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.)


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.


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.


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.

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

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
Samoa (196th)1990200020052010

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.


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?

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.

October Reading

Books Acquired

  • R.U.R. | Carel Čapek
  • Shelter and Shelter II | Lloyd Kahn
  • The Last Days of Hitler | Hugh Trevor Roper
  • Wide Sargasso Sea | Jean Rhys
  • Gentlemen of the Road | Michael Chabon
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe | Douglas Adams
  • The Library Book | Rebecca Gray (Ed.)
  • Phantoms on the Bookshelves | Jacques Bonnet
  • A Moveable Feast | Ernest Hemingway

Books Purged

  • Forty: my annual clean-out of books I’m never going to open again (or, in a couple of cases, have carted around for 20 years without opening yet).

Books Read

  • The Stranger’s Child | Alan Hollinghurst
  • Shelter II | Lloyd Kahn
  • Script and Scribble | Kitty Burns Florey
  • Hinewai | Hugh Wilson
  • The Library Book | Rebecca Gray (Ed.)
  • The Sparrow | Mary Doria Russell
  • Dreamers of the Day | Mary Doria Russell [abandoned]

The amazing levitating Hem

The amazing levitating Hem

The Sisters Brothers was a nominee for my Best Cover award this year, but A Moveable Feast is without doubt the winner in the Worst Cover category; terrible Photoshopping makes Hemingway look like a divine being, levitating over the pavement outside Shakespeare & Co., with Sylvia Beach about to drop to her knees and worship. No, actually, she just looks bored. “Levitating again, Hem?”

A mixed bag this month. I indulged my daydreaming about hippy-architecture with Shelter II, Hinewai was preparatory reading for my first visit to the nature reserve of the same name, and Script and Scribble was a pleasant but tame example of the current fashion for handwriting nostalgia. The Library Book, though, is pretty missable: a compilation to raise awareness of potential cuts to the UK library system, it’s weakest when it moves from a defense of libraries, based mostly on nostalgia, to disparaging the internet (with Seth Godin’s contribution a notable exception). Curously, none of the contributors are librarians; most are British genre writers I’ve never heard of, who wax poetic on the nice smell old books had when they were children and a library was a gateway into a magical world of freedom, and so forth.

Alan Hollinghurst won the 2004 Man Booker with The Line of Beauty, which I have but haven’t read, and his next book, The Stranger’s Child, made the 2011 longlist. I’ve now read both it and the Man Booker winner, Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, and I have to say I preferred the Hollinghurst. It reminded me of two of my favourite books, Possession (with its literary sleuthing) and Atonement (with its reworking of the past in light of the present), all cleverly, deftly done. Gay characters are central to the century-spanning story, but unlike The Line of Beauty only incidentally a novel about gay identity. One of my favourites of the year so far.

I’m now on record as saying I hate it when authors write science fiction and refuse to admit it, but The Sparrow is not really SF; its subject is more anthropology and religion, asking why a Jesuit missionary would keep his faith in a world full of pain and evil, in a culture that doesn’t buy into his beliefs. It mirrors the story of the Jesuit martyr Isaac Jogues, tortured by Iroquois and eventually murdered by them in 1646. Russell’s science fiction world in Alpha Centauri happens to have breathable atmosphere and humanoid aliens, but they fulfil the function of Native Americans so closely that this really could have been an historical novel, like her last three. (on the off chance, I had a crack at one of her more recent ones, Dreamers of the Day but could not get into it.)

September Reading

Books Acquired

  • Billy Liar | Keith Waterhouse
  • Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It | Geoff Dyer
  • Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi | Geoff Dyer
  • 253 | Geoff Ryman
  • Disgrace | J. M. Coetzee

Books Read

  • Leaves of the Banyan Tree | Albert Wendt
  • Middlesex | Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Marriage Plot | Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Super Sad True Love Story | Gary Shteyngart
  • The Last Werewolf | Glen Duncan
  • Feast Day of Fools | James Lee Burke [abandoned]
  • How Music Works | David Byrne
  • In War Times | Kathleen Ann Goonan [abandoned]

The problem with established “literary” authors dabbling in SF is that you can tell they think they’re slumming. Most obviously don’t read SF, and don’t realise their bright ideas have been treated better and earlier by others. They tend to be lazy, tossing about a few “futuristic” touches as window dressing but not really examining their implications. Steyngart’s future setting in Super Sad True Love Story is a parody of the present, played largely for laughs, but at the same time he seems to want to say something about the erosion of relationships in an age of oversharing. But he can’t have it both ways: the label “satire” absolves him of any commitment to his wacky ideas. It scarcely matters, since as the book progresses the SF aspects gradually disappear, except for a fairly unbelievable and sketchy account of the fall of the USA and its takeover by the IMF and Norway. The central narrative could have been set in the present day without much trouble; it might even have been an improvement.

That central love story, while indeed super sad, is a cheat. The protagonist Lenny Abramov is a bookish, nerdy Russian Jew, a lovable shlub whose weaknesses we’re meant to find endearing. A typical Steyngart hero, and (we suspect) a stand-in for the author. Lenny falls for Eunice Park, a vapid Korean-American 15 years his junior, who doesn’t read and is obsessed with online clothes shopping. Eunice moves in, sponges off him, and nags him constantly about his wardrobe, while lusting after other men and eventually cheating on him with his boss. Yes, she has a dysfunctional family and abusive father than is supposed to explain all this. But the deck is so monstrously stacked against her and towards poor Lenny that we begin to wonder if the author recently had a bad breakup and is working out Some Issues. I was hoping to like this book, as the last two Shteyngart novels I read were funny and linguistically inventive, but not quite satisfying: I wondered if adding science fiction to the mix would help. Sadly no.

Two others I didn’t even get through this month. James Lee Burke to me is a pale shadow of Elmore Leonard, and although the Texas setting is very evocative, too often the characters say things no human being would. Kathleen Goonan’s, despite being recommended by China Miéville, also proved disappointing, a stodgy WWII saga that apparently eventually involved time travel. By halfway through I was too bored to care.

After seeing Jeffrey Eugenides at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival earlier this year, I saved Middlesex and The Marriage Plot to read back-to-back. I suspect an unspecified percentage of Middlesex is autobiography, but wouldn’t want to guess how much. I enjoyed it, reminiscent of Michael Chabon with Greek culture instead of comic books, but the gap between the historical family saga and the account of growing up intersex was hard to bridge.

The Marriage Plot is more clearly autobiographical, with careful 1980s references: descriptions of genetics at the time match my undergraduate memories. I found the portrayal of manic depression and the long-suffering partner moving, and the satire of theory-ridden English classes hilarious, but other readers might not.

superman_logo_t_shirt_largeAm I the only person who gets completely sidetracked by anachronism? In The Marriage Plot, Leonard reads Ontogeny and Phylogeny and Ever Since Darwin exactly when they were first published, in 1977 (yes, I checked). But Albert Wendt, wanting to immerse us in the world and mindset of 1930s rural Samoa, dresses one of the characters in a Superman T-shirt. I’m nerdy enough to know that Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938, and printed t-shirts weren’t common until after WWII. Later on another character mentions reading A House for Mr Biswas in 1960, which would be a feat in isolated Samoa especially given it wasn’t yet published. But really, anachronism can scarcely spoil this lovely book, which was about ten times as evocative as it would have been had I not visited Samoa for the first time this year.

Finally, check out The Last Werewolf if you want easy-read contemporary fantasy, and David Byrne’s magnum opus in appealingly squishy cover if you like the music of the Talking Heads, or music of any other kind at all.

Nine Problems with Looper (that Aren’t Brain-Melting Time Paradoxes)

Director Rian Johnson does his best to head off the complaints of those paying attention. “If we talk about [time travel] we’re gonna be talking about it all day, making diagrams with straws,” protests one of the characters. And yet this is a time travel movie, one in which the plot revolves around people being physically yanked back in time and trying to change the past. If it were just a story about how we wouldn’t take the advice of our older selves if it were on offer, the plot mechanic could have been something nice and low-budget like mysterious emails from the future. Instead we have Bruce Willis with gold strapped to his back and gunplay galore.

If a director claims they’re making a “serious” time travel movie, rather than some Hollywood nonsense starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, we’d expect them to at least acknowledge, if not grapple with, some of the intricacies science fiction novels (and indeed physicists) have been dealing with for decades. On this front Looper isn’t Primer or Donnie Darko, or even the best time travel movie starring Bruce Willis (that would be Twelve Monkeys). It blithely ignores the Grandfather Paradox, or contingent vs quantum-forking models of time travel, or the Hitler’s Murder paradox. The only way to send a message to your future self seems to be to carve it into your skin, rather than get a discreet tattoo, or just memorise it as done in one movie with a more sophisticated theory of time travel, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Nobody in Looper seems to have thought of sending time machines and maintenance manuals back in time, which would create the bootstrap paradox we see in the Terminator movies (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger). Even Jeff Daniels’s ability to affect the future with terse hints (“I’m from the future. Go to China.”) is dealt with better in a time-travel episode of My Little Pony. Seriously, it is.

But OK, Rian Johnson, you don’t want to talk about time travel because it gives you a headache and reminds you of dull afternoons doodling in the margins of your math textbook (did you know Brick was filmed in Johnson’s actual old high school?). We can leave that to others. Here are some plot holes that don’t revolve around mind-bending time paradoxes. No real spoilers here, by the way, but it’ll help if you’ve seen the film.

A central plot conceit is that loopers execute themselves. You’re sent a victim, it turns out to be you 30 years older, but hey, old-you comes with a big pile of gold to help make the next 30 years more bearable. Of course, if you recognised your older self it might be hard to pull the trigger (a hesitation required by the plot) of your really, really inaccurate gun (also required by the plot). Telekinesis, however, is completely superfluous to the plot and just an excuse for some cool CGI.

  1. Why do loopers exist? Because it’s impossible to inconspicuously murder people in the future. Forensic science in 2074 is so amazingly advanced that victims are sent back to 2044 to be shot in broad daylight and stuffed in an incinerator (no chance of future cops noticing that, I’m sure!) Meanwhile, in 2074: “So our nanobots and DNA sniffers have traced the kidnapped man all the way to the door of this illegal time machine, and then he just disappears. Oh well, file this one under Unsolved.”
  2. But OK, let’s accept that premise: time machines are used to dispose of bodies. So why send the victims back alive? Or, if creating a corpse would still be too messy, why not at least render them unconscious? A wee knock on the head, if not a lethal injection, and there’s much less chance something might go terribly wrong in the past.
  3. But for some reason victims must be sent back alive and conscious. Why, though, have loopers murder themselves? Isn’t that just asking for trouble? Instead have them execute a retired looper they’ve never met, from far away, preferably someone who doesn’t even speak their language. Much safer.
  4. You know what? You have a time machine. Can you really not think of a better way of disposing of people without leaving a trace? Go send them to play with dinosaurs or watch Krakatoa erupt.
  5. Hold on—why, exactly, are retired loopers executed? It can’t be to keep them quiet—they’re left peacefully alone for 30 years, and could at any time blab the awful things they know about the impending discovery of time travel and all the people they killed. Why not just send back a pile of gold and a thank-you card and let them have a dignified retirement and die of old age? There’s plenty of gold to spare, as time machines can make piles of it in a few hours. (Wait, what? See below.)
  6. Also, those retired loopers may not be conveniently available for execution. It would be a bit awkward, wouldn’t it, if a looper died of cancer before their 30 year retirement was up. Or commited suicide the day before they were kidnapped, or spent those 30 years finding some foolproof way to hide. Or became President. Or ascended the criminal ranks until they were the one in charge of retired-looper execution. Or sneaked into a time machine after 29 years and got sent back to live their retirement a second time, except older and wiser and knowing when the stock market crashes.
  7. By the way, did everyone notice that Bruce Willis was kidnapped in China, but appeared in a cornfield in Kansas? That means time machines are also teleportation devices that can move something human-sized from one spot on Earth to any other, undetectably. And instantaneously; in fact you can arrive a few minutes before you leave (which I suppose gives you time to make a quick phone call and confirm to yourself that you’ll get there safely). The people who own time machines could easily dispose of bodies by just teleporting them to the bottom of the ocean—no risk of time paradoxes.
  8. In fact, since these outlaws with time machines can, and do, send themselves into the past to live and run criminal gangs, why aren’t they already in charge? Why haven’t they gone back to 2012, or 1812, to mess with history to their own advantage, so that when time travel is invented they’re ruling the world rather than having to hide murders from the authorities? They should be the authorities; after all, they have huge amounts of gold.
  9. That’s because it’s easy to make staggering riches with a time machine; you just need a gold bar and a bank vault. Send the gold to the vault a week into the past. Go to the bank, check the vault—yep, one bar of gold—withdraw it, and repeat the process: send bar back, go to bank, withdraw bar, send bar back—all day if you like. Next, send yourself a note, a few days in the past, with instructions to go to the vault, withdraw the huge pile of gold that’s accumulated there, cash it in, and bank the proceeds, but—very important—leave one bar behind. Finally, check your bank balance: hey, you’re rich. Not bad for a day’s work, and no tedious messing about with ancient savings accounts and compound interest rates.
  10. But what if past-you withdrew, oops, EVERYTHING from the bank vault and didn’t leave any seed money. Does the pile of gold suddenly disappear? Do you create a new parallel universe where past-you rich but a different future-you finds the vault empty? Now we’re dealing with time paradoxes. I’ll stop because we could be here all day. Making diagrams with straws.

NZ–US Political Spectrometer

When I was living in the US, around the time of George W. Bush, I had a hard time explaining New Zealand politics to Americans. We meant completely different things by “left-wing” or “conservative”, and the red/blue colour coding seemed backwards. To help them understand where I was coming from, I created this handy diagram. And discovered the colour-coding was about right.

August Reading

Books Acquired

  • Barcelona Plates | Alexei Sayle
  • City of Djinns | Theodore Dalrymple
  • Te Mahi Kete: Maori Flaxwork for Beginners | Mick Pendergrast
  • Cold Comfort Farm | Stella Gibbons
  • Atlas of Remote Islands | Judith Schalansky
  • Block Printing: Techniques for Linoleum and Wood | Robert Craig

Books Read

  • The Loving Stitch: A History of Knitting and Spinning in New Zealand | Heather Nicholson
  • Born Standing Up | Steve Martin
  • Cold Comfort Farm | Stella Gibbons
  • The Conductor | Sarah Quigley
  • Intrusion | Ken MacLeod
  • The Night Sessions | Ken MacLeod

Twice now this year I’ve been reading a book purportedly set in New Zealand and come across howlers that made me grit my teeth. Douglas Coupland’s Generation A puts Palmerston North in Wanganui rather than the Manawatu; I counted three vocabulary errors within two pages (although someone says “crikey dick!” at one point, so research has obviously been perpetrated). Ken MacLeod’s The Night Sessions shows evidence of a visit to the North Island, but tourists are unlikely to see tui-tui birds sharing a kaori tree with a flock of fantails.

MacLeod and Coupland are popular authors, doubtless with Kiwi fans. Would it be so hard, in the age of the Internet, to recruit a few volunteers from this part of the world, who I bet would be happy to help out for just an acknowledgement? The mistakes I saw would be obvious to any New Zealander on even a cursory reading, and crowdsourcing one’s fact-checking could be the way of the future.

The Night Sessions is a police procedural set in a secular future (MacLeod is a Scottish science-fiction writer), with artificial intelligences hiding out in a Creationist theme park near Rotorua. The expunging of religion from public life was implausibly quick and thorough, whereas the social effects of truly intelligent machines seem negligible. I found it hard to suspend disbelief, even without tui-tuis.

Intrusion is a much more engrossing account of a benign and terrifying nanny state in near-future Britain, where gene therapy is obligatory and women are forced back into the homes because the world is deemed too full of fetus-harming contaminants. Woven into this, unfortunately, is a strand of completely-unbelievable nonsense about a retina mutation that lets one see tachyons and (thus!) the future, a strand which grows until it dominates the book. Everything then grinds to a halt, with a tacked-on conclusion, in a most disappointing way.

For a change of pace, I tried Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor, an evocative account of the siege of Leningrad and the composition of Shostakovitch’s 7th Symphony, which was most successful at evoking the privations of hunger and winter. It didn’t quite ring true for me though: partly an odd mixture of anachronism and Russian-isms in the language, partly major characters disappearing from the stage (probably from the dictates of history).

Nitpick, nitpick, nitpick. It was left to old favourites to salvage the month. Steve Martin’s account of his standup career reminded me how many years of gruelling work it took him to develop an act that was actually funny, and why he abandoned it. It’s also elegantly written. A favourite I didn’t get chance to read, but was happy to find in a Devonport bookshop, was Alexei Sayle’s short-story collection, both dark and absurdly funny. I bought Cold Comfort Farm almost entirely because of the hilarious Ros Chast cover, and realised that it had been far too many years since I read it, as it seemed almost a different book (or at least the same book read by a different person). Resolution: regular rereading until I can recite the best lines to other fans, while bystanders roll their eyes.

July Reading

Books Acquired

  • Just So Stories | Rudyard Kipling
  • Rambo Goes to Idaho | Scott Abels
  • The Stranger’s Child | Alan Hollinghurst
  • Riddley Walker | Russell Hoban
  • The War Against Cliche | Martin Amis
  • Middlesex | Jeffrey Eugenides
  • A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush | Eric Newby

Books Read

  • Listen to This | Alex Ross
  • Wulf | Hamish Clayton
  • The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating | Elisabeth Bailey
  • Sacred Hunger | Barry Unsworth
  • Coming of Age in Samoa | Margaret Mead
  • Skios | Michael Frayn
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | John Le Carré

One of the best things about a holiday somewhere remote is reading solidly for days. D and I took a stack of books to Samoa for a week, and whole afternoons were spent ploughing through them. Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger was one I’d been meaning to get to for years, but I was always put off by its length, so having days to devote to it was a blessing. For some reason I had the impression it was a dense philosophical work, but it turned out to be a fine historical novel, in the Patrick O’Brien mould, on the malleability of human nature. Samoa also seemed the ideal place to finally read Margaret Mead, and her lyrical descriptions of village life did have extra resonance in that setting. The rampant sexuality she claims to have found apparently needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and her grand conclusions about reforming the entire American educational system (based on interviews with 50 girls in Samoa) can be safely skimmed.

Another read that would be good for an island holiday is Skios, a charmingly-written frothy entertainment. It’s a farce of shuffled suitcases and mistaken identity which works through all the expected permutations right up to the final dénouement, when it suddenly loses patience with itself and its genre conventions. Transcending the genre is probably what got Skios onto this year’s Man Booker longlist, where it sits somewhat awkwardly, but Frayn is really a splendid playwright, a sublime humourist, and an accomplished novelist on a good day, so the recognition’s deserved.

Wulf picked up the NZ Society of Authors Best First Book award this year, and it really is something different from a standard NZ historical novel, more CK Stead than Maurice Shadbolt. My only quibble is biological anachronism: it mentions moa stories and giant eagle bones years before they were actually unearthed, and describes pohutakawa flowering along the Kapiti coast when their normal range is north of Kawhia.

The Bailey was a pleasant light read, but for some reason didn’t grab me. I guess I was expecting some sort of larger payoff than the book intended to deliver. The faintest of faint praise I can give is that it will encourage someone to keep a snail in a terrarium and learn to watch more closely. The Le Carré was likewise a filler; casting no aspersions on a fine spy novel from an author I love, but my memory of the film was still too fresh, and I couldn’t reconcile Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch with the middle-aged warhorses on the page.

This month my best reading was the Alex Ross. This collection of essays is mixed but full of great music journalism, from Brahms to Björk. He has a refreshing eclectic tone of voice, so I’m very much looking forward to spending a month working my way through The Rest is Noise, his history of 20th century classical music. Both are best read in conjunction with his website, which, I discovered afterwards, has numerous audio clips: sometimes it’s a bit frustrating to read a musical analysis of a Schubert song cycle you’ve never heard. The best I can say is his writing even made me want to try listening to Bob Dylan. And that is not faint praise.