Archive for December 2004
This evening the death toll in SE Asia is just shy of 60,000, with a few fatalities on the coast of Somalia too, thousands of miles away. 1/100,000th of the population of this planet. For the other 99,999/100,000 of us, heartless as it may sound, life goes on. Take a pair of dice, and count the number of dots on both, before you roll them. That number is the answer, of course, and Nature is asking the question.
Five people – an Englishman, Russian, American, Frenchman and Irishman were each asked to write a book on elephants. Some amount of time later they had all completed their respective books. The Englishman’s book was entitled “The Elephant – How to Collect Them”, the Russian’s “The Elephant – Vol. I”, the American’s “The Elephant – How to Make Money from Them”, the Frenchman’s “The Elephant – Its Mating Habits” and the Irishman’s “The Elephant and Irish Political History”.
A joke I found while cleaning up my website Quotations file this morning – and I thought I was alone in thinking the Irish were obsessed with the little history they have? Last night I decided to bundle in the contents of the Linux Fortune files, most of which was an automated process of replacing the pure text formatting with psuedo-XHTML. The file I use is Tab-delimited, and there were stray Tabs everywhere that had to be stripped out. I only want them in there to separate each quotation from its source, and never for formatting. To complicate matters, sources of quotes were delimited with —, but — appears in other places too, so there was a fair bit of manual cleanup to do, and spell-checking. Here’s another fun finding:
I went to my first computer conference at the New York Hilton about 20 years ago. When somebody there predicted the market for microprocessors would eventually be in the millions, someone else said, “Where are they all going to go? It’s not like you need a computer in every doorknob!” Years later, I went back to the same hotel. I noticed the room keys had been replaced by electronic cards you slide into slots in the doors. There was a computer in every doorknob.
— Danny Hillis
23,700 and rising. It seems the tsunamis didn’t fan out equally in all directions, leaving Myanmar almost unaffected. News was slow to come in from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which took the waves head-on, and whole islands full of people are unaccounted for.
A funny thing: the word Tsunami 津波 is one of the few Japanese words in common use in English, and it’s a phenomenon that Japan, historically, is very familiar with. The Kanji breaks down as “harbour wave”, a 美称 (euphemism, “beautiful name”) if there ever was one.
No snow today; Nature isn’t doing much in this part of the world, but She has been having her fun in South East Asia, hasn’t She? Undersea earthquakes off the coast of Sumatra have triggered massive tsunamis that swamped the Maldives and the coasts of Sri Lanka, south-east India, and Indonesia. The official death toll has just passed 10,000, in those areas we have communication with. When I looked at a map of the region, one thing struck me straight away: large coastal areas of Myanmar (Burma) are right in the firing line, yet we have no information coming out of there at all, I suspect because its totalitarian regime does not allow foreign journalists or communication with foreign news services. I expect the death toll to rise considerably over the next few days.
Speaking of communication: the western affected areas could have had over two hours of advance warning, considering how far away they were from the epicentre of the earthquakes, the largest of which was estimated at 8.9 (Richter scale). What about satellites monitoring the oceans, radioed reports from ships in the region, anything? No, the first warning received by the people on the east coast of Sri Lanka came from the good old Mark I Eyeball, which did not leave much time for evacuation. Bangladesh was only mildly affected because it is even further away than the other areas, but that was luck.
In these areas, with their histories of monsoon-related flooding, I have to ask: why on Earth do people continue to live near the treacherous coastlines, or on the banks of flood-prone rivers like the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Mississippi, or Yangtze? Nature’s not a bitch, this is simply all she can do to relieve her stresses, she takes as much notice of us as a freight train would.
White Christmas? Slightly, with the occasional snow flurry, but I’m too close to the coast for any snow to stay on the ground so far. I have the apartment to myself, and am baking bread again, with better results than last time. It’s not a long job, unless you include the time it takes to clean the kitchen afterwards, the flour tends to go wherever it wants.
December 16 in South Africa used to be Voortrekker Day, celebrating the pioneering spirit of those settlers who pulled their wagons into the unknown interior of their great country, meeting strange tribes and offending them. This culminated in the Battle of Blood River, on this day in 1838, when a few dozen Voortrekkers took on about 4000 Zulus, next to a river. They had guns, the Zulus didn’t, which explains how the river got its new name. It looked the normal colour when I was taken in the late 70’s, but I don’t think they celebrate the Battle of Blood River in the New South Africa any more, actually.
When I tried looking up a little more info on Blood River, one of the first links took me to what appeared to be a simple description of the preparations for the battle. It soon turned into a bluntly racist screed on how the Battle of Blood River represented a victory of honest, God-fearing White folk over the Black hordes of darkness. It didn’t stop there, going on to attack the modern South Africa, accusing a notional Jewish Liberal movement of selling out to the same hordes of darkness, featuring blatant anti-Semitism at its worst. Sample: “Dr. Shapiro (Jewess) said …” Enough about that, then: you bigots aren’t going to get the “good old days” of 1838 back, are you? Deal with it.
Silly Movie of the Week: Drop Dead Gorgeous, which tries to do for beauty pageants what This Is Spinal Tap did for rock bands, and mostly succeeds. A documentary crew follows a group of small-town teenagers taking part in a beauty pageant “sponsored” by a make-up company, with Kirstie Alley as the local pageant organizer. Her equally-competitive daughter, played by Denise Richards, enjoys firing a variety of weapons and dancing on stage with a crucified dummy, before winning the pageant, then going up in smoke after her parade float’s fuel tank leaks. Woof!
Other highlights include Kirsten Dunst practicing her tap steps while making up the corpses in the local funeral home; her mother lands up in hospital after her trailer is mysteriously blown up, needing surgery to remove the beer can welded to her hand. A neighbour (Alison Janney of The West Wing fame) helps out, flirts with the film crew, and gets all the best lines. After getting to the national finals, by virtue of being the only one not to eat poisoned shellfish, Dunst joins the other 49 contestants at the sponsor’s headquarters, to find the doors padlocked and IRS seizure signs on the doors. Oh well; back to Minnesota.
You just know when death is coming, because you start remembering your life more than you actually live it.
— Cameron Duncan, Strike Zone
Cameron Duncan was a talented young New Zealand film-maker who was a bit like Peter Jackson in his early days – they shared a penchant for bizarre gory humour and blowing things up. He even played around with special effects, such as a PC-edited “light sabre” sequence and a trick shot of him shaking up some unmentionable chemicals in a bottle, holding it up to his head, at which point it goes off with an almighty bang. He came to Peter Jackson’s attention as an aside to the production of The Lord Of The Rings, and Peter recommended him for a small job, a commercial campaign to encourage people to become organ donors.
It soon emerged that Cameron had been ill with cancer, but was in remission, and was happy to take the job, understanding the personal connection. The cancer returned, and spread, but he was able to complete the job and make another final short film, Strike Zone, in which he played a terminally ill softball coach. The film is remarkable for its visual honesty, with Cameron imagining his character’s death and subsequent funeral. His friends and family were able to use his ideas when his own funeral was held, just two months later.
Cameron became the inspiration for Into The West, the Annie Lennox song that closes The Return Of The King, which is why he and his work has a spot on the extended DVD edition. The title refers to the end of the story, when the last of the Elves sail away to their homeland, taking Bilbo, Gandalf and Frodo with them. It is open to interpretation, of course, but it’s not hard to equate “sailing into the West” with a final passing from this life into another, a poetic way of talking about death, like riding into the sunset. Bilbo was old, his life unnaturally prolonged by the Ring that had now been destroyed; Gandalf was also immensely old and worn out from the struggle; the Elves, not being fully of this Earth, showed little regret in leaving, with the exception of Arwen. Frodo had never fully recovered from the wound inflicted early in the Ring saga, when he was stabbed by the Witch King while wearing the Ring; his time had also come, though the movie appears to have glossed over twenty years of his life, somehow.
I’ve only been talking about the ending, but the rest of the film is hardly less shattering. With the release of the Extended DVD version of The Return Of The King, I have finally seen the whole saga; I deliberately didn’t go to see the theatrical release or buy it on DVD, happy to wait for the “proper” version. The story builds tension gradually, with Frodo, Sam and Gollum struggling into Mordor, while its forces closed in on the great city of Minas Tirith. Then the rocks start flying, with some gleefully grotesque shots that follow chunks of masonry all the way from the defensive trebuchets, through the air, onto the heads of a score of Orcs at a time. Anyone scared of spiders can skip over Shelob’s Lair, or course.