Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Ends of 2 Cricketing Eras

Shortly I'll switch on the TV to watch South Africa finish off Australia in the cricket. This will be Australia's first test series defeat at home since 1993, and South Africa have been pretty dominant so far. It's clear that Australia have lost their position as the top ranked team in test cricket, when you also consider their recent series loss in India.

Looking at the bigger picture, this might be one of the last times that test (5 day) cricket attracts much attention. The shortened Twenty20 (T20) game is taking over cricket in terms of television coverage and advertising, reflecting the fact that most people would rather watch a game lasting 3 hours than one lasting 35 hours.* Now the best young players are following the money and joining the lucrative Indian T20 league before they even come close to playing in their national test teams.

In the near future the best batsmen will concentrate on the quick, aggressive batting needed for T20 cricket, and neglect the patient, defensive batting that wins test matches. Meanwhile bowlers will focus on bowling accurately under the tight restrictions of one day games and won't work on the bouncers or wider deliveries that are permitted and necessary in five day games. Test cricket will soon be a secondary form of the game, populated by players who didn't succeed in the T20 leagues.

The ugly Australian supporter in me is amused to see South Africa take over the top spot just as test cricket becomes irrelevant. However it is poignant to think that this might be the final time that such a handover even matters much. I'll have to head out to the Sydney Cricket Ground next week to see if Australia can avoid the whitewash. Anyone else interested in seeing one of the last great test series?

*30 hours if you don't count the lunch and tea breaks.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Corporate Welfare

I had an insight into why bankruptcy is so difficult in the US, sparked by my friend Vincent. He pointed out that a big sticking point was that the Republicans insisted the bailout strip away many of the benefits enjoyed by the GM and Chrysler workforce. The automakers' union wouldn't agree to all the concessions, and the Republican senators wouldn't vote for the bailout unless they did.

Hostility to government means that big companies in the US take on responsibilities that fall on governments in other developed countries, particularly health care and pensions. Elsewhere these benefits aren't tied to the health of a particular corporation, so its failure is less devastating. The current workers have to find another job and might lose the pay for their last week or two of work, but they still have health care and their accrued retirement funds (the latter might be diminished by poor investment returns, but don't disappear along with one particular firm). Conversely, a bankruptcy in the US leads to workers losing benefits accrued over decades. This injustice creates a strong political constituency for propping up a dysfunctional company, even when society as a whole would be better off if it failed and made way for a superior competitor.

It's an exquisite irony: the failure to put in place socialism for individuals leads to socialism for corporations.

OK, Bad Call

Looks like I was wrong on the implications of the decision not to bail out the Detroit car manufacturers. The US market didn't fall much, even before the Bush administration said they might be able to redirect some of the previously allocated financial bailout funds. Apparently all the bad economic news has already been priced in. I've gone back to thinking that we'll see a drawn-out recession through all of 2009, but nothing worse than that.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Day the Depression Began?

Just wondering, after the U.S. carmaker bailout got rejected, seemingly pushing General Motors and Chrysler into bankruptcy. When Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy after failing to secure a government rescue, that event battered economic confidence and moved the slowdown into a full-blown recession. I suspect GM and Chrysler together are more important than one mid-size investment bank. While their failures won't come as such a surprise, they will still be sufficient to drag the world economy even further down, at a time when it's already pretty low. I'll be morbidly fascinated to see what happens when the US stockmarket opens in a few hours.

Even with this grim outlook, I can't blame the U.S. Republicans for opposing the rescue. It must be tough choosing between between likely economic depression and certain crony capitalism. When did the American economy become unable to handle bankruptcies, anyway? And why?

It's also interesting to consider the geopolitical ramifications. Cars will still be made in the US, but in a few years most of the factories will probably be subsidiaries of foreign companies. All the automotive design and research will happen elsewhere, eroding American manufacturing. Maybe that's already the case, thinking about which companies got petrol-electric hybrids to market first. I suppose the U.S. is still a leader in aerospace and software.

On a more parochial note, I wonder which company will acquire Holden, GM's still-viable Australian subsidiary?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Boutique Rats

There was an amusing article in the paper today, about a plan to reintroduce Australian bush rats to a posh Sydney suburb. There's more native vegetation now than in the period immediately after European settlement when the land was cleared, so the bush rats might be able to make a comeback. Only in Mosman would people worry about having a better class of rat.

The ecologists even speculate that the bush rats might displace the introduced black rats, but that's where I beg to differ. The native animals might thrive in the bushland and it would be great if they did, but my money's on the black rats in the residential areas.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Up in the Sky

Venus and Jupiter have been approaching one another in the evening sky, with their closest pairing tomorrow. However I've missed out on watching them move together over the last week because it's been so cloudy. Until tonight, when the weather was clear at the right time of day.

This is the sort of fairly routine planetary conjunction that comes around once or twice a year. Normally I'd just glance up with mild interest, but I'm really appreciating it after the earlier anticipation.

It was the second interesting celestial sight of the day: in the afternoon I saw an A380 aircraft for the first time. I liked the way that its double-decker structure created a bit of a face at the front of the plane, with the "forehead" of the second storey sitting above the "nose" of the cone. Better than the boring standard tube of a typical midsize plane, although not quite as cute as a 747. It has a partial second storey which also creates a face shape at the front but then slopes down halfway along the plane in a way that reminds me of a dolphin.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ambigous Australian-ness

I'm enjoying a quiet evening at home, cooking some Anzac biscuits and drinking beer that I won betting on the cricket with a friend at work. It would be very Australian, except that I backed India and my workmate settled our bet with a six-pack from the Czech Republic ...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

No You Can't

I had a few Australian friends express delight at today's US election result, and a string of celebratory status updates from all my friends on Facebook, but I just can't get that enthusiastic. Sure Obama will be an improvement on Bush and a better choice than McCain, but I'm not convinced that election results have much of an impact.

In this case I'm particularly cynical, because even before it begins there are so many obvious ways for Obama's presidency to fail:
  • He'll have to deal with a nasty recession and the US' relative decline. These tough times will be a particular problem for Obama, as his supporters have high expectations that everything will improve and won't be prepared for a year or two of deterioration.
  • Obama didn't adjust any of his programs or give any hint that things would have to be different when US finances took a remarkable turn for the worse 6 weeks ago. Now he'll have to break a whole host of election promises and lose all credibility and influence in his first few months.
  • Obama promises to step up the war in Afghanistan, which has disaster written all over it. What's the strategic objective there? Transforming the society to be more pro-Western looks even less likely than in Iraq. Maybe the US wants to prop up the friendly Tajik/Uzbek/Hazara government against the Pushtuns, but that government will never control the country if it still needs American assistance after 7 years. The US would be better off withdrawing now before sinking deeper into another hopeless quagmire.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Thoughts on Financial Turmoil

I've been following the latest developments in the financial crisis with some interest this week, and trying to work out what they mean. Surely credit will be tight enough to cause a fairly big recession in the developed world over the next couple of years, but it's a bit harder to judge the longer term effects. Still, here goes.

Presumably there will be much tighter regulation of the financial sector. In other industries companies are mostly competitors, so that the remaining companies are strengthened when a firm goes bankrupt. In finance the competing banks are also counterparties to a whole range of deals, and a corporate collapse actually weakens the remaining entities. It's an amusing paradox that you have to limit competition in the capital distribution system, which is really the heart of a capitalist economy, but there you go. The countries with loose lending standards, weak capital requirements and innovative financial firms (US, UK) have been the source of the upheaval, to the extent that their governments are having to bail out the market and take over large chunks of it. Better to have stricter rules to begin with.

Tighter financial regulation will be a good thing, but will probably encourage excessive government intervention in other parts of the economy. This could really look attractive if some of the Asian economies remain strong over the next few years e.g. China, Singapore, Korea. That could hold everybody back by limiting useful competition and creative destruction in industries other than finance. Not to mention that widespread government control of the economy would encourage repressive politics as well.

On a geopolitical level I see the present crisis hastening the end of the United States' global dominance. The American economic system was recently seen as effective and capable, albeit somewhat harsh, but now it's seen as the source of all the problems. The United States will be weakened as the rest of the world doesn't invest in its economy to the extent that it has over the last 2 decades. I think China will take over as the obvious superpower around 2020, whereas I used to think that would happen some time in the 2030s. I'm not looking forward to the transfer of world leadership from a democratic government to an autocratic government, but it's starting to seem inevitable.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Mild Amusement from Council Elections

Today was local council election day. After checking the results in my current municipality on the ABC website, I had a look at a few other places where I have some connection. Rather a waste of a time, but I had to smile at the following:
  • Turnout seems to be 60-65% in most districts, even though voting is compulsory. Obviously a lot of people go ahead with their regular weekend plans and treat the $50 fine as an additional expense.
  • In the area where I grew up (Blue Mountains council, 4th ward) the Liberal Party ticket was Fiona Creed, Graeme Creed, Michael Creed. I guess family dinners double as party branch meetings.
  • In the area where my parents currently live (Oberon council), there are 9 councillors to be elected from 3540 electors. That's about one elected official per 400 voters, and there must be even less populated areas than Oberon.
  • For example, the 2015 person electoral roll of Bogan Shire Council. That's the actual name, I'm not referring to Sutherland. Can you imagine being introduced as the Mayor of Bogan Shire?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Intelligent Movie ... with Explosions!

It's been a while since I've able to say that. Not since the first Matrix movie, probably. Anyway, this afternoon I had a great time watching Tropic Thunder. It's rather violent and profane, as you would expect for a movie about making a Vietnam war movie, but very clever at the same time.

The main targets of the satire are method acting and self-absorbed Hollywood actors. However the film makes jokes at the expense of many other groups: sentimental environmentalists, heroin users, troubled war veterans, cute children, black rappers, white people imitating black people, Australians, even Jews. What impressed me was that the humour worked without being cruel, and it did illuminate some of the stereotypes underlying Hollywood culture.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

New Job Going Well

I've been an analyst at AME Mineral Economics for a couple of weeks now, and I'm enjoying it so far.

Initially they've had me working on two consulting reports, providing general overviews of particular commodity markets for clients that want to raise capital for a new project or sell their stake in an existing project. Some of the relevant material was already written for the regular quarterly and monthly market analyses, so I could reuse these graphs and text. Where new work was required, I had to talk with the more experienced analysts to get up to speed, then write some of the new bits myself and leave other sections for the real experts. It was a good way to learn what services AME provides and how they maintain all their information. I also learnt that my co-workers are generous and helpful people, as I had to rely on them a lot! Soon I'll get to work on researching and collating the underlying data, which should keep me busy for a few months.

I'm amused by the company name, which used to be Australian Mineral Economics. The marketing director realised that this was too parochial, as we analyse projects around the world and deal mainly with the implications for international trade. Since the company's initials already had brand recognition, the official name was changed to AME Mineral Economics. So now the A in AME stands for AME. Completely unintentional I'm sure, but the nerd in me likes working for a recursive acronym.

Another funny thing is how the job matches up with some of my early tendencies. I learnt to count at quite a young age, maybe even before starting school. We lived near the main train line running west from Sydney, and I used to count the freight carriages on passing coal trains. Now I'm doing a more sophisticated version of the same activity, trying to summarise all the supply and demand sources for various minerals. I'll soon be assigned to update one of the annual Mine Cost reports, and it might even be coal. Note that I also went through a youthful phase of looking up at the stars and wanting to be an astronaut, before spending most of my twenties as a research astronomer. I'm starting to wonder if growing up made any difference to me.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Off the Cuff

This evening I engaged in one of my least favourite activities: shopping for trousers. I like to have the cuffs on my trousers fairly high, so they don't get dirty from puddles, messy floors etc. However the fashion is to have the cuffs quite low to avoid revealing too much of your socks while sitting down. Add in the fact that I have pretty short legs, and I find it near impossible to get the length I like.

Note to annoying fashionista shop assistants: I like my socks, and my feet tend to be hidden under a desk when I sit down anyway. That's why I wanted you to pin the cuffs higher for alterations and left when you kept trying to change my mind. I'll try a department shop in the next couple of days: hopefully they'll have a range of leg lengths so alterations won't be needed, or at least few enough shop assistants that I can try a few pairs without receiving persistent unwanted advice.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Overlapping Identification Numbers?

I supplied a lot of personal details when starting my new job today, and it got me thinking. The Australian government keeps tabs on its citizens using a 9 digit tax file number. Meanwhile Australian phone numbers consist of a zero followed by 9 variable digits, if you include the area code. So now I'm wondering: is there anyone whose tax file number exactly matches their phone number? Or is there some unfortunate person who has most of the digits in common and keeps mixing the two numbers up?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Good Job News

I've found a real job! It's an analyst position with a company called AME Mineral Economics, which does analysis and costing of mining projects and the commodity markets. I'll get to plow through all sorts of data (company documents, the news, geological analyses, who knows what else) and synthesise it into reports and predictions.

I heard about the company after talking to a friend from high school. It made sense to look at the mining sector, given that it's doing so well at the moment. Apparently AME have to take on generically smart people and train them in the industry because all the geologists and mining engineers have been snapped up by the actual mining companies.

I'm starting next Monday, and really looking forward to it. There will be a lot to learn, so I'll be very busy and may be neglecting this blog over the next few months.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Books: 21%

Here's a little internet game lifted from David Simon's blog. I'm skipping the third instruction, as Blogger doesn't seem to allow for underlining.

"The Big Read reckons that the average adult has only read 6 of the top 100 books they've printed."
1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you LOVE.
4) Reprint this list in your own blog so we can try and track down these people who've read 6 and force books upon them ;-)

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Total count: 21 read

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Booms and Bubbles

Here's a thought on semantics and economics for the new financial year. Any price increase will be described as a "boom" while it's occurring, and a "bubble" in retrospect. There's a distinction between a bubble driven by speculative investment and a boom driven by increased demand and / or supply constraints, but a boom gets redefined as a bubble whenever people lose money after buying near the top of the market.

At the moment, there's a "commodities boom" or "mining boom." The surge in mineral prices (coal, iron, oil, aluminium etc.) is clearly driven by the fundamentals: consumption of most materials has increased due to Asian industrialisation, while production capacity has yet to catch up. Even so, mineral prices will fall back at some point, due to a severe recession or new mines coming into operation. While I can only guess at the timing (2009? 2012?), I'm certain about the reaction. We'll start talking about the "late 00's mining bubble."

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Come Into Our Labyrinth

Today I helped make a labyrinth, although this didn't involve planting hedges or building stone walls. It was a contemplative labyrinth: a pattern on the ground with a single twisting path but no forks or dead ends. A person walking through this maze focuses on her footsteps and stills her mind as she walks towards the centre. There's a famous example on the floor of Chartres cathedral.

My meditation group will introduce meditation to the pilgrims at World Youth Day using a number of contemplative exercises. We wanted to include a labyrinth, which saw me travel to Peter Hawes' flat in Coogee this morning to help make it. We reproduced the 7 ring Gracefield labyrinth shown above, rather than the 11 ring Chartres design, to allow for wider paths in limited space.

Peter had sewn velcro straps to a king size sheet, which we stretched across his living room floor. We taped the edges and ironed it very flat (particularly in two spots where I dwelt too long on a particular wrinkle and melted the carpet). Then we used a string and pencil attached to a central pivot to trace concentric circles on the sheet, drew some radial lines and erased bits of the circles to create a plan of the maze.

Fellow meditator Rosemary and Peter's brother Jeff arrived to help with the next stage, slicing 15mm wide strips of adhesive felt. We removed the backing and laid the felt along the pencil outline to form the "walls" of the labyrinth.

Next we cut pieces of black cloth with a floral pattern to fill gaps and round the corners of the path for a more pleasing aesthetic effect. Here's Peter gluing down the cloth for the first rounded corner.

Here's Peter surveying the final product. Well almost final: he plans to sew the felt and cloth to the sheet since the glue may not survive hundreds of scuffing feet. The smaller floral designs don't show up in this photo but you can see large red flowers in the central enclosure, the big gap and a couple of the turns.

The design is pretty, and has a clever way of creating stillness. The last stages in the centre have tighter and more closely spaced turns, so the walker has to slow down to navigate them. It's fortunate that we're using it for World Youth Day: older people might turn their ankles!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Strolling Around Sydney Harbour

The flat I'm sharing is in a great location, quite close to the centre of Sydney but on the north side of the harbour. This means I get to ride a bus or train across the Harbour Bridge when I travel to the city centre. I'm also close to some fantastic walks. This afternoon I caught a bus to the beachside suburb of Manly and completed the Manly Scenic Walk, a 9km route through a variety of harbour landscapes.

Initially I strolled along footpaths in front of fancy harbourside houses in Manly and Fairlight, indulging in some property voyeurism (probably Sydney's most popular pastime). Then I got my boots slightly wet crossing a beach and some rocks to enter the national park on Dobroyd Head. The track meandered through an environment that hasn't changed much since European settlement: scrubby native vegetation, Aboriginal rock carvings of kangaroos, fish and boomerangs, and spectacular views through the heads out to the open ocean.

The path skirted a suburban park and soccer field, complete with an ice cream van to provide a mid afternoon sugar boost, before dipping down to the base of some cliffs. Then I was walking along Middle Harbour, again gawking at expensive houses as I crossed a beach and a park planted with Norfolk Island pines. The final section cut through some more scrub to the Spit Bridge, which swings open occasionally to let bigger boats through. I then caught a bus home through heavy traffic (all the pretty peninsulas and inlets make for a tangled and congested road network).

I'm lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the world, and such a temperate climate. It was sunny all afternoon, with only a few fluffy white clouds. At the start of the walk it was about 17 C, with a brisk but still pleasant sea breeze. As I headed inland the wind eased considerably, while the temperature dropped to about 14 C as the sun set. Quite pleasant for the middle of winter!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Why I Meditate

For many years I've meditated twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Often I'm asked why I do it, and recently I thought of a new reason. Meditation is an excellent preparation for death.

Death forces people to abandon most aspects of their life: the body, possessions, relationships with other people. Even if there's a soul that survives, much of the mind probably disappears as well. All this will be taken by compulsion at some time, and life's final challenge is to relinquish that life willingly.

The discipline I follow is mantra meditation: sitting still with a straight back and repeating a mantra in the mind. I have to let go of other distracting thoughts and desires, a process that becomes easier with practice. Regular renunciation of my external life should allow me to leave the world happily when death comes.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Indecisive Wildlife

Australian native animals sure take their time fleeing from possible danger. On a nature walk this afternoon through Flat Rock Gully, I spotted a brush turkey on a ledge near the path. It wasted a good five seconds looking at both edges of the rock, before retreating up the path it must have taken to get there in the first place. My parents have observed similar behaviour in wombats: they turn to examine both sides of the road before ambling off in one direction to avoid oncoming traffic.

The Australian environment has a lower and less reliable energy supply than most ecosystems: the soils are poor and the rainfall is highly variable from year to year. The animals have evolved to move slowly and conserve energy, as they can't be assured of eating well in the future. I wonder if they'll develop faster reflexes after a few centuries of interaction with faster, more responsive introduced animals (cats, foxes, humans). Perhaps I should chase the next brush turkey I see and give natural selection a nudge.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Indian Premier League

Twice over the last month I've woken up early and caught the end of a broadcast from the Indian Premier League, the new cricket tournament that seems set to take over the sport. The games have been entertaining, although inconvenient to watch from my time zone unless insomnia is involved.

The IPL uses the 20-20 format, which reduces cricket games to 120 balls per side and a total time of three hours. Cricket becomes strikingly similar to baseball when compressed to a comparable time scale. About half the shots are played as big, cross-batted swings, rather than the defensive vertical strokes that predominate in test (5 day) cricket. Also, a dot ball (no runs scored from a single delivery) becomes a positive outcome for the fielding team, as opposed to a neutral outcome in test cricket.

There was one other parallel to American baseball. Virtually all the support, sponsorship and TV money for the IPL comes from India, and a majority of the players are Indian. However a significant minority of top players hail from smaller, more obscure island countries, although in cricket these are Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka as opposed to the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Don't Know Much About Geography ...

My Christian meditation group were discussing an event at Hurstville when one of the group members asked where it was. When I checked if she was serious, it seemed she was. Someone else jumped in to say that Hurstville is in Sydney's west, when actually it's in the southern suburbs. Hurstville is one of six suburban centres prominent enough to be listed in Sydney's Wikipedia entry, and yet quite a few long term Sydneysiders don't know where it is.

Now I'm intrigued. Could you name the five or ten most important suburbs in your home city, and give rough locations for them? If not, don't you feel that you should?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Attention on the Production Line

A spiritual discipline I learnt some time ago at the School of Philosophy is resting the attention on the working surface and letting everything else go. I practised this at one of my temp jobs today, with an intriguing result.

I was working on a production line for environmental test kits: little swabs in a sealed test tube. My step in the assembly process was to insert the lid and attached swab into the test tube and close it. The machine then moved the test tube along to a press that stamped the lid down and sealed it shut. I had to shift the focus of my attention about once a second, as the working surface changed from my left hand picking up a new swab and transferring it to my right hand, to the swab sliding down the inside of the test tube, to the lid closing against the top of the tube.

I observed a fascinating phenomenon for the brief periods when I kept my attention solely on these working surfaces and abandoned thoughts of morning tea or the novel I'm reading. My perception of time slowed down dramatically: the machine kept stepping the test tubes along at the same rate, but the apparent time per step seemed to double. Stopping the daydreams and focussing only on the present moment freed up so much perceived time that I felt like a character in the Matrix.

This is great, but I'll need to learn two things. Firstly, how to remain in the fully alert state for more than five or ten seconds at a time. Secondly, how to apply a high level of attention to creative or mental activities, rather than just repetitive physical ones.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Employment Update

In the last two months I've been looking for a job in finance. Some of the roles are very mathematical and analytical, so I could apply the skills I picked up in my physics and maths degrees and my physics research.

Unfortunately it's is a bad year for finance employment due to the credit crunch (not quite as bad in Australia as in the US and Europe but still pretty bad). I sent my CV around to most of the banks, investment banks and funds managers in Australia and while I had a few interviews I didn't receive any offers. I'm suspending my job search for the moment and will start a part-time master's degree at UTS (University of Technology, Sydney) in July. I'll start looking through the job ads and sending in applications again towards the end of the year, when the hiring environment may have improved and when my CV will be strengthened by the first few courses of the master's degree.

I'll try to find full time work for the next six months, although I'm not sure what form that will take. It would have to be something that lets me focus on my study, but hopefully has some relevance to a quantitative finance job.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Classic Sports Commentary

Tonight's Australia vs. New Zealand rugby league test match produced some lines that have to be preserved for posterity.
  • "Perpendicular: that means upwards, doesn't it?"
  • "New Zealand need Sonny Bill Williams to pass to Sonny Bill Williams."
  • "The sky's not big enough, you're talking about the stratosphere or maybe the universe when you're talking about the limit for this young man."

Shameless Self-Promotion

I had a letter to the editor published on the Economist web site. Apparently I was quite insightful in making the point that China must be a powerful country now that everyone hates it.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Has Sydney's Air Become Cleaner?

Over the last few weeks I've often seen the Blue Mountains from places near my flat in Crows Nest, such as the Harbour Bridge and the Pacific Highway. They're at least 50km away (80km for some of the higher ridges) but can be clearly seen on a majority of cloudless days.

I recall this happening only occasionally back in the late 90s; most days there was too much haze to see any part of the Blue Mountains. I don't know what it is (old sooty cars being taken off the road? fewer home fireplaces as people renovate?) but particulate emissions in the Sydney basin seem to be way down.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Unexpected Accuracy in a Blockbuster Movie

I saw the movie "Iron Man" this afternoon, and thought it was a pretty good superhero movie, even if the plot wasn't particularly original. While there was some dodgy science (to be expected in this sort of movie), I was pleased to see the writers get one big thing right and add one small detail.

Big thing: the power source was the critical component of the Iron Man suit, which only the genius Tony Stark could invent. In real life energy storage is a major limiting factor in a number of technologies e.g. electric cars or the conversion of power grids to solar generators.

Small detail: James Rhodes, Tony's air force liaison, is clearly wearing an MIT class ring in some scenes. It's a cute touch that only MIT alumni would even notice.

Unexpected Benefits of Glasses

I started to wear glasses a couple of months ago, after the lenses inside my eyes became less flexible with age and lost the ability to focus on distant objects. My distance vision was probably deteriorating for a year or two before that and probably affected my perception of England. I thought the English landscape was soft and blurry, which I attributed at the time to the abundant vegetation and persistent drizzle. Now I think it was just out of focus!

My specs have given me a much sharper view of useful things like stars and street signs, but they're also proving useful as shields. Last weekend at a party I stood near a fire, and some smoke that blew in my direction hurt my eyes much less than I expected. This evening I sliced some onions while making dinner, and found that I didn't need to submerge them to stop my eyes watering. Four eyes are actually better than two.

One final point: I know some of my relatives have taken digital photos of me in the last couple of months. Could someone send me one of these recent photos to use as an accurate profile picture?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Another Limerick

Back on April Fool's Day I demonstrated some rhymes for "orange" and "Australia." Tonight I cram both difficult words into one lame poem.

A limerick that rhymes on Australia
Must employ verbal paraphernalia,
Then when you add orange
The rhymes become quite strange,
But it's still a success, not a failure.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

War On ...

I was irked by Time magazine's cover this week, "How to Win the War on Global Warming." The phrase "War on [problem]" was bad enough when applied to drugs or terror, but at least those crises could be blamed on small groups of "enemies." There was a clear analogy to a military campaign.

In contrast, global warming is caused by everyone on the planet, and averting that catastrophe will be very different to warfare. Many aspects of our society (energy generation, transport, manufacturing, etc.) will have to change in order to avoid global warming; the appropriate image would be revolution, or maybe renaissance. The combat metaphor doesn't make sense, and encouraging a martial mindset doesn't help.

Could we all declare a ceasefire on emotive misuse of language?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Rugby League Heritage

Yesterday I went to my first rugby league game since the 90s, watching the Tigers hammer the Rabbitohs at the Sydney Cricket Ground. My cousin Jeff was going with some friends, and it was a good chance to catch up with him. The SCG used to host the big football games before newer, purpose-built football grounds were built in the last few decades. This game was played at the historic ground as part of the "heritage round" celebrating the centenary of Australian rugby league, and we were even allowed to wander out on the ground after the match.

Jeff and I had a good chat, discussing work, travel plans, family news etc. I found that a footy crowd isn't the best place for a conversation; my voice got a bit strained from talking over the general noise. Still a good afternoon overall.

Some of Jeff's friends knew my brother Joseph and were able to see the family resemblance. They said it was much stronger when I took my glasses off, one person even comparing the effect to recognising Clark Kent's true identity when he removes his specs. I'm sure Joseph will be pleased to learn that we no longer look as similar now that I wear glasses, and particularly gratified that he gets the Superman half of the analogy.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mmmmm, Shark

Tonight I tried out the local fish and chips shop, and found that they do a excellent, greasy job of frying up their wares. I also appreciated the chance to eat shark, which is the default fish in Sydney if you don't ask for something more expensive. I can tell that shark has a slightly bitter and unpleasant taste compared to other white fish such as cod, but that's what I grew up eating and that's what fish should taste like. Plus, there's no chance of stray bones surviving the filleting process.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Programming to Relieve Frustration (!)

Normally computer programming aggravates me, but recently it's been rather therapeutic. For a couple of days I've been in a lull with no interviews or temp work, so I decided to upgrade my computing skills.

I took a question from a finance textbook which should have been solved using software on the accompanying CD-ROM. Instead I wrote my own code to solve the equations, using C++, a programming language that was new to me. It took a bit of research on the internet, but I produced a working program and answered the question. The underlying mathematics wasn't all that hard, which helped.

It was a good little project to keep me busy, but throws up an interesting ethical question: can I now list C++ on my resumé? My answer is yes.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Waltzing Matilda as a Limerick

Limericks are usually amusing, even when they start with a sad subject. To demonstrate, here's a reformatting of Banjo Paterson's classic national song.

A jovial, sheep-stealing guy
When caught by the cops chose to die
In a small billabong,
Where now his ghostly song
May be heard by all passers-by.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Body-Surfing at Palm Beach

The autumn weather and the ocean are still pretty warm, so this morning I visited Palm Beach for the first time. The northernmost of Sydney's beaches, it's a very pretty spot, just remote enough to feel like a holiday town rather than a suburb.

I was able to body-surf for the first time in years. Until a month ago my sea and ocean swimming was in Massachusetts Bay or the Mediterranean, which are both pretty flat. I tried, but the waves there didn't have the power to pick me up and push me in to shore. This morning I was able to catch some metre-high waves just as they broke and take a quick turbulent ride back to the beach. It's a wonderful feeling as you lose control and move as part of the water for a few seconds.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Fortuitous Computer Problem?

I had an odd computer problem over the last week. Last Saturday the computer froze and gave me a message that it needed to be rebooted. Then it wouldn't reboot and just gave me a blank screen. So I took it in to the repair shop, where they kept it a few days until they had time to examine it and give me a quote. However it worked just fine when they switched it on, and seems to be OK again.

This wasn't a bad week for it to happen, as it meant fewer distractions from my finance textbooks. I thought today's interview went pretty well, and I displayed a reasonable knowledge of the technical aspects of the job. Maybe I need to go offline in the lead up to all interviews!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Casual Work: Better than Expected

Finding a position in finance will probably take a few months. As with any senior white-collar occupation there are multiple interviews and a lot of careful vetting. To bring in some money and make sure I don't run down my savings too much in the interim, I signed up for casual work with Manpower.

I've been working 2 or 3 days a week at various odd jobs: unloading boxes in a warehouse, or helping run an assembly line for bacterial test kits. Today I donned a fluorescent yellow vest and did some street sweeping for Mosman council's contractors. My Dad should get a kick out of this, as he worked at Leichardt council for over 30 years. I found that sweeping is quite pleasant when you have a cool day and occasional harbour views.

It's been good for my spirits to get out and work. When all I do is look at ads for permanent jobs and send out applications, I naturally think about my life and wonder where it might be headed. This dreamy activity leaves me rather anxious and despondent if it's the only thing happening. On days when I have some casual labour as well, there's less time to worry about the future, and I finish the day happy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Why are athletes violent drunks?

There's been a lot of media coverage in Australia over a late-night brawl involving one of Australia's swim team. And if this had involved a footballers rather than swimmers, it would scarcely qualify as news.

Why sportsmen so often get violent when they're binge-drinking, when most people just get sleepy? I wonder if it's an interaction between alcohol and performance-enhancing drugs. An elite athlete is likely to be taking recently developed drugs which haven't had time to be discovered by drug-testing agencies and included in the latest tests. These substances wouldn't have gone through much in the way of safety checks or clinical trials, so who knows what the side-effects might be.

On the other hand, the new swimsuits and any drugs the swimmers might be taking seem to help them break a lot of records. I guess they'd say it's worthwhile.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April Fool's Nonsense

Here are two poems for April Fool's Day, which pull off some difficult rhymes. The practical joke on you is that they're limericks, but they aren't very funny.

A clever young man from Australia
Wrote a limerick that was no failure,
Though in the last line
He didn't decline
Abstruse verbal paraphernalia.

The subject, a small juicy orange,
Inspired a limerick most strange.
Though the meter was great,
It could not compensate
For half-rhymes that made the reader cringe.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Audio Links

One last historical post for the day. While at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, I recorded some clips for the Jodcast, a podcast about all things astronomical. I answered listener questions on the "Ask an Astronomer" section.

These two segments were good enough for other people to say they were funny:
October 2007 Extra
February 2008 Extra

Pictures from the UK

Now for some photos from my time in England. Here's a view of Cheshire from halfway up the Lovell radio telescope, taken in November 2006.At the top, three young researchers climb around in the telescope. Note that Cristobal photographs me from above, Satoru photographs me from below, while a third photographer captures the whole scene from a distance. Bloody paparazzi.
Here's me ruining a pretty view of Wildboarclough, while visiting the Peak District in June 2007.
I don't know what it is, but parties with balloons bring out my inner seal. See this evidence from November 2007.
This photo from a 2007 Christmas party is actually improved by the flash giving me red eyes.

Pictures from America

Not much happening today, so I'm posting photos from my time in the United States. First up is a picture taken out of my MIT dorm room window back in October 2001. I happened to wake up just as the sun rose behind the John Hancock tower.
Next is a picture from my visit to Aunt Mary for Christmas 2002. I'm engaged in a lightsaber duel with my cousin Taylor.
Here's the big Socorro hailstorm of October 2004. I don't think ballmarks were the golf course's biggest problem that day.
A couple of months later Tiffany and I welcomed a snow-alien to Socorro.
Finally, here's me startling the local wildlife while hiking in the Grand Canyon in 2005.

Back in Australia

An explanation of myself for this first post. I'm an ex-astronomer, who last year decided that he'd rather have a business career than an academic career. A month ago I moved back to my hometown of Sydney, where I'm now looking for work.

No doubt I'll spend too much time posting to this blog until I get a full-time position.

I had some pictures and a blog on my Manchester University page, which should be available until I lose my department computer account.