Archive 015 (OCT 2004 - 31 DEC 2004)

a dusty old archive by chris lawson

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- stories this archive -

  The slums of Canberra
  Xmas wishes
  La Dolce Vita vs. Un Héros Très Discret
  When fighter pilots fought face-to-face
  Blood writing for real
  Weird MS grammar
  Dealing with uncertainty
  Steamboy: A Very Peculiar Apocalypse
  Simon Brown in Year's Best Horror
  "Argonauts" for Realms of Fantasy
  For whom the Pell tolls
  Big in Bulgaria
  Chapter One
  Parental pride story

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The slums of Canberra

26 DEC 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

The Monster for Health and Ageing, Tony Abbott, has just released the details of the new Medicare package. Of particular interest to GPs is the higher rebate for doctors working in areas of special need. This includes all rural regions, which is reasonable, and all of Tasmania, because apparently Hobart and Launceston are no longer cities. There are also several city areas deemed to be of special need, such as Darwin and outer Melbourne, whose citizens have limited access to healthcare. Of the 28 non-rural areas of special need, 5 are in the ACT and one is Queanbeyan, which might as well be in the ACT. This means that 21% of all Australia's areas of special need are to be found in a territory that holds 1.8% of the population (I've excluded Tasmania's population from this calculation).

I had never realised until now that our national capital was wracked by such poverty. And it is worse than I could have imagined...the median household income in the ACT is 136% of the median Australian household income. By simple deduction, we can surmise that the poor people in Canberra must be much, much poorer than the poor people in the rest of Australia. In fact, assuming the population of Canberra has the same proportion of wealthy people as, say, Sydney, we can calculate that the poorest vingtile of Canberrans must earn a negative income.

Please, next time you meet someone from Canberra such as a political adviser, a senior public servant, or a diplomat, offer them shelter and a meal.


Xmas wishes

24 DEC 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

The United Nations aren't.

Free trade isn't.

Peacekeepers don't.

Whatever your religion, philosophy, or politics, I guess we can all agree that world could change for the better. Let's wish for peace in Uganda, democracy in Iraq, and humanity in the Sudan. If you're thinking of donating to charity this Christmas, I humbly recommend the Red Cross, still the most judicious of all the international aid agences, and CARE Australia, which has no religious or political philosophy other than essential humanitarianism.



La Dolce Vita vs. Un Héros Très Discret

19 DEC 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Obligatory Spoiler Alert! You have been warned

I saw my first Fellini film tonight, La Dolce Vita. I am chastened to admit I didn't enjoy it very much. I have seen other critics' takes on it, including those whose opinions I appreciate, but I honestly can't see why it is held in such high regard. Sure the camerawork is astonishing, the performances exemplary, and there are moments of genuine cinematic genius...but the fact of the matter is that this is a movie about a man's pointless life that illustrates its message with repetitive scenes of pointlessness. For three hours.

I suspect that the critics who love the film are bringing a lot of their own baggage into their appreciation -- much as my love for Les Enfants du Paradis is enhanced by my knowledge of its history, which has nothing at all to do with what goes up on the screen. Fellini made La Dolce Vita in 1960 with a narrative structure that would be utterly alien in Hollywood. It trangresses a lot of sexual boundaries in ways that were extremely provocative in its time, but now look almost naturalistic. It was the film that introduced (indirectly) the word "paparazzi" from the name of one if its characters, Paparazzo. And the opening sequence is gobsmackingly good film-making. I shudder to think how much effort Fellini put into the way the shadows work in those first images. For film buffs in 1960 with a desperate appetite for something outside the Hollywood straight-jacket, I can see why this would have an impact...but its flaws more than outweigh its successes. It is way too long. It satirises intellectual preening, but satire should be funny and pointed rather than excruciatingly dull. Worst of all is the dreadful psychologising. In continental Europe of that era, incoherent political-psychological commentary was sophisticated; looking back on it from the vantage of a half-century's experience of pop-psychology implemented by political force, it is downright embarassing.

Last year's French-Canadian The Barbarian Invasions deals with this issue, when an ageing and dying Marxist intellectual admits how gauche he was when he once complimented a Chinese woman on the Cultural Revolution. Of course, like the contemporary viewer, The Barbarian Invasions has the advantage of hindsight. Fellini did not have that advantage; but then neither did Orwell, Greene, or Camus -- or Shakespeare and Chaucer for that matter -- yet they managed to avoid the trap of constructing flimsy post-hoc psychological explanations for the sake of unlikely plot contrivances.

There are some extraordinary sequences in La Dolce Vita that will live with me forever, such as the Miracle Tree scene, which remarkably manages to conjoin cynicism and humanism, but almost everything of interest takes place in the first half of the film, and thereafter it's a ninety-minute drive to nowhere.

For reasons that are not entirely transparent to me, I would like to compare La Dolce Vita to another foreign film, a 1996 French movie called Un Héros Très Discret. It was marketed to English-speaking audiences as A Self-Made Hero; as usual the direct translation would have made a better title. It is not a Great Film. It won't turn up in any Top 100 lists and doesn't deserve to, but it has something that makes it, for me at least, a vastly superior experience to La Dolce Vita -- and it's not just that you can watch it in half the time it takes to sit through La Dolce Vita.

Un Héros Très Discret stars Mathieu Kassovitz as a young Frenchman just after the Second World War who pretends he was a member of the Resistance. He conjures up the life of a hero because he has an overwhelming appetite for social approval. As is usual for stories about people living a lie, the bulk of the story is taken up with the hero's mimicry of Resistance fighters followed by his increasingly strained efforts to cover the holes in his story. It's classic French farce. But what sets Un Héros Très Discret apart is its completely atypical denouement. Our hero, Albert, is given leadership of a group of men whose job it is to secure the countryside after the war. They receive reports of some chickens going missing and on investigating, uncover a small unit of German soldiers who have been hiding in a forest since the end of the war. The French round them up and find them to be a sorry lot in tattered uniforms, unshaven, and starving. And then something extraordinary happens: Albert finds himself confronted with a situation where he needs to show heroism, not of the standard variety, but a deeply difficult moral choice. He summons up his courage and finds himself capable of rising to the task -- and the next day he disappears to return to his old, anonymous life. Albert has finally discovered what heroism means, and it has little to do with the sort of things that win war medals -- and he doesn't like it in the least. He has no appetite for playing the hero anymore. (In the Hollywood remake, God forbid it would ever happen, the Third Act would show Albert redeeming himself by committing an act of great physical courage, and his detractors accepting him as a hero after all.)

To this jaded filmgoer, the flaws in Un Héros Très Discret give way at the end to an extremely moving and sophisticated resolution, whereas La Dolce Vita ends with a slice of highly contrived symbolism. I know which film I'd rather watch again.


When fighter pilots fought face-to-face

12 DEC 2004 | source The Aerodrome | permalink

As you plug the latest flight combat sim into your Xbox or PS2, spare a thought for a time before radar and air-to-air guided missiles; when synchronising the machine gun with the propellor was Anthony Fokker's design breakthrough that prevented the pilot blowing his own propellor off; when pilots referred to their planes as "flying coffins." I'm talking of the first ever combat aircraft: the planes of World War One.

The very first air-to-air combat kill in history took place in January 1915, when a German plane was shot down by an Allied pilot from a rifle shot.

If it seems extraordinary that the first combat pilots carried rifles into the air with them, just consider what happened when engineers got involved and really made life hard. Frederick Libby, the first American ace, said of the F.E.2b:

When you stood up to shoot, all of you from the knees up was exposed to the elements. There was no belt to hold you. Only your grip on the gun and the sides of the nacelle stood between you and eternity. Toward the front of the nacelle was a hollow steel rod with a swivel mount to which the gun was anchored. This gun covered a huge field of fire forward. Between the observer and the pilot a second gun was mounted, for firing over the F.E.2b's upper wing to protect the aircraft from rear attack ... Adjusting and shooting this gun required that you stand right up out of the nacelle with your feet on the nacelle coaming [sic]. You had nothing to worry about except being blown out of the aircraft by the blast of air or tossed out bodily if the pilot made a wrong move. There were no parachutes and no belts. No wonder they needed observers.

RFC officers demonstrating how to deal with an attack from the rear in an F.E.2b: the observer stands up and faces backwards while holding on to the rearward machine gun for all his life's worth. If the observer is shot or thrown from the plane, the pilot cannot reach the guns and is effectively disarmed. Later models, such as the one pictured, overcame this deficiency by mounting a third Lewis gun in front of the pilot. Here the pilot can be seen aiming his machine gun for the gaps between the legs of the observer and the forward gun. Understandably, the men preferred to give this demonstration on solid ground with the chocks in place.

The Sopwith Camel was a major advance, but hardly safe:

Much like a real camel, this aircraft could turn and bite you. Noted for its tendency to kill inexperienced flyers, many pilots feared its vicious spin characteristics. Until sufficient speed was developed during takeoff, Camel pilots maintained full right rudder to counteract the torque from the rotary engine. Failure to do so often resulted in a ground loop with the Camel crashing on its starboard wingtip. During World War I, 413 pilots died in combat and 385 pilots died from non-combat related causes while flying the Sopwith Camel.

The Germans didn't have it any easier. The Fokker D.VII was designed with assistance from Baron Richthofen himself, although the Red Baron never got to fly it in combat, having being shot down only days before it entered service. The D.VII was considered the supreme combat plane of 1918, but...

When introduced, the D.VII was not without problems. On occasion its wing ribs would fracture in a dive and high temperatures sometimes ignited planes armed with phosphorus ammunition or caused their gas tanks to explode.

And this was the technically superior fighter plane on the front.

It is worth bearing in mind that this was by all measures one of the most extraordinary flowerings of technological development. The Wright Brothers' first powered flight was in 1903; they did not demonstrate in Europe until 1908. For European engineers, powered flight went from a non-existent technology to a critical instrument of battle in six years.

Farman F7 Longhorn
In service 1912
70 h.p. Renault engine
max. speed 59 m.p.h.
wooden frame, like Wright Brothers design

Fokker D.VII
In service 1918
220 h.p. Mercedes engine
max. speed 135 m.p.h.
tube-steel frame, highly maneuverable

And of course the history of WWI aviation contains a reflection, like the world in the sand-grain, of all the stupidity and waste of the Great War. One of the very first pilots to be killed in action was Adolphe Pègoud, a French pilot who was the first European to use a parachute and the first pilot to perform a complete loop. Instead of helping develop the field of aviation with his pioneering spirit, he died age 27, shot down by one of his former students, Walter Kandulsky. Two days later, Kandulsky dropped a wreath from his plane over the place he gunned Pègoud down. Men who loved and respected each other put their minds to killing each other for the sole purpose of preserving the honour of their kings. To get a feel for the scale of the folly that was World War One, multiply Kandulsdky-kills-Pègoud by a factor of 7.2 million.


Blood writing for real

11 DEC 2004 | source sneedle flipsock | permalink

Margaret Ruwoldt has kindly informed Frankenblog of the following item from the Annals of Improbable Research:

As a test of the name-to-bioactive peptide concept, a peptide was designed to have an amino acid sequence that corresponded to the letters of the name of the current US Secretary of State, Colin Powell. The resulting peptide, COLINPOWELL, was chemically synthesized and subjected to a battery of tests...

My goodness, it's "Written in Blood" in action. But wait, as the telespruikers are fond of saying, there's more:

It gave positive results in 50% of tests including: anticancer activity;...immune boosting activity; deleterious effects on plasma coagulation. Studies of the structure of the peptide showed that it resembled portions of naturally occurring proteins. These results indicate that peptide, COLINPOWELL, might have useful biomedical properties...

Well, yes, and random number generators might give winning lotto sequences. Presumably the peptide CONDOLEEZARICE would demonstrate the same properties, only with a greater affinity for GWB receptors.


Weird MS grammar

10 DEC 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

We're all aware of the deficiencies of computer grammar checkers, I hope, but this is particularly bizarre. I wrote this:

"I hear all sorts of fanti stories. I don't believe half of 'em, lad, and I'm sceptical about the other half. But I need to hear 'em told."

Fanti is slang from the WWI trenches meaning mad or insane. Apart from the spellchecker not recognising the word, the paragraph was fine. Then I remembered that the story narrator is writing this down and that in that time, starting a sentence with "But" was considered terribly ungrammatical. So I fused it into one sentence:

"I hear all sorts of fanti stories. I don't believe half of 'em, lad, and I'm sceptical about the other half, but I need to hear 'em told."

MS Word seems to think this is grammatically flawed and that I should substitute "I'm" for "I are." I are!

I are thinking about it, but it sound not right.


Dealing with uncertainty

30 NOV 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

I received two medical letters from specialists recently that I thought I'd share because they illustrate how good physicians deal with uncertainty in the scientific literature. I've removed any identifying details, of course.

Letter #1 is about a woman with trigeminal neuralgia:

She has tried Neurontin, Endep, Tegretol and local anaesthetic injections and a steroid injection in the area without benefit...I think the options are very limited. I would like to try Botox injections because I do them regularly and because of the recent experience with them in other pain syndromes. I have explained to her that this is an unproven application of Botox and that there would be initial problems with slight droopiness of her eyebrow and weakness of the forehead which would wear off over some months.

Letter #2 is about a man with recurrent oesophageal stricture:

I have today changed his Nexium to Pariet in the hope that the smaller size of the Pariet tablets may be passed through the narrowing with much ease and may actually become more effective. I have also put him on some sucralfate 1g three times per day. He is to crush the tablets before taking. This is mainly with the hope that we may be able to heal the raw surface area more quickly and may prevent stricture relapse. However, commencing sucralfate is based on a lot of optimism here rather than evidence.

Emphases added.


Steamboy: A Very Peculiar Apocalypse

28 NOV 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

The creator of Akira is back. Nearly twenty years after the film that launched anime into Western cinemas, director Katsuhiro Otomo has returned with his second feature, Steamboy. Superficially, Steamboy is a very different beast to Akira. Steamboy is set in England during the Industrial Revolution whereas Akira was set in a future Japan, but these films are cut from the same cloth. Both films are obsessed with ways of conveying motion. Both films explore the destructive powers of technology. Both films build to a technological apocalypse.

As animated art, Steamboy is extraordinary. The availability of CGI has opened up new avenues to explore, and Otomo does so with a delirious joy that borders on the compulsive. This is both its blessing and downfall. Even without CGI, the hand-drawn motion effects of Akira were more gripping. The problem with CGI is that it makes it too easy to fall for the Crescendo of Explosions that has become the standard ending (I refuse to use the word climax) in Hollywood action movies. Otomo is no Hollywood hack -- he turned down Hollywood financing because of the strings that came attached. Although there are plenty of explosions in Steamboy, they are not the dominant visual trope. But Otomo falls for his own melancholy steampunk version of the Giant Meaningless Explosion. In Steamboy, the explosions are replaced by bursting pipes, clouds of steam, and crumbling edifices. They are all highly symbolic, but towards the end of the film the sheer repetition leaches all sense of spectacle. Instead of being jolted, the audience is numbed. Oh look, another crumbling building! And there's another pipe bending! Look, more steam! Whelan the Wrecker comes to the Turkish baths!

As a story, Steamboy starts beautifully: Ray Steam is a young lad living with his mother in Manchester while his father and his grandfather are away in America building dangerous new steam machines. There is a stunning early scene where an engine running a weaving factory loses control and it is up to young Ray to turn the machine off. I remember an engineer telling me that factory lines, like ocean liners, have momentum and you can't just stop them dead with the press of a button. Here Otomo's fetish for the minutiae of machines works to brilliant effect. The power and fear of rampaging machinery is conveyed compellingly.

And then the wheels fall off. Young Ray receives a package from his grandfather in Boston, with a note telling him not to let it fall into anyone's hands. Barely minutes later, two menacing henchmen appear at the cottage and start making veiled threats...and a few minutes after that, the grandfather himself appears in person to tell Ray what he has already said in the letter! Narrative coherence is not Otomo's strong suit. From there Steamboy degenerates into an unsubtle examination of good scientists vs. bad scientists, vox-pop diatribes about the evils of science, and ridiculous symbolism that kills any possibility of suspending disbelief.

There are very clever elements in Steamboy. I was particularly taken with the idea of taking Robert Stephenson, the designer of the Stephenson Rocket, and turning him into an Industrial-Age secret agent for the Empire. As a lover of steampunk, I was delighted by tbe decision to set the story entirely in Manchester and London and the Crystal Palace. There are some excellent patches of dialogue ("Simon, what is going on?" "We seem to be at war with England, Miss." "Simon?" "Yes, Miss?" "Don't lose.") in an otherwise moribund script. And there is a moment when Roy's father, who lost his arm in an industrial accident and built himself a new one, pilots a giant steam-powered citadel by pushing his mechanical arm into the machine and having the cogs of his arm merge with the cogs of the control system. This is gorgeous stuff. This is man/machine identity crisis. This is steampunk.

So it is a great pity that Otomo cannot develop the story beyond an insultingly simplistic parable which only seems to end because the budget for wanton destruction ran out. Steamboy looks great and has moments of delight, but any joy is soon suffocated by undisciplined story-telling, blatant and patronising evangelising to the audience, and imagery so repetitious that it becomes hard to tell one scene from another. See it if you like that sort of thing.

For background, read Japan Times on the production timeline. There's a sad story buried in there.


Simon Brown in Year's Best Horror

24 NOV 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Friend and collaborator Simon Brown will be in the next volume of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. His story "Water Babies" was chosen by editor Ellen Datlow as one of the top thirty or so stories for the year published anywhere in the world. It's a great achievement. It's also a feather in the cap for Cat Sparks, who edited the Agog! anthology the story first appeared in. Cat has done more for Australian genre fiction in the last five years than anyone else I know. Congratulations to ye both.


"Argonauts" for Realms of Fantasy

24 NOV 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

I received an email yesterday telling me Shawna McCarthy has decided to buy my 10,000-word Ancient Greek Grand Guinol pastiche story "Countless Screaming Argonauts." I think. I'm going to celebrate anyway. You have no idea how hard it is to find a professional market for a 10,000-word Ancient Greek Grand Guinol pastiche story.


For whom the Pell tolls

14 NOV 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Cardinal George Pell, the archconservative ex-archbishop has made another public statement that will stand in the Museum of Fools Hall of Fame. Pell is calling for a change to democracy. He wonders how we can justify democracies that allow abortions and gay marriages. He doesn't seem to understand that the basic principles of democracy mean that churches don't get to dictate state policy. Even more bizarrely, he actually claims that liberal democracy "engenders" religious intolerance. Coming from a senior representative of one of history's greatest instigators of religious violence, this statement beggars belief. (In news tomorrow: how the Spanish Inquisition would never have been convened if not for the Jews and witches, and how the root cause of the orthodox schism was the lack of hospitality Constantinople showed the Fourth Crusaders.)

I was going to write a careful, point-by-point rebuttal of the Cardinal's statement, but then I realised there was no point. His comments are so off-beam as to indicate that he has lost all touch with reality. What is the point in responding to the comments of a man who gets about in a red frock telling people what God thinks? The man should be institutionalised. Wait a minute --


Big in Bulgaria

14 NOV 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Jack Dann has just sent me a cheque. Apparently he's managed to sell the rights to Gathering the Bones to Bulgaria. The cheque is for US$8.62, which means I get to bank $1.20 at today's exchange rate, after bank fees. I'm not going to bother. This is one of those cheques that is worth more as a memento than as money. (Sorry, Jack. Hope it doesn't screw up your reconciliations.)

I'm very pleased to be published in Bulgaria, but the economic realities are clear. If you really want to know what it's all about, have a read of The Truth About Publishing, Ian Irvine's new warts-and-all article about the realities of being a writer. Ian is not some schmuck with a chip on his shoulder about lack of success; he is one of Australia's most respected fantasy writers. (This link was brought to my attention by Sean Williams.)


Chapter One

13 NOV 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

OK. I've just finished the first chapter of what I hope will be the final draft of Proof of Concept before I submit it to be torn apart by agents, editors, and publishers. I've been slow as a snail on Serepax, I know. But Christ, this is hard work and I've had a lot of other things on my plate. Still, I'm happy with this chapter. It has a pretty damn good hook. At least, I think so. This is how the chapter ends:

...It remains to be seen if the lesson Harry and I have learned is of any use at all. We might achieve nothing. We might even make things worse. If we're still alive next week, we might be able to say.

It's not quite there yet. The cadences aren't quite right. But the idea's there. Now try to imagine it in context...


Parental pride story

16 OCT 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

My son Alex just turned six. The other day, he was drawing shapes and I heard him say, "a corner...a corner...another corner...another corner...." and so on. I asked him what he was drawing and he said, "It's a googolagon!"

Not a bad invention. The real term is a googolgon, not a googolagon, and a googolgon has so many corners that you can't actually see them (by that I mean a googolgon drawn several times the size of the observable universe would be circular down to the sub-Planck level). And Alex doesn't have a real understanding of what a googol is, other than that it's a REALLY big number. Still, I was impressed.

Here's an image of the birthday boy enjoying less intellectual pursuits.