Pretty good at what it is: The Professor by Rex Warner.

The Professor, Rex Warner, Penguin 1944 (171 pages).

This is a decent novel and a fascinating artefact. First published in 1938, it is a direct response to the tide of totalitarianism that was then sweeping across Europe. My copy was published in 1warecon1-prof944, when that trend had reached its dreadful apotheosis, and is distinctly of its time. Here I reproduce some of the adverts found on the back cover and inside the back of the book. ‘The front’ is a current metaphor for fighting the bristles on your chin; we have advice for extending the useful life of a nightie, and we’re told to remember how useful a product is, even though right now it is in short supply. The book itself is produced in accordance with the war economy standards, and the paper is noticeably thin and the cover rather floppy (yet here it is 70 years later, speaking something to what was considered a ‘cheap’ edition back then, and making me wonder whether some our standards might not be irrecoverably lower now than they were then). Having said that, the design is clearly pre-Tschichold, with it’s penguin that looks ready to collapse and blobby ‘Penguin Books’ logo at the top. One would think that if a book company is going to save trouble by not designing the covers individually, the least they could do would be get the one design they were using right.

The cover of <i>The Professor</i> by Rex Warner.

The cover of The Professor by Rex Warner.


To the story; it is a fable, taking place in an unspecified county (_not_ Britain) that shares a border with a great power — rather like a Baltic state glancing fearfully at the Russians, say. The little country knows it cannot fight and win, and there are sections of its own population attracted to the certainty that dictatorship offers. As the government is in free-fall they try offering the Chancellorship (a position akin to the German position, or to a Prime Minister in a Westminster-type government) to The Professor, a respected academic whose work has centred on Greek and Latin literature, and the like. The Professor is intelligent but not worldly, and events soon overtake him. His options narrow, the people around him have their own agendas, and eventually the inevitable eventuates. On the way we meet a cross section of the community, we see how people cope with living under the imminent cloud of envelopment — some embrace it, some disappear into fantasy and denial, many do not really understand it and so manage quite well.

The Professor himself is a somewhat unsatisfactory and pedantic figure. Some of the supporting cast, though the very fact of being drawn more economically and perhaps therefore bluntly, are more alive than he is. He never quite becomes more than the puppet the plot, and the philosophy behind the work, demand. The prose is… precise, bordering on pedantic. Every clause carefully set off, every verb correctly subjected, no infinitives even within a mile of splittedness; it is as if the words are designed to match the personality of the protagonist; prim, academic and correct.
These things add up to making The Professor a very interesting book if you like looking at books and how they work. It is not a story for the fan of plot and counter plot and subplot and action and suspense.

Is it a book that speaks to our times now? I suspect the inhabitants of Ukraine or Taiwan or Tibet would say, ‘Yes, though Rex Warner doesn’t know the half of it.’

It’s short; if you see it kicking around, give it a go.


Or not.

We did fine at the Olympics, how about some other competitions?

So Australia apparently came 9th or 10th in the medal tally in Rio 2016, lower if you look at medals per per team member. So we had a relatively inefficient team; or we are more inclusive, who’s to say? The problem is, we are trying to be one of the ‘big’ Olympic nations when we have better things to do.

Anyway. There’s discussion in the Australian media about an under-performing Olympic team. Will it result in more funding? Less funding? Funding moved around seemingly at random? Probably the third. How are we doing on some more meaningful metrics? (These stats are from various recent years; some tables may even change. The ranking are as noted by me when I wrote this, in August 2016. I’m not being terribly scientific here.)

OECD Education ranking: 14th (and falling).

Life expectancy for females at birth: 9th.

Size of economy (GDP): 12th to 13th.

Research and development spending (real terms): 14th. As fraction of GDP: 16th.

Democracy index: 9th.

Welfare spending (fraction of GDP): 25th. Fraction spent on the poorest 20% of the population: 1st. (Benefits are heavily means tested in Australia.)

Gender equity index: 11th.

Intentional homicides per capita (36th, where 1st is lowest rate, which is a good thing).

Suicide rate: Approx. 57th (1st is lowest).

Number of Nobel Prize winners: Equal 15th.

Patent applications (2014): 10th.

Advertising spending per capita (2014): 2nd.

Global Peace Index (2014): 15th.

Manufacturing output: 15th.

Population: 57th.

Disposable income: 10th. Obesity: 44th.


And so on. Key point is, if we want to be ‘top 5’ in the world at the Olympics, then our priorities are all screwed up. There are dozens of much more important metrics where we should be aiming for top 5. Gold medals is not one of them.


Bah, humbug.

Let It Bleed: An album a week/month/year #12.

So far I have avoided covering the same artist twice, but I’m going to have to talk about Let it Bleed now, because I’ve got to talk about something.

This is probably my favourite Stones album. I’m not sure it’s their best, and I’ve grown kind of tired of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, but an album consisting of nothing but ‘Gimme Shelter’ and thirty minutes of white noise would still be better than most of what they’ve put out since Exile, so I’m not complaining. It’s got one of Keith’s best vocals in ‘You Got the Silver’, a classic example of a Stones track that nobody much knows because it was never a single. It’s got ‘Monkey Man’ which is kind of nonsense by is also just wall to wall Keith riff-o-rama, with a guitar that could slice up asphalt. It’s got ‘Country Honk’ which is a kind of hoe-down version of ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ and might be awful or might not be. The fiddle works beautifully, and indicates the almost magical sense of what would work that they seem to have had at the time. From Merry Clayton’s vocal on ‘Gimme Shelter’, with it’s famous crack in her voice that they were wise enough to keep (the desperation it conveys!) to their cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Love in Vain’, their judgement (or Jimmy Miller’s judgement, I don’t know) is almost perfect. It’s funky, it’s dirty, it’s groovy, it’s fearsome (‘Midnight Rambler’ as well as ‘Gimme Shelter’), it’s tuneful, Jagger even writes some lyrics he seems to care about (here and there, anyway); I don’t know if it is their ‘best’ album, but it is the best edition of what the Stones could do. Famously, Brian was on his way out and Mick Taylor not yet come in, and this is the Stones album with Keith playing a lot of lead guitar. And he rips it apart. This is where to go to find out what he could do. Maybe that’s partly because it was near the beginning of his heroin odyssey rather than in the depths of it, I don’t know, but it is one awesome album.

It’s a pity they (Jagger and Richards) then go and do petty things like calling ‘Love in Vain’ “trad., arr. Jager & Richard”, presumably so they don’t have to share royalties with Johnson’s heirs. But then, even that just adds to how in so many ways this album the quintessential, essential Stones.

Get hold of it and turn it up.


Even older.

AANSS 2016 — it’s approximately that time of year again, again.

Get that neutron feeling.

Get that neutron feeling.

The AANSS is a great mix of formality and informality, quality science in a relaxed atmosphere. Anyone who has or might or ought to use neutron scattering in their work (and isn’t that all of us, really?) is invited. And here’s a trick: Registration is $50 cheaper for ANBUG members but ANBUG membership is free! So join up!




Messenger of the Gods

Hermes 3000, second generation.

Hermes 3000, second generation.

The Hermes 3000 is, from what I have read on the web, widely regarded as a very fine machine, often making it high in the ‘top ten’ lists of the best typewriters for actually using (as distinct from collecting). I have just two typewriters, both purchased for use rather than as collectables. The first was an Olivetti Dora, a pretty bog~standard portable from the late 60s, made in their Barcelona factory and to some extent built down to a price — it has a plastic case, and omits common features like a paper stand, tabs, and touch adjustment. Having said that, it also leverages years of development by Olivetti, and it is a pretty solid and useful typing machine. It is currently in the little lean-to (well, hut made from a converted packing case) that we have down the back of the property, where one can go an do some typing without electricity or distraction. The 3000 is a different class of machine; heavier, metal, full-featured, with multiple tab positions, touch control, four position ribbon height and so on. Interestingly, it still does not have a separate key for unity (one) or for exclamation mark, both reuse other keys (the one is an el, l, and the exclamation mark is a single quote above a full stop, 1). The Hermes is nicer to type on. The force needed to get an even imprint is less, the keys feel more solid and yet better conforming under the fingers, and I find the typebars (hammers with letters on) jam less often. Having said that, I doled out the extravagant amount of $50 for the 3000, which is right at the top of what I was prepared to pay; Mine is from the late 60s, and has the second generation shape, squarer than the much-lauded rounder shape of earlier ones. I don’t mind. A typewriter’s curves are not a prime consideration, as far as I am concerned, although it they could be reason not to make the purchase; I doubt I would have bought a third-generation 3000, since they are boxy and plastic (and not made in Switzerland, I believe, whereas mine is a Swiss one).

DSCN5565_cropThe attraction of the typewriter is incredibly idiosyncratic. I find that I just want to type. I may not have anything to write, but I want to use the thing.

It sounds great. A pile of sheets of paper accumulating on the desk is a very satisfactory thing, and provides motivation to keep working. I’m not connected to the internet, which adds to my ability to focus. On the downside, it is a little noisy and I feel inhibited from typing in the house at night.

Here, below, Is an example of the text from the 3000. The typeface is smaller than there Dora, although the same machine was available with different typefaces of course.

Some typing on the Hermes 3000, on reused and rather crumpled paper....

Some typing on the Hermes 3000, on reused and rather crumpled paper….


Bottom line; speaking as a pretty ignorant typewriter user (I know little abut their history or folklore, I don’t know what brand of machine Hemingway used or anything like that, and I have not sampled a wide variety), the 3000 feels like a quality machine. It goes as fast as I can, and has a nice loud bell and exudes a feeling of solidity and careful design. I can see why they are so highly regarded.

And now I just have to stop myself from turning into a collector.

This post was written on the 3000 and scanned in using this script, then  fixed up in LibreOffice.


> /dev/null

Science inaction. No, wait, “Science in ACTion.”

So on August 12 and 13 we (myself and numerous colleagues from the UNSW Canberra campus) took part in Science in ACTion, advertising the wonders of Science to the good people of the ACT (Canberra) and a few surrounding towns.  It was held at the Old Bus Teapot Depot markets, and we presented a liquid nitrogen show (mostly just freezing balloons…) and some other stuff; a Van de Graaff generator (very effective — I got a spark off a nearby table frame…), some UV fluorescence, mathematical puzzles and mazes and some cheap chromatography uising filter paper and felt tipped pens:

Unmixing colours using filter paper.

Unmixing colours using filter paper.

It was all part of Science Week 2016, and I don’t have the photos back from the chemist yet, so I can’t show you anything else. But if you look in this image, you can see our purple and yellow stand in the background on the left, and some coloured balloons.

So there.



16 inches is not enough: A review of Dreadnought by Richard Hough.

Dreadnought by Richard Hough, Michael-Joseph 1965 (268 pages).

They day of the battleship was over by 1940 at the latest, though they did valuable work right through WWII. The Dreadnought was launched in 1906. In those few years — historically, very few indeed — vast quantities of steel and oil and coal and human misery were expended on The Battleship, a symbol of sovereignty and national pride, and for some time seemingly a measure of nations and empires. They became a sort of international pissing competition. Whose gun was biggest? Who had the most, the fastest, the longest, the strongest?

The front cover of <i>Dreadnought</i> by Richard Hough.

The front cover of Dreadnought by Richard Hough.

In truth they achieved little, especially in WWI. Economically they were money-pits and helped sink the British Empire as much as save it. They strike me as a symbol of everything that is stupid about war — the wasted resources, ingenuity, and lives, the misplaced effort. How many people could be lifted out of poverty for the price of a battleship?

The back.

The back.

And yet for all that they remain magnificent creations; fast, powerful (thrusting?), impressive.

The attractions of the technology of war is an interesting topic to me. As a kid I glued together Spitfires and read about the Nazis sweeping across Europe, about the Manhattan project and the bouncing bomb. Books like The Dam Busters and Night Fighter might keep track of the men lost and comrades who suffered death and disfigurement, but despite themselves they give off a glimmer of glamour. The lone genius in his laboratory developing the weapon that will save us from Hitler, the brave pilot battling a dozen Fokkers (or a dozen Camels — stories come from all sides) over the Western Front. The fascination is undeniable. Yet all that bravery and technical brilliance is for what? So old men could refuse to apologise to each other, or take what was not theirs? (Or what their grandfathers had possessed for a few years decades earlier, and which they therefore saw as ‘theirs’?) (Yes, I am using male pronouns; that was the world of which I am speaking.)

My reading has largely moved from the machines to the history. Dreadnought covers the technology,the politics and the tactics of the 20th century battleship. It is authoritative, slightly astringent (pleasingly so), well-illustrated (though I believe there may be a paperback version, which of course would be less so) and essentially, given that apart from brief flurries (Vietnam, Lebanese Civil War, Gulf War) the battleship story was over when it came out, definitive. Hough’s writing is very easy yo read — this is the third book of his I have read after The Fleet that Had to Die and The Hunting of Force Z — and I can recommend it as a quick read for anyone who’s curious about the big boats with big guns, or who has heard of the Yamato or the Bismarck or the Missouri and would like to see them in context, rather than as modern myths.

What is it good for?

Mindbridge. Joe Haldeman.

Mindbridge by Joe Haldeman

Orbit, 1977 (186 pages)

This novel uses a sort of ‘bits and pieces’ narrative approach; extracts from an autobiography of the main character, scientific reports, regular novel chapters (named as such), communiqués and so on. It it extremely effective in creating a fast-moving narrative that gives a very full picture of what is going on and lets us see the characters from the inside and the outside.


Cover of <i>Mindbridge</i> by Joe Haldeman.

Cover of Mindbridge by Joe Haldeman.

The story is one of alien contact, both with intelligences and an enigmatic little sea cucumber-like critter that acts as a bridge between minds — hence the title. There are fights, technical difficulties, life-threatening problems on multiple fronts, and the puzzle of just what it is they have found and whether the intelligent aliens are friendly or not.

It all goes on quickly, page-turningly, headlong towards the end. Haldeman’s pseudoscience (matter transmission, in this case) is nicely convincing and limited, and those limitations are important in the story. It seems to me that magic and superscience are at their most effective in fiction when they are at their most marginally useful in the world of the story. Few stories are as unsatisfying as those ended by a simple summoning up of vast powers. Whoever can wave their hands the most successfully wins! In Mindbridge matter transmission lets us explore other planets, but in a very constrained way. Not all places are possible, staying there is a problem, and so on. It takes away the possibility that the impossible technology will be a magic bullet, and makes it all that much more interesting.

The ending: It works, everything that needs to be wrapped up gets wrapped up, but it feels a little perfunctory after what went before. It is a minor weakness. I would recommend the book to anyone who wants a quick, exciting and fun read, given substance by some interesting speculation and solid characterisation.


A little script to scan and OCR a bunch of pages

So this little script just uses scanimage, tesseract and vim to scan and process pages from my typewriter. It tries to produce sensible paragraphs, and outputs the results of multiple pages to a text file which can be read in and formatted using a word processor, such as LibreOffice.

It is an interactive script because I do not have a scanner fitted with a sheet feeder. To make it non-interactive, modify the scanimage line after reading the scanimage man page, and remove the line read Response. Nothing fancy, no error checking, no clean-up afterwards, no niceties. But it works pretty well, so far. If you want to use it, install any packages you need to to get scanimage, tesseract and vim to work, and cut and paste the below into a file in your path, and make the file executable.

# /bin/bash
# v. 1.0
# Script to scan, ocr, process and concatenate pages, e.g. from a
# typewriter.
# D.J.Goossens, 14 July 2016.
# Start at 1001 so we can be (pretty!) sure all filenames have 4 digit
# numbers
# Create the output file.
echo This is v. 1.0
echo Make sure you give it the output filename as a command line argument.
echo Ctrl-D escapes from the scanning, Ctrl-C quits elsewhere.
echo The resulting images and text files are not deleted.
echo They are of the form outXXXX.pnm and outXXXX.pnm.txt and
echo may be quite big.
echo Hit Ctrl-C to exit now or Enter to continue.
read Response
echo 'Text file from v. 1.0' > $1
echo Processed `date` to $1 >> $1
echo 'Note: When it says "document 1001", treat it as document (page) 1'
scanimage --batch --batch-prompt --batch-start 1001 -p --mode=Gray --resolution=600
# Outputs are of the form out????.pnm. Loop over them
for f in out????.pnm;
tesseract $f $f
# The above produces out????.pnm.txt, which we can process,
# where first we replace double occurrences of newline with a placeholder
# string, then replace single occurrences with a space, then replace the
# placeholder with a return character (it is a trick of regular
# expressions that we search for \n (newline) but write \r (return) when
# we mess with the file).
vim -c "%s/\n\n/pLaCeHoLdErStRiNg/g" -c "wq" $f.txt
vim -c "%s/\n/ /g" -c "wq" $f.txt
vim -c "%s/pLaCeHoLdErStRiNg/\r/g" -c "wq" $f.txt
cat $f.txt >> $1
echo Try typing libreoffice $1 to see what you have got.
echo Setting paragraph formatting to indented and one and a
echo half space is a good start.

Your mileage may vary. Buyer beware. You get what you pay for. No guarantees implied or given. No warranty as far as possible. (Add here any other escape clauses you can think of.)


You can buy a typewriter ribbon in Canberra

This is just a note to myself so I don’t forget where I bought it, and I don’t have to order online and wait if I want a new one. Look away now if you don’t want to see the final scores.

After much searching online and elsewhere, I found a place where I could pick up a manual typewriter ribbon. Officeworks etc had nothing, but I went here…


I’m not affiliated with They just had the thing.

If you want to find the same product near you, the product code is NUNIBK2S or NSUNIBK2S. A black/red ribbon has BR in place of BK. I can verify it works in my machine.

Fullmark typewriter ribbon ('dot matrix printer'). NUNIBK2S

Image from website.

Because why.


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