Enlightenment and Education: public lecture by Sir Harold Kroto

There is a free public lecture (bookings necessary) at RMIT on Wednesday night.

Enlightenment and Education: public lecture by Sir Harold Kroto.

How can the internet help communicate science, make sense of scientific methodology and lead to more informed public debate?

Hear Nobel Laureate Sir Harold Kroto on the crucial issues of science, education and the public sphere in a free public lecture as part of the RMIT Transforming the Future lecture series on Wednesday 28 September.

Professor Kroto will discuss his views on the importance of scientific knowledge and education, and how both are vital to better informing public debate around issues such as climate change.

The event is free but registrations are essential.

Date Wednesday 28 September 2011
Time 6.00 pm – 7.30 pm
Location RMIT University, City campus, Storey Hall, 342 Swanston Street, Melbourne

See you there.

Koch’s Snowflake

One of my favourite geometric phenomena that I crowbar into an all-purpose analogy uses the idea of “bounded infinity.”

It’s a version of Zeno’s Paradox, though is more rooted in pen-and-paper geometry.

Take a circle, and drawn an equilateral triangle, with each of its three vertices touching the circle’s perimeter.

Next, split each edge of the triangle into three equal lines.  Use the middles lines as the beginning edge for three more equilateral triangles.

Do the same operation of these new triangles, drawing more triangles.

And repeat.  Repeat until the pen’s nib is too fat to accurately draw the triangles.

Now start again, this time with a bigger piece of paper.

Now write a computer program that will generate the triangles for you.  Keep the computer running until the heat-death of the universe.

In theory, you could have an infinite number of triangles, and they will never cross the boundary of the circle.

The diagram is called a Koch Snowflake, after Helge von Koch, a Swedish Mathematician who was particularly interested in number theory, but also annoyed the family by drawing triangles on everything.

I usually pull out this analogy when discussing rules or boundaries place on a project or presentation, and how there can still be an infinite amount of creativity and variety within the borders.

For instance, last year I participated in a Pecha Kucha night, where presentations were only allowed 20 slides with 20 seconds per slide.  It was interesting at first to hear trained presenters rail against the format, but the limitations still allowed for a huge amount of flexibility.  It was a brilliant night.

Alan Moore also used the snowflake in his (and Eddie Campbell’s) Jack the Ripper graphic novel “From Hell.” If you don’t want to trawl through that tome, at very least skip to the appendix where he write a very interesting comic essay about Ripperologists, and within the boundary of Whitechapel and the facts of the Ripper case, there is a huge variety in theories and stories and solutions.  And we will never know the truth.

SF Dogma 10

Ever heard of Dogma 95?  Not exactly my favourite films in the world, but the rules of Dogma were meant to get things back to basics.  A good crash course for it can be found here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8nR72S7MxI

Last year sometime a friend of mine, who shall be now known as Sam Wilson, and I were ruminating on Science Fiction movie writing and production.  Avatar had just come out, and we were up to season five of a very flash looking restart of Doctor Who.

At the time I was chewing over how one could do something similar about getting back to basics with short SF stories.  Among other things thrown into the mix was a special features documentary on (Doctor Who) The Hand of Fear DVD.  A lot of the actors, special effects people, and writers almost fell into their jobs at Doctor Who, or at every least seemed to be surprised that they were working on the show.  It got me thinking about the state of television here in Australia, and what chances are there for people interested in producing good SF TV/movie/film like there would have been in the UK in the 1970s.

If you pull the budget out of a Science Fiction story, it brings the script to the fore.  Immediate examples that spring to mind are Primer, and the odd, cool YouTube short videos that people make (ie,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tXsO35TQ-0 or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWqI0U3pBdA).

I put together ten commandments that would become SF Dogma 10, where audience accessibility and easing production were the motivators.  Sam and I wrote some scripts that adhered to the rules.  (These scripts are available for download under the resources section of the SF Dogma 10 project page.)

And now I give the rules to the world.

Let it be known that to attain SF Dogma 10 compliance, the script and finished film must accede with the following ten commandments:

1.  The film must contain some element of Weird or so-called Science Fiction.

This can be plot, setting, or dialogue.

2.  The title must not contain any made up words.

This first point is to lower the boundary of entry for audiences that are not traditional SF readers/obsessers. As soon as they see a word they don’t understand, the mind has to work harder to interpret it.  Some people revel in that.  Some do not.  In the interests of casting the net for an audience as wide as we can, work harder on your title.

Example don’ts:
–  The Call of Cthulhu
–  Anathem
–  The Belgariad, The Malloreon, The Ellunium, The Eddingsificationplex
–  Neuromancer

Example dos:
–  “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman
–  The Illustrated Man
–  Snow Crash
–  Darwin’s Radio
–  Jennifer Government
–  The City & The City

3.  Filming must be done on location.  Sets must not be constructed.

Only film a nuclear reactor core if you have access to a real nuclear facility.  Don’t build it in your kitchen with cardboard and tin foil.  Settings must be real locations: kitchens, cafes, town libraries, pubs, parks, etc.  This not only lowers the boundary for entry for viewers (who tend to scoff at Doctor Who low production values and miss the story) but also lowers time and monetary costs for producers.

4. Computer Generated Imagery is forbidden.

I know that there are many tools that are available, but could end up looking worse than a faked set.  Embrace Christopher Nolan who, where possible, goes for mechanical shots rather than painting the screen with CGI.

5. No soundtrack music.

Ever seen The Wire? Like that.

6. No visually alien/temporal settings.

The look of it is Now.  It could be that it’s set in a future where it’s modelled it to look like Now.  But otherwise Now.  This does not refer to physical settings.  It could be set in a biodome on Venus that happens to look like a Melbourne office block.

7. The film must not contain any elements from other works, save those in the public domain and under Creative Commons licence.

No fan movies of Star Trek.

8. Not to feature any labcoats, save for locations or circumstances where labcoats are actually worn.

Let’s kill that cliché right here.

9. The film and script must be made available under the Creative Commons license.

More on this point later.

10. The final film must be no longer than 10 minutes.

Say what you need to and get out of there.

An interlude: Honey Badger

A little silliness after an informative Wikipedia search at a party earlier this week.  Put this in your toddler’s flashcards; the world does not stop at the farmyard.

Honey Badger

After the previous day’s antics, the hunting party set up camp a little further from the river. By now, dinner was finished, and clusters of people gathered around the three campfires in front of the tents. The closest fire to an Umbrella Thorn tree sat two men in canvas camp chairs. One was called Charlie, a native to Africa. The other was Douglas, and he’s not.

“Bloody good cigars,” said Charlie.

“Savour it,” said Douglas. “I have two left, and short of a miracle, they’ll have to last a while.”

The two men blew out smoke and looked at their quarry.

Peter Van Straun was leaning near the native who was cleaning his gun for him. On his application he had described himself as a gifted amateur with firearms, but after three near-misses it became obvious he couldn’t handled a gun to save himself.

“One day left,” sighed Charlie. “What are we going to do?”

“You’re the animal expert. I only bring them here,” said Douglas, polishing his signet ring. He had picked it up in a market for a couple of dollars, and had no idea whose family crest was on the face. It just seemed to suit his carefully constructed persona.

“Is he seriously going to withhold the bonus?”

“Unless he gets to shoot something ‘juicy.’ His words.”

“Thought narrowly being mashed by a hippo would have been enough.” Charlie looked at the ash on the end of his cigar. “Bonus for saving his life?”

“Are you sure we can’t pick up the trail of that cat?”

“It’s gone, Dougie. And we’re not likely to come across another in the next couple of hours. Are you sure you can’t convince him of a hyena?”

Douglas jetted out smoke. “Not juicy,” he said.

The two men stared.

“You know,” said Douglas. “We could try pulling a Henderson on him.”

“No, Doug,” said Charlie.

“Come on, Chuck, we’re desperate,” said Douglas. “You’re the animal expert. Choose an animal, spin a yarn about it going rogue or something. You know, carried off a couple of babies from the local villages.”


“And if you get the right story, it doesn’t matter what we end up shooting. It could be a tapeworm just as long as he thinks it’s a psychopathic killer. It won’t matter. In his mind he’s the hero of the hour. He goes back home with a trophy and a story.” Douglas sucked on the cigar and blew. “If he’s convinced enough to pay us the bonus it even won’t matter if he finds out later. We’ll have cigars to spare!”

Charlie said nothing and looked deep into the fire.

Van Straun was coming over, one hand in a pocket and the other holding an enamel mug, rifle slung over his shoulder and a sullen look spread over his face.

“Last day tomorrow,” he said, thudding his heavy backside into a camp chair. “Not long left, Dougie-boy. Remember what I said. Juicy!” He slurped loudly from his enamel mug as Douglas glanced at Charlie and rolled his eyes.

The three sat in silence. Douglas toyed with his signet ring, wondering if he should at least get the ball rolling, or whether he should leave it up to Charlie.

There was a surprised yelp from the natives, and a sudden movement of the group around the other fire. Van Straun lifted his gun, and Douglas automatically pushed the barrel to the sky.

“Oh dear,” said Charlie.

“What are they saying?” said Van Straun.

“Something dangerous…” said Charlie. Out of sight of Van Straun, Douglas turned and gave a thumbs-up. Charlie didn’t see, staring into the moving shadows around the other campfire. Something was moving among the other men who were jumping back out of the way.

Charlie stood so quickly it knocked his chair backwards.

“Oh Jesus God we have to move right now!” said Charlie. Douglas was up next to him, working hard to keep his grin to himself.

“What is it? What is it?” Van Straun was saying, holding the rifle under his arm and aiming randomly at the shadows. Some of the other men noticed, and the scrambling took a more frantic edge.

“Up the tree!” Charlie was already going for the lower limbs of the Umbrella Thorn. “Off the ground, right now!”

Charlie helped to pull Van Straun’s bulk into the branches, and Douglas scrambled to his own.

“So Charlie, what’s down there? Something juicy for us?” he hoped his voice didn’t sound too put-on. Van Straun was straddling his branch while trying to aim his gun one-handed into the camp site.

“One of the most horrible creatures on God’s earth.” Charlie’s voice was a low murmur.

“Good God, what?” hissed Van Straun.

“A Honey Badger.”

“A what?” Douglas found himself saying in unison with Van Straun.

At that moment the creature came waddling into the firelight. It’s walk reminded Douglas of his father’s sheep dog at the end of its life, all arthritic and forlorn. The animal waddled into the firelight, pausing to snuffle loudly at chairs, and Van Straun’s dropped mug. It’s back was entirely white, while the rest of it was black. It had a round head, entirely unlike a dog’s, and somewhere in the hair was the end of the nose and suggestion of eyes.

“That?” said Van Straun, his eyebrows hiked high. Douglas looked from his face to Charlie’s. He’s not buying it, he thought.

“I’ll have it stuffed for my daughter,” said Van Straun continued, trying to get a bead on the animal. “Save buying a teddy bear from the airport.”

“Don’t shoot, you fool!” Charlie put his hand across the top of Van Straun’s rifle, nearly causing Van Straun to lose balance. “You’ll only anger it!”

“This will blow it to pieces-”

“They are tougher then they look.” Charlie lowered his voice further. “Their skin is as tough as oak. I have seen arrows and spears glance off a badger’s pelt without leaving a mark. My brother saw three men set upon a Honey Badger, and only one still lives to tell the tale. And they were armed with machete!

“Jesus Christ!” said Douglas in a tone he hoped sounded like he was being drawn into Charlie’s story. “Oh, yes, Peter, listen to Charlie, he knows. If Charlie says don’t shoot, then go with Charlie.”

The animal had finished investigating the mug, and was wandering through the open door of the nearest tent.

“Three men?” Van Straun’s voice contained incredulity.

“Those claws,” Charlie was pointing. “They have inches-long claws that will disembowel you with a single thrust.  Snap your Achilles like a piece of string.”

“Claws,” said Van Straun slowly, running a hand over his belly. Douglas felt it the right moment to amp the story.

“I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of one of those things, no sir,” said Douglas. “Actually, didn’t that last village say a couple of babies got carried off by one of those things? In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the what the bloody hell does it think it’s doing?!

The flat face had reappeared at the tent’s door. Two cigars poked out of its mouth like fingers, and were quickly disappearing as the animal’s jaws rapidly worked.

Douglas’ mouth opened and closed, then in one movement he dropped to the ground and ran at his tent, waving his arms.

“They’re mine, you horrid little creature. Go on! Get out of here! Shoo! Shoo-”


“And what did you do after the Honey Badger tore the man’s arm off, papa?”

Van Straun sat on the edge of the lounge chair and mimicked holding a rifle in front of this awed daughter.

“I remembered my rifle lessons. I took aim, breathed, and ten rounds later I managed to stave it’s head in with a rock.”

“That was extraordinarily brave of you, papa.”

Van Straun leaned back in his chair, surveying the taxidermy remains of the Honey Badger. It was reared up and snarling, the massive disembowling claws at their fullest extent. And for a little extra, the taxidermist had done a fine job of working into the beast’s jaws the severed hand wearing a signet ring on its finger. He drew heavily on his cigar and blew out some fine smoke.

“Certainly was, m’dear. Hero of the hour.”

National Novel Writing Month: a hint for finishing

I’m around six thousand words behind the daily count and only have seven days to complete the total fifty thousand words. In my case, that’s another twenty thousand words in one week.

And being that I have work and family that consume most of my daily time, I really am having to find those gaps, like pouring sand into a jar full of stones.

Which brings me to the key realisation I’ve had this past month. If I want to be a writer and earn a living off writing, then I need to be physically fit. After all of the physical energy that work and a toddler demands, I don’t want to then sit at a desk and fall asleep.

If I want to pull out all the stops and actually complete the 50,000 this week, here’s my biggest hint to myself. Don’t drink. Not one drop of alcohol until 50,000 is done and dusted.

So if there are any other NaNoWriMos who are a bit behind, let’s lay off the drink together and finish this thing.

30,440 words and counting.

National Novel Writing Month: Some observations

Observation the first:  Writing 50,000 words in a month is hard.

(Corollary the first: Made harder if you have a full time job and family…)

Observation the second:  Breaking the task down into 1,000 word bites makes it much easier

(After just a week of this, I found I could tear through one thousand words fairly easily, withing thirty to forty minutes.  And I didn’t have to resort to characters reading slabs of the dictionary.)

Observation the third:  50,000 words eats ideas like a super massive black hole.

(My dad has recently been getting strange phone calls from me picking his brain for stories from the abattoir and what sort of gun you’d take to go spotlighting for rabbits.)

Observation the fourth: Instead of 50,000 words, write fifty thousand words.  It’s more words.

Right now I’m 26,000 or so and have about 9 days to go.  I feel some late nights coming on.

My NaNoWriMo page.

Fortune in Formulas: Toilet Vinegars (1)

(If you try the following and it leaves you with less fingers, a chronic skin condition, or really embarrassed, then it’s your own damn fault.)

“Beauty Water.”–
Fresh egg albumen … 500 parts
Glycerine …………….. 50 parts
50% Alcohol ………… 25 parts
Lemon oil …………….  2 parts
Lavender oil ………….  2 parts
Oil of thyme ………….  2 parts
Mix the ingredients well together.  When first mixed the liquid becomes flocculent, but after standing for 2 or 3 days clears up–sometimes becomes perfectly clear, and may be decanted.  It forms a light, amber-colored liquid that remains clear for months.
At night, before retiring, pour about a teaspoonful of the water in the palm of the hand, and rub it over the face and neck, letting it dry on.  In the morning, about an hour before the bath, repeat the operation, also letting the liquid dry on the skin.  The regular use of this preparation for 4 weeks will give the skin an extraordinary fineness, clearness, and freshness.


To stay on the theme of comics a-moment: Spider-Man. And I’m only interested in this because I collected Amazing Spider-man comics in my teenaged years, then gave them all away to a girl I had a crush on in Year 12. Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb.

Fresh after unmasking himself in front of the world, and after the shooting of his Aunt May, Peter Parker bought back a new life for himself by selling to Mephisto (the devil, sort of) his marriage to Mary Jane.

In other words: the editors of Spider-Man comics never liked Peter and MJ being married (Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) Annual #21 (1987)), and the whole “everyone knows who Spiderman is” thing was too restrictive, and over Friday night drinks decided that it would be so much better if the whole thing hadn’t happened in the first place. So in a grand deus ex machina they swept the whole thing away and did a soft-reboot on the Spider-Man franchise.

Peter Parker is no longer married to MJ, and no one remembers who unveiled themselves in front of TV cameras. How amazingly convenient!

To be honest, Spider-man has be going since 1962, and if you want to keep it fresh to keep new buyers coming in, sometimes you’ll need to shake out the storyline and start again.

It reminds me of something Brian K. Vaughan said about his comics: “That’s storytelling, with a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he says. “Something like Spider-Man, a book that never has a third act, that seems crazy.”