Author Archives: Mike

Tweetdump

If The Bourne Legacy had breathed new life into the franchise the two-word review would be Bourne Vita. • “Have-you-read?” lists let you count books read when your brain was pink and ill-formed; ones you’ve forgotten; ones you never understood. • Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth ends with Lily Bart spending her last $20 on a derringer and gunning down everyone who did her wrong. That’s from Funhouse, the Quentin Tarantino script Tony Scott was supposed to film. It concludes with a shootout on the deck of the Titanic. • I’m trying the Paleocene Diet: it’s based on ancestral adaptive nutritional needs. Every meal is fruit or insects and I only eat at night. • Plain burlesque is getting tired. I predict hot new trends: burlesque on stilts, canine burlesque, and, inevitably, canine stilt burlesque. • Snobby Evelyn Waugh would pretend to think Julian Huxley (then head of UNESCO) was still at London Zoo and ask, “How are the giraffes?” Arthur Evelyn St John Waugh was his full name. Cannot understand why he went by Evelyn Waugh. He could have been St Waugh. • Coffee smells great and tastes nasty; it’s the anti-durian. In fact if you mix coffee and durian they are annihilated in a huge explosion. • “You can’t go past Meryl Streep”, opines the person behind me. But she’s a master of disguise! You probably have, unbeknownst! • Oscar Wilde really needs to work on his aphorisms. Some of them are longer than 140 characters. • My old high school is merging with its hated arch-rival. The resulting bloodshed should solve any overcrowding problems. • Chatham Island time is 45 minutes ahead of mainland New Zealand. There’s just one other time zone with a 45-minute offset: Nepal. • The ancient Greeks imported their papyrus from Byblos; hence bibliography, bibliotheque, and Bible. Now that’s successful branding. • The great tonsure debate was resolved, in favour of the Anglo-Saxons, by the Synod of Whitby in 664. Anglo-saxon monks shaved the crowns of their heads, whereas Irish monks shaved all the front half. Like the world’s most extreme mullet. • Nostradamus successfully predicted the date and place of his own death! Less impressively, it was: “Tomorrow, right here in my sickbed.” • Wilfrid Blunt, in the preface to his history of italic handwriting, includes a shoutout to his homies Sir Sydney Cockerell and the Marquess of Cholmondeley. (While Blunt was writing Sweet Roman Hand, his younger brother Anthony was busy upstaging him by spying for the Russians.) • @adzebill

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 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.

Tweetdump

Jack Black and Jack White should get their own musical sitcom variety hour. Called (naturally) the Black and White Minstrel Show. • A seven-year-old once explained to me that baby teeth are your drafts, but adult teeth are published. • Robbie the Robot did not say “Danger, danger, Will Smith!” (Oops.) But if he did, wouldn’t that have improved Lost in Space? And I, Robot? • Not many people know that if you peer through the transparent window on a New Zealand $20 bill, you can see a person’s iwi affiliation. • Is there a Māori word for the pained-yet-serious facial expression Pākehā get when listening to a long mihi they don’t understand? A Te Reo speaker suggested “pukehakana”: a combination of puke, pakeha and pukana. • Dalmatian (n): dog or person. Dalmation (n): the act of putting spots on everything (or, vulgarly, spotifying). • I can hardly wait for all the superhero movies to be rebooted yet again as steampunk. • Realised at the breakfast table that I assumed the Queen reads The Times, because Great Uncle Bulgaria did in The Wombles. • “We now have only seven sheep for each one of us.” WELL WHERE ARE MINE, @nzherald? I WANT MY SHEEP! • Advice to new Aucklanders: If you need to cross Dominion Road in rush hour, improve efficiency by doing it near the funeral home. • Apparently all the muppets can be divided into Chaos Muppets and Order Muppets e.g.: Ernie/Bert. Everybody is stumped by Big Bird though. I put it that Big Bird has transcended the artificial dichotomy of chaos/order and achieved enlightenment. He is a Zen Muppet. Big Bird’s constant questions are actually koans. He’s trying to enlighten the other muppets. • I’m glad Katie Holmes “feels comfortable in her own skin”. The alternative is too horrific to contemplate. • @adzebill

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?

Tweetdump

The wolf spider Lycosa tarantula is named after Taranto, Italy, and so, indirectly, are both the tarantella and those giant New World spiders. As a kid, this always bothered me: “There are no tarantulas in Europe!” Finally, it’s sorted. Yes, I was an odd child. • Rhythmic construction drill outside sounds just like the dramatic BRWAANG BRWAANG chords in Inception. How do I wake up? • Knitting jargon: SABLE (Stash Acquisition Beyond Life Expectancy) means owning more yarn than you could knit in your life. Unless my book-buying habits change radically, I may have reached BABLE. • If the Anglicans had only figured out a way to play rugby in the Cathedral it would have been rebuilt by now. • I am now an Aucklander. Yet I still distinctly remember the rest of New Zealand. Must take a while to kick in. • I would be much more likely to watch Game Of Thrones if they reshot it with a cast of guinea pigs. • Hope you’ve all taken your anti-nausea pills, because Prezi is in da house! • The nose on that kid’s SpongeBob backpack is so three-dimensional it would have scandalised the Victorians. • The further into the gallery show we go, the less crowded it gets. As if the visitors were being quietly eaten by the art. • If called up on stage by a mime and invited to have a lightsaber duel with retractable tape measures I think I would acquit myself well. • Pointy shoes; stripy trousers; flowery shirt, cuff links, untucked; sunnies on spiky gelled head. Kiwi manhood on parade. • What shocked Flaubert about De Sade was that, in all of Justine, “there isn’t a single tree, or a single animal.” • @adzebill

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. Beastliness with a costumed interpreter.

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.

Tweetdump

Did you ever wish writing were more like programming a computer? If so, LaTeX could be the word processor for you! • In an almost empty theatre, the oldies are all going to their allocated seats in the back rows. Perhaps the projector’s in focus from back there. • P.T. Barnum had signs in his museum saying “This Way to the Egress!” Those looking for it ended up outside, and had to pay admission again. • Ironic trucker caps are beating woolly beanies in the the First-Year Headgear Playoff at UC today. • I’m not sure why Roman Catholics have outcompeted Italic Catholics; they’re neither emphatic nor bold. • A tuatara doesn’t realise it’s supposedly got a third eye. It just wonders why people keep staring at the top of its head. • First they came for Dr Seuss, but I was not a huge fan, so said nothing. Then they came for the Smurfs, but the theme tune was annoying so I did not speak up. When they come for the Wombles, will anybody still care? • While I wouldn’t wish a terrible sex scandal on anyone, Jamie Oliver would be much improved by a few years in the wilderness. • Thomas Jefferson was fluent in 6 languages; Martin Van Buren was the only president with English as a second language. Madison was the only president fluent in Hebrew, Hoover the only one who could speak Mandarin. • Newly-freed slaves wore a conical hat, or pileus, as, apparently, do graduating PhDs at the University of Sussex. Must be a tough programme. • No matter how tempting, throwing “just one” chip to the gulls is always, always a mistake. • “The policeman’s job should be hard. He’s there to protect the free citizen, not to chase criminals, that’s an incidental part of his job. The free citizen is always more of a nuisance to the policeman that the criminal. He knows what to do about the criminal.” —Orson Welles • @adzebill

Can We Rank New Zealand’s Environmental Record?

Freshwater biologist Mike Joy has been in the news recently for claiming New Zealand is not all that clean and green. He’s pointed out that most of our lowland rivers are contaminated with faecal bacteria, our lowland lakes are polluted, and two thirds of our native fish species are threatened with extinction. But Joy repeatedly goes further, claiming New Zealand’s whole environmental record is dubious: “We are now much much closer to the bottom than the top of global comparisons on environmental performance.”

For this, he was slammed in a New Zealand Herald editorial for “exaggerating” New Zealand’s environmental woes. Joy had told the paper, “We are nowhere near the best in the world, we are not even in the top half of countries in the world when it comes to clean and green.” The Herald took issue: “Whatever its deficiencies, it is nonsensical to place this country in the company of the world’s more polluted nations.”

Is New Zealand’s environmental record really well below average? On the web, in print, and in a recent Media3 interview, Joy repeatedly quotes a recent study (Bradshaw, Giam, and Sodhi 2010) published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, “Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries”. The New York Times article that kicked off the latest kerfuffle quotes its most painful finding: out of 179 nations examined, New Zealand was the 18th-worst in its impact on the natural environment.

That’s a pretty terrible grade. But is it accurate? I took a close look at the study, and the report card it compiled on New Zealand, to see if it held up.

What are these rankings?

Bradshaw, Giam, and Sodhi (2010) were attempting to come up with an objective measure of environmental performance for countries so they could test the effects of social factors, like per capita wealth or governmental corruption, on environmental impact. Their goal was to put together a rough working database, not compile league tables for ranking all the world’s nations. But, surprise surprise, that’s how the study is being used in New Zealand.

To come up with a rank, the authors gathered data on seven different variables and took the log-average or geometric mean (not the same as an ordinary average, this stops extremely high or low values from having as big an effect). As long as there were data available for three of the seven variables, a country was ranked in the league tables (179 of the 228 countries examined qualified).

The results summarised countries’ absolute impact on the global environment—all the usual suspects (China, the USA, Brazil, Japan) scored badly, but New Zealand didn’t—as well as their relative ranking, corrected for size. The latter is where NZ appeared in the bottom 20 (Singapore was worst, in case you’re wondering); here’s the rogues’ gallery, from the original paper but with some social and population information edited out.

Edited data from Bradshaw, Giam, and Sodhi (2010), showing the 20-worst environmental baddies, and the seven variables used to rank them—each variable is explained below.

What exactly are these variables?

It’s worth examining the variables one at a time, to understand where the rank of 18th-worst came from. They seem perfectly reasonable at first glance, but the more I poked them, the more dubious I got. New Zealand is ranked out of a maximum of 228 countries, though usually fewer than that as data weren’t available for every country. The lower the number, the worse we are.

Natural Habitat Conversion
NZ rank: 89th

This is the percentage of the land that’s human-modified: urban areas, crops, and managed land. In New Zealand, almost all open land below the tree line should count as human-modified—lowland tussock grassland was created by Polynesian fires and maintained by sheep grazing—so we should probably be ranked worse than this.

Marine Capture
NZ rank: 73rd

Marine fisheries take, divided through by coastline to correct for country size. How did the study cope with countries that have no marine fisheries, because they’re completely landlocked? Rather than leave them out of the rankings, they’re awarded a perfect score. Part of the reason the Central African Republic, that paragon of environmental stewardship, got the second-best ranking in the world.

Water Pollution
NZ rank: 91st

The ranking used here is based on BOD, a estimate of total dissolved oxygen being consumed by aquatic bacteria, divided through by the total yearly waterflow for each country to keep things proportional. New Zealand no doubt does well because of our abundant rivers and high rainfall. I’m stumped as to why the ranking here bears no relation to the research Mike Joy cites, which found excessively high levels of bacteria, nitrogen, and phosphorus in most of the 300 lowland rivers sampled. It would be remiss, by the way, to not mention the irony of condemning NZ’s environmental record with a study that says our water quality is OK.

Natural Forest Loss
NZ rank: 98th

The authors looked at the change in native forest area between 1990 and 2005; they calculated this from FAO statistics, subtracting plantation forests from the total forest area. New Zealand is about the middle of the pack, because our amount of native forest didn’t change over that time. (I’ve updated the data to 2010.)

New Zealand (98th)1990200020052010
Total7720826683118269
Planted1261180918541812
Native6459645764576457

Wait a minute: according to the FAO stats, our forest area not only didn’t change; it stayed exactly the same, to the hectare. Dodgy data alert! And we know that’s not true: between 1997 and 2002 we lost at least 2000 Ha of native forest, according to satellite imagery; between 1990 and 2008 over 50,000 Ha was deforested, and a similar amount naturally regenerated. So the FAO data look suspicious.

To check it, I picked another couple of countries at random; Samoa, which had an exemplary deforestation ranking of 196, and Korea, with the bad boys at 23.

Korea (23rd)1990200020052010
Total6370628862556222
Planted173817811823
Native“6370”455044744399
Samoa (196th)1990200020052010
Total130171171171
Planted323232
Native“130”139139139

Notice there’s missing data from 1990; presumably there were actually plantations in Samoa and Korea before 2000. The researchers seemed to have assumed that no data mean no trees, so Korea is unfairly accused of massive forest loss (ranking it among the worst 15% of countries for deforestation). It looks like Samoa though has increased its indigenous forest area by 6.9% since 1990, giving it an overall environmental impact ranking, according to this study, of 173 out of 179. Not bad for a country that had one of the most rapid rates of deforestation in the world in the 1990s. Forest clearance is rampant in Samoa, these numbers are nonsense, and so is Samoa’s ranking. I picked these two countries completely at random—who knows how shonky the rest of the database is? At the very least, the researchers need to go through and recalculate ratings using only available data.

CO2 Emissions
NZ rank: 93rd

Why do we get off so lightly here? Because the only carbon emissions the study counted were fossil fuel usage and clearing land for agriculture. While those are the two biggest components of most countries’ carbon footprints, they’re not ours. Nearly half of our CO2-equivalent emissions are from agriculture and the digestive systems of cows; methane and NO2 aren’t counted by this study at all.

Fertiliser Use
NZ rank: 13th

New Zealand does use an awful lot of fertiliser, but are we really 13th-worst in the world? The problem lies with how the study calculates fertiliser use: total imports divided by area of arable (crop) land. Now, that’s fine for most countries, where fertiliser is applied mostly to crops. But in NZ most of our fertiliser is going onto pasture, and pasture makes up almost all of our agricultural land.

ArablePasture
NZ42511224
Denmark2332368
Thailand15200800

Dividing our fertiliser imports by just our arable land area overestimates the amount we use by a factor of maybe 10 or 20. No wonder we’re 13th-worst!

Proportion of Threatened Species
NZ rank: 1st

At last, a field in which New Zealand can be proud to say we’re number one! The species counted are amphibians, land mammals, and birds, and since all our frogs and bats are threatened, and 70 of our bird species, we do indeed take the title here. This ranking, more than all the others, is the reason we’re near the bottom in the PLoS study. Four things to ponder, though.

  1. We don’t have threatened species for the reasons most countries do: ongoing deforestation and pollution. Most of our extinction and species decline was happening 100 or 150 years ago, well out of the timeframe of this study. These days, increases in the proportion of threatened species in New Zealand occur because we’re actively studying the genetics of our native animals and discover small isolated populations are actually species.
  2. Extinction is really the thing we should be measuring, but it’s harder to count, as it’s difficult to know whether a species has vanished or is just very rare. In most countries, the number of endangered species is a good proxy for the extinction rate, but not in New Zealand. We haven’t lost a bird, frog, or bat species since 1972 (Bush Wren), and have pulled several back from the brink—the Black Robin from 11 individuals, the Kakapo from 50). It’s quite possible, thanks the the fine and underfunded work of the Department of Conservation, that none of them are in danger of going extinct in the future (which is more than most countries can claim).
  3. Why do we have so many threatened species? Because we’re a small island country. Small countries have a greater proportion of endangered species than large ones: the bigger your country, the harder it is to wipe out all of a species living in it. Islands have more threatened species than the mainland: there’s nowhere for native species to escape to, and evolving in island isolation makes animals more vulnerable to extinction. Both these points are not controversial in conservation biology (references coming!), but are tersely dismissed in the PLoS paper. Their evidence: one unpublished study by one of the co-authors that looks at plants not animals. It does seem a bit unfair that New Zealand is penalised for being a small island country, something I don’t think can be laid at the door of either Labour or National governments.
  4. Why do we have so many threatened species? Because Aotearoa is the last place humans settled: we arrived only 800 years ago. Every other country in the world has already suffered the mass extinction that occurs whenever humans encounter the local wildlife; we’re still working through the tail end of ours. If Europe had only been settled 800 years ago, the French would right now be battling at great expense to save their last endangered lions, leopards, and mastodons. Again, it’s not all that fair to condemn New Zealand for choosing to be settled so late.

So how accurate is our ranking?

Not very. One of the variables dominates all the others, but is a little unfair. One of our rankings is just a blunder. A couple of variables are calculated wrongly, one database looks pretty dodgy, and the whole issue of sustainable fishing when you don’t have a coastline skews all the results. Nevertheless, we can have a go at recalculating the ratings.

VariableDodgy?Better estimateComment
Habitat conversion89Depends of definition of “human modified”60?Only if other countries are reassessed too.
Marine capture73No coastline = perfect score!Omit from everyone’s rankings until this is sorted.
Water pollution93Doesn’t agree with recent studies50?Reconcile the two.
Natural forest loss98FAO data look shonky98 for nowDatabase needs to be checked, scores recalculated.
CO2 Emissions93Misses out agriculture50?
Fertiliser use13Wrongly calculated100?Need data for our fertiliser use on arable land.
Proportion of threatened species1Could correct for insularity, country size10?
RANK18RECALCULATED39-ish

That rank is still not great, but it puts us in the vicinity of South Africa, the UK, and France. Sure, my recalculation is just handwaving, but it’s definitely more justified than the rank of 18 the PLoS study gave us. Those global rankings are probably OK for testing broad-brush models of the effect of social variables on environmental performance. But the data are so dodgy that I wouldn’t dare use them at all for the purposes of grading a country on an environmental report card.

New Zealand’s environmental impact might well put us in the bottom half of the world league table, but we actually don’t know if it does or not, and this study is not much help. Our country has real environmental issues—and is not by a long shot “100% pure”, absolutely or relatively, despite what the PM says—but claiming we are 18th-worst in the world seems just flat-out incorrect. And if you continue to claim it after knowing how dodgy the data are, you’ve crossed a line from science into advocacy.