Yearly Archives: 2010

What, if Anything, is Big Bird?

Years ago, when I was in the early stages of my PhD, I gave a joke presentation at a graduate student conference on the taxonomy and evolution of Big Bird. It was the sort of thing you’d see at any conference on avian evolution: a Latin name, reconstructed skeleton, possible place on the great evolutionary tree of birds. The tone was completely serious, despite the subject matter—the sort of thing that might be found in the Journal of Irreproducible Results back when it was funny.

Then, in the storage cabinets of the Berlin Museum of Natural History one summer’s day, I had a revelation—an original scientific insight that I am happy now to share with the world. I realised what kind of bird Big Bird almost certainly is, and figured out something of its evolutionary history.

I presented my findings at the Christchurch PechaKucha #8 in May, and now the audio and (more-or-less) synchronised slides have been uploaded. (A pecha-kucha is a talk in which 20 slides play for exactly 20 seconds each, and the speaker tries to keep up.) All the science is real, and no Big Birds were harmed in the course of this research. Enjoy.


(This talk was BoingBoinged, twice! And I got a mention on the NPR blog too, so my status as card-carrying member of the Liberal Elite is forever assured.)

I also tweeted from Christchurch PechaKucha #8, as the format seemed well-suited to Twitter.

First, a pronunciation lesson from Mark Dytham: Pe-CHACH-ka. Perhaps easier to say if you’re drunk. • The effects of being in a car crash described as a “rapid decline in function” by a medical student. • “In 1981, Queenstown was less like Aspen, more like Twin Peaks.” • “Spotlight is my happy place: everybody else is so miserable there.” Chloe Geoghegan showed us her lovely embroidered naive signwriting. • The Master of Ceremonies got progressively drunker and more touchyfeely over the course of the evening. Called Christchurch “Auckland” not once but three times. • Jo Burzynska coined the word Oenomatapeia: music made from recording the sounds of rustling vines and gurgling fermenting wine. • The best quote of the night: “I had a recurring dream about a man putting me in the ground, cutting me up, and turning me into women’s bottoms.” • And an awkward moment afterwards: well-wishers complimented my deadpan jokes, like claiming to have a “PhD in giant flightless birds”. Yuk yuk.


SO everything on Pandora is hexapod except for humanoids with DNA just like ours. Presumably seeded by ancient astronauts or unsubtle God. THUS Pandora proves God exists, or we’re exhibits in an alien’s zoo, or Neanderthals had spaceships. Why wasn’t THAT the plot? “Unobtanium”? • My nephew is 12 weeks old, but his Facebook page says he was born in 1978. Still, it’s better than being used as your mum’s profile photo. • The Aughts were a good decade for novelty New Year’s glasses. Though novelty-glasses manufacturers can eke out one more year with balancing punctuation. Happy 2010! Or should that be Happy 2010? • I suspect that ABBA never actually used an a·b·b·a rhyme scheme in their songs, but I’m too frightened to find out. • Wittgenstein’s brother was a one-armed concert pianist, and his sister helped Freud escape the Nazis. Also, he went to school with Hitler. • Yay Rowan Atkinson re: the Danish cartoons: “The right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended.” • Horrible French toast at Dixon St Deli, now just a café; “Deli” thus a vestigial organ, like an appendix. Which might be tastier. Now they’re playing the entire “Queen’s Greatest Hits’ CD. Flash! Aaa-aah! Queen: less breakfasty than you would think. The Deli must not like me mooching unsecured wireless (thx, “Studio”) for Twitter kvetching: Ben Harper medley. No, Queen. Rock Me —> out. • Helping hold the banner at a Republican protest is an excellent way to get a good view of Prince William. He so dreamy. Also balding. Unfortunately by the time I got my camera out I only managed a photo of the Royal Bald Spot. “What about our leaky homes?” shouts megaphone man. Yes, Prince William. It’s your fault. Royals: fix our leaky homes! • What do you call a “fusion of yoga and pilates” anyway? Yolates or piloga? They supply yoga mats. I hope they also supply spray-on deyogarisor. For that piloga odour. Man, I’m on fire today. • @adzebill


The platypus lays eggs and produces milk, so is the only animal that can make its own custard. • Is the apostrophe in Hallowe’en a wankapostrophe or a jackostrophe? Or a jackasstrophe? A jerkostrophe? Too many choices. Help. • Chagrined to realise that Methven bathroom fittings are not, and never have been, made in Methven (pop 1326). No reason to visit now. • Practising “The Ballad of Toshihiko Fukui (Former Governor of the Bank of Japan)” on my ukulele, from Haywood’s fab NZ Reserve Bank Annual 2010. • Hint: when starting a discussion on “Digital Information: Order or Anarchy?”, using a £44.95 hardcover book is not a good look. • “CVs” are archaic. They should be 140 chars: Name, email, website, www-thing-I-did, ditto, ditto. Database that. • Why a “peer-reviewed” Wikipedia is doomed: in the, ahem, Biology section. Très scholarly. • Citizendium has 12,836 articles (a whole 121 of which are “expert approved”). Wikipedia has 3,128,945. So it’s anyone’s game, I guess. Hmm. • M2 magazine plugs $15,000 watch. There are cheaper ways to say “I am a douchebag,” but few so portably efficient. Bonus: it tells the time. • Highlander canned caramel is “not suitable as a complete milk food for infants.” • Laredo, TX (pop. 230,000) will soon be the largest city in the US without a bookstore. Of any kind. Which towns in NZ will lose theirs? • Dylan Thomas in a 1950s recording of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” sounds completely un-Welsh; he’s as RP as an RSC Lear. • @adzebill

Good Stuff

Yahtzee Zero Punctuation, hilarious foul-mouthed rapid-fire videogame reviews (and I don’t even play videogames) • Jan Morris’s Europe—like Last Letters from Hav (one of my favourite books), but not fictional • The Twist, by Frightened Rabbit, from the album The Midnight Organ Fight; I can’t stop listening to it, but have no idea who these guys are • XKCD does it again, with a flowchart on how to read flowcharts • Beethoven, endearingly, never got the hang of multiplication (he’d calculate 9 × 7 by adding up the number 9 seven times) • ReCaptcha, which takes all that useless effort spent typing distorted words (to prove you’re not a robot), and applies it to proofreading blurry text from old scanned books • Instead of saying “music piracy” (because, after all, real piracy is alive and well and not very much like downloading MP3s), reviving the excellent term “bootleggingSports Night• Thomas Benton’s Chronicle advice on graduate school in the Humanities: “Just don’t go• Sports Night marathons via YouTube • The pleasure of actually throwing out a hopeless, waste-of-mental-space book (Cliff Stoll’s Silicon Snake Oil, or anything by Ayn Rand)—not all book-burning is bad.

How to Use a Blackboard

Thomas Henry Huxley at the blackboard Some old-school teachers shared their wisdom with me, that this dying art might be preserved.

  • Divide the board into sections.
  • Hold the chalk horizontally, so as to avoid squeaking.
  • Use the same colours for headings and subheadings each time.
  • Underline with a squiggly line rather than a straight line (because nobody can draw a straight line).
  • Reserve a section for first appearance of terms and new vocabulary.
  • The blackboard duster makes a useful missile.
  • Chalk, though, is light and tends to veer about when thrown; it might bounce off a desk and fly up a student’s nostril. Theoretically.
  • Erase section by section, so slow scribblers can catch up on copying what you wrote ten minutes ago.
  • Learn the Jedi trick of writing whilst keeping your eyes fixed on the class.
  • Have blackboard monitors or helpers, because kids love erasing and clapping out dusters.
  • Completely colour in a brand-new blackboard with the side of a piece of chalk, then erase normally to “prime” it for use.

Fun fact: chalk is not actually made from chalk rock (calcium carbonate), but from calcium sulfate in its dihydrate form, gypsum. So now you know.

Thanks to Maureen Bell (University of Wollongong) and Alan Hoskin & Gregor Ronald (UCTL, University of Canterbury).