Saturday, December 30, 2006

More festive season kudos

I want to nominate the following statement of Australian Prime Minister John Howard as a leading contender for the 2006 prize for Most Meaningless Statement by a Head of Government.

“I wouldn’t have any objection, none whatsoever. I’m serious, quite serious,” Mr Howard said when asked if he would want [a nuclear power station next door to where he lives].

Coming from someone who will never ever have to live next door to a nuclear power station, this would have to be a dazzling contender for the prize – even in a strong field populated by many of his own past utterances, and those of his good buddy, US President George W Bush.

I’d also like to nominate the journalists, who recorded that pearl without bursting into uncontrolled laughter, for the 2006 prize for Unmoved Stoicism in the Face of Absurdity.

Reputation precedes accomplishment

Kudos to Kathy in comments for delivering a fine contender for Joke of the Festive Season:

Scottish old timer in a bar talking to a young man:

“Lad look out there to the field. Do ya see that fence? Look how well it’s built. I built that fence stone by stone with me own two hands. I piled it for months. But do they call me McGregor the Fence Builder? Noooo ...”

Then the old man gestured at the bar.

“Look here at the bar. Do you see how smooth and just it is. I planed that surface down by me own achin’ back. I carved that wood with me own hard labour, for eight days. But do they call me McGregor the Bar Builder? Noooooo ...”

Then the old man points out the window.

“Eh laddy, look out to sea. Do ya see that pier that stretches out as far as the eye can see? I built that pier with sweat off me back. I nailed board by board. But do they call me McGregor the Pier Builder? Nooo ...”

Then the old man looks around nervously trying to make sure no one is paying attention.

“But ya fuck one goat ...”

Friday, December 29, 2006

Goat Friday

image source wikipedia

Goat devotees will be delighted to learn that residents of the Swedish town of Gävle have been celebrating that their town’s giant straw goat made it past Christmas Day without being prematurely incinerated.

The closest it came to destruction was ten days before Christmas, when its right leg was slightly charred after being doused in petrol and set alight.

Do remember, however, that the Gävlebocken has to survive until the official bonfire on New Years Eve, so there remains still a wide window of opportunity for would-be illicit goat torchers.

My question: With the goat having been treated with flame-retardant, how the hell are they going to burn it come New Years Eve?

By the way, those with an unhealthy interest in oversized straw goats may view the Gävlebocken via webcam from here. An overview of the Gävlebocken’s troubled history may be puzzled over here.

In other yuletide goat-oriented news, it’s reported that a goat in a live nativity gave birth to twins at a church in southwest Florida, USA.

Previous Goat Friday
Christmas Goat Friday

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tug of love proposed

In an earlier post I outlined the danger posed by the near-Earth asteroid Apophis, which it is thought may smash into our blue Earth in the year 2036.

According to a news item this week, NASA is on the case “drawing up a shortlist of ideas to be unveiled early next year for diverting” Apophis from its potentially disastrous course.

“NASA’s plan,” we’re informed, “is to engineer a minor shift in the asteroid’s trajectory that would make it miss Earth by a wider margin on this and all subsequent passes.”

The most favoured option to accomplish this appears to be the deployment of what’s known as a “gravitational tractor”. The principle is outlined in the article from the November/December issue of Australian Sky & Telescope magazine from which I drew for my previous post:

Park a spacecraft in close proximity to the asteroid, cant it’s highly efficient solar- or nuclear-powered ion thrusters to the side so their plumes don’t hit the object, and hover beside it for several months or more with long, continuous thrusting. Due to the spacecraft’s and asteroid’s gravitational attraction on each other, the vehicle effectively tows the rock along with it using gravity as the towline.

If we launched a tugboat to Apophis before the 2029 close approach, we would only need to move the asteroid a few hundred metres to miss the 2036 keyhole, rather than several thousand kilometres to miss the entire planet. The tiny change in the asteroid’s orbit could be accomplished with only a 1-tonne solar-electric-propulsion spacecraft similar to NASA’s low-cost Deep Space 1 mission.

According to this week’s news item,

Lu calculates that a 20-tonne craft gently firing its thrusters could safely deflect a typical 198m asteroid in about a year, assuming there was 20 years of warning to launch and get the blocker into position.

Lu’s approach is far more cautious than that proposed by Hollywood in films such as Deep Impact or Armageddon. In the latter, the character played by Bruce Willis dies leading a team of astronauts who drill into an Earth-bound asteroid to plant a nuclear weapon that destroys it, and him along with it.

Lu and others say such an approach would increase the threat by turning a single piece of rock into smaller chunks that could bombard the planet.

Indeed, let’s hope Lu’s smart ideas win the day over certain ham-fisted mainstream approaches. We must certainly resist the reflex to throw bombs at yet another problem.

Thought-nannying continues

Herald Sun columnist Paul Gray gets another run in The Australian today, continuing his crusade against the “endemic anti-Western bias” he believes is being propagated by our Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

What Gray means by this alleged “anti-Western bias” is anyone’s guess, since he again fails to instantiate any examples of systemic propagandising or disinformation being promulgated in ABC programming. He claims the ABC’s bias to be “one of the central problems in our national media”, and “a problem I have observed both at close first hand and at the distance of consumption of ABC broadcasting products.” But his readers are left none the wiser for all this apparent breadth of experience.

So, from the outset, one has the impression that this is just another set-piece of Gray’s that will be embraced by his fellow-travelling thought-nannies and panic elves, while the rest of us either read on with bemused indulgence, or simply tune out.

For openers, Gray bemoans the fact that the ABC’s new director of editorial policies, Paul Chadwick, has rejected the role of “chief censor” for the national broadcaster. Many might applaud Chadwick’s abjuring the role of some kind of Stalinist commissar. But not Paul Gray.

In fact, true to his Stalinist thought-nannyism, Gray proposes “nothing less than the complete philosophical re-education of those ABC staff members engaged in intellectual tasks.” Hmm, perhaps they could be interned in re-education camps, which could be self-funded and self-sustaining by having the inmates grow their own vegetables, and recycle their effluent. It would be good for their taxpayer-funded souls.

Gray presents a brief sketch of the blanket philosophical failings of ABC staff:

The ABC represents the Australian intellectual class in miniature. The journalists, writers and artists who make up that class suffer broadly from the confused values that have characterised Western intellectual elites since the late 19th century. There is political passion without historical knowledge. There is philosophical scepticism, without the well thought-out metaphysical beliefs to make that scepticism useful. There is a nihilistic tendency that goes beyond the call of reason, and summons those afflicted with it to a fundamentalist rejection of the society in which they live, and which on the whole treats them very well.

Where to begin? For a start, the problem of “political passion without historical knowledge” is one that afflicts ideologues at all points in the political spectrum.

“Nihilistic tendency”, eh? Sounds serious! Is this the thin end of the wedge that will see a case of full-blown nihilism take root at Aunty? Or perhaps this is just a case of one person’s nihilism being another’s approach to free enquiry. The catastrophist panic of certain thought-nannies, it might be observed, also “goes beyond the call of reason”.

Then there’s the implication that the ABC should be a loud-hailer for someone’s “well thought-out metaphysical beliefs”. Whose exactly? Paul Gray’s? The Prime Minister’s?

Gray seems not to grasp that perhaps consumers are capable of making up their own minds – that perhaps the “philosophical scepticism” he notes with such ambivalence may be a function of the ABC not exhibiting partisan tendencies, particularly with regard to the government of the day.

But, for Gray, the crux of the problem is the failure of ABC intellectual workers “to learn the basic outlines of Western metaphysical discourse: the tension between utopian political ideologies and the doctrine of original sin, for example.”

In essence, this is about differing conceptions of the perfectibility of human nature – again, a topic on which most people will come to their own judgements. Gray’s couching of this philosophical issue in terms of his Christian beliefs pretty squarely indicates where he’s coming from and where he’s leading to.

Gray, a disciple of Mark Steyn, is a staunch defender of the “traditions of Western civilisation” – those traditions being defined in terms of his Judaeo-Christian underpinnings. These are the traditions that gave us, among other things, the present calamity of Iraq, a misadventure Gray at first defended, before later recanting.

While there’s much about Western civilisation to applaud, there’s nothing in Western tradition that precludes holding its achievements up to the cold, hard light of sceptical scrutiny. In fact, the supposed self-correcting tendency of Western civilisation is held to be among its major strengths. Why do thought-nannies like Gray want to correct that tendency?

Well, maybe the ABC, for all its faults, has “the balance” about as right as it could be. Those faults are inevitable, given the day-to-day pressures to produce thought-provoking content, as opposed to bland panegyrics on our virtues as a civilisation. If folks such as Paul Gray want something else, they can perhaps look forward to another taxpayer-funded visit by über-nannies like Steyn.