The Dreamer Who Falls

So it goes
Just a searcher
Lonely soul
The last of the dreamers

- David Bowie & Reeves Gabrels, "The Dreamers" ('hours . . .')

Falling, he shrieked in terror . . . You never stop falling . . .
he could not operate within a system . . .
At once human -- And less than human -- And more . . .
As he will fall for the rest of his life

- Dennis O'Neil & Dick Giordano, "The Man Who Falls" (Secret Origins of the World's Greatest Super-Heroes)

This page is self-indulgently all about me. Anyone looking for news of my recent exploits should maybe look at my main page (although that only gets an update about once a year). Or just email me.

And me? You mean me, personally? How nice of you to ask!
- Fwiffo, in Star Control II (Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford)

The Mysteries
The Whole David Bowie Thing


Why do we fall, Bruce?
So we can learn to pick ourselves up.

- Thomas Wayne, in Christopher Nolan's
Batman Begins

I'm a Sydney boy, educator, researcher, writer, valetudinarian, dreamer, technocrat, relativist and Eurasian with one parent from Hong Kong. My Chinese name is Fong Kit-ming. Other names I've been called by (that I can repeat) include Spaceman Smithy, Agent Smith, Sir Smithalot, Antonia, Bird Man and Blackman (that's like Batman but not quite). More than most, my life is defined by my academic pursuits. This is true in more ways than I care to share here.

I don't know how many people realise so much of what they thought would be cool to do as a kid, but a boyhood "thing" for "space" propelled me on a trajectory through a Science degree at Sydney Uni (majors in Maths and Physics, with Physics Honours), followed by a Masters in Astrophysics. The page you read now was originally at the School of Physics, Sydney University. At that place I played with algorithms to quantify the galaxy distribution with my supervisors, Andrew Hopkins and Richard W. Hunstead. My honours thesis was a study of Extremely Red Galaxies (ERGs) in Phoenix, and here's the paper in which we also introduced an multiscale structure identification algorithm. After much testing and development, we applied this algorithm, Multiscale Probability Mapping (MSPM), to the Seventh Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Our paper is here, and we made it pretty! My MSc thesis is my best work to date, but I hope to do much better!

Research is great and all, but sometimes a bit of pragmatism is a Good Thing. This is a concept that has proved especially difficult for me to grasp, but I think I'm beginning to understand. My career as an educator began at Sydney Uni where I worked as a tutor in Physics labs and tutorials. This later became more serious when I did a Bachelor of Teaching at UTS. I was a high school Maths and Science teacher at various schools, including Masada College, Epping Boys, Asquith Boys, North Sydney Girls, Clement College, Mosman High, Wollemi College and Kingsgrove High.

I now find myself back in tertiary education, working for EduCo, who mostly have me at Southern Cross University teaching Maths. I also still teach school-age kids at the Ryde branch of CS Education. I am fortunate to enjoy everything I do, I think teaching is great and that I will only get better at it. Now, more than ever before, I am living life at a pace that I choose, and am likely to return to academic research soon, in a very novel way.

The Mysteries

This is the tragedy of life. Because for a few minutes of every day, every man becomes a genius. Moments of clarity, insight, whatever you want to call them. The clouds part, the planets get in a neat little line, and everything becomes obvious. I should quit smoking, maybe, or here's how I could make a fast million, or such and such is the key to eternal happiness. That's the miserable truth. For a few moments, the secrets of the universe are opened to us. Life is a cheap parlor trick.
- Jonathan Nolan,
Memento Mori

"The Mysteries"
- David Bowie, The Buddha of Suburbia

There's usually quite a bit going on in my mind, and it isn't what one might expect from the sorts of things I'm supposed to be into. Having studied all the hard sciences and taught them too, my intellectual ambitions could be expected to be that narrow. But these pursuits were motivated by a perceived need for focus, for various reasons along the way. As soon as I thought I could afford to branch out a little, I wrote a history of the world, because I always got the impression my History lessons were cherry-picking too much. I also wrote about Economics because my Economics lessons were somewhat, uhh, utilitarian. As much as for me as for anyone else - rearranging the knowledge in ways I thought were more elegant.

These school-age interests in the Humanities were followed by a brief study of Psychology at uni and during my Physics Honours I completed a Philosophy unit that resulted in work that would have been published, had I been a little less busy at the time. The ornate style of my MSc thesis is also an indication of a wannabe artist (more faux artistry here), and the connections I like to make between Science and other disciplines. Most recently, I have helped school students with their writing, a process that I've found fascinating. How to entrain the artistry of the written word?

So I am interested in more than what I'm supposed to be, but these interests just haven't found an adequate outlet yet. But they will - I'm interested in the deep questions of our existence - philosophical and theological questions - and how these questions (and their answers) might be elucidated most efficiently with a combination of art and science. Ultimately, it's the patterns of our existence that interest me more than their manifestation in any particular context (like Science). Exactly what I have in mind will have to wait, but solving these mysteries is as important to me as anything else I do.


'A robot who is also a roboticist,' said Vasilia, with a touch of contempt.
- Isaac Asimov,
Robots and Empire

That's the curse of being a mentat. You can't stop analysing your data.
- Thufir Hawat, in Frank Herbert's Dune

It probably isn't smart to publicly say too much about what's wrong (or, as I think, right) with me, but I can definitely see myself as the hero of my favourite movie, Memento's Leonard Shelby. He is disciplined and organised, which, with his anterograde amnesia, is the only way his life is possible. While I don't have that condition, my particular psychosis forces me to do things in certain ways to make my life possible. Just as Leonard is able to turn his disability into strength, I am able to turn my weakness into strength.

I have what can sometimes seem like two personalities. One of them is the flamboyant showman who often appears at the front of the classroom, while the other is the obsessive perfectionist who nails every detail. They may look contradictory, but they're both me - it has nothing to do with moods, I think it's more of an innate discipline that is unnatural to almost everyone else.

It's probably the fault of my philosophically-illiterate self that I don't know the school of thought for this, but I'm sure that the features of our inner space - the neurosphere - and the outer space of our experience - are connected. Exploring this is part of my intellectual ambition.

The Whole David Bowie Thing

David Bowie Is The Greatest Rock Star Ever. So, basically, the more Bowie albums you've listened to, the better person you are. There isn't really any question about that. The real question is, which Bowie album is best?
- "Dream", at
xkcd's Echochamber in 2008

David Bowie. Most people who have anything to do with me know that I'm a pretty obsessed Bowie fanboy. They've either seen references to him in my writing, heard me effuse about his awesomeness, heard me put Bowie songs on for classes I teach or even heard me sing his songs. He gets more interesting the more one learns about him, and I'm convinced that he really was a genius. The style with which he did things - the intellect, perfectionism, artistry, humour, ambition and grace - are transferable to any discipline. Basically, he was so damn cool! This is how, even though I'm not a musician, and even though I'll never have his looks or money, David Bowie is the hero I most wished I could be like.

The problem with vocal music, and a large part of why, for a long time, I did not listen to it, is that the music must bend to fit the lyrics. And if music truly means without words, much of its potential to move is lost. But what if a vocal artist had the skill to write lyrics flexible enough to leave the music as unbent as possible? If that artist could bend the lyrics to fit the music instead? I've decided that this is the strength of Bowie's abstract lyrics: that he is not constrained to literal exposition - and there are further possibilities allowed by this approach.

I was hooked initially by "Something In The Air". I know it has lots of haters but 'hours . . .' stubbornly remains my favourite album. "Station To Station" is sung by a man in a space I know so well, and "The Dreamers" might as well have been written about me.

To comprehensively answer Dream's question, my favourite Bowie songs/albums are: well it depends on how many I'm allowed to choose. If just one favourite, it's "The Dreamers" ('hours . . .'; Omikron: The Nomad Soul longer version).

If I'm allowed to pick ten, they are (in chronological order):
    "Cygnet Committee" (Space Oddity)
    "Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)" (Diamond Dogs, iSelect)
    "Station to Station" (Station To Station)
    " 'Heroes' " ('Heroes')
    "Hallo Spaceboy" (1. Outside, Nothing Has Changed; version featuring the Pet Shop Boys)
    "Something In The Air" ('hours . . .')
    "The Dreamers" ('hours . . .'; Omikron: The Nomad Soul longer version)
    "New Killer Star" (Reality)
    "Love Is Lost" (The Next Day Extra EP; the extended version (10:25) of the Hello Steve Reich mix is most interesting, but The Next Day's original version is the one that hits harder, in a way)
    "Dollar Days" (Blackstar)

If I'm allowed to pick thirty, they are (in chronological order):
    "Cygnet Committee" (Space Oddity)
    "Queen Bitch" (Hunky Dory)
    "All The Young Dudes" (Nothing Has Changed; the Mott the Hoople version is also pretty cool)
    "Time" (Aladdin Sane)
    "Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)" (Diamond Dogs, iSelect)
    "Win" (Young Americans)
    "Station to Station" (Station To Station)
    "Golden Years" (Station To Station)
    " 'Heroes' " ('Heroes')
    "Loving The Alien" (Tonight)
    "Absolute Beginners" (Absolute Beginners soundtrack, Nothing Has Changed)
    "Jump They Say" (Black Tie White Noise)
    "The Mysteries" (The Buddha of Suburbia)
    "Dead Against It" (The Buddha of Suburbia)
    "The Hearts Filthy Lesson" (1. Outside)
    "Hallo Spaceboy" (1. Outside, Nothing Has Changed; version featuring the Pet Shop Boys)
    "The Motel" (1. Outside)
    "Little Wonder" (Earthling)
    "Something In The Air" ('hours . . .')
    "Survive" ('hours . . .')
    "No One Calls" ('hours . . .' Expanded Edition)
    "The Dreamers" ('hours . . .'; Omikron: The Nomad Soul longer version)
    "Slip Away" (Heathen)
    "Slow Burn" (Heathen)
    "New Killer Star" (Reality)
    "Bring Me The Disco King" (live from A Reality Tour)
    "Love Is Lost" (The Next Day Extra EP; the extended version (10:25) of the Hello Steve Reich mix is most interesting, but The Next Day's original version is the one that hits harder, in a way)
    "How Does The Grass Grow?" (The Next Day)
    "Heat" (The Next Day)
    "Dollar Days" (Blackstar)

My favourite album is 'hours . . .'. My favourite seven albums are***:
    Station To Station (1976)
    'Heroes' (1977)
    The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
    1. Outside (1995)
    'hours . . .' (1999)
    The Next Day (2013)
    Blackstar (2016)


Choice. The problem is choice.
- Neo,
The Matrix Reloaded

What gives you the right to move, the right to fall? Some acts are motivated, others are automatic. Do not presume that you can decide which is which for anyone but yourself or you will be . . . disappointed.
- The Arilou, in Star Control II (Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford)

It's the choices we make that define us, including the artistic works we choose to take us to the inner places we frequent most, or at least, would like to. The question: 'what is/are your favourite ____ ?' comes up so often because these choices say something about us. Here are my favourites. How much and what do they say about me? There's a correlation, but I don't actually think these are all necessarily the best!

Music. Apart from the whole David Bowie thing above, my favourite piece of music is "Allegro non Troppo", movement 1 of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto Number One. To me, this track defines epicness. Tchaikovsky has always carried more weight than any other classical composer in my mind, and I also love his Nutcracker suite and "Marche Slave". Other orchestral works I like are Bach's "Toccata and Fugue", other pieces from Fantasia and Delibes' Copella. There's a certain passage from Polovetsian Dances that I find priceless.

I also listen to tracks from computer games. Games may not strike one as the best place to look for quality music, but along with some of them being great standalone pieces, they remind me of the experience of playing the games; which is great. My favourite game soundtrack is for my favourite game, Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters. The original mod tracks are the definitive and most wonderfully-eclectic collection of Star Control music, bur the fan-made remixes (all available free) are the most accessible for the uninitiated. Some of the remixes certainly surpassed the originals too. These pieces are so varied to match the variety of characters and moods from the game. Everything from the eerie majesty of "Under a Red Sky" to the wild twists of "Frungy Party". "Mystic Shadows" is my phone's ringtone.

Other game music I like comes from other games I've played (duh). Dune carries a certain mystique and having read the novel, I can see why; this mystique is also reflected in the computer game based loosely upon it. The midi synths composed by Stephane Picq are pretty awesome, they really take me back to places within what was a very absorbing game; Dune: Spice Opera was faithful and totally worth a listen, especially "Sign of the Worm".

Another influence is the monumental Doom! Bobby Prince's original music matched the various maps of the game beautifully, which they did with their coarse but always-listenable style. The Doom and Doom II remix albums, The Dark Side of Phobos and Delta-Q-Delta are both classy, with interesting variations on the originals. The Final Doom is the episode that I played the most of and it has great music even if not by Bobby Prince. A highlight is "Legion of the Lost". Non-Bowie vocal artists are mostly unknown to me, I've only heard their hits. I find Dream Theater and Four Tet very interesting.

So here are my thirty favourite non-Bowie music pieces, in rough chronological order:
    "Adagio" (Albinoni)
    "Toccata and Fugue" (Bach)
    Clarinet Concerto K 622 (Mozart)
    Moonlight Sonata (Beethoven)
    "Copella" (Delibes)
    "Allegro non troppo e molto maetoso" (Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto Number One)
    "Marche Slave" (Tchaikovsky)
    Polovetsian Dances (Rimsky-Korsakov)
    "Waltz of the Flowers" (Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker Suite)
    "Cats in the Cradle" (Ugly Kid Joe, America's Least Wanted)
    "Cantina Band" (John Williams, Star Wars soundtrack)
    "Back On the Chain Gang" (The Pretenders, Learning To Crawl)
    "The NeverEnding Story" (The NeverEnding Story soundtrack)
    "Under the Milky Way" (The Church, Starfish)
    "Another Day In Paradise" (Phil Collins, . . . But Seriously)
    "Morning Sunrise"; also known as "Chani's Eyes" (Stephane Picq, Dune soundtrack)
    "Sign of the Worm" (Stephane Picq, Dune: Spice Opera)
    "Wake Up" (Stephane Picq, Dune: Spice Opera)
    "The Host of Seraphim" (Dead Can Dance, Baraka soundtrack)
    HyperSpace theme (Riku Nuottajarvi, Star Control II soundtrack)
    "Starbase - Under a Red Sky" (Espen Gatzschmann & Tore Aune Fjellstad, Super Melee!)
    "Suspense" (Bobby Prince, Doom soundtrack)
    "Legion of the Lost" (The Final Doom soundtrack)
    "Westside Archvile" (Mazedude, Delta-Q-Delta)
    "Protoss1" (StarCraft)
    "Clubbed to Death" (The Matrix soundtrack)
    "Instrumedley" (Dream Theater, Live at Budokan)
    "Stream of Consciousness" (Dream Theater, Live at Budokan)
    "Like A Dog Chasing Cars" (Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard, The Dark Knight Soundtrack)
    "And Then Patterns" (Four Tet, Everything Ecstatic)

My favourite non-Bowie albums (or suites, soundtracks) are:
    The Nutcracker suite
    Dune: Spice Opera
    Star Control II soundtrack
    The Dark Side of Phobos
    Everything Ecstatic

Movies. I've always been a fan of stories that mess with time, reality and similar devices. Memento is my favourite movie, I might not have amnesia but that all seemed so familiar (as I write above). It's a bit like a cross between two of my other favourites, The Matrix and Inception.

Science fiction is a strong influence, me being me. It hasn't yet inspired me to do as much as what Bowie did with it, but 2001: A Space Odyssey goes well with its novel, which I've also read. Dinosaurs aren't quite as cool as space, but Jurassic Park is about perfect except that real-life experience with my pet dinosaur (a ringneck parrot) is an amusing counterpoint to it.

If I was ever in a movie, I'd probably want to be some hopelessly-obsessed Bowie fan, of which there is one in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. As for actual Bowie, who portrayed some awfully-interesting characters, of particular interest is The Man Who Fell To Earth, with that role's influence on his album Station To Station, one of my favourites. The scene from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence that stands out to me is Bowie's character buried and left for dead, while a conflicted soldier saves a lock of his hair. His role as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige brings me to another influence: Christopher Nolan. Everything that guy does seems to be gold, gold that includes my favourite movie Memento and the best portrayal of my favourite superhero in The Dark Knight trilogy.

My favourite thirty movies in chronological order are:
    The Wizard of Oz
    2001: A Space Odyssey
    The Man Who Fell To Earth
    Blade Runner
    Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
    Empire of the Sun
    The Never Ending Story
    Terminator 2: Judgement Day
    Jurassic Park
    Schindler's List
    Vacant Possession
    The Fifth Element
    Return to Paradise
    The Matrix
    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
    The Bourne Identity
    The Dish
    Lord of the Rings
    Gangs of New York
    Fan Chan (My Girl)
    The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
    The Dark Knight trilogy
    The Prestige
Honourable Mentions (that don't really fit above):
    Star Trek: The Next Generation
    "Slow Burn" (Heathen) music video

The written word. I don't really read anymore. Reading of the sort that I used to do served its purpose, and what I read now serves a more focused purpose, aligned with what I'm here to do. Even when I had the time to read, I didn't read very widely, as the list below shows. But my favourite novel is The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. I liked a lot about that novel, but I guess what stood out for me was the interconnectedness of all things, the transience of the world we know, and the ever-present possibility of other worlds, both in space and, how can I put this, *time*: how things could have been, and the many ways they could go. The gorgeous imagery helped, too, and it kept reminding me of Memento; really the two texts are the same, just on different scales.

From alternative histories to actual history. It's always fascinated me, those other places in the past and how different they were, how unforgettable figures were forged by the choices they had to make, forced upon them by their desperate times. It's like this: often I have to value statistics of large samples, etc, but at the same time, case studies - the individuals - never lose their importance. Two narrative accounts I've read are Jung Chang's Wild Swans and Antony Beevor's Stalingrad. When I've decided which Bowie biography I like best I'll add that. When speculating about history like this my mind wanders over to Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels. I know he didn't plan it, but the way they were tied up with his Robot works, particularly by Robots and Empire, was pretty inspiring. Daneel Olivaw is perhaps my favourite literary hero. The End of Eternity was a fun time-mashing story.

Apart from wondering about time, reality and suchlike, I often find myself playing with numbers in my head, studying the geometries presented to me by everyday objects and so on. Ideas about information itself, and how it means, have arguably dominated my thoughts for many years. A novel that dealt with some of that was The Memory of Whiteness, probably the most elegant novel I've ever read. If we are all floating worlds, what are the metaphorical whitelines of that novel?

Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground I suppose is one of the few true classics I've read, it's a tortuous read, but well worth it. Polemic or didactic? I can't decide. There was a time when I thought I would read all the literary classics, but have conceded it'll never happen. Maybe in another life I'll be that uber-geeky arts student who mixes cerebral commentaries on ancient Greek literature with insights on parallels in far-Eastern modes of thought. Or something. From my younger days, I've always had a soft spot for Theodore Taylor's The Cay.

My favourite short story is Jonathan Nolan's Memento Mori, which happens to be the basis for my favourite movie Memento. There are some great lines from it, like about the effects of time on memory, and every person being a chain gang of idiots. Once, I liked to imagine I was changeless, like Earl, but I've certainly grown up over the years, and the me of the future will probably decry my current self to no end. It isn't like I'm judging from a vast sample of evocative literary pearls, but my favourite poem is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and some lines of "Kubla Khan" form the epigraph of my MSc thesis.

Bowie is an influence here as well, of course. Chris O'Leary's blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame added so much depth to Bowie's music for me, and sets a standard that will difficult to meet in my own writing about the man and his music. The book based on the blog entries for the first half of Bowie's career, Rebel Rebel is excellent and I'm looking forward to the forthcoming second volume, Ashes to Ashes. The musical that Bowie wrote with Enda Walsh in his last years, Lazarus, is very interesting. Its meaning is very much in the mind of the individual responder and I won't impose mine (will do that properly later), but its nonlinear quality is reminiscent of Memento. In Memento we are as clueless as Leonard about what did or didn't happen, while in Lazarus we are as clueless as Newton about what's real and what's not. The eternal struggle, no?

So, the list: the thirty, in rough chronological order:
    "Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment" (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
    Notes From Underground (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
    Black Beauty (Anna Sewell)
    "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (T. S. Eliot)
    The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)
    All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque)
    The Cay (Theodore Taylor)
    Lord of the Rings (John Tolkien)
    The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster)
    2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur Clarke)
    Foundation (Isaac Asimov)
    The End of Eternity (Isaac Asimov)
    "The Bicentennial Man" (Isaac Asimov)
    Robots and Empire (Isaac Asimov)
    Dune (Frank Herbert)
    Asterix (Goscinny & Uderzo)
    Hatchet (Gary Paulsen)
    The Memory of Whiteness (Kim Stanley Robinson)
    The Wild Shore (Kim Stanley Robinson)
    Mars trilogy (Kim Stanley Robinson)
    The Years of Rice and Salt (Kim Stanley Robinson)
    Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Jung Chang)
    Stalingrad (Antony Beevor)
    Memento Mori (Jonathan Nolan)
    Tales of the SpecOps (Sorta fanfic, you know?) ("Lukipela")
    xkcd: A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language (Randall Munroe)
    The Elegant Universe (Brian Greene)
    The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity (Fred Adams & Gregory Laughlin)
    Pushing Ahead of the Dame - David Bowie, song by song (Chris O'Leary)
    Lazarus - a musical featuring music by David Bowie (David Bowie & Enda Walsh)

Games. I've never been much of a gamer, and even when I played them at all, I wasn't playing them for fun - more so that I could analyse them. An exception to this was Star Control II, which kept me engaged with its powerful plot. Its online community is the only one I ever frequented. I hear Star Control II will finally get its sequel, which I am happy about. Don't know what I'm talking about? Better get the game, then!

Dune was an absorbing game for its day, with a brilliant and distinctive soundtrack by Stephane Picq. Doom is probably the game I enjoyed the most for the sake of enjoyment, while playing with others in particular. It was also useful to me when I created a Martian terrain map for a uni assessment, which could be explored with the Doom engine. I got a HD for that. I found StarCraft very interesting for its strategic complexity.

Perhaps the last noteworthy game I'll ever play is Omikron: The Nomad Soul. And why? Its soundtrack is my favourite Bowie album, 'hours . . .'. Bowie stopped performing before I became a fan, so I was never able to attend a Bowie concert . . . until I saw him perform "Survive" at Harvey's Bar.