the great solar and nuclear generators in the north, megawatt hours and lights sparkling in binary code through the glass arteries of the fibre network. Here on the east coast, at least, they still have news. Occasionally they hear about other countries doing better, when a ship with tall sails makes it over the vast, isolating oceans. Mostly, they hear about other countries doing worse, as reports from the western front filter back about yet another attack on the battered, half-lost North Western Coast. No war at all, not here at least, but civilization has reverted to a feudal system none the less.

There was a man, a few decades back now, who did a census of the entire planet, riding from place to place on a slow solar cart with a pedal system for those days when the sun wasn't out. At the time, he enumerated a 30% drop in the human population, from 7 billion back to 4 billion, the same level of one century ago. Worst hit, he said, were the so called "First World", where dependence on the old fuels was greatest. He gave a prediction, then, that we would go with a whisper after all.

Our family man still thinks about space travel. As a hobby, at night, he writes science fiction stories. His wife laughs at him, but who does it harm? she asks. He scribbles by candle light as she reads the news tickling through the crystal set, breast feeding the infant girl, while the boy slumbers in her lap. Our family man writes about still undiscovered fuel reserves deep in the Atlantic which might allow us to once again revive plans for a space elevator, so we can escape our prison with bars of gravity, to venture forth to the stars in space craft made of hollowed out asteroids, and meet those other people out there who surely overcame the same obstacle of not enough fuel to sustain our bad habits...

... and at the same time our dreams.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Handfull of Pins and All Out of Grenades

As mentioned previously, I have a natural talent for handling balls.

I am also a Discordian, which I haven't explicitly mentioned yet, but which may have become apparent to all you silent millions that have read these posts.

Which was comfortably confluent on Friday night when, as a work function or 'team building' exercise, I went bowling with some of those I work with. ANZ paid for everything, including the drinks and the taxi ride home.

All bowling alleys are shrines to Discordians, because the revelation of the Sacred Chao occurred in one in the San Fransisco bay area in the mid-60s. They serve hotdog buns in bowling alleys, but because I am a devout Discordianist I refrained from partaking of one, in accordance to the pentabarf.

Bowling involves a kind of one-step, two-step, three-step throw dance, one that drastically upsets the centre of gravity. It is also a form of exercise very much in favour of the dominant arm. I recommend it to every one who wants to develop barmaid's breast.

On the face of things you would be forgiven for missing the close correlation between the sport of bowling and the performance art of juggling. It is very subtle. The key is in willing the ball where to go. You need to visualise the end result of your roll. If the results don't match what you visualised, your muscles will compensate. That's the great thing about having a brain like ours. It learns on its own.

So anyway, I lost the game.

I need to go to church more often.