Saturday, 21 January 2017

T minus 4 Years


Donald Trump was sworn in as President overnight in an inauguration that was bleak and miserable as the weather in Washington D.C.

Despite the inevitable forthcoming Twitter protestations to the contrary, crowd numbers were down substantially on the past two inaugurations. Anti-Trump protests abounded in the city, with reports of some damage to shops and property.

Those expecting the new President to strike a conciliatory tone in line with the loftiness of the event were sorely disappointed. Trump basically reaffirmed the worst of his campaign sloganeering, telling the world he's going to govern for the anxieties and worst excesses of White America.

Mine — and most of the world's — only hope is that if this is to mark the end of Pax Americana, they do so with a whimper rather than a bang.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Score

Cover of the Soundtrack to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Music by Michael Giacchino

When Alexandre Desplat was originally announced as musical score composer for Rogue One, I was intrigued. Here was a very accomplished, Academy Award-winning composer — whose work to date could has been powerfully rhythmic, but pretty low-key — being asked to write in the tradition of one of the most iconic film scores of all time. Not an easy task. To me, hiring Desplat was a very positive sign that the filmmakers wanted to take these Star Wars anthology films in a very different direction from the saga. Alas, Desplat's place in the Star Wars canon was not be be. In September, it was announced at the last minute that Star Trek composer and J.J. Abrams favourite Michael Giacchino had replaced Desplat.

I felt bad for Desplat, but knew Giacchino is a safer choice for this type of film. Rogue One was touted as a war film, and Giacchino has spent more time writing for World War II-themed properties than almost any other living composer on the planet. Desplat ostensibly departed the project due to 'scheduling' conflicts, but given the talk of reshoots (and the evidence of many scenes in trailers not present in the final film) it wouldn't be surprising if the departure was also due to changes in the film's tone.

Michael Giacchino is a pioneer in multimedia music scoring. The first gig that brought him to wider attention was as composer to the score of the maligned Lost World Playstation game. The game sucked, but the music was great and was indeed the first video game to feature a recorded symphonic score. Giacchino's work on this game led to him scoring the first Medal of Honor game, a game produced by Steven Speilberg and his studio Dreamworks Interactive. Giacchino went on to score the game's sequels, MoH: Underground, Frontline (my personal favourite), Allied Assault (using the pre-existing scores from the other games) and — after a hiatus from the series — Airborne. He also scored the first Call of Duty game, bringing the composer back to World War II yet again. These scores are truly great works in any medium. Giacchino's scored a heap of films and television series since his Medal of Honor days, but it is these early scores Rogue One most closely resembles. The games' heroic themes for the Allies and bombastic goose-stepping marches for the Axis are transplanted into a galaxy far, far away, with a great effect.

The Star Wars series is a natural fit for Giacchino. In fact, he's seemed destined for this role for a long time, with his work on films such as Abrams' Star Trek franchise, Jurassic World and others positioning himself as a natural successor to Williams as the composer who can meld bombast with nuance. Abrams, naturally, opted for John Williams to score The Force Awakens so Giacchino — a long-time Abrams collaborator — was cast as a stormtrooper in the opening on Jakku instead.

Which brings us to Rogue One. Fans looking for a rehash of themes from the original trilogy will be disappointed. This score is almost wholly originally. The cover of the album may credit John Williams as the "Original Star Wars music" composer, but this is mainly a marketing exercise. Just as the film uses iconic characters sparingly, so too does Giacchino quote Williams' themes infrequently, but judiciously. Instead of dumping in the Imperial March every time a Star Destroyer appears on screen, Giacchino very smartly develops his own Imperial themes, derived from those of A New Hope, rather than the Imperial March of the Empire Strikes Back.

There was disquiet about Williams' use of the Imperial March in the prequels, owing to the fact that in the timeline of the films, neither the Empire or its theme had been established. Giacchino wisely quotes from it sparingly and instead chooses to develop the Death Star's four note motif (duuh duh-duh DUUUUUUH) and even employs Darth Vader's original motif (sometimes called the 'Imperial motif', but referred to a pre-ESB Williams as 'Darth Vader's Theme') of bassoons and muted trumpets which has not been heard since the original 1977 film.

Imperial Motif or Darth Vader's Original Theme from the 1977 film Star Wars. Music by John Williams

All in all, this is a very good score that serves the film exceptionally well. The same people who threw the banal critique at The Force Awakens soundtrack as not having a 'hummable' tune will probably dislike this score. There probably isn't enough Williams for the casual viewer's liking, and interweb-based film score forums (yep, such things exist) will issue keyboard criticism after keyboard criticism, but this is a very good score. As Gordy Haab (Battlefront), Mark Griskey (The Force Unleashed), Joel McNeely (Shadows of the Empire) and other composers have shown, there can be exceptional Star Wars scores without the original maestro at the helm. Sooner or later John Williams won't be around to compose a Star Wars score; we were very lucky to get a seventh saga score from him. I can't think of anyone better than Michael Giacchino to inherit the Star Wars musical mantle.

Highlights: 
Krennic's Aspirations — The re-emergence of a very familiar character and some very familiar themes.
Hope — Once you've seen the film, the opening of this track will probably give you nighmares. It's instantly iconic and will be a track long remembered, to paraphrase a certain memorable villain.
The Imperial Suite — a concert version of Giacchino's new themes for the Empire, like an ur-Imperial March. A lot of similarities to some tracks from MoH: Airborne.

Other Albums You Should Listen to:
Medal of Honor: Frontline (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)
Medal of Honor: Airborne (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)
Battlefront OST, Gordy Haab (YouTube)
The Force Unleashed OST, Mark Griskey (YouTube)
Shadows of the Empire, Joel McNeely (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Democracy Isn't Broken — We Are

The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (later H.M. King George V), May 9, 1901 — better known as The Big Picture — by Tom Roberts
I fear for the future. This time around it is more acute. I seem to see everything through the filter of my 11-month-old son. I think about the world he is going to inherit and I die a bit inside. And that was before the 2016 presidential election.

Already, the media — which got this whole thing so, so wrong — are trying to parse what went wrong to prove their continuing relevance. And at once we find almost everything Trump said about the "elites" in the media to be completely right. We saw it here, too only a few months back, although with a better result: for all the Daily Telegraph's apoplectic fuming against Labor, the party managed to win seats in the great nation of Westsydnia. The media's diminishing influence will be rapidly accelerated after this election. Polls will never be trusted again after an annus horribilis for professional political junkies. When all is said and done, though, the better pollsters can take solace in the fact that they were really only 1–2% off the actual outcome. Most said it was going to be close, and the more sobering ones (which progressives like me in the public and in the media tended to ignore) warned that a small win for Clinton in the popular vote wouldn't necessarily translate into an Electoral College win. How right they were.

Which brings me back to democracy. Friends, if you're going to run around after the election has been held and hope to subvert the will of the people, then you're no better than Trump. If you're going to hope British MPs will ignore the referendum and not vote to invoke Article 50, then you're no less reckless than not accepting the result unless it goes your way. Accept the result, but don't necessarily be happy with it.

Democracy remains our least-worst system. It is not broken, but it is up to us to make it work. It is up to us to make the parties invoved work for us.

Fight and resist every single day and most importantly, learn from the victors. Learn from what they did this time around and harness it the next. That means getting out there next election and fighting for what you believe through any means possible. Join a political activist group, hell, join a political party. They will be made stronger and more relevant by your involvement, not weaker. They will become more represenative of the population the more of the population they have as members. Ultimately, it's up to us. By us, I mean anyone under 40. We're the ones who are going to have to pick up the pieces in four, eight, or 20 year's time. Otherwise our kids will look at our generation with contempt as the group that let this horror happen.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Say NO to Lif3


​There's a wonderful section in the late Christopher Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian where he discusses a daily ritual of frustration that made him feel alive. Every morning, he would sit down to read the New York Times, checking whether the 'bright, smug, pompous, idiotic' motto 'All the News That's Fit to Print' was still there to the left of the masthead. Yes it was. Did it still irritate him? Yes. Then at least he knew he still had a pulse.

I also indulge in a "daily infusion of annoyance", perhaps it is a form of secular self flaggelation. Mine is to visit the Twitter page for Lif3 Smartchip, a $70 piece of snake oil-infused plastic that protects you against the imagined dangers of mobile phone radiation. Because health. And the children. And the health of children. And really, don't you want to protect the children?

Never mind the fact that the overwhelming volume of evidence indicates electromagnetic radiation from mobile and cordless phones, Wi-Fi routers and other 'smart' devices isn't dangerous to human health. Never mind the slight inconvenience that there's no known biologically plausible mechanism for low power EMR to damage cells. Never mind the sober recommendations of the vast majority of national and international health bodies which indicate there's no reason to be concerned about EMR radiation. But overwhelming evidence aside, as Lif3 themselves say, 'why take the risk?' It is, of course, much easier to make a quick dollar by ignoring decades of evidence. Oh, and did I mention the children?

Daily I will visit Lif3's Twitter account and if I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do the insult me with their moronic claims and what do they take me for and why do they bother with their snake oil BS — all while earning the eye-rolling ire of my patient wife — then I know I too still have a pulse.

Unfortunately I can't check Lif3's Twitter page when logged in to my own Twitter account. I have to either log out or use private browsing because these fine corporate citizens have blocked me, along with many others who dared to question their pseudoscientific snake oil. But at least they're thinking of the children...and their parents' wallets.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

(Talcum) Powder Keg

Not cocaine – By Mattman723, Wikimedia Commons
The news today tells me that Australian mining giant Rio Tinto is being sued in the US by ovarian cancer sufferers who claim their use of talcum power caused their medical condition.

This is not new. Talcum powder manufacturer Johnson & Johnson has been successfully sued twice in the US after juries found two womens' use of talc led to their terminal ovarian cancer.

Firstly, these are sad cases that often involve very sick people trying to find some rhyme or reason as to why they got ill and, in some cases, family trying to blame someone for why their consequent death. These are tragic circumstances in which these people find themselves.

But even in light of these successful lawsuits, there are a few things to bear in mind. Firstly, this is not like smoking and lung cancer. Smoking was pretty was known to be dangerous by the 1950s, with links suggested as early as the 1930s (the link is to a history of this research and is fascinating reading).
It was the tobacco companies continued to obfuscate, cover up and deny and their is no disputing their culpability. But there is no such evidence of a similar causal link between consumer talc and ovarian cancer, nor of like behaviour on the part of Johnson & Johnson.
Unlike with cigarettes and lung cancer, where the risks were obvious and well understood, there is very little evidence to suggest talc causes an increased risk of ovarian cancer, and even less to suggest it 'causes' it. Some studies find a slightly increased risk of cancer with talc use, others don't. And, as all the 'red wine increases/decreases risk of cancer' stories demonstrate, humans are crap at understanding what 'risk' really means. More info on the state of evidence here: www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/talcum-powder-and-cancer

Secondly, science isn't decided by the courts, it is decided by the scientific process. Courts and scientists work to very different levels of proof with very different methods. Just because a French court rules a woman should get money because of her claimed electromagnetic hypersensitivity to mobile and wifi waves, doesn't mean such an affliction exists. Actual evidence — tried, tested and retested all over the world — suggests it does not and a judge's gavel cannot render decades of peer reviewed research null and void.
Natural therapy fans, antivaxxers and pseudoscience acolytes often point to these successful personal injury claims as evidence of harm. But they are not. They are evidence of success in a courtroom setting, not a laboratory.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Melbourne: Most Insecure City in the World

Eureka Skydeck, 2013

The Economist Intelligence Unit has named Melbourne the "Most Liveable City in the World" for the sixth straight year. Huzzah! Break out the champagne, but just make sure it's a 1996 Bollinger La Grande Annee Brut. What? You can't afford a $600 bottle of champers? Then too bad, because these rankings aren't for you.

Despite social media crowing from every civic leader from the Premier down, the "Global Liveability Ranking" means very little by itself and means even less to those who already live in those benighted cities fortunate enough to make the cut. Melbourne, like the rest of Australia, is desperate for external—preferably foreign—validation, has taken these rankings and run with them for decades, without actually thinking about what they mean. 

The beneficiaries of this aura of "liveability" are the executives earning a whole heap more than you. These global rankings are generated by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the sister company to the more well-known magazine. The goal of the EIU is to help "businesses, financial firms and governments to understand how the world is changing and how that creates opportunities to be seized and risks to be managed". Translation: they don’t care whether your local public school is falling down, only whether there are quality private schools nearby for executives with expense accounts to send their little darlings to.

The rankings are devised for senior executives schlepping into town (in business class, of course) for a two-year stay to restructure the local business (synergise efficiencies and such, the action formerly known as sacking people) before leaving with a well-earned pay raise and a promotion.

The people for whom these rankings are divined will not be searching for an affordable home within a 60 minute drive of the CBD, nor will they be worried about the quality of public education from their nearest state school. They won't be struggling to find amenable employment or efficient public transport because the issues that matter to you and me will be looked after by their cashed-up, tax-dodging multinational employers. 

Don’t just take my word for how meaningless these rankings are, take a look at this quote from EIU themselves on the top 65 “Most Liveable” cities: “Although 17.2 percentage points separate Melbourne in first place from Warsaw in 65th place, all cities in this tier can lay claim to being on an equal footing in terms of presenting few, if any, challenges to residents’ lifestyles."

Soooo basically, tax-dodging multinationals, you can send your overpaid staff anywhere in that top 65 and they will likely not be stabbed or robbed or fleeced and <zinger>will be free to do same to the local government </zinger>.

This is not to say Melbourne isn't a great city—it is. We have great healthcare by international standards, pretty good schools and an abundance of decent coffee [note to self: pitch EIU Global Coffee Index]. But it's strange to think of Melbourne being up there with Vienna. Both are nice cities, but Vienna has a proximity to Europe that Melbourne simply can't match. It is also the home of many international institutions and global initiatives that are simply more important to the world than, say, the Australian Open. It also has dumptruck loads more culture than Melbourne, a functioning public transport system (one that has been updated since the 1930s) and, most importantly, the Leica Shop.

But remember, regardless of how relevant this ranking is, we still beat Sydney. And that’s the important take home lesson from all this: Sydney sucks.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Imperial Evidence

Well done, voters of Queensland (ABC)
I'm usually fairly derisive of Q&A. I regularly admonish its fans and audience as being part of #QandAland, a happy land where harsh political realities cease to exist and we all sing kumbaya around a camp fire, holding hands with a leather-jacketed Malcolm Turnbull who has taken his rightful place as the leader of the Liberal Party (polite applause).

Most of the time, it is a pretty terrible exercise in inertia that gives Fairfax its main news stories for the next week. Sure, it's fun seeing Richard Dawkins and "Big" George Pell field incendiary questions about how evolution is just a "theory" or if an atheist can be a good person, but it's less a debate than a sideshow. There will never be a middle ground reached—there can't be—and the producers are perfectly happy to keep it that way.

Occasionally, however, the show can be revelatory. Duncan Storrar's questioning of a hapless Kelly O'Dwyer demonstrated how out of touch the Turnbull government was (and is), and how low the Murdoch papers will stoop with ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with their noxious world view.

Last night's National Science Week-themed Q&A also offered some gems, along with a great lessons in how to deal with the incurious, ignorant, chemtrail-addled obscurantist bore in your life (c'mon, we all have at least one).

Simple rule: don't argue with Professor Brian Cox unless you are discussing something which is impossible for him to have knowledge of, like the number of cracked Ikea coffee mugs in your cupboard (although he could probably give you a global mean) or on the finer points of Australian New Wave cinema.

One Nation lunatic-elect Malcolm Roberts gave a textbook performance as a conspiratorial nutjob. He challenged Professor Cox to present "empirical" evidence of climate change (it's almost like Malcolm knows what those words mean), and when presented with said evidence, claimed it was doctored. It's classic conspiracy believer stuff, with evidence against their tinfoil worldview appropriated as evidence for their conspiracy.

Think moon landing hoaxers: for them, the extensive photographic and data record of the Apollo program is fabricated, therefore this evidence the average person considers supports the moon landing is seen as evidence against the moon landings in the conspiratorial mind. Any evidence presented by authorities in inherently untrustworthy because it comes from Big Pharma, Big Farmer or the Guvment or Big Space (which is how I assume they refer to NASA).

Even though Brian Cox would have known he would be unlikely to alter Roberts's unfalsifiable position by presenting actual evidence, Cox's approach is a good one to keep in the critical thought toolbox when dealing with nutcases.

First off, Cox presented data. Now, presenting data almost never whips your a conspiracy-minded opponent into contrition, but it's worth a try. At least you know you have evidence to support your contention.
Secondly, when Roberts inevitably objected to the data, Cox asked specific questions as to why he objected. When Roberts claimed the data had been "corrupted" and "manipulated", Cox asked "by who?" By NASA, of course.
For many observers, this will be enough to demonstrate your opponent is a loon. Indeed it was enough for the residents of #QandAland to start laughing. Conspiracy theorists are, by and large, great at creating a compelling macro-scale worldview, but are woeful at detail. Once again, this doesn't change the mind of the conspiracy theorist, but it does deny them credibility among reasonable fence-sitting people.

For #QandAland, this is probably just the first appearance of many by this particular One Nation loon-elect. In an effort to concoct a sense of "balance", the ABC has gone out of their way to make sure fringe individuals like Pauline Hanson and Lyle Shelton get oxygen on programs like Q&A and The Drum. It is even less reason to engage in the alleged "debate" the show engenders.

I think Brian Cox said it best last night on the show when trying to communication the Australian Academy of Science's climate change report to Sovereign Idiot-elect Roberts: "...you can never get any sense on programs like this. They're adversarial things..."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Ultimately, you're unlikely to change the closed mind of a deliberately ignorant individual. As a rational being, you're already at a disadvantage compared to the science denying loon because you require evidence to support your claims—the denier does not adhere to such inconvenient niceties. No amount of peer-reviewed evidence is going lead someone like Roberts along the road to a Damascene conversion.
But not everybody out there is intentionally ignorant. Sometimes, people just receive bad information and carry it with them. So here's advice from UQ PhD student Diana Lucia, as offered on Radio National's Ockham's Razor:
...next time you’re at a dinner party and find yourself sitting next to a science denialist, return the favour, latch onto every illogical inconsistency they throw at you and force them to address it. Find out exactly what they object to and where they have been getting their information from. I doubt you’ll force them to have a sudden epiphany by the time dessert is served, but you can be part of the process that breaks down the barriers to begin to change people’s minds. 

Until next dinner party...

Good resources:
How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic: Responses to the most common skeptical arguments on global warming, Grist.org
Science deniers use false equivalence to create fake debates, Skeptical Raptor
Don’t let denial get in the way of a good science story, The Conversation