Yearly Archives: 2010


One simple method for improving the quality of student essays: don’t let them pick their own topic. • The problem with goat cheese is that sometimes it tastes rather like it originated in the nether regions of a goat. • That Kim Cattrall is such a classy dame: I wish she were MY mum. • Olduvai, Amboseli / Turkana, Tsavo, Gombe / Olorgesailie, Tanganyika / Serengeti, Aberdares: the biologist’s African litany. • The Chch Press today twice bylined food writer Paula Wolfer. Next week: guest articles by Jamie Olive and Nigel Slate. • It’s exam time. The university seems as deserted as if there’d been a Zombie Apocalypse. But if the Uni were infested with zombies, how would you tell? Answer: zombies can’t ride skateboards. • ‘The command “” is not currently available.’ Thanks, Adobe Bridge CS4, for that helpful message. And for sucking royally. • My band is called the Broken Bear Club, but based on our last gig a better name might be The Dunning-Kruger Effect. • MHRA is the style guide for the Modern Humanities Research Association, but also stands for Michigan Hot Rod Association. Their style guide: 1) More fonts. 2) Bigger fonts. 3) Fonts with flames. • I am trying to popularise an alternative term for submitting a thesis: “having a wordbaby”. • Almost want to get another ukulele, just so I can write “this machine annoys fascists” on it. • In literary quiz, thought “Last Man in Europe” must be the working title of Mein Kampf. No actually it’s 1984. Sorry, George. • The UC library bans messy, smelly, hot, or noisy food. If they banned messy, smelly, hot, or noisy students it would be deserted. • Those moaning about how the Web rots our “ability to focus” should recall the innate concentration skills of monkeys and toddlers. • Pre-human Long Island was the home of herds of dwarf mammoths and flocks of giant flightless cranes. • After a find/replace of double spaces in InDesign, a “Search completed.9 replaced.” message using double spaces. Is Adobe taunting me? • Someone who would microwave a croissant would steal sheep. • G#7 is not in fact the Devil’s chord; that’s FM7. G#7 is Cordo Diabolo, Esus4 is Main Crispé, and Asus2 is The Buster. #fakeukulelelore • One of my vert bio students once claimed that the gastrocnemius connects the humerus and femur, or the ulna and heel. He did not pass. • @adzebill


UC is sacking librarians, but I pass a full crew of guys with leafblowers every morning. I guess you need nice lawns for the brochures. • At Duke, the wanna-be frat boys carried around pledge bats. Here, the corresponding dork object is the skateboard; but what’s the frat? BOI? • As late as 1974, a popular history of NZ claimed Māori, like Anglo-Saxons, were descended from Aryan Caucasians. I’m not sure if even Te Rangi Hīroa could have convincingly argued “We’re Aryan Caucasians!” to the Third Reich if WWII had gone badly… • The problem with a Facebook page for your newborn baby is they won’t have the tech skills to admin it until they’re about 3 or 4. MORE work… • Richard Dawkins’ wife is the great-granddaughter of the world’s first motor-vehicle-accident victim (Lalla and Mary Ward respectively). • Reeves, 1898: Average NZer loathes “Mongolians, Negroes, and Aborigines…but he likes the Maori, and is sorry that they are dying out.’ • “Clear enough the aunt let a stranger’s praise change her life.” E. Annie Proulx, on the power of teachers. • In the Green Room at the Aotea Centre discussing Rousseau with my learnèd panel-mates before we’re miked up. La di dah. • Implausible country songs: “I’ve Got Tears in My Ears All From Lyin’ There and Cryin’ ’Cause I’ll Never Have an iPad and I’m Sad (iPad Sad)” and the follow-up hit “If I Could Unskew Your Heart (with a Log Transformation)”. • Just bought a used iPod, and found upon connecting to iTunes its name is “Bdawgs ipod” [sic]. Ecch. Cannot wait to wipe it. • Pop quiz: Elucidate the five (5) errors perpetrated by the phrase “Bdawgs ipod”. (5 marks, 140 characters). • Answers: 1) no apostrophe, 2) l.c. “p” in iPod, 3) redundancy: of course it’s an iPod, 4) dawg, and 5) calling oneself Bdawg. • @adzebill

Extra Credit Biology Questions

  1. Which king died from eating too many lampreys?
  2. Which Roman emperor saved a slave from being thrown to the lampreys?
  3. What’s the green stuff in the yolk of hard-boiled eggs, and how do you stop it appearing?
  4. Where can one see Arnold Schwartzeneggar’s handprints (not just footprints) on public display?
  5. What problem does the Scarecrow face when he gets his brain?
  6. There’s a science fiction story I read once where a mad scientist operated on crocodiles to repair the imperfect septum in their heart and make it four-chambered. The crocs became frisky, agile, and started putting on weight. What happened to them ultimately?
  7. What’s the major scientific flaw in this story?
  8. How many Philistines did Samson slay with the jawbone of an ass?
  9. Why an ass?
  10. When did people stop calling the stuff in your head ‘your brains’ and start calling it ‘your brain’, and why?
  11. Do people really eat live monkey brains?
  12. Which bit of the cow’s stomach tastes nicest?
  13. How can you tell that skeleton on the banner belonged to a bird, and was it a bird that could kick you to death?


1886, Rotorua: a ‘brief ordinary dance’, or one ‘complete with indecencies, which they said the gentlemen usually preferred, for £3/10’. • Forgotten co-discoverer of the structure of DNA? No, not her; kiwi Maurice Wilkins. Shared the Nobel with Watson & Crick, not being dead. • “Don’t get arrested!” “No way, bro!” Five minutes later he’s haring drunkenly down Manners St with someone’s purse. (She got it back.) • Cock-throwing: tying a rooster atop a post & throwing coksteles (special weighted sticks) at it. Thomas More boasted of his skill at this. Yes, that would be St Thomas More who was expert at knocking chickens off a post. Also torturing heretics. Odd we care more about chickens. • Must be careful not to call tearful students “weepers” when they’re within earshot, composing themselves in the LSC toilet. • Meander: decorative border, a single line shaped into a repeated motif. Found in Greek art & also on the iconic NY coffee cup, the Anthora. • Lectures are a sanity-preserving collective delusion, in which professors can pretend they’re teaching and students that they’re learning. • Only had Windows on my Macbook for 20 minutes before it started acting like a dickhead. Windows “scrambled the clock”. Result: Mac password failed at login. Locked out of my computer, helpdesk bemused, frantic hunt for Mac Guy. “Oh, they all do that,” said Mac Guy. “Just unplug the ethernet cable and plug it in again.” Wanted to slap him. • Sigur Rós’s Með Suð I Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust is very nice, especially Góðan Daginn. Ooo, lookee me, I’m all Icelandic, call me Björk. • @adzebill


Nearly every bus or train company logo has an arrow on it. But in Sydney they kick the arrows up a notch with some sweet motion blur. • A long bus trip through central South Island is lovely, except when driver plays ghastly Disney ice hockey movie (Mighty Chiefs 3, ★☆☆☆☆) • Oh, curse you, Wikipedia; here I am, at midnight, reading about the feud between Eminem and the Insane Clown Posse. With footnotes. • People keep mistaking me for the Grammar Police. At best I’m a washed-up private eye. Usually just a stool pigeon. • Favourite words from Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union: tohubohu, shpilkes, patzer, shaydl, freylekh. • Bringing a ukulele to a jam session is like bringing a knife to a gunfight where everyone’s firing their guns REAL LOUD WOO HOO YEAH. • Misheard “brick-throwing” contest at Stroud Country Show as “pig-throwing”. Like hammer throw? Ridgebacks more aerodynamic? Weight classes? • Although I love Björk and Sigur Rós, I don’t think we’ll be naming our band Eyjafjallajökull. • Headline: “Teens’ amazing escape from airborne car”. Nope, actually just “briefly-airborne”. A pity—I’d have bought that paper. • One happy side effect of not having a TV or radio is that I’ve yet to hear a Kiwi journo trying to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull. EY-af-yat-ly-a-kut, or EY-ef-ed-lay-uke, or AYE-ya-fyah-dla-yow-kudl. Depending on which native Icelandic speaker you ask. • Eyjafjallajökull is, sort-of: “Eh? a Fiat, la yoghurt”, said reallyreallyfast. There, sorted. Last volcano-pronunciation tweet, promise. • Just been served a vile meal at Etrusco, Dunedin. Avoid. They said their bread was fresh from Brumby’s; I wouldn’t feed my dog bread from Brumby’s. Tempted to actually get a dog, just to be able to truthfully make this claim. • Karl May’s Wild West stories (enjoyed by Hitler and Einstein) were later filmed in Yugoslavia with German-speaking cowboys & indians. • @adzebill

The Toothbrush Fence of Te Pahu

It all started, so they say, when Graeme Cairns (of the Big Muffin Serious Band) acquired, in the course of having numerous flatmates, a bucket of toothbrushes.

Te Pahu is half an hour from Hamilton, in the heart of Waikato cow country. The landscape is rolling green, dotted with trees and streams and small farms. It’s beautiful but rather samey, without much in the way of landmarks, until you turn a corner and see toothbrushes strung the length of a paddock.

At first the fence grew slowly, as friends and visitors added their own brushes. But its fame spread. Backpackers began making a pilgrimage just so they too could contribute to the Toothbrush Fence. Its GPS coordinates became well known amongst rally-car orienteers, who would use it as an eye-catching waypoint. People overseas even sent brushes to be added (c/ “The bucket on the toothbrush fence, 294 Limeworks Loop Rd, RD5, Te Pahu, NZ”). Celebrities added brushes, including Prime Minister Helen Clark, who hails from Te Pahu.

But surely the fence’s finest hour was its mention in Season 1 of Flight of the Conchords (Bret Gives Up the Dream) when Murray, responding to the taunts of the Australian consul, points out that while Australia might have Ayer’s Rock, we have “a fence made of toothbrushes.” New Zealand hearts swelled with pride upon hearing those words, for we know the Toothbush Fence epitomises all that is great about this fair land of ours.

Graeme Cairns is a member of the McGillicuddy Serious Party from way back, and the fence began as an absurdist art project, a satire on more earnest and legitimate tourist attractions. Its becoming a tourist attraction in its own right, despite being of no historical or political significance whatsoever, proves that people appreciate a little absurdism in their lives.

The fence is a success because it’s a participatory artwork. Nina Simon, in her book The Participatory Museum, describes a new generation of exhibits to which visitors can actively contribute; to work, the visitor interaction needs to be structured in some way, not forbiddingly freeform, and have a low bar for entry. Adding a toothbrush to a fence fits the bill, whereas painting part of a mural or carving a comment into stone is too demanding. (Perhaps vandalism at historic sites is just a frustrated way of taking part in the experience. There’s no vandalism at the Toothbrush Fence, though perhaps some locals view the whole thing as vandalism).

The other secret of the fence’s success is that it’s a work in progress. Visitors or donors feel like they’re adding to a project rather than observing a finished work, and they can point to their one small contribution. It started with just 50 toothbrushes; if Cairns had solicited a thousand toothbrushes in advance and created a finished artwork, it would have less appeal and fewer visitors.

In a country where tourist attractions are becoming increasingly marketed and packaged, it’s refreshing to come across one without its own brochure, or even a little plaque explaining what it is. The Toothbrush Fence exists happily without an AA signpost; it does not have its own domain name; it has no plans to tweet.

Want to visit the Toothbrush Fence?

View the Toothbrush fence in a larger map.


Musil: Our only idée fixe should be the determination to avoid one. • Pi Day is March 14th, 3/14, and Super Pi Day will be in five years, 3/14/15. It only works in the USA, because we’d have to say 31/4/15, and there aren’t 31 days in April. So did you miss American Pi Day? • It seems wrong that the rest of the world had to wait until July to celebrate lame-o Approximate Pi Day (22/7). • IT is a tool, not a subject. I’ll be the IT Guy if my colleagues agree to be Books Man, Biro Lady, and Dr Notepad. • To date old NZ cookbooks, look for cakes named after the Governor General. (True!) Today, who could tell you the GG’s name? Race? Sex? Will anyone bake / an Anand Cake? • 2/3 of ICT pros at recent uni showcase couldn’t use Powerpoint properly. Ditto most prize-winning educators at a recent teaching workshop. Using Powerpoint “improperly” = silly animation, endless bullet lists, incomprehensible diagrams, pointless clip art… Also: tell not show, slides crammed with text, and even clicking “next” button on the control palette rather than using the keyboard. Guns don’t kill people; bullet points kill people. (Or make them wish they were dead. Same thing.) Proposal: encouraging presenters to sign a PowerPoint Abstinence Pledge, for which they get a Purity Ring (orange, with a bullet). • Have started writing a book on how to format one’s dissertation. Hoping it will be picked up by a major Hollywood studio. • Why take the ferry to Quail Island? Two words: leper graves. Leper. Graves. Is there anything more likely to inspire a wee lad? • Lazy student writing: opening with a dictionary definition. Lazy professor writing: opening with Google search-result numbers. • The closest I get to playing sport is zapping flies with an electrified tennis racquet, Most games are 40-15, with a strong fly backhand. • The manuka at Wanaka bloom mainly around Hanukkah. • On a single stroll down a Paris boulevard in 1840, Liszt ran into Heine, Balzac, Chopin, and Berlioz (from Michael Dirda’s Book by Book). • When Koestler stopped believing in Communism, he compensated by believing in everything else. • @adzebill

Continuing Aftershocks

Twitter has certainly changed how we deal with disaster: why, journalists used to have to write a whole story all by themselves. It’s a good thing the laws of copyright and politeness are suspended for text on web pages, and that everything on the Internet is thus in the public domain, or reporters would actually have to attribute all their quotes. But if only—if only—there were some means of magically creating a link from the unattributed quote to the writer’s original words… perhaps someone can come up with an elegant software fix. Until then, with newspapers suffering the way they are, it’s good to know that writers on deadline can pluck witty concise quotes from an inexhaustible stream to help make their word count.

In line with Marx’s quip about history repeating itself as tragedy and farce, the three-coloured sticker system used on Christchurch buildings has been adopted by my workplace’s photocopier technicians. It’s not clear exactly what will happen if you try to use a red-stickered photocopier. Presumably it’s life-threatening.

Part of the difficulty in talking about the quake was that the Richter scale isn’t linear. Some people realised that 7.0 is ten times as “wobbly” as 6.0, but thought that meant that 6.1 was twice as much as 6.0. Logarithms aren’t intuitive: 6.1 is about 25% more than 6.0, but 6.3 is 100% more. And it doesn’t help that the Richter scale, despite being widely bandied about by the media and even some of the quake-data services, is not really used by geologists, who like to talk about the moment magnitude or the amount of energy released. Poor Arts majors were getting very confused, so with the help of @kevinpurcell I developed a Qualitative Earthquake Scale™.

5: WTF
6: OMG
7: OMFG!

It was interesting to notice people’s decreasing sensitivity to aftershocks, and the increasing accuracy of their inner seismometers. In the 19th century, Galton studied the “wisdom of the crowd”; the remarkable accuracy of averaged non-expert estimates, for example in guessing the weight of an ox. Eventually we’ll be able to average the flurry of guesses on Twitter that follow each tremor and use the “crowd seismometer” to get a pretty accurate estimate. It would certainly be faster than waiting for GeoNet.

We’re starting to see debates in the newspaper and online about rebuilding Christchurch. Some property owners are racing in to demolish unwanted heritage buildings, presumably to build a nice profitable McDonalds, but it’s often possible to save something like the Harbour Light theatre, for which everyone who saw its cracked wall predicted doom. What I hope emerges is an actual Vision for the city, a rebuilding programme with a unified, distinctive Christchurch style that will hold up for another 100 years. Now would be the time to get a group of New Urbanist architects to emulate the success of Napier and create durable, sustainable, beautiful buildings that will not embarrass our descendants. So keep Sir Miles Warren far away from it. Perhaps we could disqualify architects whose own houses fell down.

This is all very high-minded, but I confess to being preoccupied with the more mundane question, “What are we going to do with all those bricks?” Fallen chimneys could be certainly converted into brick paths or patios—walking on bricks seems to be the only safe thing you can do with them. Perhaps an annual brick-throwing festival, as they do in Stroud? The best suggestion I’ve heard is building a Quake of 2010 Memorial Barbecue, so everyone can tell earthquake stories as they burn the sausages. The fire next time.

The most awe-inspiring visuals of the quake for me were the flyover photographs of the fault line near Burnham (well described by Mark Quigley’s home page—start a blog, Mark!). The 3 m slippage showed up as a dent in fences and a kink in shelterbelts; a line of mature trees would suddenly shuffle over, and continue as before but displaced. Long after all the other visible evidence of the earthquake is repaired, these offset trees will remain. If I were a farmer, I’d be putting my location on Google Earth and a donation box on my gate, so the rubberneckers can help fix my fences.

A review of several earthquake simulators:
★★★☆☆: Turbulence on the flight to Wellington
★★★☆☆: Earthquake Room in Te Papa
★★★★☆: Bumpy touchdown at Christchurch Airport

There were of course no shortage of crazy theories about the origin of the quake, which Matthew Dentith has been cataloguing in his conspiracy-theory blog; my favourite is that “perpendicular gravitational waves”, caused by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, travelled right through the Earth to cause mischief. There’s also the persistant idea that divine intervention of some kind protected the good people of Christchurch (while at the same time not preventing the actual quake itself of course). Perhaps Bob Parker was praying too hard for an election campaign miracle? Or did he engineer the quake in the first place?) The most convincing theological statement, though, seems to be the one made by my bookshelf when it fell:


Now know a Ms Coxhead and a Ms Loverich. Feel like I’ve wandered into a Restoration comedy. No powdered bosoms though. • Did you remember both eggs and ham being green? It’s true. The protagonist has his epiphany after one egg; I’d be more afraid of green ham. • Māori attributed most of Aotearoa’s topography to 1) lust, 2) accident, or 3) vandalism. So basically a landscape created by teenagers. • Forget bungee jumping or running with the bulls, thrillseekers; try giving a two-hour practical demonstration of software you’ve never used. • Because my office is next to the toilets, I dread one day being able to identify my colleagues by the sound they make when peeing. • Wolf Hall really puts the boot into Thomas More, as if Mantel wanted to cancel out A Man for All Seasons. The city I’m currently in is named after one of the plot points of Wolf Hall, set 500 years ago and on the other side of the world. • Anne Boleyn > Henry VIII > Wars of the Roses > Parhelion > Green flash > Criticality accident > Edge of Darkness. Thanks, Wikipedia. • Camus slept with Koestler’s wife, and in return she bought him a cool trench coat. “OMG, it’s just like Bogart’s!” “You betcha, Al.” • Camus slept with Mamaine Koestler, Sartre would’ve but couldn’t / Koestler slept with Simone de Beauvoir, Camus could’ve but wouldn’t. • Bright Star surely contained as many frocks as Sex in the City. Should have been called No Sex in the Country. SPOILER: Keats carks it. • Overheard: “The MATURE students were asking question after question for the WHOLE of the lecture!” [Shi, how we spose LEARN’ything?] • I should probably not mention to people that I import my pencils from America. There’s no positive spin to put on that, is there? • Saying homeopathy = 1 drop in the Pacific is true, but you sound like a wacko. People back away. Try “less than 1 drop in a swimming pool.” • Jonathan Livingstone Seagull sounds much more butch in Greek (Ho Glaros Ionathan) and Catalan (Joan Salvador Gavina). The Thai version is fairly lame though: Chonathan Lifwingsatan Nangnuan. And now I’m having flashbacks to the dire 1973 Neil Diamond soundtrack album. A fave of my folks at the time. • “Teacher, Poet, Activist.” Words that chill the soul. • Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is a fabulous procrastination-breaker. Just ignore the cruddy H&J, and skim the bits about angels. • Our acting boss during the restructuring wasn’t sure what his job title should be. I suggested Plus Ça Change Manager. • @adzebill

The Aftershock Diary


Kim Hill is telling us to sprinkle vacuum cleaner dust over our poo. In a morning full of surreal experiences, this somehow takes the cake. Friends tell me they’re peeing in buckets, or digging latrines in the yard. This being Christchurch, talk turns to fertilising lemon trees.

Our city’s message to the world is a stoic, “Thanks, but we’ll cope.” A surprising number of businesses open as best they can, before realising we’ve technically had a natural disaster and you’re supposed to be traumatised. It’s the spirit of the Blitz, except the weather is lovely and sunny, and John Key has all the gravitas of Churchill’s stunt double.


My seismometer is a small plastic Big Bird, which reliably topples over on about a 5.2. I’ve had to stand him up a couple of times today. He’s calibrated against readings from the New Zealand Earthquake Bot, which tweets details of each aftershock (it has three times as many followers as the Christchurch Press). Because the Bot takes ten minutes to report, people have been playing the guess-the-magnitude game on Twitter. They tend to overestimate.

Advanced seismic activity detection technology

Some people are completely freaked out. Some are just angry, and loudly rain curses on the aftershocks—I don’t tell them these will go on for weeks. Some, like me, are sleeping through everything but a 5.0. Everybody’s waiting for the 6.0, which like Godot is supposed to be coming, if not today, then definitely tomorrow. We’re oscillating like Vladimir and Estragon between boredom and despair.


I visited the earthquake shelter at Burnside High, hearing that they might need water containers. Exhausted volunteers have been deluged with donations and are well-supplied with bedding, food, and everything else. Someone donated a game of Twister, especially challenging in an earthquake. Donated books include The Da Vinci Code (a perfect opportunity to get rid of one’s copy, I suspect), and Angela’s Ashes, in case evacuees need reminding things could be worse.

Good news! Eva Longoria, from the Television, is praying for us. All I can think is that it’s a bit late: Eva, if only you had used your celebrity powers and intervened with God before He smote us with His wobbly wrath. Perhaps God only works the cleanup crew.

Huge diffuse disasters are hard to take in, but little ones hit home. Canterbury Cheesemongers—the best cheese shop in Christchurch—may have to be demolished, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This, curiously, affects me more than damage to historic homesteads or friends’ houses: a bit of the Christchurch I know is going away, as will many other bits, all special to somebody.


More aftershocks. The Burnside High shelter has been hit hard, and it’s been evacuated of its evacuees. I spontaneously decide to spend the night out of town. Kaikoura is supposed to be quite tolerable at this time of year. Heading North through Woodend, the only things damaged seem to be the churches.


Frustration with the aftershocks is boiling up. Two different people told me this morning’s 5.1 caught them on the loo, which rather ruins your equilibrium for the day. Megan comes up with a potential rallying chant for an organised anti-earthquake protest:

We wake!
We shake!
We don’t want any more quakes!

I’m helping my friend pack up her house for evacuation: cracks in the cinderblock walls, the laundry turned into a water feature by a broken pipe, and a hole I can see the outside through. That could be handy for summer ventilation, I suggest. She is not swayed. We both join the Facebook group to save Canterbury Cheesemongers, knowing it probably won’t help.

Somebody comments in my blog that the lack of fatalities reveals divine intervention. Presumably God didn’t like Haiti as much as Christchurch. Perhaps it’s our pious name. Wellington, there’s still time to rename yourself: forget Wellywood, go with something more devotional. Suggestions in the comments.

Twitter has been an indispensable information source, but it’s also fertile ground for rumours. Within a few hours of the quake, there were fake damage photos and denunciation of the fakes. Now the fuel storage tanks at Lyttelton are supposedly on fire, and there’s a petrol shortage, both also quashed before they’re too widely retweeted. The best news for a while is that we can drink the water again: tweeted within half an hour of the press release. I’ve been brushing my teeth from a mug for days, and am happy to dump the stockpot of boiled water sitting in the laundry tub. It feels like I’m flushing away the unreality of the last few days. Now to see what reality has in store.

[Also posted, essentially as above, on the NZ Herald website,, 9 Sept 2010.]


Wasn’t Trowenna Sea supposed to be recalled? They must have missed Whitcoulls in Westfield. $40.99. Someone tell Witi so he can buy them. Oh, I see: Witi only bought the copies not yet shipped to every bookstore in New Zealand. Penguin’s not recalling them, for some reason. Bookstores can send them back for a refund, but seem to prefer selling them for a hefty profit. So, all parties behaving honourably then. • Grandycaps (n): The inadvertent SHOUTING of the well-meaning grandparent new to e-mail. “Chill out, Sis: it’s just grandycaps.” • Wikipedia articles in Māori: 6522. Yiddish 7191, Burmese 2944, Tongan 1492, Samoan 397, Klingon 169, Esperanto 124,640. Fijian? Just 58. Curiously, while most of that group are growing fast (30–120% in the last year), Māori has stagnated: it’s up only 2%. • Spare me from meetings where people “touch base”, “report back”, and decide not to discuss papers everyone’s been emailed but nobody’s read. • “The button on our web page doesn’t work. Why didn’t you just copy and paste it from the Word document I sent you? It works in Word.” • LaTeX fanboys claim it’s hot stuff at typesetting. So why do all LaTeX documents look like instruction manuals from 1923? LaTeX looks like: Das Kapital, 1960 Albanian edition · Bilingual guidebook translated from Chinese · A History of Timaru (1936). LaTeX is for people who wish writing were more like programming. And haven’t tried Word since 1997. And type two spaces after full stops. • When there’s a mattress lashed to your car roof with clothesline, people stare with an expression I choose to interpret as admiration. • 53% of Republicans think Sarah Palin more qualified to be Prez than Obama. 73% would ban gay schoolteachers. 31% would ban contraception. • Trying to negotiate a classroom booking with two admins named (and I’m not making this up) Ms Register and Mr Allott. • A 1926 edition of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders with a few uncut pages; sitting unread on the UC shelves, waiting for me, for 83 years. Trivia: Roosevelt was good friends with Seth Bullock (cf. Deadwood); Bullock even joined the Rough Riders, but never got to go to Cuba. • If academics taught their classes as badly as they deliver conference papers, they’d lose their jobs. No, the problem is they wouldn’t. • The second-oldest surviving email I have on my computer is a quadruple-forwarded Dave Barry column about an exploding whale. Ah, 1994. • Chocolate features so prominently in It’s Complicated, they should have just come clean and called it Chocolate: It’s Complicated. Although menopause romcoms scarcely need the audience boost a chocified title might supply. Sports movies, on the other hand… • Oh my: chocolate turns every movie into a date movie. Just try it. · Chocolate Invictus · Chocolate Saw · Inglourious Choclate Basterds · Hostel du Chocolat · 300 Chocolates · Dark Chocolate City · The Seven Chocolate Samurai • @adzebill

Christchurch Rocks

Thirteen things I learned from an earthquake:

  1. The Southern sky is a beautiful thing, especially on a cloudless night. We forget this when we live in cities, until the electricity is suddenly cut off and you see the stars again. You see them especially well at half-past four in the morning, standing shivering in your driveway hoping the shaking doesn’t start again. Oh look, Orion.

  2. We don’t have many uncontrolled four-way intersections in Christchurch, so our road etiquette gets a bit rusty. This is particularly noticeable when the traffic lights all stop working. Roundabouts then come into their own, as fabulous earthquake-proof solutions; far safer than relying on politeness and common sense.

  3. While waiting for the power to come back on, I took a stroll around the Styx Mill Reserve. I don’t think the ducks noticed there had been a natural disaster. A few boulders fell off Castle Rock, but otherwise the earthquake’s effect was only on things we’d built, often badly. Unlike floods, hurricanes, or volcanoes, the damage from earthquakes is a collaboration between humans and nature.

  4. You imagine buildings reduced to rubble, but so far these are just pictures on the news. Nothing’s fallen down in my suburb. The real damage is cracked roads, flooding from ruptured water mains, the creepy threat of contaminated drinking water, and fire breaking out where gas lines have broken.

  5. Always secure your bookcases to a wall.

    Cunning strategy for securing bookcase against aftershock

  6. Those abstract emergency-kit lists suddenly become very concrete. My wishlist: a flashlight right beside the bed • candles and matches in the kitchen drawer • some way to charge the iPhone: a car charger and a solar panel would both have been useful • a car power socket to 240V three-pin plug adapter, for charging a laptop or camera battery • prepay wireless 3G modem • a dozen bottles of water stashed in the cupboard • cash, for when ATMs aren’t working • a gas BBQ to cook that defrosting meat in the freezer.

  7. The first thing I did after the shaking stopped was tweet. Twitter, especially in the first hour, was well ahead of the mainstream media in instantly breaking news, locating the quake, and reporting damage. Radio also did a good job later that morning, so I’d add a battery-less radio to the emergency stash; the web streaming services of the radio stations did not cope well. TV took all day to catch up and was generally hopeless.

  8. For Twitter to work, everyone has to agree on a hashtag, like #eqnz. Joyce was tracking the clumsy “hashtag wars” different media outlets were fighting. Some people pointed out the correct hashtag wasn’t the most important thing about the quake, which is certainly true if you weren’t using Twitter. But many, many people will be using Twitter or a similar service soon as a primary information source, so the media have to get used to mentioning the “official hashtag” in their stories.

  9. Building things out of bricks is a fine English tradition, but England doesn’t straddle a plate boundary.

  10. Looters in Christchurch will break into a liquor store, ignore the brandy and single malts, and carry out cases of beer. And I would bet it wasn’t even very good beer.

  11. I went for a stroll to look for obvious quake damage, but my part of Bryndwr is so grungy it was, quite seriously, hard to discern. Was that street sign leaning drunkenly last week? Quite possibly. Is that wall newly crumbling, did a boy racer scrape it, or was it just shoddily built in 1955? Look for fresh plaster dust on the asphalt.

  12. It’s actually possible to have an earthquake this severe not kill anybody. So, as Robyn points out, we’re not a third-world country. Hurrah. Not that Christchurch escaped scot-free: billions of dollars of damage, and 90 or so buildings trashed, many grand and historic.

  13. Lucky last: this was not, by a long shot, “the big one”. That would be a magnitude 8.0 or so, which hits New Zealand every couple of hundred years (the last was in the Wairarapa in 1855). The Richter scale is logarithmic, so that’s something ten times as wobbly as today’s—the size of the San Francisco earthquake (3000 dead), or the 2008 Sichuan quake (which killed 68,000). Let’s not get too complacent about our building codes.

[Appeared 7 Sept 2010 on the NZ Herald website.]

Better Band Names

  • Rage Against Florence and the Machine
  • Everything Including the Girl
  • Mended Social Scene
  • Delicious Moist Cake
  • Steel & Brandy
  • Modest Mighty Mouse
  • The International
  • Très Bon Iver
  • Holy-Trinity Jones
  • …And You Will Know Us By the Trail Of Delicious Moist Cake
  • Duran Duran Duran
  • Blur More

(Tip of the hat to @shirleymullet and @danielhunt79)


Adorno claimed the world is evil, because we could be living in Paradise but instead it’s just California. • Out of all the Great Assassinations of Our Time (Time-Life, 1976–78), why is Vol. 5 (Walter Reuther) always the one in used-book stores? • Imagine when everyone in the world finally spells résumé with two acutes. Overhead, without any fuss, the stars will be going out. • Ulysses S. Grant once rehearsed the part of Desdemona, but luckily an actual woman arrived. What US President today would admit to that? I presume Ulysses (who wrote a very readable presidential autobiography, incidentally, all by himself) had not yet grown a beard. Grant later defeated Johnson, President because Lincoln was shot by the brother of the best friend of that Othello director’s son. Coincidence? • Nobody who watches TV every night has permission to say “some people have too much time on their hands.” • In UC Library suggestion box: “Could the ‘Library will be closing in 15 minutes’ announcements be in English and Māori, please.” • What, if anything, is Paris Hilton? According to the Press, she’s a “celebrity lifestyle identity”. So now you know. • Weierstrass’s elliptic function [ ℘ ] is my favourite Unicode. Though the reference mark [ ※ ] is nice. And…a snowman in a fez. ☃ • Colleagues found a website mockup JPEG. Nothing happened when they clicked on buttons, so thought computer had frozen. CtrlAltDel. Repeat. • When Harold Macmillan visited India in 1958, Nehru asked, “I wonder if the Romans ever went back to visit Britain?” • Becoming a Justice of the Peace in NZ is like sitting your driver’s license theory test, but you have to have over 300 Facebook friends. • Just took 140 homeopathic anti-insomnia pills for the TV cameras. If I stop tweeting you’ll know why. • @adzebill

The Biebignorance Project

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva Biebera,
Ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Mr Bieber a la FacebookBack in the 1990s I tried, as an experiment, to not know anything about the Spice Girls (those of you around at that time will remember why). This was unsuccessful: I can rattle off each pseudonym. It just wasn’t possible to remain ignorant when their names were on everyone’s lips.

Nevertheless, I’m currently attempting to know nothing about Mr Bieber. That doesn’t mean sticking my fingers in my ears going “la la la la” when his name comes up; just not actually seeking out news or gossip about the man. Is it possible, in the 21st century, to live in a bubble of Biebignorance?

Currently I know precisely four things about Justin Bieber.

  1. His name. (When I first blogged, I didn’t even know that—it was spelled Beiber throughout, hence the URL, and I wasn’t sure if it was Jason or Justin.)
  2. He’s 16.
  3. He’s Canadian. (This is like that scene from Pulp Fiction, wherein facts about Marcellus Wallace were elicited, isn’t it? Except nobody gets shot.)
  4. He prefers older women, but “nothing over 40.” Since the age of consent in Canada is 16, gangs of slavering 40-year-old women are, I presume, lining up for this brief window of opportunity. Be gentle with him, ladies.

For some reason, whenever I talk about this project, people see it as an invitation to email me Bieberfacts—that is, deliberately sabotage the experiment. Perverting the course of science. Dear reader: if you feel so inclined, could I ask you before you hit Send to examine your motives? Could you, perhaps, be just a little ashamed of how much you know about Bieber-san? Will sharing your knowledge truly lessen your burden, or will it simply make the world a little sadder, a little more tawdry, a little less like it was in the golden years, when nobody had heard of a teenaged Canadian MILFer? Those innocent times, when all we spoke of were Posh, Scary, Sporty, Ginger. And Baby.