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).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

wildcats and cows: the manufactured world

Experience with animal husbandry was a significant influence in the ready and rapid acceptance of evolutionary theory when Darwin finally published On The Origin Of Species in 1859.

There has been long centuries of practice in breeding animals, selecting for a given trait (such as placidity) and deselecting for the undesirable. Aggressive cows ended up on the table along with the passive ones, but their genes don't get propagated thorugh breeding stock.

Result: walking larders.  Humans have, over the centuries and millennia, had such an influence on plants and animals that on the one hand as foodstock, the current versions of wheat, cows, and most else, is nothing like the original wild plant or animal - and indeed in many cases the wild original no longer exists.

On the other hand, humans have reduced most dangerous predators to either extinction, isolation, or simply governable.

There's a Scottish wildcat still in existence.  It's actually a local remnant of the European wildcat Felis silvestris silvestris - which was inimical to human activity, and so was hunted down over the centuries. Not to extinction, as it happens, but not for want of trying. The larger ones were killed; only the smaller ones got away. Thus artificial selection over time resulted in a wildcat that was not much bigger than the domestic cat, and often mistaken for one.

These two examples illustrate the push and the pull that humans are exerting on the world's fauna: reducing it to either the manageable or the usable - or, with the destruction of wildlife habitat, the ignored.

Climate change is only one side of the anthropisation of the planet:  the spread of human culture has already massively shifted the world's DNA stock.  Globalisation brings an attendant spread of uniform food habits and farming practices - amd is shifting the balance still further.  To push the world's DNA in a very specific direction - to greater uniformity in that which serves humans, is surely making our biosphere less robust to trauma.  The bee colony collapse disorder will be seen as an archetype for that degradation of biodiversity.  The cause doesn't need to be directly human, but the planetary changes that allow problems to become global has only one cause.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Common currency and variant policies

I have long wondered how there can possibly be monetary union without fiscal union.

That is, how can a number of countries share the same currency, yet have economic policies that are not strongly aligned?  A tight budget in one country, a lax spending regime in another, and the money market has mixed – misaligned – signals on the value of the currency.  One set of policies would drag the other down – or up, depending on the relative weight of the national economies.

Of course, it’s all very well to say this after the event.  (What’s a blog for, if not to flag the thought ahead of time?)

Clearly, union of economic policies in the Euro zone is a bridge too far - at present at least.  Thus European politicians (and econocrats) are by necessity making the case that there can be a way to salvage a common currency – no doubt through the gradualism that seems to have become a feature of the evolution of the EU.

The European Union (and predecessors) has always been the most advanced polity in the world.  Yet I never expected it to be carried this far this quickly.  That gradualism that did it, though, has led to the current mess which will tip many economies into recession.

But if they can sort it out, they are showing the way forward for the whole planet.  Unless, of course, the world ends up in blocs à la 1984.  Whether that’s a bad thing, we still can’t say with certainty, but surely such integration means a more stable, rational world – either way.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Dicynodont fossil find is evidence of... what?

How meaningful were media reports (eg  in the UK Telegraph, The Age) in December of a dicynodont fossil find in Tasmania?

The find, dated back to about 250 million years ago, was reported in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, but interested-party scientists and media have a strong interest in making the information a story.  Thus overlaying a slant and significance that the lay person cannot easily navigate.

Dicynodonts (I’m told it’s pronounced dee-, not die-, which does not sound palatable to me, but that probably shows what an amateur I am) were widespread both before and after the great Permian extinction 245 million years ago (which marks the start of the Mesozoic era, typified as the “age of the dinosaurs”).  That event wiped out 80% of animal species and is still subject to debate over cause, although volcanic activity is a popular explanation.

But these animals survived.  They’re not just a single species really, but an infraorder: a group of species one below a class (such as mammals).  They were herbivores, ranging from small to cow-size, the “most successful and abundant land vertebrates of the late Permian” period, according to Wikipedia.

And after an extinction such as the Permian, the various environments are largely depopulated, and ripe for expansion by any species that can survive.  And in fact, after the Permian, a single subset of the dicynodont – the lystrosaurus genus, comprising about five species – truly proliferated throughout the world.  However, the world at the time of the lystrosaurus – and the dicynodont found in Tasmania – was very different – it was one big continent, referred to as Pangea.  Spreading wide would not be a problem at that time – if a species was suitably adaptive to the environment.

So the Tasmania find was not even narrowed down to a species, and it’s not surprising to find it in Tasmania, which was part of Australia until recently, and thus part of Pangea.

In fact, another dicynodont fossil had previously been found in Australia - announced in 2003, after re-examination of a fossil held for decades in Queensland Museum.

Dicynodonts are part of a wider grouping of animals called therapsids, of which only mammals remain.  Yes, all dicynodonts and descendants eventually became extinct.

And despite one of the interested-party scientists (Andrew Rozefelds) saying that the find “fills an important gap in our knowledge of these mammal-like reptiles and where they lived”, I’m still struggling to find what gap it fills.  It’s not to be found in the media.  Alas, access to the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology is by subscription only.  Maybe if I get to a university library sometime…

ABC Science: Ozfossils
Tudge, Colin (2000): The Variety of Life, OUP
Wikipedia: including dicynodont, lystrosaurus, therapsid, permian

Friday, January 06, 2012

History in Podcasts: England, Normans, and Civil War

As you may have noticed, history is a current interest of mine.

I’ve delved into history a number of times in the past (as far back as School C, even), but right now it’s English history.  To be specific, the Norman invasion and the English civil war.  Why?  I’m not entirely sure, but I found some answers to that in a couple of podcast series, both of which give some insight into the evolution of English politics, social structure and law.

Tony Cox’s Binge Thinking History looks at the origins of English and American political systems, and in the process goes into some detail on the civil war.  Captivating, although he has a propensity to veer off into British naval history.

David Crowther, in, goes into even more detail, but starts with the Anglo Saxon invasions, and is only up to the high middle ages, despite a roaring pace over the past year.

And for the Normans in particular, Lars Brownworth’s is an enlightening listen.

The beauty about these podcasts is that they’re easy to absorb while travelling/commuting, and they’re all presented in styles that are both engaging and insightful.  Crowther’s in particular is entertaining, yet comprehensive and always accompanied by his own perspective, variously thought-provoking or funny, often both at once.

I don’t think you can go past those three.  Still, I'm always eager for more, so any suggestions gratefully received.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Discovered 70s gems 6: Michael Nesmith - Texas Morning

(Part of a continuing series on music I've discovered recently, which I never heard the first time around.)

In 1971, after a couple of significant hits the year before (Joanne and Silver Moon), Michael Nesmith released a single called Texas Morning - to the complete indifference of the record-buying public.

This song is a particularly melancholy one, about someone looking for a runaway girlfriend with no real hope of knowing where she is.

Nesmith has written a number of touching songs in his time but this one, uncharacteristically, was a cover.  It was written by Michael Murphy and Boomer Castleman, who each had their only major hits in 1975: Murphy with Wildfire (similarly mournful, but soppier) and Castleman with Judy Mae.  My feeling is they hit their respective peaks in Nesmith's rendition of this song.

From the album Nevada Fighter (cover above), home of another great Nesmith song, Propinquity.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Sydney’s most pleasant summer

I like spring in Sydney.  Typically, it’s warm and green.  Winter’s cold is gone and the oppressive heat of summer hasn’t started.  Rain comes, the garden’s green and the flowers come in waves.

Fortunately, this year the halcyon weather continued on through December.  Whereas we'd normally expect he rain kept the garden green, and the temperature barely hit 30.  The most pleasant summer I can recall in Sydney.  The wisteria has grown truly bushy, filling the trellises and extending its tendrils all around the front garden, now stretching towards the back.

On the flipside, people were complaining about the rain, about the cool temperatures.  Listening to them was small price to pay, compared to wilting plants, heat beating down, and sleepless nights where the temperature doesn’t dip below 30.  Which is, incidentally, what the rest of Australia seems to have experienced at some point this summer.

And now the Sydney Morning Herald is positively celebrating the return of the sweaty heat.  From what they say was the coolest December in fifty years, Western Sydney was expected to reach a sweltering 39 degrees today, which a forecaster had the temerity to say constituted “the first decent sign of summer”.  There’s no pleasing some.

Wisteria, Oct-11

Wisteria, Jan-2012