Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Future Sydney 4: Gehry's crumpled UTS building

As part of a continuing series on Sydney's future, here's an image of the planned UTS business school building, designed by architect Frank Gehry.  More details and more pictures can be found here - including the back facade, comprised of "large, angled sheets of glass".

This is the second startling building plan I've seen released by UTS, the University of Technology, Sydney.  The first, an engineering faculty, can be seen here.

The other visions of Sydney's future are rather less tangible, more costly, and politically difficult:
  • a bold proposal to create a large plaza in front of the Town Hall (by razing a full city block!)
  • the opening up of Circular Quay with the removal of the Cahill Expressway (with further distant visions leading from that post).

By way of contrast, there are some visions of a Sydney that never will be: alternatives for the Opera House (here and here), an opera theatre 'appendage' to the Opera House, and an alternative harbour bridge.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Discovered 70s gems 2: Tommy James - Draggin' the line

Part two in a list of obscure pop singles from the early 70s.  The chief criteria are personal: I really like them now, but never heard them at the time.

The countdown rolls on:

1.  Dusk (US) - Treat me like a good piece of candy (1971, Bell records)

2.  Tommy James (US) - Draggin' the line (1971, Roulette)
3. Chi-Lites (US) - A letter to myself (1973, Brunswick)

James' heyday was the 1960s, when Tommy James and the Shondells hit the top in the US a couple of times (Hanky Panky and Crimson and Clover); a number of their songs were successfully covered decades later.

But James had a later, fitful, solo career, and Draggin' the line was his biggest.  Catchy but heavy, so-called psychedelic, with a thumping bass riff and a languid vocal delivery.  It's hard not to enjoy it.

Dave Clark - who also went solo (from the Dave Clark Five) - was so impressed he covered this song a few months later, fairly faithfully but hardly as effective.  Surprisingly, in my research I found that REM, too, loved it enough to cover it - for an Austin Powers soundtrack.  The links all take you to the respective renditions on youtube, which demonstrate that everyone's clearly thinking: don't mess up a good thing.

Tommy James' solo singles discography for the 70s (all on Roulette)
  • 1970 Ball And Chain/Candy Maker (R-7084)
  • 1970 Church Street Soul Revival/Draggin' The Line (R-7093; US#62, Wellington,NZ#24 (hit prediction))
  • 1971 Adrienne/Light Of Day (R-7100; US#93)
  • 1971 Draggin' The Line/Bits & Pieces (R-7103; US#4, Aus#20; NZ#19)
  • 1971 I'm Comin' Home/Sing, Sing, Sing (R-7110; US#40 Wgtn#30)
  • 1971 Nothing To Hide/Walk A Country Mile (R-7114; US#41, Wgtn#36)
  • 1972 Tell 'Em Willie Boy's A'Comin'/Forty Days And Forty Nights (R-7119; US#89, Wgtn#54)
  • 1972 Cat's Eye In The Window/Dark Is The Night (R-7126; US#90)
  • 1972 Love Song/Kingston Highway    (R-7130; US#67)
  • 1972 Celebration/The Last One To Know (R-7135; US#95)
  • 1973 Boo, Boo, Don't 'Cha Be Blue/Rings And Things    Roulette (R-7140; US#70, Wgtn#23)
  • 1973 Calico/Hey, My Lady    (R-7147)

- Wikipedia on Tommy James
- Music VF on Tommy James and the Shondells
- Stephen Laug-something-or-other's web page on Tommy James
- Various chart sources including Joel Whitburn and David Kent.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sculptures By The sea

Every year in November, Sculptures By The Sea comes to Sydney: an exhibition laid out on the coastal walk from Tamarama beach to Bondi.  That's only a few beaches away from us, so it's a regular treat for the family.  It's become more and more popular each year - so crowded, in fact, that it's much like Pitt St mall at lunchtime.

This year, I've posted to Picasa a lot of photos from the event. Despite my attempts to crop them to suit, you can tell what a crowd it was by the number of people milling around them.  (It was very hard to take pictures without people standing right against the sculpture.  Many seemed to think the photos should be more about themselves than the art work - thus sullying forever their souvenirs of the art.)

Here's my photo album:
2010 Sculptures by the sea

It's not a full set of the exhibition - just the ones I felt motivated enough to capture.  There's also a bonus photo this year: a whale was spouting in the distance.

I got the catalogue, but deliberately set out to appreciate each art work purely in situ.  If you want to know the name of the artist and work, right-click on the image as if to save it, and the title will be revealed.  However, there's one work I couldn't spot in the catalogue.  If anyone can find out what the untitled photo is, please let me know.

Flake wins my prize for the most ingenious: a traffic light that had seemingly been ripped out of of its location, complete with trailing electric cables and an old bike leaning against it.  Apart from that and the adaptable migrant (the camel above), my favourites were splash and anaconda (immediately above), both for their vibrant colours on a very bright day.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Lost 70s gems: 1. Dusk - Treat me like a good piece of candy

I have been researching pop music of the early 70s.  Specifically, single releases from 1970 to 1974. I'm not interested in the hits nearly so much as those that languished in the lower reaches of the public consciousness.  For that I'm aided by some chart information from Australia, New Zealand, USA, and England.  It's worth noting that listeners in the smaller territories were luckier than most, as the radio stations drew from a wider variety of sources.  New Zealand, for example, absorbed music from all the territories above, and more.

Here begins a list of gems that were uncovered only through deliberate research.  The central tenet for this list is that I'd never heard them before (which eliminates a large number of contenders).  So, at the top of the list comes:

1.  Dusk (US) - Treat me like a good piece of candy (1971, Bell)
2.  Tommy James (US) - Draggin' the line (1971, Roulette)
3.  Chi-Lites (US) - A letter to myself (1973, Brunswick)

This is pure bubblegum pop, complete with questionable lyrics.  Dusk was in fact a studio concoction, built around Peggy Santiglia, one-time lead singer in the Angels, who had a US #1 in 1963 with My Boyfriend's Back ("and you're gonna be sorry"). Why Dusk?  Simply because it was put together by the same writers/producers/label who gave us Dawn.  Some say Dusk was there to pick up on Dawn's rejects.  Certainly the first single, Angel Baby, slots in so neatly between Knock Three Times and Candida that it's tantamount to superfluous.

Why is this one on the list?  It would probably rate as merely good, but Santiglia's gutsy delivery on the refrain ("Trrreat me like a good piece of candy, baby") elevates it to the sublime for me.

Singles Discography
Angel baby (1971 - US#57, Aus#18, NZ#3)
I hear those church bells ringing (1971 - US#53, Aus#8, NZ#3)
Treat me like a good piece of candy (1971 - Aus#77; Wellington NZ: prediction (#26))
Reach out and speak my name (1971)
Point of no return (1972 NZ: prediction)

Most sources don't list the latter two singles.  The only mention I've found of Reach out was a Japanese web site on Toni Wine, who wrote and sang on Candida (but was not destined to be in Dawn).  Other sources include Tom Mix's excellent blog and a blog called The hits just keep on comin'.

Feel free to nominate other candidates for this list - it's not finished yet!  Be warned, though: a) I may well have heard your nominee already; and b) taste for this sort of music is just so subjective!

Monday, November 01, 2010

Spring report 2: 1st November 2010

Today was quite rainy.  In fact, mid-spring in Sydney was a wet time, and the coolest October in 18 years (see the full report in the Herald).  We're not doing too badly - Melbourne's been mopping up after a season of floods.

On the other hand, the drought has finally broken.  For the first time in (fifteen?) years, no region of New South Wales is officially in drought.

What has the weather done to the garden?  The wisteria's flowers were very subdued this year, not only brief but a much smaller display than usual.  On the other hand, once the flowers are gone, the leaves burst out in force, and tendrils shoot everywhere.  Post-bloom, it's been lusher than ever.

As usual, the jasmine and wisteria are fighting it out for living space: this photo shows the jasmine poking up through the wisteria, elsewhere the wisteria is likewise battling the jasmine on its home territory.

Out the back, the star jasmine has been out for about a week, a very heady smell when the temperature goes up.  However, it's been pretty mild this year because of the cooler temperatures.  Still, the jasmine is growing, and as you can see, it's been climbing the umbrella tree.  This year, it's particularly dense in the upper reaches.

What does all this mean for climate change?  In the short term, it's hard to tell.  Over the years, this journal can help record the changes in flowering patterns.  Anecdotally, the easiest thing to say is that there's been a marked volatility in the past few years.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The spring report 2010

We're lucky to have hit some jackpots in our gardening efforts; the front garden has been particularly profuse in flowers and scents for much of the year, but particularly in spring.

The daphne's come and gone, the jasmine's been out a few weeks (strong and heady), the roses sporadic but rich, and now the wisteria's starting.

I've been recording spring events for a couple of years now.  Each year brings a few surprises; hopefully a pattern will emerge over time.  Meanwhile, I'm just gathering the anecdotes.

The daphnes have been in the ground the longest, resolute but barely changing from year to year.  They usually turns up late winter, gone by spring; we treasure the scent while it lasts.

The jasmine and wisteria, a few years on, are mature and fighting it out along the front wall, intertwining.  They're both hardy, so I'm happy to let them go for it.  Right now, the jasmine has bloomed and bunched in three separate places: its original location, wisteria HQ, and the arch over the front gate.  Interestingly, neither the jasmine nor the climbing rose are keen on creeping down the other side of the arch once they hit the top.  Right now, the arch is covered with jasmine on the west side (whence it came), while the east (seaward) side has mostly bare woody wisteria.

The wisteria is a less common variety around here (Japanese, I think), and it blooms later than others in the district - which are mostly out now.  This year, ours has thrown up a strange few early blooms.  They're notable because they're a) earlier than the rest of the plant, b) white (we had a few of those last year), and c) only turning up on the east side of the arch. I wonder why.  The wisteria extends several metres each direction, nearly everywhere the buds are still quite small.  Except on the east side of the arch.

Why the white sports - and why only on the arch?  Why are the buds so much earlier on the east side?

No complaints, of course.  I've fed and watered these plants to maturity, and they're repaying the effort.  That's evolution - and gardening - at its most rewarding.

A further set of flowering trees were planted in the southwest corner last year, a white magnolia and two michelias ('scented pearl').  The latter are profuse with white flowers, albeit little scent at the moment.  They've taken hold, but it'll take a couple more years before they're really showy.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Reflections on Australia's election - Part two: result and aftermath

There's finally an outcome to Australia's election of 17 days ago.

The story so far: Australia’s federal election of August 21 returned a hung parliament.  The numbers were: Labor 72; Liberal/National Coalition (conservative): 72; independent National: 1; Green: 1; independent ex-Green: 1; independent rural conservatives: 3.  Number needed to commit to form stable government: 76.
To further complicate, the balance of power in the Senate is due to be in the hands of the Greens – however, the Senate seats are only to change over next July, so the balance of power until then will remain in the hands of a minor-party conservative climate change skeptic.

For the past 17 days, the three rural conservatives – all defectors from the National party with some consequent bad blood – had been locked in negotiation with both sides.  The rest of the small players had by now announced their intentions, resulting in Labor 74, Coalition 73.

Finally today, the three committed: the first, Bob Katter, to the conservative side, as expected.  The other two finally pledged to Labor.

Those three independents had said they intended to vote as a block to ensure stable government.  Rob Oakeshott, the youngest, most articulate and least conservative, emerged as their de facto leader (or spokesperson).  Their strongest stated agenda was a) to aim for stable government; b) to get commitment to some reforms in parliamentary procedure; c) to get a better deal for regional Australia.  They clearly got what they wanted on the latter two; stable government will be quite difficult.  Despite everyone’s stated commitments, the independents seem to be all reserving the right – to varying degrees – to withdraw support on anything bar supply and confidence.

Katter’s move didn't suprise.  Despite some of his mutterings, I don’t think he could ever have supported anyone but the conservatives*.

Oakeshott was the final person in parliament to declare his intentions – and thus the fate of government in Australia.  One could say that at his press conference he drew out his announcement too long, simply for effect. (Nobody – including the parliamentary leaders – knew his intentions before he spoke his most significant word: Gillard - ie Labor.)  On the other hand, he indicated in that press conference that he was aware of the gravitas of his announcement, so he went into some detail about the reasoning behind it.  Not the least of this was: would he be able to sleep at night with his decision?

His announced reasons were, in order: Labor’s Broadband policy, climate change, and regional education.

Broadband: Labor’s policy was for a large-scale fibre rollout as a significant and meaningful investment in infrastructure.  The Coalition’s policy involved a significant reliance on incentives to private enterprise, and for wireless to cover any gaps.  Labor’s was seen to be better than the Coalition’s, except by the Coalition, those in the fibre industry – and Bob Katter, who said he didn’t think there was much between the two policies.
Winner: Australia’s infrastructure.  That is, unless you think like one National PM who claimed that fibre would turn out to be a white elephant (that may possibly be the case in the long run, but as John Maynard Keynes said, “in the long run, we are all dead”).

Climate change: the previous governments – both Liberal and Labor – baulked on this issue; Liberal because they were headed by (and populated by) climate change disbelievers, and the later Labor government because their grip on the Senate was so tenuous that they held no prospect of getting any meaningful action passed (large-scale industrial adjustment is always particularly difficult anyway, because the losing industries are there already to complain loudly, and the winning industries haven’t yet become well established - or cashed up).  In theory at least, this means the prospect of real action of climate change, because a) the government is supported on that basis, and b) the Senate will be in the hands of the Greens – albeit next July.
Winner: Well, everyone, ultimately.  Probably.

Integrity:  Rob Oakeshott stated intentions consistently related to general principles over specific electoral pork barrelling.  Liberal leader – for the moment – Tony Abbott came off rather less well.  In response to a request from the ex-Green independent, he promised a billion-dollar hospital in his electorate.  This was rejected as unfunded and unrealistic.  Then, according to “inside sources”, Abbott last night promised the remaining independents “everything they wanted”.  As one of them subsequently said, though, with 68 years’ experience in public life between the three of them they’d seen every trick in the book.  Which is to say, they couldn't trust anyone who baldly said they’d give them everything they wanted.  In summary, principles were seen to be more important than specific promises, and Abbott lost out.
Winner: Oakeshott.  Probably.

Stable government:  Unless Labor gets written commitment from the Greens, the ex-Green, and the two rural independents, there’s no telling where they’ll get blockage.  And as a National pointed out today, any one of several people could renege, become incapacitated, or die.  Further, Steve Fielding, the Senate’s Quixotic conservative balance of power (for the moment), is so mercurial there’s no telling what he’ll do while he still possesses a modicum of power.  One comment he gave indicated he may well act as complete spoiler to Labor all the way next July.
Winner: not stable government, not proactive government.  Probably.

Ideology: isn’t it all about conservative vs liberal, right vs left?  As the third independent, Tony Windsor, pointed out today he didn’t have much problem supporting the other side, because “philosophy with these parties died a decade ago or longer”.  That is rather a good explanation of the result of the general election.  Yet having said that, it’s worth noting that in the end, all independents fell to their traditional leanings, bar Tony Windsor (although Oakeshott is an ex-National in name, he has consistently espoused progressive views).  I further note a comment I heard a week or so back, that all major English-heritage countries now have hung parliaments – that is, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, USA, and Canada.  This does rather speak to a significant dilution of political principle, on a global scale.
Winner: not principle.

Prime Minister: Did Julia Gillard sound like she was speaking with gritted teeth after the prize was hers?  Did Tony Abbott display any sense of relief amongst his mixed emotion?  Because this is going to be the hardest prime ministership in decades.  Winner: Julia Gillard.  Maybe.

*Katter once notably proclaimed that he’d walk backwards to Canberra if there were any gays in his electorate.  Of course, he never fulfilled that promise.  In mitigation, as a gay man in his electorate pointed out today, you’d be most unwise to come out of the closet anywhere in that diffuse rural electorate.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reflections on Australia's election - Part one: election day

This election, I worked at a polling station, which is always a worthwhile experience.  In making these observations, I appreciate the Australia voting system is a little unusual compared to most others, so it makes sense to note a few points for overseas readers.

1) Voting is compulsory.  That is, you have to front up on election day and get your name marked off - which is not to say you even have to mark the ballot papers, nor even lodge them in the boxes.  But having made the trip, most people do the lot.

2) Australia is bicameral.  The Senate (upper house) is elected by proportional representation, so some minor parties get up.  Often enough. this means the government of the day has to negotiate with minor parties to pass legislation.  The last session was like this: outcomes were effectively decided by a quixotic conservative senator.  However, the government before that briefly had the numbers in both houses.

3) Australia has preferential voting.  For the lower house, the voter has to number each candidate in preference order (typically around six candidates), which means a vote is not wasted on a minor party, because it will flow through to your preferred major party candidate.  For the upper house, you either have to number the lot (84 candidates in NSW this time), or vote for a single party ('above the line'), which notably means that party gets to choose where your preferences subsequently get directed.

Some personal observations, based on a Sydney Eastern Suburbs polling station:

a) Despite some voters being half-hearted, everybody was remarkably cheery in fronting up to have their names marked off and take their ballot papers.  I can't recall a more uniformly cheery parade of people.

b) In bumping up the valid votes, it makes an enormous difference what is said to the voters in handing over the papers.  Most people know in general how to vote, but it's worth reminding them that a) all lower house candidates have to be numbered, and b) voting 'above the line' requires a single one marked in the party box - but it means that that party chooses where to direct your preference.

c) Nearly everyone voted above the line, because few have the stamina to preference 84 candidates in order.  However, of those who did vote below the line, the overwhelming majority were Greens voters.  One possible interpretation is that they're likely to be more engaged in the political process.

d) Few Senate votes went to parties other than the two major ones and the Greens.  Of those that did, the two biggest-vote minor parties were the Australian Sex Party and the Liberal Democrats, neither of whose platforms would be known to more than a handful of people.  The vote for the Sex Party demonstrates, I believe, the number of people who didn't take their Senate vote seriously.  And I think the Liberal Democrats were largely voted for by people who confused them with their British namesakes - which would have been rather a mistake, because whereas the British party is soft left, the Australian one is closer to hard right, based on their preferencing intentions.

e)  In collating votes, I noticed the most bizarre expression of political intent I've ever seen.  The voter had numbered their Senate preference to flow first to a hard rightwing party, then hard left, then hard right, and so on.  Obviously the voter knew the parties, because he [sic] was consistently swaying his preferences between either side.  Given what I said before, the voter could have made sure the preferences came to lodge with their preferred major party, but there's no way they could have been certain a couple of the preferenced didn't stick with any one of the minor ones, which in a fit of horse-trading found itself with enough preferences to get over the line.  It's happened before (cf Steve Fielding).  If it's a thumbing of the nose at the election, there are easier and more noticeable ways of doing it.  Any guesses as to why someone would vote like this?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Rees, Dawkins and Gould: finely picking the cleft between science and religion

I first encountered Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, in the pages of New Scientist last year: a brief interview on occasion of the 350th anniversary of the Society. He talked science, but looked nothing less than an Establishment bastion (and he’s also Astronomer Royal, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and in the House of Lords).

Just recently, I heard him in a brief piece on the ABC Radio Science Show. He was talking on the divide between science and religion – and he rather surprised me with some non-establishment words. His conversation drilled into some finer points of this divide. Inter alia:
“I suspect my beliefs or lack of beliefs are rather similar to Richard Dawkins's…”
“I agree with Richard Dawkins that fundamentalism… is a real danger, and I think we therefore need all the allies we can muster against it, and I would see the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, as on my side against fundamentalism. Therefore it seems to me counterproductive to rubbish people like that. I'd like to see them on my side, and as a Brit who grew up in that culture, I'm rather supportive of the Church of England.
And I think there's another reason where I think his attitude is also damaging. Suppose you were teaching a group of kids in a London school and a lot were Muslims and you told them that they couldn't have their god and have Darwin. They're going to stick with their god and be lost to science, and that, again, I think is counterproductive. So I believe wherever possible one should have peaceful coexistence with mainstream religions.”
The Templeton Prize was apparently a notable point of departure between Rees and Dawkins. The prize “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works”.

Rees said Dawkins labelled him a quisling because Rees was “less hostile to the Templeton Foundation than he was.” But then: “I don't go all the way with the Templeton Foundation because they believe in constructive dialogue. I think there's limited scope for constructive dialogue, I think there can be peaceful coexistence, but I don't believe theologians can help with my physics”.

Per se, that’s not too far from the resolution attempted by another scientist, Stephen Jay Gould. He coined the term Non-Overlapping Magisteria (or NOMA): “Science tries to record and explain the factual characteristics of the natural world, whereas religion struggles with spiritual and ethical questions about the meaning and proper conduct of our lives. The facts of nature simply cannot explain correct moral behaviour or spiritual meaning”.*

Of course, that satisfied few who weren’t already satisfied.  And although the two are similar, I rather like Rees' turn of phrase.

Full text of the Rees conversation available here.

*Gould, SJ (2003): The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox (p87). Jonathan Cape, London.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Australia's general election: the Leader debate

I happened to see a few glimpses of the leadership debate between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and contender Tony Abbott.

I didn't hear what they said, which was a boon on two counts: first, I already knew their message in general terms, and the repetition can be wearying.  Second, it gave me an opportunity to look at their visual presentation.

They both waggled their heads.

Yet Gillard did it in a reassuring way, while Abbott's head waggling seemed rather agitated.  I would expect this debate would only influence those who had not made up their minds.  I'm further guessing that those people might not make a lot of sense of the difference between their policies on the basis of what they said.  And on what I saw, those swinging voters would have responded better to Gillard.

Later this evening, I heard a few snippets from the debate on the radio.  Again, going by just the tone of voice, Gillard sounded more measured, while Abbott was more strident - not in a positive way.

I'm not convinced the debate will have a great influence on the outcome of the election.  But if it did - at the margins - it wouldn't bode well for Abbott.

(However, with any luck, the margins are affected by more weighty aspect of the choice between the two parties.  That's a hard one, though.)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Genetics 001: The basis of heredity

Most discussions of genetics demonstrate that what is known has been discovered through rigorous scientific experimentation and observation.  One good reason is that this field demonstrates more clearly than the study of fossils the evolutionary basis - and common roots - of all life on earth.  I don't plan to go to that level of detail: because anybody who investigates this subject with any sort of rigour would find the evidence clear, logical, and irrefutable.

Most discussions also begin with Mendel's two laws.  Although they are widely known, I'll reproduce them briefly here.  Mendel was a monk (and scientist) whose work on breeding peas was largely ignored in the 19th century, and rediscovered at the start of the 20th.
Mendel's first law: an individual inherits two factors of heredity for each given trait, one from each parent.
Mendel's second law: independent traits assort independently of each other.
From Mendel came the understanding those two factors above can be dominant or recessive - ie the dominant can mask the recessive, although both factors are present in the individual, and inheritable.

Now, a molecular biology overview.

Animals and plants are eukaryotes: each living cell in every organism has a nucleus, which contains the genetic blueprint for the organism.  This is organised as a set of chromosomes, the same number within each species, but differing numbers for different species.

In contrast, Bacteria are prokaryotes, which means a bacterial cell has no compartmentalised nucleus for the storage of genetic material.  Bacteria are single-celled organisms, as are nearly all prokaryotes.  Most eukaryotes are multi-celled organisms, although some are unicellular - amoeba being an example.

(Although it could be said that organisms lacking nuclei are more primitive, Stephen Jay Gould has illustrated that the likes of bacteria are an extraordinarily successful form of life, having eked out more niches on this planet, and over a longer period of time, than anything else.  Moreover, bacteria in total biomass outweigh the total of all eukarytic life.  They are very successful adaptors.)

Chromosomes take the form of DNA (deoxyribose nucleic acid): very lengthy molecules - largely comprising hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen - that are typically packed tightly, in a well-structured way.  Much of a cell's metabolism is controlled automatically via the instructions stored in DNA, which are sent out from the nucleus through RNA, and typically executed by the assembly of proteins from the building blocks of amino acids.

Proteins typically act as catalysts: that is, they facilitate chemical reactions without being changed themselves.  Thus, the presence of particular proteins bring about certain reactions that affect metabolism in cells and through the body.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Film: The Swimmer (USA, 1968)

This is a most unusual Hollywood film.  Not for its mise-en-scene and locational filming, the stomping ground of the rich East Coast upper middle class.  But for the way it blended realism and allegory in a fashion hardly ever seen in Hollywood.

It is based on a short story by John Cheever which was apparently substantially similar to the film.  However, the level of detail of the film is such that credit must clearly be given also to the scriptwriter, Eleanor Perry (wife of, and sometime collaborator with, the director Frank Perry).

Spoilers below.

The plot:
Burt Lancaster is Ned, a wealthy advertising executive, who conceives of a plan to "swim his way home" by doing a circuit of the swimming pools of all the people he knows in his leafy, well-heeled neighbourhood.  The film is effectively a group of set pieces at each of the pools he visits.

At first, he is greeted with heartiness as warm and eager as he himself exudes.  But gradually through the film, the apparent balmy day turns sharply autumnal, as do the people he meets.  A troubled recent past slowly emerges, which he doesn't seem to remember.
The receptions accorded to him slowly turn frostier, bitter even, when he meets some who he still thought of as close friends.

Gradually, as the circle closes, Ned arrives back at his own house, which is deserted and boarded up, his family long gone.  The rain pelts down on him, mirroring the futile blows he makes on the front door as he collapses and sobs.

I first saw this film as a teenager; it left an indelible mark on my memory.  But I don't fully trust my young impressions of adult films, so I grabbed the chance to see this a second time recently.  It didn't disappoint.

Certainly, it is dated.  It is very much a reflection of its 1960s wealthy, somewhat conservative milieu.  Yet the nature of the storytelling is quite disarming: its beginnings are steeped in super-realism, which is where the cinematography remains.  But allegory inexorably takes over the narrative.  You know the real story is below the surface; hints are given, but it's never firmly spelt out.  You start to wonder about his fall from grace, and the genre seems to have slipped into mystery: a puzzle to be revealed.  But it turns out that the story is the journey itself; the denouement is the very fact of his fall.

I am not familiar with the other works of the writer and the director, so this film must stand alone, albeit bearing the mark of the original writer, Cheever.

Made in 1966, but not released until 1968: the original director, Perry, left this project uncompleted: the cited "creative differences" probably saw him at odds with the film's producers.  For what it's worth, Sydney Pollack finished it.

On a final note, those who came in late may remember Burt Lancaster as a somewhat cheesy Hollywood actor with little that is memorable to his credit.  So it is salient to point out his presence in two films of moment: this, and an even more memorable work, 1957's hard-hitting film noir, Sweet Smell Of Success.  Seek it out.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The future of this blog [genetics 000]

It has come to my attention that...
I know I've been a bit slack lately...
There is so much richness in this world that there's never enough time to explore it all, let alone diarise it...

Ideally, I'd write a thought a day; heaven knows there is an abundance of fresh insights to be gleaned from the experiences of each and every day.  On the other hand, there's a putative obligation to pursue the insight to the full extent of its value, else why even start?

So, the world is still turning, new experiences are daily deposited in the bank of life's richness.  Where is the reward in not sharing it?

Time, that is the villain.  It seems to accelerate, leaving me guilty and struggling in its wake.

Not that I've been idle.  But as it stands, the less time I spend commuting, the less I have to devote to absorbing and recording.  (In any case, my commuting time had been taken up with podcasted lectures.)

To date, evolution constitutes the majority of my [tagged] posts.  Not surprising; it's been a fascinating journey - unexpected, and very rewarding.  But I've taken an equally fascinating, equally unexpected turn: to molecular biology and genetics.

Although the confluences could be mapped, this path certainly wasn't planned.  And I'm not a gadfly, turning to a new subject at whim.  In fact, before dipping into evolution, I'd not plunged so deeply into an area of study outside a formal university course.  And I had hitherto treated biology as the distant, neglected cousin of all the sciences, steeped as I had been in mathematics and physics.

A starting point could be: "what is a gene?"  Actually, I have attempted this in the past, with understandably mixed results.  So I felt I should not start the recording process until I'd got that under wraps.  Yet by the time I felt sufficiently confident, I'd come out the other end, and in fact discovered where within this wide area my true temperament and interest lies.

I will not start with the above question - the answer is not sufficiently straightforward.  I will start at the natural starting point: the basics of molecular biology.

It's not dry and uninteresting.  It's a fascinating universe writ small, and it touches on many of my core concerns, including information science, analysis, evolution, mathematics, and pure intrinsic beauty.

I will be trying to construct an engaging, coherent narrative.  Yet I will still take minor excursions into some of my traditional interests: music, film, current events, and science (first up will be a film called The Swimmer).

I even know exactly where this journey is taking me: genomics, wherein lies a universe of challenges - and which is one of the most current, most relevant worlds left to be explored.  For a hint of this, there's a truly inspiring lecture by Eric Lander of MIT, called Genomics (it's available for free on iTunes).  Although its clarity is worthy of the best of the visionary TED lectures, the full richness of its meaning will be far better appreciated with sufficient context.  That's what I'm aiming to provide.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Australia’s great leap forward:Julia Gillard

Today, Australia will get its first female Prime Minister, when the government caucus votes Julia Gillard to replace Kevin Rudd as its leader.

That’s by no means a global precedent. Nor is it a precedent that she’ll be sworn in by a female Governor General (Australia’s first).

But it is a milestone. One that is necessary to a sophisticated society, and one that is overdue, in world terms. Although history suggests it can make little practical difference, nevertheless it remains a meaningful symbolism.

The nature of the leadership change demonstrates one very real point of difference between a parliamentary and a (typical) presidential system. In other respects, Australia’s political processes have come to represent a de facto presidency inasmuch as a large proportion of attention is focused on the leader, at least informally.

In that sense, Australia was moving towards an election with both leadership options – Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott – facing significant public disapproval. Rudd in particular seems to have lost much of his expected support base due to delaying the implementation of an emission trading scheme, despite his own characterisation of climate change as the “most significant moral issue of our time”. In likelihood, part of the erosion of support would have been due to the intrinsic outcome, and part would have rested with the obvious gap between his words and his actions.

Broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings clearly demonstrate Gillard’s ability in that setting. How she will manage the transition to full-fledged leadership – and how the votiung public will react on a gut level – is something that has historically proven very hard to predict. Although Gillard had been a core part of the Rudd administration’s decisionmaking processes, leadership is another matter.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Flores and toolmakers: Rethinking pre-sapiens hominid evolution

Science is uniquely accepting of new understanding, through new evidence.  (This is, of course, exploited by science deniers, who hide under the veneer of scepticism to push ideology over the balance of evidence.)  Yet most discoveries add to new knowledge, rather than shift paradigms.  Relativity and quantum physics are two of the few examples of abrupt change in the past 100 years.

There is good scientific consensus that the modern human species (Homo sapiens sapiens) first evolved in Africa, left about 60,000 years ago, and arrived in southeast Asia about 45,000 years ago.

However, other human species had left earlier: Homo erectus  first left Africa about 2 million years ago, spread widely, and was to be found as recently as 50,000 years ago in Java. (By contrast, Neanderthals, homo sapiens neanderthalensis, reached Europe between 600,000 and 350,000ya, lasting to 30,000ya.  Tellingly, sub-Safaran Africans have been found to have no Neanderthal DNA, while all other humans have 1-4% DNA from Neanderthals.)

Australopithecus afariensis and Homo floriensis (from Wikipedia)

More recently, the find of Homo floresiensis on the Indonesian island of Flores, has been dated to as recently as 13,000ya, going as far back as 94,000ya.  This is well before the emergence of modern humans, although evidence suggests the two species could have lived in close proximity for a time.

The H floresiensis remains are in fact so recent that they comprise original material, as opposed to fossils, which are rock which replaced (at a later point) eventually-disintegrating bone matter.

Because of the spread of H erectus, it has been speculated that this more recent find is descended from H erectus, and still underwent a dwarfism typically associated with animal species that have migrated to island environments.

Adam Brumm of the University of Wollongong reported recently in Nature  a find of tools in Wolo Sege in Flores that pushed back hominid (which is not to say H sapiens sapiens) occupation of Flores to at least 1,000,000ya.

Recently on ABC Radio, Brumm commented that the working hypothesis is that the tools belonged to an ancestor of H Floresiensis, since they were the only ones there that far back.  He also suggested that, rather than descending from H erectus, H floresiensis descended from an australopithecus species, so is hominid rather than human (Australopiths having evolved into the several homo species, and died out, about 2mya).

The important takehomes are that pre-hominids may have left Africa much earlier than hominds, and that H floresiensis is likely more distantly related to humans than any other homo species.  (Note: current thinking has chimpanzees diverging from humans about 5-6mya, which would put floresinensis divergence at 2-5mya.)
If Brumm's comments are correct, there may need to be a name change from H to A floresiensis.

This accords well with plenty of the other evidence on H floresiensis (albeit  floresiensis likely underwent further evolution apart from dwarfism).

Brumm called it an exciting time to be in the field, but also said they now needed new sedimentary basin finds [in Flores] to explore the period from 2mya to 1mya.  Despite the science, paleontology finds are still a matter of skilled luck as much as anything else.

Other references:
An ABC report on the tool finds;
anthropologist John Hawkes comments on the tool finds

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why IQ tests don't work

We've all heard people decrying the value of IQ tests: particularly that they are either culturally biased, or that they only exhibit one dimension of intelligence.

I suggest additional reasons for that value being limited.

I have always found IQ tests relatively easy - but I'm mathematically inclined.  Further, in my experience people that are clearly below an IQ of, say, 80, are clearly lacking some general capabilities.

My thinking is that  the upper end of IQ results reflect mathmatical/logical capability, but it doesn't measure the broad range of human capabilities.  Likewise, low scores are indicative of a disability.  Yet for those who score mid-range, it's hard to say anything useful about their intelligence.

There have been a number of alternatives suggested for the straight IQ measure, such as intelligence that is social, emotional, visual/artistic, musical, and so on.  I find myself in agreement that "IQ" measures only a limited range of a person's intellectual capabilities.

My suggestion is that those IQ measures that score mid-range are only demonstrating their mid-range logic capabilities, and that we have no sufficient measure of their capabilites in the broader aspects of human capabilities.

It was suggested to me that those with aptitude for classical music are likely to be pretty intelligent on typical IQ measures.  Yet my reading of the music industry more generally suggests that there are many musicians that are neither very logical in general, nor very capable of managing their own lives - even equalising for other factors such as self-medication.  Syd Barrett is typically held up for this measure in the music sphere; Van Gogh - and many others - are rightly or wrongly depicted as exemplary in the musical world.  I would be surprised if surrogate IQ tests didn't place them mid-range; however, I'm sure there are vast swathes of musicians that are highly intelligence in the IQ measure - it's just that such a measure is not directly relevant to their  particular expertise.

[What it has to do with brain function is an interesting question.  Recent findings have, for example, suggested that autism is much to do with a differential ability (or dis-)  of different regions of the brain to communicate with each other - and that high-functioning autism (so-called savant) may be an aspect of the same, that is, abnormality in the networking of different regions of the brain.]

Comments welcome.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Art prize scandal: trustees look even stupider

The $25,000 Wynne prize is looking pretty tatty at the moment.  The newly-crowned winner should be dethroned, sent home empty-handed, and the trustees should look suitably abject, and cast around forlornly for a replacement.

The problem: the winner, Sam Leach, has copied from a 1660 painting, Boatmen Moored on the Shore of a Lake, by a Dutch painter called Adam Pynacker.

The Wynne Trustees were out and about today, defending their decision.  One spouted something about there being no conventions for referencing another work... even Edmund Capon, Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and himself a Trustee, has been stubbornly holding his line.

"Referencing", my foot.  It's out-and-out plaguarism, as can be clearly seen from a side-by-side comparison in today's Herald.

The Wynne prize, one of the more lucrative art prizes in Australia, is dished out each year by the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales for an Australian landscape painting.  Past winners have stretched the meaning of the word landscape (one, I recall, seemed more of a self-portrait than landscape).  But it's never been awarded for a landscape originally done before any European had even heard of Australia.

The media has been remarkably restrained, for some unfathomable reason.  They reiterate that the painter had not tried to conceal the similarity - but then, he had not made clear the extent of similitude - which omission was quite egregious. The exact composition of the painting has been retained, down to reproducing the tendrils of branch across the top and the variegated wood snaking across the bottom.  Only the subject boat/men of the original have been painted out.

Whether you argue the blatancy of the act or the lack of Australian landscape, the award should obviously be revoked.

In their favour, the Trustees cannot be expected to be across the full catalogue of the last five centuries of European art.  But once the truth is made clear, it is remarkably stupid to attempt to defend the indefensible.  They only get egg on their faces if they open their mouths.

Edmund Capon, a highly respected member of the Sydney establishment, has in recent times made increasingly serious noises about retiring.  If he doesn't change tack on this issue, one way or another his retirement will be hastened.

The whole thing is so stupid, and to persist is even worse.

Update  29-Apr-2010:
The Trustees' verdict is in.  And if you're of the same mind, "common sense has prevailed" and the artist will keep his prize.  The decision is reported here in the Herald.  The more telling comments:
a) The Trustees said that when awarding the prize, they recognised the winner had the "light and air" of a Dutch 17th century painting, but also "appreciated its quality and mysterious implications of the natural world".
b) "none of the 10 trustees present was in favour [of revoking the prize]".
c) ...however, "some felt that the artist should have made a greater declaration of the source of inspiration".
d) Capon: "there's no way in the world that the same board of trustees will look at the Wynne next year without the recollection and the memory of what's happened this year".
e) The art gallery board said the painting was an "idealised landscape, one where time and place are indistinct."

Bollocks.  The clear translation: the Trustees had egg on their faces, but didn't want it to seem even worse by revoking the prize.  Idiots.
The last words go to some letter-writers to the Herald (to be found here):
"The Wynne Prize judges could not have done otherwise. By revoking the prize, they would have disqualified themselves and made themselves unfit in the first place to award the prize for a copy of a painting made in the Netherlands before the discovery of Australia."
Bela Somssich-Szogyeny

"The board of trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW must be living in an ''idealised'' reality. They are either disingenuous, ignorant or plain wrong to suggest that Sam Leach's Wynne-winning painting was an ''idealised landscape, one where time and place are indistinct''. I can inform them the time is 17th century, the place, Italy."
Glen op den Brouw

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Are you sure this is reality?

We do not know reality: we only perceive it.  Our perceptions are constrained by the limitations of our bodies, the chief of which is the body’s drastically limited timespan.  We extend the range of our immediate ability to perceive, but we are ultimately still very much constrained.  Our perceptions are affected by:
a)      The body’s limitations, such as hunger, fatigue, tolerable temperature range, and so on;
b)      The necessity to mediate our way through the body’s world: to sufficiently fit in to the world around it.
That latter encompasses both physical limitations and the dominant necessity to navigate through interactions with other bodies.  Those other bodies may or may not be inhabited by consciousnesses like ours – it matters not, it’s the verisimilitude that counts.

So in effect, we could be in a comprehensive simulation: that is, trapped inside a “virtual reality” environment that we know not how to exit.

Consciousness of that effect has been heightened in recent years by the emergence of new technologies that get ever closer to simulating [our own understanding of] reality.  This to the point where a syndrome has been documented whereby some people have become convinced that this current “reality” is some sort of simulation.

Philosophically, this is not new.  Science fiction writers in particular have expressed this idea from time to time.  Two writers who have explored this theme several times are Daniel Galouye and, of course, Philip K Dick.

In Dick’s case, the theme is obsessive, something that has in fact dominated his life.  There remains debate over whether his pathology was drug-induced (he had a long and deep history with various psychoactive drugs) or whether he had a pre-existing condition which he reacted to by self-medicating.  There are arguments both ways, but they’re academic now.  What is clear is that the theme (that reality is not as we perceive it) is deeply pervasive throughout his work.  Interestingly, this may be what led to him being the hottest commodity in Hollywood amongst traditional science fiction writers*, albeit mostly after his death, as technological improvements better enabled Hollywood to realise his visions.

Galouye is another story.  Largely unheralded, and dying young,  first encountered by me through the novels Counterfeit World and Dark Universe (when in the course of absorbing my high school library’s science fiction collection).  The former (published as Simulacron 3 in the US) exemplifies this sub-genre: how do you ever tell if you’ve escaped from the simulation into reality?

In fact, a common feature in these science fiction treatises is the discovery of a flaw in the simulation: a thread pulled which unravels the simulation.  (the answer: construct a better simulation that plugs the hole.)

I was reminded of all this on a simple bus ride, observing the people outside my vehicular universe and trying to verify whether there was a difference between reality and a simulation thereof.  Technological advances are going to make it increasingly hard to be confident of tha tdifference.  We’re likely to see much more simulation/reality psychosis.  But as Dick might say: is it really psychosis?

*Some films based on his work include  Blade Runner (‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’), Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall (‘We Can Dream It For You Wholesale’), Next (‘The Golden Man’).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dawkins, religion, and some Australian politicians

There was an interesting panel discussion on tv last night: ABC's Q and A (subtitled Adventures In Democracy) - you can view the telecast at their website here.  The panellists were:

- Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, currently visiting Australia;
- Julie Bishop, deputy leader of the (conservative) opposition;
- Steve Fielding, conservative independent MP who holds a critical balance of power position in the Senate;
- Tony Burke, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry;
- Jacqueline Ninio, a (very!) liberal rabbi, not elderly but not young;
- professor Patrick McGorry, mental health expert and Australian of the Year.

Most of the discussions revolved around evolution (/creationism) and religious belief (/atheism).

Those discussions drew their basis in a series of questions from the studio audience (obviously hand-picked to cover a spectrum while having something to say) and live questions from the internet.

The results were surprising in some ways.

Richard Dawkins, very precise and learned, garnered the most frequent and the most sustained applause from the varied studio audience.  He was very cogent in his reasoning and insightful in his points.  Yet he was consistently maladept - almost autistic - in his people skills.  He claimed - quite wrongly - to be respecting other peoples' point of view, or right to hold that point of view.  He claimed a courtesy/respect that he didn't notice he wasn't paying.  Having said that, in other ways he did garner the most respect from the studio audience.

Jacqueline Ninio (rabbi) came across as particularly intelligent and thoughtful.  She went out of her way to respect alternative opinions, yet didn't come across as particulary wishy washy.  She had a religious leader's respect for religion, yet a real thinker's approach to comparative religion and philosophy.

Tony Burke (primary industries minister) was a surprise - to those who have not seen him in action (myself included).  He was a particularly practical, down-to-earth man, while showing a high level of thoughtfulness and intelligence - a bit like a farmer's temperament with a professor's thoughtfulness.  He very sharply pulled up Dawkins for the latter's ill-considered claim to respecting others' view.  Yet at the same time, he wouldn't have strongly disagreed with most of Dawkins' words - apart, maybe, from the strident atheism.

Patrick McGorry (professor of mental health) tried to - and succeeded in - avoiding controversy.  His most memorable contributions were when he was called upon for some thoughts on the mental health aspects of such topics as religion and asylum seekers.

Julie Bishop (deputy opposition leader) displayed intelligence, by and large.  On occasion she could be caught out falling back on her conservative, religious background.  But she was by no means the worst offender, who was...

Steve Fielding (independent - Family First - MP).  Let's face it: the bloke is a clown.  The only reason he is ever paid any attention to anywhere is because of his - accidental - pivotal role in federal politics.  On occasion he claims to have a science degree, but it was really engineering, and he displayed an appalling lack of interest in, or understanding of, science.  To make matters worse, he vascillated on pretty much everything.  He patently found himself an intellectual midget on the panel - and, no doubt, as compared to those in the studio audience. He persistently refused to tie himself down to any belief or understanding at all, and fell back on the "everybody has their right to..." mantra, especially when directly asked for his own views.  He professed to being a creationist, but when pressed as to whether or not he was a young earth creationist (ie the world is less than ten thousand years old), his evasion suggested he hadn't even thought about it.

As a visitor and internationally the most well-known of the panel, Dawkins was obviously the centre of attention for the evening - not because he intentionally monopolised the conversation, but because he was called upon for comment so much - to the point, in fact, that much of the discussion was reaction to his comments.

Yet it was particularly worthwhile to hear the contributions of Burke and Nunio, both of whom consistently instilled levelheadedness to the discussions.

Conversely, Fielding was the comic relief; the only way he could have avoided that would have been to refuse to say anything.

It's worth listening to the whole of the discussion, to gain insight into those people, those topics, and in particular how different people approach those issues differently.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Beach Boys today, and Brian Wilson's genius

A memorable comment from one of Brian Wilson's daughters was something to the effect that he may not have been a crash-hot father, but he was put on earth to create wonderful music.

I had the opportunity to see the Beach Boys on Thursday - a once in a lifetime opportunity, since I hadn't seen them before, and won't again.

I have an awful lot of respect for Brian Wilson as a composer and arranger, and he made much of the Beach Boys' music truly glorious.  But I have to acknowledge the part the rest of the group played in bringing his music to life.  That was what made the concert so worthwhile, despite Brian's absence.

They played at the Sydney Opera House, with backing from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, which certainly sweetened the experience.  They comprised Mike Love as the only original member, Bruce Johnston (a relative youngster, in the band for a tad under 40 years), plus five others.

The hirelings were particularly good at reproducing the vocal parts of Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine - and even Mike Love.  With such a full reputation and catalogue, it's unsurprising they could attract the best; the music was quite professional, and well-arranged.  Mike Love, I have to say, would be hard-pressed today to make it through an audition.  He did contribute... but too often he came across like a grandfather on day release from a retirement home.  His movement was mostly confined to shuffling; his talk was cheesy, and he'd frequently start a song, only to let a younger colleague complete the parts he could no longer reach. Yet Love has to be given credit as the single important link to the past and the true band, and for that he has to be appreciated.

Love even participated in an a cappella rendition of Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring.  This was a nod to their roots, where the original Wilson brothers took their inspiration from the vocal harmonising of the Four Freshmen.  It was lovely to hear it; the original Beach Boys recording languished as an unreleased demo until 1993's five-disc box set Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys.

The concert's catalogue was, of course, drawn mostly from the 1960s, thus omitting some my later favourites.  But it was great to hear a couple of songs I hadn't heard before: The Ballad Of Betsy, and Kiss Me Baby (from the Deuce Coupe album and Help Me Rhonda b-side respectively).  The crowd got most roused for Good Vibrations and, for some reason, California Girls.  But the crowd was, for the most part real oldies.  It was the oldest-aged audience I've ever seen; my wife retured to the opera house the following night for some real opera (Tosca), and had to confess the audience was clearly much younger on the whole.

I can't pass up this opportunity to point to a recording on Youtube of Brian Wilson at his best.  For true aficionados, watch him perform Surf's Up solo in 1966.

The songs I'd have loved to hear, of those omitted, include:

Warmth Of The Sun
Surf's Up
Till I Die
California Saga: California
It's Okay

Songs they performed
Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring
Surfin' Safari
Surfin' USA
The Ballad Of Betsy
Little Deuce Coupe
Will I Grow Up To Be A Man
Be True To Your School

I Get Around
Barbara Anne
Do You Wanna Dance
Fun Fun Fun

Then I Kissed Her
Sloop John BGod Only Knows
Good Vibrations

Heroes And Villains
Disney Girls

California Girls
Don't Worry BabyHelp Me Rhonda
Kiss Me Baby
Wouldn't It Be Nice
Why Do Fools Fall In  Love

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Peter Principle resolved: The Simmonds Solution

1) What is the Peter Principle?

Simply put:

"Everyone rises to their level of incompetence"

or: people get promoted when they are competent, up to the point where they are no longer competent in their job, then they rise no further.

This sounds rather self-evident, but it took until 1969 for it to be formulated, by psychologist Laurence Peter.  There are corollaries: that, over time, every post gets filled by an incompetent, and that the real work is done by those who haven't yet arrived at their level of incompetence.

Of course, it was humorous, but undoubtedly gained so much traction because there seemed to be rather more than a grain of truth in it.  You can read more about it in the Wikipedia article.

2) The surprising outcome of a scientific study
New Scientist  (19-Dec-09) reported studies that came to some unexpected solutions.  Stanford's Edward Lazear's modelling suggested people have a baseline competence which is enhanced by some circumstantial factor to the point they perform a particular task (or project) "unusually well".  Once they're promoted, that circumstance is gone, and they fall back to their baseline (lesser) competence level.
Further modelling by Alessandro Pluchino et al examined whether ability at one level was a predicator of ability at a higher level.  They found it was not so: in fact, promoting the best performers merely removed people from successful position fits.  Promotion ended, and the Peter Principle is demonstrated, "locking incompetence in place".  On the other hand, promoting poor performers at least removes them from unsuccessful work situations.  They thus suggest the best strategy seems to be to:
promote people at random

3) The Simmonds Solution
At the risk of stating the obvious (which, it must be said, Laurence Peter did, to great acclaim), I suggest the solution is to:

Rotate non-stellar performers into higher positions,
then choose the best for permanent advancement

That way, you'd keep good performers in good positions (and could reward them accordingly), while testing the options for moving people into positions that may suit them better.

Admittedly, rotation is also suggested in the New Scientist article.  But I claim provenance with my provisos: that high-performers are excluded from rotation (with appropriate recompense), and that permanent promotion should be the outcome of a successful rotation exercise - without obliging that the position be filled by the best less-than-competent person.

Obvious, isn't it? - once spelt out.  Still, if nobody else has articulated this exact solution, I claim naming rights.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why moderate comments? Or, Attack of the spambots

I reckon I just got hit by a spambot.

A comment on a 2006 post of mine on CeBIT (seeking the future at CeBIT) seemed a bit off-topic. So I did a search of one of the less common phrases.

I found that since December 2009, someone had been posting an identical comment on a number of blogs.  Something about some research into online marketing.  The spammer was obviously not the originator of the words - the original probably resides somewhere in the recesses of Google, buried under this avalanche of spam.  The original was making a point that small business was looking to email for marketing (the phrase I extracted was "banner and search crowd a little wary") - not exactly riveting news.  But it was buried in a somewhat inscrutable turn of phrase which would make it past someone who was too busy to pay attention.

The comment concluded with a link to a website that basically hawks... stuff.  A disparate bunch of stuff, with no commonality save to sell to passing traffic.

It must be a slow way to market.  Using, I found it to be run from Texas, possibly someone purporting to provide search engine optimisation services.

It's a slow way of making a living.  It would make more sense if someone wrote some code to automatically trawl blogs to add comments under a revolving list of names.  Maybe: most of the blogs didn't need someone to register to make a comment.  One comment was made as a registered user, requiring a registration process (which was created only this month) which is less susceptible to automation, making the effort somewhat less explicable.

...Just investigating the phenomenon, I see Wikipedia has a page on it: Spam In Blogs, which it characterises as a form of "spamdexing": using less than ethical methods to increase a page's profile in search engines.  So it doesn't even need people to click through to the site to achieve the objectives; it just needs the comments to hang around to be caught by the search engine(s).

That's one of the reasons I moderate comments on this blog.  This means a comment doesn't show up until I get notified to approve it.  I'd say I reject more comments than I allow, which shows how much off-topic spam gets posted.

Understandably, this results in confusion over whether the comment has taken hold, so some people try reposting a comment.  My apologies; bear with me please.  And don't make the comment too off-topic, or it might not make it.

14-Jan-10 Update:  Spammers don't even read the posts.  Another just tried again!
18-Jan-10 Update: Same again.  The phrase this time:"By the way, did you guys hear that some chinese hacker had busted twitter yesterday again".  The point: if you are suspicious, drag part of the post into google, see if it's been around the blocks.

22-Jan-10 Update: This is getting ridiculous. 2010 will be the year of the spambot!
I just got another comment that seemed totally innocuous:
"I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often."

- but because it was off-topic, I did a google search, and found multiple copies of that comment - complete with typo (or spelling mistake, if it was Chinese-originated).  The only other part of that comment was a web link, which I don't need to reproduce.

Two possibilities:  comment spam is trying to get smarter, or they borrowed a contentless comment from elsewhere.

So if it is the year of the spambot, don't bother publishing comments unless they are clearly on-topic.  Otherwise, you're propagating free advertising at best, or carrying links to nefarious sites at worst.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

2009 blog statistics: What questions did people ask?

Following is an aggregation of search terms that led to my blog, with some insights.  In each case, the search term was some variant on the heading.

1) What does IBM do?  That was by far the most common question.  Askers landed here because of the heading of a post: "Just what does IBM do?", which discussed the corporations transformation from computer mainframe manufacturer to software and services vendor.  Most people asking this question seemed to come from the US, as it happens.
2) Vigrass and Osbourne: the underrated 1970s duo, who are perhaps most famous for the original version of Forever Autumn, used in Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds.
3) Worldwide Gun Statistics: perhaps again popular due to the post's heading.  The queries were typically variants of gun ownership statistics, followed by gun homicide stats, followed by gun control stats.
4) Error converting data type varchar to real: In Microsoft's SQL Server database (more specifically, in Transact-SQL), I had difficulty translating a text data type to a real number data type.  So I researched the answer, and published it.  It's a common enough need that it ought to be reasonably intuitive, but on the basis of those searching for the solution, it wasn't.
5) Cancion MixtecaHarry Dean Stanton sang this mournful old Mexican tune beautifully, on the soundtrack to the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas.  Given the rendition was so moving - and so was the film - you would expect the song to be in the film.  But for some reason it's not - the film carries only a snatch of Ry Cooder's instrumental version.

I suspect a given post's heading was the chief deterimant of a search engine directing traffic here.  So it pays to consider the heading carefully: pithy and direct.

In fact, if you count image searches, the above would be swamped by people's searches for pictures of stars, planets, and moons in perspective, and platypuses, or their eggs.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Ms Gladys Knight, at her best.

Although I don't, in general, see the point in discussing well-known music, I will make an exception with Gladys Knight - for a possibly contentious reason.

Gladys Knight And The Pips were best known for their 1973 hit Midnight Train To Georgia, although their career stretched for decades either side, and they hit with Heard It Through The Grapevine before Marvin Gaye.
Knight and the Pips had minor hits in the early 60s, then subsequently signed with Motown. Although they hit with Grapevine, they were always treated as second stringers, and so left for Buddah Records in 1973.

I have in front of me two of their compilations: one from their Motown catalogue, and one from Buddah. I was listening to their Buddah compilation and thought "that woman can really sing".

So I turned to Motown. But I just didn't get the same feeling. Thus my contention: their move to Buddah somehow brought about a significant boost in the quality of Knight's performance - and even the Pips come off well.

Midnight Train is a pleasant listen. Their followup, I've Got To Use My Imagination, doesn't move me as much - although Knight's gutsy performance must be well appreciated. Then followed You're The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me: schmaltzy, but again a bravura performance. Two singles later, You're The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me again hit a peak.

A variety of styles, and Knight always impresses. She poured in a lot more substance, more emotion than she had in the past.  Even the Pips, who only ever came along for the ride, do pretty well on all these pieces.

The three albums these songs came from were all produced by different people. The material was drawn from a more diverse stable of songwriters than in the past, including country writer Jim Weatherly. Although that gave Knight the opportunity to spread her wings, it seems to remain that she put a good deal more oomph into her work upon first leaving Motown.

Why? Many reasons for outcomes dwell behind the scenes; this answer may remain inscrutible. The usual reasons - production, songwriting - seem absent here. It may be that management or executive production from Buddah was the driving force.

I think it's worth drawing attention to this dichotomy. For the best of Knight, you only need turn to the Buddah recordings.

Footnote: apparently the title (but not the story) for Midnight Train To Georgia derived from Lee Majors commenting to Weatherly about the then-unknown Farrah Fawcett catching a midnight plane to Houston.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Most popular posts in 2009

The most popular of last year's posts on this blog were:

1) a discussion and illustration of the relative sizes of star types and the solar system's planets and moons;
2) an overview of Data Provisioning, Karen Heath's proposal for new generation business intelligence and data warehousing (now moved to my technical blog);
3) Some words on Ellie Greenwich, the 1960s songwriter who died last year (with a discography lacking in Wikipedia);
4) Evolution and the eritherium, an odd elephant relative from the early days of the mammal;
5) An overview of BI Survey 8, the annual analysis of the market and use of Business Intelligence tools;
6) The music of the revered New Zealand new wave band Toy Love, with a comprehensive discography;
7) An insightful comparison of Madonna's and Van Halen's touring contracts, after Madonna's stage collapsed last year;
8) An appreciation of the duo  Georgie Fame and Alan Price, two British musicians of the 1960s who collaborated in the 1970s (again, with discography);
9) A discussion of corporate ethics and the underhanded actions of the Australian corporation James Hardie, who tried to escape their obligations over asbestos poisoning;
10) A discussion of the eventual fate of the Beatles' songwriting catalogue, and royalties.

So it would seem that the most viewed posts were music-related (comprising half the most popular discussions), followed by business intelligence (two pieces), then general science, evolution, and corporate politics.

That may be a bit misleading.  In fact the top post, on planets, moons and stars, positively swamped everything else.  And like some of my posts, the only reason it arose was my personal curiosity: to improve my understanding with a bit of research.

Let's look at overall traffic last year, for all posts since 2006.  The story is a little different:
1) The abovementioned  discussion of moons, planets and stars;
2) The evolution of milk (simply because it included a photo of a platypus egg);
3) IBM's evolution as a software and computer services company, from its earlier incarnation as a mainframe computer manufacturer (the traffic came mostly from people asking the question: 'What does IBM do?');
4) Vigrass and Osbourne: sparkling forgotten pop music from the early 70s, with discography and links;
5) The giant tube worm: an evolutionary oddity;
6) The relationship between handgun ownership and homicide in different coutries (most people were seeking statistics on gun ownership around the world);
7) A discussion of the breakup of Gondwana and the formation of  New Zealand, in the context of the discovery of an extinct egg-laying mammal in New Zealand (the SB mammal, or waddling mouse);
8) A discussion of the evolutionary significance of heterochrony (although it's possible people were just looking for a picture of an axlotl);
9) About Harry Dean Stanton's haunting rendition of Cancion Mixteca (with lyrics and translation);
10) How to solve the issue of translating type varchar to type real in SQL Server.

Friday, January 01, 2010

This blog in 2009: the subjects

The next few posts will let you know what people viewed on this blog in 2009.

I started including a traffic counter in July 2009, so all the statistics here relate to the latter part of the year.

There were around 50 page views per day, of two and a half years' worth of posts.  The main subjects viewed were:
 - Evolution: nearly 50% of page views;
 - Science: about 25%
 - Technology: about 10%
 - Music: about 10%

It's hardly surprising that Evolution tops the list: that's my most frequent subject.  But the overall figures were slightly skewed by two pages that turned out to be particularly popular:
 - An illustration of the relative sizes of the planets, moons, and different star types (in fact, most searches were asking about the relative sizes of different stars);
 - A picture of a platypus egg, in a discussion of the evolution of milk.

Those pages each garnered over 20% of page views, making up about 45% of site traffic.  In particular, much of the search engine traffic was drawn to the platypus egg - because, I guess, mammal eggs are such an oddity.  In today's world, at least.