Latin Names 101 for Journalists

Newspapers always get Latin names wrong. Over the years, I’ve submitted lots of correctly-formatted copy to editors and watched it get mangled. No more. Here are the rules (rules! not guidelines!) for using scientific names; share them with a journalist you care about.

Genus and Species

Latin names are in two parts, the genus and the species; sometimes there’s a subspecies or variety tacked on the end. “Species” is both a singular and plural noun, by the way.

The New Zealand dolphin, Cephalorhynchus hectori, has a North Island subspecies,
C. hectori maui.

Capitals

The genus always starts with a capital letter; the species never does, even if it’s named after a person’s proper name (like Cephalorhynchus hectori).

This is the first solid evidence that “modern” humans—or Homo sapiens—interbred with their Neanderthal neighbours.

Italics

Scientific names are always (always) written in italics. Higher-level groups (which have names like family, class, and order) are never italicised.

Nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida) is the only New Zealand member of the Arecaceae
or palm family.

When you’re talking about a whole genus of plants or animals, like Brassica, it’s also italicised. (Once a newspaper told me it’s “not AP style” to use italics and stripped them out, but set my byline in italics.)

Abbreviations

The first time the name’s used, genus and species are spelled in full. Subsequently you can abbreviate the genus.

Homo sapiens and H. neanderthalensis share 99.7 percent of their DNA.

If you don’t know exactly what species is referred to, or you want to talk about more than one, you can use sp. or spp. (plural) after the genus. Note: no italics.

Campylobacter spp. commonly contaminate food, and five species cause gastroenteritis in humans.
On New Year’s Day, Heaphy noted in his journal that he had shot and skinned some kind of kiwi (Apteryx sp.).

Articles

Journalists often wrongly refer to species with a definite article. It’s better to think of a Latin name as a name, like Dave Smith or Sauron.

The Anomalocaris was a large shrimp-like animal that lived 540 million years ago. [WRONG]
Anomalocaris was a large shrimp-like animal that lived 540 million years ago. [RIGHT]

Special Cases

  • The fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster, beloved of geneticists, is just referred to as Drosophila. It’s become the vernacular name, so doesn’t need italics.
  • The gut bacterium Escherichia coli is almost always referred to by its abbreviation, E. coli, for obvious reasons. Note: italics.
  • T. rex is the dinosaur, T Rex is the band.
  • Economists sometimes talk about the supposedly “rational human” homo economicus, which is really just a Latin phrase, not a proper biological name, so doesn’t need a capital.

Test

How many things are wrong with this quote?

“[The forestry worker] discovered a large native spider from the stanwellia species.”
(NZ Herald, August 14, 2014)

(Answer: four. “from”, missing italics, genus and species confused, and not capitalised)

Corrected version:

The forestry worker discovered a large native spider belonging to the genus Stanwellia.

or, better,

The forestry worker discovered a large native trapdoor spider (Stanwellia sp.).

Another Test

How many mistakes?

“A 24-cm-long giant amphipod, the alicella gigantean, has been found
in the Kermadec Trench.”
(modified from Stuff.co.nz, 23 Oct 2013)

(Answer: four. It should be Alicella gigantea, so missing italics, no capitalisation, needless definite article, and a species name which should look dubious even if your Latin is a bit rusty.)


Does it matter that newspapers get all this wrong? Yes. Geranium and Geranium aren’t interchangeable. The rules are set up so it’s as clear as possible exactly what plant, animal, or bacterial infection you’re referring to. Mess up the Latin name, and you end up talking about something else entirely, and cause confusion or even harm. Journalists pride themselves on getting things right; Latin names are easy to get right.


What the Heck, While I’m Here

CO2: No.
Co2: Nope, that’s two atoms of Cobalt.
CO2: Ugh, seriously no.
CO2: Correct! But almost never seen in a newspaper.

See also: H20, O2, and so on.

And At No Extra Cost

Phosphorus (n.): the element.
Phosphorous (adj.): Full of phosphorus; compare with sulphurous.

Further Reading

Making a Better Conference

Next week I’m going to a two-day professional meeting, a chance for all my peers to get together and compare notes, discuss burning questions in our field, network and arrange collaborations for the coming year, and so forth.

At least in theory. whale1 In practice, it’s:

  1. Two solid days of PowerPoint presentations, most just ten minutes long
  2. Forty-five minutes for lunch, two 15-minute tea breaks, and a generous 10-minute “stretch break/discussion time” each day, rather like primary school kids get to stop them fidgeting
  3. No informal get-togethers, poster session, dinner, or excursions at all
  4. A few “panel discussions” but with only one participant listed

I’m getting a bit weary of this model of conference organisation: packing as many unrelated one-way infodumps into the day as possible so everybody can get credit from their institution for presenting. In most cases they’re not sharing any actual new research or findings, it’s just a status update. Despite most of the presenters being curators of visual arts, I predict there will be lots of bullet-pointed text.

I’ll be talking about our moa project for ten minutes, just enough time to mention the 3D-scanning Kickstarter we’ll be doing but not enough time to answer more than one question about it. I’m at the end of a block of ten-minute talks which will inevitably go over time, so will have to choose between dropping the questions or stealing people’s tea break. (Telling people to keep to time in these things is useless; it requires the MC to actually cut people off before they’ve finished, which never happens, does it?)

Please, can we just toss this entire mode of professional interaction in the bin and set it on fire? whale2 2 I know it’s easy to come up with suggestions, and good ideas tend to fall apart when subjected to the brutal realities of conference planning. Nevertheless, here are some possibilities:

  • Six-minutes-forty-seconds pechakucha talks would be one way to keep people to time. And you actually have to rehearse for a pechakucha, which would be a nice change. Yes, it’s a bit more stressful, but (horrible statement coming up) people who don’t feel confident enough to give a pechakucha shouldn’t be giving public talks, or rather should be sharing their ideas in some other way.
  • An unconference with no scheduled talks and spontaneously-assembled sessions would be a better alternative for this small group. Everyone says what they want to share, the schedule is put together with Post-It notes or on a Google-doc spreadsheet, and people gravitate to what interests them. Everybody participates.
  • Having a particular goal: in my area, it might be thrashing out a joint statement on the trade in moa bones, collectively developed from discussions as a Google document, with everybody signing their names at the end. For others, it might be developing the initial concept for an app, or brainstorming an object list for a collaborative exhibition, or adding to a tips/trick list for Vernon, our database software. The idea is to produce something tangible at the end.
  • Panel discussions that are actual discussions, where people argue with each other, rather than deliver mini-lectures in parallel. The chairperson should be actively stopping people, inviting contributions from the audience (comments, votes, thrown objects), intervening with questions of their own, and grilling panel members. Even the conventions of a formal debate would be an improvement: yes/no to a stated proposition, time allocated for rebuttal.
  • Half the conference time—no less—devoted to networking, with empty rooms and projectors available for meetings and spontaneous workshops.
  • Adventurous use of Twitter: questions taken from the projected twitterstream, sessions formed in response to questions using the hashtag, Twitter handles first and largest on conference badges.
  • No conference pack stuffed with junky fliers and jellybeans, no comb-bound conference book. The programme should be a dynamic website, viewable on a mobile device (and loaner tablets should be available for people without sufficiently-smart phones).
  • Sketchnoting for every session, by volunteers or even a professional, collected together as a PDF and sent to all the attendees as a memento.
My sketchnotes from Hans-Martin Hinz's talk at ICOM in Auckland.

My sketchnotes from Hans-Matin Hinz’s talk at ICOM in Auckland.

These ideas wouldn’t solve all the problems of the traditional conference format, but in a small meeting, where collaboration is more important than formal presentations, they’d make for a more valuable use of everybody’s time.

Getting the Bones Right

Canterbury Museum, perhaps to fight the stuffy, musty-dusty stereotypes of museums, has been enthusiastically supporting street art both inside and outside the galleries with their RISE show. RISE The museum commissioned Belgian street artist ROA, famous for his giant black-and-white animal murals, to paint bird skeletons on the side of the building and the ceiling of the Bird Hall. Moa-penguin When I saw them, though, they just seemed wrong. I’m a zoologist—an avian osteologist, really—and spent years looking at and measuring bird bones, so I have a reasonable feel for what a bird’s skeleton looks like. moa-moa To make a long swan-like neck on the moa here, ROA has added some extra (overly-large) vertebrae. Compared to the neck on the Canterbury Museum’s own moa, it seems clunky and overdone. (I’m not too keen on those kiwi’s wings, either, but let that pass.) By the way, the hairy, almost fluffy pelt is part of ROA’s style—all his animals seem to have it, and it doesn’t bother me a bit. penguin-penguin The (hairy) penguin has a more subtle problem. In a bird, each arm of the wishbone attaches at the base of the wing, where the humerus meets the coracoid (the coracoids are those two strut-like bones supporting the breastbone—look for them next time you eat a chicken). But ROA has painted the wishbone upside down, joined to the sternum, the wrong end of the coracoid. To an ornithologist, it’s like painting someone with their arms on backwards.

So is this just pedantry, or does it actually matter? It bugs the hell out of me, because I know what skeletons actually look like, and most people don’t. Imagine if ROA had painted the ChristChurch Cathedral but gotten the rose window wrong, or the Mona Lisa but put her eyes just a bit too close together, or New Zealand but left off Stewart Island. That’s how it feels.

What about artistic license? Picasso painted people with both eyes on the same side of their head! Do you have a problem with that too?

But ROA doesn’t seem to be painting in a stylised, or abstract way—he’s always realistic if surreal, less Bill Hammond than Barry Cleavin (and Barry Cleavin always gets his skeletons right, by the way.) hammond-cleavin What’s more likely:

1. ROA, like Picasso, is making an artistic statement about how we depict reality by painting a representational, realistic skeleton—except for a few of the bones, which are deliberately false? (It’s a pretty subtle statement, too, given almost nobody will notice the backwards wishbone without having it pointed out.)

2. ROA stuffed up: through sloppiness, or unfamiliarity with bird skeletons, or because he just doesn’t much care about anatomy?

katowice-ROAI’m going with the latter. Which is a shame, because it wasn’t long ago that artists took pride in knowing some anatomy, and museums supplied skeletons for them to practise drawing. ROA was working from articulated skeletons supplied by the museum, and there was plenty of expertise on tap. Would it seriously have compromised his artistic vision to just get the bones right rather than wrong? As you can see, he’s gotten it right in the past, without noticeable ill-effects—check out that wishbone. Wait, what’s up with those wings? All the joints are going the wrong way. Scratch that.

But this is street art, Dr Museum Curator! Your dusty old standards don’t apply!

There’s an interesting implication that the standards for street art are lower, or that street artists aren’t “real” artists, except this isn’t street art any more. The museum commissioned it, co-opted it, for one of its most formal spaces—a place you feel uncomfortable even raising your voice. They probably wanted to capture some of the underground, anonymous frisson of street art, but framed by its new environment it’s pretty thoroughly institutionalised. And now the museum is stuck with it, for years and years.

But visitors love it!

Well of course they do, since it’s an improvement over a blank wall. Any reason why they wouldn’t love an accurate version just as much? The difference would be the museum would know it was accurate, and if museums stop caring about accuracy and truth and honouring their collections, who will?

The Canterbury Museum actually has an ornithologist on staff, one of the world’s foremost experts on moa bones, who could have pointed out these problems in fifteen seconds. My museum is actually planning to do a mural, which will probably involve a moa skeleton, and if I weren’t at least consulted I’d be furious. If the mural ended up something like ROA’s, I know how I’d feel, having to see it every day, having to show visiting ornithologists round the building and hear their chuckles and wisecracks, and knowing that my institution thought my expertise—and the mana of its collections—counted for less than the creative impulses of a visiting Belgian street artist.

Ten Reasons Not to Use QR Codes

ihr_qr_code_ohne_logoPixellated tattoos defacing advertising everywhere, QR codes are so fashionable. Oddly, the only people that actually want them seem to be marketing consultants, and I bet even they never actually use the things. The theory behind QR codes is great: a quick way of getting a long complicated chunk of text, like a URL, into your smartphone. In practice, though, I think they’re are lame, and here are ten reasons why.

  1. They’re ugly. Far more obtrusive than barcodes, the last-minute addition of a QR code can ruin a subtle ad or poster design, and there’s no way of minimising them—if you make them too small or reduce the contrast, they no longer work.
  2. They’re an enigma. “What am I supposed to do with this?” The QR code contains no affordances, no clue about how to read it. The user has to know in advance.
  3. They’re not integrated. One day there might be a little “read QR code” button in the toolbar of a smartphone browser or contacts app, but not yet. And so…
  4. The user has to install additional software. To be precise, he or she has to 1) already know what a QR code is, 2) go to the app store on their phone and know to search for “QR code reader”, 3) choose between the many, many competing readers, and 4) wait while one downloads and installs (which will often be an experience they’re paying to have). Maybe they’re standing in the hot sun doing this over a flaky 3G connection. Good luck.
  5. They’re not standardised. For example, STQRY.com uses its own special QRs, which you need to download its app to read; scanning an ordinary QR code from within STQRY doesn’t send you off to a web browser, it just gives you an error message. Let’s hope users can tell just by looking what kind of QR code they’re dealing with.
  6. There are no clues. A barcode always writes out the numbers it encodes, but QR codes contain no indication what’s going to happen when you scan them or where you’ll be sent.
  7. They’re often pointless. Right beside the QR code you’ll often find the home page (“Of course,” says the boss! “You can’t leave the URL off!”) and by definition the URL’s short and easy to type (“We spent $100,000 getting a short URL!”) and people have a browser right there on their smartphone, and know how to type, and know what a web address is. So how do you think they feel when the QR code sends them to the home page?
  8. Especially if the home page turns out be smartphone-unfriendly.
  9. They’re insecure. Because there’s no preview, every QR code is like clicking on a phishing link you can’t check. Because they’re physical objects, an enterprising criminal could easily replace ones on a billboard or poster with their own stickers. That we don’t hear about this happening is more evidence almost nobody’s using QR codes.
  10. They’re not future-proof. Some are generated by bit.ly or other proprietary services, which won’t last forever. When a URL breaks, at least you can tell what it was meant to be, and perhaps search for its new location; in 30 years, to find hardware and software that can read old QR codes you’ll have to go to a museum.

Greening the Rubble

urbanChchCabbageTreeChristchurch has become a wasteland. Half the buildings in the central city have been demolished and replaced by windswept fields of dusty grey gravel. Recovery will be years away; continued aftershocks and sluggish insurance companies have delayed things, and when a brand-new $4 million building can be seized and demolished there’s no incentive to be the first to rebuild.

In the meantime, that’s lots of empty space. Carparks proliferate. Rotary tries to brighten things up with naff little painted tyres filled with petunias. Volunteer organisation Greening the Rubble has been active building planter boxes, benches, and miniature parks, but doesn’t seem to progress much beyond places to eat lunch. And who wants to eat lunch in a wasteland?

Rotary tyre It seems a waste for an empty lot to sit in limbo, gradually filling up with invasive weeds. People want to plant something. Community gardens, allotments, and urban farms are tremendously appealing, but they can quickly (literally) go to seed after the first flush of enthusiasm has receded. No organiser wants to be saddled with an eyesore and be left with the responsibility for clean-up when the landowner wants to reclaim the property. So high-maintenance projects are out.

There’s a strong incentive for each landowner to turn their empty lot into a car park (although if the CBD becomes nothing but car parking, there’ll be no reason to drive there). How to discourage this? The City Council could reinstate one-hour-free parking, or remove CBD parking charges altogether, at least while there’s bugger-all in the central city. We may need to provide a structure that makes it economic for landowners to allow cultivation: perhaps sponsorship that could pay landowners a percentage of what they might make out of a car park.

There are other possible impediments. Urban lots may be contaminated by lead or heavy metals, so would need soil testing from a friendly lab that would appreciate some repeat business, perhaps with the help of sponsorship. If they’re over 100 years old, the Historic Places Trust might not approve of extensive cultivation. What would be really useful would be a database of every empty lot in Christchurch, with owner’s name, contact details, plans for rebuilding and time frame, and soil type. (The City Council should be taking the lead in compiling this database, and making the information available to anyone—Gap Filler, Life in Vacant Spaces, or any community group—who has a good idea for an empty space.)

Here are some ideas for greening central Christchurch: low-maintenance, low-input, and able to be reversed at a moment’s notice with little hassle.

Sunflower Garden

Sunflowers If you don’t like sunflowers, it might be because you’ve seen one or two scrawny specimens looking sad and lonely, buffeted by the wind. Sunflowers want to grow in an entire field, where they can support each other. A lot fenced on three sides with plenty of sun could be planted wall to wall with sunflowers, with dwarf varieties along any exposed edge to create a windbreak. Sunflowers are sowed in place from September to February, and in good conditions large varieties can grow 2–3 m tall. In autumn, the seed heads can be harvested by hippie granola-makers, or left as a bounty for goldfinches and other seed-eaters. The stalks can be stacked and dried to make a pleasant midwinter bonfire, and the rest of the lot planted in mustard or lupin cover crops to be cut and mulched come Spring.

Swan Plants

swanplant These can be planted a little earlier in the season, and grow well from left-over seed pods as well as commercial seed. There’s more opportunity for kids and parents to be involved, starting seedlings in trays or pots early Spring and bringing them all to the site. The problem with swan plants and monarchs—the perennial problem, that leads to crying kids and desperate trips to the garden centre to buy one or two pathetic little seedlings, out of season, while the nursery-owner cackles in glee—is too many caterpillars and not enough vegetation. If an entire lot is planted in swan plants, at a reasonably high density, and early enough, there is enough vegetation to allow a surprisingly number of caterpillars to pupate. The resulting flood of butterflies will be seen all over the central city. Very metaphorical.

Nettle Beds

nettles Monarchs are introduced butterflies, but we have two native butterflies (Red and Yellow Admirals) that are becoming increasingly rare. The caterpillars of both feed on nettles, both the giant and vicious native stinging nettle, ongaonga (Urtica ferox) and the introduced garden nettle. Nettles are pretty thin on the ground in the CBD. Although their seeds aren’t available from nurseries, one could source large numbers from back gardens by enlisting schoolkids: teachers arrange a field trip to the Nettle Butterfly Reserve, admission price one or more healthy nettle plants in a grocery bag; parents would have no objections to kids removing nettles from the garden. At the site is a volunteer entomologist, who can show the kids the butterfly life cycle, give them woolly caterpillars to handle, and enlist them in planting their donated nettles in rows. Nettles are perennials, grow like weeds, and would eventually fill the lot, providing a source for butterflies to spill out and spread to suburban gardens.

Urban Beefields

Clover One of the most appealing features of C1 Cafe’s new premises is its rooftop beehive. There are enough weeds springing up in empty lots to keep a few hives happy, but Christchurch could support fields of bee-friendly flowers, growing of course without any danger of pesticide drift. Honey bees and even some species of tiny native bees love weedy yellow-flowered compositae; sales of “urban honey” would be both good publicity and a fundraiser. Empty lots could also be planted in clover, both as urban pasture and as feed for bumblebees (which were introduced a century ago specifically to pollinate red clover). Bumblebees in the wild make hives in abandoned rabbit burrows; urban bumblebees could live in hand-made bee houses made of scrap timber.

Urban Pasture

goatIt seems almost criminal to see empty fields of gravel that could be producing clover or ryegrass. There’s a pretty well-developed industry in New Zealand devoted to converting flatland to pasture—Federated Farmers contributed a volunteer army to help shovel liquefaction, so I’m sure they’d be willing to lend a hand. Dairying has an image problem in Canterbury at the moment: perhaps Fonterra would like to sponsor a dryland pasture project to show they’re thinking about the future of Canterbury farming. Urban pasture naturally suggest urban grazing, a flock of sheep or herd of goats, with an urban goatherd moving them from pasture to pasture. Perhaps there would be enough pasture to support an urban horse-trekking business, the most leisurely way to take a tour around the Red Zone.

Other ideas

Native groundcovers—DoC’s Motukarara nursery could showcase different ways to cover bare ground, or create a green roof • A huge pumpkin patch or cornfield • Wheat, oats, and barley to make urban bread • Guerilla gardening in spare corners, or using “seed bombs” to get wildflowers rather than weeds growing in abandoned spaces.

Let’s take the idea of greening the rubble seriously. Every empty space should be growing something. Put that empty land to work, and make the transitional city less of a depressing eyesore.

Going Places

A NZ On Air pitch in eight tweets.

  1. Palmerston North’s rinky-dink airport would make a great setting for a Roger Hall sitcom.
  2. Its official motto is “Going Places”, a perfectly ironic title for the show.
  3. It already looks like it was built on a soundstage at Avalon.
  4. The sitcom’s protagonist is Madge the café owner; all her food is inedible (just like in real life).
  5. Madge has a bitter rivalry with Shirl who runs the book kiosk by check-in. This is the main dramatic tension.
  6. The Thrifty, Hertz, Avis, and Budget kiosks are all run by Tanya, who switches name badges as she ducks between them. Tanya is the comic relief.
  7. The $5 departure tax stand is staffed by curvaceous Monica “Development” Levy. She’s the villain.
  8. During the opening credits, a single bag cycles eternally on the luggage carousel.

Going places

Reading List for 2013

Tsundoku (Japanese): The act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books.

Last year I came up with a reading list of 47 books for 2012, but got through only 23, so I’ve scaled it back this year to a couple of dozen. I’ve sourced it from the Listener and Slate best-books-of-2012 lists, recommendations of D and friends, and even a suggestion from a random Twitter follower, but overall my cunning strategy this year is to be, well, late.

Last year the New Zealand media went into a full-scale literary feeding frenzy because The Forrests was tipped for the Man Booker Prize by an anonymous comment on the Hay Festival website. Anonymous British praise? Let’s all get in a fizz! Most Kiwis had never heard of the Hay Festival, of course, and for all the media knew it could have been any of the Festival staff; perhaps a caterer. “Look you, that Emily Perkins, she’d be a dead cert for Booker. You want chips with that, love?” The Forrests was the Listener book club pick only a few days after it had been officially published, and copies still damp from the presses were flying off bookstore shelves.

I decided it might be nicer to read it in 2013.

  • Alain-Fournier | Le Grand Meaulnes
  • Alain Badiou | In Praise of Love
  • Nicholson Baker | The Way the World Works
  • Julian Barnes | Through the Window
  • Quinn Berentson | Moa
  • Laurent Binet | HHhH
  • Katherine Boo | Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
  • Oliver Burkeman | The Antidote
  • Paul Callaghan | Wool to Weta
  • Bernardo Carvalho | Nine Nights
  • Richard Ford | Canada
  • Richard Fortey | Dry Storeroom No. 1
  • Nick Harkaway | The Gone-Away World
  • Ian Kershaw | Hitler: Profiles in Power
  • Elizabeth Jenkins | Harriet
  • Denis Johnson | Train Dreams
  • Ben Lerner | Leaving the Atocha Station
  • Mark Lynas | The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans
  • Robert Macfarlane | The Old Ways
  • Hilary Mantel | Bring Up the Bodies
  • Joe Meno | The Boy Detective Fails
  • Lydia Millet | How the Dead Dream
  • Nancy Mitford | Wigs on the Green
  • Alison Moore | The Lighthouse
  • Lawrence Norfolk | John Saturnall’s Feast
  • Lawrence Patchett | I Got His Blood On Me
  • Emily Perkins | The Forrests
  • Rebecca Priestley | Mad on Radium
  • David Quammen | Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic
  • Keith Ridgway | Hawthorn and Child
  • Marilynne Robinson | When I Was A Child I Read Books
  • Kim Stanley Robinson | 2312
  • Nina Simon | The Participatory Museum
  • David Thomson | The Big Screen
  • Claire Tomalin | Samuel Pepys: the Unequalled Self
  • Rose Tremain | Restoration
  • Chris Ware | Building Stories
  • Ashleigh Young | Can You Tolerate This?

Ducks and Horses

A certain amount of nonsense has been written about duck-sized horses and horse-sized ducks, and it’s time to set the record straight.

In an online Q&A session back in August, President Obama was asked, “Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?” The Atlantic wrote a cheerful article about Obama’s choice (horse-sized duck), but the biologists they hastily recruited as fact-checkers were obviously operating outside their specialty. I feel it’s rather a shame Obama staffers neglected to consult me, as that question was, in essence, my PhD topic; I could have given the President better advice, and explained why his intuition—that a single giant duck would be an easier fight—is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The Fight

Ground rules: in the immortal tradition of Flash Gordon or Star Trek, the President finds himself alone in an arena, armed only with what he can improvise (“Your drones will not help you now, Mr President”). He’s faced with two doors: behind each are the opponent(s) he must defeat in order to, I don’t know, save the Earth. Which should he choose?

Horse-Sized Duck

A good-sized horse weighs 500 kg, or half a metric ton. What would a half-tonne duck look like, exactly? The problem is most people aren’t thinking of the biological scaling laws, known as allometry, that come into play when you make animals larger or smaller. While I’m sure John Eadie, the conservation ecologist quoted by The Atlantic, knows his field, he’s just wrong to imagine a giant duck would be dealing terrible blows with its enormous wings. It would be flightless, and its wings would be reduced to tiny stubs or have vanished altogether.

(Were you imagining a horse-sized duck would just be a mallard duck scaled up to the size of a horse? Well, if you’re happy with it collapsing to the ground wheezing, unable to walk or breathe, be my guest, but ignoring allometry wouldn’t make for much of a fight.)

obamadromornis

The closest thing to half-tonne ducks we have in the fossil record are Gastornis, sometimes known as Diatryma, from Europe and North America, and the dromornithids of Australia. Both were enormous moa-sized birds, related to ducks and geese, with huge sturdy legs and gigantic sharp beaks. They’re sometimes thought to be scavengers or fruit-eaters, but were likely predators similar to the better-known but unrelated phorusrachids of South America. Dromornis stirtoni, one of the largest birds ever, approached 500 kg and has even been nicknamed “the demon duck of doom” by Australian paleontologists, in their playful way.

Duck-Sized Horses

What’s a typical duck? I had to measure many, many duck bones to come up with a model for estimating body mass from femur diameter. There are over 100 species of ducks, and they range from less than 300 g (10 ounces) to about 4 kg (9 lbs); the “average duck” weighs about 700 g, the same as a guinea pig. That’s smaller than you would think, but more of a bird’s volume is made up of feathers than most people realise, now that we no longer pluck our own game.

What would a duck-sized horse look like? The smallest horse that springs to mind for most people is the ancestral Eohippus, famously “fox-terrier” sized, but actually about 30 kg according to more recent models (such as MacFadden’s in his 1994 book on fossil horses), so about 40 times too large for our purposes. When we scale animals up and down in size, allometry—the laws of physics—has far more effect on their appearance than their ancestry does. A dog-sized horse has body proportions about that of a dog; a guinea-pig sized horse would look pretty much like a guinea pig.

eohippusguineapig

Wouldn’t about 100 of them be fairly formidable, though? The herding behaviour of horses and other large herbivores lets them spot predators and defend themselves if necessary, but that only works if predators are roughly the same size as them. For a predator 100 times your size, the only response is not to try and swarm it, but to flee in terror.

Conclusion

President Obama weighs about 80 kg. Should he try to take down a 500 kg bird, with its powerful kick and huge razor-sharp beak, using just his bare hands? Or should he rather face 70 kg of terrified guinea pigs, which would require nothing but stout footwear? If the Earth’s fate is in the balance, the choice is clear, and it’s a specific instance of a general law I once came up with: nothing in evolution (or imaginary arena combat) makes sense except in the light of allometry.

December Reading

Books Acquired

  • Blood, Bones, and Butter: the Inadvertant Education of a Reluctant Chef | Gabrielle Hamilton
  • The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren | Peter and Iona Opie
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers | Katherine Boo
  • Restoration | Rose Tremain
  • Equus | Peter Shaffer
  • Coming Up Roses | Sarah Laing
  • It Chooses You | Miranda July
  • The Uncommon Reader | Alan Bennett
  • Worst Journeys: the Picador Book of Travel | Keath Fraser

Books Read

  • Bad Science | Ben Goldacre
  • The Desolation Angel | Tim Wilson
  • The Last Days of Hitler | Hugh Trevor-Roper

The highlight this month, and one of the best books I read all year, was Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, wherein he debunks alternative medicine, dodgy medical research, and credulous journalism while giving us a crash course in clear thinking and basic stats. I know it’s too much to ask all doctors, scientists, and (especially) journalists to write in such an engaging and straighforward way, but they could at least read Goldacre to see how it’s done. I’d recommend this book for anyone who has to weight up the claims of medical researchers and alternative-medicine practitioners (and that’s pretty much all of us, these days). Goldacre’s coming to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival in May, and I’m sure he’ll be worth catching.


Over a year ago, I decided I would draw up a reading list for 2012, cribbing from various best-ofs and friends’ suggestions. It was an experiment to see what effect this had on my book-buying (which had gotten a bit out of control) and my reading (which had started to wither away). So how did the Year of Reading experiment go?

My 2012 reading list was 47 books, about 16,500 pages total, and I finished 23 of them. A couple of books I dropped from the list: Caribou Island because it sounded totally depressing, Hungry Heart because I saw Peter Wells speak at the Writers Festival and lost all confidence in wading through what seemed like an overly-idiosyncratic biography of Colenso. So that’s a 50% success rate.

But the big surprise was in how much other reading I got done, just by consciously setting aside time for it: 73 books total, one every five days. Most of my reading for the year was not therefore taken from that carefully-curated reading list, but it still seems to have served a purpose.

Consciously keeping track of everything I bought also proved interesting. Over the year I acquired 123 books, and had one of my irregular shelf purges in October, which got rid of 40 (for credit at Classics and Suchlike in Ponsonby, so eventually to be converted back into books again, but fewer books in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.) I could then calculate how many unread books I’d accumulated:

(Books acquiredbooks purged) – books read = net library gain
(123 – 40) – 73 = 10 (yes, that is ten)

For the first time in Lord-knows-how-many years, reading almost kept up with buying. True, only because of a one-off asset liquidation, and true, this doesn’t reduce the Current Reading Deficit which LibraryThing helpfully tells me stands at 270 books. But it’s something, so I declare the Year of the Reading List a success.

Favourites: The Stranger’s Child, Bad Science, The Road, Moominpappa at Sea, Bird by Bird, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, The Sisters Brothers
Abandoned: Feast Day of Fools, Dreamers of the Day, In War Times, Are You My Mother?
Should Have Abandoned: Anathem, Home Fires


Something I learned from this experiment is that putting a big, forbidding book on a reading list is not enough actually to make you read it: the doorstop of The Rest is Noise, with its suggested iTunes playlist, sat by my bed for a couple of months. Reading lists can be good, though, for making you pick up something you always meant to get to. The Last Days of Hitler is history as investigative journalism, reconstructing the end of the Third Reich immediately after its demise, at a time when the fate of Hitler was still a matter of rumour. Trevor-Roper methodically dispels the idea that the Nazi regime was a totalitarian machine: in his blunt account, it was a bunch of scheming clowns and courtiers.

My final book of the year, which took some tracking down given it’s by a local author, was Tim Wilson’s remarkable short story collection about OE, sex, the media, and bleak relationships; each story a small slightly surreal gem. I finished it on Christmas Day and it felt like a gift.

November Reading

Books Acquired

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | James Joyce
  • A Treasury of Damon Runyan | Damon Runyan
  • Arguably: Selected Essays | Christopher Hitchens

Books Read

  • This is How You Lose Her | Junot Díaz
  • A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy | William Irvine
  • Robbing the Bees: a Biography of Honey | Holley Bishop

Most cookbooks are never actually used. They’re aspirational, collected as an aid to daydreaming, or to inflame culinary fantasies—food pornography. Food porn has full-page colour photos art-directed with vintage crockery and worn oak tables, poorly-written recipes in tiny type, and binding that stubbornly refuses to lie flat or fit in a recipe stand. Almost everything in the cookery section of a bookshop qualifies, so it must meet a need.

An analogous genre I think is on the rise, particularly in New Zealand, is rural porn. Not nasty romps in the woodshed, but seductive portrayals of country life for city folk who dream of retiring to a lifestyle block and idly growing olives. I’ve noticed this tendency in myself, as I drool over the plans for quirky cottages in Lloyd Khan’s Shelter, design imaginary orchards while flicking through Trees for the New Zealand Countryside, and hunt out books on dry-stone walling or stile construction.

Holley Bishop’s rural porn Robbing the Bees is especially seductive, because it’s the sub-genre wherein the author acts out the reader’s fantasies by flinging themselves inexpertly into a rustic pursuit (chickens, sheep, oranges); in this case, bees. It’s three stories in one: a cheerful romp through the history of beekeeping, a year in the life of a Florida tupelo-honey producer—quirky, rustic, passionate—and the author’s account of becoming a beekeeper herself, making all the mistakes you would expect. The reader can easily picture themselves doing the same—tending their hives, harvesting honey—except the actual life of an apiarist that Bishop describes punctures the fantasy by being hot, hard, and occasionally painful work, a note of realism cutting through the Arcadian hum.


William Irvine has produced an accessible overview of Stoic philosophy, applied rather than theoretical, and updated to contemporary concerns. It’s a bit plodding in tone, but improves as you get into it. Irvine finds the common ground of Stoicism and Zen Buddhism, and the techniques he lists show interesting similarities with cognitive behavioural therapy, so much so that you wonder how much of a modern twist has been put on the Greeks. But you finish it with a real desire to read Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, which is some achievement.

After reading Irvine, you’ll be wishing that Yunior, the Dominican-American protagonist of most of Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, would read some Stoic philosophy or indeed anything that would stop him messing up his life. These linked short stories were written over 14 years but read as a loosely-joined novel, finishing with the most painful and likely-autobiographical, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”. Díaz writes in a loose Spanish-English mixture, poetic and crude, completely enthralling and unlike anything else I’ve read all year; I’ll be checking out Oscar Wao.


I’ve completely lost touch with the Listener book club since Look At Me. It seemed like a good idea, encouraging everyone to read the same book each month and discuss it online, but it being a partnership with NZ booksellers made me suspicious. Sure enough, Bring Up the Bodies and The Forrests were chosen as two successive monthly selections: both had only just been published, and our local independent bookstore was barely able to order copies in time for people to read them. Forget about trying the library—this looked like a promotional tool for bookshops. No thanks.

Downton Abbey: Season 10

Downton Abbey with National Trust signs

By Season 10, Downton Abbey will be owned by the National Trust, and each week we’ll follow the lives and loves of the volunteer tour guides.

Episode 10.1: Panic during the visit of a minor Royal: a school group from Ripon has stolen all the toilet paper. Graffiti in the scullery!

Episode 10.2: Consternation over the newly-restored library’s anachronistic antimacassar. The gift shop’s Downton teatowels ruffle feathers.

Episode 10.3: In a very special episode, doddering Lord Grantham visits, has a cup of milky tea, and tells stories of Downton’s history [clip show].

Episode 10.4: High-tech audioguides put the older volunteers at sixes and sevens; mystery trysts in the butler’s pantry.

Episode 10.5: A Devonshire tea disaster escalates tensions between the gift shop and café. There is beastliness with a costumed intepreter.

Episode 10.6: As the Heritage Lottery Fund grant deadline looms, Downton’s way of life is—once again—in peril.

Episode 10.7: Unwashed mugs in the tearoom create bitter divides. A butter-churning demonstration goes terribly wrong.

Episode 10.8: A location shoot for the latest Bond movie saves the day, but will it stop Downton being turned into a corporate team-building retreat?

Christmas Special S10: Downton Abbey is chosen as the setting for a WWI-era costume drama on ITV; Season 11 will follow the cast and crew’s lives and loves.

Tom Cruise is Always Getting Older

In 2012, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and Brad Pitt all turned 50. As is usual in Hollywood, when leading men age their on-screen romantic interests become relatively younger and younger. Here’s Mr Cruise’s age over his 30-year career plotted against that of each leading lady, from 24-year-old Rebecca De Mornay to 34-year-old Malin Åckerman.

  1. The last time it was deemed acceptable for Mr Cruise to be seen with a woman his own age was in 1992; he was 30. (Demi Moore, A Few Good Men.)
  2. Trivia: Tom Cruise has co-starred with Nicole Kidman three times: Days of Thunder (1990), when she was 23; Far and Away (1992), 25; and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), 32.
  3. The data suggest Mr Cruise’s female leads age only 10 years to his 30: when he’s 80, his co-star will be 44. If you find this creepy, you are not habituated to Hollywood movies.
  4. Although, since each of Tom Cruise’s three marriages ended when his wife hit 34, this graph may be expressing some sort of physical constant—τo (Oldest Woman Touchable By Tom) = 34. If this is correct, either his co-stars’ ages will level off, or Mr Cruise will be forced to stop acting.