Monday, November 14, 2011

Jefferson Airplane's glorious Pooneil

Bumped into this video, and couldn't resist posting it.  Not for the faint-hearted, nor for those who have only a passing knowledge of Jefferson Airplane.  If you're looking another "Somebody To Love", you'll be tripping over a whole lot less salubrious music - but if you love guitar and can listen to jammy grunge (and can excuse a little psychedelia), stick around.  A wonderfully ensemble piece, with great work by original guitarist Jorma Kaukonen.

Jefferson Airplane, live in 1970: Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Dan Brown, William Heaney, and embarrassing books

  •  Dan Brown - The Lost Symbol
  •  William Heaney - Memoirs of a Master Forger
  •  Matthew Reilly - The Six Sacred Stones

In reading a Dan Brown book, I would inevitably ask myself two questions: why am I reading this? and why am I embarrassed when people see me with it?

In mitigation, I have to say that I never had intention of buying the book: as planned, I got it out of the local library when it eventually found its way to the shelves and stayed there long enough for me to find it. That's the level of urgency it deserves, at most.

Why would I read it?  Why would I read any book?  A number of factors go into the mix: some combination of reputation, value, availability, ease of reading, level of engagement, and how it competes for attention amidst the pile of books that I'm part-way through.

So: value and a good reputation are clearly not at issue.  A Dan Brown book makes it through the gates to a large extent because of its simple style.  It will have a mystery or puzzle to engage - that will be the extent of reputation.  Yet it's the writing that counts against it: it's clunky.  Although there is a stylistic lucidity, it's so often clumsy to the point of being irritating.  That's the biggest negative.  Moreover, it seems tailor-made for watchers of commercial prime-time tv: chapter breaks are like commercial breaks, inasmuch as there are frequent recapitulations after chapter headings - of the immediately preceding events.

The puzzle is there, and that can pull me in.  But in this case in particular, the puzzle is meandering to the point of disbelief, with a particularly weak denouement.  Brown also tries to create tension, through pursuit, a nefarious antagonist, and multiple parties with competing agendas.  But for me, the temperature remains consistently tepid.

And the content?  Really hokey.  Freemasons and Masonic practices are central to this book.  But he must have had a traumatic time with the Powers That Be last time around (Da Vinci Code), because he approaches the Masons with the degree of utter reverence that one would normally associate with the likes of corporate America trying to keep on the good side of the Christian right.  Yet he's not on safe ground with neutral material: he makes such a hash of philosophy and epistemology, trying but failing to sound meaningful.  Similarly with science; his only hope is to obfusticate for people whose understanding is shallow enough to engender plausibility.

So, points are up for availability, simplicity, and the fact that there's a puzzle at all.  The pluses are rather insipid overall.

But it can get worse.  Matthew Reilly, for example.  He treads a similar path to Brown: mystery/puzzle/"thriller".  But he whacks in more violence, explosions, thoroughly-unbelievable escapes - oh, and the stakes become absolutely, urgently global.  The writing relies on frequent italics and exclamation marks to over-emphasis what he has already spelt out - that a predicament is amazing! Or dangerous!  Reilly clearly wishes he was writing a Hollywood blockbuster.  One that some script doctor could subsequently fix up for him.* 

So why is William Heaney's Memoirs of a Master Forger tossed in with these other two?

Heaney, aka English writer Graham Joyce, is a guilty pleasure.  The writing's better - it's very readable without the irritation; he has something more to say, and he has an engaging warmth that the others lack.  Yet he ultimately has less to say than he promises.  And he's just as guilty of the device and the deus ex machina, albeit in a more forgiveable way.  But then, I found an unexpected sweetener: the content has a contemporaneity for me that is, on the other hand, sometimes uncomfortably close to the bone.  And there I recognise an insidious smugness.  Heaney sometimes feels just like that eponymous middle-aged, middle-class forger, rewriting himself as a better person, justifying his past misdemeanour actions and behaviours as ethically framed.  Which could neatly contextualise the title.

But yes, I enjoyed reading Master Forger and I would recommend it, especially to blokes my age.  And it didn't give me afterburn like junk food.  It still feels like a guilty pleasure, but it's rather less embarrassing.

* I've now been told that Reilly is a hit with teenage boys.  That's a bright spot: it may encourage more reading in those who might not otherwise read much.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Last Orders: more Booker-winning literature

Before I lay my cards out, I should put some context on the following.

I previously discussed the 2003 winner of the Booker Prize for [Commonwealth] literature: Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre, aka Dirty But Clean Pierre, aka Peter Finlay, a self-confessed user of people who was born in Australia, grew up in Mexico, and wrote in London.  His book was a (dirty but clean) wild journey through the experiences of an unlearned yet articulate 15-year-old in smalltown Texas.

This time, I want to mention the 1996 Booker winner: Last Orders, by Graham Swift.  This writer is, by contrast, thoroughly English: born, raised through some years, and writing, in England.

Last Orders is a particularly lyrical book.  And it is offered a strangely moving juxtaposition by Vernon God Little a few short years later.

The most immediate similarity between Last Orders and Vernon God Little, besides their matching awards, is that both works are written as stream of consciousness.  However, they make more a far more meaningful connection: whereas Vernon God Little represents the thoughts and feelings of a teenager: someone on the very cusp of an adult's life experiences; Last Orders gives a glimpse of life for someone at the tail end of their existence: someone - some people - in their seventies who can only look back for the most part.    Although there is a chief protagonist, it is narrated variously by a small set of friends who, whatever they aspire to be, are working class Londoners by birth.  And their backward gaze is a summation.  There is sorrow, certainly, and there are modest achievements.  But it's more about that reflection than a balancing of win versus loss.

That last may be counter-argued by some.  There is a clear tone of regret through the book.

That regret fuels the lyricism underlying this narrative: the dark clouds gathering and the rain; the hopes unfulfilled, the relationships variously strained, broken, and carried on.  The bright spots in their life, that they couldn't know at the time they would carry with them over the years, the decades.  The apparently trivial burdens that they couldn't know would weigh them down over their lifetime.

There's cameraderie and rancour in the same breath.  There's the unspoken warmth of knowing someone for 30, 40, 50 years and finding both treasure and treason in the same mix.  And there's a group of people with a web of relationships that spans so much time and so much experience, for good, for hidden feelings, and for indifference.

The immediate chain of events pertains to the death and memorium of one of the group of comrades, so inevitably the tone is coloured with sadness and regret.  Yet the reflections reveal a lifespan that despite the tribulations carries warmth.  The insights are not laboured; you don't need a finely-trained mind to appreciate that the bad is suffused with the joyous, and the good is temporal and to be appreciated, even if only in retrospect.

(One final note: this was filmed, and featured a pantheon of mature English actors.  I have not seen that film but for those who have: I doubt the works bear direct comparison.  The media are quite different, and so the method of conveying emotion is different.  I hope to see the film, but I don't think it's fair to compare the one with the other.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Vernon God Little: reasons it won the Booker

Poor Theodore Dalrymple!  He clearly feels the weight of the world on his shoulders.  He exhorted all who are concerned with the preservation of civilisation to shrug off the chains of conformity and denounce Vernon God Little.

The preservation of civilisation is at stake??  God help us, that's more the province of backwooders from centuries back who felt the black wilderness pressing in on them, threatening to engulf all who aren't making their final stand.  But with Ted, it's not the dark fang and claw of nature that threatens, it's the hideous beast that is the Booker Prize winner.

More informative was the reviewer who summed up the author thus: "Embrace DBC Pierre's full-bodied, freewheeling technique on the first page or get ready for a thoroughly dislocating ride".

The reviews I've read have been rather polarised; even so, most don't seem to be able to understand why this book was awarded the Booker.

Fortunately, I read the book before reading any reviews, so I wasn't blackmailed by preconceptions.

This narrative being the stream of consciousness of a 15-year-old boy, it is of course utterly replete with the profane and scatalogical thoughts of a very male teenager.

But it's also jam-packed with smells, sounds, flashes of colour and light - especially the smells.  In one sense, it's as if the author was told at a writing course to infuse his work with more of the sensuous, then took it too far.  Yet a simple litany of sense bombardment would come across as rote writing, and this work clearly doesn't - in totality, the words evoke well the atmosphere of the fat, hot, dusty, small Texan town in which it is set.

The moments of tenderness are infrequent but noticeable; they give a keel's balance to what is usually a wild rollercoaster of highs and lows that swing higher and lower all the time.  Even in the prosaic courtroom scene, the reader is battered by peaks and troughs, wave after wave.

I have a couple of quibbles, and they're structural but - paradoxically - minor.  First, the language often tends to soar above that of an ill-educated 15-year-old Texan.  Second, the resolution is somewhat unreal, to the extent that it could arguably be construed as fantasy, and that's a bit jarring.  Yet in another sense, it is entirely in keeping with the "dislocating ride" that spins around the protagonist - and the reader - ever faster.  How could it not be so, right up to the end.

Some call it satire, Ted.  It certainly has that, but I call it funny.  There will be plenty who can't stay aboard.  Those who can are well rewarded by a work that ultimately provides enjoyment and satisfaction, human condition and insight.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

John Buchan's guide to being a monarchist

1.  First, get yourself a copy of John Buchan's The House Of The Four Winds (1935, Hodder & Stoughton). First edition preferably, and a little ragged, to prove that it's a well-used, well-regarded tome.

2.  Don't discuss political theory, philosophy, or ideology. It just muddies the waters.

3.  Your enemy is the republican.  He's a venal, ugly ratbag - and his manners are appalling.  But he will be no danger: he will inevitably die of the violence that he himself instigates.

4.  Republicans are "shadows of the dark which vanish when the light comes", "hating what they did not understand".

5.  Communists are, of course, beyond the pale.  Risible at best, they are not even worthy to be considered as foes.

6.  Commandeer a catchy refrain for the monarchists to pass secret signals to each other.  Dvorak's Humoresque, say.  It helps if your daughter's been learning this piece on violin, so you'd better get her started pronto*.

7.  In a monarchy, "everyone will share in its government... all will be sovereigns, because all will be subjects".  ...Oops, that abrogates #2, better drop that.  Pretend it's a mere trifle you picked up at Cambridge.

8.  There's no dishonour in recruiting the services of foreigners for a bit of legerdemain at strategic junctures.  Particularly if they're of good breeding.  Or Scottish.

9.  To further cement your legitimacy, join forces with (ie subvert) a populist organisation that actually has a wide power base.  Something along the lines of a Hitler - oops I mean German - Youth Movement.

10. Finally, and most resoundingly: monarchs are, of course, handed their office by the simple mechanism of universal acclaim.

*viz Book 3 of the Suzuki Method.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Soaring voices: Eric Whitacre's virtual choir

If you felt you needed an antidote to any of the previous videos, Eric Whitacre is here to help.

This is yet another presentation from TED, an organisation responsible for a large number of inspiring talks on a magnificently diverse set of topics.

Whitacre is a composer who effectively fell into this impressive project: to assemble a massive virtual choir from  audition videos submitted to YouTube.  Generalising from the videos seen, a large number of mainly 15 to 25-year-olds from all over the world watched him conduct, listened to the music on their iPods, and sang to their webcam from the privacy of their bedrooms.

The competition was quite strong, aided no doubt by an offer of singing scholarships to the top performers.

The most resonant part of his talk for me was his description of hearing a choir singing Kyrie for the first time, after years of listening to pop music and aspiring to pop stardom.  He compared it to seeing in colour for the first time after a lifetime of living in black and white.

The two virtual choir projects underpin some seriously good choral composition, and Whitacre is definitely due credit for that, and for directing such a successful result.

I had a look for one of the winning soloists he mentioned, Melody Myers.  I found her on YouTube giving a rendition of White Christmas that clearly demonstrates she is a particularly accomplished singer.  Enjoy this, and seek out that.

Discovered 70s gems 5: Aretha Franklin - Call Me

Oh well, here's Aretha Franklin.  I sneaked her in only because I found it was released as a single in 1970.  Again, I never heard it until decades later.

I could argue that this is her best, but any way you look at it the performance itself is unarguably stellar, liquid gold.

Postscript: Calling Aretha the Queen of Soul can be a bit fraught: some of her performances are good, but they are not all outstanding.  But if you listen to the right ones, carefully enough, it is clear she is Queen.  Another recommendation is 1973's Angel.  Not as big as the follow-up (Until You Come Back To Me), I still heard it plenty at the time, but paid little attention.  But Angel is, however, yet another example of how Aretha can outshine them all.

Discovered 70s gems 4: 10CC, The Worst Band in the World

(Number four in an ongoing series on music I've discovered recently, but never heard when it was first released.)

I have been drastically remiss in my logging.  I missed Aretha and Michael Nesmith, but why not go to the worst band in the world: 10CC!

I remember it on the radio station's playlist at the time, but they never seemed to actually play it.  It was funny, and the fade was very radio-friendly - but was it just too cutting?

It's Godley and Creme, of course (well it wouldn't be Gouldman or Stewart, would it?).

Just the music track, no useful video.  You may need to listen a couple of time to catch all the humour.

Bad Company in a Wishing Well

I really can't say I have a lot of time for Free.  But they were the darlings of the (British) press for a time, so there you go.

I have little time for Bad Company either.  I remember more than I care to, including some  NZ band doing a cover of theirs: Feel Like Makin' Scones.

But I love the Free song Wishing Well, and when singer Paul Rogers does it in Bad Company, well it all comes back.  And you don't even have to like either band.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

John Buchan and the publishing game

Having bought a few old books lately from various sources, I can say that the best place for a good browse and treasure hunt is the yearly university book sales, UNSW in May, and University of Sydney in September.  While some vetting happens, it's not high level, and you can easily expand your library if not seeking something quite specific.

One of books I found at UNSW was a good-looking but undated Martin Chuzzlewit.  But more interesting was an early edition of a lesser-known John Buchan book, The Island Of Sheep.  Haven't got far through it yet, but it's looking to be a good, if measured, read.

In preparation, I re-read the novel he is recognised for, The Thirty-nine Steps.  (Alfred Hitchcock made a famous film of it, which bore a passing resemblance to the book.)

The edition I had was a cheap paperback, with noticeable typos.  Some revealing examples are 'unde' for uncle and 'tbe' for the.  Those are not typical errors of the human finger: it's clear the publisher obtained an out-of-copyright edition, scanned all the pages, then obtained the raw text via Optical Character Recognition.  The sensible thing to do - probably what most publishers do to avail themselves of copyright-free material.

Later, when I was wandering through Kinokuniya, the bookshop at the bottom of the building in which I work, I saw they had about six editions of Thirty-nine Steps (and all his other Hannay-protagonist books bar Island Of Sheep, which shows how obscure it is).  Why so many different editions?  My guess is that they buy job lots of books from various publishers, and find they end up with multiple editions of the same one.

Incidentally, one of those editions looked like a very crisp reproduction of the original, complete with irregularities of type.  Cute, and not a burden to read.  But none of them featured the egregious errors found in my copy.  Those publishers must have put more effort into proofing the OCR work.  Moral: beware the cheap editions and avoid them.  I think it's worth naming and shaming them: the imprint was Wordsworth Classics.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Discovered 70s gems 3: The Chi-Lites - A letter to myself

This sporadic series features pop songs that I never heard at the time, but I recently dug up and found to be absolute gems. It pays to do your research.

1. Dusk - Treat me like a good piece of candy (1971, US)
2. Tommy James - Draggin' the line (1971, US)

3. Chi-Lites - A letter to myself (1973, US)

The Chi-Lites - the name reflects their Chicago origins - were most prominent from 1969 to 1975, best known for songs like Oh girl and Have you seen her, but their success was mainly confined to the U.S.  Although songs like Have you seen her and Stoned out of my mind (and the song discussed here) were quite listenable, most of the way I'm not convinced they were more than just an average pop-soul vocal group.

Paul Weller might think otherwise. The last single by the Jam, Beat Surrender, had a somewhat surprising b-side: a very careful, faithful copy of the Chi-Lites' 1974 song Stoned out of my mind. That they - well, Weller - would do this gave some hint as to the direction headed with Weller's next band, Style Council.

A pleasant enough song that, but A letter to myself hits the heights for me in a very lush vocal arrangement that I think was seldom matched for its time.  Clearly more pop than soul/r'n'b, the extended spoken-word intro* is definitively hokey - about par for the course for pop gems of the 1970s - but ultimately not very helpful to the song as an integral piece of polished pop music.

*Haven't been able to establish whether Letter's lengthy intro was on the original single - I'm guessing perhaps not, since it extended the song well beyond a radio-friendly length.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Libraries 2: Strahov library, Prague

Strahov Monastery in Prague, Czech Republic, was founded in 1149.  It has two libraries, the Philosophical Hall and the Theological Hall.

The Philosophical Hall seems to have a lot in common with showpiece libraries around the world: ornate balconies, vintage books and a painted ceiling.  But distinguishing this library is the existence of a full panorama photo in all dimensions that has been created of it.  Stitched together from thousands of high resolution photos, it claims to be the current "largest indoor photo in the world".

You can view and navigate it in full here.  It is wonderful to be able to pan all through this vista, and zoom to closeups of the books (yes, you can read the titles of quite a few of them).  In fact, most of the shelves seem to hold two rows of books, one in front of another, so there's possibly twice as many books here as it seems.  How to build up a large number of impressive-looking books: either get them custom bound, as Vanderbilt often did, or acquire numerous sets of books.

Some of the titles I saw here include a set of the complete works of Goethe, and a number of sets of history books on various countries, such as "Theiner Monumenta Historica" sets for Poland, Russia, Hungary, etc.   There's more than immediately meets the eye, too.  If you look closely, you'll see that books are frequently shelved

Libraries are built up, expanded over time.  Yet like this one, many libraries become mausoleums of artifacts, rather than breathing, functional communicators of knowledge and wisdom.  Inevitable in a sense, because paradoxically books become both more valuable over time, and for the most part less useful.  This library has, in fact, been transformed into a museum.  It would be comforting to think the Strahov libraries could still be used for academic research, but it rather looks like such a use would be discouraged.

Coming up: another display library, but of a very different type.  What would you collect if you had more money than you knew what to do with?

Saturday, April 09, 2011

In defence of Kevin Rudd on climate change

Listening to ex-PM Kevin Rudd on ABC's Q And A recently, some meaningful insights emerged, on the political process and the sometimes opaque approach governments have to communication.

Yet the subsequent media storm seemed to focus on the more trivial, obvious revelations.

Rudd was talking over the events that lead to his downfall.

His period as Prime Minister, 2007 to 2010, came after 11 years of conservative rule. As PM, he characterised climate change as the greatest moral challenge of our day - yet he apparently fluffed it, and shelved the planned emission trading scheme.

This led in no small part to his drop in popularity, and thence to his being deposed as Prime Minister.

Inter alia, Rudd said:

"we'd already put the emissions trading scheme to the senate twice... the Coalition voted it down twice... Following the next election there was no way the Coalition was going to maintain dominance in the senate, as it's proven. The Greens now control the senate as of 1 July this year. So a basis for delaying the implementation two years was mindful of the fact the senate would change."

He also mentioned some cabinet division on the way forward, but the implication was clear: they simply needed to wait for a change in Senate. [In Australia, senate terms are twice that of the lower house, so only half need to face the voters each electorate. A change in government thus means the first term is often not long enough to get through reformist legislation, particularly after a lengthy reign of a previous government.]

Rudd said that his mistake was not ploughing through. However, there came a cogent response from a member of the audience:
"You've certainly admitted your first mistake on the ETS. Surely now your second mistake is actually not articulating what you've just said to this audience to the Australian people about a year ago. At least we would have had a better handle on what was driving your decision to back flip on an issue that you'd fundamentally been given a mandate to push through. I mean here we are now 12 months later and you're umming and ahing but at least you've engaged us on a fraction of probably what the story is. Isn't your second mistake that you actually didn't tell us - and you didn't give the Australian people the respect to actually articulate the story 12 months ago?"

Rudd: "I think the response to that question is that, guess what, political leaders are not perfect."

Of course, the subsequent media furore focused on the internal cabinet divisions, and the part played by the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

It remains that the current government intends to move forwards on climate change, and should be able to do so, with the impending senate makeup. Instead of an emissions trading scheme, they're now working on a carbon tax. Yet the government's popularity is quite low; again, the media is focusing on the wrong end of the stick: giving vent to those to whom the word 'tax' is ideological anathema. Still, it's the government's fault for not emphasising that households would be sufficiently compensated, and there will be no nett revenue increase.

Full transcript of Q And A available here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The consummate private library: The Biltmore

Our library is rather modest. It has grown organically, and so is rather a jumble to look at. There's about 800+ books (and about 600+ CDs), not all of which can fit. Some day we'll have to have to get it done properly, with built-in cases.

On the other end of the scale, there's the Biltmore.  

It's the private library we can but aspire to.  Two floors of books in a sumptuous setting of rich carved wood and iron lacework.  An extra large fireplace and a Pellegrini painting set in the ceiling to rival those of the great European libraries.  What more could you want?

To put it in context, it's a Vandebilt holding.  It's in the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, part of the largest privately-owned house in the US.

The house was modelled in the style of the French chateau, was built over a hundred years ago by a Vandebilt who sunk most of his time and money into the estate - then promptly died.

The books are genuine antiques and rarities, the collection having been built up from the time the house was built.  There are about 10,000 in the room of a total of about 27,000, most of which are in storage.  With the caveat that the original owner was an avid reader and book collector, I doubt that these books ever saw much real use; they certainly aren't handled any more, except to catalogue them, a process that only began properly within the last ten years.  If you're wondering: history books predominate, alongside architecture, art, poems and plays and various other fields.  Many were deliberately acquired in an original unbound state, which would explain some of the uniformity of the volumes.

There is a number of secret panels around the room; the balcony level includes doors that lead to the second-floor bedrooms.

The estate - what is left of it - is still owned by the Vandebilt family, and open to the public - there's even a conference there, on Data Governance, later this month.  I wish.

There's very little documentation on the library specifically; but some more detail can be found here (with a few more photos including the full glory of the ceiling) as well as in an interview with the special collections manager hereMore photos demonstrating the full scope of the library can be seen here; more of the house can be seen here.

In lieu of visiting there in the near future, here's hoping someone can stitch up the photos into a good VR panorama...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Brain Pruning: the answer to autism?

"In adults [the human brain] has perhaps 100 billion neurons, each connected to its neighbours by 5000 synapses or so." New Scientist, 1 October 2008

"In the f[o]etal brain, all parts of the brain are interconnected, but as we age, the connections are pruned.  If the pruning genes get it wrong, the connections are off." - according to Vilayanur S Ramachandran, in New Scientist, 8 January 2011 (The fastest brain in the west, p26)

There is no disputing that the human brain undergoes a pruning process whereby the synapses, the connections between neurons, are culled while the brain is developing.

This is a normal part of the development process: meaningful connections are retained, and [at least some] unused ones are discarded.  This is a rationalisation that begins before the baby is born and continues for years afterwards.

And it's those synapses that enable brain functionality, particularly connections between different areas, which facilitate all manner of associative thought and reasoning.

The second quote above was made in the context of neuroscientist Ramachandran's study of synaesthesia, the leaking of one sense into another (the most common example being seeing letters or numbers as specific colours).

Occam's razor says to me that it need not take Ramachandran's concept of "pruning genes" for the pruning process to go awry. Development both before and after birth are affected by quite a range of factors.

Yet it struck me that disruption to that process may account for high-functioning autistics [so called "savants"] in particular.  The ability of Daniel Tammet, for example, to recall thousands of digits by visualising the string as a rolling landscape - that sounds like abnormal connections remaining in place between disparate parts of the brain.

Incorrect pruning may account for autism in a wider sense - not just those that are high functioning - but it seems easier to look to that process when describing aberrantly strong functionality than a weakening of capability, which can be due to a much wider variety of factors.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Evolution and monotremes, spam and off-topic Google searches

This post will discuss monotremes in evolution, but first a diversion to the reason for this topic.

I got a comment submitted from "Izumu":

"Hi Stephen,
I am Izumi from TBS TV, a Japanese TV company. We are intersted in the platypus egg photo you posted on your blog of 19 Mar 2008. I couldn't find your email address and that's why I'm making comment trying to be in touch with you. Could you kindly write me back to ? Please don't post my comment since it includes my email address. Thank you very much for your coopereation. Izumi "

I post a reproduction of this comment sans email address, although I was inclined to include it anyway.

I get quite a number of spam comments posted, which is why comments are moderated.  I'm not inclined to reply to this request directly, because:
a) It was off topic;
b) The email address wasn't from an official TBS domain - Nifty is just a Japanese ISP.

Usually I just mark spam as spam.  I don't usually get a comment that's so close to falling either way.

There's a few pictures of platypus eggs on the web.  As it happens, mine is now at the top of Google Images.  It was a bit of a tragedy in some ways, because the actual topic of the post was the evolution of milk, but it gets caught in the wrong net.  If you want to communicate about platypus eggs, talk to someone who's communicating about platypus eggs.

The reason they appear to us to be strange is just a quirk of evolution: they are the last representatives of the earliest types of mammal.  The only egg-laying mammals (protherians) left are the monotremes, two species of echidna (porcupine-like creatures) and one of platypus, all native to Australia/Papua New Guinea.  Yet the first mammals were egg-layers.  Marsupials (metatherians: live but under-developed birth) and then placentals (eutherians: live birth) were a much more recent development, as the technology of birth evolved over tens of millions of years.

The oddness of the platypus may initially be due to their appearance, including webbed feet and a duck-like bill.  The fact that  they're mammals that lay eggs draws people in more.  But they are distinctive for two more reasons: they have poisonous spurs on their ankles (which seem to be for breeding purposes!), and they hunt through muddy water by sensing electrical fields.

The platypus, in evolutionary terms, is not so odd.  Pretty much all these features have evolved separately in other animals.  That's evolution: the time spans involved are so vast that if mutation can produce a lasting feature once, it can do it again.

No, the true oddness of the platypus lies in its survival to a time where most of its features are seen as uncommon.  There's a warning there: the survival of features that do not catch on (radiate) more broadly - in numbers or variety - is more indicative of desparately clinging to a vanishing niche than of evolutionary success.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Best of 2010: Film, concert, album

My best-of for last year is based on when I absorbed it, rather than when it was released.  Films:

1.  Inception (US, 2010)
Complex enough to keep me engaged - twice.

2.  Up In The Air (US, 2009)
It's George Clooney, and it's funny.  That's more than enough to help the journey through some of the bitter undertones.

3. Avatar (US, 2009)

4. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Sweden, 2009)
Harrowing in places, but a very intricate plot.

5. Red (US, 2010)
Exemplary of what Hollywood's capable in an action thriller.  Very enjoyable for what it is.

These films struck me with enough impact last year, ahead of the rest of the pack.  Hovering below are films like Shutter Island and The Girl Who Played With Fire.

Best re-watch of the year
Beat The Devil (US, 1953) - yet again.  You have to know how to watch it to appreciate it.  It's really just a string of vignettes, written on the fly by Truman Capote, and carelessly tacked together by John Huston.  It's apparent that their enthusiasm waned, and the later scenes are somewhat shabby.  But the early scenes should be taken for what they are separately; and they are often masterful; often very funny.  Coincidentally, it's on ABC this Sunday night for those in Australia who want to record it.  It's public domain now.

Best concert of the year
Dave Graney and the Lurid Mist at Coogee Randwick RSL.  My hero, the King of cool.

Best CD of the year
Admittedly I've had my head in the ground, so there's been little for me to choose from.  But I do respect Corinne Bailey Rae's The Sea.

Book of the year
My reading has been mainly The Herald, New Scientist, and Wikipedia.  Even though I've not finished it, I will nominate Carl Djerassi's 1989 novel Cantor's Dilemma (thanks, Ray).  A fascinating overview of the politics of scientific and university research, and creditably written by a senior academic chemist.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

WikiLeaks: The news item of 2010

The leaking of sensitive information isn't new.  But the actions of a certain US soldier in leaking truckloads of diplomatic cables is a clear game changer.

Those cables run the gamut of international relations, laying bare a huge number of sensitivities of a large number of nations.  Yet there's irony that has largely been overlooked: next to none of the revelations are a surprise at all.  They're pretty much what we expected to be happening behind the scenes: what governments really think of each other and of key world issues.  (One might be seen as an almost-surprise: China being all but ready to ditch support of North Korea.  But doesn't that make eminent realpolitik sense?)

Having a ready outlet for leaks means never having to scrounge around for a publisher.  Anything is up for grabs, open to leakage.

This could lead to significant upheaval.  At the very least, it renders gentle diplomacy potentially useless as a tool of international politics.  The absence of that option is sure to lead to more direct conflict, if the only conversations to be had are necessarily open ones.  More direct, honest communication, true, but more blunt and abrasive, too.

On the flipside, there is plenty of scope for abuse of this concept.  Strategic release of disinformation may become the tool of choice for intelligence agencies.  This can be an equally destabilising force in international relations.

It's not clear that all this will come to pass. But certainly that single massive leak action is having a global effect, and fallout both overt and covert is inevitable.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Top Posts 2010 for this blog

The posts in this blog that got the most hits for last year are as follows:

1.  Evolution: A picture of a platypus egg, in the context of the evolution of milk.  Yet the narrative of egg-laying mammals is more interesting than a mere picture.

2. Science: Some pictures taken from Wikipedia that gave some size perspectives on the planets, their moons, and the various star types.

3. Music: Cancion Mixteca: a haunting Mexican song, and actor Harry Dean Stanton's version.

4. Technology: What does IBM do? - What, you don't know?  Answer: not just hardware, these days.

5. Music: Vigrass and Osborne: forgotten 70s pop music - remembered only by those who sought out this link.

6.  Technology: Type conversion in SQL Server: varchar to real

7.  Tintin: Project O-Light: the intriguing Tintin adventure that never was - or not yet.

8.  Evolution: Tunicates: a giant tube worm, and its relationship to us.

9.  Evolution: Gondwana and New Zealand: NZ's separation from the southern land mass Gondwana - it's not how most people think.  And was there really a terrestrial native New Zealand mammal?

10.  Worldwide gun statistics.  In fact, it was more about the relationship between gun ownership and homicides.  As you'd expect, the more immediate the weapon, the more likely the homicide.

This is actually little different from 2009's greatest hits.  Observations: a) I didn't post much last year; b) Google's page rankings over time entrench winners.

Top post of 2010: mention of a Beach Boys concert.  However, I'd prefer you to look at the one on Sculptures By The Sea 2010, the stupidity of an art prize award to a plagiarism, and Homo Floresiensis as, potentially, australopithecus.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

2010 Obituaries: Solomon Burke, Joan Sutherland, and others

Notable departures in 2010:

Solomon Burke, 1960s US R'n'B singer: Notable for songs like Everybody Needs Somebody To Love and Shake Your Tailfeather.  Surprisingly, he held a record for the most US Top 40 singles without hitting the top 20 (see Joel Whitburn).  And he had a career revival a few years ago, with his star-studded Don't Give Up On Us album.  But his best legacy is his live shows.  In Sydney a few years ago, he didn't move from a centre-stage throne.  But he gave us a truly wonderful secular gospel experience, one of the best concerts I've ever been to - an inspiring demonstration of the spiritual unencumbered by religion.  He will not be forgotten for that.

Joan Sutherland,  Australian opera singer: some say one of the best of the 20th century.  I can't say I've taken enough time to appreciate her, but what little I've heard gives me some indication why she was so warmly regarded.

Richard Holbrooke: Abrasive US diplomat who was, nonetheless, widely praised for his intelligence and abilities.  A notable example of his success was peace in the Balkans.

Tony Curtis, US actor. A significant presence in the 1950s.  Of the films he appeared in, easily my favourite is the biting film noir Sweet Smell Of Success.  Seek it out.

Leslie Neilsen, Canadian-born Hollywood actor: has a successful later career in comedy films such as Naked Gun.  Others put the words into his mouth, but his straight delivery was his own: simply marvellous.

Teddy Pendergrass, 1970s US R'n'B singer: must get a mention for his so-soulful lead vocals on all the hits by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, including  If You Don't Know Me By Now, The Love I Lost, and Wake Up Everybody.

Peter Graves: An icon of the 1960s tv series Mission Impossible.  It wouldn't be the same without his Jim Phelps.

Others that could round out a 10 include J D Salinger, Lena Horne, and Dennis Hopper.

One apparent demise in 2010 that will not be missed: people now seem to be saying twenty-ten, twenty-oh-nine, etc, instead of two-thousand-and-ten, two-thousand-and-nine.  Once again, I'm no longer out of step with the mainstream. :)