Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Alex Snellgrove again

Two posts back I mentioned Alex Snellgrove's current exhibition in Clovelly, Sydney.

Here's one of the paintings from the exhibition: Persian Girl.  I'm so impressed by her ability to depict the water.  She says the secret is in looking at the layering.  Which doesn't make it much easier for me to fathom how she actually achieves it.

 As with several others there, it's the tidal pool at Coogee beach.

Details again: the exhibition runs to Sunday 9 December, at Gallery East, 21 Burnie St, Clovelly (no website), Thu-Sun 11-6pm.  Alex's web site is

Monday, November 26, 2012

Taman Shud mystery code - it's obvious

The weekend Herald ran a recapitulation of the Taman Shud mystery, where an unidentified, well-dressed man was found dead at an Adelaide beach in 1948.

I had come across this before, mainly in the context of cryptography: he had a code that could not be deciphered.  But it wasn't until the Herald article that I actually saw a photo of the code - and it instantly made sense to me.

What else could it be but an initial-letter code?  That is, he's using these notes as a memory jog, for something like a to-do list or a set of options.  Initial letters instead of the full sentence could be because:
  • he wanted to keep it private;
  • he wanted to be brief;  or
  • he didn't have much space
However, I'd clearly go for the former.

It matters not.  But since it's a string of personal reminders, they're unlikely to ever be successfully interpreted.  Some guesses have been made, including a draft suicide note.

The man's clothes were traced back to the US.  The disparity between them and his semi-literate handwriting have been noted.  An exhumation has been advocated, which may provide further DNA clues.

But the code's clear.  I look on it as an application of Occam's razor: don't multiply factors unnecessarily.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Loud music, and the Buzzcocks

Bazza (see previous post) asked me what I was listening to, and I had to confess it wasn't anything recent.  Mostly I listen while travelling, and depending on mood and distractions, it will usually be podcasts, Ravel piano music, or something loud.

If I stack up the current batch of loud music chronologically, there's:

Jefferson Airplane - Ballad of you and me and Pooneil (live 1970)
Status Quo - Roll over lay down (live 1975)
Warsaw [Joy Division] - No love lost
Warsaw - Warsaw
New Order - Ceremony
Wipers - When it's over
Pretenders - Tattooed love boys (live)
Saints - Ghost ships (Chris Bailey's)
Fall - Realm of Dusk
Fall - Gross Chapel (both from Bend Sinister/Domesday Triad)
EMF - I believe (foetus remix)
Sonic Youth - Theresa's sound world
Sonic Youth - Wish fulfilment (both from Dirty)
You Am I - Berlin chair
Massive Attack - Unfinished sympathy
Dandy Warhols - Get off
Buzzcocks - Useless situation

So there's representation from each decade, but the newest one is only 2003 - and it's an old punk band!  Having said that, I was surprised to bump into this, off a 2003 eponymous album (track listed as 'Useless'). Although I never much cared for the Buzzcocks, this is what they should have been doing - verve, with a punk attitude.  From a bunch of blokes pushing 50!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bazza in Australia, art, Alex Snellgrove and Clarice Beckett

Today I met up with Bazza in the flesh, for the first time.

His blog, To Discover Ice, is always interesting and reveals a lively passion for a great variety of interests.

We had a very stimulating and wide-ranging conversation, which reflects at least some of what moves each of us to diarise.

He has a particular interest in art - has in fact studied art history, which he really loved.
I rued the fact that I hadn't encapsulated significant parts of my life in photos, but at least I could show him a recent painting by my 11-year-old daughter:

We both had to get away to meet obligations for our wives.  My wife was, in fact, going out to dinner with local Coogee artist Alex Snellgrove, who has been tutoring my daughter.  We have a painting of hers, which I hadn't been able to show Bazza:

Her luminescent style reminds me of Clarice Beckett, an under-appreciated Melbourne artist from last century.  Here's an example:

More of Alex Snellgrove can be seen here; some more from Clarice Beckett can be found here.  Enjoy, Bazza.

19-Nov-2012 Update: Alex Snellgrove's web site is  She has an exhibition coming up from 29 November to 9 December, at Gallery East, 21 Burnie St, Clovelly (no website), Thu-Sun 11-6pm.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

What makes Australia different from the US

I saw a number of internet memes around the recent US election.  Most were average, a fair few scatological, and a handful were really funny (viz for example Tony Abbott, and Big Bird).

 Having seen the number of Americans who swore they would move to Australia if Obama won, it was gratifying to see such a succinct response:

Further, a clear and consistent majority of Australians preferred Obama to win - as did most of the rest of the world (bar Pakistan).  Doesn't leave much of an option for those wanting to move.

It's important to have heroes - and vision.  And the world is a slightly better place.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

History of English Podcast: a real treat

Here we have a real gem.  Something that ticks a lot of boxes for me.

The History of English Podcast is a history of the English language, but it's so much more than its prosaic name suggests.

Yes, it's history and linguistics, but it actually crosses several disciplines, including archeology, evolution and genetics.

It has a wealth of information and insights in a number of areas.  For me, it fills in a lot of gaps in my knowledge, and by this I mean it better systematises my understanding of several key fields of study, including the English language, alphabets and writing, comparative linguistics and the history of ancient and classical civilisations.

It's also clear and lucid - to the point of being slightly repetitive (which is not necessarily a bad thing for a podcast - you're not always paying full attention, are you?)

In common with several of my preferred podcasts, it's presented by a gifted enthusiast rather than a professional.  Kevin Stroud is a lawyer by trade - hence his interest - who would seem to come from one of the Carolinas. He has a regional US accent which is reasonably easy to listen to - except when it comes to words like wheel ('will') and field ('filled').

He's been at it since about July 2012, at the rate of about one episode every two weeks.  He'd already put out about 11 episodes when I came across it, and it was quick, easy and pleasurable to catch up.  I don't know how long he can keep it up - he's already finished the Greeks, and will do the Romans later this month.  But I'd be perfectly happy to listen if he wants to string it out.

The History of English Podcast is my vote for podcast of the year.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sculpture by the sea 2012

From Bondi to Tamarama beach, up to 4 November, Sculpture By The Sea is apparently the biggest sculpture exhibition in the world.

Here's a selection: my three favourites.  Some more of my photos are available on this web album.  My kids both took lots of photos; I still haven't gone through them yet, but they should be good.

Come back (Nakayama)

 My favourite: a granite portal, facing out to sea from a granite chair. It has strength.

Kalaidoscope cube (Ritchie)

I tried to capture this one reflecting its environment. Again, a very well positioned work.

Capital tension (Rhodes)

 I did like this for the tension between the bull and the bear.


 Another one - in my above web album - looked odd, but the meaning was not very obvious until I read up on it: a marking of the height of that tsunami in Japan. Very salient for the site. Have a look. Exhibition ends this Sunday.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Word of the day: Bogomil

Bogomil was a 10th Century Bulgarian priest. And a heretic - in a time when being heretical was often a better route to fame than being really orthodox.

Their heterodoxy was belief in creation by an evil anti-god - ie the devil.  But I suspect a larger problem of heresy may have been their rejection of the church hierarchy, which could have been more anathematic than religious heterodoxy.  This seems to have emerged at a time of increasing stratification of their society, which encompassed enserfdom and alienation of church ritual.

They were gnostic, which encompassed both the anti-god and anti-establishment hazards - and were counted as spiritual ancestors of the French Cathars, against whom the pope decreed a crusade - which contributed to the wiping out of gnosticism in Europe.

The church also propagated some nasty rumours against the Bogomils, including that they were sodomites.  In France, Bogomils were seen as equivalent to Bulgarians, known as "Bougres".  From this comes the English word bugger.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sinus Solution

I've had chronic sinus problems all my life.  Now I've found a solution, at least partial.

Sometimes I've had particular problems breathing through my nose in bed at night.  I've noticed it's been more likely to be a problem in winter.  Summer has been much less of a problem, although the pattern has been quite obscured by other factors, such as colds - which for me come on more in autumn than winter - and allergies.

Recently this winter, I started wearing a woolly hat to bed at night.  And it's worked a treat.  I've been able to breathe through my nose most of the time at night, and my sleep has been less disrupted.  This effect is definitely unrelated to viral colds, where congestion changes over the course of days, not hours.

It's easy to say that's obvious: much of our body heat is lost through the head, and since my hair is quite short I'd clearly suffer more than average in that respect.

Yet the link between losing heat and sinus congestion is not clear.  I have discussed sinus trouble with a number of doctors, and one or two specialists - none of them has mentioned the idea that local temperature in the head can affect congestion.  I've not heard of the connection in literature either.  Doubtless it's been broached in the past, but anecdotally it doesn't seem to be ready knowledge in the medical fraternity.

The nose fulfils a number of biological functions - smell is only one of them.  In an evolutionary sense, there is variability simply because of its function as a temperature regulator: living further away from the equator favours longer noses, to help warm the incoming air; such function is not needed by humans closer to the equator, and noses tend to be broader and flatter.  That it acts as a general heat preserver does not necessarily say much about the heat exchange at a local level.  Maybe for me there's a more marked local heat exchange effect than for many other people.

This is conjecture.  All I can say with certainty - so far - is that I'm experiencing incontrovertable improvement in nighttime breathing through the nose by wearing a woolly hat to bed at night.  The effect is somewhat less pronounced during the day - perhaps because I travel in and out of airconditioned environments frequently enough to make the effects less obvious.

 So far, internet searches have turned up just a single reference to this issue - on a forum about hats.  There were several anecdotes about wearing a hat easing sinus congestion.  Just one of those comments mentioned medical advice to do so - by a surgeon, after a sinus operation.  So the truth is out there, but not well known.

I'm keen to hear of other experiences.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Word of the day: Microbiome

This is clearly a portmanteau word: microbe + genome. Microbe refers to microscopic organisms - in this case, bacteria; genome refers to the sum total of genetic material in an organism.

There's a community of bacteria living within humans that performs functions essential for human life. Scientific American (Mar-2012) says there's at least 10 times as many bacteria cells as human cells in the human body (but those bacteria are a whole lot smaller, with much, much simpler genome).

So microbiome is the genetic material of the [useful] bacteria in the human body. In such a situation, it differs from human to human, so things like this are usually measured on a sampling basis.

According to that Scientific American article (Backseat Drivers, p11), the sum total of all genetic material housed in a human body is then called the hologenome.

Small bone to pick here. The human genome is generally thought of as referring to the genetic material (23 chromosomes of DNA) housed in the nucleus of each cell. But there's extra DNA not in the nucleus: mitochondrial DNA, used to generate energy, passed on only maternally, and originally passed to humans by bacteria. This DNA is often left off discussion of genomes.  In this case, I'd say they'd be including mitochondria for the sake of completeness.

Another small bone to pick. Microbiome is listed in Wikipedia as the sum total of microscopic organisms in a particular environment, and hologenome is used as an idea of co-evolution with microbes, roughly speaking. So the Scientific American article is pushing the envelope a bit.

So even within a scientific community the meaning of words can change over time until/unless locked down.

Further reading (both from Scientific American, as it happens):

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Word of the day: ericacious

Urk! What does this mean? On Monday night I saw it on the back of some plant food meant for acid-loving plants such as azalias, orchids and gardenias (which I love), and ericacious plants.

So if you get it wrong, you're in trouble.

The first clue was that the list of plants included heather. The second: when I looked up the word, it referred me to ericaceous. Now that's a bit like erica and herbaceous.

So it refers to the genus ericaceae - which is, in fact, a family that includes heathers, and grows in harsh and acidic environments.

Although I would expect the two spellings to be used interchangeably, anecdotally it looks like the spelling ericaceous is used in a strict botanical sense, while ericacious seems to be used mostly in a gardening context.

Anyway, it looks like I'll restrict this plant food to the gardenia and the orchids...

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Word of the day: defenestration

Of course, after a word arc culminating in Hussites, it's hard to resist adding defenestration.

If you've learnt just a little French, you'll recognise the root of this word is common to fenetre,  French for window.  Defenestration is the act of throwing someone out a window.

In 1419, seven town councillors were thrown out the window in Prague.  This was not trivial: they were thrown to their deaths.

This very event is the origin of the word defenestration, and it also precipitated the Hussite wars.

And in a spectacular effort to entrench the word in history, almost two hundred years later they held another defenestration event - this time, from Prague castle.

As you might expect, that precipitated another war - the Thirty Years War.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Word of the day: Hussite



finally to:                Hussite

 - which was the destination of this arc of words.

Jan Hus was an early protestant (ie non-orthodox Christian), in the days when that was a fatal move.  Bohemian in name, but not by nature.

To cut a long story short, the end (of the beginning, so to speak) came about in 1414 when he attended a Great Council of the Christian church in Constance.  This council was originally convened to resolve the existence of three (!) opposing popes.  The eastern orthodox church was invited too - it was hoped the council could solve the big Christian schism between the eastern and western churches. However, those issues proved rather difficult, so for diversion they decided to condemn a heretic.  Jan?  Oops... but you've given me safe conduct to this council!  Well, not any more...  so they burned him at the stake.

(... once that was out of the way, they eventually sorted out the popes - by booting out all the others and electing a new one.  The schism?  Well, that was just too hard.)

So, as you can imagine, being a Hussite was a rather dangerous calling at the time.

The Hussite wars followed over the next twenty years.  Although ultimately not too succcessful (for the Hussites), it's a significant chapter in Bohemian history.

Where did I encounter this word?  In a podcast called Europe From Its Origins.  Dense, academic, sometimes quite polemic.  It's put together by Joe Hogarty; his favourite word is Christendom.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Word of the day: Huzzah

I'm meandering towards a particular word that sounds somewhat similar to this one and yesterday's - and all have a martial aspect to them.

"Huzzah!" was once a battle cry.  It was also used something like 'hooray' - and modern usage is probably something in between, albeit more as a joke/archaicism than anything else.

As a battle cry, its origins are debatable, although - again! - it has been claimed to have come to Europe from as far back as the invading Mongols in the 13th century. (A little too tempting to link it up to yesterday's hussar, maybe.)

In any case, it was clearly used by the British military at some point, in a similar manner to 'banzai'.  Except, well, British, and not Japanese.

Where did I encounter this word?  Someone mentioned it after the last one.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Word of the day: Hussar

I just noticed these words are rather top-heavy in the area of sciences so far, so I'm veering in the direction of another of my other interests, history.

A hussar is a specific type of cavalryman - light cavalry, in fact, originating in the 1400s.  That means we have a military horseman, the light simply meaning not armoured.  Which makes sense, really.  The golden hordes (the Mongol invaders into Europe and Asia in the 1300s and 1400s) had effectively taught the Europeans the benefits of cavalry attack (speed) over defence.

Early 20th Century Prussian hussar
The hussar form apparently rose to prominence in Hungary in the late 1400s, where they proved quite sucessful, thence were hired elsewhere in Europe as mercenaries.  Various forms then spread throughout Europe over the next 400 years.  I've seen pictures of hussars of a number of different nationalities, mainly from France through to northern and eastern Europe.  Variants of the ceremonial dress - particularly the hat - seems to be the nearest I can get to a unifying feature throughout the period and continent.

Where did I encounter this word?  It was uncomfortably close to another upcoming word, and I wanted to clarify each of them.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Word of the day: copepod

A copepod is a type of crustacean.  It might make you think of arthropod, the phylum (body type) that crustaceans belong to, but the prefix -pod means foot, of course.  The name copepod comes from Greek, meaning oar- or handle- and -foot.

The copepoda are actually a subclass, in the Linnean classification.  Which mainly means there are quite a few species of them.

If you look at the photo in the Wikipedia entry, it actually looks like plankton.  I didn't know crustaceans could be planktonic - or vice versa.  There you go.
However, plankton is just a general term for small marine life (either animal or plant) that lives near the surface of the ocean.  So things that feed on plankton are just feeding on... "stuff".

 And now to what brought me to this word (something Wikipedia doesn't mention): some species of copepod are bioluminescent, meaning they emit light.  The actual mechanism involvese a combination of two substances: luciferin, a pigment that reacts with oxygen; and luciferase, an enzyme (a protein catalyst).  Interestingly enough, this very mechanism has evolved separately in a several different organisms, including fireflies and anglerfish.  I guess it shows that this kind of mutation is:
a) useful
b) not too hard to arrive at (for example, just a couple of point mutations).

 Where did I encounter this word? A few days ago, on the bus.  In New Scientist (12 May 2012); another word I'd never seen before.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Word of the day: Peplum

A peplum is a garment like a blouse or top, with a small skirt-ish sort of thing at the bottom.

From an article in the Guardian:

"It won't make you look thin, men don't find it sexy and it gets crushed on public transport..."

Damn right on the first two at least.  Still, the article then asks: " do you carry it off?" - and you know it has to come from the fashion section.

Reminds me of those hideous bubble dresses.  Glad they're pretty much gone.

Okay, yes I admit: it's the actuality I dislike more than the word.  Yet I'm none too fond of the word either.  It comes from the Greek word for tunic.  There's also Peplos, a kind of women's garment in ancient Greece.

For further information see the Wikipedia article overskirt.  I got the image from there because I couldn't find a more exemplary demonstration of what I don't like about it.

Where did I encounter this word?  Saturday, in the fashion pages of the Herald's colour supplement.  Why was I even looking at this page?  I think I was just thumbing past it, when this word sprung in front of my eyes before I could turn past it.  Yet again I thought, hang on, this is not a word.  But the fickle finger of fashion doubtness churns through new words faster than... well, butter, I guess.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Word of the Day: Omnium

Omnium - Sounds rather singular and meaningful, doesn't it?

Well it's not. It's just a new-ish olympic category - a multiple event for track cycling.

Wikipedia says the word is Latin for "all around the thing" - although with what little I know of Latin, I'd guess it's more like "all thing".

Don't know why this word seems to have been snaffled for the Olympics - and track cycling, at that. It's a very generic construct. Maybe there was no Latin word for Cycling - yet Latin is constantly being updated for the modern world.

I am not too fond of this modern construct/usurpation.  Tomorrow's word is another recent coining that gets my goat.

Where did I encounter this word? Sunday, listening to radio, got pulled up by a word I'd never heard before.  The casual disbursement of the word itself was more noteworthy than the context.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Word of the day: Cardiomyocyte

A cardiomyocyte is a heart muscle cell.

Paraphrased from New Scientist, 5 May 2012: After a heart attack, fibroblast cells form scar tissue on the damaged areas, but they don't pump properly like cardiomyocytes. Dzau (Duke University) used a virus to deliver four microRNAs to switch the fibroblasts to cardiomyocytes. Viruses are, more or less, RNA (or DNA) factories. That is, they are much smaller than normal cells, and spend their lives using a host cell's own mechanisms to manufacture more genetic material.  Preferably its own, but with the benefits of modern genetic engineering, clearly they can be taken advantage of for the benefit of the host cell.

microRNA: short strips of RNA that bind to messenger RNA to stop genes being expressed.

It's not clear to me whether this happens at transcription inside the cell nucleus (like epigenetics, but acting on the RNA), or translation (that is, preventing the ribosome properly decoding some of the RNA into proteins outside the cell nucleus. Either way, it's pretty clever to be able to:
a) identify the switches that change a fibroblast to a cardiomyocyte. Possibly just a function of what proteins are expressed at the ribosome
b) engineer a virus so that it expresses the right set of RNA strands to do the trick
c) deliver the virus to just the right cells. 

(I note that there's been another effort to achieve the same outcome - fibroblast to cardiomyocyte - in a completely different way: using stem cells:

Where did I encounter this word? Yesterday, in that New Scientist (I'm behind in my reading!)


Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Word of the day: Chevrotain

Another word with evolutionary significance.


A chevrotain is also known as a mouse deer (which can be somewhat deceptive).  The name comes from French, and roughly translates as 'little goat'.

It does look halfway between a mouse and a deer, but it's more meaningful to think of it as a very small deer: you couldn't get a real-life mix between a rodent and an ungulate (they're clearly genetically too distant).

They're actually a group of species (called a 'family' in the old, Linnean classification) found in Africa and Southeast Asia - with some variation in appearance between species.  This grouping includes the smallest ungulates in the world.
The rodent features are misleading, and would be an example of convergent evolution - that is, unrelated animals that evolves similar features for similar environmental niches.

Where did I encounter this word?  This is what makes this species significant: recently there was a Wikipedia feature article on giraffes.  They're (even-toed) ungulates - which evolved from creatures that looked rather like this 54 million years ago.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Word of the Day: Ungulate

First: Why?

Why something as staid as Word of the Day?

It arose from a comment someone made to me about a man of letters who made a habit of learning a new word every day.  I don't remember who that was; I'm sure there's a lot of people who have made such a resolution over the years.

But it struck me that I don't need to make the effort, because I encounter at least one new word every day.  If nothing else, in my readings on history, science, evolution and genetics.  It wouldn't be hard to document just one per day, and it would oblige me to properly find out what it meant.

However, the exercise is not without its pitfalls - not the least of which is the interruption in the flow of reading, the communication of information.  Not trivial when I'm deeply immersed in a train of thought.  Jump off that train, make a note, catch it again, recapture the meaning and the mood.  Later, I have to fit in the time to do the research and write it up.  Not always trivial.  In fact, since I started this, I realise I have a bad habit of glossing over new or half-understood words.  I find I'm not picking up half the candidate words - there's just too many.  In general, I'll try to make them totally new.

And so the second question: Why something as staid as ungulate?

Well, there will be days like that.  For some of these words, I didn't know the full meaning or nuance; for others, it makes sense to be clear on the understanding of a word that's needed for another word.  Like this one.


Do you know properly what this word means?

Of course, an ungulate is effectively a hoofed animal, but the word refers to a specific grouping of mammals. They move on the tips of their toes, which have hooves. (they'd be good at ballet, hey?)

There are odd- and even-toed ungulates, which actually delineates which toes the animals rest their weight on (some of the toes are quite vestigal, and so barely visible).

Despite what wikipedia says in its intro, this is not a proper cladistic group of animals. That is, the word does not describe a grouping of a single ancestral animal and all its descendants. Otherwise, you'd have to call dolphins and other cetaceans ungulates, because some ungulates are closer in ancestry to cetaceans than they are to other ungulates.

So this word is not very helpful scientifically - despite which, I'm sure some biologists use it informally to communicate meaning to a general audience.

  Where did I (last) encounter this word? I found it integral to the next word of the day - it helps to understand this one first.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Film: The Clock (UK, 2010)

At the Museum of Contemporary Art one rainy afternoon, I encountered one of the more unusual films I've ever seen.

Made by British-based video artist Christian Marclay,  the premise of The Clock is very simple: it's a montage of a large number of segments from various films (mainly Hollywood) where someone looks at a clock (or watch).  Moreover, it's been edited to show the time in real time - and it covers a full 24 hours.  Yes, that's how long it is, and you will normally find it scheduled to show the time in real time.  Which means over time, you'll carry an awareness of the current time.  This is a unique  breach of the fourth wall - that is, the film is constantly reminding you you're in real life.

The concept iself is quite neat.  But in fact, it's more than that, because the editing is good, and there is a certain coherency to it.  In some ways, it's the coherency of an mp3 player on shuffle, where the music gradually assumes a kind of sameness, a melding.  Yet in other ways, there is a feeling of something happening - or, often enough, something on the verge of happening.

And then the action moves on.  Another act in the "narrative" takes over.

As such, it maintains a rhythm: a steady rhythm, a post-modern one, which can perhaps get somewhat monotonous over time.  If you watch it long enough.  Or does it become meditative?  After a while, would you settle into the rhythm, find the constant time-check irritating, or be frustrasted by the "almost" nature of the action, or the lack of real continuity?  As it stands, I had to go after 35 minutes, but that wasn't quite enough to lose faith, and I was left wanting more.

Unsurprisingly, it looks like the most popular venue for this film is art galleries.  An experience more than entertainment, still escapism - but only to a point.  Because there's the steady tick ticking of the clock...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Discovered 70s gems 10: Honey Cone - The Day I That I Found Myself

(A continuing series on music recently discovered that I never heard the first time around.)

Yet more from the Holland-Dozier-Holland stable, and we've finally reached Honey Cone.  Theirs was probably the high water mark for Hot Wax/Invictus when they hit the top of the US charts in 1971 with Want Ads (which I'm not sure was a hit outside the US).  But that's not what we're here for today.  Abrogating what I said yesterday, The Day That I Found Myself is a song that grew on me over a long period of time in the last six months or so.  Another spoken-word intro, with words that might sound a little basic, but this was after all early days for feminism.  It's catchy, but it was the harmonies that finally tipped the balance for me.

Their US chart trajectory was fairly typical for an act without a sustained career and, at #23, this was at the back end of that chart run.

Honey Cone 1970s singles

1970 Take Me with You (Hot Wax, US#108)
1970 When Will It End  (Hot Wax, US#117)
1971 Want Ads (Hot Wax, US#1, Wgtn #39)
1971 Stick-Up  (Hot Wax, US#11)
1971 One Monkey Don't Stop No Show Part I (Hot Wax, US#15, Wgtn #38)
1972 The Day I Found Myself  (Hot Wax, US#23, Wgtn #36)
1972 Sittin' on a Time Bomb (Waitin' for the Hurt to Come) (Hot Wax, US#96)
1972 Innocent Til Proven Guilty (Hot Wax, US#101, Wgtn #44)
1972 Ace in the Hole (Hot Wax)
1973 If I Can't Fly (Hot Wax)
1976 Somebody Is Always Messing Up a Good Thing

Friday, April 20, 2012

Discovered 70s gems 9: Glass House - Playing Games

(another in the continuing series on songs I've recently discovered that I never heard the first time around.)

Here's another one from the Holland-Dozier-Holland team.  I've never heard of Glass House, don't know anything about them, don't think they had any hits.  I don't actually know what H-D-H contributed beyond their record label, Invictus, but from the distinctive sound of the record, it's plausible the team produced and wrote it.

It didn't take long for this song to ensnare me, which meet my criteria for this series.

Glass House 1970s singles:

1970 I Can't Be You (You Can't Be Me)/ He's In My Life (Invictus 9076)
1970 Stealing Moments From Another Woman's Life/ If It Ain't Love (It Don't Matter) (Invictus 9082)
1971 Touch Me Jesus/ If It Ain't Love (It Don't Matter) (Invictus 9090)
1971 Look What We've Done To Love/ Heaven Is There To Guide Us (Invictus 9097)
1972 Playing Games/ Let It Flow (Invictus 9111)
1972 Thanks I Needed That/ I Don't See Me In Your Eyes Anymore (Invictus 9129)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Chomsky's trajectory of complexity

I read today an interview with Noam Chomsky in New Scientist.

I have a lot of respect for Chomsky.  Although the interview started on a scientific footing with his academic speciality (language), it was nearly as wide ranging as he is.  What he said was all eminently sensible albeit not especially novel, but there was one comment that was more memorable than the others.

It's rather a throwaway line, but it struck a chord with me, because it coincides with a trajectory that I've been more or less following.  Bar the psychology (which, incidentally, my wife is currently studying).

In your new book, you suggest that many components of human nature are just too complicated to be really researchable.

That’s a pretty normal phenomenon. Take, say, physics, which restricts itself to extremely simple questions. If a molecule becomes too complex, they hand it over to the chemists. If it becomes too complex for them, they hand it to biologists. And if the system is too complex for them, they hand it to psychologists... and so on until it ends up in the hands of historians or novelists.

I don't know where he might place economics... maybe as a voodoo science?

In mitigation, I have to say that much as I'd like to, it's extremely unlikely I'll get around to a novel :)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Discovered 70s gems 8: Holland-Dozier - Don't Leave Me Starvin' For Your Love

Eddie Holland, Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier left Motown records for pretty much the same reasons as everyone left: they were achieving, but not being rewarded, and had little control.

They set up two record labels: Hot Wax and Invictus, scoring some early hits in 1970 and 1971 with Freda Payne (Band of Gold), Chairmen Of The Board (Give Me Just a Little More Time),  and a US number one with Honey Cone's Want Ads.  All these were produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland; they also wrote the latter two.  But without the infrastructure (and financial muscle) of Motown, the labels didn't last more than a few years.

More about Honey Cone another day.  But before Lamont Dozier left for a minor solo career (peaking with 1974's Fish Ain't Bitin' - which notably wasn't written by him), the team put out a few singles of their own.

Don't Leave Me Starvin' For Your Love is, like a lot of their compositions, a low-key song without any real punches... but it really grows on you.  There's times I just could not get it out of my head.  And it's the only one of their own renditions that made a (minor) dent in the charts, credited as Holland-Dozier featuring Brian Holland.

HDH's 1970s discography:

  • 1972 Don't Leave Me/Instrumental (Invictus 9110)

  • 1972 Why Can't We Be Lovers/Don't Leave Me (instrumental) (Invictus 9125)

  • 1972 Don't Leave Me Starvin' For Your Love (Part 1)/(Part 2)” (Invictus 9133; US #52)

  • 1973 Slipping Away/Can't Get Enough (Instrumental) ” (Invictus 1253)

  • 1973 If You Don't Wanta Be In My Life/New Breed Kinda Woman* (Invictus 1254)

  • 1973 You Took Me From A World Outside/ I'm Gonna Hijack Ya, Kidnap Ya, Take What I Want  (Invictus 1258)

  • *Conflicting information on which is the A-side

    Monday, February 27, 2012

    Contraband (US, 2012) - confounding the critics

    I have to admit, I tend to agree with film critics in their judgements on films.  Broadly.  I often differ by degrees, but concur in the overview.

    Contraband is one film that gives the lie to that.

    I read some lukewarm to bad things about this film before I saw it.  So I was expecting a bit of incoherence and Hollywood shallowness - and I was quite pleasantly surprised.  You can read quite a few of those negative comments on Wikipedia - the sort of works that encourage you think it's not really worth bothering.  But I can only disagree with them.  There is really no doubt: Contraband is a definitely a good film.

    The core plot involves an ex-smuggler whose family obligations compell him to do one more round, on a cargo ship picking up goods from Panama City.  In the process, he has to navigate a number of competing forces, none of whom are entirely ethical.

    What did I like about Contraband?  Its complex plot, its gritty but telegenic cinematography, its taut direction, its view of a few worlds that I had not seen before (namely, freight shipping and Panama City), and some realistic characterisations - to name a few.

    I like a complex plot, but a film that has plot holes is simply irritating.  Contrary to one review, I found it scored well on both counts.

    In particular, there was a dizzying array of competing sides - numerous individuals and groups that had their own agendas: by turns collaborative then at odds with other parties.  Such a swirling script is epitomised by Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which takes several viewings to sort out all the nuances.  I believe I was on top of the shifting sands of this film, but it wouldn't do any harm to review the convolutions a second time around.

    And that's a good recommendation: that it bears watching again.  I can't understand why those reviewers seemed to be watching a totally different film.

    Sunday, February 26, 2012

    Rubbish opinion polls and media beatups

    There's been a real beatup in Australia's media in the past few weeks.

    Part of the problem is opinion polls.  The standing of Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been poor for a long time.  Correspondingly, that for the conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott has been comparatively strong - for a long time.

    Enter Kevin Rudd, who was deposed as PM by Gillard, but still served as foreign minister - until recently.

    The stir factor lies in the fact that Rudd does well in opinion polls - better than Abbott, even.  And so he resigned his post and the leadership's up for a vote tomorrow.

    But Rudd was quite unpopular at the time he was deposed.  And Gillard fared better in the polls.

    I think opinion polls have a lot to answer for.  When you aggregate people's opinions, they often get contradictory.

    I remember back in the 1980s in New Zealand, when the government had an anti-nuclear policy.  As a result of the US "neither confirm nor deny" stance on whether their warships had nuclear weapons, the NZ government felt obliged to refuse access to NZ ports to those warships.  In retaliation, the US threatened to exclude New Zealand from ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, U.S.), which was NZ's most important military alliance.

    Opinion polls? They firmly affirmed the non-nuclear stance, but in contradiction strongly desired to keep the ANZUS alliance.

    The point being that when you aggregate people's opinions, you can easily get rubbish.

    On the basis of past experience, should Kevin Rudd become PM again, I'm quite sure his poll ratings would plummet after a few months.

    In any case, the numbers are clearly against Rudd.  And the numbers that count are the ones that vote: those in the parliamentary caucus who will vote tomorrow for their leader.  Rudd doesn't stand a snowball's chance.  In large part this is because past experience has taught them that Rudd is particularly difficult to work with as a leader.  Authoritarian and micro-managing.

    But the media has been in overdrive on the matter.  They don't care that the outcome is clear: media outlets are driven by the desire to be popular and to fill space with content.

    But there have been people who have been media junkies around this stoush - one person even deviated from his usual Sydney Morning Herald diet to buy a Murdoch as well, to get additional field.  Despite the outcome being tantamount to pre-ordained.

    Lessons: beware contradictory poll results; pay attention to the real signs - and really, that's no reason to buy a Murdoch.

    Wednesday, February 08, 2012

    Gravity and the narrow confines of life

    Life on Earth has evolved within a very fine set of parameters.  We are going to find it a challenge to survive outside the sheltering cocoon of this planet, not the least because our atmosphere protects us from several types of radiation, not the least from our friendly sun.

    Now there's another limitation.

    Our body's physiological processes are to a great extent governed through the triggering of gene expression, which generates proteins that affect metabolic pathways of chemical reactions.  Translated, this means chemical signals trigger the unwrapping and copying of genes (sections of our DNA blueprint) that in turn generate proteins that... make our body work.

    For that to happen, amongst other things we need... gravity.

    On the one hand, one might intuit that gravity shouldn't be an essential part of our processes.  But we are generally pulled in a single direction: towards Earth, the largest mass at hand.  From an evolutionary perspective, that amount of gravity is an intrinsic part of the environment in which so many successive iterations (generations) successfully mutated and survived.  Our environment tempered the direction of successful mutation.

    So it makes sense that our metabolic processes could be so finely tuned that significant change (ie, to zero gravity) could disrupt some of these processes.

    And that's what's been found, as reported in New Scientist this week (4 February 2012).  Specifically: "weightless conditions... could disrupt the activity of 200 genes linked with immunity, metabolism and heat tolerance."

    There is a slight caveat on that: the study used flies, and simulated weightlessness through magnetic fields.  Still, the researchers are confident of their results, it sounds plausible, and doubtless the result will be tested by others in other experimental contexts.

    Still, just as science can bring the science fiction of space travel crashing to Earth, surely technological solutions will be developed.  After all, science fiction has already imagined simulated gravity.  It just hasn't filled in the details.

    Thursday, February 02, 2012

    word of the day: Pareidolia

    We all know this phenomenon: pareidolia is the perception of significance in vague/random images or sounds.

    Courtesy of the wonderful Flea Snobbery website:

    Wednesday, January 25, 2012

    History - What happened to King Robert I?

    William Rufus was only the third son of William the Conqueror - yet he inherited England.  Why?  (Never mind that William's fourth son, Henry, eventually bagged the lot.)

    In fact, William was said to have nine children.  His second son, Richard, died early (hunting, by the sounds of it - the key royal pastime of the era).  Of his five daughters, three also died early without issue, and one became a nun.  The fifth, Adela, had a son who was briefly King Stephen of England.

    Oh yes, back to the kings of England.  When William the Conqueror died, he bequeathed Normandy to his oldest son Robert, and England to his next in line, William Rufus.


    I've heard two contradictory reasons offered.

    On the one hand, it is said that - for a number of reasons - William had an aversion to his oldest son, and was inclined to disinherit him, but was persuaded against it, instead giving him Normandy, while giving the younger William Rufus the better prize, England.  There were riches to be had by milking the people there.

    On the other hand, these people are Normans, and preferred Normandy as a far more civilised land.  Where their loyalties were divided between the two lands, they frequently spent more time in Normandy than England.  And they spoke French.  Normandy was clearly the better prize; England was for the barbarians.

    The alternative explanations are meaningful: the issue revolves around what the Normans valued.  I'm surprised that historians can't settle the question once and for all.

    One could say that this issue of value affects the course of history for hundreds of years.  However, as it happens, Robert was not warrior-like enough to hold on to Normandy in that martial era.  Conversely, William Rufus was ruthless enough to hold on to England.  But in any case, by hook or by crook their younger brother Henry managed to bundle off both his brothers and snaffle the lot.  William Rufus died in a hunting accident - while Henry was in the area - and Robert, well, Henry imprisoned him for the last thirty years of his life.

    You see, at the time it was being mean and aggressive that paid off, and there were spoils to be had for the victor.

    But was Robert never king of England because he was the lesser favoured, or because England was the lesser favoured?

    Monday, January 23, 2012

    Narrative ruins history?

    Coming from a scientific disposition, I have a scientist's rapacious desire for The Truth.

    That's the beauty of science.  We get closer to Truth all the time - and the mis-steps and side alleys are far fewer and less significant than the ascientific (as are many climate change deniers) would have us believe.  Mostly, refinements are built upon refinements, and previous truths are hardly ever gainsaid - at least not significantly.  Quantum and Einsteinian physics don't negate the reality and applicability of Newtonian physics on an everyday, human scale.

     History is unlike science in so many ways, but the one that springs to mind right now is narrative.  In that sense, history is more like shoddy journalism - even good journalism - in that it tries to tell a story.  And the failing is that the whole of the truth is sacrificed: the nuance, the periphery, and the way in which life is not quite like fiction or myth; it doesn't have unity of purpose or theme, or specific point.

    True history is messier, and purposes cross, narratives interact without clarity or precision.  Out of all that, historians and journalists are alike with novelists, trying to create a single strand (or multiple strands) where the full story is so much more complex, riddled with irrationality and strewn with different actors' clutter and concealment.  And of course, it's only one person - or peoples' - truth.  And even then, much of the time the truth will simply never be available.  So, from honourable motives or not, the historian as storytellers will attempt to persuade rather than prove.

    I read some narrative in science.  Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins are good tellers of short stories.  But their tales are much better corroborated and agreed upon.  And if a single essay tells only part of the much wider discipline of evolution and genetics, the rest of it is there for the taking - not the disputation, disagreement, and ultimate irresolution.

    Still, for the scientifically-disposed, at least history is better than fiction: there's more truth in it.  And if we long for a cracking good story, then at least we know there's more to it than we're being told.

    Friday, January 20, 2012

    Who are these people and why...?

    Thursday, January 19, 2012

    Too many fingers and hands?

    What is this photo all about?

    Bonus question: why is my wife's hand in the photo?

    If your curiosity is piqued, you'll have to make a few guesses to get an answer.

    Irrational decision-making as evolutionary survival

    One of the key fallacies of orthodox economics is that people are rational decision-makers with perfect information.

    We can knock "perfect information" in so many ways, but a recent New Scientist article* reminded me how irrational we are, too.

    Inter alia, the article points out something quite meaningful: that we have "a brain shaped by natural selection to see us through this messy world".

    Think about that.  Although survival-wise it helps to be capable of rational thought (and all that goes with it, such as thinking ahead, concept-of-self, etc), that doesn't ipso facto mean that our brains evolved in the unitary direction of rationality only.  That's a very good explanation for an awful lot of human foibles.

    Some examples of decision-making factors we probably inherit in an evolutionary sense are: existing biases, emotions, expectations, co-operation and conformity (sometimes you just follow the herd).  Altruism too: the article suggests that the consequent feel-good is "evolution's reward to team players".

    A good example of irrationality in decisionmaking: discounting the future: the strong preference for small gains in the present over large gains in the more distant future.  This is a great factor in the sub-optimal global response to environmental threats.

    Some of the not-entirely-rational mechanisms mentioned by the article include:

    - confirmation bias: our propensity to be taken in by something that confirms our pre-existing biases;
     - loss aversion: it feels worse to lose something small than to risk it to gain something large;
     - the anchoring effect: basing decisions in novel situations on random, loose, or irrelevant connections;
     - the sunk-cose fallacy: deciding whether to continue [expending resources] on the basis of what's already been put in it (a common trap for many investors and poker players alike);
     - inconsistent preferences: preferring a over b, b over c, but c over a.

    For the last one, it is suggested that we are likely to be making choices based on several different factors that may be decided by different areas of the brain, so ultimately "your preference will depend on the region that dominates at the time" - that is, when you are faced with such a binary decision.

    At various times, these "tricks" can all be seen as useful survival mechanisms - and sometimes this means survival in a group sense rather than individual.

    so it's noto necessarily a problem: it's just that as individuals we're not as rational as we'd like to think.

    And the article says we face between 2,500 and 10,000 decisions every day.  Daunting, if we didn't use short cuts.

    *"Making Your Mind Up" by Kate Douglas in the 12 November 2011 issue.  Oh all right, it's not recent, but I'm a bit behind, and I only just unsealed it recently.

    Tuesday, January 17, 2012

    Global market capitalisation, 2011

    It was a surprise to hear that Apple had overtaken Microsoft in May 2010 for market capitalisation (that's the total market worth, from the number of shares times the share price).  On the other hand, although such a figure represents the money shareholders could get for selling their shares, it is not realistic.  For one thing, as soon as a perceptible proportion of shares get sold, the price falls and that "market" worth is demonstrably not intrinsic.  And that measure also embodies public sentiment of the company, and in that respect alone, Apple is at an all-time high.

    Call me sentimental, but I still like that measure of a company's "value".  The latest collation by the Financial Times is third quarter last year, and it reads as follows (they're all into the hundreds of billions):

    1.  Apple (US, tech)
    2.  Exxon Mobil (US, oil)
    3.  PetroChina (China, oil)
    4.  IBM (US, tech)
    5.  Microsoft (US, tech)
    6.  Industrial/Commercial Bank China (China, bank)
    7. China Mobile (China, tech)
    8.  Shell (Dutch, oil)
    9.  Nestle (Swiss, food)
    10. Chevron (US, oil)

    Some of my characterisations are simplifications of course, because the larger corporations generally have fingers in several pies.  But on the above basis, four of the top ten are tech and four are oil.  The Chinese ones are said to be state-owned, which would mean that a portion of their shares trade, and the total value is based on what it would be if all were tradeable.  Microsoft was once top, and it's a surprise, given their global ubiquity, that they're now only number three technology.  It's also sobering to think how much capital is at stake in gross carbon emission.

    Other useful measures are nett assets, revenue, and nett income.  On the basis of revenue, WalMart's at the top, which may not be surprising if you think of them as a grocer or trader, but retail margins can't be that high, so revenue alone - despite being much-discussed - is, I think, overrated as an indicator.

    Yet these indicators are useful for different reasons, different perspectives on the global economy.  Wouldn't you think nett profit or nett assets would be more meaningful than the others?  The downside of the asset measure is that some of the large financial organisations own bulk assets, but liabilities are great too, as they're effectively holding the assets for others.  Meanwhile, however, the control of assets per se can be meaningful.  Surprisingly, nett assets doesn't seem to rate a high mention.

    Apple's 2011 profits were the largest, at $25 billion, although Exxon has been making much larger profits for much of the last decade.

    All info here has been sourced via Wikipedia, from Forbes and the Financial Times.

    Monday, January 16, 2012

    The immediacy of Twitter: for fools or strategists?

    It's the age of instant gratification.  The faster it is to express yourself, the easier it is to make a fool of yourself on the public stage.

    With the internet it's global, and with twitter it's more immediate than email, and just as hard to press the delete button.

    Ah, the internet.  The scourge of the unmeasured thinker.

    I'm thinking of Rupert Murdoch, of course, who apparently stumbled again with a tweet.

    Much as I might long for him to get too comfortable over a glass or two and a rushed comment, I can't picture it happening. (Much.  Depending on whether you count his comment about Brits being too broke to justify taking holidays.)

    But the question - again - is why?  What's behind Murdoch's sudden move to Twitter?

    It took JP to point out to me that retweets and aggregation services will give Murdoch's voice a lot of weight.  This translates to Murdoch's utterances having a global influence - something that he's never been averse to.  In fact, he couldn't get enough of it.

    And does he not want to have his hand in every communication channel going?  Especially if the cost is negligent.

    A few early mis-tweets have only helped to publicise his channel.  What could be wrong with that?

    Discovered 70s gems 7: Heavenly Temptations

    (Number 7 in a continuing series on music I missed at the time, and only recently discovered.  Warning: this series is coming to be dominated by soul music, because that's what I'm currently listening to.)

    In 1973, the Temptations' music was produced by Norman Whitfield alone, and he went to town.  He was a slave-driver, they were known as the Norman Whitfield Choral Singers, and his productions were extended works full of the socially-conscious lyrics that hallmarked the Temptations of the previous few years.

    But he let them do a handful of the more basic love songs, and this was one of them.  Past the time of David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, this is short and lavish, and must be one of my favourite Temptations songs.

    Released as a single, it sunk like a stone, allegedly due to a DJ boycott of Motown at the time.  I prefer to think of the record-buying public as simply capricious.

    Sunday, January 15, 2012

    Burma: why the abrupt change?

    when something doesn't make enough sense, there's a piece of the puzzle missing.

    And so it was with the abrupt volte face on the part of Burma's rulers over the past year.  Why have they opened up, why have they released so many political prisoners.

    Someone said to me it was China's doing, but I see no good evidence of that.  Their desire to be welcomed back to ASEAN's fold?  Yet they weren't too worried about that before.  And, in the scheme of things, it wouldn't normally be a game changer for the junta.  Wikipedia suggested they were eying a win in the 2015 election.  But why not simply do then what they've done in the past: ban opposition, intimidate, and stuff ballot papers?

    Then I heard the comment that it was the doing of Thein Sein, now president.  This man worked his way up through the military ranks, and was appointed Prime Minister by the junta.  He quit his military career in 2010 to become civilian head of the party the junta orchestrated to succeed in 2010.

    Wikipedia: "The military junta was dissolved in 2011 following a general election in 2010 and a civilian government installed."  Well, that is a bit of a change.  Wikipedia again: [Sein] is "generally considered to be a moderate and reformist in the new government".  What, no junta?  Despite that 2010 election generally considered to have been fraudulent?

    That still represents an abrupt change in tack.  Why would the junta use a corrupt election to remove itself from the game and install a moderate?  They've done it, but the question is: what is behind the change?

    Friday, January 13, 2012

    Frogs and hybrid fungi

    A few days ago I posited that humans are affecting ecosystems globally on a scale that rivals extinction events in the distant past.

    Subsequent to that I unsealed an old copy of New Scientist that I'd been saving for a rainy day.  The 12 November 2011 issue mentioned  a disease that is "decimating frogs around the planet."

    The cause is a fungus lethal to frogs called Batrachochytrium dentdrobatidis.  Sixteen of the 20 samples collected globally were a genetically identical strain (called BdGPL), ie they were of the same origin.  And they are "extremely virulent."

    That strain was clearly a hybrid, formed in the past 100 years, most likely due to the "20th-century pet and food trade", which enabled the strains to meet.

    Madagascar and south-east Asia are the regions most at risk right now, being "hotspots of amphibian diversity" and free of this fungus right now.

    Globalisation is an inevitable process in the development of human society.  Such collateral damage need not be inevitable, but it takes political will which in turn, at the very least, would entail using one's vote wisely.

    Bryson and the pilfering Queen Elizabeth

    Bill Bryson's book At Home, intended to be a "history of household life", is written in his usual avuncular style, rambling through his subject matter at will, with more a regard for an entertaining anecdote than academic rigour.

    Some of his meanderings, however, strain belief a little bit.  At the very least, one would suspect that our Bill is prone to a dose of exaggeration for effect.

    Still, even with a dose of healthy skepticism, it was a bit hard to swallow the following passage I read this morning:

    "A hapless courtier named John Puckering gave Elizabeth a silk fan festooned with diamonds, several loose jewels, a gown of rare splendour and a pair of exceptionally fine virginals, then watched at their first dinner as Her Majesty admired the silver cutlery and a salt cellar and, without a word, dropped them into the royal handbag." (p69)

    Now I'm the last to call myself a defender of royal privileges, but it did make me wonder if Uncle Bill had been on the grog.  So I did some research.

     After wading through similar double takes at the same passage, I found Bryson had belatedly added (some) references, via his web site.  That passage referred to a 2003 magazine (!) called History Today.  I found a copy of the article - however, it did not include the incident.  To be fair on Bryson, I suspect him more of shoddy record-keeping than out-and-out fibbing.

    The article appeared to be an extract from a book about "royal progresses", where the court, with all its baggage and hundreds of attendants, would visit (or descend upon) a member of the gentry, at some cost to the host.

    Bryson again:

    "But his daughter Elizabeth cannily saw that it was much cheaper to visit others and let them absorb the costs of her travels, so she resurrected the venerable practice of making annual royal progesses." (p68)

    Elsewhere I read that these progresses actually left her out of pocket, so I suspect Uncle Bill of interpolating somewhat.

    However, I did finally find reference to that very incident - in an official site called The History Of Parliament Online:

    "Elizabeth twice visited Puckering’s ‘poor hermitage’ at Kew, where her entertainment in 1595 was ‘great and costly’. Puckering gave her a fan (its handle garnished with diamonds), a jewel valued at £400, and a pair of virginals. The Queen ‘to grace his lordship the more ... took from him a salt, a spoon, and a fork of fair agate’. In the same year Puckering complained that serving her as lord keeper was costing him £1,000 a year, that the job had no residential accommodation, and that he had never been paid for being Speaker, which had cost him £2,000 in losses from his law practice. He claimed £400 was due, as each Parliament had lasted two sessions, but the suggestion that he had not been paid was, in fact, false, as his fee had gone to cancel a debt he owed the Crown."

     In fact, Puckering was apparently a self-made man, who rose through the ranks from a legal profession to eventually become a man of fortune and the Speaker of the Parliament.  He wasn't exactly crying poor mouth...  well actually he was, judging by the comments above.  But he certainly was a man of means.  He left estates in four counties, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

    And yes, clearly Uncle Bill was heightening the story for effect (I bet he tells whoppers around the campfire).  Elizabeth did take, but not in the manner Bryson depicted; I suspect any more details found would put the incident in even more realistic a context.

    It does rather sound like I'm defending royalty, doesn't it?  Whoops.  And I'm just as guilty as Bryson of incomplete referencing.  Well I had them here somewhere...

    ...Here's Bryson's notes (such as there are); the magazine was May 2003; the book was Royal Court and Progresses, by Alison Sim.

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012

    Unlimited holidays

    Well, it stuck in my mind, so it must be worth a measly blog entry.

    This is what someone advocated and says he delivers.  The tag line: "give your employees the no-strings-attached, unlimited vacation days they deserve or you'll soon be a dinosaur".


    It's all about respecting your employees as the adults they are.  As long as they get their work done, there's no limit to the time off they can take.  Look at him.  He worked 100 hours last week, and right now he's sunning himself on the beach.  (As he types?  That's a little sad.)

    Of course, he owns the company.  So that's what he may well do 14 hours every day for a week - anyway.  But he says it's a great motivator and a great recruitment tool.

    He answers the skeptics who say "our employees feel pressured to never take off" with: "I assure you they're underestimating a positive work culture and are simply wrong. Also, I feel sorry for their workplace."

    Well so do I.  I feel sorry for my workplace.  And a lot of others.  If you get your work done, you get more work.  And how is it judged what an acceptable amount of work is?  Like many, I find myself working back every week simply to get the work done; surveys suggest this situation is more common than not.

    Hopefully it does motivate.  If that company has 750 applications for every position, there must be a commensurate pressure to perform.  And outperform.  And burn, maybe.

    Gee, I'd like to be uncynical.  I do think it's a great idea.  But those who are likely to exploit the situation could well be winnowed out early in the process, and motivated by the 750 people waiting to fill their shoes.  Instead I think it's the employer that's prone to exploit the situation, unless the work is able to be clearly packaged into an allotted quota of time.  Sadly, in my experience, most workloads don't have that transparency.

    Free, quality online education for a global revolution revolution

    When I was learning up about evolution (starting in late 2007), I was reading books, particularly anything I could find of value in the local libraries.  By the time I’d exhausted most ready sources, and started spending my reading time on genetics (mid-2010), I’d found some very useful podcast sources.  They have the advantage that they’re easy to digest on the run, and they’re a great way to make your commute time – or even your time spent ironing or cleaning – productive.*  The downside is that you are not left with any ready reference material unless you make good quality notes.

    By far, the most inspiring series of lectures was one I found on iTunes: from MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the widely-respected Eric Lander on Genomics.  He is very informative and – crucially – very enthusiastic.

    These podcasts, like many others on iTunes and elsewhere online, were originally intended to be supplemental resources for those who were doing the courses.  The information frequently referenced other parts of the course such as handouts, textbooks and tutorials.  All the same, there’s clear learning value to be had from the lectures alone.

    Then last year, Stanford University offered up an experiment: free online short courses in a selection of I.T. subjects, such as Introduction to Artificial Intelligence  and Introduction to Databases  Here, the offerings are more complete, and include video lectures, assignments, exams, and statements of accomplishment (no university credit gained, however: just the knowledge).  According to ZDNet, 35,000 people enrolled online – alongside a paltry 135 people taking it onsite.  A great success story.

    They’re starting them up again, with enrolments now and commencement in February.  Offerings include Computer Science 101  and [engineering for] Software as a Service.

    And now the ball’s back in MIT’s court.  They’ve just announced MITx: a range of online courses with a “virtual classroom experience”, online labs, and other interactivity such as student-to-student discussions and, no doubt, some proxy mechanism for interaction with tutors.
    - complete with the somewhat more meaningful certificates of attainment.

    The courses are scheduled to go live in autumn 2012 (ie the northern spring).

    MIT is further offering its open learning software free, so that other educational institutions can use it to build widely available courseware.

    Although it will take time for a comprehensive range of courses to be developed, this initial provision of free online learning is a momentous global development.  Education is key to escaping poverty and, with some caveats, never have the barriers to education been so low.  Although credentials are often important, the knowledge itself is very meaningful and can make all the difference in employment prospects.

    * If I had more useful sources to turn to, I’d be mixing genetics and genomics into my listening time, which is currently spent mainly on history podcasts and soul music (you need the appropriate fillip for the moment).