Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Positive Feedback Cycles

Posted by hyperpat on March 3, 2009

The latest news on the economic front is all bad. Housing starts down, resales of homes down, unemployment up, reduced profits or losses being reported by company after company, more bank bailout money required just to keep the tottering ship afloat, etc.

Not so long ago, everything was booming. Then a little fly started to appear in the ointment: the default rate on sub-prime mortgages started to climb. No biggie, right? After all, how many of these types of mortgages were there compared to the normal, ‘safe’ mortgages? What people forgot about, or didn’t understand, was the huge multiplier effect that occurs in what’s known as the derivative market. Lots of sub-prime mortgages were packaged up together and sold as a security that paid handsome interest rates. Lots of people bought these securities, and many banks did too. With the uptick in default rates, all of a sudden it became somewhat problematical whether it could continue to pay out that interest. Their ‘risk’ factor was now higher, so to compensate for the increased risk, the base value of these funds went down. Now comes the multiplier effect: most of these securities were purchased effectively on margin: often only 10% of the real price was being paid upfront, with the rest borrowed. At this kind of margin, a 5% drop in the base price translated to a 50% drop in the net value to the securities holder, a 10% drop basically wiped its value out. All of a sudden, large banks found that they had huge losses piling up in these securities. These heavy losses ate up the bank’s working capital, leaving them with little or no money to lend out, and a requirement to replenish their capital to meet Federal regulations which are designed to protect those who have put money into a bank. Where can that new capital come from? Investors. But if they are putting money into these banks, they are not putting it elsewhere in other types of companies, so the overall effect is a drop in the entire stock market.

With reduced stock prices and banks not willing or able to lend money, many companies put on hold or canceled plans to expand. Other companies that supplied these companies suddenly saw projected orders disappear, and they cut back expenditures, salaries, and employees to compensate. As more and more employees found themselves out of job, more and more mortgages, even of the ‘prime’ type, fell into default, making a glut on the housing market of properties the banks needed to unload at any price just to salvage something on their investment, driving housing prices down, which made it near impossible for many people to re-finance or be willing to do home improvements and also affected their outlook about any other type of large outlay, such as buying a new car. Fewer people buying fewer things = less profit for the companies that make such things = lower stock prices = more cutbacks and layoffs = more mortgages in default = still lower housing prices = still lower consumer confidence = fewer people buying fewer things. This is what’s known as a positive feedback cycle.

The question is, where does it end? What is needed to break this cycle? The last truly major recession took the impetus of WWII to really break the cycle. All the public work programs, bank credit fixes, and deficit spending that was implemented between 1933 and 1939 didn’t break this cycle – at most these items prevented the economy from complete collapse here in the US (Germany did experience that complete meltdown, but it had other special factors that made things worse there).

Breaking a cycle like this can be attacked at any of the points within it. Any action that improves consumer confidence, makes companies more likely to expand and hire new people, puts more spendable cash in people’s pockets, increases sales and/or prices of homes or consumer goods, gives people and companies a positive road-map to the future where planning to do and get new things has a high probability of becoming true, all could work.

The current actions by the government are trying to attack exactly these items. The only real question is, are they putting enough money into all of these fronts to make a significant difference? The lesson from the Great Depression is that it really takes a lot more ‘stimulus’ than most people and politicians can even begin to imagine, and I’m afraid that the current amounts being bandied about are going to amount to too little, doled out over too long a time frame. Current US GDP is estimated at about 14 trillion/year. The stimulus package is currently touted as somewhere around 800 billion to 1 trillion, with a lot of that not being available immediately, but only in future years. Only perhaps 300 billion is going to seen immediately (in the next three months). Which means we’re trying to influence the movement of the entire US economy by spending about 2% of its total size. Worse, part of that stimulus is going to be offset by tax and fee hikes by various state governments desperately trying to balance their own budgets in the face of declining income.

I’m afraid, given the current planned course of action, that this current nasty feedback cycle is going to continue for quite some time, and get a lot worse, before the appropriate amount and kinds of stimulus are voted through that can really break this spiral.

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Posted in Economics, Politics | Leave a Comment »

The Lord of the Rings, Happily Revisited

Posted by hyperpat on March 2, 2009

I re-watched the entire Lord of the Rings movie set Saturday and Sunday, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Now I know that there were some people who were highly upset with some of the liberties that Peter Jackson took with book, such as eliminating the section on the Scouring of the Shire, the Boromir/Faramir thing, the dropping of Tom Bombadil, etc, etc, etc. But regardless of these ‘infractions’, the end result is gorgeous, absorbing, and totally captures the feeling of the book. There are damned few movie adaptations of novels out there that can say that. I sincerely hope, with fingers crossed, that with this example in front of them, the people doing the movie version of The Hobbit won’t screw it up,

I’m also aware of some of the criticism that the book has received over the years, such as the class distinctions between Sam and Frodo, the obvious parallels (no matter how vigorously denied by Tolkien himself) between the industrialization of England and Saruman’s efforts with Isengard and the World War, the book’s simplification of what compromises good and evil, it’s long descriptive passages and side trips to some of the history from the First and Second Ages, it’s heavy borrowing from folk legends of Northern Europe, and quite a few other nit-picks. And in the end, that’s all the criticism amounts to, is nitpicks. It’s a great novel that succeeds of many levels; it’s a great ‘pure’ adventure story, it’s a finely honed commentary on some of the worst social evils of the twentieth (or any) century, it’s characters have deeper and deeper depths to them the more you look closely, and it appeals to nearly everyone’s sense of magical wonder.

I’m sure that eventually someone will write another fantasy work as good or better than this (one candidate for which is currently in progress but which may take quite a while to finish), but for the moment, this work still reigns supreme.

Posted in Book Reviews, Movies, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 4 Comments »

The Creative Schedule

Posted by hyperpat on February 26, 2009

There’s been a little flap lately over just what an author owes his readers, if anything, especially as it pertains to the time between books in a series. It started with George R. R. Martin’s post to his detractors who are moaning about when Dance With Dragons (the next volume in the Song of Ice and Fire series) will be published, which in turn has occasioned comment by Charles Stross and John Scalzi.

Now to my way of thinking, once an author embarks on a story that’s too large to fit in one volume, he does at least have an implied obligation to those whose purchase the first volume to eventually finish the story. However, and this is a big qualifier, when he does so is strictly up to the author. As Scalzi points out, if the author rushes the job to get that next volume out, the quality will suffer, and those who were eagerly awaiting this next installment in the story are going to be disappointed and unhappy. Alternatively, if the author takes so long to get that next installment out that everyone has totally forgotten the earlier parts of the story, this will not bode well for either his sales or for keeping his fan base (here specifically I’m thinking of things like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series – 20 year gaps are not conducive to maintaining interest).

As Stross points out, there are basically two kinds of extended stories: those that basically have multiple complete stories all based in the same universe, perhaps with same characters, perhaps not (Norton’s Witch World set is a good example of this type), but certainly each volume can pretty much be read independently of the rest of the series; and those where it is really just one long extended story, where you really must read from volume 1 to volume n in order to grasp the entire story (and here Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire certainly qualifies). Each type has advantages and disadvantages.

The first type has the distinct advantage of the reader being able to get full satisfaction from any single volume, and where his expectation level is that he would like to see more stories set in this world, but he won’t feel abandoned if those volumes never appear or only show up many years later. However, the requirement to tell a complete story in one volume limits its scope and does not allow for as complex a world or depth of character building as the second type.

The second type is a great challenge to the author and potentially can be a mesmerizing story that completely immerses its readers in a fully realized world – the canvas is large, with plenty of room to properly develop all the ins and outs of the story, where complex multiple sub-plots can intertwine, characters can change at realistic paces, and be given enough room to become living, breathing people. Its disadvantage is that it is complex, takes a long time write, with always the possibility that other life happenings will eventually interfere with its timely completion, or simply that the author loses motivation to finish it, with other ideas and projects coming to seem more interesting. And it generates an expectation in its readers that more of the story will be forthcoming real soon now. Authors really should consider this factor before embarking on such a project (though I know that sometimes a story just grows, and becomes far longer than what was originally intended). Once he decides he really wants to write this story, he really should do his best to finish it as soon as is possible while still maintaining his own standards of excellence. This is really the author’s only obligation: to do his best.

Those who moan and whine and send nasty emails to the author demanding that the next volume be delivered right now are not helping. In fact, besides being rude and crass, such badgering of authors may end up causing the target author to just abandon the project. Fans who act like this should be beaten over the head with a politeness stick. Creative works are not like cars, producible on a set schedule, and fans really need to get hip to that fact.

I’ll certainly get Dance with Dragons and read it with enjoyment, whenever it makes its appearance. The series so far is both captivating and excellent, and has all the hallmarks of eventually becoming one of the great fantasy stories ever told. If it takes Martin another three years to get this next volume right to his satisfaction, so be it.

Posted in Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 3 Comments »

The Academy and Animation

Posted by hyperpat on February 24, 2009

Stupid me, I went and watched the Academy Awards show on Sunday. What I saw was an almost complete disparagement of animation and science fiction, as if neither of those categories was really worth any consideration by the Academy. Yes, Wall-E took best animated picture, but that was almost a given – there was nothing else out there remotely approaching its quality in animation land. But, and this is a big but, it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, even though (IMO) it was clearly better than a couple of the movies that did get a nomination nod. Iron Man was almost completely ignored, and The Dark Knight got only what everyone expected.

Now it could be argued that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is sf – but I think it really belongs in the fantasy camp, or perhaps ‘magical realism’. Regardless, the focus of this movie is not on the mechanism of his reverse aging, but rather what that does to his personal relationships. It might also be noted that some of film techniques used in this movie are traveling into the world of animation, especially in the early scenes which have heavy CGI graphics. Apparently such work is acceptable if it’s a ‘live action’ movie.

The query becomes, why did this movie get nominated and not Wall-E? I think it has a lot to do with the ‘quality’ of its origin, being based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald – and as such, shows up something that I think has been present in the Awards process for a long time: the snob factor. This is not to say that I don’t think Button shouldn’t have been nominated – it’s a fine movie. But The Reader, Milk, and Frost/Nixon are what I consider to be marginal entries.

Maybe someday the Academy will get hip to the fact that some of the best stories, acting, and overall movie experience today are being produced in animation land, and are given nominations and awards on an equal basis with live action movies – but I wouldn’t count on it soon.

In the meantime, I’ve already nominated Wall-E for the Hugo Award, and will vote for it when that time comes. But getting that award may seem like small potatoes to the creators of this movie.

Posted in Hugo Awards, Movies, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 2 Comments »

BSG: The Final Five

Posted by hyperpat on February 17, 2009

Battlestar Galactica has had a pretty good run. Throughout most of its shows, it has been marked by a consistent level of good-to-excellent writing and acting. Now it’s trying to wrap itself up and complete the story line, which has led to, well, problems…

It became obvious even as early as season two that when the show was created, it really didn’t have a firm vision of where it would end up. As a consequence, the writers kept adding complications and tangential plot threads with little apparent thought to just how consistent the whole thing was. Centurions, Cylons, humans, the thirteen colonies, New Caprica, resurrection, the twelve (13?!) models of Cylons, the ‘Final Five’, the ‘visions’, the hybrids, the revisions the viewer had to make in his outlook as various Cylons were revealed, with some convenient ‘holes’ in these Cylon’s memories so they could have performed their prior actions thinking they were just humans… this list goes on for quite a ways.

Last Friday’s episode saw a massive info-dump that has started trying to make some sense of all these different threads. As could be expected, some items are being glossed over, some actions are just not mentioned, and there are still some rather large questions about how it all fits together. Still, even given these quibbles, I thought that someone, somewhere, did quite a bit of thought to come up with the explanations they did, and they have managed to almost make some sense out of the whole thing, no small achievement given all the things that have happened on the show. For a more detailed look at this Friday’s episode, see the round table discussion over on Tor.com. (Warning: severe spoilers within this discussion – if you haven’t seen this episode yet, don’t go here).

Now they still have five episodes to go, so there’s still room to wrap up some more of the problems. I really hope they can pull it off, without losing either the sharp dark ambiance or the biting social commentary that has been the hallmark of the best episodes of this show.

Science fiction with the quality of this show has been extremely rare, either on TV or the movies. It is no surprise that this show has developed quite a following of avid fans during its run, nor that it has gathered several awards. I’m crossing my fingers that they will end this show with all of its great qualities still intact.

Posted in Movies, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, TV Series | 1 Comment »

The Gaza Mess

Posted by hyperpat on January 6, 2009

The current press reports about the conflict in the Gaza strip have got me upset. Everyone is complaining about civilian casualties inflicted by the Israeli forces. Now certainly, there really are some of these. But it seems that no one wants to point out why Israel is taking these steps.

If the USA had been subjected to over 3000 rockets fired into its territory in last two years by an organization that had specifically stated that they wish to kill every person in the country, the response would have been dramatic. I seriously doubt that anyone in the US would be calling for negotiations; rather we would have seen an outpouring of ‘wipe these rascals out’ – and do it now, and to hell with ‘collateral damage’.

The Hamas have been in control of the Gaza strip since the elections of 2006. Since that time they have waged an internal civil war to wipe out all their political opponents, removing all members of the Fatah from political positions, enforcing censorship on newspapers, denying any public assembly of Fatah supporters, and have used hospitals and universities as staging grounds for carrying out attacks on the Fatah. They are known to be smuggling in weapons through vast tunnel complexes, something that the Israelis have consistently targeted. They have refused to honor any agreements with any of the other governments involved, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority. It appears that much of their current funding and training comes from Iran. And all during their internal conflict with the Fatah, they have kept a continuous stream of rocket attacks into southern Israel.

No matter how I look at it, the Hamas appear to me to be a militant, religiously fanatic and intolerant bunch of terrorists. The are not deserving of my sympathy. Non-Hamas who are being injured or killed by this conflict are certainly regrettable, but to my way of thinking the best way these civilians can protect themselves is to get rid of these Hamas hooligans themselves. The Hamas cannot remain in power if the population of the area refuses to support them. As long as they do, they must bear the consequences of that support, as they themselves are at least partially culpable for the current mess.

Posted in Politics | Leave a Comment »

Special Effects Do Not a Good Movie Make

Posted by hyperpat on December 12, 2008

Science fiction movies, in terms of special effects, have come a long way. Some of the early movie’s effects were so bad as to cause instant laughter (a toy rocket ship tied on a string, string clearly visible, merrily bouncing in the “winds” of space?). Certainly what is being produced today is far better in terms of sheer eye-candy.

However, all too often, today’s movies concentrate so much on these special effects that they forget that they also need to tell a good, convincing story with believable acting. Some of the older movies, as bad as their special effects were (and just as frequently, atrocious science – but that’s still true today), are still watchable today because of  the fact that the directors of these movies remembered that they were telling a story.  I was forcibly reminded of this by a couple of those older movies that I recently had the chance to watch: The Day the Earth Stood Still and Them!

Now clearly the special effects in The Day the Earth Stood Still are nothing to brag about, but both the story and the underlying message do what good science fiction is supposed to do – make you think about the human condition and how people would respond to “What if..?” I’m very much afraid that the new remake due to hit the theaters shortly will have all it’s emphasis on scenes of massive destruction, to the strong detriment of what the story is all about.

Similarly, Them! doesn’t have much in the way of special effects. The giant ants are clearly either little clockwork models blown up via camera to giant size, or real ants subjected to the same magnification. And the science involved here is pure hokum – insects can’t physically reach sizes like this, as their physical structure can’t support the weight, and their air system would also fail, due to the square-cube law of area versus volume. But at the same time, there are statements made throughout the movie about the habits of real ants that are very much spot-on, and these details are used to make a believable and suspenseful story. It also doesn’t hurt that there is some decent acting going on here. This one is one to watch with your popcorn already in hand, as you won’t want to get up to go get it after the movie starts – it’s a story that grabs.

I have little real hope that most future SF films will remember story first, visuals second. Hollywood looks for and tries to make what sells, and for a very large percentage of those movie-goers who go to see SF films at all, the blow-em-up, stunning visuals are the main reason they go at all. Hollywood will continue to pander to this demographic, its a given, its how they stay in business and make money. But here and there, hopefully there will be a few gems that still remember to tell a fascinating story.

Posted in Movies, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 2 Comments »

One Very Wrong Choice

Posted by hyperpat on November 5, 2008

At this point in time (9AM PST), with 95+% of precincts reporting and with a current 400,000 vote margin, it looks like Proposition 8 banning gay marriages will pass. I am very sorry to see this. A break down of the votes by county shows a very predictable pattern: the urban areas of the state are almost totally against this proposition, while the rural areas are heavily in favor of it, a split that matches up with normal labels of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.

It shouldn’t be this way. Regardless of a person’s general political leanings, this proposition is on its face a direct endorsement of discrimination, a statement that some people are less equal than others. As it is a constitutional amendment, it will be very difficult to fight this in the state court system, and it is unlikely the U. S. Supreme court will take any action, as lacking jurisdiction over state law in the absence of any clear point in the U. S. constitution that would prohibit such a law – although they did take action on interracial marriages in 1967, and it can at least be hoped that this proposition can be attacked on the same grounds.

In an election that saw the first Afro-American president elected, a very nice indication that long held biases and attitudes about race have been overcome to at least some degree, this result indicates that there is still a long way to go to change attitudes about sexual preferences. And the advertising that went on in favor of this proposition was, to my mind at least, absolutely despicable, with their false-to-fact statements and pandering to fear and religious bigotry.

Today, at least, I’m not proud of being a resident of California.

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments »

Space, The Same Old Frontier

Posted by hyperpat on October 30, 2008

Over at SF Signal, there is an extended discussion about whether SF has at least partly caused the current general disinterest in space exploration, occasioned by a comment by Buzz Aldrin to that effect.

My answer to that is yes, it’s at least partly true that some of the presentations of SF, especially those by the visual media, have caused a fair number of people to dismiss space exploration as either silly childish dreams not worth spending money on, or have focused the attention on wildly unrealistic expectations of being able to merrily zip around universe in minutes, against which the real space program’s accomplishments look extremely drab and uninteresting.

But it’s far from wholly true. Again and again, when you talk to the people who are actually involved in doing the real work of space exploration, the scientists and engineers for whom this field is their daily bread and butter, you hear the statement that SF was one of the major things that inspired them to get into the field in the first place. What many forget, when they see the overall lack of interest in space exploration, is that those who actually work in this field of endeavor constitute a tiny fraction of the entire populace. For the great majority, all they see and care about is their shiny new tech toys, their ever more capable Dick Tracy phones, their awesome high-definition flat panel TVs, their amazingly capable video game machines, and these people have no idea how these devices came to be, have no idea of how much effort and money it took to create them, have no concept of the deep infrastructure needed to build them, do not understand the economics driving their development, have no clue about the scientific principles and discoveries that make them possible, nor do they care.

Space exploration is merely the most visible result of what science can accomplish. The real ‘final’ frontier is not space exploration itself, nor has it ever been. The frontier is human knowledge, and additions to that mass of facts has always been the prerogative of a small group of people who just have to know what is over the next hill, who have to understand how a bee flies, who are completely unhappy about things that they can’t explain, who continuously dream about doing something no one else has ever done before. It is exactly this type of person that has continuously driven civilization beyond existing boundaries, has made the average human existence much more than pure subsistence. Every once in a while, the dreams of such people have invaded the space of the average person, and for brief moments have ignited a collective drive to accomplish a particular goal. One such moment was the initial drive to reach the moon. But such moments never last for long, and the average person goes back to his everyday concerns, of putting bread on his family’s table, and money spent on ‘dream’ goals again is looked upon with deep suspicion as not doing anything for them.

Science fiction is all about what is possible. It’s roots are deeply grounded in the concept that there is always something new to discover, and as such it mainly appeals to exactly the type of person who is not satisfied with the status quo, who needs something beyond the everyday to satisfy their internal reason to exist. For this type of person, science fiction stories with imaginative ideas can inspire, and in some cases even lead directly to new discoveries and accomplishments, as the inspired person drives to make that idea a reality. But for the average person, SF is merely another form of entertainment, and when the real world doesn’t provide the same level of drama as what he sees on the movie screen, concludes that it is just fanciful fiction, and doesn’t deserve dollars out of his pocket.

It’s not that SF has killed interest in space exploration, it’s the everyday, humdrum demands of living that have killed it in the absence of any great drama or immediately visible economic benefit. Space exploration is merely one more thing that’s barely visible on the average person’s radar, as it apparently has no immediate, direct affect on his life. And this will probably always be true: the very few will drive what’s new, the great majority will merely stumble on.

Posted in Economics, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Some Last Words on Australia

Posted by hyperpat on October 19, 2008

As I indicated in the prior posts, I used to live in the Miranda area back in 1954-1955, and went to school over in Cronulla. You might wonder why I was there in first place.

The answer is both simple and somewhat important even to current residents of the area. My father used to work for a construction company that specialized in chemical plants. In late 1953, construction was just about done on the Isle of Grain oil refinery just outside of London, England, a very large plant that my father worked on from 1951 to 1953, and the family at that time lived in Maidstone. In 1952, the Sutherland Shire council removed its opposition to the construction of an oil refinery on the Kurnell peninsula and Caltex subcontracted with my father’s company to do some of the engineering work for the planned plant. I think we were originally scheduled to move to Australia about November of 1953, but just at that time there was a major North Sea storm that flooded the plant in England, and my father stayed there a few extra months to help fix up the mess. But in March 1954 we packed up and headed back for a short visit in the US, then continued on to Australia.

Site construction had just begun by then (it started in Dec 1953), and at that time there was only a single auto-navigable road to the area that had just been built (it’s now Captain Cook Drive). Cronulla and the surrounding area had a much smaller population at that time, which is why I remember it as a far more rural environment than it is today.

The plant came on-line in February 1956, but the engineering portion of it that my father worked on finished somewhat earlier, and we left Australia in November, 1955. The plant itself added a major industrial capability to the area, and some have called its construction the beginning of modern industrial Australia. Others have been very unhappy about the ecological impact this plant has made on the area.

The Kurnell Oil Refinery

Posted in General, Places, Travel, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Australia, Day Eight

Posted by hyperpat on October 17, 2008

Another early morning to get back on the plane for yet another flight, returning to Sydney. At this point, we were beyond the tour package and on the part of the trip I’d planned myself. Getting to the hotel from the airport this time was actually a bit easier and faster than when we’d arrived, even though we were the last stop of the shuttle bus. We checked in to the hotel and once more headed for the train station to complete my planned look at my old homestead. This time the sun was shining and we had no pressing engagement, so we took it easy, noticing for the first time the statue just before the Town Hall train station:

Statue commerating Queen Elizabeth II visit

Statue commemorating Queen Elizabeth II visit

Going down to the station itself, we took the other entrance from George street, which actually leads down to all the shops underneath it. As we were really just looking for the station platform, we didn’t pay much attention to the shops, but merrily walked along, until we finally realized we were heading the wrong way, having made a left instead of a right when we reached the entrance point. We got straightened around and headed down to wait for the train:

Me at the Town Hall station

Me at the Town Hall station

This time we got off at the Miranda station. One oddity that we noticed about the train system here is that while the stations in Sydney have the typical turnstiles that won’t allow you in or out without a ticket, this is not true for the outlying train stops such as Miranda or Cronulla. It looked to me like it would be possible to just board the train at Miranda and get off at Cronulla without paying anything, and we never saw anyone coming around to check tickets either on the trains or at these stations.

Smart me, this time I’d actually looked up the way to go from the train station to my old house on the net earlier, so unlike our first trip to this area we didn’t get lost, heading immediately down Kiora Street till we reached President’s Ave:

Heading Down Presidents Avenue

Heading Down Presidents Avenue

Back when I was here in 1954-55, this street was just a small two lane affair. As you can see, they’ve made some upgrades since. Also note the steep dip here, as the road goes down to the Ewey Creek declivity (part of the Hacking River catchment complex). This is now is a poor cousin to what it was when I was last here, with barely any water flow at all:

Hacking River

Ewey Creek (Part of the Hacking River Catchment)

About halfway up the rise from Ewey Creek, we got to the Matson Crescent road and headed down it. Once again, changes are strongly evident, as the homes here are now definitely upper class as opposed to the simple affairs then, with most being of brick rather than wood construction, and there’s a lot more of them:

Upscale house on Matson Crescent

Upscale house on Matson Crescent

We finally reach 54 Matson Crescent, my old home address. What’s there now is a very pretty well kept home, and as we came up to the place, the owner came out, naturally curious as to what a couple of people were doing there madly snapping pictures:

54 Matson Crescent

54 Matson Crescent

I told him that I’d used to live there fifty years ago, and he graciously consented to let us go into his back yard for a look around. He told us that the house I’d lived in had been a little further down the slope to the bay and had been torn down about 1960 and replaced with the current structure. What’s there now is just a little boathouse:

The Little Boathouse

The Little Boathouse

The view from his backyard is still spectacular, looking directly across Yowie bay to the other peninsula. Back when I was here, the other side of the bay was just forest, no buildings, and can remember one enforced period of idleness due to an infected knee when I would look from the living room towards that side, with the occasional boat trundling up the bay.

View from backyard looking southeast

View from backyard looking southeast

At the extreme left of the above picture is the area where I used to go swimming, the Yowie Bay Baths. A little more on this later.

As you can see from the picture below (look at the area just behind the house), nowadays the bay pretty much turns into a mud flat just north of the house. This has been caused by a lot of silting and reduced water flow from things like the Hacking River over the last twenty years or so, and is a continuing problem. Some of houses further up Matson Crescent have their boat jetties sticking out into nothing but mud where there used to be four to five feet of water:

64 Matson Crescent towards Yowie Bay

64 Matson Crescent towards Yowie Bay

Leaving our very nice host, we continued on up Matson Crescent towards the Camellia Gardens and Kareena Park. The road here goes up a little bit from the house, and then downward towards where the Yowie Bay Baths used to be. I have a very vivid memory of being carried up this little rise by one of the teenage girls who had pushed me into the pool there and slicing my foot on the barnacles that covered the steps/pool side at point. I still have about a three inch scar on my foot from that incident, to go along with the scar my brother Mike picked up in that same pool by swimming underwater with his eyes closed till he ran into the enclosing fence:

The little rise from the baths to my old house

The little rise from the baths to my old house

We finally got to Camellia Gardens, which I don’t believe existed when I was there earlier. They’ve created a very nice park area, with a little dammed up pond that ducks and ibis birds seem to like:

Kareena Park Pond

Kareena Park Pond

Ibis birds

Ibis birds

I headed down to extreme edge of the park to reach the bay. Here the silting of bay is really obvious. I looked for some evidence of the old pool, but it’s just not there anymore (it would have been just beyond the little jetty in the photo below):

View from Kareena Park towards the Yowie Bay Bath Reserve

View from Kareena Park towards the Yowie Bay Bath Reserve

Yowie Bay from Kareena Park

Yowie Bay from Kareena Park

This is a google map of the area. Where the old pool was is just at the left edge of and at the very beginning of the mud plain near the center of the map. 54 Matson Crescent is the red-roofed house at the extreme left edge next to the mud/water. Kareena Park is on the right hand side, and where the above photo was taken from is at the southernmost treed point at the end of mud inlet. This former pool area is now referred to as the Yowie Bay Old Baths Reserve.

This is a street map of the area, as posted on a large billboard at the train station.

Miranda Map

Miranda Map

Here’s the type of barnacles that caused our family so much pain:

The Dreaded Barnacles

The Dreaded Barnacles

We left the park and headed up Kareena Street back to Presidents Avenue, completing the entire circuit. Heading back on Presidents, we deliberately took the little pedestrian path by the Ewey Creek to avoid having to go all the way down and back up that dip. On the map above it shows as leading into Kirkby Place. Once again, this area has had big changes. Back in 1955, this walkway was just a little dirt path worn through the underbrush mainly by kids heading up towards the train station. I can remember at least a couple of times when I and my two brothers walked along here on the edge of the steep drop towards the river. Now its nice asphalt with all the underbrush carefully cleared away from the sides.

On the path looking towards the Hacking river

On the path looking towards Ewey Creek

Completing our little hike, we headed back to Sydney, and spent the rest of the afternoon in one last souvenir and gift buying spree. Some of what we picked up:

Aborigine Hunter

Aborigine Hunter

Aborigine Art

Aborigine Art

"Crocodile Dundee" hat

"Crocodile Dundee" hat

Gecko done in wire

Gecko done in wire

For dinner that night we went out to Kingsley’s Australian Steak house on Market Street. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a menu with that many different kinds of steak listed – over 20 of them, and what I eventually ordered was extremely good. For a rarity, as we almost never do so, we also ordered wine with this dinner, an Australian Shiraz, which surprised me as a red wine without that tannin undertaste typical of red wines, and with an excellent bouquet reminiscent of blackberry with a strong fruity taste.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and that was now true for this trip. We had the luxury of sleeping in a bit the next morning, as our plane departure wasn’t till 2:45 PM, but eventually we sadly packed ourselves up and bid farewell.

Looking back over this trip, it now seems apparent that we tried to pack a little too much into it, that we were almost always on the go seeing this or that, with too little time to just sit back and enjoy what we were seeing. On top of this, we barely scratched the surface of all the places and things to see in Australia, not even touching Melbourne, Tasmania, the outback, Ayers Rock, Alice Springs, Brisbane, Darwin, the Gold Coast, any sheep or cattle stations, the intercontinental train ride, the list goes on and on. Of course the major reason for trying to pack so much into so few days is money, as every day there cost us about $300, but after this taste of the country and with so much left to see we have started planning for another, longer trip, hopefully not too far in the future.

I will say that just about every Australian we met there was polite, friendly, and helpful, and while I may have kvetched a bit about the food prices, I think we got great value for our money and time. It’s a beautiful country, one that recognizes the importance of preserving it great natural wonders and historical sites, and while certain places have certainly set themselves up to service the tourist trade, they don’t appear to be over-commercialized and chintzy, like too many attractions in the US.

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Australia, Day Seven

Posted by hyperpat on October 16, 2008

Bright and early the next morning, we headed up to Kuranda village and the Daintree Forest via the Freshwater Scenic Railway.

The Freshwater Train

The Freshwater Train

While the train was nicely appointed and appeared appropriately old-fashioned, I was a little disappointed in the amount of things we could actually see from the train windows, as a good portion of the route up into the mountains had heavy foliage on both sides of the track when it wasn’t otherwise obscured by the rock cliffs the roadbed had been cut through. But the train did make a short stop at Barron Falls, which is certainly spectacular enough:

Barron Falls

Barron Falls

At the Kuranda train station stop, we transferred back to our tour bus, which is certainly uniquely decorated, and finally reached Kuranda Village.

The Tour Bus

The Tour Bus

The major attraction here is the Butterfly sanctuary, which had something like 50 different kinds of butterflies merrily flapping their wings all over the place. These little guys were hard to get on camera, as they wouldn’t stay still most of the time, but we did get a few of them, including the gorgeously colored Papilio ulysses:

Papilio Ulysses

Papilio Ulysses

There was also the Cairns Birdwing:

Cairns Birdwing

Cairns Birdwing

We didn’t actually get to see this guy, but they had a specimen mounted in the display room.

Cosdinoscera Hercules

Cosdinoscera Hercules

It’s the world’s largest moth, with something like an 10″ wingspan (the larger female one shown here). The largest ever recorded had a wingspan of 14″.

Continuing from Kuranda our next stop was the Aborigine Cultural village and the rainforest itself.
Here we got to listen and watch a performance of native dances accompanied by the didgeridoo, a full half hour show that kept us spellbound:

Aborigine Dance Exhibition

Aborigine Dance Exhibition

These dances helped illustrate just how vibrant and ecologically aware the Aborigine culture was, a culture and people that have not been well-treated by the white settlers in this country, a treatment as bad or worse than that meted out to the Native Americans of North America. The country in recent years has moved to redress at least some of the most egregious treatments of this people, but Aborigines (and for that matter just about every other non-white group that has come to Australia) are still treated as at best second-class citizens. This is one record that Australia should not be proud of.

Of course, after that show, we had to learn all about how to play one of these weird instruments, which are formed from wood hollowed out by termites. The termites are heavily present in this area, and sometimes form six foot high mounds.

Didgeridoo Lesson

Didgeridoo Lesson

Next up was a lesson in how to throw a boomerang, absolutely essential knowledge for any Australian wanna-be:

Sylvia and Boomerang 1.01

Sylvia and Boomerang 1.01

My own practice throw was pretty poor, but I think I could get reasonably good at it with some practice. Some of the other people in our group did quite well at it, but there was one (isn’t there always one?) who managed to throw it almost straight up, and it returned practically on top of heads. I suppose that’s the reason that everyone except the thrower is kept inside a roofed wire enclosure, as getting hit by one of these things will certainly give you a long-lasting headache. We purchased a couple of boomerangs here to bring home, these being the genuine article, as opposed to some we’d seen in the various souvenir shops that may have been prettier (and a lot pricier, with some at $500 price tags) but certainly not as functional and strictly intended for tourists.

His..

His..

...and Hers

...and Hers

Next up was a spear throwing demonstration, both directly hand-held and using a woomera, a device that helps increase the distance they can throw. They didn’t let us poor tourists try this one, but it was quite impressive to see the distance they could accurately throw one of these things, and one of the demonstrators holds the Guinness record for an aided throw of 147.5 meters (1 1/2 football fields).

Spear Throwing 1.01

Spear Throwing 1.01

After a pretty good barbecue lunch we then seated ourselves in an old Army Duck for a little excursion through the rainforest.

An Army Duck

An Army Duck

These vehicles are over 60 years old, originally constructed for WWII action, and still running just fine today. Now if our auto industry would still make vehicles this way, you’d only have to buy one car for your entire life. Of course, that would mean the industry wouldn’t be able to sell nearly as many cars, which just can’t be allowed to happen in a capitalistic society. Of course, the top speed of about 5mph of these things probably won’t impress you, but they will allow you to get through some very rugged terrain and/or marshes quite well.

I thought the best part of this little jaunt was when the duck took to the water. While we didn’t observe any crocodiles poking their snouts out, there were turtles and snakes along the way. And our guide stopped at one point to demonstrate the extreme flexibility and sturdiness of the rattan wood, something I have memories of from my school days here, as rattan canes were used for discipline of extreme infractions (their use has now been outlawed in all schools in Australia).

Guide and Rattan

Guide and Rattan

After the rainforest, we took a stroll through the wildlife section of this attraction. While many of the animals were ones we’d observed earlier in Featherdale Wildlife preserve, there were some new ones, like this guy whom I unfortunately didn’t catch the name of: (Now labeled with correct designation thanks to a commentor):

A Quoll

A Quoll

We also got a better shot of one the big cassowaries here:

Cassorwary

Cassorwary

Sylvia got brave and actually went up and touched one of the kangaroos:

Kangaroos Can Be Nice

Kangaroos Can Be Nice

This day was still not done, as we still needed to get back to Cairns, for which purpose we took 7.5 kilometer Skyrail cable car ride over the rainforest (Sylvia once again surprised herself at calmly accepting this move to high in the sky).

Katoomba Skyrail cable car

Skyrail cable car

The views from the car were awesome, at some places just barely skimming over the tops of the trees, and allowing a view down to the forest floor some 200 ft lower, at others giving us a panoramic view of the entire area.

Over the river

Over the river

At the Top of the Forest

At the Top of the Forest

View towards Cairns

View towards Cairns

We finally got back to Cairns, and decided on a simple dinner, so we went to the local MacDonalds (yes, they’re everywhere). This allowed us to make a direct price comparison to American food prices. I found my standard Double-Quarter-Pounder combo meal at $14 AUD. Even applying the then current exchange rate, that translates to about $12.50 US, a lot more than the US price. Prices here are definitely high. After dinner,and this very long sight-filled day it was time to pack up and get ready for the flight back to Sydney in the morning.

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Australia, Days Five and Six

Posted by hyperpat on October 14, 2008

We left Sydney early the next morning, with the usual idiocy of the airport, and arrived at Cairns about 11AM. By the time we got to the hotel, it was almost noon, but our room was not quite ready yet, so we checked our bags with the concierge and went for a little walk around the hotel, just to see what was there. Unfortunately, it was pretty hot, and after about a half mile of walking I found myself in bad shape:

Me at the hotel after our little walk

Me at the hotel after our little walk

From the way I felt, it was probably a case of dehydration, as I was very flushed, light-headed, weak, and felt hot even in the air-conditioned hotel lobby, which we returned to to wait till our rooms were ready. While waiting, Sylvia had some fun taking pictures of herself, trying out some the camera’s capabilities that she hadn’t really been aware of up till now. Once we finally got in our rooms, I took a little rest, which made me feel much better, and we decided to do a little more exploring, since it was now night and not as hot. We took a walk out to the wharf, scoping out where we’d have to go the next morning for our Great Barrier Reef trip, and returned via the Esplanade, on the lookout for a good place to eat. This was done in the rain that had decided to drench the area. While walking by all the shops, we came across one that had a stuffed kangaroo in the window display, and Sylvia naturally wanted to take some pictures up next to it:

Sylvia and Stuffed Kangaroo

The picture taking activity attracted the attention of the store owner, a nice middle aged lady, and we got into a conversation about where we were from and such. Eventually the talk turned to politics and the latest on the financial catastrophe happening on Wall Street. She greatly surprised us with how knowledgeable she was with the American scene, knowing more about happenings in our country than many people in the US. She knew who our Presidential candidates were, what their platform positions entailed, the general economic status of the country, the specifics of the current sub-prime mortgage lending mess, what our Congress’s proposed actions were, and had opinions on what effect those actions would have on her own country’s economic health. It would probably be impossible to find an American who could talk knowledgeably about Australian politics like this! We must have talked with her for an hour. After finding some dinner, we stopped off at the Reef Casino. Just like American casinos, it’s filled with lots of slot machines and a few gaming tables. Almost all the slots were pretty much the same type, a trend that’s also happening in the US. We tried our luck at a couple of them, putting in $5 in each one. Sylvia ending up going broke, but I managed to double my money on mine, so we broke even – not a bad result.

At the casino

At the casino

The next morning we got ready for our trip to the reef. While waiting for our boat to come in, we took some more pictures of the wharf and ships there, including this one:

Eventually we set out in our high speed catamaran, first to Green Island, then off to a mooring pontoon located on the edge of the this portion of the reef.

Our Tour Boat

Our Tour Boat

As you can see, this was a pretty large boat, which was good, as once we got out into the open ocean there was a pretty good chop and about 2-3 foot swells. The size of this boat did much to mitigate the rolling effect, though it was still noticeable, and we didn’t have any problem with sea-sickness. Even with the speed of this boat (I’d estimate it was doing a good 20 knots), it still took us about an hour and a half to reach the reef.

The mooring pontoon had an observation deck below the water, where we could observe the hardier folks doing some scuba diving:

Scuba divers at the reef

Scuba divers at the reef

A little later, after we’d had some lunch aboard the pontoon, we got into a semi-submersible craft and headed off for a little cruise over the reef. We were accompanied by this little guy:

Fish on side of submersible

Fish on side of submersible

Little is perhaps not the word for this fish – he’s about three foot long. The submersible itself:

The trip over the reef was great, giving us a great view of just how rich this coral community is, with lots of fish and some very uniquely fantastical coral shapes:

Corals

Corals

Some of the fish

Some of the fish

Heading back from the reef, we stopped again at Green Island. Green Island is what is known as a sand cay, built up by sedimentation over the corals over a long period of time. Green Island is one of the larger ones, and has developed quite a covering of forest.

Green Island

Green Island

All in all, this day was pretty relaxing (no long walks!). So that evening we headed out to the Red Ocher Grill in Cairns. This restaurant is somewhat famous for its selection of native indigenous fare, and we tried their sampler plate, which included crocodile, kangaroo, and emu as main dishes. The kangaroo we found to be most like beef, but more strongly flavored, and was the least favorite of ours. The crocodile was a little like chicken (doesn’t everything taste like chicken?), and although it was a little tougher than chicken, it was nicely seasoned and quite palatable. The emu was what we liked best, tasting somewhat like duck, but less greasy and with a little milder flavor.

Walking back to the hotel after our meal, another aspect of Cairns showed itself. This town is definitely a partying night-life town, with a large contingent of young people (many of them obviously surfer types) constantly out and about at night, frequenting the pubs and open-air musical shows. Quite a change from Sydney. But for us it was lights out, so we’d be ready for our next day trip to the Kuranda village.

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Australia, Days two to four

Posted by hyperpat on October 8, 2008

After our exhausting first day, we tried for a little quieter second one, going on just a morning bus tour of Sydney’s city sights. Of course the highlight of this was the view of the Opera House and Harbor Bridge:

Opera House and Bridge

Opera House and Bridge

But equally interesting was the trip under the bridge, the trip through the Rocks district, the famous Bondi beach (where we managed a morning snack – a single piece of bread that was definitely a full meal in itself), the viewpoints that took in the entire city skyline and promontory points, the Botanical Gardens, the cathedrals, Darling Harbor and the Maritime Museum, Hyde Park, Sydney’s Chinatown (though it’s not up to par versus San Francisco’s Chinatown, it still illuminates part of Australia’s history), the ‘rich’ district and the various styles of home architecture, and including a very distinctive glass house:

Glass House

Glass House

Still, this only occupied us till about 1PM. So now we could relax for the rest of the day, right? Wrong. We decided to do a bit of a walkabout just in the area of the hotel, and found things like the Town Hall:

Town Hall

Town Hall

We also found something rather unexpected in our little walk, the entryway to the State theater, which is spectacular:

Theater Entrance

Sydney State Theater Entrance

But underneath all of the buildings in the district is where we found all the shops, from very high-end fashion stores to pedestrian Subway eateries. Just walking through all of this managed to occupy us for another four hours (and gave us more sore feet to go along with the ones acquired during the prior day’s excursion), as practically every shop demanded at least a look and various items considered for their souvenir qualities. So once again we ended up back at the hotel totally tuckered out.

The next day found us taking a tour up to the Blue Mountains with a major stop at Featherdale Wildlife Sanctuary. This stop simply wasn’t long enough to really see everything there, as they have representatives of just about every unique form of Australian wildlife there (not counting marine life – that’s a later trip). Most charming here was all the various types of birds they had present, from cassowaries, peacocks, kookaburras (a bird whose raucous call used to wake me up almost every morning when I was living there), and cockatoos to Australia’s very own penguins, the smallest representative of this genus in the world. Of course they also had the obligatory koalas, wallabies, wombats, and kangaroos, and a very nice (read: quite large) crocodile:

Crocodile

Crocodile

Continuing up into the Blue Mountains, we were treated to some spectacular views of the area (including the blue haze over everything caused by the great quantity of eucalyptus resin in the air), along with being able to get a very nice lunch in a local small eatery with very personable staff, who, when asked if we could get another one of the glass Coke bottles they had (our sons collect Coke memorabilia, and glass bottles, especially when marked with their place of manufacture, are almost non-existent in the US today), went so far as to open and quickly down one, just to provide us with the bottle.

Blue Mountains

Blue Mountains

Once again, though, we found ourselves doing a fair amount of walking, both in the wildlife park and on a little mountain trail down to our lookout point where we took most of our pictures of the Blue Mountain area. After this little excursion we then took a little ride on the World’s Steepest Railway. This one my wife approached with quite a bit of trepidation, as she has problems both with heights and anything that even looks like a roller-coaster ride (and I’m not fond of those things either), but she did finally get on and take the ride down. It’s only a couple of minutes, and it’s actually pretty slow (about 7 mph), but boy, is it steep – while going down it seems like you’re facing straight down and falling down a cliff. It’s actually not quite that steep, it’s only about a 52 degree incline, but as people don’t normally descend at anywhere near angles like this, your inner ear screams that you’re falling.

On our way back to Sydney, we took a little excursion through the site of the 2000 Olympics venue, whose buildings are still spectacular, and managed to catch some views of Sydney as seen coming in from the west, a very different viewpoint from what we’d seen before, and our second trip over the Anzac bridge, which is just as unique as the Harbor bridge.

Olympic Stadium

Olympic Stadium

Day four looked like we might get away from the walking business, as our selected tour of the day was the Sydney Aquarium, which was just across the street from our hotel. No such luck. The aquarium seems to have miles of walkways between an incredible number of various aquatic tanks which contain everything from various fresh-water fish, turtles, and lizards to sea-water corals, cuttlefish, and of course the walk underneath the shark tank, where there were representatives of that genus both large and small, along with rays and giant turtles. Having one of these great sharks swim right over your head is an experience. We ended up spending almost five hours in this little (?!) place. After a quick lunch we then headed up the street (and I do mean up – the road has a distinct upward inclination from Darling Harbor to George Street) to go to the Skytower, the tallest building in Sydney, with its own distinctive architecture that rivals Seattle’s Space Needle. The view from the top of this is spectacular, and provides probably as good an aerial view of the entire city as you get get from a helicopter. And as it’s a nice, stable platform (as opposed to said helicopter), it’s easy to take pictures from. Descending a little bit in the tower, we then took the OzTrek adventure, which includes a set of dioramas of what life is like in various parts of Australia and a movie trip with 180 degree screens coupled with one of hydraulic powered chairs that move appropriately to the scene on the screen. This was pretty close to a roller coaster ride in a couple of places (especially when the scene was one of white-water rafting), but nonetheless provided a very unique view of some of the other places in Australia that we wouldn’t otherwise get to see on this trip.

Skytower

We had planned on also seeing the Wildlife World (right next to the Aquarium) this day, but by the time we got back to the hotel after the Skytower and investigated the condition of our feet, we decided to skip this one at this time, figuring we’d have another day in Sydney later to catch this. Instead we packed up our suitcases in preparation for our early morning departure for Cairns, the next stage of our journey.

One other item that deserves mention here is the price of food. The hotel we were at was charging $60 AUD per person for their buffet-style dinner, $40 for breakfast. We found these prices to be outrageously steep. We did normally eat breakfast there, as it was included in the price for our rooms, and quality wise it was very good, but we definitely skipped on eating dinner there. Instead we did try some of the other restaurants there, which were still pretty expensive (we paid about $80 for the two of us in each one we tried), but still quite a bit cheaper than the hotel, and I think better quality. But a little more on eateries in my next installment.

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Australia, Day One

Posted by hyperpat on September 24, 2008

My Australia trip is finally a reality. After our lovely fourteen hour flight from San Francisco (preceded by four hours of getting there plus check-in and security/customs), we landed at Sydney at 6:35 AM. We now proceeded to spend two and a half hours getting our luggage, changing currency, and taking our shuttle bus to the hotel. We dropped our bags in the room, and went for a little hike in the rain to the local train station, where we boarded one of their electric powered trains and headed for Cronulla, another hour trip.

On the train platform at Cronulla

On the train platform at Cronulla

By the time we got there, we were already an hour and half late for our appointment with the principal of the elementary school that I attended in 1954-1955. I then proceeded to compound our problem by turning the wrong way out of the train station, eventually getting us to the Cronulla Public School, which unfortunately was not the right one. A very nice lady there got us straightened around, and after a two-mile hike (still in the rain), we finally arrived at the South Cronulla Public School, only two and half hours late.

South Cronulla Public School main building

Given how late we were, I fully expected the principal of the school to only give us a few minutes of his time. Instead, we got a shock. Not only did he take time from his schedule (very busy, as it was the opening day of the school term) to sit and talk with us, he dug up all the old records of the school (which stretch back to its founding in 1947, and even some records going back to 1943 when the school catered to infants only) and let us peruse them to our hearts content.

In the school staff room going over records

I couldn’t find any record of my own time there (the records were very sketchy for the first/second grades), but I did find the entries pertaining to my older brother Mike, which showed at one point that he had an injury that I’d was not previously aware of (a “poisoned foot”) that took him out of school for a couple of weeks, and a class photo of him for 1955 that I didn’t have in my current photo collection.

Mike's 1955 Class Photo

Mike is fourth from right in the back row. As far as I was concerned, this already made the trip a success. But the principal wasn’t done with us yet. Just after the kid’s lunch hour, he assembled all of them, put us in front of this crowd of bright, clean, and well-behaved students, and let them fire questions at me about what it had been like there fifty years ago. Then he had the students present us with some nice souvenirs of the school, and led us off to another conference, this time with just four of the upper grade students for some more in-depth questions. And then, as if he hadn’t done enough, he went and bought us lunch.

Myself with school principal and students

Myself with school principal and students

Now I don’t know how an American elementary school would react to having an alumni from fifty years back show up, but I must give a strong two thumbs-up to this man. He absolutely went far out of his way to make us feel welcome, and was genuinely interested in what I could tell him about my experiences in that school from so long ago. From what I saw of the students in this school, he also runs a pretty taut ship – I doubt if I could go to any public school in America and find such a bunch of decorous, disciplined, and bright kids. And this same feeling also applies to the teachers we met, as they were definitely set on working together to get the job done, and obviously were dedicated to seeing that the kids were getting the best education they could provide.

After we left the school, we took a short stroll through Shelly Beach Park. Back when I went to school there, this park and the beach were visible from the school grounds. Now there are too many buildings in the way. But it’s still a truly great park and beach.

Shelly Beach looking south

Shelly Beach looking south

Shelly Beach Bath

Shelly Beach Bath

Shelly Beach looking northeast

Shelly Beach looking northeast

This will have to do for now, as after finally getting back to hotel at about 6PM that night, we found we really were exhausted, with no energy left to do much else that day, and with the prospect of an early rise on the morrow for the first of our planned sight-seeing tours.

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Fortress America

Posted by hyperpat on September 18, 2008

Over the last couple of days, we have managed to accidentally trip our home security alarm three times. While this is no disaster (and the offending family culprit has had a couple of lessons in just how to operate this thing), it got me to thinking about why we need to have this thing in the first place.

Back when I was a child, we lived in a couple of different houses in England, both of which most people would consider pretty high-end houses, large enough to require gardeners and maids. Did we have security alarms on these houses? Did we even lock the doors at night? Nope. And the same was true in our house in Australia, and later still our houses in Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Illinois. Did we ever get burglarized? Nope. But thirty some-odd years later, when we first moved into our newly purchased home in San Jose, we got hit in the first week! And this house was locked up tight. And although we’ve now moved to a new house in a very nice neighborhood, we feel it’s necessary to make sure every door is locked, every window has a locking bar, and we had this lovely security system installed. Nor do we normally go out for a nice stroll around the neighborhood at night. What has changed in the course of the last forty years to make this necessary? Has crime really become so rampant and all-pervasive that we have to turn our homes into fortresses?

According to the latest statistics, property crimes such as burglary aren’t any more common today than back in the fifties. But what has changed is our awareness of it. The nightly news almost always reports some robbery somewhere in the area, and kidnappings and muggings are also pretty prominent. Thanks to great advances in technology, all this information about the nasty underside of city living comes into our living room nightly in living color, often with phone camera shots of the acts in progress. And of course the news media play these incidents for all they’re worth, because that’s what sells newspapers and drives viewership numbers. We’re being trained just like Pavlov’s dogs to expect crime to occur. And this induced fear extends to other areas: few parents today will even let their children go out trick-or-treating without being right behind them, and many have started to track their children via mobile phone and/or RFID tag chips all day, every day.

Now as my own experience indicates, crime does happen. But when I really think about it, the incidence rate (once in 60 years) doesn’t really justify the fear and all the precautions (and the precautions themselves don’t necessarily stop the crime from happening). The scenario that Heinlein painted in I Will Fear No Evil of lawlessness so out of hand that you needed to hire security guards and drive around in the equivalent of an armored tank has not happened (yet) in this land of the free. And I sincerely hope it never will. But I do wish the news media would tone down the crime reporting a bit, and offer us more stories about people doing nice and helpful things for their community.

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2008 Hugo Winners

Posted by hyperpat on August 11, 2008

Well, the results are in. And for the first time in a very long time, my choices were pretty much the ones that won – I mean, this just never happens! The Winners:

Best Novel – The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

Best Novella – All Seated on the Ground by Connie Willis

Best Novelette – The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

Best Short Story – Tideline by Elizabeth Bear

Best Fan Writer – John Scalzi

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form – Stardust

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form – Doctor Who, “Blink”

Best Related Work – Brave New Words, The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction by Jeff Prucher

Best Editor, Long Form – David G. Hartwell

Best Editor, Short Form – Gordon van Gelder

Best Semi-Prozine – Locus

Best Fanzine – File 770

Of the Fiction awards, these are all my #1 choices except for the Best Novelette, where my #1 was The Cambist and Lord Iron by David Abraham. The Ted Chiang story was my #2 choice. Stardust was also my #1 for best movie. Best Fan Writer went to my #1, John Scalzi, though I imagine this will kick up a little fuss, as he’s so much of a professional besides writing about everything under the sun in very fannish fashion. And he indicates over on his site that his entry in the novel category The Last Colony lost by just nine votes. I haven’t seen the complete breakout of all the voting yet – but this kind of indicates that voting in this category was extremely close. About the only category that wasn’t even close to my choice was the Best Drama, Short Form, as I just don’t see what all the fuss is about in the Doctor Who series.

It’s very rare that my taste corresponds so closely to the general sf fan’s. Many years I’ve been left wondering just how in the heck anyone could have voted for the obviously much poorer piece of work that won instead of my own choice. And it’s also nice to see that sf fans, this year at least, didn’t turn up their noses at a work by someone who is not an integral part of the sf community, Michael Chabon, and gave their votes based on its perceived quality.

All in all, it was a very good year for sf (apologies to Frank Sinatra).

________________________

Update:

I’ve now gotten a look at the complete voting results (available here). The best novel voting went like this:

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union 195 195 231 292 332

The Last Colony 158 158 170 219 323

Rollback 152 152 163 186

Halting State 115 115 148

Brasyl 110 110

No Award 15

After eliminating the ‘No Award’ ballots, in the second round YPU pick up the most votes (i.e, of those who had Brasyl as their number 1 choice, the greatest plurality of them had YPU as their #2 choice). This is not surprising; YPU and Brasyl are probably the two most ‘literary’ works here, and those who like that ‘literary’ style in one are likely to like it in the other. What is a little surprising is that Halting State picked up the next greatest number of votes in this round, as it’s probably the ‘geekiest’ work here.

Round three is also something of a surprise, with YPU picking up 63 votes and being the clear #2 choice of those who picked Halting State as their #1. By this point The Last Colony is badly trailing YPU. But the last round is perhaps the biggest surprise, as The Last Colony picks up 104 votes vs YPUs 40 – clearly those who liked Rollback had a clear preference of Last Colony over YPU.

So the final total with YPU and Last Colony separated by only nine votes is perhaps a little misleading – YPU clearly led throughout the various voting rounds.

That’s this year. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Scalzi’s latest, Zoe’s Tale (no, I haven’t read it yet, this is based strictly on how well I know he writes and the few clues he’s let slip over on his site about it), makes next year’s ballot, and probably stands an excellent chance of winning, absent any other blockbuster being published in the next five months (which just might already be out – Doctorow’s Little Brother). His fan base just seems to keep growing.

Posted in Books, Hugo Awards, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 1 Comment »

The Pessimistic Heinlein

Posted by hyperpat on August 7, 2008

I originally posted this as a comment over on tor.com in response to Jo Walton’s musings on why so many of Heinlein’s juveniles seem to have a dystopian world/society as their background. Looking it over, I decided it might make a good introduction to something I’ve been working on for some time, a fairly detailed look at all of his juvenile novels, which many consider to be his best work, although personally I think that several of his adult novels are better. There has been little critical work done on these juveniles, with perhaps the most prominent example being Joseph T. Major’s Heinlein’s Children: The Juveniles, which unfortunately is not very good as a work of criticism, but does collect in one place a very detailed synopsis of all of these works. Part of my own investigation into these works is to analyze just why these works are so readable, still work well today, and have inspired so many people to choose a career in the sciences. Part of that analysis is below: just what drives and motivates his characters? At least a partial answer is his background societies which have obvious things wrong with them, often very dystopian in nature, driving his characters to do something about it.

For Heinlein’s stories to work, he needed to have his protagonists feel dissatisfied with the way things currently were. This shows up in a lot more than just his juveniles. Even in one of his very early works, Beyond this Horizon, where the portrayed society is one that most people would consider to be a utopia (no hunger, work only if you really wanted to, everyone healthy – well, except for the control ‘naturals’), Hamilton is driven to action because he feels that there must be more to life than just existing, that being a dilettante was not the proper role for man.

Even one of the least dystopian juveniles, Have Space Suit – Will Travel, shows a dissatisfaction with people as sheep, content to just get by (reference his comments about the education system, his parents decision to leave the academic rat-race to raise their son as a role model for non-sheep, his father’s methods of dealing with society’s regimentation via how he files his taxes – and with only such short strokes, defining what was wrong with the fifties conformist culture).

So the various dystopian backgrounds of many of his novels become part of the driving force for his major characters, helping to define why they take the actions they do, while at the same time serving as a strong warning of just what will happen “…If This Goes On”.

Heinlein was definitely a fan of the ‘restless’ spirit, the pioneer, those who drive to change the world, and it wasn’t limited to just his juveniles, but within them he set an achievement bar for all his young readers to try and reach. And that’s the message that I think resonates with young readers, that they can achieve their dreams if they just work at it. It’s a timeless message that runs across all cultures and societies, and is probably why he’s still so enjoyable to read today.

Many times I’ve seen Heinlein portrayed as a pessimist, based largely on these dystopian backgrounds for so many of his works. I don’t think this is really true; rather, he was very much an optimist, as his characters continuously managed to do things to improve at least their own personal situation and often improving the world at large, regardless of how messed up that world was. And this trait is most visible in his juveniles.

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Making Connections

Posted by hyperpat on August 1, 2008

Over at Tor.com, the new website tor has established for interactive discussion of all things speculative, Jo Walton posted a commentary on just what the difference is between sf and fantasy, and just how some books really can’t be pigeonholed into one category or another. Which leads to a problem for brick-and-mortar stores that try to shelve these two categories separately, as wherever they put such books, it will be missed by those expecting it to be in the other category.

The problem is really much more general than just the divide between sf and fantasy, and gets into an entire field of library science dealing with indexing and cross-referencing massive amounts of data, at least some of which is subject to highly subjective evaluation by those irrational and sometimes contradictory beings called humans. Coming up with at least partial solutions to this problem is important. Many, many times in the world of science today, a fact discovered in one field, say entomology, has great relevance to another field, say a search for cancer-curing drugs in the field of medicine. But this fact won’t be noticed by the medical researchers unless they have some tool that properly indexes the discovered fact as being relevant to their field.

The Google model for searches is great for topics of wide interest. What it won’t do is find data that is obscure and of importance to only a few specialists. It’s also completely mechanistic – it can’t get that “aha!” moment that humans do when seeing one data item that suddenly provides an answer to a problem in something apparently totally unrelated. Artificial intelligence probably won’t really be useful (or really ‘intelligent’) until it can make such connections. We’ve still got a long way to go before we get to “Computer! Tell me why these Acturians are blowing up all our grain silos on Deneb IV.” (certain Star Trek episodes to the contrary).

Posted in Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | Leave a Comment »

Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season

Posted by hyperpat on July 29, 2008

Anytime you want to be depressed, open up your T.S. Eliot. Very shortly the dark clouds will appear, the sun’s light bulb will dim with shadows, you will crouch on your couch , and his words will rasp across your flickering synapses.

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rat’s feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar

There are images in his work that are indelible. I can’t think of any other wordsmith, either in prose or poetry, who’s work is so immediate, concrete, and harrowing.

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Loneliness, dying, alienation, old melancholy memories, futility, questions of purpose, unrequited love – they’re all here, and more besides.

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

He’s far from easy to totally understand, but many times that’s not necessary, as his imagery alone will transport you to his world, leave you trapped inside his metaphors and similes, force upon you a dark, grimy, and bleak outlook.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

I was first introduced to Eliot in a high school English class with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and for all the other great works of literature that class ruined for me with all the nit-picking and frequently missing-the-point analysis, this one captured me, made me see just what great poetry was capable of. I’ve read many other poets since, but I keep coming back to this man’s work as shining examples of what speaks to me. I just wish I was one one-hundredth of the poet he was.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

Posted in poetry, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »