Seven Weeks to Madagascar

Saturday, June 24, 2000

Two weeks to Madagascar. And, sadly, only a few days left for this weblog. I'm not sure how much I'll get to post next week before I close, so I'll do it now while I have the opportunity. Here, in a last grab-bag list, are some things I meant to write more about but didn't:

  1. Heroes, No. 2: I wrote my first instalment, on George Orwell, but never got around to the second, on Philip K. Dick. Perhaps because Phil was beyond description in so many respects (although Lawrence Sutin did an excellent job in his biography, Divine Invasions). I discovered Phil in my early 20s and consumed half of his books in short order; my favourites were probably A Scanner Darkly, Eye in the Sky, and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, but it's hard to choose favourites when every book is as glitteringly and captivatingly unreal as the next. Phil was totally out-of-step with, and totally overshadowed, the run-of-the-mill science fiction of his day. By the time I read his novels in the early 1990s, the years in which they were set were either close or already gone: 1987, 1992, 1997. Somehow, that didn't make them seem less relevant, but more: the details hadn't come true, but his view of the world was a perfect fit for the 1990s. He was the poster-boy postmodernist, and then some; while pomo theorists don't necessarily believe that reality is an illusion created by human beings, Phil believed not only that it is an illusion, but that it's created by beings that definitely aren't human. Yes, he was crazy. He was also brilliant.
  2. More heroes I've missed, in no particular order: P.G. Wodehouse; Jonathan Carroll; Franz Kafka; Spike Milligan; John Steinbeck; Walt Kelly; Charles M. Schulz; Lennie Lower; Hergé; Goscinny and Uderzo; Ursula LeGuin; Michael Leunig; Bill Watterson; and I've mentioned Bill Bryson and Neal Stephenson. There are other writers and cartoonists whose work I enjoy (or have enjoyed in the past) every bit as much as theirs, and there are hundreds more whose books are being packed into our boxes, but these are the ones (on the fiction and comedy side) who have inspired my own work the most.
  3. I had planned to tell you about the time that Jane and I visited the 24-Hour Church of Elvis in Portland, seeing I was lucky enough to stumble on its URL. But perhaps it's better I didn't. Proprietor Stephanie Pierce might find my weblog, hunt us down via email, and damn us both to hell for failing to buy a glow-in-the-dark Church of Elvis T-shirt. (We did anyway when we were there, but I can't imagine that being any defence with the determined Ms Pierce.) Still, there's nothing to stop me scanning in and posting this photo we took of the place.
  4. I could have droned on for hours about music, especially because I was going through the process of selecting CDs from the 800+ we own for shipping to America when the time comes, with the rest to go into storage. How to choose my favourite Beatles CDs? Or my favourite indie, classical, or lounge? Easy: don't choose, much. Take a hundred and twenty-five of the suckers.
  5. I kept meaning to mention clockwork radios, too. I first learned about these from a documentary on TV a few years ago; a British inventor had made a radio that used a clockwork mechanism to generate its own electricity. After being turned down by companies in the UK, he found a South African investor who saw that this would be the ideal product for Africa, where radio use in remote areas, and therefore access to government education programmes on radio, is limited by a shortage of batteries. After a period of further development, the product hit the market. I love the idea of an African clockwork radio: it appeals to the environmentalist in me, the techno-geek in me, and the social scientist in me. And we're going to be in South Africa for a day on either side of our Madagascar trip, and I'm going to buy one, woohoo!

Yes, those are all the topics I was going to post about here, but just didn't get around to. Now you'll never know what I was going to say about them, will you. Ah well, better luck next time.

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I've been looking idly through some old email, and found this little limerick that I wrote as an answer to a question for the Internet Oracle ('How much tequila is too much?'):

There was a young monster from Gila
Who one day drank too much tequila
He began with a bottle
And then drank a lottle
Until he could no longer feela

Now preserved for posterity. As is this.

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A message for Sinéad O'Connor: Sinéad, while I have no problem with your recording 'message songs' (being an old fan of Midnight Oil from way back), can I just ask that you stick to subjects like the Irish potato famine, or, if you must record songs with strong feminist messages, that you not make them so darned catchy?

I ask this only because I caught myself singing along with the radio tonight, at the top of my lungs, 'I don't wanna be/No man's woman', and I think the people in the next car were laughing at me.

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Friday, June 23, 2000

Not only is Modern Humorist a spiffing online comedy zine (as mentioned below), it has Terms and Conditions pages that are actually worth reading in their entirety:

Cookies are used by Modern Humorist to measure activity on the Site and make improvements and updates based on which areas are popular and which are not. For example, if one of our employees writes something and nobody reads it, the cookies will tell us that and he or she will be fired. And it will be your fault.

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Oh man, this is just beautiful: 'a CD-ROM given away with children's meals ... contained internet addresses for more than 2,000 pornographic websites' (via twernt). Particularly this part:

The CD includes software called Net Nanny... once installed from the CD, it only takes a couple of mouse clicks to view the global list of pornographic web addresses.

Mary Poppins Does Dallas.

And only a couple of mouse clicks from that news story, there's a notice on Burger King's voluntary recall of Pokémon balls. Now, while the thought of some poor infant suffocating on a Poké ball is no laughing matter, doesn't this response strike you as a tad inappropriate:

Consumers should immediately take the balls away from children under the age of three. They should discard the ball or return both halves of the ball and the clip to a BURGER KING restaurant for a free order of small fries.

Life-threatening plastic ball of death; free order of small fries. Narrow escape from risk of suffocation; free order of small fries. No, I'm sorry, it just seems wrong. They should have just said 'discard the ball'. Do they seriously think that parents have to be bribed with a free order of small fries to stop putting their children at risk? 'Hand over the small fries or the small-fry gets it'?

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All those one-line posts are making this look like mini-wetlog. People will start accusing me of writing an actual weblog at this rate.

I was actually trying to track down an online reference to a story I heard on Triple J news this morning. Paleontologists have unearthed a prehistoric vegetarian crocodile in north-west Madagascar. Besides the obvious country-connection, there's something about the idea of vegetarian crocodiles that appeals to me...

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Toothaches may have led to lion attacks. As seen in the 1996 movie The Ghost and the Dentist.

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First transgenic mosquito opens way to targeting malaria. Uh, you couldn't bring the trials forward to next week, could you? No? Damn.

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Deadlock in releasing the Fiji hostages. Why am I not surprised?

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Yet another spiffing online comedy zine. Should be more of 'em.

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Thursday, June 22, 2000

This article on shifting copyright laws (via MetaFilter) makes a perfect companion piece to Courtney Love's speech.

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For the past eight months I've worked in part of Australia's educational bureaucracy (not the government, but a national university body), looking at IT issues. I took the job out of the sort of frustrations you often see expressed on Slashdot; that feeling of 'what the...?' that you get as an IT worker when confronted with patents issues, standards issues, regulatory nightmares, ill-considered legal rulings, and all the other obstacles that are holding back the Internet. Is it possible, I wondered, to change these things from the inside?

It is, a little. But working in IT policy can be a classic Catch-22: you need an IT background to understand all of the issues properly, but even if you're only one part geek to four parts water, you're likely to find the pace of bureaucracy glacial compared with the time it takes to get things done on the screen. Want to change your personal web-page? Go ahead, change it, FTP it, it's done. Want to change an official policy statement? Check with your superiors, wait for the verdict of various committees, and at the end of it you might have a draft.

One of the reasons for this is that bureaucracies operate on the basis of collective ownership of policy. This also means that bureaucrats aren't supposed to speak independently on the sorts of issues that come across their desks or desktops every day, which is why I haven't been commenting here on digital television, changes to Australian copyright laws, the Telecommunications Act 1997, the Broadcasting Services Amendment Act (Online Services) 1999, and other cases where the bureaucratic tortoise meets the IT hare.

Well, it's one reason. The other is that I couldn't face writing a weblog on 'Seven Weeks of Paperwork'. A lucky escape for us all, I think.

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These guys go everywhere. And isn't it such a relief to know that 'a Malagasy version of the Book of Mormon should be completed by the end of the year'.

Sister Fee's essay on the people of Madagascar actually isn't too bad, apart from statements like:

Historians think that they probably came from the Malaysia-Polynesian islands hundreds of years ago.

Probably? When 'the closest language outside of Madagascar is Ma'anyan in south Borneo'? Oh, sorry, I'm forgetting: they all originally came from Israel, and learnt Malagasy by correspondence.

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It's now over a month since Speight took the Fiji government hostage. It looks as if the hostages may be freed today or tomorrow, and of course that is good news (if it happens), but the sad truth is that the country has been set back years by these events. The very fact that Speight and his sidekicks are playing any sort of role in determining the shape of the next government is proof enough of that. Acts of terrorism should be condemned, not rewarded, whatever their rationale. has been offline for a while, and is now pointing to the front page of PacificJokes, which somehow isn't quite the same. All of the links to coup stories at Fijilive in the archives of this weblog have broken. Pity.

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On Mefloquine: I must have been suffering preemptive neurological damage yesterday, because that 1-in-20 figure is wrong; it's actually 3%, not 5%, so more like one in thirty. That's if you take it for treatment; as a prophylactic the dosage is lower and the risk is less, but still way too high for my liking, especially when you have two people involved.

And that's just the risk of permanent neurological damage. The risk of suffering adverse side affects (nausea, anxiety etc.) severe enough to disrupt your daily activities for up to two weeks after a treatment dose is 40-60%. (Again, the risk is lower for prophylactic use, but still high enough that there are plenty of reports of field workers and peace corps workers going off the deep end.)

Needless to say, we're still happy we didn't take the stuff.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2000

The more attentive among you may have noticed that today is M-day (M for mefloquine). And yet I'm not blathering gibberish or acting suicidal or spouting psychosis... stop looking at me! Stop looking at me! You're all evil, I tell you, eeevilll, and I just can't take it anymore! Look, I've slashed my wrists! Iiiiiieeeeee!

Okay, so we didn't take the mefloquine after all.

We thought about it. Believe me, we thought about it. And we read about it—all about it; too much about it. And even if there's only a one in twenty risk of neurological damage, that's more than we're prepared to take at this point in our lives. I can just imagine turning up to the all-important job interview in San Francisco on a mefloquine buzz: 'Well, Mr Ewins, why do you think you would be suitable for our position of hot-shot web-designer and all-round dude?' 'Well, I like making web-pages, and look, here is a picture of my puppy, and... stop looking at me! Stop looking at me! You're all evil, I tell you, eeevilll, and I just can't take it anymore! Wrists! Slashed! Iiiiiieeeeee!'

So only a couple of days ago Jane and I had another talk about it and decided no, it's not worth the risk, we'd go with doxycycline instead. But we were still booked to visit the TMVC today for our first dose of mefloquine.

We turned up, and went in to see the doctor—a different one this time around. I said, 'We've thought hard about it, and decided we don't want to take mefloquine, we'll go with doxy instead.' And he said 'Yes, I was wondering why you wanted to take mefloquine,' and outlined the doxycycline regimen, and the use of malarone for emergency treatment, and it was all such a relief. The power of a second opinion.

So instead of the side-effects of incapacitating dizziness, anxiety, depression, psychosis, hearing loss, loss of fine motor skills, etc., we're looking at increased susceptibility to sunburn and diarrhoea. I can live with that. (Although if the diarrhoea gets too bad the 'stop looking at me' line might still apply.)

Having made the decision not to take mefloquine, and having received our visas in the mail, we found ourselves actually feeling excited about the trip last night, for the first time in a while. All the organising we have to do is under control, if not quite complete, and we're really starting to look forward to this. Lemurs... chameleons... baobab trees... all sorts of strange animals... fascinating people. This is going to be great.

Which is fortunate, because we fly out of Canberra in two weeks.

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Turns out that the Web is not only a good place to find people you don't know who went to the same educational institution as you, but also for finding those you do know. An old friend I haven't seen for years tracked me down today, and it's mighty fine to hear from him. Hi Rhys! Um, you've caught me at an awkward time, as you can see, but once I'm settled down somewhere again I'll be in touch. (Same goes for all you other people reading this, of course.)

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Bill Bryson is one of my favourite writers, one of the few whose books I buy and read immediately on their release, and now he's written a travel book on my homeland, Down Under. I want to buy it; I'd love to buy it; but do I have time to read it before we go? And is the hardback light enough to pack and take with me? Sadly, the answer is no on both counts, so it'll just have to wait.

A close second in the gently-ironic-American-travel-writer stakes: Stuart Stevens (Malaria Dreams and Feeding Frenzy).

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Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Wow, how cool is this?

Madagascar Visa

(Visa number and Consul General's signature removed in half-baked attempt to maintain security.)

(By the way, if you're wondering who this Alistair bloke is, there's an explanation here.)

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Courtney Love Does the Math: 'Piracy is the act of stealing an artist's work without any intention of paying for it. I'm not talking about Napster-type software. I'm talking about major label recording contracts.' (More arithmetic in a similar vein: Steve Albini's The Problem with Music.)

Interesting. I wonder how long it will take the major labels to die. You'd think only a few years at this rate, but big companies have a way of perpetuating themselves, even when their products aren't very appetising.

(I would comment more, but don't want to repeat myself.)

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I've been continuing my exercise of ploughing through Kottke's archives; read all of 1999 yesterday. Took longer than 1998; Jason was posting more regularly, commenting on the web more often, and trying to figure out whether or not he was writing a weblog.

(All of this agonising about what to call what we are doing. I wonder, did Captain Cook's ship's log look like this?

30 January 1770

Sailed along the Terra Australis coast today. Reminded me of the south coast of Wales. Note to self: suggest colony be called 'South Wales II: The Quickening'.

31 January 1770

Noticed the Natives waving their spears in a friendly manner. Couldn't quite make out what they were saying, but Banks said it sounded like 'Please come and take all of our land, you fine upstanding English chaps'.

2 February 1770

No entry yesterday. I'll never make the top position of Bloatte at this rate.

3 February 1770

Banks's log looks much better than mine. Must learn how to use EngravoShop.

5 February 1770

Is this a ship's log? Other people have been calling it one, but I'm not sure. I just think of it as a place where I write about stuff.

6 February 1770

No crew-members died of scurvy today. Woohoo!

Yes, well. Ahem.)

That parenthetical aside aside (aside aside?), Jason's log continues to perplex me, a little. Not the log itself, which is good, fine, all of that, but its amazing popularity. (Well, by weblog community standards. Let's not kid ourselves: we're not talking audiences of millions., entertaining though it is, would have less viewers than your average late-night infomercial. Which puts most of us down at the level of 'viewers of the we-apologise-for-this-break-in-transmission screen ten minutes after it started'.)

What's the deal? Clearly, he's somehow hit on the winning formula, consciously or unconsciously:

  • just enough posts to keep people coming back regularly, but not so many that they feel overwhelmed by them;
  • a light, cordial tone, without showing off his intelligence in a way that could be (mis)construed as arrogant (although he couldn't resist posting his IQ test results – see 2 June 1999);
  • not so many links that the reader never has time to follow them all;
  • an attractive minimalist design;
  • not too many local references (cf many SF blogs), but enough that you know where he lives;
  • enough meta-web commentary to keep web-designer audiences interested (which is at least half the audience);
  • uses a picture of Bender in his design.

Clearly a lesson there for us all. I've broken just about every Kottke rule, so No Bloat For Me. Pah, what do I care. I do this for myself. If you enjoy it too, great. And I promise not to post my IQ test results.

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On the drive to work today I saw a truck with a prominent sign on the back of its cab: 'Vote for Deceit and Corruption – Vote for a Politician'. And I thought, this is the message this bloke most wants to send to the world; not that he loves being a truckie, or that he loves the Canberra Raiders, or that life is precious and wonderful and you should seize every moment of it... nope, just that all politicians are a pack of lying corrupt bastards. Sad.

That's why I don't put bumper stickers on my car. How do you capture the essence of yourself and your world-view in a dozen words or less?

  • Honk if You Dig the Web
  • You Don't Have to be Mad to Blog, but it Helps
  • I'm Cross-Browser Compatible
  • <a href="">Click Here</a>
  • All Web-Designers are a Pack of Lying Corrupt Bastards

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Stewart has added a comment on our coincidental common history, complete with attractive floorplan (which is more than you get at Clare's site).

And while I'm indulging in some inter-blog-linky-love, take a look at Owen's new log, Inflight Correction. All the goodness of Stay Awake, now in handy bite-sized pieces.

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Monday, June 19, 2000


(That's what we in the biz call a 'sneak preview'.)

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Nineteen days to Madagascar. Sixteen days until we fly out of Canberra; fifteen days until we formally vacate our house; twelve days until I finish my job; probably ten days until I finish this weblog. Whichever way you slice it, it's not a lot.

Had a first garage sale on Saturday. We sold almost all of the big, bulky items, which was a great relief. Once you've made the mental break from something, you sure as hell don't want to pay to store it.

Someone else is now the lucky owner of our bed, so we're camping on the sofa bed. Every room is filling with boxes. The logistics of keeping separate (a) items for sale, (b) items for long-term storage, (c) items for shipping overseas if we find work there, (d) items for short-term storage that we'll sell if we find work o/s, and (e) items for our trip, are somewhat daunting. Every box looks the same once you tape it up. I hope I don't pack the list of box-contents into a box by mistake.

And what's the first thing you would do if you were in the middle of packing up all your worldly possessions?

  1. Spend inordinate hours adding new content to your website;
  2. Renovate an old chair;
  3. Both of the above.

The answer, of course, is c. Some people would think it mad to reassemble an old spindleback chair that had been in handy space-saving separate pieces two weeks before you plan to put it into storage. But this chair has a history. It used to be covered in thick crackly white paint. Nineteen years ago, Dad and I started to renovate it. We never quite finished stripping all the paint off it, and for all those years it sat unfinished in his workshop. Then last Christmas I saw it, thought it would make a good project for my 'spare time' (ha!) and brought it back to Canberra. And of course didn't get around to doing it until now.

Nice chair, though.

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