Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Weirdness of Time

Ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by the bendiness of time. It amazed me that two hours spent watching a film could flash by in seemingly no time at all but that two hours of church on Sunday could drag on and on and on…and on. Once I thought I could even see new grey hairs appearing on the head of the person sitting in front of me. Church time dragged that badly. Time going slowly wasn’t always a bad thing. In primary school it meant that the six weeks of summer school holidays seemed to last forever and when school started again my friends would have visibly grown or changed over that time. Seems odd to think about it now when six weeks can fly by and nothing seems to change at all. Actually it’s not just weeks that fly by as I get older, whole bloody years seem to evaporate before my eyes. Didn’t we just have Christmas like ten minutes ago?
My first real taste of how bendy and flexible time could be was in a psychology class at college called ‘Altered States of Consciousness’ and Len Kane, if you’re out there, you were one of the best damned teachers I ever had. The class took place in the evening and the first thing Len did was teach us a few basic relaxation and meditation techniques. So each class would start with everyone lying down for ten minutes practising those techniques. It was a fine way to start a class, even if some of us nodded off and started snoring. After we’d been doing this for a few weeks one night Len said, ‘Ok I’m going to play some music now. When it stops I want you to come back to full consciousness.’ Once we’d all sat up, Len asked us how long we thought the music had played. The guesses ranged between 6 minutes and 12 minutes. Len just smiled and said that it was only 90 seconds long. Which surprised us all, but proved that time can flow differently depending on what physical state you are in.
The next experience I had with bendy time was when I became a comedian. It didn’t happen often but occasionally I’d forget what I was going to say next or someone would heckle me and for a moment on stage I’d freeze. As my mind raced frantically to figure out what to say next, time would sort of telescope and start running at different speeds. In the outside world, probably less than 5 seconds would go by before I spoke again, but on the inside that 5 seconds would feel like minutes. I could have whole conversations in my head and re-run routines to figure out which bit I’d missed, all in the space of 5 seconds. It’s a very odd feeling.
So I have a bit of experience with the nature of time and how it can telescope in and out and run at different speeds, but I was still astonished by something that happened a few years ago. Thanks to the joys of telephone banking, I can now tell you precisely how many coherent thoughts I can have in the space of a second. For those of you who haven’t used telephone banking, when you ring up to get an account balance, an automated voice tells you much money you have in the account. The pre-recorded voice runs at normal speed until it comes to the actual dollar amount. That bit can’t be pre-recorded so it takes a bit longer to say the dollar amount as the computer pulls from its files the right sequence of words to match the numbers. As a result it sounds a bit like this: ‘You have…two…hundred…and…thirty…two…dollars in your account.’ The time gap between the numbers is less than a second. It’s noticeably slower than the rest of the message but not too annoying.
So here’s the background to my little adventure. I had about a hundred dollars in my account. I was waiting for two payments to come in. If just one had been deposited in my account it would have gone up to over five hundred dollars. If both the amounts had gone in, it would have been over a thousand dollars in my account. So when I rang to get my account balance I was really hoping to hear an amount in excess of one hundred dollars. When the computer voice started saying my account balance, the first number I heard was, ‘You have…one…’, and everything you are about to read happened before the next number was said. First came the absolutely-speed-of-light assumption that my account still had only one hundred odd dollars in it. Then came a whole bunch of quick thoughts; ‘What?! At least one of those cheques should have come in! That gig was four bloody weeks ago. We’re going to have to make another follow-up phone call. Damn it!’ And then the voice said the second number, ‘…thousand…’. Both the cheques had gone in. Happy days.
But when I got off the phone and thought about what had happened, I was quite stunned that by a computer quirk I know knew that I could have five coherent thoughts in less than a second. I find that mind boggling. All the thoughts differed in length but seemed to take exactly the same amount of time to unwrap in my brain. And there is simply no way that I could have physically said out loud those five thoughts within the space of a second. I reckon it would take at least 8 seconds to say them. I’d always known that thought was faster than speech, but I was staggered that according to my rough calculations, thought is eight times faster than speech. It explains how writers can pop outside for a cigarette and come back five minutes later with a whole book sketched out in their mind. Because five thoughts a second means that you can have 1500 thoughts in the space of five minutes. It sounds incredible, but I suspect that it’s true. Unless my brain is a complete freak of nature and thinks faster than anyone else on the planet, which even with my genetic Dutch arrogance I find very difficult to believe. I’m just not that special.
The other implication from this accidental experiment I find a little disturbing. Because by the end of my five thoughts in one second I had built up quite a bit of anger about what I thought were late payments. It only lasted till I heard the second digit, but it was definitely anger. The fact that I could generate genuine anger within the space of a second, I find very scary. It means that I can get angry before I can even say the words to explain why I’m angry. It makes me wonder how many times we get angry before we even know ourselves why we’re angry. It might even be possible that by the time we verbalise it we’re already rationalising and justifying something we didn’t consciously start. It’s enough to make you want to have a Bex and a good lie down. Or have a long chat with a neuroscientist. Or maybe just have a few too many beers and a quiet think. Hmmm, think I’ll go the beer option.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A Floating Tangent

I’ve just finished a segment for the new book I’m writing. In case you’re interested it has the very unassuming and humble title of, ‘How to save the whole damn world: a madly optimistic manifesto.’ Like I said, humble. Strangely enough I’m finding it hard to snag a publisher. They seem to think it odd that a comedian might have some big ideas that could be useful. They also think I should work with a respectable economist if I want to get some traction. As if! Economists are barely legitimate purveyors of magical thinking and spurious figures. I wouldn’t let them near my book if they paid me all the Dollarized Yield Curve Notes or Constant Maturity Treasury Floaters in the world. And yes, those are real terms.
But I digress. I was working on a chapter about the possibilities for the safe exploration of space. As you do. The chapter was getting a little long and there was one particular tangent that I just could not justify or fit in, so I thought I’d put it out here on my blog.
Have you ever watched a documentary and heard someone say something so unutterably stupid and wrong that you want to punch the telly? Happens to me a lot. In the context of thinking about space exploration and the best sort of fuel to use in space craft, I watched a doco called ‘Moon for Sale’ on SBS. At one point they were talking about nuclear fusion power as opposed to fission power. Instead of splitting an atom to release energy, you fuse two light atoms together and that releases even more energy. Fusion power is the nuclear engine that drives the Sun. The advantages of fusion over fission include: using less fuel for the process and thus creating less waste and that waste is much less radioactive. It’s not commercially viable yet, but people are working on it. One of the versions uses Helium (lightest atom in the universe) as the fuel. Trouble is, a hell of a lot of neutrinos are created in the process and they tend to shred the containment shells of the reactors really quickly. They have to shut down the reactor and replace the shells on a regular basis. It’s frustrating, inefficient and wasteful.
It turns out that a change in the fuel could make all the difference. Helium found on the earth is not the ideal fuel, but a variant form of Helium called Helium 3 (He3) creates far fewer neutrinos and thus causes less damage to the reactor. He3 is produced by the Sun in vast quantities and carried away from it in the solar wind. Over the millennia many tons of He3 have landed on the surface of the Moon, and now the surface rocks are riddled with the stuff. Here comes the point where I got really angry. Some American tool appeared on the doco to advocate strip-mining the surface of the Moon to obtain He3. Even though it would be stupidly expensive to conduct mining operations on the Moon and even though completely strip-mining the entire Moon would only provide 200 years worth of reactor fuel, this was the only option for obtaining He3 that this complete and utter dipstick could imagine. I was screaming at the telly, ‘Why go for the secondary source you numbskull?! Why demolish the surface of our glorious Moon when you can COLLECT IT IN SPACE FOR FREE?! It’s coming from the Sun you idiot, NOT the Moon. Go to the source, not the accidental bystander you cloth-eared, pointy-toed, son of a %$#@&%, who probably $%@!* pigeons when you think no one is looking!’ As you can probably tell, I take my science seriously.
It always causes me a moment of despair when I see such wrong-headed thinking. It speaks to the innate conservatism of the human species and how long it takes for new ideas to take hold. Reaching right back into pre-history, we didn’t change the design of our stone axes for more than a 100,000 years. That’s how innately conservative we are and although it can be bloody frustrating, it does make evolutionary sense. If something works, you keep doing it and don’t give it up until something better comes along. The trouble is, who decides that something is better and how do you convince everyone else? That’s the bit we always struggle with.
As a result, I think we are still bound by our essential conservatism in such a way that we have actually preserved mediaeval and even Neolithic sensibilities to this day. The reason the guy in that doco wanted to strip mine the Moon was because ‘mining’ is still the only way we can think of to obtain minerals and metals. For more than 3,000 years we have done it the same way: crack and grind rock out of the earth and then heat it, beat it and treat it. The machines may have got fancier, the factories may have got bigger but in essence we’re still doing it the same way we did it in the Neolithic.
If you can’t picture a truly 21st century way of mining and processing minerals, try this on for size. In 30 or 40 years time when we’ve cracked proper nano-technology and have really good sub-surface scanners, all you’ll have to do is find the spot where the vein of the mineral you want is closest to the surface and simply inject a few billion nano-machines. They will then tunnel down to the vein, extract every last atom and return it to the surface in the form of pure ingots of the metal or mineral. As they extract they could also rearrange the remaining rock into braces so that the cavity formed by mining retains structural integrity. No cave-ins or land subsidence to worry about. Pretty nifty idea eh?
I think the saddest example of this conservatism occurs in medicine. I saw a doco on SBS called ‘Miracle Cure?’ that talked about modern cancer treatments and was shocked when a researcher actually stated that we were still attacking cancers with essentially mediaeval treatments. We may give them fancy new names but surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the same old cut, burn or poison methods of centuries ago. Surely we can do better than that? When I heard that comparison I was shocked, but not really surprised. I’m not all that impressed with modern medicine to be frank, and those sort of statements don’t upset me as much as that guy in the Moon doco did. I think it comes down to my own biases. I’m a bit of a space nerd and therefore imagine that other space nerds are as open to new ideas and embrace intellectual change as much as I do.  I get more upset when I see examples of stupidity and conservatism in their ranks. Maybe I need to go and have a good hard look at myself and admit my own biases and stupidities. But being a human, I probably won’t.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Gardening as War

Sorry about the brief pause. I’ve been waging pre-emptive war in the garden. Trying to get a jump on all the weeds and thistles before that two week period in early spring when the garden goes nuts. A couple of years ago I failed to wage my pre-emptive strike and I ended up with six-foot thistles that I had to take down with an axe. And I swear I can actually see the blackberry plants growing, they seem to add inches over night. It’s war I tells ya, war! So at the moment I’m out in the garden a few hours every day weeding, pruning, cutting and generally smiting. My current list of most loathed weeds is as follows; cleavers, wandering weed, dandelions (especially the saucer-shaped holes in the lawn they leave when you dig them up) and goddamned hate-you, hate-you, wouldn’t-want-to-date-you agapanthus, with their horrible Medusa-head worm-like roots and their nasty habit of choking every other plant in the garden to death.
If I speak with the fervour of a convert when it comes to gardening, it’s because I am a recent convert. It’s like some switch was flicked in my brain when I turned forty and I suddenly looked at the garden in a new light. All I could see were weed-choked beds and bushes and trees in desperate need of pruning. How could I have not noticed that the camellia ‘bush’ now had big straight branches reaching up almost four metres in the air? Or that the hedges were completely overshadowing the pool and the front garden? Tackling more than eight years of neglect in the garden has been a huge task, but I’ve quite enjoyed it. On some level, I think my Dutch and Prussian genes have applauded all my attempts to create Order out of Chaos.
 I think they may also like the unacknowledged violence of gardening. Sure, ‘gardening’ sounds like a nice, safe, gentle domestic pursuit and conjures up images of ladies with big hats cutting flowers for the house, but there’s more to it than that. Once I’d started on my gardening adventure I soon realised that a lot of the time I was a like a school teacher trying to keep a roomful of unruly teenage boys (is there any other kind?) from strangling each other. ‘Stop it! Sit down all of you! OI! Agapanthus, I’ve told you twice already, LEAVE THAT TREE ALONE! And Blackberry, get your hands off that poor azalea or it’s back in the naughty corner for you.’ Actually, sometimes it’s more like being the referee in a cage fight than a teacher.
It took me a while to realise the inherently violent nature of gardening. My first attempts at pruning were quite timid and gentle. I didn’t want to cut too much off and hurt the plant. Little did I realise that plants are masochists who have been conditioned to rebound after being attacked by goats and other animals. The more you hurt them, the more they seem to respond. This was graphically illustrated for me a few years back when a neighbour’s car ended up in our living room, (long story, some other time). On its path of destruction the car went over the top of an azalea bush and ripped it to shreds. Once I trimmed all the broken bits off, there wasn’t much left and I thought it was a goner. Instead, next spring it grew more and had twice the flowers of the other plants in the bed. So now when I prune, I try to channel my inner goat and really go for it.
To counter balance some of the violence, I’ve also developed somewhat of a rapport with local birds. We don’t use pesticides or chemicals in our garden and the birds seem to have figured out that our garden is safe to browse. Even our cats don’t scare them because frankly, our cats are pussies. They may look longingly at the blackbirds but the parrots and kookaburras terrify them. The blackbirds used to wait for a while after I’d weeded a patch of garden before moving in to catch worms. Now they hop along beside me as I go. They seemed to have spread the word to the other birds as well, so now I get king parrots landing on the back porch demanding to be fed. No matter how many times I patiently explain to them that I do not feed wild birds, they don’t seem to believe me. Especially when a local kookaburra has evidence to the contrary.
It happened like this: one morning I walked out on to the back porch, ready for a little gardening. A kookaburra was on the back porch looking at me expectantly. As I headed down the garden, he followed me. As I set to cutting all the dead leaves from a tree fern, he sat on a tree branch near and watched me. At one point I thought I saw sudden movement on the trunk of the tree fern, thought it was a bug of some kind and turned away to dump some fronds on my rubbish pile. While my back was turned, the kookaburra swooped in next to me and grabbed something from the tree fern. He came within three feet of me as he did it. When I looked up at him, perched on the tree branch again, I realised that he’d caught a frog. Felt bad for the frog but good that I’d helped a kookaburra hunt.
So that’s gardening for you. More death, hunting, sex and violence than it’s given credit for, in addition to the more familiar themes of peace, tranquillity and inter-species friendship. I tell you, sometimes when I walk out into the garden I don’t know whether I’m going to be channelling a goat, St Francis of Assisi or the Marquis de Sade.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Clean Up on Aisle Five

There was a story about the Pacific gyre in the news recently, that island of floating rubbish that has greenies tearing their hair out in despair. In one of nature’s many quirks the different currents of the Pacific Ocean conspire to gather all the rubbish of the ocean in one spot, the gyre. A bit like how all the leaves in your pool get swept to the middle as the pool pump creates a vortex around the edge. The collected rubbish pile in the gyre, much of it plastic, is getting bigger and bigger and the plastic itself is breaking down into smaller pieces and affecting all marine life in the area. It’s a horrible, terrible mess and no one quite knows what to do with it. Volunteers have gone out and tried to tackle it, but a few small ships with nets can’t hope to make an impact on it. Larger, industrial ships will be needed but then you run into the problem of clearing the fish and dolphins that swim under the rubbish island out of the way. Can’t endanger your greenie credentials by killing fish and dolphins even if you’re clearing up a major problem…that affects fish and dolphins. So everyone is flapping their hands and saying how terrible it is, but nothing is happening.
Well stop your flapping and listen up, as I turn a sow’s ear into a beautiful purse. If we really want to clean this mess up, it will take a bit of money and some research but it’s totally do-able. If every Pacific nation kicks in some money we’ll build a small flotilla of big, rubbish-munching ships and factory ships that can recycle all that plastic back into feed stock for new plastic products. The money from selling the feedstock will help fund the flotilla. Then we get some marine biologists to research what sounds, blasted underwater will scare fish and dolphins away. Not loud enough that it will damage their little fishy brains, but enough to make them crap themselves and move away. I’m thinking the hunting calls of killer whales might do the trick. Any fish too dumb to flee from the sound, or any dolphin insanely feisty enough to want to tackle a killer whale will just have to take their chances with the big ships. Think of it as culling outrageous stupidity from the fish and dolphin gene pool.
Once we’ve cleaned up the current mountain of rubbish, take a minute to think how mind-bogglingly useful that ocean gyre truly is. If it didn’t exist, if it wasn’t there to gather all this crap in one relatively small spot, if all that rubbish had remained evenly spread throughout the whole ocean, it may have taken decades to realise just how much garbage is out there. Years down the track a marine biologist may have noted the increasing amount of tiny plastic pellets found in the bellies of dead fish and then it might have taken even more decades to figure out what was actually happening. As it is, the ocean has virtually picked up a microphone and announced to the world, ‘Clean up on aisle five please, clean up on aisle five, STAT!’ (just to mix up my metaphors even more charmingly). It truly is astonishing.
I should point out here that there is more than one ocean gyre. There are actually two in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean (the poor third world ocean always gets less than the big fancy oceans). I don’t know if they all collect rubbish in the same way as the infamous Pacific one and we just don’t hear about it, but I’ll take a punt that the same physics is at work and that they too collect rubbish at their centres. So once our flotilla is up and running and has cleaned up the Pacific gyre, then we can send it on to the other gyres. It means that we have a marvellously effective way of cleaning all the world’s oceans and keeping them clean by patrolling the gyres on an ongoing basis. One flotilla, rotating through five specific spots on the planet will be able to do that. So look past the horrible, nasty floating island of rubbish we’re hearing about now, and marvel that the ocean currents have naturally evolved a system of garbage collection so efficient that any pointy-headed engineer would be jealous. Let’s use it quick, and then we can cross another item off the environmental ‘to do’ list.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The joy of books

I am a book nut. Correction; I am a complete and utter book nutter. I have been known to get wobbly-kneed and short of breath after a particularly good book purchase. The last time it happened was a couple of months ago when I managed to buy not one, but two out of print volumes by Hendrik van Loon. (Can’t recommend him highly enough, especially his Lives) I almost wept with joy. I simply can’t resist books and they’re starting to take over the house. One whole wall of the living room is covered in bookshelves and every other room in the house has more bookshelves. 

Well, except the bathroom and laundry; don’t want my beautiful books to get soggy. I’ve run out of room in my bedroom so now there are piles on the floor. It started as just one neat pile by the bed, known as my ‘current reading’ pile, but somehow that has grown into eight neat piles on the bedroom floor. I have been warned by Anthea (one of my partners) that if any of the piles grow big enough to kill one of our cats if it fell down…well, let’s just say that the threat was quite graphic.

Like any true book nut I always have more than one book on the go, as well as a supplementary diet of magazines and newspapers. I also read books for Anthea, who is studying for her PhD in musicology (as well as having other projects on the go). I help her wade through arcane academic texts and histories and make notes about anything relevant to her studies. Ostensibly I help do this because she has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and her eyes tire quickly but I kinda love it because it takes me to new and unusual areas that I never would have thought of tackling for myself. So I thought I’d share with you a brief snapshot of the books and magazines I’ve been reading this week. And the list goes like this:
  • The First Fleet by Jonathan King,
  • The Luddite Rebellion by Brian Bailey,
  • A History of Metallography by Cyril Smith,
  • The Shocking History of Phosphorous – A biography of the Devil’s element by John Emsley,
  • This United State by Colin Forbes and
  • Lost Secrets of the Sacred Ark by Laurence Gardner.
Now if you can figure out which books I was reading for pleasure and which ones were for a musicology thesis, award yourself a big pat on the back and the honorary title Smartiest Smarty Pants of the Year. As for magazines, this week I read New Scientist, New Dawn, Atlantis Rising, The Fortean Times and Uncensored. So yes, I read the nutter magazines as well as the respectable ones. The nutters are so much more fun!
So what did I learn this week? That Ralph Clark, 2nd Lieutenant in the First Fleet was a sentimental idiot who couldn’t spell to save his life. He regularly spells Psalms as Spalms and all his journal entries drivel on about missing his dearest, most beloved Alicia and how many times a day he kisses the locket that holds her ‘pictour’. Actually none of the soldiers on board who kept journals seemed to be able to spell or construct grammatical sentences. I thought it was just typical 18th century ‘creativity’ in regards spelling, until right at the end of the book when I read the one letter from a convict and…the spelling and grammar was perfect. Must have been a forger. I’ve barely started the Luddite book so nothing to report so far. The history of metallography book is surprisingly interesting. I was looking for stuff about the history of Damascus steel and it turns out, it may not have come from Damascus. That ‘Damascus’ in this sense may refer to watery patterns in the steel that look a bit like patterns in the fabric ‘damask’. And that the first known examples of such steel don’t come from the East at all, but from 6th century France and are associated with the Merovingian’s. Intriguing.
I also learnt that phosphorous was probably discovered by mediaeval alchemists who obtained it by boiling down gallons and gallons of human urine. Charming. Now we leave the realms of fact and turn to ‘alternative’ archaeology. I love Laurence Gardner’s stuff. Don’t know if I believe a word of it but it’s fun to read. This 2003 book ends by telling us where the Ark of the Covenant is currently hidden. Ethiopia? No. The Vatican? No. Instead, he reckons it’s right in the middle of the labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral. Why can no one see it? Because it’s been slightly shifted out of our space time continuum. Gotta love that don’t you?
Which brings me to fiction. I stopped reading fiction for a long time after I finished my college degree. It bored me. It took me a while to realise that it was only literary fiction that bored me. Turns out I like meat-and-potatoes simple narrative fiction. I like actual stories not dreary, endless internal monologues about love and fate. So I’ve been ploughing through heaps of cheap thrillers courtesy of my local op-shops and discovered some writers I really like. I’ve also developed a sense of the fads and concerns that flow through different time periods. I’m particularly fond of the era between 1989 (when the Iron Curtain fell) and the 2001 terrorist attacks on America. Before 1989 the baddies are pretty much the Soviet Union and after 2001 the new baddies were Islamic terrorists. But the period in between is fascinating as all these authors were forced to find new global threats. Some were unwilling to drop the communists; some went for China or Japan and others conjured up such unlikely threats that they unintentionally drift into comedy. That’s where This United State ends up. In this book America decides that England is no longer a reliable enough ally to keep Europe under control. They decide to invade and make England the 51st state of the U.S.A. They prepare the ground by organising a whole bunch of supposedly terrorist bomb attacks in London in the hope that English authorities become so overwhelmed that they call in the F.B.I. for help, (as if!). Then they secretly send an invasion navy armada into the English Channel. My absolute favourite scene is where a group of crack American Navy Seals are sent to take over a secret British intelligence communications station and are defeated by a mere handful of British intelligence agents and, wait for it, a group of plucky English cabbies. Almost fell off my chair laughing. That’s what I call good imagination.
Finally, one tasty little morsel from my magazines. A new conspiracy theory concerning the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, and you have to guess which magazine it came from, (Hint: it’s not New Scientist). According to this theory those three men were targeted because they all intended to curtail the power of the Federal Reserve Bank. Hmmm, chunky. I particularly enjoyed their use of a new word for banking officials that I hadn’t come across before: Banksters. Says it all really. And speaking of creating new words, let me note in passing the sad demise of Amy Winehouse last week. Another talent gone too soon. She will be remembered for her music, but I also choose to remember her for coming up with a wonderful new way of using the word ‘fuck’. Namely the line in ‘Me and Mr Jones’ that goes, ‘What kind of fuckery is this?’ Farewell Ms Winehouse, I hope Kurt, Janis, Jim and Jimmi are looking out for you and are showing you the best bars in the afterlife.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Vale Rex

This may be the oddest tribute yet to Rex Mossop, former rugby league player and commentator. Some of you may be wondering what on earth a Melbourne-based comedian and lesbian could possibly have to say about such a man. For starters I grew up in New South Wales and though I’m not old enough to remember his playing career, I certainly remember him as a commentator during the 70s and 80s. I only met him the once, but it was memorable enough to prompt me to write this piece.
In the mid-80s Rex was a regular panellist on Andrew Denton’s ABC show ‘Live and Sweaty’. One week I was a special guest. When I turned up at the studio one of the other panellists, sports journalist Debbie Spillane, greeted me with great joy. She figured that with me being a lesbian and all, that Rex would dislike me more than her, and that for once she wouldn’t be the butt of his jibes during the show. It seemed a reasonable theory. Mr Mossop wasn’t renowned for being gay friendly. Although he did once say something that a lot of lesbians would wholeheartedly agree with. When asked his thoughts on the idea of Manly beach becoming a nudist beach, he’s alleged to have said, “I have nothing against male genitalia, I just don’t want it shoved down my throat’. Amen Rex!
In the green room before the show it became clear that it wasn’t just Debbie Spillane who was looking forward to fireworks between me and Rex. The general expectation seemed to be that a juicy confrontation might be on the cards. I’m not really into angry confrontations or argy-bargy so I thought I’d introduce myself to Rex beforehand, just to let him know that I was a friendly sort of person. So I walked up to him, stuck out my hand and said, ‘Mr Mossop, I’m not sure but I think I may be your worst nightmare’. He looked at me and said ‘What do you mean?’ I replied that I was a lesbian. His face froze, but he shook my hand and that was it. No more chatting before the show.
However, I think Rex appreciated me being up front and honest and must have decided that I wasn’t too bad a person. He was completely charming to me throughout the whole show. If memory serves he even paid me a compliment or two. Much to the confusion of everyone in the studio. Then Andrew posed a question to all the panel members, who was more gorgeous, AFL players or rugby league players? When it was my turn I just threw up my hands and said I had no informed opinion. Then we got to Rex. And he said, ‘Well I’m going to have say AFL players. That Dermott Brereton has got a lovely bottom.’ I had never seen Andrew Denton speechless before then. In fact I’d never seen a whole studio full of people completely gobsmacked before. It was a lovely, lovely television moment.
Afterwards I was accused of having worked some weird lesbian mojo on Rex that affected his brain, but I plead complete innocence. During the after show drinks in the green room, Rex came up to me and we chatted for about half an hour. At one point I asked him why on earth he’d made that comment about Dermott Brereton and he just grinned and said he knew what everyone was expecting and thought he’d surprise them. He certainly managed that. After he left I was promptly informed that the whole evening was unprecedented. Rex never stayed for drinks after the show and never chatted to any of the guests. I was touched. I may have only met him that one time, but he was a complete gentleman. And isn’t nice to be reminded that friendliness is possible across the most surprising cultural divides? Vale Rex, and I hope you’re having a wonderful time catching up with all your old playing buddies.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Demise of Borders

Are you wondering why Borders are on their knees and slipping into receivership? The answer is very simple; their books are too bloody expensive. Any discerning book buyer has been steering clear of them for a while. I even reached the point that I was going to tell family and friends not to give me Borders gift vouchers anymore because they just weren’t worth it. What might cover one and a half books at Borders would get me more like two or three at any other book store. In a world where you can track down anything you want on the net and get it cheaper than from a local shop, jacking up prices was a very dumb idea.
The stench of a dying business has been discernible for some time. At my local Borders the first thing to go was the music section. Then my favourite weird, fringe-book section disappeared. Then more and more tables appeared with froufrou collectibles, knick-knacks and other assorted crap. It stopped feeling like a bookshop and became more like a high end variety shop. It became more apparent that this chain was not run by book lovers but people obsessed by shifting ‘units’. Books as commodities, not sources of knowledge and entertainment. Few of the perky young sales staff seemed to really know anything about books. If it wasn’t in the database they didn’t have a clue. All of which is a guaranteed turn-off for genuine book lovers.
I know this sounds stupidly romantic and sentimental and that booksellers and publishers have to make hard, practical decisions in an increasingly difficult marketplace, but please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, there is still a place for good bookshops. Shrinking your stock down to guaranteed mass market crowd pleasers, movie tie-ins and Top 100 titles and then churning through them quickly because some marketing genius has decided that books have a shelf life only marginally longer than fruit is completely counter-productive. You’re just sending more people to the net to find what they want.
It’s fashionable to think that bookshops and books themselves are a dying art form, doomed to fade away in an e-book, digital media tidal wave, but that’s a load of nonsense. No media has ever killed another media and books will never die. However convenient and useful computer technology is for transferring loads of information, people will still want to grab a reassuring physical object from their bookshelf and be able to flick through it at random. The feel, touch and smell of books will always be more seductive than data on a screen. Besides, computers are still so stupid and susceptible to crashing or mangling files ( I almost lost a complete draft of a book once when my computer had a nervous breakdown) so why on earth would I entrust my personal library to such a machine?
The irony in all this is that computer technology is about to rescue books from the dustbin of history and drag them into the twenty-first century. The technology is quite literally just around the corner. It’s called print-on-demand. It’s basically a machine that can print, bind and spit out any book in its database in about an hour. It’s still a bit slow and clunky but like all technology it’s going to get faster, smaller and cheaper. It will bring the world of books up to speed with the modern world and make it more compatible with the internet. Instead of a six to twelve month turnaround from manuscript to finished book, you’ll be able to upload a manuscript to the computer system and make it instantly accessible anywhere in the world. Books will be able to become viral. A machine like that in every bookshop will free the publishing industry from expensive overheads like industrial printing, having to determine the size of a print run and having to physically box and ship books all over the country. Not only should it be a whole lot cheaper, but with a bit of luck, we as consumers will also be able to nominate the size, format and print size of the books we want. Being able to break down huge books into a more manageable number of volumes and with larger print will be a godsend to many older and disabled readers. So my advice to Borders and all the other booksellers and publishers worried about their future would be this: get together and throw some money at the development of print-on-demand machines. It will transform all your old-fashioned business models, guarantee your future profitability and make your readers very, very happy.