Andrew James Whalan

Poet Blogger Writer

Category: Opinions-Editorial (page 2 of 11)

The Man Who Knew Infinity

I should have known about Srinivasa_Ramanujan, the subject of the Man Who Knew Infinity. It is the story of an unknown genius who turned mathematics inside out. But even my mere degree (a statistics major) is not required to appreciate this film.

It is Ramanujan’s story that is utterly compelling. An unlearned man, he teaches himself mathematics and then exceeds his peers. For him, mathematics is an elegance, something which I encountered but once. It was when my secondary school teacher described step-by-step how integration and derivation worked. And at that time I realised that I was not witnessing science but something more than that.

And this is the conflict of the film : art versus science. Ramanujan is an artist, a pure creative and his brilliance takes him to an alien environment, the closeted world of academia. For his peers encourage him to write to Cambridge, and after considering him to be a possible hoax, the mathematician G.H. Hardy invites him to stay and study.

Ramanjuan leaves wife and family and journeys to England to continue his dream.  And there begins a fractious relationship between a man who demands all theories be proven (Hardy) and another who has theories bequeathed to him (Ramanujan). Played against the backdrop of the events that led to World War 1 and the war, itself, their collaboration seems unnecessary and irrelevant. Yet despite their conflicts, they do end up working together and actually unearth theories which are only now being fully applied.

Jeremy Irons as Hardy plays the true rationalist who is totally confronted by Ramanujan’s talent. For Hardy, this relationship changed his life and perspective and challenged his rational and atheistic beliefs. Dev Patel, plays a very shy, introspective, spiritual man that truly believes that knowledge is revealed to those who open themselves to it.

For me, that was what I took from this film: artists (even mathematicians) are a conduit to creativity.

This Teleconference Has Been Postponed…

At last! Another opportunity to catch up on the backlog of outstanding work.

A teleconConference Call Phoneference! I dialed in, entered the meeting identification, my pin and spoke my name.

Then I placed my phone in hands-off mode and muted myself.

I knew I was safe because:

  1. I wouldn’t be asked to contribute
  2. I had very little to contribute
  3. I didn’t want to contribute
  4. I had a document to compose.

As people signed into the teleconference, I started to listen absently. As it continued, my attention wandered even more. Meanwhile people were dropping in and out. This meeting I thought was starting to resemble Tripp & Tyler’s  A Conference Call In Real Life.

But once the momentum resumed, I every so often stopped what I was doing and jot down a few notes. I thought to myself this was a very unfocused conversation indeed. Perhaps a facilitator or mediator might help. Besides nearly everyone else was on a higher level than me. And as I discounted that idea chaos struck.

My phone began to blare hold music. I looked carefully at the console. No. None of the lights were flashing. I still was on mute and still connected to the conference.

As the participants realised what had happened, a dull and boring meeting had become a hunt for a culprit. Much like school roll call, one by one we re announced ourselves over the continuing hold music. I took two attempts as I had unmuted and then muted myself.

One person failed to respond. He had received another phone call mid conference. And in answering that call  had placed the current call (us) on hold. He had to be contacted as soon as possible to continue the conference and save our sanity.

One of the participants suggested calling him. Which sounded contradictory until he added the words “on his mobile.” The meeting collectively held its breath (as best you can over Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries) and waited for the call to put through. No. He wasn’t answering his mobile either.

Which meant a physical intervention was required. Somebody must find this person and physically remove him from his phone. We waited a few minutes until this was organised.

“Are you near his desk? “Can you see him?” “Can you catch his attention?”

No to all questions.

“Can you go to his office and speak with him?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”

Once more we collectively held our breath (Ride of the Valkyries is a long piece of music) and waited.  Upon his return the hold music still continued. The culprit was in his office on the phone and couldn’t be disturbed (in another teleconference).

This teleconference will be postponed until a later date and time…

 

The Daughter – Movie Review

The Australian movie The Daughter is like a wedding present, something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. Based on Henrik Ibsen’s play, The Wild Duck, it tells a story both familiar and unfamiliar through a cast of well known actors including Sam NeillGeoffrey Rush,  Miranda Otto and Anna Torv followed by  Paul Schneider and Odessa Young as Hedvig : the daughter.

We first glimpse the setting. An almost pristine alpine country town facing an existential crisis : the loss of its main industry. We drawn to the isolation of the location and through that the growing uncertainty of its characters. Similar to the film Somersault, scenes show nature’s expanse and then focus upon the tenuous and fearful mini worlds created and inhabited by the daughter in the film.

The film centres upon a man who returns to his family. After many years he is a stranger to his father and the now dying town. However, he reconnects and rekindles an old friendship. In the midst of that renewal, he discovers a secret  which could imperil that friendship, his relationship with his father and his father’s impending marriage.

Unfortunately, that discovery occurs in the middle of his own personal tragedy. In the midst of that tragedy, the man chooses to reveal the secret. For me, it evoked the following choice : if destruction is visited upon you, should you continue it in others even in the name of truth?

But once that secret is known, there is a desperate race to hide that secret. But it is revealed with tragic consequences. Once the crisis is met, the raw emotion of acting is spell binding. But the ending left no one in the audience’s satisfied. Setting aside that, this is a beautiful, evocative and emotional film.

The Instant Facilitator

Apart from school debating and one lecture presentation, nothing prepared me for my debut as an instant facilitator.

I was an attendee for a computer user conference at the World Congress Centre Melbourne at Crowne Plaza. As part of the Queensland branch of the group, I had been asked to introduce each speaker and then ask for questions once they had finished. This was easy. Usually there were no questions and I wrapped it up quickly. Or with too many questions, I left everyone to continue the conversation out the door after the presentation finished.

Which meant I was completely unprepared for the last session of the conference.

Participants in plenary sessionFifteen minutes beforehand, I was taken aside and asked to lead. I almost went into apocalyptic shock. This was a plenary session. Me in the middle, five geek gurus on my left and several hundred system managers, developers, engineers and sales people in front of me. I was outgunned and more than a little overwhelmed.

And my preparation didn’t help either. I quickly scanned the names of the experts. I saw that one of them had worked on an previous incarnation of the currently popular operating system. That old clunker had a command called show stardate. I thought I could use that as my icebreaker.

I turned around and the fifteen minutes have disappeared in seconds. I walked to the podium. I waited for the geek gurus to sit. Then I wait for the audience to file in.  I made sure to keep my hands behind the podium. If exposed they would be glistening from sweat.

I introduced myself. Then the experts. I make my joke about the show star date command. And I die. I received a dirty look for my failed joke.

I had no choice. I had to go on. Then it didn’t matter. I opened up the session for questions. And then I stepped into a different space and time. I’m suddenly aware of who was asking questions and what they really meant. Every so often, I would take a question and then ask for more information. Or paraphrase the question back to them for clarity. Both I found helped the experts with their answers.  I’m not sure but I may have asked questions of them myself : I now know I tend to do that if no one else is asking.Andrew Whalan Facilitating

It worked brilliantly. I was relaxed. I even apologised to the man at the back dressed in black sitting in front of a dark wall who I couldn’t see too well.

It went so easily. Except I’d never facilitated before and had only spoken in public on one other occasion. So what happened?

Does The Pen Hear More than the Keyboard?

“I probably won’t be using that.”

 

It wasn’t a derisory or demeaning disclaimer. Just a calm statement: this is not for me.

 

I never was much of  a software salesman anyway. I had livened up a not-so-interesting training session by describing an upcoming software feature. It may or may not be in the next future possible major release! Geekspeak for I don’t know what the developers are doing).

 

Simply stated, instead of scanning in notes, they could be typed through an electronic form.

 

As my trainee wasn’t rude or abrupt, I nodded in agreement, at first. Only later did I realise how much of what she said really applied to me.

 

The conversation continued as she expanded upon her point. Besides the training session had ended and time was not of the essence.

 

She said that people say more when you take handwritten notes. She restated her point as people say less when you type notes on a computer.

Blue Pen on Paper

Blue Pen on Paper

 Instantly I thought of my last doctor’s appointment. As soon as he finished talking to me, he swivelled in his chair, he began  typing.

Automatically  I stopped talking. I waited until  he had entered his notes and printed the prescription. I only realised later that had I anything important to say, it would have been lost. Admittedly, medical personnel don’t have as much time as me.

But it was exactly as my trainee was saying to me. But it went deeper than that. It applied to me more than I knew.

 

As a desktop support operative, people used to make fun of what I carried around with me. It was rather ancient and certainly non-technical.  People thought that it was funny that I carried around a pen and two (paper) notebooks. One was a diary and the other was a scratchpad. So many people remembered that when I left, I received an electronic diary as a farewell present.

Sharp Electronic Organiser-open

But those two notebooks had a strange effect on myself and my workmates.  Firstly, it was quite odd how well I remembered what I didn’t write down. For as I recalled my notes, other details would be revealed. And secondly, in the presence of a (real) notebook, my workmates would reveal more detail about their problems than if I turned up empty handed. Often I found I solved more than one problem at once. Thirdly, I also was able to record my successes and failures. Which was useful for future reference and self-defence.

 

And this conversation, threw light on my weaknesses and strengths as a technical writer and trainer. Upon reflection, I found I recalled more from handwritten notes than typed ones. And certainly more from handwritten lecture notes too. And again,in the presence of the pen and notepad, subject matter experts revealed more detail than when the keyboard was listening. Which meant that I found out what people needed to know not what was nice to know. In other words, by picking up a pen and paper, I (unknowingly) did my job better.

 

And now as a writer (there I’ve said it now : there’s no turning back), I find the pen and paper are often better tools for me to express myself and record than a keyboard. I handwrite first and then type into the computer.  Although that doesn’t work for everyone, just me.

 

Besides, that was the role of my trainee : to find out as much as possible about people’s problems before making her diagnosis.

Don’t Blame the Media

I arrived at work last Saturday. In the corridors, I heard the cleaners talking about the Paris attacks. I went into the tea room and the TV was showing a rolling coverage. I stopped and watched but as time was short I left.

After I finished my training session, I checked the latest news. I was drawn in by the coverage. I was interested in Paris. My sister and her husband had only been there a few weeks ago. My cousin is visiting now. I have friends who have lived in France. I have friends now living in France.

Since then there have been articles decrying the media focus on France. One article led to a discussion about the lack of focus on Beirut or Sinai or Kenya or even the events in Mali: that it was the media’s fault that attention was mostly focused on France. I did know about the Beirut car bomb and was following the latest information on the downing of the Russian airliner in the  Sinai and remembered the Kenyan atrocities from earlier this year. But I still focused on France.

And today the topic recurred with the media coverage of the Reclaim Australia and UDP anti-Islamic rallies and the corresponding counter rallies.

Again the same comment was offered that it was the media’s fault that these rallies were getting unwarranted publicity. My response to both was this:

It’s easy to say it’s the media’s fault : they’ve done their market research and focus their message accordingly. Much like market researchers for the low-end Australian current affairs shows such as A Current Affair (ACA) or Today Tonight : their focus was to find the right people and stories to satisfy that given audience: journalism doesn’t come into it at all.

The truth is the media are following the audience. The other stories were there : it’s just that less people were interested. Me included.

All the media does is reinforce our existing prejudices. For example, if Reclaim Australia, UDP, Trump, Carson, etc, etc want to find facts that denigrate Muslims and Islam, they will. The media following the audience will report that.

There’s a passage in Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 that describes it perfectly. In it the hero’s boss describes how the media gives people exactly what they want to hear.  At first it appears that the media does the thinking for its audience. But the audience doesn’t want to think for itself! Read it.

For me as an adult educator, it’s no surprise.

It’s exactly the way we learn : we fit facts to what we already know and believe.
Until we chance on information that doesn’t fit our prejudices. Then and only then, we choose to change or ossify.

The media can provoke our thoughts and feelings enabling us to confront our prejudices as good journalism and good education (dare I say it) should.

But for the media really to change, our prejudices must as well.

National Insecurity, the Internet and Data Retention

UK and Australia have introduced internet monitoring and data retention laws.

Data Storage

Data Storage

Canada too is introducing a similar bill. France as well.

The UK has had the High Court throw them out. But the Conservative Government is fighting back. Europe is also throwing out such laws.

The USA is trying to postpone its response to the controversy over the actions of their intelligence agencies after the Edward Snowden revelations.

From my perspective as a ex-system administrator, ex-desktop support operative and ex-service manager for a web site, these laws are made by people who neither understand the Internet nor its users. So why make these laws?

Let’s look at Australia….

Australia has introduced laws blocking certain web sites. These can be easily circumvented by changing Domain Name Server settings.

As well, Australia has brought in laws monitoring internet usage. Again, these laws can be easily avoided. Greens Senator Scott Ludlam through a series of questions detailed the easy ways these laws can be avoided.  Besides which any hacker or terrorist can take even further measures to avoid surveillance.

As well, those laws laughably cover the storage of metadata. Here in Australia, ISPs are in the process of determining the Government requirements and getting nowhere fast despite a closing deadline. Unfortunately, the responsible minister Attorney-General George Brandis may be of little help here as this incredible interview illustrates.

But in all of that there are two issues that are overlooked.

First is best termed as the KGB problem. Reputedly, the USSR spies ended up amassing so much data that they couldn’t make sense of it.  And even with the mega oceans of big data that surveillance will yield, it will still require analysis. It won’t be as simple as looking for keywords as this example shows. Suppose a company runs software that checks emails for offensive words. Suppose it looks for the word butt. Emails found would cover smoking habits, porn or mutual admiration! Further analysis would be needed, perhaps something like the following : a phone call to florist, phone call to removalist then trawling internet dating web sites may mean a break up or a reconciliation.

The second is best termed as temptation. Such a vast amount of data would be a  Hacker Hackinghacker’s prize. So it better be secure. But almost certainly such data will be treated with disrespect by its stewards. Why? It’s just backups that we can access online. So ultimately hackers will break into it. After all, if hackers can break into the US personnel database, what’s stopping them breaking in to the stored metadata. Then you will have untrusted strangers looking at your deleted Facebook and Twitter posts.

So I return to the question, why has a Government who doesn’t understand the internet and its inhabitants made these laws?

Clearly, not to catch terrorists and hackers. They’re smart enough to get around them. Perhaps, its the opposite, to catch people who aren’t hackers and terrorists. People like you and me.

The Best of Enemies : Movie Review

It’s 1968 and America is in turmoil. Martin Luther King has been shot, riots have broken out across the country, the Vietnam War is faltering, Robert Kennedy has been assassinated and Richard Nixon is campaigning for President.

The American Broadcasting Corporation also has its troubles. As the third (or fourth) network of three, it is struggling. As one pundit says, “If the ABC fought the Vietnam War, it would be cancelled in 13 weeks.”

To improve their ratings during the two political presidential conventions, they come up with an idea that will change TV forever. That idea is to put together William F Buckley, arch-conservative interviewer and writer with Gore Vidal,  the Oscar Wilde like enfant terrible of the political and literary scene as convention commentators.

There’s one small problem. Both men loath and detest each other.  Yet despite their earlier clashes, they agree to work with each other for the ten days covering both conventions.

This is the basis for the documentary, Best of Enemies

which covers the debates between Vidal and Buckley. Both men had clashed before but this was the first time they would be withing arm’s length of each other. And what results is electrifying and ultimately disappointing.

Two intellectual giants trade brilliant put downs and swap clever put downs. But at no time is there any meeting of minds. In fact the debate created an unbroken animosity between the two men.

Best of Enemies, showing at the Cinema Nova, Melbourne is fascinating : a super sugar hit for a political junkie with an unfortunate climb down. Scarily, the commentary offered on the politics of the day still is relevant now, despite the change in word and phrase as well as manners over the years.  Sadly, too, the dynamic of pitting two protagonists, neither of whom will listen to the other, is now the basis of present media political commentary.  Finally, this dynamic has resulted in a fragmentation of media coverage (both mainstream and new).  As  Nick Davies has pointed out, the media no longer provides multiple points of view for multiple audiences, it now provides what people want to hear. Which began with Vidal versus Buckley.

Best of Enemies is an enjoyable, extremely well put together but ultimately dis quietening documentary.

 

 

 

The Best of Enemies : Movie Review

It’s 1968 and America is in turmoil. Martin Luther King has been shot, riots have broken out across the country, the Vietnam War is faltering, Robert Kennedy has been assassinated and Richard Nixon is campaigning for President.

The American Broadcasting Corporation also has its troubles. As the third (or fourth) network of three, it is struggling. As one pundit says, “If the ABC fought the Vietnam War, it would be cancelled in 13 weeks.”

To improve their ratings during the two political presidential conventions, they come up with an idea that will change TV forever. That idea is to put together William F Buckley, arch-conservative interviewer and writer with Gore Vidal,  the Oscar Wilde like enfant terrible of the political and literary scene as convention commentators.

There’s one small problem. Both men loath and detest each other.  Yet despite their earlier clashes, they agree to work with each other for the ten days covering both conventions.

This is the basis for the documentary, Best of Enemies

which covers the debates between Vidal and Buckley. Both men had clashed before but this was the first time they would be withing arm’s length of each other. And what results is electrifying and ultimately disappointing.

Two intellectual giants trade brilliant put downs and swap clever put downs. But at no time is there any meeting of minds. In fact the debate created an unbroken animosity between the two men.

Best of Enemies, showing at the Cinema Nova, Melbourne is fascinating : a super sugar hit for a political junkie with an unfortunate climb down. Scarily, the commentary offered on the politics of the day still is relevant now, despite the change in word and phrase as well as manners over the years.  Sadly, too, the dynamic of pitting two protagonists, neither of whom will listen to the other, is now the basis of present media political commentary.  Finally, this dynamic has resulted in a fragmentation of media coverage (both mainstream and new).  As  Nick Davies has pointed out, the media no longer provides multiple points of view for multiple audiences, it now provides what people want to hear. Which began with Vidal versus Buckley.

Best of Enemies is an enjoyable, extremely well put together but ultimately dis quietening documentary.

 

 

 

Fire In Babylon : Attitude is Everything

Fire in Babylon is the best cricket documentary ever! And now the book is out too!  I was lucky enough to see it at the Melbourne International Film Festival a few years ago.

The documentary traced the rise and dominance of the West Indian cricket team from the mid 1970s. That dominance was due to a never-ending supply of fast bowlers, the occasional spinner supplemented by a flamboyant batting side overseen by aggressive captaincy by Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards. But as this documentary shows that was not enough.

For decades, the West Indies always had flamboyant batsmen, the occasional fast bowler but lacked that extra aggressive captaincy. Often they would nearly win and fall down under pressure. They would start to perform consistently but never continue the job : the tied Test of 1961 being an exception!

And they languished until they were soundly beaten in Australia in the ’75-76 Test series. I was lucky enough to see the opening day of the Sydney Test.  Lillee and Thomson were too fast to even see from the ground! Up until then the West Indies had started a path of improvement. And again it had led nowhere.

From that point, the West Indies effectively began again. Firstly, they took their cue from the Australian test team. At that time, the Aussies had the best fast bowling attack in the world, a strong batting side, good spinners and a never say die captain, Ian Chappell.

The West Indies then modelled their team similarly. They brought in fast bowlers, a spinner and found the best batsmen under the astute captaincy of Clive Lloyd. But critically, they realised that wasn’t enough. Secondly, they adopted a new attitude. They gave up the idea that they were pure entertainers or so-called calypso cricketers. They embraced the idea that they were resilient and could win under any and all circumstances.

And their success was extraordinary and long-lived.  They put together a side the likes of which may never be seen again. Four fast bowlers, any of whom could turn a match : Roberts, Holding, Croft, Garner, then Marshall, Clarke, Ambrose, Walsh coupled with some of the best batsmen in the world : Richards (Smokin’ Joe), Lloyd, Lawrence Rowe, Lara.

They were still entertaining : so-called calypso cricketers but with that self-belief and resilience that wouldn’t and didn’t entertain defeat.

And in cricket, that’s all the difference.

 

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