Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Word of the day: sept

It's not what you think.  Not even remotely.

I'm not referring to the Game of Thrones equivalent of a church (albeit it's the same spelling), nor any other meanings derived from septem, Latin for seven.


A sept is a division of a (large) family, especially a division of a clan.  It's particularly applicable to Scotland and Ireland, where there can be large groupings of people with identical surnames.

"In seventeenth-century Scotland Clan Campbell stood by itself as a separate race, almost a separate state, whose politics were determined by the whim of its ruling prince.  Built upon the ruins of many little septs, it excelled [sic] in numbers and wealth every other Highland clan."

From John Buchan's Montrose (1928, p213), a biography of James Graham (1612 - 1650), Marquess of Montrose.  He was a Scottish nobleman in the time of the English Civil War, who fought on the royalist side against the Covenanters.  This was a Scottish movement which replaced the Anglican hierarchy of bishops with an assembly of elders, from which arose the Presbytarian church.  Montrose was on the losing side in several ways, but his victories gave him a good reputation as a military strategist.


Sept appears to be a corruption of sect; State Papers from 1535 and 1537 refer respectively to secte then septe; possibly influenced by the Latin saeptum (fence, enclosure), which also gave rise to the anatomy term septum, for a partition between two cavities.  Sept is cognate (language derivation-equivalent) with the German equivalent, sippe.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Are there some things Google isn't telling us?

Here's a little something that's amusing but barely explicable about Google.

First I have to mention a couple of things about data modelling.  When dealing with data, an attribute tells you something about an object, such as its colour or date ordered.  In a dimensional data model, objects from the real world are set up with dimensions, which are essentially more structured versions of attributes, with multiple representations of each, such as day, month, date.  So in fact the terms are generally used in slightly different contexts.

Does that make enough sense?  Or can Mr Google find a way of explaining it more clearly?  Let's see:

So far, so good: it's anticipated my question.  But if you're a quick typist, you'll be most of the way there already.  At this point, Google somehow gets rather more... mysterious...

Dimension vs Alligator??

You may be asking, why not attribute at this point?  Someone discussed this recently in the back of New Scientist recently, in the context of predictive text on phones.  Inter alia, they noted that if you keep on typing, the algorithm figures the initial predictions are not what you wanted, and tries something... different...

Sadly, if you really wanted to know the difference between dimensions and alligators, Google goes all huffy, and compares alligators with crocodiles instead.  What are you hiding, Mr Google?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Erratic Marxism stalks the EU

In Febrary 2015 in the Guardian, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis wrote "How I became an erratic Marxist".  The gist is that he's working with European capitalism because
"Europe’s crisis is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath."

 Maybe that doesn't sound to you like a Marxist - but he still calls himself one, and that was clearly my experience from his lectures at Sydney University in the 1990s.

In the above Guardian article, he also mentions that he found out later that his Sydney appointment was aimed at keeping out a left-wing candidate - which I find quite ironic, but the best of outcomes.

This article is based on his 2013 address (before his entry to parliament) to the 6th Subversive Festival in Zagreb,Croatia: "Confessions of an erratic Marxist". He argues that "Marx must remain central to our analysis of capitalism" but that at this point [then and now], it is necessary "to stabilise capitalism; to save European capitalism from itself".  You can watch the address here, or read his intermediate version of this article on his blog here.  You can read a more mainstream Marxist response to this ("poppycock") on a blog post from one Michael Roberts, More Erratic than Marxist, which has some debate on the issue afterwards.

(For what it's worth, the Yanis I remember looked more like this:

Friday, March 06, 2015

Peer Gynt Hunted By The Trolls

Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt is a five-act play in verse; it was planned and staged from the outset to be accompanied by Edvard Greig's incidental music, so the music has always been integral to the verse play.

The best recording of Greig's Peer Gynt is said to be Thomas Beecham/RPO's 1957 version.  My copy of the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs says other recordings "rest under the shadow of Beecham's".  And that's the one I grew up with; and I have it on CD now.  Standouts for me are Ase's Death and, of course, a superlative version of In the Hall of the Mountain King, complete with a wild and thrilling Germanic chorus that you just don't often hear.

But when we listen to Grieg's Peer Gynt, we're not hearing it all.  Most versions have only about eight to ten pieces, but the complete score had 26 movements, some of them only rediscovered in the 1980s.

Last week, I took a spur-of-the-moment opportunity to acquire a two-CD set - why not try something different?

It was Neeme Jarvi's 1987 recording with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, which turns out to be the first full recording, and which Penguin placed at the top of the extended recordings.

Definitely worthwhile in itself - Grieg is far too underrated.  But the most pleasant surprise, and my highlight of the week, was hearing a piece called Peer Gynt Hunted By The Trolls.  Not very long, but it's a wonderful counterpoint to Mountain King - it's the same wild ride, but also gives me the thrill of the new.  Maybe Grieg left it off the musical suites he spun off from the work because it sounded too similar to Mountain King.  To the casual observer, perhaps, but if you're just too familiar with Mountain King, this brings back the excitement, then heightens it.  Listen to them together.

Here's some representations.  The first one's Beecham's; the second is similar to Jarvi's, but omits the dialogue.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The slide of a Prime Minister: why the knighthood?

The downward trajectory of PM Tony Abbott was sharpened by the announcement on Australia Day that Prince Philip would be given a (recently-resurrected) Australian knighthood.

This had a spillover effect on the Queensland State election a week later, and was undoubtedly the deciding factor in putting the opposition over the line.

Abbott survived a party-room vote for a leadership spill, but has been left with the certainty of a harrowing descent from top dog to oblivion before the next election.  He had been consistently on the nose with the electorate ever since he was elected, demonstrating his opposition skills did not transfer to actual leadership.  He has clearly not grown with the job, as recent media attested.

The biggest puzzle here is: why did Abbott give Prince Phillip a knighthood?  The following is the only rational explanation I can find.

First, a brief history.  Australia’s own honours awards were established in 1975; prior awards to Australians were under the British system.  However, it wasn’t until the conservative Liberals were elected in 1976 that knighthoods were awarded.  These lasted only until 1983, when Labor abolished knighthoods again.  The next conservative PM (Howard) didn’t re-establish them, but Abbott, a long-time monarchist, did in 2014, after a gap of 30 years.

This was “advised” to the Queen, signed and gazetted from April 2014.  Honours are awarded in June (the “Queen’s Birthday” public holiday on the second Monday in June) and January (Australia Day, the 26th).

Clearly, to give Prince Phillip a knighthood, it would have to be squared with the Palace in advance, say four months.  My thinking is that Abbott effectively gave him a knighthood at the first available opportunity.  But the question is, why?

I suspect that as a monarchist, Abbott had such a plan from way back.  He may have felt that the republican sentiment of recent times was a little close to the bone, and the best way to draw back from that was to bring the monarchy closer to Australia.  A royal tour, yes, and we’ve had two since Abbott was elected.  But if a Royal with sufficient gravitas was knighted, surely that would bring the two countries closer together?  Of course, this excludes the younger ones who inhabit the pages of the gossip magazines.  So who’s available?

Surprisingly enough, Charles was given an Australian knighthood, in 1981 – possibly in anticipation of his wedding.  So there’s a precedent.  Can’t do the monarch, so who’s left?

Now Phillip’s not that bad.  Harmless, shows he has a sense of humour.  And if he’s a bit of a duffer, surely the larrikin in the typical Australian will warm to this as we draw him closer to us.

So the plan was put in train as soon as possible after Abbott became PM in September 2013.

However, that didn’t allow for Abbott’s poor reception with the voting public – which only compounded when his actual policies floundered (and foundered) at the hands of a less-than-sympathetic Senate.

Sometimes, when faced with unpopularity, Abbott spoke glibly of his prerogative to make “Captain’s calls”.  Come January 2015, he didn’t want to lose face with the “Palace” by withdrawing the Sir Prince proposal, so he figured he’d just have to grit his teeth and take a tiny bit more flak for one more Call.

He must have known it was a stupid call, because he admitted to “consulting” only one other person beforehand: the Chair of the Order of Australia Council – Angus Houston – who, as it happened, was the only other Australian whose knighthood was announced for the same day.

In the cloistered world of his own opinion, Abbott may have thought Australians would put up with this Captain’s Call with few grumblings, especially since the electorate had apparently voted in favour of monarchy in 1999.  But the depth of the subsequent backlash must have surprised many.  Even within his own party, a significant groundswell of opposition was publicly voiced.

Australia has a strong tradition of not electing governments for a single term only.  However, the Victorian election in November gave the lie to this, and the Liberals were booted out.  Surely this couldn’t happen in Queensland, where the Liberals comprised 78 out of the 89-seat parliament, and Labor had been reduced to a rump of seven?  Although one might expect a backswing at the next election, but not normally such a reversal that the Liberals were defeated.

So my story is one of a Prime Minister who came from a presumption of prerogative, then later felt he couldn’t lose face with the Palace and back down from a risky move, even at a dangerous time.  It speaks to a particularly autocratic leadership style, one that is not inclined to the consultative.  This is reflected in both his Captain’s Calls, and his strong affinity to a chief of staff (Peta Credlin) who is by all accounts particularly capable, but just as authoritarian – even to Cabinet Ministers.

There is no Get Out Of Jail for Abbott by now.  His several electorates have stopped listening, and the slips he is still making are not being indulged.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Economics, Europe, intellectual engagement, hats

I had an economics lecturer at university who gave the best course I ever attended.  It was on the history of liberalism.  A sadly misused term in the US, this does not refer to the politics of anyone who is vaguely left of centre: in  the true sense it refers to the political philosophy that underpins the western world, including capitalism.

It was the way he presented the material that mattered the most to me.  Assuming, of course, that I have no fundamental disagreement, I'm a sucker for anyone who has verve and who is intellectually engaging.  And he had that enthusiasm, he had a sharp sharp mind, and he was particularly engaging. Ultimately, his response to liberalism was... praxis.  That is, action.  A punchline that initially sounded like an anticlimax, but it had - and has - a truckload of meaning, in context.  Given the journey and the challenges he took us through in that course, I still have enormous respect for him, and would still take any course he has on offer.

So, it looks like my lecturer, Yanis Varoufakis, is now the Greek Minister of Finance.  And he's going to be central to negotiations on the future of the monetary union.

Of course, his coalition's platform is absolutely opposed to the EU-imposed austerity program in Greece.  And Yanis remains a thorough-going Marxist, whatever anyone says.  But he's a very practical person, and he understands the practical mechanics of capitalist economics very well.  I expect him to be able to face up to the best negotiators Europe has to offer, so I think the ultimate outcome is going to be good for both Greece and Europe.

PS My teenage son's values are different, and none of this matters to him.  The main credibility Yanis has with my son is his contribution to the games-maker Valve, in the economics of trade in virtual hats.