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Ingridients:
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email: i(at)jamver.id.au

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  • Links
    These are a few of my favourite links.

  • James doesn't write much, but if I tell complete lies about him, his version will be here.
  • Prasenjit is my favourite astrophysicist.
  • Bruno is my favourite web comic.
  • Yarnharlot - even if you're not a knitter, this is one of the funniest descriptions of perfectionism from the inside.
  • LanguageLog is where the linguists go to play.
  • Earthquakes in California, and around the world, as they happen.
  • Misia is writing a book about the history of virginity.
  • Respectful of Otters - politics, HIV, getting the facts straight.
  • Making light on being a leftish science fiction editor
  • UserFriendly is my favourite geeky web comic.
  • NCBI for all your genomic sequence needs
  • Creating Text(iles) - knitting in academia
  • String or Nothing - knitting and sharing knitting resources
  • Keyboard biologist - knitting while living with a geek
  • QueerJoe's knitting blog is exactly that
  • When knitting was a manly art in the wilds of Oregon
  • And she knits too along with running a family and postdoc.

  •        
    Mon, 28 May 2007

    Naughtiness.

    It's clearly getting cold these days: all three cats slept with us (Zeki between our heads, Amber between our feet, and Nemrut on my outside). There was a particularly cute, but stressful, moment, when Nemrut wandered up, and Zeki and he washed each other just above my head. It's stressful because Zeki had been washing me earlier that night, and he can be hard to get to stop, and Nemrut had been playing with my hair earlier (looking for fleas, perhaps), and having both of them doing stuff like that, that close, was a bit unnerving.

    When we got up to have breakfast, I noticed the dry cat food bowl was nearly empty. Zeki was advertising this fact by sitting in the spot where it normally goes, with the bowl pushed off behind the water bowl. I took the bowl off to the laundry to refill it, and Zeki came along, keen to make sure proper procedure was followed.

    When I wanted to return the bowl to its usual place, Amber was now sitting there. Zeki was incensed, and chased after her. He must have been pretty aggressive, because she ducked under the sofa within seconds. I don't know if Zeki doesn't fit under the sofa, or just thinks he doesn't fit, but at least Amber has a safe retreat.

    And Zeki went straight after Nemrut. Now, Nemrut had been nowhere near any of this. Our standard definition of Zeki's aggression being over the line is when he switches immediately to fighting the other when the first ducks out, and they haven't been up to anything together.

    So James hauled Zeki into the sin-bin. He sat and sulked on the post inside the cage, with a real "that wasn't my fault" attitude. Nemrut chose to do the equivalent of wheelies, running back and forwards along the stretch of corridor near the cage and around the side of the cage, with little leaps and galumps. Nemrut doesn't strike me as the kind of cat to rub something in, but it did really look like that. Mind you, Amber was off getting something to eat, so maybe Nemrut was trying to distract Zeki.

    Later, Amber and Nemrut curled up together in the basket at the end of the corridor, putting the household on diabetes alert. James took a picture, and Nemrut can so ham it up for the camera. He has the kind of expression you expect from a Hollywood star having his picture taken with a fan.

    We let Zeki out just before going to work, and he rushed off to the food. Maybe he'll remember next time to get something to eat before picking fights with the others in front of us.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    Zeki

    James and I don't seem to have been co-ordinated enough on the weekend for me to sort out the picture thing, but I thought I should introduce our new cat anyway.

    Zeki is a nine-year old pedigree Turkish Van who was a breeding male at a friend's cattery. He's now been desexed and pensioned off to us.

    But please don't feel sorry for us, imagining us adopting such an old cat, grumpy and tired and set in his ways and inclined to dislike us because we're new and responsible for the loss of his masculinity.

    No disrespect intended to Berenice, but if Zeki was a human, he's the type who after retiring, divorces his wife, moves into some kind of free-love relationship with a younger couple, and spends his days playing golf and football, travelling, enjoying nature, and showing off his body, with the odd bit of skydiving thrown in.

    This is a cat who intends to enjoy his new life. Or as Annette suggested, he took one look at us and thought "I've got it made."

    I admit I'm confused - cats are supposed to not like new surroundings, and Zeki went from staying in one room to visiting the entire house within a fortnight, and now seems vaguely disappointed there aren't any new rooms to explore. Also, Turkish Vans are known to attach themselves strongly to one or two people, but I assumed that meant he would be pining for Berenice, not attaching himself to us within hours of first meeting us.

    Zeki can also play like a six kilogram kitten. His favourite toy so far seems to be an old hairband - the sweat smell seems to be part of the charm. He knocks it around, chasing it, and also picks it up between his front paws and tries to chew it.

    This morning we were surprised to discover that Zeki may also be trying some advanced education as part of his retirement. He somehow managed to get the hairband around a powercord. The diameter of the hairband isn't much larger than the plug - it would be fairly tricky for a person to do it one-handed, which I would have thought was a reasonable comparison.

    I hope I can get some Zeki photos on the blog in the next few days.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    Water cat

    Turkish Vans are known as swimming cats, and are apparently the only breed of domestic cat who enjoy water. One story is that it gets very cold and snowy around Lake Van in winter, and very hot and dry in summer, so the cats need waterproof coats to survive the snow, and so are also able to go swimming to cool off in summer.

    Zeki isn't showing any sign of swimming yet, but he is certainly much more fascinated by water than any cat I've ever seen. He's very curious about the shower and it's not impossible he will get in one day.

    Yesterday I was out watering on the front balcony, with Zeki eagerly following me around and watching the water pour out of the watering can.

    As an experiment, I poured the rest of the water on his back. His response was to start chasing the water running off his back, as it ran towards the railing. I stroked him - his back was pretty drenched and I was distributing the water further - he purred cheerfully.

    Definitely a water cat.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    Runaround

    I woke up at 5:10 this morning, intending to go for a run. I left for the run at 5:50. This is why it took so long to leave:

    I got up and let Zeki out into the living area as usual, while I was getting my stuff for my run. Next thing I know, Nemrut has also snuck out into the living area (I obviously didn't close the sliding door enough) and the two of them trotted around the living room, mainly at a distance, but also with some sniffing of each other. I felt rather optimistic at this point.

    Then Zeki zips back into the bedroom area and runs into the blue room (which he basically hasn't been allowed in since last weekend) and sniffs around the kitty litter and very deliberately urinates in it. Hopefully it won't scare Nemrut off using it (I did clean the waste out later, but I'd probably have to ditch the litter and clean the tray to remove the Zeki smell). I'm feeling just a tad stressed at this point because now all the cats are in more or less exactly the wrong locations.

    Anyway, I head out to try to get Nemrut back on the right side of the sliding door. (Zeki was happy to follow me out once he'd done his thing.) Nemrut is still scared of people who stand up and walk around, so he decides he has to escape down the stairs.

    Next thing I know, I've got three cats running around the renovation area downstairs, and I'm wondering if perhaps I was wrong in my earlier assessment that I had all the cats in the wrong location. Nemrut is skittish and scared (he's never been downstairs for a start, and Zeki is running around after him) and eventually Nemrut wedges himself between a sofa and a box - he can't move much, but I can't move him either. Zeki is standing nearby, watching him.

    I try to stroke Nemrut, to get him to calm down, and eventually he starts to move out, so I lift him up on the sofa, and I cuddle him some more, putting my body between him and Zeki. Eventually, I hope he's calm enough, and I pick him up to take him to the bedrooms. The closer we get to the sliding door, the more he fights. I've now got a couple of nice scratches on my shoulder.

    I get him on the right side of the sliding door, but unfortunately, Zeki's been following, and Zeki now chased Nemrut in under our bed. I didn't see what happened, but there was some hissing and whatever you call that screeching sound fighting cats make.

    By the time I get to look under the bed, they're sitting a meter and a half apart, looking at each other and eyeing me off too. James is still trying to sleep, but I had to ask him to coax Zeki out and take him out to the living area, so James also has a few nice scratches today...

    James makes some rude comments about disrupting his sleep, and finally I can go out for my run.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    Scaredy cat

    We've set up a pattern during the day while we're at work which seems to be working okay - Zeki goes out into the living/kitchen area, and Amber and Nemrut are in the bedroom-bathroom area, with the sliding door closed almost all the way, so they can look through. (There's a point a little bit wider where it appears that Amber can move through fairly easily, but the other two can't, which we might progress onto later, given how things are going. Convenient that the cat everyone accepts is the smallest one.)

    On Monday night, James decided we should let all the cats move around the bedroom end of the house freely. This was a mistake. At some point while we were asleep, Nemrut and Zeki got into quite a big fight under our bed.

    Nemrut has been a bit of a nervous wreck since. I haven't been able to pat him like I could on Sunday and Monday morning. I think he will eventually calm down, but he's been extremely skittish, and sprints between the blue room (where he hides behind the TV) and the bedroom (where he sets himself in the middle under the bed, except if you approach him, when he will move as far away from you as he can, staying under the bed.)

    Zeki is definitely relaxing around Amber - they're both on the bed at the same time now, I don't think he's hissed at her for over 24 hours, and this morning, he was sitting in the corridor, while Amber did loops around him, brushing against him and purring. He didn't purr at all, but he didn't hiss either, which I think is progress.

    Because it's obviously a much bigger deal for Zeki to accept a male than a female (even if they're neutered) the fact is that Zeki has effectively been an only cat his entire life - I doubt he ever had to share territory before, as he would probably only have had direct interaction with other cats when mating, and then of course he got our whole house to himself.

    So I'm crossing my fingers that once he gets used to Amber, the learning curve to accepting a male cat around will be much shallower than going straight from only cat to sharing with a male. And in some ways, we are expecting a pretty old cat to adapt to some pretty major changes in his life and he's been remarkably adaptable so far.

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    Cat Cleared of Scratching Charges

    Brisbane, Thursday 18th November, 2004. Authorities yesterday released Zeki (also known as Vanstar Coma Berenices) without pressing charges, following a scratching incident.

    Eyewitnesses reported seeing Zeki consorting with close personal friend Ingrid Jakobsen, when he "suddenly leapt into the air" at a noise, scratching Ms Jakobsen's toe, prior to running away from the scene.

    Investigation revealed the noise to have been produced by a shredder operated by Mr James Lever. Repeating the noise caused similar reactions from Zeki, although decreased. After about an hour, the shredder noise ceased to alarm Zeki altogether.

    "It appears to have been totally accidental", a spokesbeing said. "Zeki was simply startled by an unfamiliar sound. There was no intent to harm Ms Jakobsen."

    Further investigation has revealed that the shredder in question had not been operated for several months. Authorities advised Ms Jakobsen and Mr Lever to be careful when making any new, loud sounds.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    After ten days

    Zeki is getting more relaxed about having other cats around, and isn't trying to mount Amber as often any more. He also doesn't look quite so puzzled each time she refuses, either, so I think it's actually sinking in that she's not interested.

    Amber has sort of settled in. She doesn't strike me as fully comfortable or at home, but she exudes a really strong air of "I'll manage". She accepts that this is where she'll live and it's okay, she just needs more time to get used to everything. We have the sliding door so she can move between the two areas, but I believe she spent all of last night out in Zeki's zone.

    Oh, and she managed to fall off the climbing beam this morning. James was mortified, but we think she's okay.

    The climbing beam: it goes over the stairs, and is attached to the top stair railing at the stained glass windows upstairs, and near the sliding door, so it goes over the landing and the lower part of the stair case. It was originally installed so we can paint the walls in the stairwell, but it quickly became a favourite for Zeki, and Amber has shown absolutely no fear on it, and maybe even tries to get too tricksy out there. Nemrut has also been out on it (when Zeki is closed off on the front balcony). We've been talking about making it a permanent feature, since it is so popular.

    Nemrut is still skittish, but he is getting better too. He spends quite a bit of time in the corridor when we're home, often with Zeki on the other side of the sliding door. There's some caution between them but I think just letting it be like this for a time will work.

    Nemrut's skittishness around James and me is getting to be a bit of a joke - if we wait, he will come out from under the bed, and circle our legs, purring and rubbing our legs, but if we leave and then walk back in, ten seconds later, he sprints off with that "busted!" expression. Then, we wait again, and he comes out, lather, rinse, repeat. We have had him up on the bed, and he seems to quite like that, when he's convinced he's allowed up there.

    We've had all kinds of disturbing feedback from people with experience with Turkish Vans, socialising stud males after their desexing, and so forth. Apparently some desexed studs never get the idea. Apparently it takes at least six weeks to judge if it's all going to work. Apparently you can expect males (even if desexed) to still be trying to kill each other after a week in the same house.

    I'm glad we heard all this after we'd had the new cats for a week, because I'm not sure I needed the extra stress of knowing that what we're doing is apparently very hard. Now I think things are going well enough that we can be pretty sure that the worst-case scenarios don't apply to us.

    I don't think it would have helped the cats either to have me around with higher stress levels. I don't think we've performed any miracles - I mean, it's not like we haven't had a few screw-ups, Zeki and Nemrut fighting, and Amber facing down Zeki. There really was fur flying one time - Amber is very impressive, because Zeki and her were having this particular fight in front of the sliding door - she could just have nipped through and he wouldn't have been able to follow - and she held her ground, until he got the idea that she was not up for being mounted. Maybe she didn't realise that she could escape, but on the other hand, in terms of getting the message home to Zeki this was probably better. I hope she can stand up to having to do it a few more times, as I imagine she'll have to.

    Anyway, I have to assume either that Berenice socialised these cats better than most, or that we've struck it lucky. James is very good at being insistent, a bit pushier than I'd be, but it seems to work most of the time. I'm more the type who gets really bloody-minded once I think it's all gone far enough, before then I'm happy to give them the benefit of the doubt, which means I don't impose myself as much on them.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    The turkish team

    The cats are playing golf. With a fluorescent orange golf ball. Actually, to watch, it's more like soccer. Maybe they've been inspired by the World Cup.

    Amber is particularly enthusiastic and persistent, which surprises me, because in the past, I've had sort-of soccer games with Zeki and she usually looks on in disdain.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    Happy families

    It looks like the whole Zeki, Amber and Nemrut show is reaching a happy ending: Zeki and Nemrut can tolerate each other in the same room, and even sleep on the same bed.

    I'm not quite sure I can guarantee my sanity though, as they choose to sleep as follows: Zeki sleeps between me and James, on top of the doona, holding it down on that side; Amber sleeps between me and the edge of the bed, holding the doona down on that side, and Nemrut sleeps on my feet (on top of the doona), keeping that end down. I woke up at 3:30 am, imagining I was in a very tight sleeping bag.

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    Zeki in trouble

    Zeki's been surprisingly quiet the last few days. As far as we can judge, he spent all of yesterday in one spot on the couch. I was worried he was ill, but he was rather playful this morning, so he seems to have recovered. Possibly a bit too much.

    I was packing up after breakfast, and had taken my laptop with me into the kitchen. Suddenly I realised Zeki was on the kitchen bench next to my laptop. I yelled at him in surprise, he panicked.

    Rather than jumping off the kitchen bench the straightforward way he had come up, he ran behind my laptop, realised he was trapped from jumping off that way by the table James is restoring, didn't want to go where I was, and so continued straight through where the water bottles and glasses stand.

    He took a rather nice green striped glass with him as he jumped off. He sprinted towards the stairs, but James caught up with him.

    Zeki and James had a major altercation, and Zeki was eventually timed-out in the blue room.

    James got several deep scratches on his arms, and when he asked why there was a weird discoloured spot on the back of his calf, we discovered that his right thigh was also covered in scratches.

    We cleaned up the scratches and applied tea tree oil, James not feeling a thing.

    Later, when James re-opened the door to the blue room, Zeki stayed on the couch in there, cautiously looking out. It looked like "I can't get into trouble if I stay here" to me.

    I hope both Zeki and James will be okay.

    As for me, I've got to try to remember not to yell when Zeki does something unexpected, and just pick him up and put him where he's allowed to be instead. I am bigger than the cat, after all.

    In the "every cloud has a silver lining" department, next time I see funky-looking glasses, I have an actual excuse to buy one or two, provided they're not too expensive. I mean, there's an actual spot in the glasses cupboard they could fit.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    The Truth about Cats and Football

    So, I've now played quite a bit of Zeki-football, and I've got a good idea of what works as a football: small, rounded objects that roll or slide, but irregularly. Grapes have been very popular recently.

    I've also noticed his persistence with this game: when the football disappears under something, he'll go to a lot of effort to get it out again. Even if he can't see it, if he knows where it is, he'll keep at it.

    However, he usually needs help to get started - James or I have to roll the grape (or whatever) around in front of him a few times before he starts chasing it. Once he gets going, he doesn't need our help at all.

    The rest of you had probably figured this out, but I discovered the true origin of Zeki football this morning. He's chasing a cockroach. Very persistently.

    Somehow, a cat that's a mouser is a bit more glamorous, but I'll take what I can get.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    Mon chat en rose

    I decided last weekend that I wanted to see how I looked with purple hair. It hasn't been a big success - the colour was beetroot at its most vivid, and it's already fading and is now more Ingrid-as-redhead than anything. I'm going to have to see Nel (my hairdresser) and get her help to try real purple.

    The colour, as you can guess from the rapid fading, comes out each time I shower or sweat. And now Zeki is turning pink. It is his own fault - he spent most of the night tucked up next to my head.

    Since Nel has a white cat of her own, she might even understand when I explain I want a hair dye that doesn't stain the cat.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    Do not buy a used cat from this woman

    James and I had mentioned to Alys that we were enjoying Zeki's company and if Berenice had any more cats that needed a new home, we'd be interested in perhaps a female.

    Alys replied last week that there was indeed a little girl, Amber, who was looking for a home, and would we like to meet her? So on Saturday, we went to meet Amber, who is indeed very cute, and we also got to meet Nemrut, who, it turned out, was good friends with Amber and also looking for a home.

    It seemed a shame to break them up, and Nemrut was very affectionate, and, somehow, suddenly, we found ourselves with three cats rather than one. As with Zeki, we've put them into the blue room, which was probably a kid's bedroom once, but is now an office-cum-technology-storage-area.

    Yesterday was mainly spent cleaning them up - they haven't had enough TLC lately, so we flea-treated them and trimmed their claws. And Nemrut had some nasty felt balls in his fur that we had to cut out - the largest almost as big as a golf ball. He obviously needs some human help grooming all that fur.

    Zeki is Not Impressed. He's happy to share the house with humans, but cats are a different matter. We'll see how it goes, if we keep them apart from him for now. Certainly it seems like a good way to invoke his curiosity, to show him some new cats he can disapprove of, and then put them in a room where he can't get to them.

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    Zeki's press agent.

    I've been playing with google, and not only is this blog now the top hit for "Vanstar Coma Berenices" (Zeki's pedigree name), but it also comes in about ninth if you search for "Zeki cat".

    If you search for "Ingrid Zeki", it's first, and "James Zeki", it's tenth.

    I conclude that I am now Zeki's press agent, responsible for spreading news about his gorgeousness to the world. My job would be somewhat easier if I could show you some pictures of him.

    <nudge, nudge>
    James, you've taken some stunning shots which lots of people would admire, both for the cat and the photography, you know?
    </nudge, nudge>

    Actual Zeki news: well, he spent the day snoring behind the TV, and emerged to wash James' toes and my fingers, and is now sleeping on the back of a couch.

    He's probably trying to recover from all that socialising he had to do yesterday.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    Cat update

    So, we've now had three cats for five weeks, and how is it going?

    Zeki is somewhat of a bully. He is clearly also trying to play with the others now, not fight all the time, but they don't see the difference clearly and I think he gets frustrated and upset and more likely to fight. His personality towards James and myself hasn't changed much, although I think he's a bit jealous if I'm patting one of the other two.

    Personality and behaviour wise, he is the old man of the group. I know I said when we first got him that he wasn't like an old cat at all, but next to the other two, he isn't as energetic or agile. Maybe Turkish Vans are just hyper, or any cat would have been hyper after Vilya.

    I expect we'll have to continue to separate him from the other two every so often for a while. It actually seems to reassure him to go into his cage sometimes, and of course he can still interact with the other two through the cage.

    Amber I still haven't got a complete handle on. James thinks she's the brightest of the three, and she's certainly the one who seems to plan the most, be aware of what others might be thinking, and so on. She's also the most reserved, keeping to herself quite a lot, and it will take a good while to really get to know her.

    It's always funny with the whole gender thing when you're faced with a cat, who, to quote my friend Ruth, "doesn't consciously perform gender", but nevertheless manages to be such a girl. She's pretty and dainty and quite fussy about her grooming, and acts slightly insulted if you try to help her. She eats less than half what the "boys" do, and when she gets carried away with playing and falls over, she gets that "I didn't just do that" look. The other two don't care they've fallen over.

    Nemrut is still tricky to handle, but an adorable goofball. He is very skittish, and seems to keep forgetting that we're his friends, and feed him and pat him. But he is relaxing around the house, more likely to come up to me and follow me around (cautiously, still). And he is getting very comfortable on the sofa, next to me, as long as I stay seated and don't make surprising movements or sounds.

    He's also the one who objects least to getting groomed. This is a good thing, because he has a lot of fur, and he had quite a lot of tangles when we got him. He's also throwing up furballs much less often now, and he's taken to the grass on the front balcony with great enthusiasm. Now I'm not sure how much of the early fur was shedding the summer coat for the winter coat, or the result of those fights, but I'm pretty sure regular TLC is a major reason for the reduction in furballs.

    We're now waiting for their pedigrees and certificates, so I can tell you all their full names, how they're related, and how many cat shows Nemrut has won. Otherwise, we're just going to patiently wait (and time-out Zeki as needed) for the three of them to settle happily with each other.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    Nemrut is a springbok.

    Or at least he wants to be one, desperately. He's practicing by leaping around and over the potted date palm on the balcony. I think he even scared Zeki back inside.

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    White and furry

    Because the world could use some light-hearted news.

    Zeki appears to be slowly re-commandeering the bedroom. He's not actually in there with us, but he's sleeping just outside the door, and Nemrut and Amber seem to be down in the living area again.

    Zeki and Nemrut have been getting awfully cozy with each other during the day. Now I fully realise that for cats, sex and cuddling have nothing to do with each other, but I'm enough of a human that I get perverted overtones from the sight of: Nemrut lying stretched-out, half on his back, Zeki close alongside, with his head buried somewhere near Nemrut's armpit, and Nemrut's arm over Zeki's face. They also did a yin-yang symbol, only all in white, the other day. I think part of the effect is the fact that Zeki is an ex-stud, and originally didn't want to have anything to do with another male cat.

    This evening, it was Nemrut and Amber curled up together for a change. Amber looks about half his size when they're curled up together. Then Nemrut managed to fall off the top of the cage. He'd been doing his very convincing "furry ooze" impersonation, and pushing the pillow off the edge of the cage top, and suddenly, bam, Nemrut and pillow on floor. He's enough of a goofball that that kind of thing doesn't seem to bother him in the slightest. Both he and Amber can fall over backwards when they get really enthusiastic, jumping for ribbon. Amber tends to look embarrassed. Nemrut hasn't heard of the word.

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    Room service

    I was cleaning up the spare room in preparation for Kirsten's visit next week, and Zeki came in and parked himself on the bed. He watched me with this air of "oh, yes, this will meet my requirements". I hope Kirsten can keep him out of there when she's here.

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    Pigeons among the cats

    Last spring, we had a pair of pigeons (spotted turtledoves, in fact) nest in the hanging fern on our balcony. I noticed some pigeons hanging around near the balcony on Wednesday, and this morning, I see there are actually a pair of pigeons in the fern.

    Last spring at this time we did not have three extremely inquisitive, playful, high-jumping cats. Nemrut literally has his nose squeezed against the glass watching them, and I hate to think what's going to happen next time the cats are out on the balcony.

    Unfortunately, I don't know if the cats are out on the balcony often enough to dissuade the pigeons from nesting there until it's too late for this batch of eggs. The only vaguely positive thing I can think of is that it's not like these pigeons are rare, so I don't feel particularly obligated to provide nesting space for one particular couple.

    [/zeki] permanent link

    Friends

    It's another cat update: our cats all seem to be playing nicely with each other for now. There's an actual photo or two with all three of them contented together within .25 square meters.

    We think Nemrut and Zeki might be getting up to a bit of trouble together - Van males can be like that. Nemrut is also learning from Zeki about when feeding time happens and where to hang out, nagging the humans to make the microwave go faster.

    Amber is still not quite at home and she's a bit unhappy about the toilet facilities (as far as we can tell) but I'm not sure how to rectify it. She does come to bed every so often, whereas Zeki had more or less taken it over for himself last week. She also has an unhealthy fondness for used cotton buds, and clearly we need to install a bin with a lid in the bathroom.

    They all three love the front balcony. They line up in front of the door when I get up in the morning, or if one of them is caught out by being elsewhere, comes sprinting when they hear the door open. Even Amber has gotten into grass-chomping. Nemrut has been eating it since he moved in, but I was picking some and bringing it in for him.

    It's also an interesting exercise to see what's been moved around during the day when we come home. There might be a hairband at the bottom of the stairs, or some re-arrangement of the dirty laundry. And we have a pile of thin plastic foam from all the Ikea furniture that is obviously the site of some major action every day, because we keep moving it back in a corner every day. When we're around, all we see is Zeki sitting on it, or Amber hiding under it.

    I've heard stories in the past that re-arranging the furniture can help, so I wonder if we got the new furniture at the right time. They all seem pretty happy with the new sofa, which is not surprising as it allows comfortable lounging on the back. And Amber likes the fact that she fits under both the sofa and the recliners.

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    Sleeps-with-chillies

    So there was this plastic bag on the coffee table, with some chillies from the plants out the front. I planted the chillies for James, and he seems very happy with them, but he never picks his chillies, so every so often, when I'm watering, I find myself with a handful or two of chillies. This usually happens in the morning, while James is checking email on his laptop, and I dump the chillies in his lap or whatever, to point out that here are yet more chillies he's been neglecting.

    Anyway, that should explain how the chillies got on the coffee table. What I can't explain is that earlier today, Zeki jumped up on the coffee table (which he doesn't do) and when I shouted him down, he left with a reluctant glance at the chillies.

    So I figured that if the chillies got him onto the coffee table, I'd move them onto the carpet. (Which led James to ask why there were chillies on a plastic bag on the floor, but that was probably inevitable.)

    As one expects of cats, once the object of interest was easily accessible, it immediately ceased being interesting.

    However, just ten minutes ago, I caught him asleep in a sphinx-like position, his front paws on each side of the chillies. He was so embarrassed when I noticed that he left before I got a chance to take a photo.

    I thought chillies were meant to be a good household remedy for keeping pets away from things, not something to cuddle up to.

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    To my cats:

    Dear Zeki and Nemrut,

    Yes, I realise you still have to sort things out mano a mano, even though you know we don't like it and break up your fights. Yes, I admit I admire your increasing ability to fight quietly and carefully, so you won't get caught.

    However, if you choose to have such a fight, even if it's dark and you think we're already asleep, I am going to notice if you are doing it on top of my left ankle. Even through the covers, yes.

    That would be why your fight got broken up last night. Also, after I turned off the light and tried to go to sleep again, it wasn't the brightest move to both return to the same location, on top of the same leg, before re-starting the fight.

    That would be why your second fight also got broken up, and Zeki sent down the other end of the house, and the sliding door closed.

    Love, me (and my apparently very desirable ankle).

    PS: Thanks for waking me at 6am this morning with your plaintive meowing, Zeki. It's good to hear that you still have your voice, and it isn't the presence of the other cats that has shut you up.

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    Hide and Seek

    Zeki has found himself a new hiding place. We heard this odd rhythmic wheezing sound, rather like Zeki snoring, coming from the TV, but we couldn't actually see Zeki anywhere.

    It turns out that the corner cabinet that the TV sits in is far enough out from the wall on one side (because of the powerpoint there) that Zeki can squeeze through, and the back of the corner unit is cut off diagonally, so there's a triangular patch of floor he can curl up on.

    And apparently, it's a good place to sleep.

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    Playtime

    Zeki would like everyone to know what a great guy Paul the air conditioning installer is.

    First, he brings these long skinny tube things, draped over the sofa with the end of the tube near the floor and moving slightly - definitely a interesting new version of "catch-the-tip".

    Then, after making various weird noises, he creates brand new zeki-footballs to chase up and down the corridor.

    Paul also complimented Zeki on his looks and cool mismatched eyes. He even left one of the new zeki-footballs behind, for play this morning. I think Zeki is looking forward to Paul's next visit on Wednesday.

    [Paul was very apologetic about the tiny melted spot on one of the units. He'd never tried welding copper pipe while a cat batted at the pipe end, about three metres away. And 4 cm of 3cm diameter PVC tube appears to be an ideal zeki-football.]

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    Corridor dynamics

    Although our cats have pretty much settled down with each other, there still seem to be some power and territory issues that either haven't been resolved, or simply won't go away. I guess this is the point where I start to learn the more permanent characteristics of the cats from distinctive, yet changeable traits.

    After the first night of all three being friends and sleeping with us on the bed, Zeki must have Had A Word, because since then, Zeki has been the only cat in the bedroom with us. The other two would sleep at the other end of the corridor, near the kitchen. We tried taking the others to bed, but they'd leave the room as soon as possible.

    Last week, James tried locking Zeki out in the living area by closing off the sliding door, and having Amber and Nemrut with us on the bedroom side. Within about ten minutes of turning the lights out, we heard an odd bang. I couldn't be bothered getting up to find out what it was - we couldn't hear any fighting or anything bad.

    In the morning, we woke up to Amber being very cosy and friendly with us on the bed, and Nemrut nowhere to be found in our end of the house. We slide open the door, and Zeki is sitting on the climbing beam and Nemrut on a cardboard box at the end of the corridor, looking perfectly comfortable with himself.

    We've reconstructed that what must have happened is now the old carpet is out, the sliding door doesn't have tracks on the floor. Zeki must have pushed the sliding door so it swung out sideways, from the track above, and Nemrut could squeeze out, and the bang would have been when the door fell back in place.

    We have no idea how they figured this out, or why, but given that we can't see how Nemrut could have got any leverage from our side, it had to be cooperative.

    We're also thinking of replacing the sliding door with something else.

    We went back to just letting them do their thing. In the last few days, Amber has started to come into the bedroom in the morning. I've seen Zeki swipe at her several times, so I felt confirmed that he was actively keeping them out.

    So, I think I have a handle on it all, until last night. Last night, as far as I can tell, Amber and Nemrut spent the night on our bed, and Zeki was at the other end of the corridor.

    But the most amusing thing happened this morning. I was in the living area, James still asleep, and I could hear some minor hissing and fighting noises down the corridor. So I wandered over to have a look. Halfway down the corridor, all three were sitting, perfectly spaced, wall, middle, other wall. And looking at me like "Go away, you're not involved." So I went back to my laptop.

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    Cat surprises

    We finally got the official papers for Amber and Nemrut today. There were a few surprises.

    We find Amber so much like Zeki, both in looks and personality, in comparison to Nemrut, that we thought Zeki and Amber were close relatives, Nemrut less so. Well, it turns out that it is Nemrut and Amber who have the same mother. And Zeki appears to be Nemrut's grandfather.

    Cat breeding being what it is, Zeki's paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother are the parents of Amber and Nemrut's mother, so they're all cousins of a kind.

    We also learnt Amber's pedigree name, Delismen Kehlibar, the second of which is a Turkish word meaning, you guessed it, "Amber". Nemrut is Delismen Nemrut, for Nimrod, in his guise as Great Hunter. (Zeki is Vanstar Coma Berenices of Delismen, or I guess, formerly of Delismen). Delişmen is Turkish for "madcap, rambunctious, devil-may-care".

    But the real surprise was getting birthdays. We'd already figured out that Nemrut is five (7th June 2000), and we'd pegged Amber as younger. In actual fact, she's almost as old as Zeki: 17th July 1997, to Zeki's 21st December 1995. Maybe their similar personalities is the wisdom of age, and Nemrut is just a ditz because he's immature.

    I've recently been looking in on discussions about how older women are ignored or downplayed socially and culturally. Well, Amber makes a fabulous middle-aged female rolemodel. Charming, active, independent, and fearless.

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    Kitty TV

    Just a minor note: the kitten being tortured somewhere in the first season of Blackadder sounds so realistic that Zeki got up from where he was lounging near the stairs, and wandered over to the TV, trying to locate the poor thing, and obviously wanting to help.

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    Movie: Torque

    We're having a motorbike theme weekend and began by watching Torque.

    I had heard plenty of bad reviews of it, but I thought it might be fun to see how bad it was. And it was kinda fun, in a bad movie way. The acting, dialogue and plot is either bad or completely "whaaaa?".

    The actor who plays the hero was cast on his ability to toss his hair and make a Tom Cruise face. Our hero, by the way, is not only the bestest, fastest, most accurate bikerider out there, he is also a whiz at martial arts and seem to have spent time in buddhist temples during his recent time in Thailand, judging by his equinamity and ability to restore karmic balance to every situation.

    Motorbikes do not merely ignore the laws of physics, they seem to act like individual characters, although not as much as the guns, where the script writers seem to have not even bothered trying to come up with plausible behaviour.

    What I did not expect, however, is that the thing about the movie that would keep me most entertained and prone to random giggling was the cinematography. It is awe-inspiring, and I have no idea if that's in a good or bad way. It swings wildly between totally failing to convey the intended effect, weird attempts at metaphor, and close-focus-distant-focus effects which look like someone with an over-active imagination and no sense of what to focus on was playing with a camera and digital editing package for the first time ever.

    Also, oddly, the women - at least the three-four main female characters - have the best lines and seem smarter than most of the male characters. I haven't begun thinking through the implications of this, in a movie which is clearly geared to a hyper-masculinised audience.

    it's also fun playing spot-the-style - sometimes it's a racing movie, sometimes it's a tough-guys-and-drug-deals movie, sometimes it's trying to be The Matrix, and then there are the bits that seem to be cowboy movie, or a CSI episode, or a fight scene out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, only on motorbikes.

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    Movie: The Incredibles

    Ian invited James and I to join him for The Incredibles this afternoon at Indooroopilly. I didn't mind going out, since I got myself four T-shirts for $20, a purple one, a green one, and two different shades of pinky/apricot. I'm thinking of painting or otherwise decorating at least one of them - there's a lot of that sort of thing around, but most of the designs aren't to my taste.

    I enjoyed the actual movie a lot. It has all the superhero/James Bond/action tropes, including the music, but manages to be about family and relationships and keeping secrets and accepting who you are. And of course, action movies are much more involving when you actually care about the characters all this dangerous excitement is happening to.

    The plot struck me as well-thought out and tightly constructed. None of the characters do anything outrageous to keep the plot going; stupidity is plausible and controlled. I got the impression a lot of care and attention and love went into every stage of this movie.

    The animation is smooth and stylistically consistent apart from one thing. I actually found the characters' hair (and also water) too realistic. I've never seen such real-looking CGI hair before (water they seemed to manage a while back), and given the overall style isn't ultra-realistic, I actually found it distracting. A clearly cartoony character, with unrealistic proportions and features, flat skin, and no particular attention to muscular anatomy when moving should not have hair that I'd be pleased to have.

    There are all kinds of curious details, which leave me wondering how many I'm missing. For example, the fashion designer Edna Mode (who is clearly some kind of superhero, although an unusual one) appears to me to be an extremely pointed satire of Karl Lagerfeld, and she's wearing an outfit based on one he designed. But it's not the kind of detail I'd expect most of the people I think this movie is aimed at to pick up.

    I also enjoyed the end credits - they're in a sort of iconographic sixties silhouette style, and it's just as well they're at the end, because you need to be familiar with the characters to decode their icons.

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    TV Series: Coupling

    James was lent the DVD of the first season (six half-hour episodes) of Coupling which we've been watching a few episodes of each night.

    James' description of it as "Friends, but for adults, and funny" seems pretty accurate so far. Steve and Susan, his ex Jane, his best friend Jeff, her ex Patrick, her best friend Sally. Oh, and it's BBC, which is the reason it's adult and funny, most likely.

    A lot of the humour revolves around sex and nudity, but in a good way - it is a comedy about human foibles that is good-natured about our individual flaws. I'm bothered by a lot of sitcom-style humour because it seems to require people to behave stupidly, or like caricatures. The characters in Coupling may be extreme (for humour-generation purposes) but they seem to be real people.

    The most stereotypical character, Jeff (boy-man, obsessed by women and sex, foot-in-mouth syndrome) still has consistency, in that there's a pattern to the kind of foot-in-mouth he does, and so he isn't automatically given that role every time. And the acting required is quite subtle and is well-done.

    I think Jane is the most intriguing character for me. At first glance, she's a ditz, but on closer inspection she's so self-centred she has no conception what the world looks like to anyone else, and she is the most manipulative character I have ever encountered (including in real life, fortunately).

    So far, the major weakness (if it is that) is that the series seems to centre on Steve and Susan and their relationship, and the other characters are not as well developed, being more there for jokes.

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    TV Series: Coupling season 2.

    James borrowed Season 2 of Coupling from Todd, and I think I may have become an enabler when I pointed out that on my recent shopping expedition I noticed the Season 3 DVD display taking up the entire window of the ABC shop.

    I continue to like the show, it's very cleverly written and painfully funny in places. There are parts that are so embarrassing James can't watch and cringes and squirms the way I cringe and squirm at Fawlty Towers.

    I wonder if you could diagnose sub-types of social anxiety by seeing which comedies a person found most funny, yet anxiety-provoking?

    The highlight of season 2 for me is most definitely Geoff's romance with Julia, a colleague. But Jane's antics in "Dressed" are just so Jane, and the incident that finally provokes Steve to propose to Susan is brilliant as well.

    And both James and I have "Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps" stuck in our brains. He hums it, I try to actually sing. I expect we're mutually reinforcing by now.

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    Book: The story of V

    I finished reading The Story of V (subtitled either: A natural history of female sexuality; or: Opening Pandora's box; there are also a number of different covers) by Catherine Blackledge last week, but it's taken me for ever to get around to writing about it.

    I think the reason it's taken me so long is pretty obvious. I'm very ambiguous about this book. On the one hand, I don't like our society's coyness about sex and the general ignorance and mystery around female genitalia. So I'm really happy that those barriers are being broken in the form of books like this. Even if the coyness is reflected in the title, and the "safe" purple paperback cover, after a more explicit hardback cover.

    The coyness actually causes a curiosity: V is supposedly for "vagina", and Blackledge claims that "vagina" refers either to the passage to the cervix and womb, or to the entire female external genitalia, but I've never encountered her second sense before. I also think it leads to confusion in the text. I'd have preferred if she'd used "vulva" for the external genitals, and only used "vagina" to refer to, well, the vagina. The title would still have been apt.

    But leaving aside the cultural problems of publishing books about female genitalia in our society, I'm afraid I don't think this actual book is particularly good. I really think its market success will be entirely due to the lack of competition; I think if non-fiction along these lines was published regularly, this would be in the second-rate bin.

    This book does manage some things well - the breadth of research and related (and relevant) subject matter is impressive; she covers so much territory, from anthropology and myth, to the intricacies of fertilisation in hyenas and assorted insects, that I can't imagine anyone not learning something they didn't know from reading this.

    But, but, but. I spotted a number of factual inaccuracies; when she covered biological areas I'm familiar with (smell and the MHC, for example) I found her descriptions misleading in a way that made me wonder if she really understood what she was writing about; I thought some of her chains of reasoning were tenuous to say the least; and I had alarm bells going off left right and centre when reading her historical and anthropological material, because she was interpreting things with a very modern cultural viewpoint, with none of the sensitivity that I would expect of good historians/anthropologists for the cultural viewpoint of the people who created the material.

    This meant that however much I enjoyed all the material new to me, I was left in a great deal of doubt whether I could actually trust it to be true, or represented accurately. Which means that ultimately for me, the book was in many ways a waste of time: I may have learnt some new things, but based on the stuff I could check with my own knowledge and common sense, I'm not confident.

    Way back in the first or second chapter, I had a thought: "I wish she was my PhD student". She'd diligently gone out and collected all the possible relevant information, and had herself a first draft. Now it was my time to teach her something about checking reliability of sources, forming coherent arguments with the available evidence, structuring material in a clean, well-flowing way, and not just dumping everything in a vaguely continuous stream.

    Oh, and learning to write and edit better. I could certainly edit this book into better English.

    There is another problem with this book, which is possibly the underlying problem, and which I don't blame Blackledge for, in fact I feel sorry for her. It appears that she grew up ashamed and mystified by her own body, and researching the female genitals to death has been part of her process of coming to accept and love her own body and her sexuality.

    Like her, I sincerely wish we lived in a society where accepting her own body and sexuality was simply a normal thing for a woman to grow up doing. And I understand that she is very keen to share her new-found sense of self-love, and I guess if this book does that, maybe I shouldn't get in the way. Because maybe we need a lot more women who accept themselves and are prepared to talk about it openly before we can get onto the nit-picky details of getting the history, anthropology, and physiology of women's sexuality actually right.

    She has these charming, women's sexuality-empowering, discussions of the various terms for female genitalia in other cultures. "See, it's alright, even if we're brought up to be vaguely disgusted by our vulvas, women in other cultures aren't." But I don't care how many jade grottos or pearls of wonder traditional chinese culture was prepared to admire; it was an incredibly sexist society that profoundly limited women's social roles and powers and rights.

    See, I'd rather live in a society that gives me contraception, and equal right to education and work and pursuing my own life, and ways to avoid/escape domestic violence and rape, that hasn't quite figured out how to deal with female sexuality; than one where I'm locked into precisely one social role (and brought up so strongly gendered that I might not even realise what I'm trapped in), however well it brings up men to admire and pay compliments to my vagina.

    I think that makes me a feminist. I think Blackledge is also a feminist, but not a sufficiently critical one. Unfortunately, I've now read enough feminist literature that she seems more typical than me. It seems to be okay to ditch critical thinking and scientific rigour in the interests of cheerleading for girl-power. But I don't think true girl-power will be achieved until we can argue right back at the boys.

    I managed to learn these critical thinking skills as a girl and woman. I can confirm that they adamantly are not inherently part of the patriarchy. But because the patriarchy likes to think it has the monopoly on critical thinking (and hey, the feminist literature I've read would confirm that belief) it's important to challenge men on their own turf, and let them discover it isn't their turf at all. It's a startlingly fair playing field, once you've learnt the rules.

    Maybe I'm just ahead of my time.

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    Book: The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

    Despite the fact that I've read several of Oliver Sacks' books, somehow I'd never read the most famous one, until Annette lent it to me recently.

    I was rather disappointed, coming from his other books (An Anthropologist on Mars, Seeing Voices, Island of the Colorblind, A Leg to Stand On). Firstly, the patient descriptions/stories are too short, too bitsy, and at the same time keep referring backwards and forwards to each other in a way I found really distracting, and left me feeling unclear about what he was really trying to do. I got the impression that many were slight modifications of case write-ups in medical journals, and feel that a lot more modification was needed.

    I also suspect that part of my disappointment is that I'm the wrong world view for this book. I think this book was written to convince people who think that there's "normal" and "weirdos" (who are lesser, inferior, and not really human), that really, it's much more complicated and interesting than that. And I know that already, and can live without some of the "gee whiz, who would have thought?" attitude.

    In some way, books like this actually make me really happy. A book written in 1985, which to me, reading in 2005, is stating the bleedin' obvious but in such a way that I can tell the author doesn't think (or doesn't think zir audience will think) it is bleedin' obvious, is a measure of progress. It gives me a pretty good idea of what many people thought about "weirdos" around that time, and I can almost measure the progress with a ruler in this case.

    I do honestly believe there's such a thing as a book which is great for its time but its success can almost directly be judged by the extent to which it stops being a great book, and it's possible that this is one. And I have say that's my best assessment; I simply cannot tell whether I would have thought this was great if I'd read it in 1985.

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    Book: The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.

    This book by Mark Haddon is published (in Australia) as teenage fiction. However, I think that's a very superficial attitude, and I'm happy it's also out as a literary novel in other countries.

    The narrator is 15-year old Christopher, who finds his neighbour's dead dog, and decides to find out who is responsible, in the style of Sherlock Holmes.

    Christopher likes maths, order, patterns, predictability and animals. He doesn't like yellow, being touched, metaphors, lies, or crowds. He is confused by most human interaction, as he doesn't pick up facial expressions or tone of voice. He is overwhelmed by new situations because of the sheer amount of unfamiliar sensory data, and he doesn't seem to have ways of filtering out what is "unimportant".

    Mark Haddon pulls off the difficult stunt of making the reader (me at least, and others seem to think so too) care about Christopher and understand the difficulty of his situation, and also hint at the emotional drama swirling around Christopher that Christopher himself isn't aware of.

    A lot of summaries I've seen start with statements like "this is about a character with autism" (or asperger's), which to me misses the point. Neither condition is mentioned anywhere in the book, and as Haddon says, Christopher tells you all you need to know himself. Christopher experiences the world differently from most of the rest of us, but it's not clear to me that that difference should be considered a condition.

    I'm quite mathematically oriented myself, so I was probably more inclined to sympathise with Christopher's view of the world than most. And as a teenager, I spent a fair amount of time around other mathematically gifted teenagers, including some who were somewhat like Christopher, if less extreme (I probably wouldn't have actually met anyone as extreme as him). And the blunt fact is, that even those of us who had social skills within the range of "normal", more or less turned them off when we were working on maths, because you're looking at the world a different way, focussing on different kinds of patterns.

    This is one of the reasons I overall found Christopher a very believable character, because he struck me as being "in the maths filter" all the time. And a reason why I don't think it's a "teenage" book despite the main character being a teenager - I think this is the correct age to depict a character like this at (certainly if you want a novel out of it) - his mathematical abilities are hinting at university, but his social skills make that very difficult. As an older character, whether he develops more social skills or not, I expect him to have embedded himself in an environment that feels safe and controllable, and likely to be surrounded by people who accept his weaknesses as the price of his strengths. (vide any Mathematics Department I've ever encountered.)

    In case it's not clear, I think this is a great book, and I'd recommend it particularly to anyone who may have had occasion to run into mathematicians and to wonder therefore how they got that way. Christopher is not typical, but once you've been inside his head, the rest of them should be easy.

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    Movie: Wallace & Gromit

    On Tuesday, I went along with James and a bunch of his colleagues to see the Wallace & Gromit feature, Curse of the Were-Rabbit. First, we had the most ingredient-heavy pizza I've had in a long time, at Tomarcos, and then headed around the corner to the good old El Dorado for the movie.

    It was really great to catch up with Wallace & Gromit again. The movie is cute and charming in all the expected Wallace & Gromit ways, and has those fabulous little bits of background filler (Gromit is a graduate of Dogwarts), of which I expect to spot more on a re-watch.

    I didn't find it quite as exceptionally breathtaking as Wrong Trousers or Close Shave. I think this is partly because you just can't cram things into a feature the way you can into a half-hour. Things need to be stretched a bit, and they felt that way.

    However, I also got a sense of trying reprise the best bits of previous W&G, and not enough new insanity. I didn't feel there was anything as completely off-the-wall as the automaton's skiing dreams in Grand Day Out, or the model train chase in Wrong Trousers, or all the Terminator jokes in Close Shave, not to mention the sheep formation.

    It's difficult, I guess, when you have a movie at least as good as most things in the cinema, and yet the obvious standard of measure is a very high one indeed.

    Some things I did like, apart from the whole concept: were-rabbit marauding the whole village's giant vegetables - were Wallace's thought transfer machine; the Anti-Pesto approach to pest control; Lady Tottington, particularly in her final incarnation as a giant carrot (which James failed to notice!); and the village vicar whose secret cupboard of spiritual secrets is full of runestones and tarot cards.

    But I also felt like more could have been done with many of these - I was really expecting more payoff with all the giant vegetables, and Lady Tottington's conservatory on the roof. I don't know what I was expecting, but Nick Park usually manages something.

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    Movie: Stage Beauty

    Sarah and I, apparently both being fans of romance/costume/shakespeare movies, dragged James off to see "Stage Beauty" last night.

    I liked it a lot. I think I'd have trouble resisting any movie with Rupert Everett as Charles II, Nell Gwyn (Zoe Tapper) as a force of nature, and Samuel Pepys (Hugh Bonneville) recording everything for posterity. Overall, I thought it was extremely well-cast - I understood exactly why everyone was behaving as they were, and reacting to each other as they did. (I've started to notice that when I get confused about why people are doing what they're doing in a movie, it's usually because of bad acting.)

    The central story revolves around Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), who has been brought up to play female theatre roles and literally doesn't know how to do or be anything else, and Maria (Claire Danes), his dresser, who dreams of acting herself. Charles II, partly to emphasise the Restoration of monarchy, partly to please his mistress, decrees that from now on, women will play women's parts in the theatre, overturning the tradition that Ned is part of.

    They both discover that this change requires a great deal of adaptation for them - Ned discovering that this is not, as it first appears, a complete disaster for him, and Maria, that there is a lot more to being a woman acting than impersonating Ned's performances.

    I liked the fact that this was a mainstream-ish movie, essentially about sex and gender roles, that didn't seem to be preachy or moralistic or virtuous about it. In fact, it had a great air of "This is a movie about coping with change and understanding yourself, it's just that gender happens to be involved in this particular case" about it.

    I did have some anachronistic niggles about it - the final performance of Othello, which is much too naturalistic for the time - on the other hand, I'm guessing that with women on stage, acting would suddenly have seemed much more naturalistic to audiences of the time, and the only way to convey that sensation to us is using acting that we see as naturalistic.

    But it also worried me a bit that the only theatre being performed is Shakespeare - it makes sense to have the central story revolve around Othello, but I found it weird that there were not even references to other playwrights. Also, Claire Danes apparently being happy to look like Claire Danes bothered me somewhat - she looks a bit out of place surrounded by powdered and bewigged nobility, and dirty and malnourished lower classes.

    And I found the caps the actors wear to keep their hair under the stage wig really distracting. I got to the point where I didn't care if they were historically accurate, I would have preferred them to look less like they were made of nylon pantyhose. Otherwise, I enjoyed the costumes, and thought they suited the air of the times well.

    But these are niggles, and there were other things which I'm sure weren't accurate that didn't bother me at all, because they were part of the story or just plain intriguing - Charles II and Nell cross-dressing struck me as very much in character.

    Apparently this movie got an R rating in the US. We had an ongoing game trying to figure out what attracted that rating - Claire Danes' breast? The gay sex scene (although it's under sheets)? Six King Charles Spaniels wagging their tails frantically as, we gather, Nell does the thing with Charles? There's some vulgar language, reflecting the bawdiness of the period, but I'm really startled this movie was thought potentially harmful to older teenagers. I would have enjoyed it at twelve.

    James didn't like the movie quite as much as Sarah and I - I suspect he didn't have enough background to appreciate some of the historical aspects. He seems to have liked the spaniels and the sexual innuendo though.

    But what can you really say about a movie that makes me want to read Samuel Pepys' Diary and generally learn more about the time?

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    Movie: Minority Report

    James and I watched the DVD of Minority Report last night, with Tom Cruise and Kathryn Morris (who is the lead in Cold Case, which it took me most of the movie to realise - the voice was so familiar but she looks different), directed by Steven Spielberg.

    I wasn't wildly impressed. The first 40 minutes or so seem very slow. The movie is interrupted for ponderous explanation of plot setup; interrupted for an action scene just so there's something happening on screen; interrupted for some more background explanation; interrupted for some geewhiz visual effects along the lines of "won't the future look stunning, and isn't it cool our effects department can do it now".

    If you're starting to wonder what actually happens in this part of the movie, as distinct from disconnected interruptions, I'm a bit unclear on that too. The movie is over two hours long but would be much better for some sensible editing, particularly of the first part.

    It all reminds me rather of the bloated late output of Eminent Science Fiction Authors who get to publish every word they write without editing. And lets the rest of us realise that their younger work is good partly because editors trimmed a lot of fat off.

    The movie finally gets into gear, and then trundles along quite nicely as your standard action/conspiracy movie. There's a quote on the back of the box: Steven Spielberg's sharpest, brawniest, most bustling entertainment since Raiders of the Lost Ark which surprised me when I first read it, but in retrospect is extremely apt. Think of it as a B-grade entertainment where our hero battles evil henchmen of a supernatural cult and uses objects of magical power against exotic backgrounds.

    Because trying to think of it as Science Fiction will only hurt your head, at least if your head functions anything like mine. It's not so much that the plot requires a magical drug which causes precognitive side-effects in children born to women taking it - I was quite prepared to suspend disbelief for that.

    It's more that the "scientists" who worked on this project don't seem to know anything about the scientific method, who think statistical uncertainty is a problem that will go away if they pretend it doesn't exist and cover up the evidence, who think they know better than lawyers how the legal system works; and the rest of society accepts their verdict and ditches the lawyers.

    It's also that, given the fact that the precogs can only pre-sense and thus prevent murders - again a plot conceit I'm willing to concede - all of society seems to live in blissful happiness knowing there are no more murders, and the only people around with any psychological damage appear to have been affected by murder. Beatings, bullying, rape, theft and burglary are totally irrelevant in this universe, which is also why there are no longer any conventionally-trained police who are familiar with crime scenes, other than the "troublemaker" who is a former homicide officer investigating the new system.

    It's also that this apparently oh-so happy, caring and loving future society allows its chief pre-crime officer to be in any position of responsibility when he clearly has untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by the death of his son something like ten years previously. And that he and his wife are estranged over the death of this son when ten minutes of grief counselling and some healthy crying is sufficient to get them back together.

    If, like James, you're computer security literate, you can also be horrified (and hey, I was, too) by iris-pattern security systems, where our hero's iris pattern is now on the wanted list and he's been scanned for all over town, but no-one has bothered to turn off recognition of his iris pattern inside the pre-crime building. I was prepared again to suspend disbelief about eye-transplants to bypass the iris-scanning (although the people who developed the system don't seem up to date with what the crims are doing to evade it) and maybe even hanging on to the previous eyes, to use the iris pattern to get through those doors that think he's still the pre-crime chief and not D.C.'s most wanted.

    But I have to admit I totally lost it when Tom Cruise is fumbling for his old eyes (in a ziplock plastic bag in his pocket), and to build up tension, he drops them. And the eyes roll off down the corridor like a couple of blood-stained ping pong balls. That's probably what they were, but is it really too much to ask the props department (or even the scriptwriter, because that's really where the problem lies) of a multi-million dollar movie to go out and get a few real eyeballs from the nearest abattoir and get an idea of what they're like?

    If I wanted to get deep, there are whole essays waiting about the movie's occasional nods at interesting deep symbolism that isn't taken anywhere at all, except to disappoint people like me who start getting the inkling than the movie might be an interesting psychological or symbological study, when it's really a B-grade action with pretensions.

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    Movie: Malcolm X

    More DVD watching: Malcolm X. It's really long, more than three hours, but definitely worth it. Great acting, fascinating story, entirely believable levels of racism: when Malcolm and some friends, males black and females white, get caught for a robbery, the girls get short sentences and the boys, very long ones. "We were guilty of sleeping with white women."

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    TV show: Rejseholdet (Unit One)

    SBS just recently started screening a Danish cop/criminial investigation show, Rejseholdet, or as SBS is calling it, "Unit One". Have I mentioned how much I like living in a country which has a TV channel dedicated to showing multicultural and foreign-language TV?

    So I persuaded James to change the channel last night (we tend to be pretty glued to ABC Friday nights) and check it out. I like it quite a lot so far. I have to admit I'm a sucker for a show where the lead cop is an ordinary-attractive (as distinct from Hollywood-attractive) 40ish woman. And just to make sure they've really got their hooks in me, she's called Ingrid. James was excited, because although he still can't say Ingrid in Danish, he was having no trouble recognising the name.

    The premise is that the National police has a "travelling team" (the literal translation) that can be called out to assist with difficult cases anywhere in the country. (Denmark is small enough that this is extremely feasible.) There's a lot to appeal to me here, apart from the feminism: I'm quite fond of criminial investigation shows, I like the angle I'm sensing of focusing on emotions and relationships, I get to practice my Danish, and at least in this episode they've included some very scenic locations, and used some nice cinematography, without being gimmicky.

    About half-way through the show it suddenly occurred to me that Fischer (Mads Mikkelsen) was meant to be the show's heartthrob. He doesn't do anything for me personally, but I guessed right, because he's been voted "Denmark's sexiest man". I'm more inclined towards La Cour (Lars Brygmann) but that's probably because he's showing evidence of being the weird brain.

    Another thing that was keeping me amused was seeing how much of the swearing was making it into the subtitles. I'm not sure if the team's meant to have been recently assembled, most of them know each other, but Johnny Olsen (Lars Bom) is new to it. All the male characters recognise him, but Gaby (Trine Pallesen), who starts flirting with him as soon as she sets eyes on him (she seems to be the central organiser and keeper-track-of-stuff) gets increasingly frustrated by all the "Is that really Johnny Olsen?" "Sure" (some of it appears to be deliberate teasing), until she finally bursts out "Hvem for fanden er Johnny Olsen?" which appeared in the subtitles as "Who is Johnny Olsen?". I mentioned to James that SBS had left out the swearing, and he said he could tell. (Johnny Olsen is a brilliant soccer player whose career was cut short by injury.)

    Just to make sure they've got their hooks in me, this story does not wrap up at the end of the episode, so I'll have to watch next week. Fortunately, it appears that we don't care all that much about the current ABC show in that time slot, so we can squeeze Rejseholdet in between Strictly Dancing and Spooks. Thankfully, both SBS and ABC are good about keeping to the published times. What would we do without our government-funded channels?

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    Movie: The Phantom of the Opera

    Off to the actual cinema, with Sarah, her mother, and another friend of Sarah's (I think Louise?) for The Phantom of the Opera.

    I enjoyed it, but find it almost impossible to classify as a good or bad movie. It's very Phantom of the Opera; if that's what you're after, it's great, if not, you should skip it.

    I guess I could expand on what I mean: singing and Andrew Lloyd Webber's music; actors who generally looked their parts and sang reasonably well too - I feel they were somewhat constrained by having to largely sing in a musical theatre/pop style (as distinct from opera/classical style) but that's how musical theatre has to sound, I guess.

    Visually, extremely lush: goth-bohemian-baroque escapist over-the-topness. The story is essentially a fairytale, or a romance at least, and the movie looks like it. This is not a movie to be looking for realism in, because you will be distracted by almost everything on screen. I managed to get myself distracted by what Christine (Emmy Rossum) is wearing the first time she gets abducted by the phantom - white corset and stay-up stockings, not particularly covered by a long white lacy jacket thingy with train is so what I imagine innocent chorus girls wear for a quiet night in.

    There's a self-referential cuteness going on: the opera house productions in the story are of course done in a late 19th century escapist over-the-top style, so given we're watching a story of the same kind, it makes sense that it is presented in the early 21st century version of the same style.

    Minnie Driver has a great time being the pampered diva La Carlotta, and I'd happily have watched her chew scenery some more, but the story isn't actually about her.

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    Fly-by reviews

    Quick comments on books I've read the last six months or so, and one movie.

    David Bodanis, E = mc2, a Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation (non-fiction: popular physics). This didn't really work for me - I know more physics than the kind of person this book is aimed at, although I don't know all that much. I think the notes at the end are my favourite part - there's some weird trivia in there.

    Lindsey Davis, The Silver Pigs (fiction: ancient roman whodunit). This was a lot of fun, once I relaxed into it and trusted Davis' recreation of ancient Rome. There's a lot of playing around with the standard detective tropes, given that Falco, our hero, is 1800 years too early to know what they might be. And of course, forensic science, such as fingerprints, doesn't yet exist, so the crims can get away with a lot more, and Falco's got to work much harder. It's the first in a series, and I'd happily read more.

    Don George (Editor; preface by the Dalai Lama) The Kindness of Strangers (non-fiction: travel stories). This is a cute idea: get different people to write about their experiences with kindness from strangers while travelling. Unfortunately, after a while, a lot of the stories started to blend together for me, being essentially the same story in a different unfamiliar place. I really liked Carolyn Swindell's Brief Encounter, because the kindness is of a different sort, and the experience seems to have actually changed her, at least in a small way. And Jeff Greenwald's Might be your lucky day has a kicker of an ending. But it might be that neither story is as effective, out of the context of the surrounding stories.

    Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis - The Story of a Childhood. I don't know if I can come up with a classification for a series of comics, retelling events in Satrapi's childhood, growing up in Iran under the Shah and then the Islamic revolution and war with Iraq. But it gives a wonderful sense of a time and a place, and the interaction between human universals such as teenage conformity and rebellion, and particulars such as having to wear hijab and having relatives in jail for political reasons. The art is black and white, in a style that would be very comfortable in a children's book (and Satrapi has done children's books). If anything, this makes the story hit harder.

    V for Vendetta. Yet another demonstration that those escapist non-literary arts (comics, sf, fantasy, etc) can nevertheless get in there and tackle political issues. Overall, I liked this movie very much. However, it's very much mythological in feel. This might have been quite intentional, but I was left feeling that the central characters, particularly Evey, were burdened with too many symbolic values to feel human enough for me to engage with. As a result, the parts of the movie that have really stayed with me are the setting and the background characters. I thought the movie created a very believeable alternate reality, with just the right blend of gritty everyday-ness and signs of Otherness. On a slightly more meta-level, I was struck by the extreme discrepancy between the deadly homophobia of the society presented, apparently with the general approval of that society, and the movie's assumption that it would be self-evident to everyone watching it that same-sex couples had the same right to their lives as anyone else.

    Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Bookclub (fiction). This was a bit of a let-down for me; I thought the book was far less clever than it thought it was. By far the best thing about it was being reminded about Jane Austen's fabulous writing and getting the inclination to read it again. Another good thing about it is that although most of the characters are dismissive of science fiction, the book itself isn't, and I thought that balance was managed nicely. The absolute worst thing is an anonymous narrative "we" - it doesn't appear that "we" represents any member of the bookclub, and if anything, the "we" is harsher and more judgemental than any individual. I hoped for a while that perhaps Fowler was going to make some point about (female) individuals suppressing their real views in favour of some imagined collective opinion which isn't in fact representative, but she doesn't, so I was left with a really bad taste in my mouth.

    Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World (non-fiction: the SF 1906 earthquake and modern geology). I'm actually cheating a bit here - I'm still reading this one, but I'm not sure I can finish it. I had enjoyed Winchester's Surgeon of Crowthorne and Meaning of Everything, and lent them to a word-mad friend, who returned them to me because she found the writing style impossible. I hadn't noticed a problem, but boy, am I noticing a problem in this book. Too much of the material seems, although interesting, not relevant enough, and feels like padding - padding that makes the actual structure of the book hard to detect, if there is one. And his focus often seems misplaced, like he's paying attention to the wrong things. And then he repeatedly makes the lay assumption that geological history has now stopped. This assumption is also frequently made of evolution, and I'm thus particularly prone to be irritated by it, when it's made by someone who if anything should be disabusing his lay audience of it. Timescale, people, timescale.

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    Movie: De-lovely

    I was quite surprised to discover that it was only James and myself who would be watching "De-lovely" with Sarah. Maybe we're the most musically inclined.

    The movie is a kind of musical retelling of Cole Porter's life, using his own songs. It focusses particularly on the complicated relationship with his wife, Linda.

    It's pretty clear that he does love her in some sense - he's attracted to her beauty, her mind and wit, and her belief in him and his songs, and her willingness to support him. She makes an excellent partner, in a moral support and business sense. But he feels guilty about the fact that he's not sexually attracted to her.

    They both try to be sophisticated about it, but they don't talk about it much, and there are inevitable misunderstandings and opportunities to be hurt.

    The problem as I saw it is the mere fact of homosexuality is beyond the pale and can't be talked about. Cole and Linda agree their relationship has to exist somewhere beyond the pale, but they don't agree on the boundaries. Cole doesn't seem to recognise the difference between being married to a woman and having sex responsibly with some men, with her approval and understanding, and just having sex with whichever men grab his attention whenever.

    As for the music, it is an intriguing introduction to Cole Porter's work, because sometimes it's as though the actors barely have time for spoken dialogue between snippets of Porter's songs. The performances of some songs by modern artists are at least interesting, but opinion and taste seems to vary wildly as to its success.

    I happen to rather like Alanis Morrisette's performance of "Birds do it", while Sarah found it too incongruous for Porter's style. I think the difference boils down to the fact that I don't hear her voice as specifically modern, but just her own. I think her voice might have intrigued Porter if she'd lived then, as suggested by the movie. And then I've always believed that art needs a certain amount of staying with the times to stay alive.

    Particularly in the case of Cole Porter, where we have the original movies and recordings of him singing, I don't see it as any problem if a movie tries some variations.

    I also have to drool over the costumes - the Porters were obviously rolling in it and their clothes reflect that. And James kept mentioning clothes worn by Kevin Kline he wouldn't mind for himself.

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    Movie: House of Flying Daggers

    Internode, our service provider, gave a free movie screening tonight of House of Flying Daggers for its game subscribers, so off James and I went on the motorbike, for the first time in quite a long time for me. Luckily I can still remember how to stay on.

    Another movie I can't really judge as good or bad. I haven't seen enough Chinese "action" movies to tell. I did enjoy myself, as there's a lot of very pretty things to look at in this picture.

    The cinematography is amazing, almost every frame could make a nice poster. The actors are quite attractive, and they wear gorgeous clothes. Colours are lush, and I sometimes suspected the costumes of being coordinated with the scenery. The fight scenes make most sense as a sort of ballet. Blood, leaves, and weaponry seem to be more symbols or magical than simply physical objects.

    The plot is not particularly clear, some of the dialogue (or at least the subtitles) seems inane or pointless. If you're expecting action, it is very slow. And there's some over-dramatic behaviour, which I can't tell whether simply belongs to the genre. Since it was all rather reminding me of ballet, I decided to apply my new opera standards to it, and went back to soaking in the prettiness.

    After the movie, we all trundled off to O'Malleys pub, where I mainly talked to Todd (who lent us the Couplings DVDs) and his wife Jodie.

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    Pavarotti vs Domingo

    James is doing a lot of work on his singing at the moment, and one of the things he's done is buy CDs of famous tenors to listen to, to soak up the sound, get familiar with the repetoire, etc.

    So I've been listening to a lot of tenor arias in the car recently.

    My first observation is that I think I like (or may grow to like) opera a lot more than I used to. I used to find opera ridiculous, with over-dramatic characters and implausible plots that were entirely too short and simple to account for having to spend an entire evening at the theatre to get through them.

    But I think I get it now. You can't really hear the words, even when it's being sung in a language you understand, so everything has to be conveyed by the music and the tone of voice. Music and tone of voice are pretty good at emotion, but lousy at rationality or complex argument. On the off chance that the audience will catch the odd word, you'd better repeat the important words a lot.

    So what happens to a story, if you have to tell it in three hours, remove rationality or any complex plot twists, focus on the emotions of the characters, and spend quite a long time at any given point in the plot, to make sure the audience has the right idea, before moving on to the next point?

    You get something that, to a rational and together teenager or young adult, sounds like over-emotional teenage melodrama. No wonder I didn't care for opera. I was either surrounded by, or grateful to have recently escaped, the real-life version.

    Now, I have the proper distance. I can enjoy opera as an alternate reality where everyone behaves like hormonal and stupid teenagers, but it's not my reality. It's exactly the same way I enjoy Jane Austen, but start to cringe when I think about the fact that she's describing a female social situation that was real in her time. It's the (specific) same way that Romeo and Juliet makes perfect sense once you realise that, yes, Juliet is only 13, and Romeo is probably a few years older.

    It's the same way I enjoy speculative fiction, when I do: I let the creator set up a particular reality, and I'll go with the flow within what I see as the consequences of that premise. I'll only tend to be annoyed if the premise isn't followed through, or if stupidity, independent of any initial stupidity, is committed. See my recent review of Minority Report for a good example.

    [Speculative fiction covers science fiction, fantasy, quite a lot of horror, alternate history, and all that weird stuff that falls between those categories, or contains some of several.]

    I'm not quite sure how my reaction to Minority Report comes to be making a point about understanding opera, but that's my brain for you. This also reminds me that I have to explain some day why Jane Austen is a speculative fiction writer, but that can wait.

    Basically, I'll willingly suspend disbelief for almost any premises, if the consequences are followed through. And I have very high hopes that opera, with the starting premise that all the characters are emotionally immature, will follow through - the fact that everything has to be told through music more or less guarantees that.

    My second observation, which gave rise to this post, is that I much prefer the singing of Placido Domingo to Luciano Pavarotti. And I nevertheless understand why Pavarotti is admired so much. He is technically magnificent. He does everything expected of the perfect tenor. And yet.

    I like my art when the personality and the preferences of the artist show through. Domingo might not be quite as technically brilliant, but I can tell that he'll sing some things because he cares about them, and he thinks we should care about them too. I get the impression that Pavarotti selects repetoire, and how to perform it, based on What The Great Tenors Sing, and noting from audience feedback what's gone down well.

    I guess it isn't Pavarotti's fault that he's got a great voice, but no particular personal taste. But I guess it's not my fault either that I want something else in my singers.

    I also admit, on rational examination, I have no clue how I manage to make assessments about a singer's personal taste based on how he sings "Nessun dorma" and "Che gelida manina", but that's apparently what I'm doing.

    Music criticism, here I come.

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    Lace collar

    Here's a lovely metallic lace collar, to add to my collection of gorgeous projects that I probably won't ever get around to doing anything like.

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    Job description

    Sean Eddy, who is one of the Good Guys as far as I'm concerned, has written a wonderful article about interdisciplinary science and what is wrong with the way the funding agencies are treating it at the moment. Along the way, he writes something which I wish I had written, and I assume that it is within the bounds of review to cite this one paragraph:

    I've been a computational biologist for about 15 years now. We're still not quite sure what "computational biology" means, but we seem to agree that it's an interdisciplinary field, requiring skills in computer science, molecular biology, statistics, mathematics, and more. I'm not qualified in any of these fields. I'm certainly not a card-carrying software developer, computer scientist, or mathematician, though I spend most of my time writing software, developing algorithms, and deriving equations. I do have formal training in molecular biology, but that was 15 years ago, and I'm sure my union card has expired. For one thing, they all seem to be using these clever, expensive kits now in my wet lab, whereas I made most of my own buffers (after walking to the lab six miles in the snow, barefoot).
    Apart from the fact that I don't spend the majority of my time actually writing software (it seems to be teaching, instead), and it's a bit less than 15 years since I abandoned the wet lab (but I did make all my own buffers, and only got to try an expensive kit once, not that it worked, because, I'm guessing, I'm at the extreme end of the RNAase production spectrum for humans because RNA was never to be found around me), this feels like my life history.

    And I also agree strongly with his point that "inter-disciplinary" is really "ante-disciplinary" - bringing together different things into a new field that doesn't really exist yet. I think I'm going to have to persuade a few people around here of that if I want a permanent job.

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    Piano music

    This weekend, ABC unveiled its piano 100. Last year, people had been asked to send in their favourite piece of piano music (one piano, no other instruments or voice, although two performers are allowed).

    There are some obvious results: 1 is Beethoven's Moonlight sonata, 2 is Bach's Goldberg Variations, 3 is Debussy's Clair de Lune. There are some odd surprises: Chopsticks comes in at number 7.

    John Cage's 4'33" (arguably a piano piece) came in at number 40. ABC staff obviously put it in the "odd surprise" category based on the very strange "tribute" to it they played.

    Of course, I don't know why people voted for it, but from reading a bit about 4'33", I think what they broadcast was quite disrespectful. As I understand it, John Cage's point is that there is no silence, not when you actually listen and pay attention. And of course listening and paying attention is what you're expected to do at a concert. So 4'33" is about listening to sounds that have not been preplanned, as though they have been.

    It's kind of zen, kind of a musing on what makes art art (like "found art" - ordinary objects that become art once they are on display in a gallery), and I think an attempt to open our awareness.

    The weird stuff ABC played clearly wasn't about any of those things. And John Cage has said that a bad performance of 4'33" is no performance at all. I'm not quite sure how to breach that barrier - to get people to think about exactly why someone might compose a piece of music with no notes in it, and what might or might not be a performance of such a piece.

    Alternatively, ABC is terrified of dead air time. Most radio stations are. I'm beginning to think that getting a radio station to broadcast nothing for a time would be an even more profound statement of what John Cage was trying to do than 4'33" is.

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    My kind of lace.

    Here's a fence made using traditional bobbin lace methods (in dutch, but several useful pictures).

    I've been curious about bobbin lace for a long time, but I'm not the lacy type, and I don't generally like how time-consuming lace making is, with the very fine threads. This looks like an excellent solution. I don't know if I have anywhere I need lace fencing for, though.

    ETA: I also think it is ultra-cool that young male art/design student convinces older female lacemakers to share their skills with him.

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    DNA scarf

    In September, I knitted a DNA scarf for my friend Matt, who is finishing up his PhD in molecular biology. All praise June Oshiro for her brilliant work in recombinant knitting.

    I followed her pattern, with some minor alterations: The first and last moss stitch sections I made only 33 stitches wide, because I find moss stitch much wider than cable patterns, and 33 seemed to work out well with the 40 stitches of the main scarf, I also knitted about 12 rows of moss because I wanted a bit more of a "bottom edge" to go with the side edges. I did the mini-cable twists on every right-side row because I thought it gave a nicer effect, bordering the main DNA cable. I used K2P2 rib, rather than K4P4 rib, for the neck section because it seemed like a good idea at the time, and I'm a chronic pattern adapter.

    The scarf is knitted in Bendigo Woolen Mills "Classic" (their machine-washable 100% wool) 8ply in "Spinifex" green. The scarf would have used almost exactly one 200g (400m) ball, but I'd already knitted a couple of gauge squares, figuring out how many moss stitches were needed at the ends. So there's quite a lot left over of the second ball. I'm planning on knitting a gumnut cap for Sarah's baby (once I know his headsize this coming winter), and I'm already creating an 8ply blue and green leftovers stash for some kind of afghan, so it's not like I'm suffering.

    Matt has already let me know that it's causing appropriate levels of envy in other scientists in his lab. A definite success.

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    It must be real

    James auditioned for a graduate degree in voice at the Conservatorium last week. The audition went well, and he has been offered a place. But it's a bit more real tonight because he got all the paperwork in the mail, and now has to decide which subjects he's doing and all that.

    James asked me on the weekend why I hadn't blogged about it. I still haven't figured out why he hasn't blogged about it.

    I can see some things for me to be excited about. James has been having private lessons with the teacher he will be studying with, and she seems like a very good teacher, both technically, and with the psychological/self-confidence aspects.

    On the other hand, I hope he doesn't end up too exhausted between full-time work and (hopefully part-time) grad-level study.

    But mainly I'm excited for him.

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    I might have bought some fabric...

    And it's just conceivable that it's a bluey-greeny-tealy-aqua-ish linen, and that I have enough of it to make the Burda pattern of the sleeveless dress with swirley skirt and matching jacket, because the linen has the right kind of drape for the skirt.

    And that I also purchased a blue-green-purple-beige silk skirt that the hypothetical jacket would look great with. I'm happy to admit to the skirt, I was eyeing it off when it was $100, and marked down to $20, even James had to admit it was a bargain I was entitled to. And he scored himself some bright yellow shorts in the process. I understood perfectly why the shorts were marked down so dramatically and why there were so many of them. Most men do not have James' taste in clothes.

    But if I admitted my fabric purchase, that would also involve admitting that I've added to my stash without making terribly much progress in the whole knitting-sewing-textile part of my life since about October (blame the arrival of summer). And admitting that the renovations downstairs are not over, and that I'm going to be spending a fair amount of my spare time painting downstairs before I'll get my sewing space back.

    Maybe if I get back onto my silk knitting project this weekend the textile gods will forgive me.

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    Movie: Bridget Jones II Edge of Reason

    To keep up some momentum before the weekend, when I will hopefully figure out how to add photos to my blog so I can show off my knitting and the cat, here's my impression of the movie I saw last night.

    I was invited by James' friend Sarah, who seems to attend every movie released and asks everyone she knows to come along. Certainly it appears to be common for the other attendees to know less than half of the rest of the crowd, and "I think we met about six months ago when Sarah asked us to see..." was typical conversation. The people involved were Bruce and Karen, Angela, Jackie and John, and Gail.

    As a brief aside, I'm quite interested in networks, graph theory, and the whole scale-free network thing. I read a report somewhere that in a scale-free network, it's not how many people you know, but whether you know someone who is a hub, i.e. who knows a lot of people. I read this report after I met James, and so of course believed it. Now I've met Sarah, I'm even happier.

    Ah, yes, there's a movie to be talked about. Overall, I thought it was okay. I found many parts, particularly near the beginning, cringeworthy rather than funny, but that's what often happens with me and social embarrassment humour. Less of the "Bridget in bad clothes", "Bridget saying wrong thing in socially uncomfortable situation", and "Bridget and Mark failing to communicate because neither seems to have a clue how to talk about how they feel" moments, please.

    Either the movie improved or I lightened up, because I enjoyed the Thai section. More Daniel being a sleaze, foreign food encounters and more development of the friendships in the Thai jail, please. I suspect the director was afraid he couldn't milk the Madonna joke much further, but I think it had another round in it.

    And I absolutely adored the final revelation of Rebecca's secret. I don't think it was set up quite right, but I'm prepared to buy the idea that previously we were only seeing Rebecca through Bridget's eyes. This does mean that cinema needs to be able to distinguish between omni and tight third viewpoints, because there were definitely parts of the movie that seemed omni to me.

    To finish, we got more of the clothes, saying wrong thing, and Mark and Bridget failing to communicate, leading me to suspect that the directors thought that was the point. Obviously I would have made a different movie, but I think that can be taken for granted.

    As often happens, I forgot to drink enough water and ended up a bit dehydrated. Maybe if I blog about it, it'll help me remember in future.

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    Movie: Batman Begins

    Last night, Dell provided a free screening, complete with popcorn and a drink, of Batman Begins to, I guess, their faithful clients and all the geeks who passed the offer around to each other. So it's not surprising, given that James and a lot of his workmates were in the audience, that I was too.

    The movie seemed to go down well with most of the audience, but it didn't quite do it for me. It's certainly got a lot of Batman stuff, and it's not remotely the farce that Batman and Robin was, but I didn't click with it.

    One problem I had was that there seemed to be too many fight scenes, that were too dark, busy and quick-cut. I find it hard to get interested in fight scenes when I can't really tell who is who and how everyone's doing. I don't think the purpose of fight scenes is to have me sitting around twiddling my thumbs, waiting for it to be over so I can find out what actually happened during it (Batman won).

    And I am well and truly over climatic fight scenes in which the goodness of Our Heroes and the random cruelty to innocents of the bad guys is demonstrated by a laser-like focus on one innocent kid being protected by one of Our Heroes. I mean, it's very nice that the kid survives, but I'm afraid that the measures employed wouldn't have stretched to saving very many other people, and I'd rather see Our Heroes do other things during the fight that might actually save a significant number of innocents, even if that kid carks it in the process.

    I realise that on this point, I am completely in opposition to the dogma of Hollywood screenwriting, which is to get up close and personal with individuals to symbolise larger actions. While there are good reasons to humanise a larger point with specific individuals, this dogma has now gone too far, and it's time to swing the pendulum the other way a while.

    Another problem was that there seemed to be a bit too much of an effort to pour coolness into the movie. When a Batman movie also has to include mystical orders of Tibetan world-order-stabilising ninjas, James Bond-and-Q style scenes, Star Wars flashbacks (Liam Neeson more or less recaps his role from Phantom Menace and the batmobile makes sounds that I last heard pod racers make), and the odd Bladerunner-style urban-decay-in-the-rain scene, I think something is not quite right.

    My final conclusion, mainly based on this something-not-quite-right, is that Hollywood has finally figured out that cynical exploitation of the geeks-and-special-effects market is not working. So we now have movies that are genuinely, earnestly, trying to provide all the things the geeks-and-special-effects market wants.

    However, something is still missing. And that, I think, is the fundamental urge of human beings to communicate something that really interests and excites them, to other human beings. It is what drives good art, and good teaching, and good writing, and probably some other things I can't think of right now.

    I'm not writing this review because I think I have an audience who I can please by writing something amusing about my reaction to a movie. I'm writing this review because I think I had an interesting reaction to the movie, and I'm trying to convey that reaction to someone who isn't me.

    I want my geeks-and-special-effects movies to be made by people who have the urge to communicate coolness, not simply try to provide it. It's the difference between "This is so cool", and "We hope you'll think this is cool, we do". But it is progress from "You'll think this is cool, so we can make money off you".

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    Opera: Albert Herring

    So, last night was when I actually got to go along and see James perform in Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring. I went along early to the conservatorium with James (so he could warm up and do some exercises with his teacher before the performance) and so I could meet up with people who'd bought tickets from James but hadn't picked them up yet. There were 22 of us, taking up all of row L. Lady Billows had clearly sold a bunch of tickets just behind us, and a bit further back was a Sid'n'Nancy cheer squad.

    The plot of Albert Herring is pretty silly, in addition to being pretty short, as I have now come to expect from opera plots. Lady Billows, the richest and most influential citizen of Loxford, has decided, with the technical consent of the leaders of Loxford (the vicar, police superintendent, head teacher, and mayor - James) that the slide of Loxford into moral decay must be halted, and to that end, the most virtuous Loxford maid crowned May Queen. Unfortunately, none of the local girls meet the standards of Lady Billows.

    The desperate committee plump on the idea of crowning Albert Herring, local greengrocer still under his mother's thumb, as May King. His mother is very pleased (particularly about the 25 gold sovereign prize) but Albert is very uncomfortable, since he's already been wondering if his friend Sid might not be right about Albert missing out on life.

    Sid decides to help matters along, so at the May Day celebration, he spikes Albert's lemonade with rum. Armed with the money and dutch courage, Albert heads off into the night. The next day, a major search party is organised for the missing Albert, and of course Albert turns up, somewhat the worse for wear, just after the town's given him up for dead and sung a mourning threnody.

    The "moral leadership" of the town demonstrate their hypocrisy by interrogating Albert for all the juicy details while beating their chests and being self-righteous. Albert, however, seems to finally have found some courage, and shuffles them out, leaving Sid and his girlfriend Nancy (also partners in real life), and the town's children, cheering for him.

    I thought it was a good production, very impressive for student singers. To start with, I was a bit distracted by "hey! James on stage!" but by the end I was just watching and enjoying an opera, and "hey! That's right, I know a cast member!". I thought the casting and acting was good, each character being consistent and easily-distinguishable from others. The super had been slicked down, with a big fake moustache, in a complete stereotype of 1900 police, and the singer acted accordingly, coming across quite Monty Pythonesque. James made a great pompous mayor, sticking his chest out and leading with his beard, which fortunately managed to grow long enough the last six weeks to make a great prop.

    I was also very impressed with the quality of the singing. Albert is quite a demanding role, he's almost a solo character, counterbalanced against the rest of the show as an ensemble, particularly the four "leaders" chasing Lady Billows around. James doesn't project as strongly as some others in the cast (yet?) but he fitted in well, and it was really hard to believe, given the cast balance, that he was a last-minute stand in.

    The production also had quite a lot of visual play and innuendo, missing from the score (which I read when James first brought it home). The most unfortunate thing about that is the surtitles, which were almost not needed, are kind of distracting sometimes and I (and others nearby mentioned the same thing) found myself fixated on the text when fun things were happening on stage. I guess this is my own fault for being a textslut.

    After the production, which was final night, I got to go to the cast party. It's always a bit weird seeing people "for real" whom you've previously only seen on stage, many of them playing much older characters than they themselves. And Sid to Tim was a complete transformation, as Tim had hated the facial hair and took it off immediately the final curtain went down. I also got to meet members of the alternate cast, and it was interesting imagining what the other version must have been like. The other mayor is much older and would certainly have been more of an "old and distinguished" character, and the other superintendent is just a touch on the tall side (6'8").

    I mainly chatted with the designer, Christopher Smith, about red petticoats. You see, Albert's mum, the sober widow keeping her boy out of anything remotely resembling trouble, has a bright red petticoat under her black skirt. It turns out that in Victorian times, good proper decent folk wore underwear made of red flannel, and Mrs Herring is meant to be a bit of a throwback to then. Of course, most people in the audience would be unaware of that, and he said that given a bit more time, or a more theatre production, he'd have worked out some backstory with the singer about the significance of the flashes of red.

    The cast was thrown out around midnight, and the party continued at the home of one of the cast members in New Farm. I felt a bit out of place, finding myself chatting with a number of drunk around-20-year-old music students, but it turns out that cats are a safe topic almost anywhere, and as long as I continue to keep my eye on biological sex trivia, I should be fine for keeping up my end of conversations with random strangers.

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    In progress

    I've finally gotten my textile-ing going again - having my stash cupboard, and thus a fair idea of what I actually have, has made a big difference.

    So last weekend I finally officially finished the Technicolour Dreamcoat - it now has sensible sleeves and belt loops. James has been wearing it in its various forms for the last two years, I think. I'm actually associating it with winter now, and I might have to make another one in more or less the same colours once this one wears out. I say more or less, because I'm not sure that fluorescent green and fluorescent orangey yellow polar fleece will always be available (I'm pretty confident about the royal blue).

    I keep thinking it's a good thing he only wears it around the house, because I don't think anyone who has seen it hasn't had a pretty noticeable reaction. And it might get a bit tiring to walk around in public and get that much reaction all the time.

    I also launched straight into some instant-gratification knitting - a cabled hat for Aidan, which is already finished and ready to be worn. It's about a third the size of the other cabled hats; baby things are sort of weird to knit.

    So now I'm back with Kirsten's gloves and I hope to get them finished soon so she can wear them this winter. She's also requested a pair of silk ipod earpiece covers, but my pair didn't take any time to make, so that shouldn't be a problem. At least my tiny silk is manageable to work with when I make tiny things with it, but I'd be looking at literally thousands of earpiece covers if that was all I used it for.

    I also really badly want to start making the pinstripe pants I have all the makings for, but I have a feeling I ought to be good and work my way through a bit of mending and such first. I don't know if it'll happen or not.

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    Because I need to share.

    Vasa. Gustavus. Oskar. Valois. Armitage. Bruno. Cup. Tudor. Nanos. Pumilio. Fog. Gurken. Rhino. Bloody fingers. Cloche. Moonshine. Vlad tepes. Gremlin. Sonic hedgehog.

    Sometimes, I wouldn't mind it if gene naming was taken a little bit more seriously. I don't think breaking into giggles regularly is going to convince anyone I'm actually trying to do research. On the other hand, maybe the names will help me remember what does what and to whom. But at the moment, it's just overload, like too many bright clashing colours drawing my attention at once.

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    Crocheted manifold

    I've just discovered this pdf which describes in detail, both mathematically and as crochet instructions, how to crochet a model of the Lorenz manifold, which is closely related to the Lorenz Attractor, sometimes known as the Chaos Butterfly.

    The pdf also has lots of lovely pictures of the finished object, and lots of practical advice - the model is 0.9m in diameter, contains 25,511 stitches, and took Hinke Osinga about 85 hours over two months to finish. The alternating rows of dark and light blue help to really bring out the shape.

    I'm very, very tempted, although it is a substantial project. Maybe I can convince the Maths Department to sponsor me?

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    Concert: Winterreise

    I got a phone call from James at about 3.30 pm, asking me if I wanted to hear Schubert's Die Winterreise at 6 pm. Mark and D'arne had a couple of comps, D'arne couldn't make it, James wanted to go, and they thought they could get a third ticket.

    It turns out the performance was part of the Queensland Music Festival, so I feel all culturally connected now. The singer was Phillip Abbis, accompanied by Emily Hamper. They're here from Montreal, and apparently doing three lieder concerts in total.

    I think it was a very good performance. I can't really say anything about Abbis' voice, but that's in the good sense of no irritating idiosyncracies or flaws I could detect. Oh, I did notice he was getting a bit tired near the end, but I'd be surprised if anyone could sing continuously for 75 minutes and not get a bit tired. I also think Hamper was well in touch with Abbis and they coordinated well dynamically.

    There was one level on which I wasn't totally thrilled, but I think that might be a cultural disconnect between Schubert and me. I felt the music didn't cover the emotional landscape the words were suggesting, but I could believe that if I'd been around in Schubert's time I would have thought it all matched up just fine.

    Curiously, my favourite part was the final song, Der Leiermann. According to James, originally it was the second last song, and Die Nebensonnen used to finish it off. He thought the original was more balanced and the new order rather stressful and poignant. I thought Der Leiermann rounded out the whole cycle and gave it a nice meaning and grounding. I have a feeling I'm not interpreting it how it was originally written, but as a cunning self-referential finish, somewhat like <potential spoiler alert> the end of Life, A User's Manual.

    Oh, and the first thing James said when he rang me was "I got it!". He's performing in the Con opera, six weeks from now, as the Mayor in Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring. He's filling in for someone who's unwell, and has a bit of catching up to do as the rest of the cast already have their parts memorised. I think he'll make a splendid mayor, I can picture him in the top hat already.

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    Noodling on "Philosophy in the Flesh"

    I had a skim-read through the library copy of "Philosophy in the Flesh" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson yesterday and I want to noodle about it.

    The central thesis of their book is that recent developments in neuroscience and cognitive science have a profound impact on our understanding of what a human mind is. And that most philosophical theories, in the West at least, are based on incorrect assumptions about the human mind.

    Lakoff and Johnson claim that adjusting philosophy to match modern scientific knowledge is a major change, possibly even a traumatic, world-changing, experience for some philosophers. I guess I can be glad I'm an evolutionary biologist, then, because it felt more like a confirmation/clarification of my developing world view. So I recognise several of the examples they give of "this is the way 'we' think the world is; but this is how it actually works" that match my own experience very closely: either of assumptions I used to hold that I've rejected, or of arguments I have with other people where they seem, to me, stuck in a naivë way of looking at the world.

    One of Lakoff and Johnson's central arguments is that all attempts to claim some kind of "pure" reason, separate and unsullied from our bodies, are nonsense. This matches my own sense extremely well. I have a distinct memory of the first time I learnt explicitly about Greek philosophy's assumptions about pure mind, separate from the body, sometime in my teens. I hope I can be forgiven for sexist attitudes as a teenager, because my immediate reaction was something like "that's the kind of bullshit only men could come up with."

    And I suppose it's implicit in my noodling here that I'm still a bit startled that something could be obvious to me as a teenager, in the 1980s, and yet is being made a big deal of, in a book published in 1999 by two actual, grown-up, philosophers.

    I'm not sure if it's a good or a bad thing that this book has reinforced my belief that my instinctive reaction to some academic pontificating as being total nonsense, disconnected from all reality, is usually correct. I'm in the mood to regard it as a good thing.

    On to more interesting stuff. Lakoff and Johnson talk about our tendency to categorise things - male and female, bird and animal, black and white. We need to be able to categorise to make any sense of the world - the most basic living things need categories of "edible" and "not edible"; "dangerous" and "not dangerous". Categories are intrinsic. L&J say a lot of philosophy involves categorisation, without examining the underlying assumptions of categorisation.

    Now from the point of view of their "empirically" based philosophy, categorisation is an abstract concept, ultimately based on human experience of physical reality. The idea is that our minds are based on the learning that we do as very young children, about the world, how it works, how we can affect it, and so on. L&J claim that all human abstract concepts are based on what they call "primary metaphors" based on actual physical experience.

    The primary metaphor for categorisation is that of putting stuff into containers - and I think most of us can remember a stage as children when we either were encouraged to, or spontaneously chose to, sort the big lego (duplo) and little lego into separate containers, or put the textas, colour pencils, and crayons into each their holder, or whatever.

    I certainly spent a fair amount of time at my great-aunt's summer house, sorting her pair of decks of patience cards into the blue-backed and the pink-backed cards. So much so, that when she died, those cards explicitly went to me, and I still have them.

    Of course, the cards were easy to sort into those discrete categories. But as I've grown, I've found more and more situations where I have a lot of trouble finding discrete categories for things. (I'm trying not to even think about what blog post category to put this into, for example.)

    I think I hit my first significant "philosophical crisis" of categorisation, in the sense Lakoff and Johnson might be talking about, when I was grappling with species definitions in biology. None of them satisfied me. Then I tried to think about it logically, from an evolutionary point of view: how do new species evolve? I've indented my thinking so it's easier to skip.

    At time A, we have one species. Then stuff happens, maybe some part of the species becomes geographically isolated. If the two populations stay separate and don't exchange genetic information, eventually, by sheer genetic drift, the two populations will no longer be able to exchange genetic information. It's more likely that the populations, by being in different places, (or being separated by other means) will separate into two species much earlier due to selection for different advantageous changes in the two places, but even without selection, drift will get you two species eventually, at time B.

    Now think about the intervening time between A and B. Push the A time point as far forward as you possibly can, still confident that there is one species. Also push the B time point back as far as you can, still confident that there are two species. If you're a remotely reasonable biologist, you're going to agree that there's always going to be a time interval between A and B where you cannot confidently define this situation as being one species or two.

    You could get really pedantic, and come up with some definition of fractional species, so that in the interval between A and B, there is a continuous increase, from 1 species, through 1.1, 1.5, 1.7, to 2 species. And then you could say that greater than 1.5 (for example) is two species and less is one, and thus your A and B are the same time point and you've got yourself a species definition.

    But I would like to point out that firstly: even though you define 1.47 as one species and 1.52 as two species (or whereever the cutoff is), 1.47 and 1.52 species are situations that have far more in common with each other, than they do with either one or two species.

    And secondly, as all the biologists who might be reading this would realise, you can only really define any of this retrospectively. I would just hate the idea of trying to define a particular population isolation situation as being 1.75 species; if they stay isolated much longer we will unambiguously have two species, but if for some reason they don't stay separated, there's still a significant, although small, chance the populations can re-integrate and form one genetic species again.

    So species definitions are to some extent historically contingent - it's much easier to tell what's going on in retrospect. Given the number one rule of evolution (or possibly of science?) that there is nothing special or privileged about right now, we ought to be surrounded by species in the process of maybe becoming more species, and many of those cases the biologists are arguing about are cases of trying to pin the number one or two on a situation that in retrospect might be 1.37.

    In conclusion, I decided that the reason defining what a species is, is so difficult, is because people are trying to force speciation into discrete bins when it's a continuous, fluid process. And I thought about all the other examples in my life of people trying to make discrete bins for fluid items. The most obvious example that sprang to mind was that of colour - we talk, usefully, about black, white, red, blue, and green, but we don't have sharp boundaries between them. And even people who are sure that this is green and this is blue, are prepared to agree that it's a bluish green and a greenish blue.

    So, since, I've gone to some effort, when I'm in situations where I feel like there's some categorisation going on that I'm not comfortable with, to think about whether a colour analogy is more appropriate to the situation than a "sorting stuff into bins" analogy. And it's been working quite nicely for me.

    It was rather interesting to read Lakoff and Johnson on primary metaphors for abstract concepts and realise that I had, all by myself, replaced the "containers" primary metaphor for categories with a "colour" primary metaphor. And that colour was in fact a primary metaphor (direct sensory experience) and that was possibly why I felt so comfortable with it, and why I'd chosen it, in preference to, say, real numbers vs integers (the species example). Numbers (real numbers anyway) are too abstract to be a primary metaphor and one also runs the risk that other people use different primary metaphors when they think about numbers.

    So this is the part where I'm really excited by Lakoff and Johnson's work, because they've given a formal framework for describing stuff that I already do, and their conclusions are generally close to my sense of how the world works. So I am rather more inclined to believe they might be on to something, than otherwise. But as I said above, I'm in the mood to go with my gut instincts on these kinds of theories.

    There actually was some other noodling I wanted to do about their work, but this is long enough for now and I should post that separately. Now to figure out what "container" category this post goes in.

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    Our knowledge of the growth of knowledge : Popper or Wittgenstein? by Peter Munz.

    I've been poking around in the philosophy of science recently, when I've had time, and I think it would be a good thing to write a bit of something about some of what I've been reading, just to get a bit of a sense of progress.

    Peter Munz is apparently the only person to ever have been a student of both Popper and Wittgenstein, and he seems to have survived with his sanity intact (Popper and Wittgenstein met only once, and had a memorable argument, which only confirmed their mutual loathing. Full details in Wittgenstein's Poker, Edmonds and Eidinow). Nevertheless, I found the title a bit misleading, at least the P or W? part, because I didn't pick up all that much W stuff, and in fact the book spends rather more time tearing down Kuhn and other recent philosophers of science.

    Munz is definitely on Popper's side, and since I have a feeling I'm also more or less on Popper's side, this means that there was quite a lot of the book I either enjoyed and found thought-provoking, or agreed with. However, there was also a lot of the book which I frankly found tedious. I got the impression I'd accidently wandered in to Chapter 17 of The Twentieth Century War Over The Philosophy Of Science, wading through pages of argument that might have made sense given the context of having read everything that came before it. But I didn't see any you can only read this book if you are taller than this warnings at the front of the book.

    Munz believes that science, and knowledge in general, needs to be tackled in an evolutionary framework, both in the specific biological sense (we are biologically-evolved beings, with all that implies) and in the more general philosophical sense, and again, this is pretty much how I look at it, so this is probably why I agreed with so much. His major argument for Popper seems to boil down to "Popper's first version of hypothesis falsification was pretty crap, but the evolutionary version works nicely, so if you're arguing against the first version, you're wasting your time".

    His argument against Kuhn (and others of that ilk) seems to boil down to "So, if there's no objective standard for anything, why should we listen to you, in particular?" which is, in fact, a pretty devastating critique, in my most humble opinion. The problem with complete cultural relativists is that they still think they know more about the subject than you do, so clearly they have some standard they're measuring against in the back of their minds, somewhere.

    By far the most interesting and intriguing idea I took away from the book is his notion of false knowledge as social glue. But, just as I recently re-learnt why I'm a biologist by reading a book by a physicist, I've re-learnt that I'm an empiricist rather than a philosopher, and even though Munz puts a lot of weight on empiricism in his argument, at heart he's a philosopher.

    His notion is that prior to culture, consciousness, and all that human jazz, biological organisms are knowledge about their environment, in the sense that being better-adapted to the environment is equivalent to having more knowledge of it. I'm okay with this, but with the caveat that it's a rather specialised definition of knowledge and particularly if you're writing a book about philosophy of science, with not one, but two copies of the word in the title, you have to be very careful what you mean by that word each time you use it, and that you don't commit any definitional fallacies, where you define a word one way, and then drag your poor audience along by playing on other meanings and connotations of the word.

    Then, humans invent culture and societies and in addition to the knowledge of the world they have in the form of knowing what foods to eat, how to bring up children, they invent a bunch of false, cultural knowledge. Munz' argument is that the knowledge more or less needs to be false, because it is functioning as social glue, and you don't want to accidentally include outsiders in your society because they happen to share your knowledge, and that risk is much higher if the knowledge happens to be true.

    Munz thus proposes that only societies and cultures that don't put a store on shared knowledge as social glue, but uses other kinds of social glue, can start to develop real knowledge of the world in the form of science: hypotheses to be argued over and falsified with appropriate experiments.

    It's a pretty idea, as I said. But Munz puts the whole thing forward as though it were self-evident if you just thought about it hard enough, whereas I immediately started thinking about how you would go about collecting data about knowledge from different cultures and societies, how to evaluate its (empirical?) truthfulness impartially, how many cultures you'd have to survey to get enough data, issues of sampling and independence, and then finally seeing whether all that data tends to confirm or deny the idea, and being prepared to come up with a modified idea if necessary.

    See, one of the core problems I have with the idea is back to this concept that we can easily distinguish the external, physical environment, and the human, cultural environment any given person is surrounded by. That it is meaningful to talk about shared cultural beliefs as being "false knowledge" (equivalent to, if you remember from way above, reduced evolutionary fitness), when, clearly and blatantly, that person holding those beliefs has a clearly enhanced evolutionary strategy (co-operate with the other people sharing my culture) relative to the human who's bashing on their own against the wilderness. Bluntly, humans don't survive bashing on their own against the wilderness.

    Munz seems to see religion and so forth as an anomalous blip on the smooth growth of knowledge from biology to neurology to science. I think religion and so forth are an example of a different kind of knowledge, on a different level, and worrying about the literal truthfulness is like arguments about what font to print The Origin of Species in, rather than arguing about the actual contents of the book.

    So, yeah, my head is full of lots of ideas about how complicated things are, particularly once humans are involved, different layers of reality and meaning, and the fundamental issues of being human, and therefore both an individual and part of a society, which I don't think our culture is tackling particularly gracefully at the moment.

    Also memes, and the way that they are both abstractions, above any physical representation, and yet, once all the physical representations (I include synaptic patterns in someone's brain in case that isn't clear) are gone, so is the meme. And how that makes it really difficult to define and pin down memes. But that isn't a bad thing, because I don't think they are things that can be easily pinned down and defined, and I'd rather have that staring in my face as a constant reminder.

    Sometimes I think genetics has gotten itself stuck up a bit of a side track, or at least some problems are looking far hairier than they actually are, because people want the definition of gene to be simple, straightforward; with clear categories of what is and what isn't and what's one and what's two, and I think it just ain't like that. And nature doesn't care that we can't nicely define genes as discrete entities in isolation of the environment, because nature does what works.

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    Multiple intelligences

    Because I've been musing about this, particularly as an educator who is becoming aware of the buzzfield of "different kinds of intelligence", I thought I should take a multiple intelligence inventory. And so I did.

    Note that even though this is called "multiple intelligence", it's really about learning styles, how one absorbs and processes information about the world.

    The inevitable is that I scored highest in the mathematical category, and lowest in the interpersonal.

    The shocker (I certainly wouldn't have picked these) is that my second-highest score is body/kinesthetic, and my second-lowest is linguistic.

    I'm wondering if it isn't the case that all my scores bar interpersonal are so close together that it could be argued I cover just about all areas, pretty evenly. I've been "accused" of being highly verbal so many times (and I'm really comfortable in an environment like this, happily blogging away, although I do so want to show you all pictures of the cat and my crafts) that I can't believe I'm lower in linguistic learning/intelligence in any meaningful way.

    One thing that did alarm me, and strike me as possibly distorting the results, is that while some questions (which I hope might give accurate results) are of the "I really like...." or "I like to spend time ....".

    Other questions seem to be either-or, and preclude someone having a high (or a low) score in two categories. For example, one of the questions is something like, "I prefer books with lots of illustrations". I have no idea whether strongly agreeing with that will increase your visual/spatial score, lower your linguistic score, or what. My reaction was "that really, really depends on the book!" (possibly with some subliminal swearing at the person who thought this was a sensible question to ask), so I chose a mid-range value.

    Because I love Jane Austen without illustrations (and prefer her without), ditto for most fiction authors and yet love Life A User Manual for all the little drop-in diagrams. If I'm reading non-fiction, like craft how-tos, the more diagrams the better. And I tend to value art books by the number of glossy well-printed pages.

    Idunno about anyone else, but one of the things I love about books is that some are all about the words, and some are about the visual/spatial, some are about the mathematical/logical, and some are even about the body/kinesthetic (although these are more likely to have problems, and are being replaced by DVDs to some extent). How can I not love a medium that appeals to so many learning styles at once, as a multiple learning style learner myself?

    And now I'm wondering if I can get really cynical, and claim special rights for being a body/kinesthetic learner. I've been reading a lot about how kinesthetic learners are disadvantaged, how they're ostracised by a society that's mainly visual and linguistic. Well, both of those scores of mine are lower than my kinesthetic score, so I must be disadvantaged, right?

    On the positive side, it goes a long way to explaining my pleasure in teaching (this was one of the factors that got my interpersonal score as high as it is). I've long had a sense of adapting my explanations to fit, and now I'm wondering if that's because I change teaching styles to fit learning styles.

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    Babylon 5 in the flesh

    One of the things that surprised me while I was skimming "Philosophy in the Flesh" - specifically the section on Strict Father vs Nurturing Parent - was Lakoff and Johnson's claim that competitiveness is a Strict Father-side trait, with Nurturing Parent favouring co-operation (which does make some sense).

    James and I have been watching Babylon 5 on DVD recently, and something curious occurred to me. Lakoff and Johnson have a dichotomy somewhat like this:

    Strict Father - rules; obedience; people intrinsically bad unless effort is applied; competitiveness.
    vs
    Nurturing Parent - care; concern for others; people intrinsically good once selfishness is overcome; co-operation.

    Babylon 5 also has a dichotomy at the centre of the plot, in the form of the eternal war between the Vorlons and the Shadows:

    Vorlons: order; rules; obedience; rigidity; hierarchy; humans must be guided and led by their betters; the Vorlons, when seen, appear as angels to "lesser" (more recent) races and in one critical scene are represented by someone looking like a Greek Goddess frozen in a block of ice.
    vs
    Shadows: chaos; warfare, randomness; competitiveness; humans must be encouraged to fight among themselves to identify the strongest; the Shadows, when seen, appear as cloudy, shadow-like spidery shapes and in the corresponding critical scene, the Shadow representative is played by different actors, walking in and out of shadow.

    J. Michael Straczynski, the writer of Babylon 5, has explicitly said that the humans' and other new races' rejection of both the Vorlons and Shadows is having "to step outside the control of your parents and create your own life". So I think it's fair to consider the Vorlon/Shadow dichotomy a kind of "parenting/moral strategy dichotomy". I'm not suggesting that JMS has a better grip on this than L&J, but I think he does have at least as good a grip on the actual metaphors of parenting and morality that most people work with.

    I don't have much to add here, except that I think the case against Strict Father and Nurturing Parent as the only two important parenting and moral metaphors is pretty strong.

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    The simple and the complex

    There's a seminar on tomorrow night which seems to match some of my current ideas, but it's $22 and a pain to get into the city late in the afternoon. And I'm not optimistic I'll actually gain much from it, or at least as much as I could, staying at home and reading and writing about it. So I'm copying the abstract here, to remind me.

    Professor Julianne Schultz

    'The Lure of Simplicity, the Need for Complexity: Fundamentalism, independent media and politics'

    TUESDAY 22 FEBRUARY 2005 5.30pm registration; Seminar commences 6.00pm

    According to Stuart Sim, (Fundamentalist World, 2004) 'fundamentalism has replaced communism as the new spectre haunting Western consciousness'. Editor of Griffith Review 7: The Lure of Fundamentalism, Julianne Schultz will discuss the appeal of fundamentalism, and the way in which religion has again become a defining political ideology. She will look at the capacity of people to behave in ways that are incomprehensible to those who do not share the same beliefs and values - one of the abiding mysteries of human existence.

    'Belief untamed by reason can unleash dark forces, as we witness every day in gruesome news reports from around the globe, some disturbingly close to home, most more distant, in places that appear to be burdened by ancient animosities and challenged by changing social and economic circumstances.'

    Professor Schultz asks what could motivate someone to fly a jet plane into a building, or deny access to affordable life-saving drugs and information because it offends deeply held beliefs, or build a wall to divide a country?

    Julianne Schultz, editor of Griffith Review, has had a distinguished career as a journalist, editor, academic and media manager. In Brisbane during the 1990s she was a columnist for the Courier-Mail writing about the media, she is now a professor in the Centre for Public Culture and Ideas at Griffith University.

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    Ontology is overrated

    I'm having a great time reading this article? - blog entry? - who cares - about classification systems and why they don't work anymore, and I'm doing a lot of nodding and agreeing.

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    The Fabric of Reality: Final roundup.

    I have very mixed feelings about this book overall. There are aspects I agree with quite strongly, and aspects where I totally fail to find Deutsch's arguments convincing. Now I've read the entire thing, I'm very puzzled about how some of the content is actually meant to relate to the overall thesis, and I would really have liked some of that text devoted to a stronger case for Deutsch's arguments.

    I enjoyed the first and last chapters the most, and they function really well as the endpieces to a great book about how to look at the world; unfortunately I don't think this is that. The first chapter is about the dangers of reductionism; as I have my physics-envy rant stored somewhere (and maybe I should pull it out and polish it up) I was cheering through most of this. Chapter 14 is a bit of a crazy science-fiction trip to the far future. Ignoring that, it has a lovely vision of how I think science, and human society in general, works best (and most realistically). And it gave me hope that I'd simply seriously misunderstood him elsewhere.

    Along the way, there are plenty of bits I did enjoy - I'm content to go along with what he says in Chapters 3 and 4. As I mentioned, although I was having serious visceral problems in Chapter 5, I agree with his conclusion (that virtual reality is not that different from "real" reality and reflects the fact that the universe works a certain way).

    I think I agree with his argument about inductivism in Chapter 7, even if it does have the typical overbearing flaws of Socratic-style dialogue, and I don't disagree with most of what he has to say about maths in Chapter 10. And I agree with him that if time travel is possible, it must work somewhat as he outlines in Chapter 12.

    I'm not sure how to comment on Chapters 2 or 9, which are strongly quantum-oriented, because it's a weak area of mine, and clearly a very strong area of his. Except to note that people who do know more about quantum theory than I do say that his arguments are not that strong. There are two important things I took away from these chapters: firstly, he regards the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics as the only meaningful way to look at quantum theory, secondly, he regards this multiverse interpretation as adding significantly to our understanding of the universe.

    As I outlined in my critique of Chapter 8, I don't follow his thinking here. It seems to me that he's being excessively reductionistic, requiring a physical existence of counterfactuals, which the rest of us seem able to generate just nicely, whether we're familiar with quantum mechanics or classical mechanics or neither.

    Chapter 6 I was very disappointed in. The core of it is about the worst instantiation of Cantor's diagonal argument I've ever seen. It's not that it strikes me as unreasonable that there are logically possible virtual realities we can't simulate in our reality, it's just that the argument, to my eyes, misuses the crux of Cantor's argument, and also completely ignores some really important issues. I've decided to write about these issues separately (look for something called "Gödel, Darwin, Bake").

    So, overall, I could already see a connection between three of his four strands going in (knowledge, computation, and evolution/life), but not with quantum, and going out, I still don't feel he's made a convincing case. The major significance of quantum to the overall argument seems to be that desire for knowledge and information and interestingness to be actual physical quantities, and I don't understand that at all.

    He spends, as I say, a lot of time telling us things in great detail, the relevance of which isn't clear to me, and then slips over really critical arguments in a couple of sentences, and we're supposed to take his word for it the rest of the book. And the crux of his attempt to glue the four strands together seems to be the argument that each of the four strands is being used in practice, without really being believed or understood properly by most people. And that they aren't fully believed because individually they're off-putting and alienating, but that they become this harmonious whole when put together and you can't properly understand them without each other. I don't feel he explains why putting four off-putting things together makes the result warm and inviting, but it obviously works for him.

    And his argument that evolution is being used in practice but not really believed seems to hinge on the fact that Richard Dawkins now spends most of his time ranting against creationists. (The argument in the case of computation is the opposition to strong AI; the argument in the case of knowledge is apparently the popularity of Kuhn, or at least the word paradigm; the argument in the case of quantum is of course the unpopularity of the multiverse model.)

    I'm not quite sure how loudly it's seemly to laugh here. Yes, Dawkins has made an important contribution to evolutionary theory with selfish genes and memes, yes, most evolutionary analysis now is largely done from a gene's-eye view, yes, Dawkins does spend his time writing popular science books against creationism, yes, Dawkins has not developed meme theory further. No, most evolutionary biologists do not speak critically of Dawkins because the selfish gene is too cold to really believe, no, no-one is stopping Dawkins from working on memes other than Dawkins, who from what I remember either doesn't know where to take the concept or doesn't think it's worth it, and no, no sane scientist thinks that his extreme atheism is helpful in the evolution-creation debate. Although I get the impression that it's mainly virulent atheists who think the argument is even worth engaging in. I mean, how much time are geologists meant to devote to flat-earthers?

    He also dips his toes very tentatively, and I think completely unsuccessfully, in the pool of morality and beauty, and whether these are objectively assessable characteristics. I found this a bit embarassing, because I think these subject areas have been touched on far more sanely by other scientists and philosophers.

    I guess the crux of my problem is that Deutsch thinks I need to understand and appreciate quantum theory (and specifically the multiverse model) in order to feel relaxed and comfortable with the "cold cruel world" of Darwin, Dawkins, Turing, and Popper. And I just don't feel like that. I won't dispute that coming to a full appreciation and acceptance of the consequences of evolution did include side tours outside biology for me (particularly Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea), but this is the first time anyone has tried to convince me that I need to understand quantum mechanics first. Maybe that means I do but just don't realise it.

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    Pizza pizza pizza pizza

    James assures me I am so worked up about this that I should rant at the world in general and not just at him. There's this TV ad on at the moment for Pizza Hut, it's a square pizza where you can specify the topping for each corner. I don't actually know how large the pizza is, or how many people it's meant to feed, because I haven't actually seen the ad as such. It's been on TV in the background while I've been surfing the net or making dinner, and I only tune in when they claim that, with Pizza Hut's 13 different toppings, that's 134 = 28561 different pizzas.

    Apparently combinatorics is very close to my heart because I seethe every time this claim comes up, even though, as mentioned, I'm not actually paying attention to the TV.

    So I am going to put the correct numbers out there. I am assuming that the only thing people would be concerned about is what the four toppings are, and not what their relative arrangement or orientation might be. This is partly because I can't imagine the people making the pizzas or putting the cooked pizzas into boxes would be paying attention to arrangement or orientation.

    All four corners with distinct toppings = 13 * 12 * 11 * 10 / (4 * 3 * 2 * 1) = 715
    Two corners with the same topping, the other two corners distinct = 13 * 12 * 11 /2 = 858
    Two corners same, other two also same (but distinct) = 13 * 12 = 156
    Three corners with the same topping, last corner distinct = 13 * 12 = 156
    Four corners with the same topping = 13
    Grand total = 1898

    Some people would probably only regard the 715 with distinct toppings to be what Pizza Hut is referring to. I find it vaguely interesting that there are actually more distinct ways to have two corners identical, but that happens fairly often in scenarios like this.

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    Trevor's book, part the second

    Continuing from where we left off in chapter one.

    This, in typically human fashion, doesn't in the least contradict the first part of our answer. Humans are like that.
    However, the problem is that both of these part answers define us only in relation to other people. While that is an important part of the whole answer, it is by no means all of it.
    Now, we have to look inwards rather than outwards.

    If we do look inwards at ourself we find a reflection of the external situation. We can say that a person is the centre of their thoughts or that a person is the sum of their thoughts.

    We all think - some more than others, it's true - and as a result of thinking about things we build up a picture of the world.
    It may not be an accurate picture (and I would suspect an accurate picture may not be possible) but however poorly drawn, it is a unique picture.
    In fact it can only be experienced by one person.

    Data about what is happening reaches our brain via our senses, and is interpreted according to the existing world view. As it is interpreted however, it changes that picture of the world by a tiny (or sometimes a not so tiny) amount.

    As a result that internal, individual view we all have of what the world is all about is constantly changing and we can't stop it.

    Everybody knows this, but few people recognise it as being a continuous process. We all know we are different to the person we were 10 years ago, but few people realise we are also different to the person we were yesterday.

    The third part of our answer can be expressed as "I am the only viewer of an ever-changing picture of the world."

    This leads immediately to the fourth part. That can be written like this "I am the ever-changing viewer of a picture of the world."

    All four parts of the answer have one thing in common. They all have as a central part the concept of continuous change. When the separate parts are added to make a whole, this must be a central part of the complete answer.

    So, who we are is constantly changing due to not only changes in our perception of the world around us but also to changes in what is doing that perceiving of the world.

    But there is something else which is constantly changing too - although our perception of it remains basically the same.

    Time.
    There's no time like the present, so they say.
    That is both right and wrong.
    There is no time but the present - that single moving moment that is always with us but also always just out of reach because as soon as we reach for it, it becomes the past.
    This is a small, but important, part of knowing who we are.

    Looking back on what has been written leads us to see ourself as one important part of a network of equally important parts of a constantly changing view of the world which exists from moment to moment in that briefest of intervals called the present.

    Which all sounds far too convoluted to be of any use as a definition of who anyone is.

    Let's simplify it then. Let's ask the question, and answer it and see if the answer makes sense.

    Q. Who am I?

    A. I am me as I am now.

    That looks pretty good to me. It nicely sums up who I am right now while leaving open all possibilities for who I might have been before or might be in future.
    And that's as it should be.

    That's the end of chapter one. Next time, the short, snappy chapter two.

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    More fleshy philosophy

    I just wanted to point out that my read of Lakoff and Johnson's book was pretty quick, and for example I think there was a long section about applying multiple, potentially contradictory, primary metaphors to the same abstract situation. So my noodling here is not necessarily a fair critique - there was plenty of stuff I didn't look at.

    One thing that struck me as I was looking in particular at the detailed critiques of historical philosophy, was that although Lakoff and Johnson believed that the foundations of their critique is cognitive science, that really, a lot of the critique could be made purely from an evolutionary perspective.

    I did appreciate their point that many people misunderstand evolution, and are applying the wrong kinds of primary metaphors when trying to think about it. Thus, they argue that social Darwinism is doubly mistaken - firstly evolution has been misunderstood, and secondly, the wrong moral lessons have been taken from that misunderstanding. I would phrase my argument a bit differently from theirs, but it would boil down to the same thing.

    L&J devote quite a bit of space to morality, as indeed I think any work like this would have to. The idea here is that morality is simply an abstract generalisation of family relationship rules - thus the family dynamics you grow up in provide your primary model for moral behaviour.

    They identify two major patterns of family dynamics: the Strict Father and the Nurturing Parent.

    The Strict Father model postulates the world as a harsh, dangerous place, and each individual constantly at threat from it. The Strict Father's job (this role is rarely played by a woman) is to provide clear, rigid rules, and to punish transgressions of those rules, to help prevent all those dangers befalling the children. Over time, the child is expected to internalise those rules, and apply punishment themself as necessary.

    The Nurturing Parent model postulates that the major role for parents towards children is to nurture and care for them, supporting them as they grow up, until they can nurture and care for themselves and others. Rules and boundaries are necessary, but should be motivated by concern for others. The "ideal" nurturing parent is a rather mid-range model, as the extreme opposite to the Strict Father is a lasseiz-faire, indulgent model (which L&J don't give a name to) in which the child can do whatever they want, without concern for others.

    L&J point out that probably every family has a mixture of models, but I'm not convinced they're covered all bases, and I'm particularly bothered by the fact that they play down the lasseiz-faire model and don't give it a name. Because L&J present Strict Father and Nurturing Parent as the only two important patterns, and as opposites, they, in my opinion, dodge some important questions.

    Remember that this isn't just about family dynamics, but also about morality, and ultimately, politics. Lakoff certainly has been gaining some fame recently as a left-wing pundit critiquing the US right-wing's framing of political debate there, and the left's failure to address this. Although Lakoff has a number of valid points, his own political views are hardly in the background, and I think they distort some of his arguments, and make him easier to ignore.

    Framing, as I understand it, essentially means to deliberately or otherwise choose the metaphors that will be applied in a particular debate, in order to win by getting everyone to agree that your assessment of what's important is correct, ideally without anyone noticing that that's what you've done.

    So, for example, in the US at the moment, the right wing is getting a lot of mileage out of framing the debate about homosexual marriage as being about protecting children from evil, dissolute lifestyles, and forcing religious organisations and people to recognise what to them are immoral relationships and behaviours. Whereas if you frame homosexual marriage as being about human rights and equal access to legal rights and privileges, as they have in Canada, things go rather differently.

    I don't want to get into a detailed rant about the fact that the US extreme right has successfully managed to frame "Christian" to mean someone who self-righteously tells everyone else how evil they are, how society is going to collapse if we don't all follow their rules, how any scientific development that contradicts a literalist reading of Genesis must be wrong, how one particular prohibition in Leviticus should be imposed on the entire planet when most of the others can be freely ignored, etc.

    I'll just point out that Jesus mentioned something about the one without guilt getting to throw the first stone, loving and forgiving one another, getting help from Samaritans, and that he appears to my reading to be rather critical of the Pharisees, who seem a much better model for right-wing "Christian" behaviour than anything Jesus ever did.

    As for reading the events in the old Testament literally, that seems to me so profoundly stupid that it's hard to know where to start. One could point out that the Jews, who in some cases do still choose to actually follow most of Leviticus, don't feel any need to take Genesis literally. And the Pope, in overturning the Catholic church's excommunication of Galileo mentioned something about informed awareness of the field and the limits of [one's] own competencies.

    As you can see, the detailed rant is hard to avoid.

    Back to the main stream. It's certainly easy to recognise Strict Father morality in the right wing, and a more Nurturing Parent model from the left. But as I've suggested, I think L&J are to some extent damaging their own cause by not explicitly mentioning an Indulgent Parent model. They seem to think the Nurturing Parent is so obviously the superior pattern, at times as though it is free of flaws, that they run the risk of being unable to communicate anything to a "Strict Parentist" who is going to see anything less strict as Indulgent.

    I personally like the idea of Nurturing Parent being in the middle, between Strict and Indulgent, because firstly it always helps if you want to win politically if you grab the middle, and secondly, because it suggests that good parenting and good politics are a matter of balance, finding a difficult equilibrium, and sometimes tipping a bit far in one direction or the other, but being willing to adjust in the other direction as necessary without a sense of "having sold out to the other side" - because both Strict and Indulgent are now the other side. And neither is.

    In other words, I'm trying to mix the perfect shade of aqua, and I need both blue and green, and I'm not "conceding" to anyone when it's time to add more blue.

    I like it when I find some fat juicy ideas I can really make a mess with.

    What is hopefully clear by now is that L&J's morality discussion suffers from a significant weakness. Their claim is that a new, sensible philosophy grows out of an understanding of cognitive science; and that there's an obvious, correct philosophical morality as well. But accepting L&J's arguments about primary metaphors etc doesn't, as far as I can tell, force you to accept their morality - which is heavily dependent on their version of nurturant parent.

    In other words, I thought the final section was a bit of a let-down, because rather than cognitive science telling us how to think about morality philosophically, we basically have L&J, and their clear left-wing bias, telling us what they think morality is.

    It's not that I disagree with them that the correct foundation for moral and ethical behaviour is caring and compassion (for self and others) rather than strict arbitrary rules. But surely the point is to provide something remotely useful as an argument to those who aren't already convinced?

    The real crux of the difficulty, in my experience, comes in convincing the Strict Rules people that their strict rules are arbitrary and do not reflect any ultimate truth or absolute reality. Now, in some sense, L&J are trying to address that with the entire rest of the book, with the issues of all our experience being filtered by the contingencies of our brains and the metaphors we may not even realise we're using when we think about ultimate truth or absolute reality.

    But on my admitted skim reading, they didn't round their argument out fully, and I was left with the impression that Strict Father or Nurturing Parent was just a matter of choice, of what felt comfortable.

    And for many people, relativism and subjectivism are very frightening when first encountered, and they don't have the courage to get in there and grapple with those issues and figure out how to pull oneself out, accepting the truth that one's experience of reality is subjective and can never be the truth because that doesn't exist. And nevertheless having to get on with life and make decisions about what is worthwhile and right and good.

    They actually find the absolute position, however preposterous it looks from the outside, reassuring, because it tells them they can be sure. And in my experience, they cling to each other, convinced that because they both believe there's an absolute truth, it must be the same one.

    And even L&J admit that it's easy to succumb to the illusion that there is one absolute truth, because each of our subjective experiences are somewhat similar to each other - shaped and moulded by our exposure to the outside world, and we've been shaped by that world for four billion years, because otherwise we wouldn't be here to talk about it.

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    The Fabric of Reality: Chapter 8, The Significance of Life

    I was approaching this chapter with some trepidation, since I'm an evolutionary biologist, and evolution is one of David Deutsch's four core strands, but he's a physicist, and evolution is introduced in Chapter 8, of a 14-chapter book.

    I think the chapter justified my trepidation, as it was pretty much what I expected, but it did have the nice effect of reminding me why I stopped thinking of myself as a mathematician and started thinking of myself as a biologist. And by the end of the chapter, it was equally clear to me that Deutsch really, truly, is a quantum physicist.

    But first, I think I'll toss out the expected nitpickings of a biologist reading a physicist's summary of evolution.

    Charles Darwin's theory of evolution explained the origin of life in terms that required no special physics, and since then we have discovered many of the detailed mechanisms of life, and found no special physics there either.
    The theory of evolution that Darwin wrote about was very definitely not about where life came from, or the physical principles involved. It's a testament to the power of the theory that it can be applied to the origin of life, and now is, but Darwin was happy for creation to take care of that:
    I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless, all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. [...] Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.
    That Darwin quote is half a page in the last chapter of Origin, where he's getting more speculative and big-picture, and is about the only place Darwin talks about the origin of life. Everywhere else, he's talking about the origin of species, and that is the theory's importance and significance, but I don't get the impression from reading Deutsch that he really "gets" that.

    This gene-based understanding of life - regarding organisms as part of the environment of gene - has implicitly been the basis of biology since Darwin, but it was overlooked until at least the 1960s, not fully understood until Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene (1976) and The Extended Phenotype (1982).
    No. I don't think so. The theory of evolution, Darwinism, was recognised as being on shaky ground until the theory of genes was incorporated into it (Darwin had an unread copy of Mendel's work in his library at his death), work largely done in the 1930s by Fisher and Haldane, giving rise to neo-Darwinism. The gene-centric view of life was "implicit" and "overlooked" before the work of people like Dawkins in the same way that the theory of gravity was "implicit" and "overlooked" until Newton got hit by an apple. I mean, you can stretch the definition, but isn't it easier just to say our scientific understanding wasn't there yet?

    I'm possibly oversensitive about what is in Darwin's theory, and how evolutionary understanding has evolved since then. This could be because I live in a society that contains people who are particularly hostile to evolution among the sciences, who refer to people like me as "Darwinists"; when I'm either a neo-neo-Darwinist or a neo-neo-neo-Darwinist, depending on who's counting, and whether the whole neo- thing is worth persisting with at this point.

    On the positive side, and in sharp contrast to my impression of Chapter 5, he does understand and appreciate the importance of the environment, or niche, a living thing, or other replication-capable thing, finds itself in.

    Now, why did the chapter remind me why I'm a biologist? And convince me that Deutsch is a physicist? Well, picture a giant pile of sand, with an ant crawling around on it. I think any sensible description of this scenario would have to focus most of its attention on the ant. The sand is simple, boring. The ant moves around, it's got anatomy and physiology and chemistry that is complicated - it's interesting. To me, anyone who gets caught up in the fact that 99.99% of the matter physically is silicon dioxide has missed the point, and I think Deutsch sort of agrees with me.

    But on the other hand, he still seems impressed by the sheer physical vastness of space, and the fact that the laws of physics apply everywhere. His argument that life is interesting and profound seems to revolve around the idea that life has the potential to mess around with physics and chemistry on the grand scale. The ant has to justify its interestingness by being capable of moving the pile of sand, grain by grain. I fundamentally just can't seem to get into that headspace. It could be a retrospective explanation for why I hated physics.

    But why did I stop thinking of myself as a mathematician and start thinking of myself as a biologist? Well, it seemed to me that maths presented this vast spectrum of possibilities, complexities, interestingnesses, but as long as it's pure maths, has to firstly be very broad-brushstroke, and secondly, have a dreadful time picking which particular interestingnesses to pursue further. For me at least, there's a slight aimlessness when overwhelmed by choice, and a tendency to get to too high levels of abstraction.

    In biology, you have lots of wonderfully complicated interesting things, that as it turns out, have been selected from a much larger array of potential interesting things. It's the difference between possibility and actuality. There's still a lot of choice, but it's magnitudes smaller, and it's been sifted to contain a much higher density of interestingness.

    I, like probably most scientists, am curiousity-driven, which means I want to explain interesting problems. I like solving quite broad, generalised problems (which is what makes me mathematical/computationally oriented), but so far, I've mainly found them as generalisations of very specific problems. I've noticed I unsettle a lot of other people, both biologists and not, by my total confidence that if I persist on any one specific, motivated biological problem, I will eventually come up with something broader, that can be applied to several other problems, and that I would not have come up with the broad solution if I'd started by looking at the broad problem.

    And why do I think Deutsch is not only a physicist, but a quantum physicist? Well, he wants life and information to be physically different from non-life and non-information, to justify its interestingness. He says elsewhere physicality of information isn't important, but I think he means something different by that than I do. And then he tries to explain why the same sequence of bases in a gene and in an irrelevant part of the genome (I've got to be careful these days, as most 'junk' DNA probably isn't, but we don't know exactly what it is yet) have different significance, and again, it feels to me like he's trying to justify why we should pay attention to the ant when the protons, neutrons and electrons in it are no different at first glance from the subatomic particles in the sand.

    So his explanation for why the sequence in the gene is more interesting involves his multiple-universe model of quantum theory. Never mind that the computational and information-based theories used to analyse genomic sequence employ a number of principles I find much easier to explain to undergraduates (and frequently do). No, apparently the way Deutsch is convinced that this sequence of ant DNA has information and that (identical) sequence doesn't, is because among the millions of parallel-universe ants, the first sequence is conserved and the second isn't. Never mind that he can't, physically, do that comparison, whereas boring biologists go out and compare those sequences in an analogous way between that ant, other ants, and other insects.

    It's like watching someone fly from Brisbane to Melbourne via New Zealand. It's hard to avoid guessing they grew up in New Zealand, and aren't terribly familiar or comfortable with Australian geography.

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    Trevor's book

    The reasons I recently wrote about Trevor are that not only would he have been 50 this year if he was still alive (I think...), but his wife, Lesley, recently sent me a book Trevor had started to write shortly before he died.

    It took me a bit of time to work up to actually reading it. It's short. I like what is in it, I agree with most of it, and of course, it stops just when I'm not quite sure I understand his point, and I might really have been able to learn something from the next bit.

    That's how it goes, I guess.

    I have Lesley's okay to type it up here. I get to keep the hard copy, in Trevor's handwriting.

    For Ingrid

    Hoping that she finds within these pages enlightenment.
    Or if not, that she finds something of interest.
    Or if not, that she sees something amusing.

    But if not, the effort is not wasted since this may last long enough to find somewhere to lodge itself.

    Even if it doesn't, the effort is not wasted since I am gaining knowledge of myself by writing this.

    Introduction

    Manuals really ought to be written by experts. SO, a manual about living ought to be written by an expert on living. But how can anybody be an expert on that? Each of us gets one life, with no chance to rehearse or practice and with very little instruction from qualified teachers.

    Right from the start then, I'll make it clear that this isn't anything but a collection of my thoughts and ideas and is worth precisely what you paid for it.

    Like everybody, I have been influenced by many people as I grew up and am still being influenced by people now. All of us are. We also influence others - and that's partly why I'm writing this.

    There are lots of reasons I'm writing this. Possibly the most important is that I want to understand myself a little more before I die. Not that dying is itself really a big thing.
    It's knowing about it that's the big thing. We all know we will die one day.
    Every one of our ancestors - right back to the primordial slime - has died. But the important thing is that they lived first.

    Chapter One
    Who am I?

    In which we find out who we are.

    Most people don't think about who they are. They don't have to - they know. Just ask them. Ask someone who they are and thy will probably tell you their name, maybe what they do as a job or where they live or what they have as hobbies.

    People are good at describing themselves and will do so in great detail if you ask enough questions. That, of course, isn't the point.
    Humans are social animals - and that is the point.

    Every person on the planet is part of an enormous interconnecting web of relationships. Family, friends, workmates, enemies, the most casual of casual acquaintances - all are part of the primary web stretching out from an individual. Each strand connects to a person who is themself the centre of another web. Many of the strands connect with each other at the points of mutual friends or coworkers. Some - especially these days - skip across continents and oceans and can encompass the world.
    To make it more complicated, they also reach through time. From childhood playmates to others in the retirement village, the strands of the web reach intangibly, but strongly, through time.

    The first part of the answer to the question of this chapter then becomes
    "I am the centre of a vast network of people."

    This relationship web is however, a two edged sword. Just as I am the centre of my web, every other person is the centre of theirs.
    Pulling on the strings of the web can be done both ways. The pull can also come from one of two people - either the person at the centre or the person on the periphery. But which is which?
    Each of us normally sees ourself as the most important (note that I say normally - there are exceptions) person and therefore sees our own desires as more demanding of our own - and other people's - attentions.

    Others, naturally enough, see things the same way so that to them, our needs become less important.
    It is this balance and counterbalance of the importance - or rather the percieved importance - of our own and each others desires which keeps the relationship webs in a state of constant flux.
    This is something which is enormously complex but which we do all the time. It's part of being human.
    This gives us the second part of the answer to our current question.
    "I am a small part of a vast network of people."

    That's not all of it, I'll type the next bit when I have time.

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    No-one expects the scale-free network!

    My friend Prasenjit has pointed me at this abstract of a scientific paper, which demonstrates that heresy in the middle ages was transmitted among people as though in a scale-free network. Furthermore, the Inquisition did much better at eradicating heresy once it targeted the hubs of the network.

    So I have yet more reason to be happy I'm not a hub myself. I'm more likely to avoid the Inquisition this way.

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    Eats, Shoots and Leaves

    You wouldn't normally guess that a best-seller with a foreword by Frank McCourt would be about punctuation. I've now had this book praised by a number of people I respect, including Annette, so it is officially on my list of "Cool books I wouldn't mind having a copy of someday".

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    More thesaurus spam.

    I have not one, but two, thesaurus spam sitting here in my inbox that I think might qualify at least partially for "opposite meaning". I need some word for the unintentional irony here.

    Our product is an all earthy herbal tablets incorporating a mixture of herbs known for advancing intimate longing with discharge. By using my product you should go through a gain in sexual craving, an amelioration in your size and execution, also as increased energy and joy during sexual activeness.
    Hands up everyone who'd like more "discharge" from their intimate regions? And "a gain in sexual craving" - is that when you put on weight because you can't stop eating during sex? And who thinks "all earthy" is a desirable quality in herbal tablets? I'd prefer if they washed the soil off first, thanks.

    The second spam is an interesting beast, as it appears to be a sibling of my original thesaurus spam.

    Our product is an innovative fat-bandage accessory which withdraws grease from the board you gobble! Formulated with the mighty fat-binding fibre, the medley of all-natural multipliers..
    I'm defining sibling in the obvious biological sense here - both had the same "parent" message, which hopefully actually made sense, and different thesaurus replacements have been made.

    The two things that strike me from comparing the siblings is firstly, the reappearance of my dear friend "gobble", and secondly, I'm in some doubt whether these are generated with a computer program or if there's actual human intervention.

    This one has a pattern of 'fat - grease - fat', where the original has 'grease - fat - grease'. This could of course just mean a simple program that rejects the same "thesaurus synonym" twice in a row, from a listing containing only 'fat - grease'.

    But apart from all the things one learns from a second example of the same thing, there's something delightful about the specific "thesaurus synonyms" chosen for the first sentence.

    "Bandage", "accessory" and "board", with the neutral "product" (rather than "pills") conjures visions, for me, of termites with some kind of fat-storage belt, and the innovative new gadget on the belt that strips away all those nasty oils and pollutants from the wood automatically, unlike the bad old days, when the termites had to transfer them to the storage belt themselves. Clearly, these are eco-warrior termites, cleaning up human messes, and I think they deserve all the new technology they can get, but I'm not sure why I'm getting their email.

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    Hebetude and Hysteresis

    I was looking up hysteresis in the dictionary, and flicked past the page where hebetude was defined ("the state of being dull or lethargic"), and I wonder why I don't hear this word more often, because it sounds like it was invented by Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

    I got back to hysteresis, and I'm now a little doubtful if I can use it as a good feminist. It's used to describe a process that lags behind whatever is activating it, and comes from the greek hysteresis, "shortcoming". I can't help noticing that we have a few other words from the Greek starting with hyster- and they all refer to women or the womb.

    We've already more or less disposed of hysteria as excessively sexist, and I think I can do without the mental association of the woman being required to walk several steps behind the man when thinking about delayed (hysteretic) processes.

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    Weird and wonderful

    Going through David Jones, past their CD section, I couldn't help but be struck by two adjacent CDs:

    Emma: Free me
    Fantasia: Free yourself

    Also, Bed Bath 'n Table appear to have employed my doppleganger. At the moment they are selling mugs and bowls, in white, with colour words, painted on in the given colour. The idea will be familiar to anyone who got an invitation to my Rainbow party back in 1994. The fact that the two colours on sale are green and blue, my crockery colours, just proves it must be my doppleganger.

    And I've just received this email:

    The University of Queensland last night received a report that the Brisbane City Council's Dutton Park ferry terminal at St Lucia had sunk into the Brisbane River.

    About 6.50pm a ramp and a pontoon submerged into the river, adjacent to Sir William MacGregor Drive.

    The area has been fenced off and the University has not received any reports that there were passengers in the vicinity.

    Considering a controversial bridge is being planned nearby, the conspiracy theorist in me considers this remarkable timing.

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    Me vs the Chinese Elm

    I've been procrastinating about gardening, but we had quite a lot of rain today, which eased off in the evening so I went out to attack the Chinese Elm in the driveway.

    Chinese Elm is the most evil weed I think I've ever encountered. It can do a lawn-like coverage of little shoots with pretty little leaves, and pretty little flowers, within months. And yet, as the name might hint, each of those little plants has ambitions to become a tree.

    I think my dad had a go at the driveway during the winter, because a lot of the little plantlets were clearly multiple shoots after the original shoot had been chopped off, leaving the root. This was why I'd been waiting for rain, so I had some chance of getting roots out.

    I feel confident there's now more Chinese Elm out of the driveway than in it, although casual passers-by might not realise there'd been any attempt to remove it. I also have a charming blister which is obviously where I grip around the root with my right hand. (I'm not ambidextrous, I have a preferred hand for most things, but which hand varies.)

    My plan is to get most of the rest of it out, or at least under control and amenable to short bursts of weeding, over the next two weeks. Because I have planted some nasturtiums in the driveway and that's when the shoots are due to appear. Eventually I hope they'll be doing enough ground covering that the Chinese Elm can't win back.

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    The Fabric of Reality: Chapter 5, Virtual Reality

    I'm currently reading my way through David Deutsch's book The Fabric of Reality. I intend to post an entire review once I get through, or maybe several reviews along the way. Deutsch is one of the leading lights in quantum computing, but this is advertised as more of a popular science/philosophy book, expounding his Theory of Everything which is apparently the union of quantum mechanics, computation, knowledge, and evolution.

    What I'd like to write about today isn't exactly review, more a negative visceral reaction. The thing is, I have no particular dispute with the point that Deutsch eventually reaches at the end of this chapter, and which the chapter summary covers elegantly. I was even wondering during the reading of the chapter if my problem wasn't an unnecessary distraction and whether I couldn't in fact predict that the chapter was ending somewhere moderately uncontroversial (to me).

    Virtual reality is not just a technology in which computers simulate the behaviour of physical environments. The fact that virtual reality is possible is an important fact about the fabric of reality. It is the basis not only of computation, but of human imagination and external experience, science and mathematics, art and fiction.
    However, in order to get to this point, Deutsch speculates about the realism of current virtual reality technology and what might be possible in the future. He wants to (and I can't blame him) get to the central point that the computation required to simulate reality is by far the most challenging and difficult part of the endeavour. However, he does this by downplaying the issues of the connection between the mind and the body a little too much for my taste.
    The way I have defined it, a virtual-reality generator is a machine that gives the user experiences of some real or imagined environment (such as an aircraft) which is, or seems to be, outside the user's mind. Let me call those external experiences. External experiences are to be contrasted with internal experiences such as one's nervousness when making one's first solo landing...

    One can conceive of a technology beyond virtual reality, which could also induce specified internal experiences. A few internal experiences, such as moods induced by certain drugs, can already be artificially rendered, and no doubt in future it will be possible to extend that repetoire. Bu a generator of specifiable internal experiences wouuld in general have to be able to override the normal functioning of the user's mind as well as the senses. In other words, it would be replacing the user by a different person. This puts such machines into a different category from virtual-reality generators. They will require quite different technology and will raise quite different philosophical issues, which is why I have excluded them from my definition of virtual reality.

    (Hunger and thirst, and other sensations such as balance and muscle tension, are perceived as being internal to the body, but they are external to the mind and are therefore potentially within the scope of virtual reality.)

    Weightlessness and all other sensations can, in principle, be rendered artificially, Eventually it wlll become possible to bypass the sense organs altogether and directly simulate the nerves that lead from them to the brain.

    Once we can artificially generate nerve signals accurately enough for the brain not to be able to perceive the difference between those signals and the ones that our sense organs would send, increasing the accuracy of this technique will no longer be relevant.

    The environment may include the user's own body: since the body is external to the mind, the specification of a virtual-reality environment may legitimately include the requirement that the user's body should seem to have been replaced by a new one with the specified properties.

    The human mind affects the body and the outside world by emitting nerve impulses. Therefore a virtual-reality generator can in principle obtain all the information it needs about what the user is doing by intercepting the nerve signals coming from the user's brain.

    My problem is essentially that I don't think the boundary between external and internal is as sharp as Deutsch would like it to be. I don't think the mind/brain can be disconnected from the body as neatly as he would like. In fact, I experience a strong visceral sense of disgust at the casualness with which he seems to want to take something like that visceral sense away from me, because it's not the real me, by his lights.

    I found a photo of Deutsch online, and this was possibly a mistake, because he looks like one of those stereotypical physics nerds who wouldn't recognise his own propioceptors if they sent him news about quantum computing in morse code. It's quite possibly true that he wouldn't feel less himself, detached from his "body", but that doesn't give him the right to make claims about the rest of us. I realise I'm implicitly engaging in a kind of reverse discrimination here, as a physically active, kinesthetically oriented person who also manages some intelligence with that, but I'm honestly trying to allow him his reality and I don't think he's allowing me mine.

    Now of course this kind of technology doesn't yet exist, anyway. And I don't know how I'd experience having my bodily sensory input replaced by computer simulation. But given how my relationship with my bodily sensations has developed, I'm prepared to guess that it's as likely as not that I will feel less like myself than I do when under the influence of certain mood altering drugs.

    And I expect, given my experience with mood altering drugs, and comparing notes with others, that there's no neat listing of things that are "safe" to do virtually, that will remain exterior experiences, and not change the user into a different person. I think this also throws a stone in the cogs of his later argument:

    I do not want to understate the practical problems involved in intercepting all the nerve signals passing into and out of the human brain, and in cracking the various codes involved. But this is a finite set of problems that we shall have to solve once only.

    Certainly, a virtual-reality generator that renders a given environment perfectly for humans will not do so for dolphins or extraterrestrials. To render a given environment for a user with given types of sense organs, a virtual-reality generator must be physically adapted to such sense organs and its computer must be programmed with their characteristics. However the modifications that have to made to accommodate a given species of user are finite, need only be carried out once.

    I think the brief summary is that I am getting tired of people who make sharp distinctions, separating things neatly into discrete categories without bothering to check whether that's a remotely reasonable way to treat the items in question. I think one of the things one learns as a biologist is that there is no sharp boundary between an organism and its environment, just as there are no sharp boundaries between habitats; species; symbiotes and parasites; idiosyncracies and mental illness, and so on.

    Similarly, I don't think there is a sharp boundary between the "brain" and "the rest of the body"; the self and "the rest of the world".

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    Spam as Art

    Back in the sixties, Georges Perec and his acquaintances experimented with a new form of art. They took two different, unrelated texts of similar lengths. Starting with one, they attempted to find "related" texts by replacing words with synonyms or phrases of similar meaning, such as you might find in a thesaurus. The process was then repeated on the altered text, and so on for several rounds, the aim being to produce the second text after sufficient rounds.

    If I remember correctly, the project didn't succeed, but did create some interesting results. I apologise for the vagueness of the details; I read about the project in David Bellos' excellent biography of GP, and unfortunately, I've had to return the book to the library.

    Perec strikes me as someone who would have been able to do amazing things with access to modern computer technology - not letting the computer replace his creativity, but getting it to do the tedious parts of the process. I think he would have succeeded if he'd been doing this now.

    Recently, I've been noticing spam that attempts to evade spam detectors by replacing key words with, well, not quite synonyms, but words one might find in the same thesaurus entry. I think of it as "thesaurus spam".

    The spammers are apparently under the impression that their missives will convey the identical sense if they employ thesaurus replacements; adherents of "Pretzel" and other word game players acknowledge that you can traduce the intention dramatically.

    So in the spirit of found art, I hereby present this spam from this morning's email:

    This pills is an advanced grease-fastening addendum which removes fat from the nourishment you gobble! Explicated with the potent grease-fastening fiber, the alloy of all-biological constituents...

    Audit it

    Other Georges Perec fans may guess, and be right, that it was the phrase "nourishment you gobble!" that got me thinking of Georges Perec and art. But I'd already laughed so hard at the first "grease-fastening" (I assume that was "fat-binding") that I actually had to recover for a couple of minutes before I got that far.

    "Audit it", which was presumably "Try it" (it's a hyperlink in the original email which I have chosen to spare you from; after all, if this is indeed found art, I kinda have to do something to it, to assert my artistic authority) is particularly charming as it almost reverses the intended meaning of the email.

    I'm now on the look-out for a thesaurus spam that manages to convey the exact opposite of the intended meaning.

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    On Bullshit

    This sounds really intriguing and like it might be my kind of book. Of course, it could be bullshit itself. Must poke around further. Will report back.

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    Villette

    I've just finished reading "Villette" by Charlotte Brontë. What an extremely peculiar book. I can certainly understand why "Jane Eyre" is better known and more popular, although I'm not convinced it's better.

    The issues that make it peculiar include the fact that it appears partly to have been a way to get some unrequited love out of Brontë's system. Much of it is based on real people and real events, except when it appears to me to switch into blatant wish-fulfillment.

    The story is told by Lucy Snowe, mainly of her time in "Villette" (based on Brontë's own time in Brussels). She is appointed as the English-speaking governess to the children of the headmistress of a girls' school, learning French as she goes, and eventually becomes the English teacher at the school.

    Lucy, even as the first person narrator, appears to be an uptight, humourless killjoy. Certainly she's an unreliable narrator - she herself admits to not telling us certain things, or only later. Her reasons strike me as vague or even self-contradictory - she claims to be very calm, rational and dispassionate, but there are hints that this is achieved simply by not telling us or anyone else much about her emotions.

    I found this fascinating, as well as frustrating, because I thought the unreliable narrator, at least in such an explicit form, was a later development in literature. Also it is unclear to me how much this is deliberate on Brontë's part, and how much Lucy's character is just a reflection of her own.

    I can recognise that one of the issues is a feminist one - Brontë is trying to say something about the restrictive circumstances available to "good" women at the time, and Lucy seems to sort of be rebelling against this. But at the same time, she is so much a creature of her time that from my point of view she is just reinforcing the fact that once the brainwashing has happened, there isn't much freedom available.

    The point of having Lucy live more or less alone, as an Englishwoman in a foreign country, is clearly to illustrate loneliness, isolation, and lack of love or any other strong emotional interaction. The problem for me is that Lucy appears to be causing an awful lot of the loneliness and isolation herself. She's not exactly making the best of a bad situation, although she'd like to think she is.

    The whole thing reminds me very much of the joke about how many Jewish mothers-in-law it takes to change a lightbulb - "None! I don't mind sitting here in the dark vilst u goes out enjoying yourselves.....". I hope any potential offense at a Jewish joke is compensated by the fact that it's a good English Protestant (as we are told repeatedly) who's carrying on like this.

    Lucy also has a tiny problem with men. Her opinion of them strikes me as a bit dubious, because she seems to think she'll never attract male interest because she's not physically attractive (and remember, we only have her word for that.) Also she's not worthy of the kind of men who might be suitable. Martyr complex or something.

    There is a romance of sorts in "Vilette", eventually, between Lucy and M. Paul, the literature teacher. The relationship seems to circle around and around Lucy's not wishing to admit that at this point, she is starved for attention and part of her psyche has had about enough with the keeping aloof thing.

    There is no doubt that part of the awkwardness of this relationship is that M. Paul is based on the teacher who was the husband of the real headmistress in Brussels. Brontë had a serious infatuation with this man, and he turned her down. Brontë doesn't manage quite so well figuring out what the single M. Paul will do about Lucy. Hence the strong air of wish-fulfillment towards the end.

    However, Brontë must have admitted to herself that she couldn't really figure out what Lucy and M. Paul living happily ever after might look like, and yet didn't want to commit Lucy to more torment, and so wrote the most spectacular "You can't possibly be doing this now, you've just given up, haven't you?" last page I've ever come across.

    As you can see, my tendency to audience participation is still strong.

    Certainly, "Vilette" is far more complicated than "Jane Eyre", and depending on the extent to which the effect is deliberate, quite brilliant. I mean, if the point is that Lucy is having such an awful time of it because she's creating her own misery, I managed to maintain interest well past the point I'd have thrown any other book about a person like this at the nearest wall.

    But I still want to give her a good shake and tell her to lighten up a bit.

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    Transpositional SF

    I was proof-reading a research abstract for Thomas, and I came across a sentence fragment that whirled my mind off into SF:

    ....publication of reports of a disturbing number of non-existent organisms.

    Oh, and I did point out to Thomas that he probably meant "publication of a disturbing number of reports of non-existent organisms."

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    English as a Second Language

    Sigh. Every so often, I am reminded that despite everything, English is not my native language. It is of course Albert Herring James is singing in, and his part is the Mayor. Anyone who was wondering why a military officer would be wearing a top hat is forgiven.

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    Christopher and the Turing Test

    I realised my review was getting a bit out of hand, so this is a separate post with thinking provoked by reading "The curious incident of the dog in the night-time".

    I can remember at some point in my reading, well after I personally was convinced that Christopher, however unusual and unlike a "normal" person, definitely was a person and entitled to full rights and respect as such, thinking "I'd be really worried about anyone who could read this far and still not think Christopher (and others like him) is a person deserving of rights and respect".

    Acknowledging that partly, this is because we're getting Christopher "from the inside" and there's plenty of evidence in the book that the people who meet Christopher have a lot of trouble seeing him that way, and that we ourselves would have that same trouble, of course. Mark Haddon again: Here's a character whom if you met him in real life you'd never, ever get inside his head. Yet something magical happens when you write a novel about him. You slip inside his head, and it seems like the most natural thing in the world.

    So, there I was, thinking something similar to MH, but from a different viewpoint, and it occurred to me that MH was interested in the difference between real life and novels, and my natural reaction was more like a Turing Test, in reverse.

    I realise that in the AI community, the Turing Test is about thinking, but the way the game is set up I can't see how it isn't about determining person-ness, and now I've had these thoughts in the context of Christopher, I can't escape the idea that surely, whether or not the interrogator can tell apart the human and the computer, depends on the interrogator, and to some extent, that must be something to do with the interrogator's person-ness (or ability to think, if you prefer something closer to the original TT).

    I have no trouble imagining a scenario in which a specific human - computer pair could be distinguished by one interrogator, and another human - computer pair could be distinguished by another interrogator; but InterrogatorA couldn't tell, of HumanB and ComputerB, who was which, and InterrogatorB couldn't tell, of HumanA and ComputerA, who was which.

    And I also have no trouble imagining that things could be such that there was no possible Interrogator C who could perform both distinctions correctly.

    In particular, it strikes me that Christopher or someone like him could be very good at making certain kinds of distinctions, and absolutely lousy at making others, which almost any random person off the street could do. I think I can switch between the two views reasonably well, but I also recognise that I can't follow either Christopher or the random person off the street into the farthest reaches of their world view, and I have to make decisions about which world view, or blend of world views, is correct for any given situation.

    And this is just one dimension: there's also the dimension in which I'm at one extreme, Anti-Ingrid is at the other, and other people find themselves able to see both viewpoints to varying degrees. And so on.

    I can't prove my scenario or the lack of any possible Interrogator C of course, and I know that personal incredulity is never a good argument, but I'm prepared to do some handwaving in the direction of Gödel's Theorem and the difficulty in defining species and leave it at that for now.

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    Hat Yai

    We spent the rest of our time in Thailand in the far south - Songkla province, based in Hat Yai. This is not a major tourist destination for westerners - the only other white people we saw were in our hotel, I think. On the other hand, apparently there's quite a bit of tourism from Malaysia, which is about an hour's drive to the south.

    Historically, the area has been a trading centre, with Chinese and Indian influence as well as Malaysian, and I think there was still quite a lot of Asian business activity.

    We were there because I've been supervising a PhD student, Fang, from Prince of Songkla University, and as part of the her scholarship, the overseas supervisor visits her in Thailand. The original plan had been that Fang would sit her thesis defence the week we visited, but that had to be put off, partly because her main (Thai) supervisor has had to take on the extra responsibilities of being head of department.

    So we spent some of our time at the University, working on her thesis, and meeting the other students in her lab, and other members of the department. The other days, Fang had arranged visits to various local places, in a hire car with driver. Since there was one spare seat in the car, the other students took turns to come along each day. Dhaeng is bubbly, Pii is earnest and enthusiastic to share knowledge, and Dhao was a bit too shy about her lack of English for me to get a clear impression of her.

    We visited a Chinese-style temple with associated caves near the Malaysian border - I can't remember its name, and it's not in our tourist guides. I've been in a few limestone caves in Australia, and it was interesting to compare how natural they're left here, to the way that at this temple, the caves became a setting for buddhist statues, with ornately paved floors and light displays. I did find the overall effect a bit magpie-like - collecting everything pretty and shiny (and covering it with different-coloured mirror tiles) - Thai temples we visited later seemed more coherent aesthetically. The temple itself was an interesting contrast, being uniform grey stone (ornately carved) on the outside, and a riot of blues for sky and water, and red of the dragons on all the pillars holding the roof up.

    We also visited Malaysia, in the most technical sense - there's a duty-free shop immediately on the other side of the border. Fang's developed a taste for chocolate and it's much cheaper and more plentiful in Malaysia than Thailand. We bought some Malaysian chocolate, and can confirm that they know what they're doing. I found it interesting that the shop included a variety of men's clothes, but virtually no women's clothing - just some (not very interesting) fabric lengths.

    On the cultural side, we visited the Institute for Southern Thai Studies, a historical/cultural museum. The best room was definitely the coconut grater room. That wasn't what I expected when I read the leaflet (prehistory room; bead room; weapons room; pottery room; animal catching devices etc). A coconut grater is basically a low wooden stool, with the grater itself like an oversized spoon with sawtooth edging, embedded via the "handle" in the stool at a convenient angle for the person sitting on it. Anyway, the coconut graters started innocently enough, with decorative carvings. Then there were the ones shaped to look like various animals, and the ones shaped like naked women in various positions, and the "chap" on his knees with a very painful expression on his face, due to the location of the grater.

    The institute is on an island in one of the largest lakes in Thailand. That day, we had lunch in a restaurant built out over the lake. There were quite a few houses on stilts further out, and netted-off areas for aquaculture. We then visited some markets, and clearly, I'm backwards, as the clothing and fabric shops had much more interesting stuff up the back, as far as I was concerned. Then we caught the ferry to Songkhla city itself - very much a local service, lots of motorbikes and food vendors, and us again being the most remarkable thing aboard.

    We got to the governor's residence (now a museum) just before closing, so we were let in for free. I didn't mind the short visit, as the museum aspects didn't interest me nearly as much as just looking at the residence - a chinese-style house with multiple courtyards, in white and red. James and I agreed that it'd be a lovely place to live if we had a block of land large enough to fit the whole thing.

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    Baaaby brush turkey

    I'll write up our weekend trip as soon as I have time (I expect teaching to eat most of my time the next few days) but I was all excited this morning.

    Last week, we saw our first ever brush turkey in our back yard - I see them down by the river, so it wasn't a big shock, but I'd somehow got the impression there are too many fences around here for them to really be comfortable.

    And this morning, I caught Zeki, hanging half off the balcony, looking very keenly at the side garden. I could hear the rustling that had caught his attention.

    After half a minute, the cutest little brush turkey emerged, and wandered up into the back garden. James and I got to see it wander around under the mango.

    It's a bit under half the height of an adult brush turkey. Its body and tail are glossy black adult feathers, but its head is just starting to take on red colour, and the dangly bit around the neck is dark and there's no trace of yellow.

    We hope it stays.

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    One night in Bangkok

    Actually, given how late it was by the time we arrived at our hotel (taking into account that Bangkok time is three hours after Brisbane's), I can't tell you much about our night in Bangkok, so this is about the next morning, before our flight to Hat Yai.

    During breakfast, I discovered that everyone with a car in Thailand chooses a neutral colour - this is probably because there are Bangkok taxis in every bright colour imaginable, including several different shades of hot pink and purple, from what I could tell.

    The background music in the hotel restaurant included "Like a Virgin" which takes on extra resonances here, and in fact, "One night in Bangkok", which however much I like, makes for really, really lousy background music. I was also a bit surprised it was played - it's not actually a nice song about Bangkok.

    We were a bit worried about getting stuck in traffic trying to get to or from an actual sight, and thus missing our flight, so we decided to go for a walk around a largish block of Bangkok instead. It was fascinating - all the little food stalls crammed onto the pavement, the little spirit houses at the corner of each property, particularly businesses, the displays celebrating the king's 60 years on the throne. And the alternation, on our route, between tourist- (and tourist-seeking natives) frequented parts, and areas where it was more about just eking out a living.

    I have to admit there's a sense in which I don't get how Bangkok works - to me, to get a city to function, you need a certain amount of money to transport food in, and people need to be doing city-type jobs to justify having so many people so close together and needing to transport everything else in and out. But many areas felt more like a small village, except I have no clue where the raw materials for the street vendors' food comes from, or how they can afford it, or make enough money to keep doing it.

    The trip back to the airport was uneventful. I'm not sure what I think of the new airport - it is very, very large, but I'm not convinced it can actually effectively handle the kind of numbers they're talking about. At current levels of traffic, it has a somewhat desolate feel. There's also a lot of raw concrete and exposed wiring, and I can't tell if that's a deliberate stylistic choice or just that the airport isn't fully finished.

    On our next turn through, between Hat Yai and Japan, when we had longer to wait, I decided it was practically a post-apocalyptic setting - the airport itself, with its unfinished feel, seemed (almost-)built for a different purpose than what the small groups of people in various places were actually doing. There were an awful lot of handwritten signs, because either someone hadn't figured out that certain information needed to be in certain places, or the signs haven't been put in yet.

    The cutest thing about the flight to Hat Yai however was discovering that however keenly the other passengers might line up for boarding, once boarding was announced, the monks got to board first.

    [Meantime, today in Brisbane has been quite weird - the world has been a peculiar near-sunset yellow colour all day. Apparently, the cloud cover contains a lot of dust and also some smoke.]

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    Trevor

    Today is the birthday of Trevor, one of my closest friends. He died almost two years ago, but I don't think I've fully come to terms with it. That's partly because our friendship was largely conducted via email, so it could be rather intermittent. There's a part of my brain that just thinks I haven't heard from him in a while, and I don't know how it might change to understanding I won't hear from him again.

    The part of my brain responsible for reminding me that I haven't written to him for a while is much more up to speed with how things are. I know I was a lousy correspondent at times, but it seems I had enough good intentions often enough that they now understand they're not really needed any more.

    I've been thinking about having a blog for quite a long time, it just took a lot of coordination between James and myself before I could actually start posting. I'm pretty sure that part of my desire for a blog was related to those good intentions, and not writing email to Trevor anymore.

    So far, I think blogging is a slightly better medium for me than email - I can write short posts when I think of something, rather than saving up the energy to get through all the stuff Trevor and I were talking about (we had long emails, that sometimes fragmented into multiple threads, which proceeded to grow in length).

    On the positive side, if there's any Trevor out there, I assume he can read my blog more easily than stuff in my head I think I'd enjoy writing an email to Trevor about. On the negative side, I'm not getting any feedback from him.

    On the other hand, not everything in my blog would be interesting to Trevor, and he's the type who would have left detailed feedback on my spelling, grammar, and any failure in conveying the important aspects of the subject, for each post. I know I'd also get positive comments when he thought I got something right, and if I had part of the story, and he knew the rest, he'd tell it, in extensive and entertaining detail.

    I miss Trevor, and I know his family misses him. And if my blog had existed prior to his death, and had comments enabled, I think all my other blog readers would come to miss him too.

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    Visitors

    So, it's been another long while since I've let the world hear from me. Rather than try to catch up with everything, I'll just ignore the backlog and jump into recent events.

    Last week, we had visitors from Denmark - they are old family friends, who my parents visit every time they go to Denmark, who've finally made the reverse trip.

    I skipped work two days and played tour guide. First day, we went up Mt Nebo and Mt Glorious. It was overcast and threatening with rain, so the lookouts were not at their best. But everything turned out rather well - we decided to have lunch at the Maiala cafe up on Mt Glorious waiting for the clouds to clear before doing the rainforest walk, and since they feed the birds there, there was a large number and variety of birds to see. My visitors happen to be a couple of bird fanatics and they were eagerly checking off names in their bird guide.

    The actual rainforest walk was as good as always - I don't need that much excuse to take people up there - except for one technical detail I hadn't thought about. The path was very damp, and the leeches were out in force. All three of us were in sandals. We had an exciting time flicking off leeches, and jumping at the slightest odd sensation on our feet. I seem to be, as always, a favourite with bitey things, and had two actual punctures by the end of the afternoon.

    The second day, we went to the Lone Pine Koala sanctuary. We've sent past visitors there but I'd never actually been. My conclusion is that it's not a place I need to visit regularly, but it does its job - showing off Australian animals to tourists - extremely well. They have so many koalas I felt slightly overwhelmed (there's the kindergarten, the bachelor bad, the retirement home, several nursing mother enclosures, etc). They also have a large open area with a mob of grey kangaroos and assorted wallabies where you can walk up to and pat them as they feel inclined.

    There are also enclosures with smaller quantities of other species: crocodiles, emus, a cassowary, two very handsome dingoes, wombats, goannas, echidnas, and a large number of parrots. On top of that, there are a large number of brush turkeys and water dragons making themselves at home, wandering in and out of enclosures.

    I think my favourite bit was the raptor show: they had a kestrel, a barking owl, a barn owl, and a wedge-tailed eagle which have all been trained falconry-style and came in to do a few fly-overs in turn. The barking owl in particular is a cheeky bugger who clearly enjoyed making tourists jump by flying between them.

    They also have an island with a pair of injured wedge-tailed eagles - one had his wing shot off and the other probably got her wing injury from a car accident. The exciting news is that they are showing mating behaviour, so now the staff has to find time to build a nest for them. This sounds like a fairly large and heavy undertaking.

    It also turns out that two days of speaking Danish is not quite enough to get my brain completely messed up, but if it had been three, I think I'd been talking to James in Danish. I was certainly starting to use Danish grammatical constructions in English (arguing, logically, that the allowable English constructions just didn't convey the meaning I wanted). He was very patient with me.

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    Wedding program

    So here's the program for our wedding, modified to take into account what actually happened - in particular the Loewe was taken out of the printed program as we weren't sure we had an accompanist. Many thanks to all our variously talented friends.


    Prelude and Fugue BWV532 by J.S. Bach - Gregory Hartay-Szabo, Organist

    Arrival - Opening from Prelude in Eb, BWV552/1 by J.S. Bach - Gregory Hartay-Szabo, Organist

    Introduction

    O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini - D'Arne Sleeman, Soprano and Mark Leung, Piano

    En sourdine by Gabriel Faure - Simon Schmidt, Baritone and Gregory Hartay-Szabo, Piano

    Taking the Time by Rod McKuen - James McPherson

    When You Say Nothing At All - Mark McPherson, Voice and Guitar

    The Monitum

    When You Are Old and Grey by Tom Lehrer - Annette Fraser, Voice and Ukulele

    The Asking

    The Owl and the Pussy Cat by Edward Lear - Sebastian Tauchmann

    Unexpected Song from Song and Dance by Andrew Lloyd Webber - Sarah Keen, Soprano and Gregory Hartay-Szabo, Piano

    Odin's Meeresritt, Op.18 by Carl Loewe - Simon Schmidt, Baritone and Mark Leung, Piano

    Offertoire sur les grands jeux from Messe pour les couvents by Francois Couperin - Gregory Hartay-Szabo, Organist

    Vows

    Adagio from Concerto in D minor, Opus 9, No.2 for Oboe and Piano by Tomasso Albinoni - Kirsten Jakobsen, Oboe and Gregory Hartay-Szabo, Piano

    Excerpt from Captain Correllis Mandolin by Lois de Bernier - Martin Pool

    Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne in C, BuxWV137 by Dietrich Buxtehude - Darryn Jensen, Organist

    Pronunciation and Kiss

    Signing of the Register - Zur Trauung by Franz Liszt - Gregory Hartay-Szabo, Organist

    Un bel di, vedremo from Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini - D'Arne Sleeman, Soprano and Mark Leung, Piano

    Presentation

    Star Wars Main Theme by John Williams - Gregory Hartay-Szabo, Organist

    Finale, Movement No.5, Toccata from Symphony No.5 by Charles-Marie Widor - Gregory Hartay-Szabo, Organist


    The Monitum is the legal statement that has been changed recently so it explicitly mentions a man and a woman when it didn't previously. This is why we put the Tom Lehrer (sung by a woman) in right afterwards. I'm working on the assumption that the explicit statement is a sign of last-ditch panic by the old guard before we all just let people marry people, as they please.

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    Wedding

    One of the major reasons I've not been writing much recently is that I got married last weekend. Some additional reasons included that I started a new job a month ago, and I came down with some flu/cold-like illness a bit over two weeks ago. So there's been a lot to do, and not all that much energy to do it with.

    I think the wedding went okay. We were pushing our luck getting some things done, like me getting my dress finished and James getting the concert program finalised, but we got there. Kirsten, my sister (who is looking for a new place to live) managed to get my necklace finished, Annette-my-very-good-friend made our cake using decorating techniques I don't think she'd ever used before, and Annette-who-lives-next-door got all our flowers done with help from my parents.

    I don't think I've seen any wedding advice about how to deal with your parents being stressed-out and wanting to be useful the day before the wedding, but I can now say that sending them next door to help with the flower arranging works just fine. We had my brother and sister staying with us, so my parents and Danish godmother (who hadn't needed much persuading to time her next trip to Australia to coincide with this little affair) had found a serviced apartment to rent, which turned out to be almost as big as our house.

    I don't think I make a good bride in the commercial sense, as spending the morning having my hair and stuff done wasn't a specially enjoyable experience, and I think I was meant to feel pampered. So I think I was more stressed than ideal by the time we got to the Con.

    Fairly early in our wedding planning we'd run into a bit of a logistical problem: James wanted organ music (and I was fine with that) and I didn't want to get married in a church. Fortunately there is an organ in Brisbane not inside a church, namely inthe Basil Jones Orchestral Hall, and because James was a Con student at this stage of the planning, he was able to vangle a deal.

    So the structure of our wedding was basically a concert, interspersed with some legally-required wedding bits. The whole thing must have lasted about 80 minutes, and no-one has complained yet about it being too long. We did manage to fit in Buxtehude and Puccini through to Tom Lehrer and Edward Lear, so there was something for everyone.

    I have some favourite comments from guests. One, who was almost two, as she gave birth on Wednesday, reported that the baby really enjoyed "Un bel di, vedremo". Another thought that the Star Wars Main Theme was a whole new experience live, on an organ. We also got a lot of positive buzz about Odin's Meeresritt, by Loewe.

    We let the guests go amuse themselves while we had some photos taken, and then we joined them for the reception at a riverside restaurant, with nibbles while the sun went down. That would just about have been enough food but we'd organised a main and dessert as well. We had some minimal speeches, enough for a few toasts, and then we chopped the head off the amazing dragon draped across our wedding cake. Most people headed home shortly afterwards since they needed to get to work the next day. I'd managed to save up a whole day of leave in my new job, and I'm very grateful I was able to take it.

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    Gone

    The pigeon nest is empty this morning, no eggs, nothing but a few feathers. I'm guessing the eggs were stolen by a predator overnight, because I'm pretty sure there was an adult pigeon on the nest yesterday (so I didn't get to do an inspection).

    I made sure the fern got a good watering, as it is starting to suffer a bit - I feel odd about watering it when it is full of pigeon. I suppose other pigeon nests have to deal with rain, but that's much gentler than a watering can pouring it straight down in a few seconds every few days. I may have to get a spray mister, if the pigeons come back.

    I'm hearing a lot more flying foxes at night now, and I even saw one in the pepparina the other night. It was very strange to watch, as I wasn't sure what it was at first - a possum upside down? But then I saw the long claws, hanging in a very unpossum-like way. I can report that small flying foxes can climb very quickly and agilely around a tree. It had a wingspan of maybe 50cm, when it flew off. What I consider a large flying fox would have a wingspan of a meter or more.

    The jacaranda outside Maths has a few high flowers now. It amuses me that us academics, with offices looking down on the tree, get advance notice relative to the students (the jacaranda flowering is a traditional "time to start studying for final exams" symbol here).

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    Birds and bees

    Our pigeon nest is still there; in fact there are two relatively large chicks in the nest, and they were being fed nearly all yesterday. James managed to get some photos, and they are cute-ugly: grey dinosaur skin, yellow down like they'd rolled in straw, and feathers that are still long black spines.

    They seem to have attracted the attention of the local magpies, because a magpie landed on the railing twice this morning. Of course, the cats were very excited by this - Zeki made a sort of bleating noise I haven't heard from him before. The magpie was sitting in a nearby tree looking very offended at his reception committee.

    It seems odd that the pigeons may be in less danger with cats on the balcony to chase off magpies. It's a real three-way battle. Unfortunately, the magpies may win as the cats aren't out on the balcony when we're at work.

    All the signs of spring are here now: the pepperina tree is about to start flowering, and we already had a flock of rainbow lorikeets fly in to check it out this morning. The liquidamber tree has just a few very small leaves and flowerbuds coming out. This is the tree we can hear the humming from inside the house when all the bees come for the flowers. So that looks like it will happen within the next few weeks.

    Also, I made a bowl of fruit salad: pink grapefruit, navel oranges, strawberries and ginger. It is good.

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    Early Autumn

    So I feel like I've barely had time to breathe the last few weeks. I've now survived one week of semester, didn't make too many mistakes in my lectures or tute, and I think I'm on track to survive next week at least.

    The thing that scares me most is Tuesday, when I have to give two lectures right after each other. I've never had to do that before. I hope my voice holds up. And I expect to spend the rest of Tuesday in an exhausted heap. I never realised that lecturing was a branch of the performing arts until I started doing it.

    In the meantime, we've had quite a bit of rain and overcast and it's become positively cold for the time of year. It's been strange, because I clearly have an expectation that the first week of first semester is extremely hot. But it sounds like the heat might be back next week.

    I don't think I've had much life outside work, except that I'm doing pretty well with my exercise resolution; I've managed a riverwalk or equivalent distance every day for about two weeks now except last Sunday. That's particularly embarrassing since Sundays were traditionally my "go twice as far" days. See how I go tomorrow.

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    Knock, knock.

    So, I have this blog, and I used to post regularly, and I haven't recently. Remember me? Well, I do still exist.

    Work's been really busy and I expect I'll be busy a while yet, and then maybe everything will settle down.

    The pussycats are still gorgeous. The relationship between Zeki and Nemrut is laden with homoerotic subtext. They cuddle up together in the most ridiculous poses. When I laugh at them, Nemrut looks at me with this eyes-half-closed languid look, and Zeki has this strangely intense conflicted look. It's far too easy to construct stories about how Zeki is still coming to terms with his feelings, while Nemrut is completely out of the closet.

    When we first got Amber, we had some toilet issues. She doesn't want to pee in the kittylitter. I assumed it was because of the smell of Zeki's urine (it smelt very strong when he first moved in, then abated, then became strong-smelling again when the other two moved in, and I'd say it has now mostly abated again). We tried various cleaning things to deal with that, but it didn't work. For a while, she'd pee in the bathtub next to the kittylitter, and given we don't actually use the bathtub, that worked reasonably well, as long as we remembered to rinse it out.

    Then for some reason that stopped being an acceptable place. We went through a rather painful phase where she'd go on the floor in the bathroom or toilet, or occasionally on the tiles in the entry way, or on any clothes left on the floor (we don't do that anymore). We now seem to have come up with an acceptable solution - a plastic tray lined with paper towel, which needs regular replacing.

    It's possibly worth mentioning that we never actually saw Amber pee anywhere; she seemed very uncomfortable about the whole thing. I think it's a sign we have the right solution that she's actually prepared to pee in her tray in front of me. And I can now see what the actual problem is, which is that she sits down to pee. I assumed all cats squatted, but she sits, and I can't imagine kittylitter (or cold bathroom floor for that matter) is very nice to sit on.

    When I got home from work the other day, the paper towel in the tray was soggy, and she'd pulled the (nearly empty) paper towel roll down on the floor and peed on it, as well. Now we just need to train her to replace the paper in the tray herself...

    I've been meaning to review a few things, but I'll make a separate post for that.

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    We're back

    So, we managed to avoid being shot at by Muslim separatists in southern Thailand (we didn't see the remotest sign of them), or inundated by Japanese tsunami. Our cats seem to have missed us, and not torn up the house too much in the meantime.

    Quick impressions: I didn't care for Bangkok, I felt too much like a piece of tourist meat, whereas it's great fun being shown around a not very touristy region (Songkla province, very far south) by enthusiastic locals. It was, not surprisingly, hot and humid. I'd say all the food was excellent, generally for bargain prices.

    Just about the only other caucasians we saw in the week down there were at our hotel. James in particular attracted a lot of attention with his ginger beard and pink skin (and fondness for hot southern food). It was particularly amusing when schoolkids hanging off tuk-tuks would stare at us (in our car) and when James wanted to photograph them, they'd suddenly get all shy.

    Fang (my student and our host) had organised a jam-packed program for us which overall went very well, until about our last day, when James slipped trying to climb the path to the Tone Nga Chang (Elephant tusk waterfall) and tore off a significant chunk of toenail. However, given we got through the hospital emergency section in just over an hour, and the medical bill (for doctor's examination, cleaning of wound by surgical nurse, antibiotics, antiinflamatories and painkillers) came to under $8 Australian, it just became part of the whole experience.

    Unfortunately, Thailand had its revenge on James just as we arrived in Japan, and he was sick for about three days. Given his toe, I'm not sure he'd have been able to walk around much anyway. So we had some very quiet days in Scott (James' friend working in Japan)'s apartment near Sendai.

    He was well enough again that we could return to the plan - to travel to Tokyo for the long weekend, during which we did a pile of shopping, visited the Ghibli Museum and the fish markets, and so forth. I still can't work out how Tokyo manages to feel simultaneously so very Japanese and like a northern European city at the same time.

    I plan to post in more detail over the next few days, but for now, I could use some sleep.

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    Change of season

    I was going to mention that spring had arrived, but that was about a fortnight ago. As it got really quite hot last weekend, I was wondering if we'd just jumped straight to summer.

    It cooled down, but that's because it rained most of this week. We haven't had this much rain for months and months, possibly a year. I expect explosions of green over the next few weeks. Then, this morning, I was swooped, so there is no doubt that winter is well and truly over.

    I wasn't entirely sure if the first swoop really was a swoop, or just a magpie coincidentally flying low overhead. I got the impression the magpie wasn't sure either, because I got a second round, and that was an unambiguous, rustling-the-hair swoop. After that, I turned around and walked backwards, so I could continue staring at the magpie until I was out of its territory. It's the same stretch of Mt Ommaney Drive where I was swooped a few years ago, so it's probably the same magpie. I saw plenty of other magpies around, but none of the others looked remotely in the mood for swooping.

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    Titan!

    This is my current favourite "news" site. Space exploration is so cool now you can follow it as it happens, complete with links to technical discussions.

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    Wrapping paper

    Despite James and I agreeing that we weren't going to buy any more Christmas presents for each other beyond what we got on our recent holiday and various other recent shopping expeditions, I just got an email from James saying that we're now out of wrapping paper.

    I have a feeling this belongs in the notorious none of my business category of domestic announcements from James.

    I have now replied, asking if by saying we're out of wrapping paper he means: out of the obvious Xmas wrapping paper on the dining room table (from sending presents to my family on Monday); or out of that, plus the Xmas wrapping paper in the spare bedroom, plus the Xmas wrapping paper I last saw floating around the garage or possibly under the stairs, plus the non-Xmas wrapping paper in the dining room?

    'Cos if it's the latter, he must have bought me a motorbike or something in that size category.

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    Spring

    I declare it officially spring today: it's not so much that it's warm and sunny (it often is, during winter in Brisbane), as that there's also quite a breeze which is not making everything colder, but rather, carrying the scent of jasmine.

    I've already noticed in the last week that a lot of things are in bud or already flowering (the azaleas are almost over), and the jacarandas are turning yellow, seeing as the weather is so confusing here many deciduous trees only realise they're supposed to drop their leaves once it's time to gear up for the next lot.

    Our pigeons appear to be persisting with nesting on the balcony; I have no clue how to keep the actual fern alive in the meantime, maybe I'll need to mist it daily or something. They're working well as Nemrut-minding, he sits and watches them for hours, and fails to get into other kinds of trouble.

    There have also been spontaneous outbreaks of house airing and tidying today, so even we have been infected by spring.

    But right now, we're watching a production of Damnation of Faust which looks rather like Belioz in the Matrix. The Devil seems to have been modelled on Laurence Fishburne, only without the sunglasses. There are also copious references to mobile phones, and funky lighting effects, including one very cute bit during a chorus when there are two amplifier-style columns moving up and down, and it's not clear if CH-1 and CH-2 is a reference to channels or choruses.

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    Political irony

    I don't know if George Bush is really this hypocritical, or really this clueless, or if someone at the ABC has a fine-tuned sense of irony. Because this ABC news report, which was one of the first things I heard when I woke up this morning, set off my irony detectors in a major way.

    US President George W Bush says that he has told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that he has "concerns" about Russia's approach to democracy.
    After talks in Slovakia, both leaders have stressed their close ties and common ground.
    Mr Bush says they shared the goal that neither Iran nor North Korea should have nuclear weapons.
    But Mr Bush also says strong countries need to be democratic.
    "Democracies always reflect a country's culture and customs and I know that, but they have certain things in common," he said.
    "They have rule of law, and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition.
    "I was able to share my concerns about Russia's commitment in fulfilling these universal principles."
    Mr Putin, who did not mention democratic reforms in his opening statement, says he is "committed to the fundamental principles of democracy" but that Russians would chart their own course.
    "Any kind of turn toward totalitarianism for Russia would be impossible due to the conditions of Russian society," he said.
    But he says that the principles of democracy should be adequate to the current status of the development of Russia.
    He also hinted at Mr Bush's recent public scoldings on decisions that were widely seen as hurting Russian democracy.
    "If we talk about whether we have more or whether we have less democracy it is not the right thing to do," said the Russian president.
    Mr Putin also suggests that differences between Russia's approach to democracy and the US version are no more significant than differences between the United States and Europe.
    "The Netherlands is a monarchy, after all," he said.
    "It is certainly a democratic nation, but this is very different from the United States and Russia. There are great differences between Russia and the US as well."
    Hrm. This must be a later, longer, text version. What I heard at 6am, was shorter, didn't go into Putin's point of view, and also mentioned something like Bush's concerns over presidential influence on the media and courts in Russia. Now I really am wondering if an ABC employee up early had a bit of fun.

    Anyway, President Bush, if you're reading this: I also have "concerns" about you and your government's approach to democracy in the USA.

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    New houses

    It must be the right weather or something: both Sarahs bought houses this week. On Wednesday, movie Sarah and her partner Chris finalised a deal on a house in Kenmore, and this morning I found out Sarah and Michael and Aidan will be moving to Redbank Plains soon.

    Congratulations to everyone involved.

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    Renovate, renovate

    More stuff happening around here. The walls are getting finished/plastered downstairs, James is sanding back the stairwell so it can get a neat finish, some of the lights downstairs are down, painting of the ceiling and walls downstairs is getting closer and closer.

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    Last days in NZ

    Saturday morning, we headed back out to Lake Matheson for more photos. While we got to Reflection Island in good time, it was still somewhat overcast and raining in patches, so we didn't have the nice view of the mountains from Friday. James was determined to try anyway, so I left him at Reflection Island while I wandered around the lake, looking at the plants and general scenery, which fortunately looks just as good in the rain. It was my first good look at the giant flax plants the Maori use for basketwork (I have a book on how to do this, a library offcast for 50c). And a variety of ferns, including treeferns, and a number of plants I just don't recognise, as well as a lot of interesting moss and lichen.

    Very conveniently, given the whole "dawn photography" thing, there's a cafe next to the carpark, and the coffee there is good enough James wanted to go in again, and I decided to try their hot chocolate. I didn't think it was quite as good as in Auckland, but the presentation was very impressive, with chocolate swirls on the cream.

    Then we continued our drive north. I'm glad we'd decided to stay at Fox Glacier, as the 27Km drive to Franz Josef, the "adjacent" glacier, took over half an hour. I think it's the slowest, twistiest bit of road we were on, apart from the climb between Queenstown and Wanaka, which was over ice and at much higher altitude. Despite their proximity the glaciers sound rather different, coming from different parts of the mountains, and the Fox Glacier having more lengthwise crevasses, whereas they're crosswise at Franz Josef.

    There were more lakes to admire, more Paradise Shelducks (I don't know if it was mating season or we were just lucky, but we saw quite a lot of couples), plenty of Pukeko, and increasingly more farming land as we drove towards Hokitika.

    Hokitika is all about jade. That is of course why we parked in front of a fudge and icecream shop and began the afternoon's shopping with food. Actually, Hokitika has a variety of jewelry from a variety of materials: paua and pink mussel shell, bone, pearl, and a stone I wasn't previously aware of which was called rubystone by at least one shop. It's found as inclusions in jade, but has both green and red-pink-purple regions. I was turned off by it a bit as it seems the jewelry was only thin slices of the stone, sandwiched between slices of crystal, and then polished to shape.

    But we looked at a lot of jade. And found it really hard to make decisions. And when it began raining (I thought fairly heavily, but the shopkeepers assured us it wasn't really raining yet) it made everything messier. We eventually figured out that while one could buy fairly cheap jade, it was worth spending significantly more for a larger, individually designed and carved piece. So James now has a rather large fishhook-style piece of "flower jade" - that is, with white inclusions. Despite the fact that I think jade is very pretty to look at, I don't feel it works with my skin, so I got a necklace with what are probably black pearls (they look purple to me) and one of those cheap, relatively unfinished slices of jade that looks pretty hanging in a window.

    The woman who sold us the jade told James something about washing it before leaving NZ. Since the jade was from the Arahura river, which runs into the sea a few K north of Hokitika, James thought that was the most suitable river to wash it in. Unfortunately, it's not a river that's particularly easy to get close to. We parked near the bridge and dodged a construction site, either repairing or widening the bridge, to get out to the actual water.

    The next stretch to Greymouth was the least scenic on our tour. I think this is more a measure of just how much scenic driving there is on the West Coast of the South Island, than a judgement of actual ugliness. It was just so ...ordinary... for a while. North of Greymouth, it gets interesting again, with the road winding between hills and the ocean. It was getting dark, so we couldn't see it all properly, but the western sky stayed light, among the clouds, for a surprisingly long time.

    It was certainly dark by the time we found our homestay in Punakaiki. Our hosts, Kevin and Peg, helped us get our luggage in and recommended the local pub for dinner. Of course, this did have to be the night of the first game between the Wallabies and the AllBlacks. The entire pub was watching the game on the big screen. We snuck in the back and tried to order the steak in an inconspicuous accent. Actually, I don't think we were in any danger, aside from the fact that NZ won convincingly. The entire pub cheered whenever NZ scored, but they didn't match any of the booing we could hear from the live crowd on the TV.

    The most fun of the homestay for me was the next morning, when a weka came wandering into the garage while we were taking our luggage out. It wasn't remotely shy, and for the first time ever, I could take good bird pictures with the wide-angle, rather than zooming in. Kevin explained that they have several regular visitors which is why the garage is kept closed as much as possible. He fed the weka a bit of bread, and it sprinted off - this established that we had just met "Flash Henry".

    We didn't really get to take full advantage of our homestay, but my careful planning and the whole reason for driving up to Punakaiki the night before, did pay off. It was high tide at 9am, and we even got the southwesterly, that leads to the most impressive displays at the blowholes at Punakaiki pancake rocks. I'm not sure what it's like visiting the rocks at other times - they are interesting, I guess, but the blowholes make them fun.

    Apparently they don't understand how these formations arose - well, there are clearly layers of limestone involved, but layers of limestone in other places don't erode into pancake-stack shapes. It occurs to me that they're the inverse of the Te Anau caves - there there were thicker layers of fast-eroding limestone with thinner layers of sandstone. The pancake rocks must somehow involve very thin layers of something that erodes faster than the main rock.

    While we were there, on instruction from Miche, we hugged a nikau palm each. Nikau palms are the southern-most naturally occurring kind of palm, and they have a pretty funky shape to go with that. We also saw another weka, running around the carpark.

    I also wanted to see a bit inland - there's a large national park with limestone caves and rainforest - but we only had a little time to go up a gorge. It was reassuring that the rocks in the gorge also have pancake-like striping, and it's not just one little bit of coastline. This was also the first time I met the local sandflies - I don't think I'd been bothered by insects at all up until then, but they don't just disappear for the winter. As with other biting insects, I was very popular with them and had been stung four-five times before James even noticed them. I'm happy it was winter and only my hands and face were exposed.

    We then had to head back to Greymouth, to drop off the hire car and catch the afternoon train to Christchurch. Sorting out the hire car return took longer than I expected, but we did make it on to the train before it left. Greymouth itself seemed like a very ordinary little town along some otherwise fabulous and remote coastline.

    The train is supposed to be one of the great train journeys, going over Arthur's Pass, and more or less straight across the middle of the South Island. It's certainly scenic and varied, from the western forests through the alpine regions and down to the Canterbury Plains. It does have a bit of a downside, as the major climb from the west to Arthur's Pass is inside a long tunnel. I was a bit nauseous from the diesel fumes, as well as not finding that part very scenic. But from there, the alpine valleys are pretty amazing, the windings and bridges (viaducts) and short tunnels. When we got down to the plain, there was some amazing sunset colour on the clouds behind us, and James disappeared for about an hour to take photographs.

    I can't tell you much about Christchurch; it was after dark when we arrived and we went straight to our airport hotel as we had an early flight home. It was very definitely a city in a way that reminded us we'd been far away from that for a week. Our hotel was next to the International Antarctic Centre, and I went for a little wander, puzzled about why Christchurch, and the airport in the particular, would feature this particular attraction (closed of course, it was Sunday evening). It turns out that it's actually an administrative and logistic base for Antarctic expeditions (the "International" encompasses USA and Italy along with NZ), and the attraction was added later.

    So that's about that for our travels in NZ.

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    Progress

    James and Michael are making really good progress on the new walls downstairs. Stuff is happening and it's really exciting.

    Yesterday I took part in the fun: James and I have painted part of the front balcony wall blue, at least the first coat. Eventually the entire front balcony wall will be painted, but for now, we're concentrating on the bit where the new airconditioning will sit.

    The soles of my feet still have blue spots on them. At least Zeki is staying well clear (I imagine the smell is warning enough), so we don't have a blue cat.

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    Downstairs is done

    We've been doing the downstairs renovations for so long, it feels weird to think that it's pretty much all done now. And it's not quite done, but if I don't start thinking of it as done, I'll not manage it when it is done.

    So, that means: the water-damaged bar furniture removed; the porous walls have been sealed; the plumbing and boxing-in of the upstairs plumbing has been fixed; the sink and counterunit in the bar has been replaced; the brick walls have been covered by actual nice walls; new lights all installed; a squillion powerpoints installed; a new projector screen installed; that weird-as empty box destroyed; all the painting done: ceilings, walls, feature wall, bar trim; the windows and windowsills done; the new carpet in; new furniture installed; and new blinds put in (they went in yesterday, and are lovely, and really finish the place off).

    Still to happen: we need a few extra bits of Ikea lego to finish our construction. This is not a bad thing at all, as we've been able to experiment a bit and we have something different (and better) than our first plan, and when we get the last bits, some of which we didn't even know about when we began, it'll be fabulousness itself. There's a few holes to patch (the blind installer must've been), and the sliding doors on the storage area in the small room need a bit of finishing. Also, we haven't solved the "where do all the glasses go?" problem yet.

    But really, these are all minor fiddly bits in comparison with what we have done. And it's so pretty, and my parents even think it's pretty. It's turned out in a nice minimalist-scandinavian-technogeek-with-a-chilli-red-wall style. And there's a blank wall we could - gasp - hang art on or something.

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    State of the Ingrid

    I've been busy and not in the mood to blog recently, so I thought, now that I don't feel quite so busy, I'd update.

    State of the Body: Not getting enough sleep, or exercise. Fortunately, the exercise is at the level where my body keeps reminding me I need more, not past that, when it stops caring, so I think it's manageable. There seems to be a half-flu that doesn't make you actually, objectively sick, but drags on for at least two flus time-wise, which I think I've had or am having. If I was getting enough sleep and exercise, my immune system would be laughing at it.

    State of the James: Insanely busy, juggling full-time work, full-time study, and with some kind of delusion that he can also keep doing some of the things he was doing before he had either job or study. He's also got some delightful Nemrut scratches that look like he was attempting to juggle with barbed wire.

    State of the House: downstairs is now officially finished. We do still need a few more bits of furniture, but see else-state as to why we can't seem to get to Ikea. Upstairs is progressively less chaotic, so having downstairs finished has made a difference.

    State of the Cats: pretty okay, overall. We had some crazy excitement over the balcony, which I attempted to write up, but it was becoming a chapter in a book, and I didn't have the energy to write it all, or figure out how to provide a coherent short summary. The new people across the road have a cat which is curious and hanging around on our property, and it's unsettling our lot a bit.

    State of the Social: Also pretty busy. My parents stayed with us for a couple of weeks in early July, and came again this weekend and are driving off towards Sydney tomorrow. The most entertaining aspect of the visit is without a doubt that James got not only my dad, but my mum, hooked on Sudoku. My mother is finally catching up with normal (for my family) behaviour, in retirement. This most recent weekend, we also attended Stephen Thorne's birthday lunch; and the previous weekend, we held a dinner party for Frank'n'Seb, Alys, Jeremy, and Matt. Annette unfortunately was sick.

    State of the Job: The teaching aspects hit a peak of commitments in July, and fortunately has settled down for now, although I've got two-three research students this semester, one of whom explicitly asked for quite a bit of guidance (and I think it would be a good idea to provide it, in general). The research aspect then took over, with me basically ceasing to pay attention to anything else by last week, in preparation for a talk yesterday. It went okay, and I can now relax a bit and think about planning the next stage.

    State of the Craft: physically, non-existent. Lots of pretty plans in my head, and guilt over UFOs (UnFinished Objects). Now the days are getting longer, it's going to be critical to get a shade for our magical new bedroom window. I see this as an excuse to make lots and lots of 70 * 70 cm works of textile art. Different degrees of light filtering, you see.

    I'm looking forward to: seeing James in his first part in an opera (he was part of the cast of thousands in a production of Aida once, so technically it's not his first opera); catching up with some friends who I think I've neglected; turning my messy mass of data into coherent science; spring flowers and early morning sunshine I can run in.

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    Question

    Does anyone think wearing something like handicapped label, saying: "Being forced to walk at 3km/hr or less causes me mental and physical distress" when I'm in crowded shopping centres would help me any?

    I have nothing against other people sauntering slowly around the shops; I just wish they could do it so those of us whose natural walking speed is twice theirs could also get around at our preferred pace.

    The really sad thing is I wasn't even in said shopping centre to get any Christmas shopping done.

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    Zeki meets the Thing

    Sunday afternoon, we held a "meet Zeki, and check out our renovation mess" party for our Thing friends.

    Saturday night, I'd made pebbernoedder dough, and thankfully it was cool enough to bake them Sunday morning. Otherwise, we rushed around trying to do some cleaning, tidying, organising, food shopping and so forth before people started turning up. James wanted to make a third edition of the chocolate and orange gateau, but didn't have time beforehand and so spent a fair amount of the afternoon baking.

    Yes, we'd come home from a holiday Saturday afternoon, yes, we are insane, what's your point?

    Fortunately, Zeki provided plenty of entertainment, particularly for Alys, who seems rather happy not to have to look after him anymore (Berenice is Alys' mother). Zeki did get rather shy as more people arrived, and he isn't quite ready yet to lie around casually when there are eight people in the room.

    We also listened to the silly Tolkien CD Hugh had brought, and played Annette's very silly "Trivial Pursuit crossed with Charades crossed with Boggle crossed with Pictionary and some playdough thrown in for good measure" Cranium game.

    I'm not quite sure it's possible to describe the experience of trying to convey "false teeth" to my teammate, Matt, using playdough, with a time limit. The "hum or whistle this tune"-type cards proved us lacking in musical talent, or whatever it is that's required to do that, since James didn't seem to do any better than anyone else. And the cards that required all teams to compete simultaneously (and you were allowed to use clues from other teams) caused general chaos almost every time. I do have to say that the factual question cards need to be made harder for a Thing crowd - "There are eight bits in a byte - true or false" is not going to keep any of us occupied for more than a fraction of a second.

    James' cake got very positive feedback, and all in all I certainly had fun, I hope our visitors did too.

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    Busy weekend

    Lots of things happened on the renovation front: downstairs was tidied and prepared for the new walls, which Michael (the carpenter who was formerly a bioinformatician) will be installing over the next few weeks; the air conditioning units have been moved around and some are more or less ready for installation, and James and Shane (our next-door neighbour who is a plumber) got the basic plumbing for the new sink set up.

    All in all, it looks like lots of stuff will change in the next few weeks.

    We also went to a BBQ at Frank'n'Seb's. I especially enjoyed the roast potato salad, and playing with the German candy. And there was chocolate fondue for dessert, and some very cute embarrassed squirming by James when he discovered that a) the forfeit for dropping something into the fondue was kissing the person on your left (this wasn't a problem at first, as I was on his left); b) Mark was on his right; c) Marshmallows are particularly prone to dropping, and Mark likes marshmallows...

    On Sunday afternoon, Sarah and Michael and Aidan came for a visit. Aidan still spends a lot of his time asleep, but he's now become quite enthusiastic about that whole breastfeeding thing. Sarah and Michael show the signs of sleep deprivation over several weeks now. It'll be good if the weather could cool down a bit, because doubtless Aidan would sleep more during the night.

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    Cute new trick

    I got an email from the Maths departmental photocopier today. Admittedly, that's because I sent it to myself. Basically, this snazzy new photocopier lets you, rather than photocopying the document, scan it in and send it to yourself (or a whole bunch of people, if you have the patience to type all the addresses on the touch-sensitive screen) as an email attachment.

    The thing that amused me the most about it all, however, is the thought of sending a reply to the photocopier: "No, this quality isn't good enough! I want a nicer copy." Or even a thank-you email. I'm guessing the photocopier won't know how to deal with that.

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    Painting bee

    We had a big (for us) painting bee yesterday. We didn't get as much done as we'd hoped for, but things are in much better state, I feel.

    We got the sealer/undercoat on everywhere that needed it - large and small downstairs walls, assorted ceiling patches, and in the stairwell. We got on both coats of the chilli red feature wall downstairs, and most of the first ceiling coat.

    I'm not sure whether the ceiling will actually need two coats, but many of the edges and corners may need three, as there's new trim and we'll need several layers to hide the wood colour.

    Still to be done: finish the ceiling (which needs to happen in the next few days, as the masking tape starts leaving marks after that), paint walls and stairwell.

    It feels odd to both feel like a lot of progress has been made, and at the same time, we still need to do most of the painting painting.

    Stuff I learnt: painting time is not just about the time it takes to get the stuff onto the walls. Vacuuming, protecting fixtures, applying undercoat, arguing over who's doing the cutting in, and whether better tools would make it easier, applying masking tape between ceiling and walls, cleaning brushes and rollers, and making sure the painting staff is properly fed and hydrated: all take time.

    Stuff we did right: realised that even though we didn't get everything done, with a bit of work today we have a natural stopping-place for as long as we need, invited friends to help, did it on a Saturday, had fun, served James' cafe level coffee, cleaned up and went for dinner afterwards.

    Many thanks to Steve, Elsie, and Ian for their work. Also thanks to Michael, Sarah and Aidan for dropping by and being enthusiastic about progress. I didn't get to talk to them much as I soon found myself responsible for ceiling edges and fiddly bits, but they seemed to improve the mood upstairs enormously.

    I hope Annette gets better soon, and not just because we could have used her help. Special Art Prize to Elsie for being responsible for (and persistent enough to finish) the brushwork on the topcoat of the texture paint. Special Mention to Zeki for being Zeki, and not freaking out too much at all the visitors. In fact, he was getting rather cosy with Elsie and Steve by the end of evening.

    I'm beginning to understand why Oscars speeches tend to run so long.

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    Friends for dinner

    Sarah and Michael and Aidan came around for dinner last night, primarily because Sarah needed some adult company and conversation for a while. But it's always nice to catch up with friends anyway.

    James toured Sarah around the renovations downstairs, and we made sausages and mash with grilled capsicum, and coleslaw.

    Aidan was generally content, but took a bit of a while to fall asleep. Once he was asleep, he stayed that way - he didn't even wake when Michael took him down to the car to head home.

    Zeki was a bit cautious around the visitors, except for one point when Sarah was holding Aidan, and Zeki stretched up, clawing her skirt, so he could investigate this thing she was holding. Sarah jumped; Zeki jumped, and he stayed out of the way for the next half hour or so.

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    Shave for a cure

    Michael took part in the shave for a cure. In exchange for sponsoring him, we got hold of the photographic evidence!

    The Before Picture
    Aidan now has more hair than dad
    Identical twin amusement - what really amuses me is that Ian and Michael apparently cross their arms opposite.

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    Empty Nest

    We didn't get any more photos of cute pigeon nestlings (and they certain were cute the last few days) because Saturday morning was apparently first flight time. Unfortunately, the cats were on the balcony and we were otherwise occupied, so the first we knew about it was an empty nest, a few patches of blood, and a dead nestling. We have no idea if the other one survived its first flight.

    James seems to have been rather distressed about this and blames me for letting the cats out. I think I was out of touch with how rapidly baby birds grow - humans and plants seem to be much slower. I seem to be much more "cycle of nature" about it, and the parents don't seem remotely put out, as they are still hanging out in the tree next to the balcony, and I fully expect them to lay another batch of eggs.

    Otherwise, spring is zooming along. The pepperina, as predicted, is now full of bickering lorikeets and miners, more today than yesterday, and given not all the buds have opened yet, I expect the racket to get louder still. Also, I don't know if it's warm enough yet, but in past years we've had the racket extend into the night as flying foxes seem to like pepperina nectar as much as the parrots do.

    Also on Friday morning I thought it was worth inspecting the early-flowering Jacaranda on campus, and indeed, it has three clusters of just-opening flowers already. Usually the Jacarandas really get going in October. Also, the few freesias that survived Zeki sitting in their pot are now flowering and perfuming nicely. Once they've died off, I think I'll plant the bulbs in the garden and find something more cat-compatible for the balcony.

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    Saturday socialising

    I spent all of Saturday socialising, to the point where I spent most of Sunday trying to do some Saturday things, and so I'm writing about Saturday now.

    My parents arrived in Brisbane on Friday, as part of their annual winter escape from Canberra, which seems to alternate between a route that includes Brisbane, and Denmark. In fact, I got what amounts to a souvenir from my parents' trip to Denmark last year: I'd asked them to look for interesting knitting books, and mentioned that I was particularly keen on Elsebeth Lavold's book. It wasn't available, but apparently my uncle has put some consistent pressure on since, and I now have a copy in the original Swedish.

    James has an audition on Wednesday, so he'd arranged with Ming to rehearse his material Saturday morning. My parents and I went for a walk nearby in the meantime, and I now know where the Queensland Cricket Board has its headquarters (including a nice cricket oval), and that there's a Turkish restaurant on Lever St (rather a good one, according to Ming and D'arne). I also managed to get a headache from all the sunshine after the downpour last week.

    I think the rehearsal was partly an excuse for Yum Cha, but I'm not complaining. There were the six of us, Sarah (of the Scooter) - she and D'arne both sing in the Opera Chorus, and Michael and Elizabeth, who were some other friends of Ming and D'arne's.

    We had a pretty good time, and spent about three hours at Yum Cha - the staff didn't seem impatient with us at all, despite the fact that I counted at least four groups using the table next to ours in the time we were there. I think my personal highlights were the salt-and-pepper cephalopod, the dim-sum-like things with the green stuff and ginger in them, and the coconut jelly.

    In the meantime, Ming was squeezing my mum for information: one of the songs his choral group is practicing at the moment is in Danish. He ended up taping her reading out the words for him.

    We went home for a few hours, and moved some books downstairs. We needed to burn a few calories before the next social event, and now downstairs is pretty much finished. We seem to have over 15 shelf-meters of books, if anyone's counting.

    The evening was the by-now traditional Frank-n-Seb Yule. Frank was bubblier the whole evening than I've seen her at her place, because she has a new kitchen, to her specifications, including the largest oven/range I've ever seen in an ordinary house, certainly bigger than I imagined one could fit in such a tiny kitchen.

    There was yummy roast beast, vegies, and so many desserts and types of cookies I almost regret having normal food first. The random-present-under-$10 has been replaced by get-a-present-for-specific-person-under-$10, which seems to work better. I had knitted a black fuzzy scarf with purple stripes for Alys, and it seemed to go down well. I got an aqua-ish summer scarf in a neat box, and James got these curious martini glasses that come with their own ice bowl.

    However, I scored a much bigger present. Annette has been helping Alys clean up the house she inherited from her mother (where we got our cats from), and they'd found some knitting books and a small mountain of knitting needles. I'm not sure I'll need all the needles, but I think I can find good homes for them.

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    Parting thoughts on NZ

    Some stuff I noticed while I was in NZ didn't seem to fit in the blow-by-blow tour guide I've written so far.

    Overall, I really liked NZ. I think there's quite a bit of cultural overlap with Australia, but there are also significant differences. I think NZ deals with racial and cultural variation better than Oz does on the whole. I really like the fact that in much advertising, the "generic NZer" has dark hair and eyes; far too much Oz advertising still features blue-eyed blondes.

    I admire little geek-friendly touches like the fact that their car numberplates use Ø for zero. I'm still not clear whether NZers in general really are crazy adrenalin junkies, or if that's just a specialist interest that has been exploited for tourists, like crocodile-wrestling here.

    We seem to have entirely bypassed the whole "Lord of the Rings" thing while we were there and I don't remotely regret it. In terms of my cultural background, Middle-earth is a fantastic version of Europe, where I grew up. And I thought what Peter Jackson presented in the movie looked a lot like I'd imagined. NZ itself is different, more exotic from my perspective. I enjoyed visiting the real NZ better than I would have locations from the movies.

    I'm really glad we picked mainly the west coast of the South Island to visit with our limited time. We spent very little time driving anywhere that wasn't scenic. I'm used to having to drive around a lot of ordinary stuff to get to the spectacular bits. In Australia, to get all-scenery-all-the-time, you generally have to head outback, which is a completely different kind of scenery, and a very different kind of remoteness.

    That's not to say I don't want to see other parts of NZ, but I do expect the experience will be rather different. It'll probably also be more about people and culture, rather than mainly nature. I'd like to learn more about Maori culture but I didn't feel comfortable with the pitch of the tourist-aimed events we saw advertised. There was one slim booklet on Maori crafts and the symbols used that I pointed out to James as "I'd like something like this, at least three times the size". The fact that we didn't spend any time in large city bookstores was probably a downside of our trip in this respect.

    And a sure-fire sign I felt comfortable in NZ: by the end of the week, I was beginning to suspect I was picking up a local accent. That took many months when I was in the US, and only really got going once I made local friends. I also like Maori words, and the fact that everyone is so comfortable using so many of them (again by comparison to Oz). I'm still not clear on how to actually pronounce most of them correctly, but that obviously doesn't bother most NZers. Takahe might be my favourite birds but I don't even know which syllable takes the stress.

    I'm not intending to emigrate, but it's really nice knowing the place is there, and so relatively close.

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    Brisbane Pride

    If you remember, I joined the UQ Ally program last year, and it was decided that we should walk in the Brisbane Pride march (in the vicinity of the local PFLAG, since we're a similar organisation). I thought that might be worth a try, so I turned up in King George Square at 10:30 this morning.

    It turns out not many other UQ Allies felt the same way, so I found myself carrying the banner with the one other person who hadn't actually organised the exercise. I didn't feel I was needed to boost the numbers of visible glbti in the march, but I certainly felt needed as a heterosexual willing to briefly stand on the other side of the "normal" line.

    There were a few "you're all going to burn in hell" placard wavers in King George Square (on the opposite side of four burly police officers), but everyone else along the march was either neutral or positive. I'd like to single out the construction workers along Albert Street who cheered and honked the horn of their little truck.

    The march went from King George Square (obviously), across the bridge to Southbank, and then along to Musgrave Park, where the all-day Pride Fair was already under way. We passed by the Queensland Perfoming Arts Complex, where they're having the "Out of the Box" arts festival for 3-8 year olds and made jokes about corrupting the kids; and in front of the exit of the Busway - I was near the end of the parade, and there were about eight busses waiting in the tunnel by then; and for the first time, I actually went past the weird phallic towerthing that is such a feature of the south Brisbane skyline. Unfortunately, it's on a pretty minor street - clearly whoever authorises this march doesn't want the queers causing too much disturbance.

    Once our banner had been rolled up, I checked out the fair. It appears that beyond food and drink, rainbow paraphernalia, and health and support services, the most important thing about being queer is pets. At least, that is if I am to judge the relative number of stalls devoted to pet-related things, not to mention the number of dogs (wearing rainbow collars, natch) at the fair.

    I got some goodie bags, entered some competitions, signed the odd petition, and got a surprising amount of gratitude from the marriage equality stall for the fact that I was planning to marry an opposite-sex partner and nevertheless think it is grossly unfair that I wouldn't have that choice if my partner was same-sex. I by-passed the standard 'fair fare' and had the noodle salad from "Bitchin Kitchen". I also bought a rainbow cat sticker for Zeki and Nemrut.

    By this stage it was 1:30 and I was starting to feel a bit sunstruck, so I decided to head home. Of course my bus was leaving just as I got to the cultural centre, so I popped into the Gallery and managed to vote in the "people's choice" for Design Excellence. Rather than agonise among a lot of interesting stuff, I went straight for the man's formal shirt by Dean Brough where the collar somehow, smoothly, becomes cross-over straps that buttons together at the back waist. So clever!

    I eventually got home, and while Zeki and Nemrut don't seem to appreciate the sticker as much as James does, they are now asleep together on top of the goodie bags, which is about as much Pride as I'd expect from them.

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    Daytrip to Te Anau

    Because I'd been getting a bit stressed and fretty, James encouraged me to go for a run early Wednesday. I was a bit iffy, because I haven't run in near-freezing temperatures and didn't really have the clothes for it. But I set off to the Queenstown botanic gardens. I quickly discovered that if I'm running when it's still dark, I need street lighting and level surfaces. The lovely lighting around the peninsula the gardens are on ran out, just past the tip, and I was getting dim glimpses of iced-over puddles I did not want to land in. On the positive side, it was dark enough that I got to see far more stars than any other time I was in NZ.

    Once it was daylight, we picked up our hire car and drove off to Te Anau. This was quite interesting in its own right - first we drove on the road right between lake Waimaru and the Remarkables range, then we got down to the flatter middle part of southern NZ, which was covered in freezing fog. I can't tell you anything about views in this part of NZ, but I can tell you about every tree and bush being outlined in ice and frost. We were also doing sheep, cow, and deer spotting. Despite NZ's reputation, I think the total cow and deer count for our trip well exceeded the sheep, even if the sheep did win the individual placing.

    We emerged from the fog, but the landscape continued to be somewhat more level than I was expecting all the way to Te Anau. It might be the gateway to fjordland, but it's a small quiet town in its own right. The mountains only really start on the far side of the lake.

    We first visited the wildlife centre, which being NZ meant all birds. I discovered there are enough weird NZ birds with (to me) weird names that I'm having a bit of trouble keeping track, so I contented myself with the general flavour and maybe learning a few by the end of the trip. The giant pigeons were certainly memorable - if you think of your average pigeon maybe serving one person, one of these could probably feed four-six people. It's amazing they can fly.

    Down at the back, relative to how we came in, we got to the Takahe enclosure. They are just fabulous birds, and have now been officially declared my favourite flightless bird, to go with my favourite cartilaginous fish. It's not so much that they look cute: chicken-sized, practically spherical, blue with greenish wings, and red beak and legs. It's the way they move around, or at least the ones at Te Anau did. Their legs are, well, solid, if not actually short and stubby, and they walk around with a goosestepping stompy action, sometimes flapping their pathetic wings a bit, like they totally own the place.

    I think it's because I'm used to thinking of birds as graceful and aerodynamic and ready to fly off at the slightest provocation, and takahe are rather the antithesis of that, that they appeal so much. I'm finding that I'm now imagining how dinosaurs moved based on the takahe. We were later told that takahe feed on alpine tussock grass, which is not specially nutritious, so there wasn't much competition before people brought other species to NZ. So the way they walk makes sense, in terms of getting around snow and grass tussocks, and also, they do in fact totally own the place.

    We also whipped around to see the control gates for Lake Te Anau (this is apparently the first place in the world where a hydroelectric plant has been set up which is only allowed to operate within strictly-defined limits of the natural lake levels) and the start of the Kepler track. I'd not have minded some more time here, but since the actual Kepler track is one of those 3-4 day great walks, I'll have to plan that for a warmer time of year, plus getting some experience of overnighting walks.

    Then it was time for our booked excursion at Te Anau: the glowworm caves. (Hint if you're driving to Te Anau at busier times of year: there's not a lot of suitable parking close to the tour start - we decided that since the 1hour parking was 1/3 full (and mainly with other glowworm tourers as far as I can tell) that it was a fair risk.) The tour starts with a 20-min sail across Lake Te Anau, which was a great way to see more of the scenery.

    The glowworm caves can't be accessed other than by boat, and are at the tip of the very Murchinson ranges which is now a restricted-access conservation zone for takahe. Down by the lake, it's rainforest of the moss-covered-everything variety. Other people don't seem to get all that much out of different ecologies, but I'm continuously amazed by how different just rainforests can be.

    To get to the glowworms, you walk through the outer caves, which are pretty spectacular themselves - the limestone is layered with a harder, darker sandstone, so you get all kinds of stripe effects and colour changes as you look at a wall from the side or above. There's also a lot of water rushing through in a great hurry. The caves are too young to have actual limestone formations - our guide showed us two soda straws, about 1cm each.

    They sneakily reduce the lighting as you walk into the cave, so that by the time you get to the boats and the lights are turned off, you can see glowworms immediately. You then sit silently in the boat (apparently these glowworms don't like strange noise) while the guide follows a wall-mounted rope and takes you around the cave. They're pretty amazing - a bit like stars up close - but I'm glad they were only part of the whole excursion, as I thought the outer caves and rainforest were great too, and a nice sampler of the place.

    We saw a few mountains on the way back I hadn't noticed on the way out, but the fog probably had something to do with that. Our last night in Queenstown, due to a hotel voucher, was at the rather-more-upmarket than I'm used to, Sofitel. It was kind of fun to stay in a room with an espresso machine (the sealed-pack system so it wouldn't take someone with James' expertise to operate) and a TV over the bath (there were world cup matches and state of origin while we were there) and a heated bathroom floor. But the lifestyle didn't tempt because it felt too impractical. Most especially for the poor people who had to clean the bathroom (which I guess most people don't care about in a hotel), but just generally, I've concluded that if I'm to have luxe, I want it tempered with common sense.

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    Queenstown

    So, last Monday, we found ourselves at Auckland airport trying to get to Queenstown. Our immediate impression was that the airport was really badly designed, but this could just have been because a lot of flights had been cancelled due to fog, and there were large numbers of people hanging around to find out if they could get on another flight, or if any flights were going anywhere. They were only checking in one flight when we arrived, and they opened three more about half an hour later, one of which was ours, lucky us.

    So we went from crammed and disorganised around the check-in area to crammed and disorganised at the departure gate. I did notice there was no actual plane near the departure gate and I was wondering how the approaching, much-delayed boarding time could possibly be right, when we were told to all go to a different boarding gate, about as distant from the one we were at as possible.

    At least there was a plane, and we got to Queenstown. Queenstown is a very strange place. It's very touristy and commercialised, which I usually find really annoying, but Queenstown is so extreme, it tipped over for me and became a new, quite charming thing. My idea is that Queenstown is not actually in New Zealand. Instead, it is part of the World-Wide Tourist Theme Park, which also claims parts of the Great Barrier Reef, Oahu, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, etc - basically anywhere the tourists don't just outnumber the locals, but you can't actually find the locals. This is confirmed by the fact that nearly everyone we interacted with in Queenstown itself was from somewhere else. We wanted a Queenstown bingo card so we could cross off the Irish, Dutch, French, Germans, Canadians, Brazilians and Argentinians who were serving us dinner or selling stuff.

    The Queenstown part of the World-Wide Tourist Theme Park is where you find a large selection of really big, scary rides. James is quite into that kind of thing, me not so much. In fact I've got this theory that what people are into is not actually the adrenalin rush, but the following endorphin rush, and I think I don't get endorphins that way. By the end of the afternoon, we had a fair idea of what I was willing to do and what James would have to do alone, and also hot chocolate and icecream from Patagonia Chocolates. Now, they are good at chocolate, but the brandysnap icecream was even better, and is possibly not legal to sell to under-18s.

    We woke up to a picturesque dusting of snow on all the hills and mountains that create such a stunning setting for Queenstown, and headed off for our combo-pack. Unfortunately, due to the weather, our combo wasn't happening, and it took a pretty amazing amount of time for the (Irish) girl behind the desk to explain this to us and help us sort out alternative arrangements.

    Eventually we were on the bus to the Shotover Jet. Jetboating is essentially a horizontal rollercoaster, including 360 degree spins. We'd picked the Shotover Jet because it's the one that does the prettiest part of the Shotover Gorge. The other jetboats go out on the lake and up wider gorges. I think it was fun, but I've decided that whizzing around at 80kph in near-freezing temperatures, and trying to admire the scenic beauty of the canyon at the same time, is just too much processor-switching for me, and I'll try to take them separately in future.

    I did notice that nearly everyone working for Shotover Jet were actual New Zealanders. I guess this is work that can't afford a high turn-over, or maybe we were just far enough from the WWTTP effect of Queenstown itself.

    We'd hoped to get back to Queenstown in time to go on the noon sailing of the Earnshaw, but failed. This is a paddlesteamer, which is shockingly sedate and old-fashioned by Queenstown standards. We went and relaxed a bit in the hotel room instead, and at least I needed the break, after trying to explain to James that really, me managing not to throw up all over the Shotover Jet was actually an achivement, even if it had been a bit tame for him.

    In the afternoon, we set off for James' big thrill - the Canyon Swing. This is not quite bungy jumping, but possibly better. Instead of jumping off a cliff with a stretchy rope tied around your ankles, you jump off a cliff with a non-stretchy rope attached to a full body harness, and the other end suspended midway above a gorge (or canyon I guess). This means that at a certain point, instead of falling down along the cliff, you start swinging across the gorge. The falling part is clearly pretty scary the first time - James made a noise which I guess was a scream. It certainly wasn't one I'd heard from him before or knew he could make. But he liked it so much he went another two times and by the third time, it was more giggling than screaming.

    Now I've seen it, I'm totally cool with it in principle and would like to try, if only there were intermediate sizes between your typical playground swing and the Canyon Swing itself. I tried taking photos of James from the observation platform, but he's this tiny red speck way off in the distance. James had the small camera that can do video strapped to his hand, and that seems to work better, apart from the windrush totally overwhelming the audio, and the apparent difficulty of showing how fast everything is going past.

    We finished the afternoon with the gondola (cablecar) that goes up to the lookout above Queenstown. It was getting really cold by then and we were snowed on while trying to photograph the surrounding mountains and lake. We had to give up as the light dropped, and I was worried James' fingers were going to follow suit.

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    To Fox Glacier

    On Thursday (this is still last week), we finally left Queenstown and drove more-or-less north. I decided we should try the shorter, higher and twistier, road to Wanaka because it sounded interesting. The first part of the road is very twisty and goes over 1000m - there was a lot of ice and slush on the road, and the landscape was small tussocks of grass poking out from the snow. There was a bit of a sense of passing through another world. The rest of the road was pretty straightforward, down a valley, with more mountain scenery on either side.

    We didn't visit Wanaka proper, but spent quite a lot of time, considering how much driving we still needed to do, at Puzzling World. I'm a sucker for places about puzzles and illusions, with walk-around-in mazes. But I think the very nicest thing about Puzzling World is that there's a large area with tables with various puzzles set out, that you can just sit and play with for free. And it is great to see people of all ages playing with the puzzles.

    Of the paid-for puzzling rooms, the best one was definitely the one that's at a 15-degree angle. It allows for great illusions like balls rolling uphill and people leaning over without falling over. It's quite unsettling to be inside - the longer I spent in there, the less sure I was about how anything would act if dropped. Also kudos to the people responsible for building the room in the first place - it must have driven normal builders nuts.

    The maze was apparently the world's first two-story maze. It has a main level with the usual maze walls (wooden) and then various wooden bridge sections that you need to use to actually get anywhere. The aim is to visit each of the four towers in each corner, and then find your way back out. The most dangerous part the day we were there is that it was still cold, and the stairs and bridges had some ice that had to be negotiated carefully.

    Then we continued our drive north towards Haast. This is just ridiculously scenic - first you drive along more huge alpine lakes with snowy mountain backdrops. Then you head up and over a much narrower, lusher valley. We stopped to look at several waterfalls, and play with all the water-washed pebbles (NZ rivers seem to mostly sit in much wider, pebbly beds).

    By the time we reached Haast, the mountains seemed surprisingly far behind. Everything was sandy and flat and the ocean was a real presence. The trees out on the west coast grow in interesting distorted shapes. We didn't have time to really stop, but had to continue north to Fox Glacier. The road weaves between the coast and more inland, and in most places the mountains are much closer than at Haast. The overall windiness of NZ roads means travelling times are significantly longer than for equivalent distances in Oz.

    Fox Glacier the town is small and cute. There's one (well-patronised) general store, the glacier guide shopfront and cafe, and a few other eateries and of course accomodation. On the back roads were some real houses, indicating that we were still pretty close to real NZ. Our motel, despite being by far the cheapest accommodation on our trip, was really nicely appointed, including being the only other place with heated bathroom floor. It also had sink, microwave, plates and cutlery in addition to the fridge.

    But our time in Fox Glacier was really all about Friday. Firstly, we wanted to see some of that famous Lake-Matheson-at-dawn action. Unfortunately, we didn't realise that the five-minute drive out there required a follow-up walk of over half an hour to get to the side of the lake where the mountains' reflection can be seen. James set up his camera near a paddock and should have some good photos of the mountains over foggy NZ landscape. In the meantime, I did a bit of scouting around. In retrospect, because the lake wasn't still when we got there and only settled later, we did actually have time to walk around to the photospots. The problem would have been getting back in time, because we had a full-day glacier hike to get to.

    We'd booked the all-day walk because our advice was that the half-day walk didn't really get you far enough onto the ice. It was quite a big ask of me, with my issues about heights and also not being fond of cold slippery stuff in general. I have to say I spent a lot of time on that glacier pretty stressed out, and probably not getting as much out of the scenery as other people on the trip, but I'm glad I did it and I am extremely happy with the attention and thoughtfulness of our guide, Graham (who seemed to go by Grayser within the company).

    I think I understand why other people don't find the glaciers a big deal - if you're not with a registered guide, you can only walk up to the terminus, and that's cordoned off because it's the most unsafe part (bits being prone to break off and fall at any time). The ice is dirty and covered in rocks. It's hard to see what the glacier is like further up, because of the angles.

    With a guide, instead of going through the rather rocky and bare river valley, you climb through the rainforest alongside the valley (another fascinating rainforest, because everything is on such a small scale - I'm not clear if that's because it just hasn't had time to grow, or if being next to such a large heat sink stunts the growth). You emerge, after a chain-assisted climb across a cliff face, well past the terminus of the glacier. The tour includes crampons and instructions on attaching them (in fact they will lend you almost everything - thermals, hats and gloves, bags and boots).

    Getting on to the glacier was definitely unsettling. There are chainsawed paths of steps for you to follow, and there is no way I'd have been on that glacier otherwise. But interestingly, by the time we came back down from the all-day walk to the part of the glacier covered on the half-day walks, that area seemed much tamer and not as exotic - there's a lot of rocks and gravel in places, and the ice topology is generally less extreme. So even I managed to adapt pretty well.

    The most fabulous thing about being on the glacier for me is how blue the ice is, and the wavy texture of the ice caused by suncups. (Our guide made sure we were quite the glacier terminology experts by the end of the day). Standing in a crevasse twice as tall as yourself, surrounded by frozen blueness is quite something. The other fascinating, although more stressful, aspect is the thing I called ice topology. Walking on a glacier is somewhat like walking in very mountainous terrain, except all the mountains are much, much smaller and also steeper. I got the same sense of "artistic essence of ..." that I do about Zen rock gardens' representation of ocean and islands. The fact that more or less everything was cold and blue was just a bonus.

    The walk itself went up the glacier, from relatively close to the terminus, to the lower parts of the lower icefall. (An icefall, for those who, like me, didn't know, is just like a waterfall, only slower and colder.) It's hard to convey, because it's a part of the glacier you can barely see from the bottom, and yet the glacier continues up at least twice as far (the icefall is an "elbow" in Fox Glacier) before the névé, or "snow lake" which is what is collecting all the snow that becomes the glacier. Anyway, we got up far enough to, as I mentioned, be able to see far more complicated, twisted ice shapes, and caves and tunnels. And the ice is bluer, and there are almost no rocks or gravel.

    Then it was time to get back down. I'd been really worried about this, because that's where I really slow down (I can climb up much steeper things than I can get down from easily). I got a lot of special attention from Graham, and had to ask how to negotiate my feet down particular crevasses (a common trick is footsteps on each side of the lower part of a crevasse, but since you're coming down the stairs on one side, there's a point of switching technique that I often found confusing). It also took a lot of effort to walk with the correct technique - feet shoulder-width apart and stomping, almost putting all your bodyweight into each step to make sure the crampons grip. I am wondering a bit if at least part of my balance issues is that my natural preference is to walk with my footprints in a single line.

    I don't think I mentioned that cloud had been pulling in all day and it rained lightly on our way down, but apart from putting up my hood, the rain didn't make much difference. Getting down wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared, but since we got back from the tour significantly later than the advertised time, I'm wondering how much that was me, and how much Graham's enthusiasm about getting us up as far as possible.

    By the time we got back to our motel, I think I just crashed. I wasn't even particularly hungry, so we ate some of the nibbles we'd taken all the way up with us, and fell asleep.

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    What we did on our holidays, part one

    James and I decided on the weekend that it'd be nice to have a bit of a holiday, my parents had given us some money for an engagement present, we had a hotel voucher that needed to be used before the end of the year, and looking through our upcoming commitments, discovered that our only longish free block was 1-4 Dec.

    So today was the first day of our "engagement" holiday, spent at Novotel Twin Waters on the Sunshine Coast.

    The day did not start auspisciously - I was woken up at 3am by a cat's foot, with claws, in my face. Zeki had been bothering James, with scratching and attempted bites apparently, and James tried to get Zeki off. So Zeki jumped off the bed, via my nose.

    I went to the toilet since I was awake anyway, and became aware of this odd wet sensation moving down my nose. Yep, Zeki had actually drawn blood. I now have a very fetching scratch on the bridge of my nose, part of which becomes quite painful once I've had glasses on for a few hours. But I'm extremely grateful Zeki didn't land on either of my eyes.

    The normal part of the day began as expected - breakfast, packing, tidying up, leaving housekey with Colin and Narelle to take care of Zeki, driving north.

    Because we couldn't check into our room until 2pm, and we were on schedule to arrive before 1pm, we decided to turn off the highway and have a bit of a look at the Glasshouse mountains.

    The first mountain you come to is Beerburrum, and there's a 700m walk to the summit, with signs warning that it's steep. But we were up for a 700m jaunt to the top of one of the shortest Glasshouses.

    The path is concrete the whole way, but smooth - no steps. There's a tower at the summit, the lower story is open to the public, and you can walk around and look at the surroundings. The upper story is possibly part fire tower, possibly some sort of communication - we could see various wires and electronics, but no power from the ground, so we're guessing battery powered, but I'd hate to be carrying batteries up that path.

    The walk was an interesting exercise in Ingrid and James Comparative Studies. The climb is steep uphill. I found it quite strenuous, but it was James who called for a halt first. As it turned out, about 20m before the first "official" rest bench. After we'd had the first rest, it felt like James kept needing rests when I was happy to keep going. On the other hand, downhill was steep enough to set off my Problem With Downhill, and I almost froze in several places, with James looking on in frustration. We decided that James could probably do the entire round trip significantly faster than I could, but if it was just a matter of first to the top, I beat him hollow.

    James did a few turns of the carpark (steep, gravel) playing with the low gear in the Subaru and getting a few controlled slides. Then we drove on, the Subaru looking like it was actually entitled to the "All Wheel Drive" claim with all the dust it now had. We went on to the main Glasshouse Mountain lookout, and tried to learn all the names. I was curious which other mountains were "tourist" accessible (I know some of them need rock climbing skills) but we couldn't find much information.

    Later, I discovered that the tourist information leaflets in our car, mainly relevant to driving to Canberra, included the exact information I was after about the Glasshouse Mountains - I assume my parents must have left it with us.

    But we'd passed enough time and headed on to Twin Waters, noting the local tourist attractions to miss on the way - Australia Zoo; an otherwise promising Go-Karting place which we watched at for a while before deciding that possibly even I would find the karts boringly slow once I'd done the circuit a few times. Since the point was to find something that James would enjoy, that seemed like a very expensive waste of time.

    Twin Waters is one of those "we have ways of making you have fun" resort places. Fairly standard nice hotel rooms, without the clock alarm of business hotels, with balconies, first and second story only, in manicured-within-an-inch-of-its-life grounds, around a lake.

    We spent the rest of the afternoon settling in and getting the lay of the land. There's a PGA golf tournament on at Coolum, a few minutes up the coast, so the Twin Waters resort seems to be the base for a junior golf tournament held in association.

    The main entry complex has some restaurants and bars, a "deli" (basically a supermarket that also sells snacks and coffee), the inevitable beach shop, tourist info, supervised child play areas, and it leads out onto the pool, and past the pool, the lake.

    There are catamarans, sailboards, and canoes available free for cruising around the lake, as well as very evenly-sized and spaced beaches around the lake, between the "lagoon suites". There are also some very tame pelicans wandering around on the main beach, and we saw them being fed.

    We walked around the lake, checking out the mangrove board walk down to the Maroochy River, and the new "resort style" townhouse/flats on the other side of the lake (the resort includes a sales office for all the local areas being turned into residential synthetic paradise), before heading out to the actual, washed by the Pacific, beach. The beach is very nice, high quality sand, but the water is still rather cold at this time of year.

    In the evening, before going to dinner, we had a very embarrassing phone call from Colin. He'd gone around to feed Zeki, and the keys we'd left didn't work. James had very carefully locked the house up, so none of James' standard tricks for breaking into our house worked. Eventually, Colin and Narelle figured that while they couldn't get in, they could get Zeki out - we have a cat door from when we had Vilya, which we've closed, but Colin could open it, and didn't have much trouble coaxing Zeki outside, and they drove him around to their place.

    So Zeki got an unexpected holiday into the bargain.

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    Egg

    We're back in the pigeon grand-parenting business again. There's one fabulously round little egg in the fern nest this morning.

    I'm assuming pigeons, like chickens, lay eggs over time, so I'm keeping an eye to see if more get laid. Mind you, after the last round, I think I'll be keeping an eye at least once a day anyway. They change so fast. You could charge me to watch, and I'd pay, except it's just not practical for anyone to charge me admission to my own house.

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    What we did on our holidays, part two

    Firstly, we slept in - we didn't emerge in quest of breakfast until after nine. Our strategy, based on advice we'd gotten Wednesday, was to play around on the lake in the morning, do some touristy stuff around midday, and come back to the lake in late afternoon.

    After serious sunscreen application, we headed down to the activities centre and got the basics of catamaran'ing explained, before heading out. James steered, and I got to pull the rope that controls the sail - effectively the accelerator. It was a fairly quiet morning, and we quickly got the hang of it, being frustrated by lack of wind more than anything.

    The resort has a lifejacket policy which is quite understandable, given the number of kids and the potential for being sued by irate holiday makers, but nevertheless, it felt silly wearing a lifejacket over swimmers, when about the only threat of getting wet was deliberately dipping your hand in the water, or, if you tried really hard, you could push down the mesh between the two hulls and - thrill! - get your heels wet.

    Next, we headed out in a two-person canoe, and sort of figured out a rhythm - James definitely wants to paddle faster than I do. We made it around most of the lake without too much difficulty, going under the walkway out to Lily's, and also underneath a pier on the residential side, which actually required us to duck as we went under.

    James wanted to see the far reaches of the lake, and so we (briefly) went over the rope marking, which we thought might be a rope holding up a net, keeping fish out of the water filtration in the smaller side lake. But we were told by house staff in the nearby lagoon apartment that really, the rope was for our benefit, so we paddled back to shore.

    By now, after some showering and getting dressed - I'm figuring out resort dressing now - it's not a matter of picking what to wear for the day, it's a matter of picking what to wear for the next activity - it was time to head out for lunch and touristing.

    James had chosen a "Keep Ingrid Happy First" strategy and we headed for Yambina, home of the Ginger Factory. On the way, we had an unpleasant incident - we were waiting to turn left at a T-junction, when a gas truck turning right in front of us took the corner too sharply and scraped against the side of our car.

    Once the truck had disentangled from us, he drove off to make his delivery nearby as though nothing had happened. James followed and asked to exchange licence details. The driver claimed he didn't know he'd hit our car - never mind that he'd had to reverse a couple of times so he wasn't scraping our car before being able to drive off.

    We intend to contact the company and hopefully we'll get some compensation for the scratching and damaged bumper bar.

    We had no trouble finding Yambina after that. The Ginger Factory is the tourist/promotional end of the Buderim Ginger company's premises. We went on the guided tour of the ginger factory. We learnt that the Sunshine Coast is one of the best ginger growing areas in the world, that all of Australia's ginger is grown here, and it all goes through primary processing at the ginger factory.

    Ginger is a rhizosome, a large storage root just under the surface of the soil. Small chunks of rhizosome are planted in September, and they grow into full ginger plants. The first harvest is in February, and this is the tender, low-fibre ginger used for making crystalised ginger and similar goodies. There's a second harvest in May, this ginger is more potently flavoured but also much more fibrous, and at least in Australia, it is only used for making ginger spice - the roots are dried and ground into powder. There's a final harvest in August, which is basically collecting roots to plant for next year.

    So all the ginger arrives at the factory in February, and goes into storage vats to be processed throughout the year. The ginger is hand-trimmed, but they now have machines to cut the ginger into cubes and sort the pieces according to size and quality (the optical robo-scanner can make determinations about fibre content as well as size).

    The majority of the ginger then goes into huge vats in the "cooking" part of the factory, where it is first boiled a few times, and then left to steep/boil in increasingly concentrated sugar syrup, the whole process taking twelve days. We noticed they had their vats set up in sets of 12, so presumably they have a day-by-day routine that steps around the vats one day at a time.

    The new ginger is green, as it's boiled it becomes pale yellow, and as the sugar soaks in it gets the dark amber colour progressively from day to day, or vat to vat, as we were looking at it.

    At the end of the tour, we got to try some ginger samples - ginger beer made with their Ginger Refresher (which is already a popular product in our household), pineapple in ginger syrup, cheese and pickled (Japanese-style) ginger on a cracker, a meatball in ginger-chili BBQ sauce, and finally, their instant mini cheese cake - cream cheese mixed with ginger-lemon-lime marmalade (another household favourite) on a gingernut biscuit. Yum.

    We spent a lot of time agonising in the shop, looking both at food products, ginger household products, and their plants - they don't sell eating ginger plants as they're a bit demanding and boring, but there are some lovely plants in the ginger family and I would have liked several for the garden if it wasn't for trying to keep them alive for several days. I'll look around garden centres in Brisbane. They'll suit the "rainforesty" parts of our garden well.

    Eventually, purchasing decisions were made, and we headed across the road to Nutworks where they process macadamias. This wasn't nearly as exciting as the ginger factory, and their stuff seemed more expensive, but it was cool to see how macadamias are choc-coated, and James went "nuts" over the wasabi macadamias, so we did find some stuff to buy.

    And in the "touristy" part of the shop there was this totally gorgeous soft-toy crocodile. Oh, they had the requisite koalas, kangaroos, wombats, even kookaburras, but this crocodile knocked 'em for six. There were actually four crocodiles, but one was actually cuter than the others. I don't think I quite understand why non-cute animals make much cuter soft toys than cute animals, but this is not the first time I've had this kind of experience. I hope my parents are not going to be too surprised by having got us a soft-toy crocodile for our engagement.

    We headed back to the resort, as we were hoping to get a little more action on the water before they closed (at 5:30pm), and decided to stop off for some fruit and yoghurt at a supermarket on the way home. I guess I should have learnt by now - I can generally get by on hotel/resort food for lunch and dinner, but breakfasts usually either aren't things I want to eat, or outrageously expensive. For the same price as one of their cheap breakfasts, we got yoghurt and fruit to feed both of us for the remaining two days.

    However, it wasn't until we were in the resort carpark that we realised we'd left the yoghurt in the supermarket. Apparently I'd been responsible for picking up the shopping, and I had assumed everything had gone in the one plastic bag. So we turned around and went back, and picked up our yoghurt (the shop knew who James was and why he was there as soon as he walked in), and got back to the resort just in time to squeeze in half an hour on the water.

    Unlike the morning when we'd had free choice of cats and canoes, the activities were really popular in the afternoon, and all the cats were out, even though conditions weren't any better. Also, all the lifejackets were out. James and I nevertheless grabbed a canoe and paddled our way around the lake, before getting summoned in with the closing down of the activities centre.

    On the way back to our room, I was pleased to see the levels of road safety being reached by Brush Turkeys. We've seen a lot of them around the resort, usually wandering around in a leisurely fashion. I was watching one on the grass across the road. It approached the road casually, but as soon as it was on tarmac, it sprinted for its little life, until it reached the gardens around our block, when it resumed its casual stroll. There were no cars in the vicinity at the time.

    James and I were both a bit frustrated by the yoghurt and lack of catamaran opportunity, but in opposite directions. James wanted to sit and play with his computer, whereas I had energy to burn off. A compromise was reached, and I went in the pool while James sat on the pooldeck with a beer and his surfboard-sized laptop, investigating the kind of wireless service provided by the hotel (too expensive to justify posting my blog reports live, but worth finding out).

    The pool was full of kids throwing balls around, but my guess they'd soon be summoned for dinner was accurate and soon I had most of a pool and all of a spa to myself.

    We went to Zanth's, the buffet restaurant, in the evening, and on the non-food side, found ourselves sitting near the Danish party - we'd seen them having a BBQ outside the previous night - it's a bit of a giveaway, as Danes are the only people who put flags up as decorations whenever they're having a celebration, and to make life even easier, they always use Danish flags.

    James was able to make a number of observations - not only does he now recognise spoken Danish - he says Danes use the same number of glottal stops whether they're speaking Danish or English, but he can tell when it's Danish even at a distance by the sheer number of distinct vowel sounds. He also claims a number of the men spoke in the same semi-mumble as my dad, and he says the silver-white hair colour, like my mother's, is distinctive, and presumably what I can expect in my future. Lucky for me, he thinks it's prettier than the greyer, yellower colour Australian hair tends to turn.

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    Horror or science fiction?

    We mainly did more prep work on the downstairs area today - the new windows, pulling up the rest of the carpet, sanding back old surfaces.

    But we also found ourselves looking at one of the downstairs weirdnesses - there's a pillar on the inside wall, which we assumed was related to the fact that there used to be pillars in several places in the room, and we now have a steel beam holding up that part of upstairs. But at the bottom of the pillar there's a rectangular box, jutting about half a meter into the room. It's always been an inconvenience to us, so we were wondering if it had any purpose.

    Oh, and we'd also been noticing, once we took the carpet up, that the skirting boards used to be painted black on that wall. Who, why, paints skirting boards black? Tapping on the box suggested it was hollow; we couldn't come up with any structural reason it might be covering something important.

    James and I looked at each other and came to a mutual decision: we were willing to brave any discovery of an essential function of this box we'd overlooked, or alternatively the discovery of a baby's corpse or worse inside the box (the black paint was clearly affecting my imagination). So we ripped the box apart.

    The box was, indeed, hollow and empty and profoundly boring, apart from the whole "why was it there in the first place?" aspect. We did get some more of those insights into the minds of the previous owners of our house that I personally could do without, when we discovered that the box had been fixed in place by nailing the other parts of the box to the the piece of wood which was the bottom of the box, which had previously been nailed in place, straight into the concrete floor. Well, not quite straight: there was a rectangular patch of plaited-reed carpeting the exact size of the piece of wood underneath it.

    In other words, the room had had plaited-reed carpeting, someone had decided to install a box around the pillar at the edge of the room, with the extra extension piece sticking into the room, and therefore had nailed a piece of wood into the concrete through the carpeting to attach everything else to, and then at a later date, taken out the reed carpeting, except of course for that pesky bit under the box which was left for us to remove.

    Behind the pillar itself, we found traces of some truly wondrous wallpaper, which I admit I had previously seen traces of above the bar when the wood panelling was removed. The wallpaper is black (I guess this makes the black skirting boards more sensible, but frankly, leaves even bigger questions in its wake) and it has gigantic (on the order of half a meter wide) S swirls on it. When I first saw it above the bar, I thought the swirls were white, grey and sick-mustard, but I admit I didn't hang around to inspect it closely. Now there was only a narrow strip behind the pillar to look at, and I had motivation to look at it, to see if it was worth trying to strip off. This is when I discovered the grey colour was actually silver, and the nauseating yellow colour was meant to be gold.

    This, boys and girls, is why we do not immediately rush out and do everything technology lets us do, but sit back and think about whether the technology is capable of producing something tasteful. They may have had the technology to print metallic inks on wallpaper in the 1970s, but they should have left off until the inks masquerading as "gold" were replaced by some actual gold inks. And also, hopefully, this would have been well after the point when gigantic silver and gold swirls on black seemed like a good idea for wallpaper.

    There appeared to be some more weirdness with the skirting boards. The thin strip of skirting board at the base of the black wallpaper behind the pillar was cream. I was at a loss. The sanding we'd done so far suggested that the layer of cream paint was underneath the current white skirting board paint, and on top of the black paint. So, we had black wallpaper which clearly had been put in before the box was built around the pillar, and the box had clearly been painted black when it was first put in, and presumably the black skirting boards dated from that time also, but then later, the skirting boards were painted over in cream, and somehow that included the strip of skirting board behind the box.

    Time travel had been available to the previous owners, and I was jealous. Why wasn't it included in the sale of the house? I could use some of that.

    Of course, I have an overactive imagination, because we've since discovered that there's also a layer of cream paint underneath the black, so we were probably looking at the original skirting board paint, to go with those plaited-reed carpets, before someone was struck with the desire to make the entire room black. I just can't, can't imagine the wallpaper with the reed carpet - it would be like Hugh Hefner or Austin Powers wearing Birkenstocks, so I have to guess that it came out when the black wallpaper (and skirting board repaint) happened, except that we know that wallpaper went up at the lastest when someone made that decision to nail a piece of wood into a concrete floor through the existing carpet.

    I've always wondered if there's any compensation or treatment for aesthetic injury. This is not the worst such injury I've suffered in my life on a purely aesthetic scale, but knowing it was my house and that I have to do something about it does compound the injury rather.

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    Shop till you drop.

    So we got the carpet in, and downstairs is more or less finished, and James wants a birthday party next weekend, and that would also be a "look at the new space" party, so we needed some new furniture.

    We were just going to nip off to IKEA for a few hours. We got there shortly after 11am, and they more or less had to kick us out when they closed at five. We have spent quite a lot of money. We have quite a lot of adult lego to play with downstairs.

    The thing I'm most excited about is that I now have a stash cupboard (pax wardrobe combination), and I think it's just over 1 cubic meter. I think that might be big enough that I can make it a rule that if I have more stash than that, I have to make stuff before I can buy more stash.

    But we've also got new chairs and shoe racks, and other stuff that's going to make us more organised and have a prettier house. Oh, and two more of the shaggy bathmats the cats all love.

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    Rudolph alert

    When I went for a run on Sunday morning, I discovered that someone had decorated the deer sign furthest from us with a red nose and skinny tinsel like reins. I completely lost my running rhythm laughing. Maybe deer road signs get decorated all the time, but they're pretty unusual here, and I've never seen a kangaroo sign done up as Rudolph.

    I made pebbernødder and Christmas cake when I got home. So that's done now. I might do a bit more baking - we certainly have more than enough alcohol-soaked sultanas and apricots - but the important stuff is done. I also made banana muffins, because James hadn't eaten his bananas, and he took them into work and they were devoured, although he seems to have done a significant fraction of the devouring himself.

    I seem to have done something stupid to my achilles tendon on my run, I was limping all yesterday, so I'm seeing the physio today. James is going in for knee surgery on Thursday, so we're quite the sports injury household at the moment.

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    You know it's hot when....

    You stick your hand in the cookie jar, and the air inside the cookie jar is noticeably cooler than the air around the rest of your body, because the cookie jar has been closed and standing in a closed cupboard.

    The stats: 31.5C inside and out, 60% humidity. Bright sunshine, so it feels much warmer outside.

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    Renovations

    Well, we're getting there with the cats, Amber certainly has made herself at home, and Nemrut is gradually getting less skittish.

    So we could turn back to our downstairs renovations - the carpet people are starting to wonder when we actually want the carpet installed, because we ordered it quite a while ago.

    Fortunately, this is a long weekend, so we did some housecleaning on Saturday (oddly enough, there's a lot of white fur to sweep up) and Annette came around Sunday to help us finish the painting that needs to be done before the carpet can be put in.

    It was lovely to see Annette, and having a third person around seems to reduce the patches of stress between James and me when we go into "read my mind", "no, you read my mind" mode.

    She also helped us get the first coat of paint on everything, and as it turns out is great at cutting-in. So even though she had to go home before we got to the second coat, at least the first coat got done properly.

    James and I did manage to get the second coat on, but not without incident. Amber got curious, and started wandering around in the little room while we were still painting it. James, in his attempts to shoo her out, managed to scare her so much she ran up the recently-painted wall under the windowsill and onto the windowsill.

    The paint was still wet enough that once we got her out, I could cover all the traces of her progress up the wall with fresh paint, but there are four little grooves in the windowsill now. And she has paint in her pawfur, along her side, in her tail. I thought she was too much of a prim-and-proper miss to live with that.

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    Brisbane summer

    After lots of rain and coolish weather last week, things got unpleasantly hot and sunny on the weekend. I mean, dripping sweat on my glasses while trying to do the dishes -type hot and sunny. James looked at me in disbelief at the amount of sweat and I was worried he was going to revoke my Queensland Resident Permit.

    And this was at a mere 31C and 56% humidity. It also got hot yesterday, but I don't notice when I'm in air conditioned university premises. The university does not actually mention this anywhere, but I suspect air conditioning is vital to UQ's summer research productivity - not least, when you head to work because it's more pleasant than staying home.

    Then we had one of those instant downpours in the afternoon, which cooled things down nicely, and so it was only 25C this morning, which was rather lovely. And the house had time to cool down to 25C, too.

    This is rather important, because they're promising 36C today, and I believe them. I hope the house is not going to be too gross tonight - the problem really is when the house cumulatively heats up and doesn't have time to cool down each night.

    We have ordered new air conditioning units for home, and James promises they will be installed by some time in January.

    This morning, I realised that with the pebbernoedder I made last weekend (when it was raining), the tray of mangoes, the 2kg of cherries, and ice cream stocks, both bought and made, I feel pretty much ready for Christmas. I know Christmas is about roast turkey and so forth for other people, but it seems it's all about the cookies, summer fruit and ice cream for me.

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    Aidan's Christening

    Yesterday, we attended Aidan' christening, and as a result got to meet a lot of Sarah and Michael's relatives (oddly enough). Aidan was remarkably well-behaved and quiet during the whole thing, apart from not being keen to wear the christening robe. In deference to Brisbane summer, he was in a very cute white shirt and blue shorts suit for most of the time, and basically only wore the gown for photos at the end.

    As the church is just up the road from Michael and Sarah's place, we all headed back there afterwards for the cake and a bit of speechifying. It was a bit crowded, and their place gets rather hot, but we managed. I was accused of devious pre-planning, as my T-shirt was the exact shade of the icing on the christening cake. Considering that the icing had been planned to be blue, but the white chocolate was yellow enough to leave the cake a minty green, I wasn't actually wearing the top I would have chosen if I'd been trying to match.

    We then trundled off for lunch at the local services club, where there was some (sedate) competition over Aidan by the grandmothers - he's the first grandchild on both sides, so he's going to be popular for a while.

    Once we were all thoroughly stuffed (I think everyone who had room after the main lunch was defeated by the cake they bought) everyone headed off home, except somehow James and I ended up back with Sarah and Michael, James and Michael playing racing car games on the X-box, and Sarah and myself vegetating.

    It's amazing how strenuous socialising can be.

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    Torturing cane toads

    I heard somewhere a while back that some Australian birds have figured out how to deal with cane toads - apparently if they flip them over and eat them from the belly, they avoid the toxins (which are on the back). This would be pretty exciting ecologically, as the problem with cane toads has definitely been lack of predators.

    I think I actually witnessed this in action this morning. I was walking up the (deserted) path from Dutton Park ferry (we park in the small blue zone car park nearby), and I saw a raven dragging something over the path. As I got closer, I saw that it was a small cane toad being dragged, belly up.

    As I got even closer, and the raven tried to back off, a bit embarrassed over the intrusion, I discovered the cane toad was still alive, and trying to right itself.

    I didn't stay to watch how it all played out. I think I'm a bit weirded out by the idea that birds are eating cane toads from the belly while the cane toads are still alive, but on the other hand, maybe even killing the cane toads from the back is too much of a toxin risk. And I suppose I've never checked whether birds bother killing anything else prior to eating it.

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    Christmas is here

    On Tuesday evening, I had the special privilege of catching the Santa bus home. I wasn't previously aware of the Santa bus, but it happened to be running our route when I wanted to get home (James was playing squash until an unknown hour).

    I don't have any problem with a bus driver dressed as Santa Claus, although I always feel sorry for them in Aussie heat, and the gift-wrapped ticket boxes were cute.

    I think I went into aesthetic shock once I got into the actual bus. All the various railings and handholds were wrapped in tinsel. There was a miniature tree and wrapped packages in the spot you usually put your excess luggage. There was extra tinsel hanging from the roof of the bus, and lights and ornaments strung along the top of the windows. The actual windows were also decorated, with Xmassy paper plates to which seasonal pictures and messages had been attached. I suspect a school craft project has been involved here.

    I've had a theory for some time that it is specifically large quantities of tinsel and other glittery things that crosses my "too much" threshhold. This bus would confirm that, because from a colour point of view, it was actually quite restrained, with mainly red, green and gold tinsel.

    I had more or less stumbled for the nearest empty seat, and I was quite relieved that the paper plate on the window next to me had a photo of some African kids and the message "Peace on Earth". I could totally get behind that sentiment, and it was a safe place to look back to every time the rest of the bus overwhelmed me. I did keep getting drawn back to the rest of the bus. Other people can't look away from traffic accidents; I'm morbidly fascinated by extreme bad taste.

    In retrospect, I'm pretty sure the bus incident had something to do with the fact that I couldn't get onto my planned sewing yesterday until I'd built a mobile. There's something about Danes and mobiles - I have no clue if it's nature or nurture, but I'm willing to contribute DNA and other necessary experimental data to any study to resolve this issue.

    My mobile is from the classic Danish school of red cardboard hearts. It has three strands, with a large heart with a smaller heart inside on each, a smaller heart below, and the middle strand has a smaller heart on top as well. It hangs in the stairwell and is so very much exactly what I wanted I keep admiring it, which feels a bit odd.

    I can also tell that my Danishness is diluting a bit, because I can see it both as astoundingly atmospherically Christmassy, and as a pretty cool mobile provided you like hearts.

    There was a brief period of panic while I was trying to hang it. I'd put it down while I went searching for something to stand on, and Amber was already making love to one of the larger hearts when I came back. So I had a heart to unbend, and white fluff to pick off before I'd even hung it. Then once I got it up, it attracted more attention from Amber, who fortunately just decided to settle down on the beam and watch it.

    Then Nemrut turned up, and stomped over Amber (he's usually a bit more delicate when he wants to get past her) and out onto the middle of the beam, from where he tried to reach the mobile. I was very, very nervous, but decided just to watch for the moment. He did manage to reach the stick, pull the mobile over and sniff a bit, and let it go so there was some swinging, also of the light the mobile is hanging from. My mobile wasn't going to survive that kind of attention on a regular basis.

    Fortunately, that one investigation seems to have been enough, and my mobile was still there this morning. I still haven't really come to terms with the fact that cats and Christmas decorations don't co-exist and I really hope I'll be able to keep this mobile. I've already accepted that the tree needs to be downstairs, where the cats aren't allowed.

    Yes, we have a tree, for the first time we've been living together. It's a not-too-bad fake, I think labelled "cypress" although it's more pine-like to me. We've definitely also had the "first year tree" experience, where what seems like an enormous amount of newly-purchased decorations just makes the tree look not too bare. And I've made some traditional Danish stuff, but I'm really coming to appreciate that most years, you make a few more things to add to what you have. That's going to have to be next year and the year after.

    I've made about 11 woven hearts, and my inspiration for designs has just about burnt out for the year; five tulip baskets, and I think I'll be up for a few more if I can figure out what colour I want them, and four stars so far. I expect I'll make quite a few more stars, as I only got myself organised to buy the cardboard and sneak off to the departmental photocopy room to guillotine the strips on Tuesday. The cardboard is a bit thicker than I'd like, but I have no clue where to find the exact thickness I want, and I seem to be managing okay now I've adapted my folding technique a bit.

    I was reflecting that the difference for me between being a child making Christmas decorations and being an adult, is that as a kid, I could just dive in to the provided materials. As an adult, there's careful research and shopping behind my collection of coloured paper for the hearts, and now I can see further rounds to find just the right paper for the stars, not to mention having access to guillotines. I think I tried hand-cutting the strips one year, and never again.

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    ICT conference

    My big event this week: I attended the CSIRO ICT Centre conference for the first time. This was held at Luna Park in Sydney. It worked just fine as a conference venue, perhaps a little crowded for the number of people (150?), but it seemed very odd that none of the rides were open at any time - it wasn't very Luna Park-ish in that sense.

    We were told that we weren't to tell about what we heard as many research results are commercial-in-confidence and IP issues haven't been sorted out. But as far as I can tell, I don't want to write about anything you can't learn from the ICT centre's public web pages, so I think I'm okay. Well, there was one thing, but I gather they're going to make a big splash about that in the next few months, so I can wait.

    So: I now know far more than I did about mobile phone and wireless technology, networking algorithms, and what you learn about cows' movements when each has a sensor attached. Also, how to develop algorithms for automated lawn moving taking into account a largish turning circle for the vehicle. I think it's very interesting that emergency room staff with virtual access to a clinical expert at another hospital in some cases actually preferred that to the expert being physically present.

    Another thing that fascinated me is that the wireless sensor network group are also working with renewable energy like solar - because you don't want to have to traipse around changing batteries in each sensor every few months. In many ways, they're dealing with very similar issues to space exploration: you want your devices compact and efficient, reprogrammable from afar, and reasonably robust. But additionally, they need to be cheap and able to be mass produced.

    My biggest complaints would have to revolve around presentation: I'm used to at least one sentence about the big-picture context at the beginning of any talk. And it's not just for the benefit of the audience: I find having to come up with a big-picture introduction to my own work often helps me refocus on what I'm actually doing and why.

    My other peeve was yellow or light green graphics on a white background. I don't care how spectrally clean those colours are, there's no contrast. I also notice a continuing trend where biologists use bolder lines in diagrams than more physical sciences types. The conclusion I draw is that the biologist doesn't want you to infer too great precision, and the physical sciences person doesn't want anyone past the front row to see their results.

    I'm wondering if one cause of the difference might be that most of the people who give talks at the biology conferences I attend also spend at least some of their time teaching undergraduates. Biologists are very geeky in their way, but not as hard-core geeky as this crowd. I can't tell if it's because I'm more familiar with biology geekiness, or simply that I'm naturally a biology geek myself.

    The conference dinner featured very nice food, in my case lovely company, and an entirely satisfactory after dinner speaker. Last year's had apparently talked for a very long time, and I think there was quite a lot of nervous anticipation. Sydney was pretty - it's a hard life when you have to spend time in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge. However, the oddest thing was getting off the plane back in Brisbane, and the first person I see is Pat, who was waiting for a plane to Townsville for work.

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    Deer!

    I can't remember if I've mentioned, but about a year ago, deer warning signs were put up on streets near us. We assumed they were jokes when we first saw them. Sure, there's some bushland nearby, and kangaroo warning signs that are really needed not too far from here, but deer? Did someone forget that deer aren't Australian?

    Then we found a story in the local community news about them. Apparently, some years ago someone set up a venison farm, but it didn't make enough money, went into receivership, and while the financial stuff was being sorted out, some deer escaped and started making a living on their own.

    The thing is, this venison farm was on the other side of the river from us, and the river's over 100m wide here (although I expect there's no current to speak of). But apparently some deer have swum across, and that's what the warning signs are about.

    When my parents visited in June, they investigated the river edge pretty closely, and found deer tracks. But they didn't see any actual deer.

    Yesterday afternoon I went for a run along the riverpath around sunset, and I actually saw a deer. Well, bits of one. I heard rustling in the tall grass along the path where it veers left to cross a little creek, and then realised that I could see the top of the animal causing the rustling above the grass. My first assumption was that it had to be a kangaroo, but as it turned and quickly headed up the hill, another part of my brain pointed out that kangaroos do not have antlers.

    I didn't get to see it for more than a second. I have no idea how big it actually was, but I think it was probably quite young as each antler only had two tips. But it kept me excited for the entire rest of my run. And I hope to get a better look at more deer. This riverpath is so much fun, I'm really happy we live as close as we do to something like it.

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    What we did on our holidays, part three

    After a very satisfactory breakfast of fruit dipped in our hard-won yoghurt, we headed off to the activities centre. We were a bit worried that it was going to be as still as yesterday, but fortunately, the wind picked up just as we arrived, and off we went in a catamaran.

    It was a lot more fun now we knew roughly what we were doing and there was more wind, although it came in gusts. Soon, all the catamarans were out, and the race was on to see how much speed we could get up without crashing into anyone else. We managed several very satisfactory high-speed lake crossings, getting pretty drenched, and feeling like the whole lifejacket over swimmers thing wasn't a complete joke.

    We saw a few people overboard, and some catamarans tilting up on one edge because the people were sitting on the wrong side relative to the wind. James and I were sitting on opposite sides, and it was enough for one of us to lean out and the other in at the speeds we were going.

    After a while, the activities staff speedboat came towards us. James and I thought we might be in trouble - you're supposed to bring the catamaran in after 20 min or so, so everyone gets a go, and we'd probably been out longer than that. But in fact, all the cats were getting called in - the wind was picking up and gusts exceeded their 15-knot safety limit. We just happened to be furthest from shore at the time, so they'd started with us.

    So we sailed back towards the activities centre, but not in a particularly straight line, as James was enjoying all the wind too much. I'd started moving from side to side, so I was on the same side as James when that was the side out of the water, as counterbalance.

    James, however, had been slack and wasn't moving like me, so of course, about 20m from shore, we caught a gust as we both should have been on my side, and over we went, in slow motion.

    I just slipped into the water, easily avoiding getting hit or trapped by any part of the boat, finding the lifejacket useful from a floating point of view, but annoying from a swimming point of view. James was trying to right the catamaran. Out came the speedboat, and between it and James, our cat got to shore.

    In some sense, it was tremendous fun - for me to have a first capsize, a slow one within easy swimming distance of shore is definitely the way to go. It was surprising but didn't feel remotely dangerous so I found myself laughing a lot as I made my way in. As proof of the non-dangerousness of our capsize, we were both wearing sunglasses, and were still wearing them as we walked up the beach. Head never under water for either of us.

    One of the resort staff guessed the gust that knocked us over was closer to 30 knots than 15. I was completely useless at helping right the cat as I couldn't swim fast enough to keep up with it and James, let alone manipulate it. That can be for next time, I guess.

    Our next activity for the morning, after we'd changed out of our soaking "boat wear", was hiring a tandem from the activities centre. There is a nice, near-flat path around the lake, and we didn't have too much trouble getting the hang of it and circling the lake a few times. Then we headed off for "adventure" - we rode around the carparks and roads, through the main car reception, and out on on the (very flat) main road to the resort. Then we headed down the north shore road to the official display for the new apartments and beach access.

    I was probably cheating, in that I let James do all the steering and braking, but that is what the front tandem'er does - the steerer. I was the stoker at the back, responsible for pedalling lots. I didn't quite succeed in that - I found that when James changed pedalling speed, I couldn't always keep up, and found my feet floating outside the pedals, asking James to slow his pedalling down enough that I could safely get my feet back on and help. I'm not sure if there's some tandem'ing I haven't learnt, or if James just needed to warn me before pedalling faster. He was in control of all gear changes, after all.

    We headed back for another trip through the reception, and to get a few more comments from random resort guests - quite a few overheard comments suggested a lot of people didn't realise the resort had tandems for hire, so we provided some free advertising. We only used about 45 min of our one hour hire but I was getting pretty saddle sore by then, so I'm glad we didn't get more time.

    It was now lunch'ish, and time to head out for afternoon adventure. Since this was now "please James" day, we went to the Little Morgue Winery.

    As the name suggests, this is indeed a winery located in a former morgue. The family who run it are clearly having the time of their life, making dreadful puns, appropriately atmospheric labels, and selling their port in custom-made miniature coffins. A definite goth tour highlight, if any goths ever find themselves on the Sunshine Coast.

    They also know what they're doing - tastings are $3 a head, but you get a wineglass with the morgue's cat logo on it to keep. We sipped and sloshed our way through seven of their wines, me very carefully, drinking about half of each, depending on what I liked, but I still hit my headachy limit.

    We chose a dozen - four of the chardonnay (lovely, crisp, citrussy), four of the fruity white (just the thing for asian food), two of the Shiraz for James to cellar, and two of the rose, 'cos it was next-prettiest tasting one. For that, we got a bottle of their bubbly Shiraz thrown in, and we'll have to find a good occasion to open that.

    We were now in need of afternoon tea, and James needed a toilet increasingly desperately. We thought our best bet was Nambour city centre, but after some frustrated hunting for non-existent public toilets, a twitching James dragged me into McDonalds, as the only certain toilet location.

    Now the question became whether to stay and eat something, in exchange for bladder relief. The reason this is of significance is that I have not eaten at McDonalds since about August, 1991. That's when my then boyfriend, Derek, and I broke up. Derek was a programmer, and extremely good at getting so totally wrapped up in what he was doing, that he'd suddenly realise at 11pm that he hadn't had dinner (or possibly lunch) and his blood sugar level was going to collapse soon. So, it being late, and him being desperate, we would go to McDonalds. I hated their food, I hated the fact that we couldn't just have gone out to dinner at a cheap Chinese place at a civilised hour. When Derek and I broke up, I realised that I didn't have to go to McDonalds again, and so I haven't.

    James managed to persuade me with the following reasoning: this was a "McCafe" type McDonalds, so he was going to order a coffee and muffin from their cafe menu, and a yoghurt berry crunch thingy from their new "healthy" menu. Neither set of options had been available when I swore off McDonalds, perhaps I wouldn't have sworn off McDonalds if they'd existed at the time, and at the very least, scientific integrity demanded that if I continued to reject McDonalds, it was their current product range I was rejecting.

    The food was okay, but I'm not in a major hurry to go back.

    We headed back to the resort, to see if by any crazy chance the wind had dropped enough to let the catamarans out again. It hadn't, but the two windsurfers were still available, so James decided to try windsurfing (for the second time in his life) on the beginner board, while I tried to find a non-windy place nearby to catch up on blogging.

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    Eye of the Storm

    This was the name of Michael and Sarah's party, because they're been through quite a lot of job and moving complications recently, and Sarah is due with a son in January, and they hope to be able to buy their own place next year also, so life is going to get equally complicated for them soon.

    This, by the way, is a different Sarah than the movie hosting Sarah.

    The movie hosting Sarah is a singer, paints ceramics, rides a funky burgundy scooter, and has a partner called Chris who is frequently away somewhere saving the environment.

    This Sarah is a network guru, cooks a mean lasange, is expecting her first son in January, and is married to Michael, who is more likely to be away in abstract concept manipulation land, being a software engineer.

    I hope everyone is clear, because it took me a little while to get used to James (who of course was the person who knew both these Sarahs before I got to know them) casually referring to "Sarah" and me invariably guessing the wrong Sarah, because the last relevant factoid I could dredge up that we'd talked about was more relevant to the other one.

    The party featured the usual talking, eating, and so forth. Then there was a game of Trivial Pursuit. I'd never played Trivial Pursuit with any of these people before. I should have realised it was going to be trouble when James insisted he be on my team.

    He didn't get his wish - we drew pieces of pie and James was on the pink team and I was on the brown team.

    I apparently astounded everyone by knowing who Harriet Beecher Stowe, Christian Barnaard, and Paul Stanley were. I was vaguely astounded back to discover that I was the only person who'd learnt that you can sum the digits of a number to determine if it's divisible by three.

    But the best bits of the game didn't involve me, luckily. We were all in hysterics over the first presbyterian church of Elvis. And my absolute favourite question of the night was addressed to the pink team:

    Question: What Icelandic...
    James: Björk!
    Question: ...warbler...
    James: Björk!
    Question: ...looks like a cross between Mickey Mouse...
    James: Björk!
    Question: ...and a geisha...
    James: Björk!
    Question: ...on the cover of her CD "Homogenic"?
    James: Björk!

    It would probably be wrong of me to point out that James knew this because it's one of my favourite CDs. Particularly since I almost managed to forget Valentino Rossi, the motorcycling world's equivalent of Michael Schumaker. But I did remember that it was Benjamin Britten who lived happily ever after with Peter Pears.

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    What we did on our holidays, part four.

    Saturday morning did not look promising - it was still windy in gusts, and we wanted to get some more sailing in before we had to check out at 11.

    We had the rest of our yoghurt and fruit, did pretty much all our packing, sunscreened up, and were down in the activities centre by 8:30 all the same. The catamarans were still up on the beach because of the wind conditions. There were a few kids in the water, but otherwise things were pretty quiet.

    So we grabbed a canoe and paddled a tour around the lake. We got to see a few fish among the weeds on the far side of the lake - the canoes definitely are better if you're out on the lake to look at wildlife.

    Our tour seemed to encourage a few other people to go out in canoes - we gave a mother and grandmother out with their two young daughters a few tips - one adult and one kid per canoe, kid in front, try to paddle in time, that sort of thing, and off they went.

    James then headed off to tackle the sailboard again. Because I didn't want the other sailboard (with my upper body strength? on the non-beginner sailboard? I hardly think so) I persuaded someone else out with that sailboard.

    I think the resort should probably have been giving us a bonus for being enthusiastic users of the activities equipment and encouraging others out, by this time.

    While James battled with the sailboard, I swam around - out to the jumpy platforms, over to look at James, that sort of thing. After lounging around on a jumpy platform for a while, I decided to swim over to Lily's, following the little ferry route. My swimming is not all that good, but I made it across to the pontoon, and was just about to make fun of James for being further across the lake than he was, when I realised he'd got the sailboard going quite nicely and was now zooming around on the other side of the lake.

    I had to rest a bit, hanging on to the pontoon, but not having the actual strength to get up on the ferry landing, before swimming back. I spent some more time on a jumpy platform, having a conversation with a perhaps five-year old girl out there with me - she'd caught a lift with her father and sister out in a canoe. I was a little concerned since her swimming obviously wasn't good enough for her to get out to the platform herself. But she didn't want to go in the water much, so we chatted - she was staying in one of the apartments on the far side of the lake, for the weekend. Later, she was picked up by her father on the way back, and I swam in to shore, since James had finished sailboarding and seemed to be looking for me.

    It was now about 9:40, and the activities staff were talking about the wind dropping and letting the catamarans back out. James and I enthusiastically supported the idea, and got dibs on the first catamaran with its sails back up.

    So we got ourselves another sail after all. We went serious this time, James sitting at the back and doing all the sailing, me at the front, and both of us moving from side to side as we tacked. There wasn't actually as much wind as on Friday, but we got ourselves some reasonable runs, and got to laugh at some of the other catamarans - being Saturday, there was a lot of family silliness and quite a few kids overboard.

    As we headed back to shower, change and check out, we agreed we'd been here exactly enough time - we were really getting the hang of the catamarans, but beyond me having a go and sailing by myself, we'd have started to get bored if we'd stayed much longer. The windspeeds they were required to call the cats in at were exactly the windspeeds we now felt ready to tackle.

    So, checked out at 11am, we had no intention of going straight home.

    We went first to the Big Pineapple. Overall, it seemed a bit sad, past its glory days, and the shopping was a complete loss - frighteningly kitchy souvenirs, and a pretty poor selection of foodstuffs given what the Ginger Factory and Macadamia roasters had had. Most of the activities seemed very kid oriented.

    But we were quite happy with the two tours we chose - we went on the rainforest/macadamia tour, and got the night animal house for $1 more. The driven tour was in over-cutesey "macadamia nut" wagons, with few enough participants that each group had a nut to itself.

    The recorded voiceover in the macadamia tour was tediously cheerful, the music worrying - particularly as the voice-over was telling us about how animal life in a rainforest is more heard than seen. The tape had a quiet bit so we could hear for ourselves, and then the appalling music started up again, obviously to reassure us that we'd not been abandoned to look at the scenery all by ourselves, without any help.

    Thankfully, the tour driver stopped the tour, and the tape, to tell us about macadamia trees, harvesting, cracking nuts, and so forth, while cracking nuts he found on the ground and feeding them to a half-tame brush turkey. He was entertaining and informative and generally should have been left to do the whole thing himself.

    At the upper end of the drive, we got out and were shown around the factory. They had a lot of specialised size sorting equipment as their cracking technique worked best using nuts size-matched to the cracker.

    The profit in macadamias is entirely in getting entire, cracked nuts to Japan in pristine condition. All the whole macadamias produced here were shipped to Japan - the filtered-out broken bits were roasted and sold in the shop, or served on sundaes. This did go some way to explaining the paucity of macadamia product on sale.

    The night animal house was inside a giant macadamia look-alike. This worked quite well - the inside of the shell was painted with planets and constellations and other stuff that was fun to look at once your eyes were dark-adapted. James dark-adapted quickly, whereas it takes me a long time, and even though I appreciated their attempts to provide info in dim, blue-lit boxes, the light in those was actually sufficient for me to have trouble seeing the animals afterwards, so I stopped looking at the info.

    They had a variety of possums, frogs, owls, and so forth. Generally the mammals were the cutest - the squirrel gliders were very entertaining, forming cuddlepiles on top of each other when they weren't running around. But there were also some exceedingly cute frogs. The entry area, where you dark or light-adapted depending on whether you were heading in or out had a selection of snakes - the diamond python was the prettiest by a long shot, although the black-headed snake was also novel to me and startling in the contrast between the rather beigey body and almost black head.

    Once we'd animalled enough, we decided to give the famous macadamia sundae a go. Two large scoops of mango ice cream, caramel sauce, lots of cream, and macadamia bits everywhere (they were sprinkled on the plate first, as well as on top). We'd been a bit surprised at the price ($9.50) for a sundae, but as it turned out, it worked well as a shared snack. And there has to be a good amount of ice cream around to prevent sharing arguments between James and me, let me tell you.

    We then went up to the lookout at the top of the actual big pineapple itself, for the sake of the thing, and headed down the road towards Brisbane. But not very far.

    The next stop was Superbee. James has been there twice before, it turns out he visits every ten years or so. We attended the bee show, which is very cleverly set up with seating around a glass "enclosure" which is actually connected to outside, and their hives, so they can wheel a hive in for the show, and have glass between us and all the bee action.

    We were shown how hives are set up, how the bees use them, how the hives are unsealed and honey collected. The bees seal the hives with prosopolis, which, sensibly, contains all kinds of antibacterials and such. It's now collected and sold, and I'll be interested to see the peer-reviewed studies of its usefulness to humans.

    We were also shown how honey is collected commercially - the frames fit into specially-designed centrifugal collectors, before lots of pumping and cleaning and bottling of honey happens in very shiny stainless steel equipment.

    In the shop section, we tasted-tested 16-odd flavours of honey until I was almost nauseous, trying to decide which to buy. Yellowbox is a nice light generic honey, but easy to get cheaper elsewhere. James and I had a bit of an argument about sunflower - I liked it because it's very light and sunny. I agreed with him it wasn't worth actually buying any, but it made me aware that nearly all the other honeys were Australian natives, and seemed to have complex, sometimes almost bitter, aftertastes, that simply weren't there in the sunflower, so I probably liked it just for the contrast.

    Our eventual choices were Tasmanian Leatherwood - by far the most complex and interesting honey on sale - and bluegum, which was another lovely distinctive honey without too much of the sharp stuff some of the other natives had. Their most expensive honey was macadamia, but it honestly wasn't distinctive enough to justify the price, so I assume they could charge extra either because of rarity, or because of the whole "sunshine coast = macadamia" equation.

    Actually, macadamia honey wasn't remotely the most expensive honey they sold. That honour belongs to New Zealand Manuka honey, but it's not sold as honey, as such. They had some rating scheme I didn't understand, but 1kg of 12+ cost $60, to the $100 they charged for 1kg of 20+. They were not talking sunscreen factors. Manuka honey is supposed to have healing abilities that would make most 19th century nostrums blush. It didn't seem to matter whether the ailment was internal or external - eat it or apply it externally as seems appropriate.

    As anyone who knows me can guess, I'll wait for the peer-reviewed scientific studies.

    And now, it was a good time to head towards Brisbane in a concerted manner. We waved hello to the Glasshouse mountains again, and in short order were fighting Brisbane Saturday afternoon traffic. We went around to Colin and Narelle to pick up Zeki, who seemed confused and a bit upset about the idea of his life changing again. However, it didn't take him long to remember home once we got him there.

    Verdict: a fun holiday. James and I seem to agree on food-related and physically active stuff on the whole. My low alcohol tolerance just means we visit somewhat fewer wineries than James might prefer, but he agrees we probably can't afford to visit too many. And we have quite a bit of wine to drink already. I'm much more prepared to try active "risky" stuff now I've figured out that typically, safety margins are set so people much less conscientious than myself do not kill themselves.

    And we don't think there's ever enough wind on the Brisbane River to justify us having a hobiecat for the local stretch of river.

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    Happy Birthday to Me!

    A friend of mine has correctly pointed out that it's been rather a while since I've blogged, so I'd better fix that. It's not that I've been completely unwilling, it's just that the more time passes the more silly it seems to make one of those short observation posts that breaks the spell, whereas if there's no spell to break, they fit in perfectly well.

    I'm having my birthday mainly by being thoroughly slack. As far as I'm concerned, my birthday is about me celebrating me, and other people can join the party if they like, but aren't under any obligation.

    The virtual party features a variety of cool drinks spiked with ginger syrup; fresh pineapple and honeydew melon, and mint-chocolate ice cream. It's pretty hot and humid out there, not unrelentingly sunny, so I'm hopeful of some rain later.

    The decorations are the purply-blue of the almost-finished jacarandas, the scarlet-red of Illawarra flame trees and poincianas (it looks like it's going to be an excellent year for them and I'm glad they got going before my birthday) and the saffron-yellow pea flowers on a tree I don't know the name of, that come in staggered a few weeks behind the jacarandas, and cover the ground like buddhist confetti.

    And there is a nice hibiscus flower for me in our garden today. I'm sure we'd get more flowers if we bothered to ever prune.

    The party's very quiet at the moment: Zeki is impersonating a polar bear rug at the top of the stairs, Nemrut is cuddled up among his favourite curtains, and Amber must be feeling a bit persecuted, because she's behind the TV unit. James is at a job interview, hopefully the first of three.

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    Large SHRIMP spotted in St. Petersburg

    My brother's job involves building and installing highly technical geological equipment, which happens to go by the acronym SHRIMP. One of the installations was in St. Petersburg, and Jorgen just told me he's been immortalised on the web in Russian.

    He's in the lower left of this picture

    And the middle right of this one

    If you want to understand how SHRIMP works, this looks vaguely reasonable, at least it did to me once I clicked for the English version.

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    Card night

    Sarah and Michael invited us over Friday night to play cards with them and Elsie and Steve. Michael's work Christmas party has been on during the day, so Michael was in a pretty mellow mood.

    Sarah's currently laundering all her baby clothes - she's officially due 5th January, but given the size of the baby, her obstetrician says she should be ready for any time from now on. The baby's head is also in position for birth; Sarah assures us that a small bum pressing on your diaphragm is not pleasant.

    The actual card game chosen was Canasta, which I've either never played, or maybe played once a long time ago. As a result, I had quite a bit of beginner's luck (this is fairly normal with me and card games), and also I was on Elsie's team. Elsie has been playing Canasta for a long time and knows some very dirty tricks.

    James is still grumbling about unfair tactics. But I think Annette's rule (no romantic partners on same team, which we used for Cranium) was well-applied in this case.

    James wanted to talk Xbox games with Michael, with a view to swapping games in future, so by the time James and I went home, Michael was playing on the Xbox.

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    Ten things I like

    1. When I went running last Sunday, the two most notable things that happened was a rainbow lorikeet flying past about one and a half metres in front of my face; and almost hitting my head on a half-size mango when I ran under a tree.

    2. When I walked from my office back to the car on Tuesday evening, there was a kookaburra sitting on the railing of the walkway under the Union complex, and it stayed there as I walked past.

    3. I finished my marking on Wednesday.

    4. James and I saw a King Parrot fly overhead Thursday morning.

    5. I had afternoon tea with my friend Erica on Friday afternoon, as part of her annual visit north.

    6. The downstairs renovations are moving along again - James has finally managed to get in contact with various tradespeople and get commitments from them to turn up and do stuff.

    7. During my run this Sunday morning, I heard five whip-birds along the river, saw what may have been a black cockatoo fly overhead, and actually had to stop when I ran through the bushland near the golf course so I could really see and hear all the rainbow lorikeets, galahs, sulfies, and butcherbirds around me.

    8. I got a tray of 10 600g mangoes for $16.99 at our local fruit & veg shop; that means mangoes are currently cheaper than apples. I didn't buy any apples, but I did get nectarines, apricots, cherries, and a honeydew.

    9. Colin and Narelle came to visit Sunday evening. They like Zeki, Zeki likes them. And they like James' chocolate cake.

    10. Prasenjit has put a link to this blog on his homepage; I'm now the second item if you google for "Ingridients". The fact that I get second place as a result of one link says something interesting - probably just that most appearances of the word "ingridients" on the web are not deliberate.

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    Two

    There are two little pigeon eggs in the fern nest this morning. I think the second might have been laid yesterday morning as we were leaving for work, because there was a pigeon in the nest, but in a sort of standing/straining position, rather than either sitting down, or standing on the edge, as usual.

    Also, the flying foxes have arrived, two were enjoying the pepparina last night. At the moment, we have a lot of friar birds during the day, they make a really cute sound, particularly when a lot of them are all going at once. I do really like looking at the rainbow lorikeets, but have to admit their sound is not the most attractive.

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    Woman politics

    I want abortions to be legal, available more or less on demand for first trimester at least, and I also want to live in a society where there's no demand for them.

    This is a good example of why.

    If you think minors aren't fully capable of deciding to have an abortion, why do you think they're capable of being mothers? Must not think much of motherhood, if that's the case.
    Of course, a few of us suspect that what it's really about is thinking that minors aren't capable of having sex, and trying to punish them for proving otherwise.

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    Aquatic

    Yesterday I went on a work-related excursion with my Thai PhD student, her Thai supervisor, and their host, to the DPI Aquaculture research centre on Bribie Island. I think it was quite a productive morning, in terms of meeting people with related interests, and there might be some collaborative papers emerging at some point. Apparently, while the Thais are all about banana prawns, the DPI crew are all about tiger prawns. I maintain my policy that since they have DNA, and are closely related, I just want the sequences clearly labelled, and I'm happy.

    We had lunch on the beach - it was a bit cold and windy, but at least it wasn't raining, as it has been intermittently the last week.

    We then drove up to Mooloolaba, for some intensive aquaculture research at Underwater World. (No, seriously, we did hunt around the display tanks until we found one that had a spectacularly long-antennae'd pink and white striped prawn-like crustacean. It was quite hard to find any crustaceans - I think it was that one and the giant crab.)

    We went to the stingray talk - the stingrays swim up on the perspex tank side, and even hang a flipper over the edge of the perspex. There was a black species and a brown one, and apparently the black ones are a bit bullyish - they certainly did more of the antics on perspex for food. I tried taking photos, but the water moved a lot, and it was hard to get anything other than "water-distorted brown and black circular blobs on sandy background".

    We also went to the otter talk and the "seals behaving badly" show which were good fun, and pretty much what you'd expect. There's clearly a discrepancy between myself and the majority of humanity when it comes to furry brown critters that can do tricks, vs fantastically-coloured and -shaped critters that get to move around in 3D.

    If I was forced to nominate a favourite animal, I'd probably pick seadragons. I first saw them live at what was then Underwater World in Perth, now the Aquarium of Western Australia. They had leafy seadragons on display, and they were instant favourites for the sheer complexity of the leafy appendages, and the way two of them floating together made a very passable imitation of seaweed. So the weedy seadragon was, as far as I was concerned, a bit of a poor cousin, having just a few leafy bits.

    But, as you've probably guessed, this underwater world had weedy seadragons, and now I've seen them too, it's a tough ask. Weedy seadragons are impossibly colourful in real life. They're bright orange-red, with blue stripes, and yellow dots and other markings. The (orange-red) "leaves" are outlined in black. Also, I don't think I've ever seen baby seadragons before - they were perfect miniatures of their parents, except with a black-and-yellow colour scheme. I took a squillion pictures, and hopefully some of them will work out.

    Also, to continue my collection of biological idiosyncracies (my favourite conifer is the Bunya Pine), I now have a candidate for favourite cartilaginous fish - the Shark Ray. That weird hybrid shape, those cute little nubbly ridges above the eyes, that slight hint of a leopard spot pattern that looks like it's been faded in and out for artistic reasons. But the (normal-shaped) ray covered entirely in leopard spots (which would probably be the leopard whipray from a quick google) is providing heavy competition. I didn't take any photos of either, because they were in the big tank, where you go through the acrylic-domed tunnel under the fish, and the curvature and light just makes it not worth trying to take photographs.

    There was also the fabulously photogenic butterfly fish, and because apparently that was the venomous tank, it kept company with the frighteningly ugly stonefish. And upside-down jellyfish, which were completely new to me. And pretty orange fish, and blue fish, and black-and-white fish. I'd have liked more non-fish underwater species like spanish dancers, but I'm pretty happy with what was there.

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    Becoming an Ally

    UQ has a new equity program, intended to make life more comfortable for GLBTIQs on campus. The idea is essentially that Allies advertise themselves as such, providing a "safe space" if needed, and doing what they can to address homophobia and so forth on campus.

    In what I think of as my everyday life, this is, as far as I can tell, a complete non-issue. On the other hand, I did notice when I moved up here that people who set off my gaydar were much more closeted, and there's much more casual assumption that everyone is straight, narrow, 2.15 kids with white picket fence, than I am comfortable with.

    So I'd been wondering what I could do to dislodge any assumption that just because I'm heterosexual, I also make white picket fence assumptions about the world around me. This program seems just about perfect. Besides, now I have a reason for putting up rainbows everywhere.

    I went to the training program on Thursday. A lot of it was a bit, well, boring for me: I'm already aware that, for example, different people identify as transgender and transsexual, and there's some dispute about what those words mean and who they apply to.

    On the other hand, I liked the students who came in to talk about their experiences on campus. I wasn't exactly shocked that the gay engineering student is planning to transfer to architecture next year. There was also a visit by two people who were already Allies, one of whom was this wonderfully bouncy guy wearing his Ally badge (just about everywhere, by the sound of it), and explaining how he was a "recovering homophobe".

    Of course, it could just all be an excuse for me to put up rainbow stickers everywhere.

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    Air-con!

    We now have air conditioning upstairs! With cold air and less humidity and everything! WooHoo!

    Zeki seems a bit unsettled by the change - we've been closing all the doors and windows, and the partition to the bedrooms (they also have air-con, but on a separate circuit). I expect he'll get used to it.

    I'm definitely all in favour, except now going outside is even more disgusting than previously. At least this problem is only really bad for about three months a year.

    And they're quiet air-con units, and they do reverse cycle, and they have all the energy stars filled in. I like James' research prowess when it comes to acquiring technology and gadgets.

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    Sunday Moll

    Sunday morning of our bike trip was just delightful. We got up pretty early, and hopped on the bikes straight after showering, and rode through the early-morning countryside, still covered in mist. The landscape west of Kyogle is quite green and agricultural and small-scale in comparison to most Australian landscape, because of the surrounding hills.

    We saw lots of flocks of birds getting their morning exercise, rode carefully through cows wandering all over the road, all was buccolic bliss.

    We arrived in Woodenbong for breakfast. This is quite a small town, with a pub, a community hall, a primary school, and fortunately, a recently-opened grocery and cafe. I'm not a cooked-breakfast person myself, but the other three would like to assure readers that it is worth getting up early for the scrambled eggs in Woodenbong. We had quite an interesting view from the cafe too: across the road is the primary school and that Sunday was Clean Up Australia day, so there were lots of kids running around the school grounds with black garbage bags trailing behind them.

    We then drove north, towards Queen Mary Falls. These are quite lovely, and photos were taken and ice-cream consumed. We were just about ready to leave as the Sunday-outing-in-the-park crowd turned up. Several drivers of horrendously large four-wheel drives seemed to take personal offense at the fact that because we had got there several hours before them, before the place got crowded, each motorbike had its own parking space, and we intended to leave on our schedule, not theirs.

    The next part of the road climbs, and the road actually runs along the ridge that defines the Qld-NSW border for a stretch. There's a lookout where we got a good view of Wilson's Peak and Mt Superbus. The area is interesting as it seems to have a bit of a "desolate wilderness" reputation, I guess due to the number and steepness of the mountains around here. The lookout had information about the RAAF flight that crashed here in 1951 (I think), that had been flying a sick newborn to Brisbane for medical care.

    We left the hilliness and rainforest behind and reached Boonah at about starvation time. Now metropolitan Brisbane has been taken over by heathens like myself who think Sunday is as good a day for the shops to be open as any other, but the options are rather more limited in Boonah.

    So we ended up with some food, including the by-now compulsory icecream, from the supermarket, on each our bench around the only shade tree in the square in front of the public library, lying back and watching the gliders drifting around in the clear blue sky east of town.

    Someone in Boonah has a weird sense of humour. The balcony around the upper floor of the pub (our other potential food option) has a number of shop display dummies, dressed and arranged as though there's a Hawaiian-themed party going on continuously up there. It appears to be having trouble really getting going, though.

    I was quite glad we were on the home stretch by now: although I've improved in my ability to sit on the back of a bike hugely over this weekend, I do still get sore after a few hours and need to stretch. And I realise now that sitting on the back in city traffic is more effort, as you have to hang on, on the corners, and pay attention to when the driver needs to brake. In the countryside, you can spend a lot of time just sitting there.

    It also helped a lot once I figured out that I didn't get as sore knees if I stretched my hip flexors at each stop. Scott (who I see for sports massage) also complains that my hip flexors are too tight. So I guess that's something to work on. I don't really understand why tight hip flexors causes my knees to hurt, but I'm not arguing with the experimental evidence.

    The home stretch was first towards Ipswich, and some stuff that I don't quite understand happened, which involved trying to get to Mt Crosby Road following our GPS, and we ended up in a perfectly lovely forested new development just north of Ipswich, I mean, I have nothing against the place, it just didn't have much to do with where we were trying to go.

    After some re-navigating, we did find the right road and came back towards Brisbane via Kenmore, where Chris and Sarah's new house is. We admired it, and took pictures of Chris and Sarah next to the For SaleSold sign.

    Their new place is curiously near and far from our place - because of the way the exits from the freeway work, you've got to circle around and come back to their place. On the other hand, if I were to run to their place, I could do it a lot more directly, I think. As long as no-one objected to me running on the side of the freeway. Which means I'm waiting until our "missing link" cycle path is finished before I try.

    That was about it for that trip - we came home to Zeki who had clearly missed us terribly, and started thinking about what had be done before Monday morning.

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    Welcome Aidan

    On Monday, Sarah gave birth to Aidan, and on Wednesday, James and I visited them (and Michael) in hospital.

    The birth sounds to have been fairly long and painful, as such things are, but well within the range of normal. Aidan wasn't feeding all that well and spent most of our visit asleep, but the hospital staff seemed to have the problem well in hand.

    Sarah and Michael were fine, but tired. I think that's near compulsory for first parents. Sarah's parents were in town, and in fact Sarah's mother had helped at the birth; apparently next week Michael's parents will be taking their turn.

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    Failed bikie moll

    So, on the weekend, I went away on my first motorbike trip. James (since I can't actually control a bike, just hang on at the back, he's a necessary component of all my motorbike activities) and I went with Chris and Sarah - Sarah rides a scooter around town, but for trips, she sits on the back of Chris' bike.

    The original plan had been to head north, but the pub Sarah wanted to stay at is undergoing renovation or something, so we went south instead.

    Chris and Sarah turned up at about 7am, and James persuaded Chris to try his coffee while we finished packing. There isn't really much packing you can do when everything for two people has to fit on a motorbike, and the camera gear is taking up one pannier on its own, but it still takes time, particularly when you're doing this for the first time.

    We drove down to Mount Tambourine, and did a tour of the hardware store (Chris needed to replace a bolt on his bike), checked out the free plants (to local residents) and had breakfast at a place called "Forest".

    Forest is high yuppie, featuring prices like 7.4 and 9.9, and a waiter who was either trying to be snooty, or just incompetent. Also, it seemed to be impossible to find anywhere that didn't have cigarette smoke blowing past. The actual food was quite yummy, the mushrooms being particularly good.

    The toilet was also a high point. There was an outer "powder room" with sinks, mirrors, and seats. The "business" room had three unisex stalls and a separate little room with a urinal in it. It seemed like a very sensible solution to limited space, and also of course means children of either sex can be taken to the toilet by adults of either sex.

    Sarah also wanted to visit a local antiques store, so we rode past all the hang-gliders and had a look. There was a table exactly like she wanted but not long enough. Her new house has a nice big deck out the front, and needs a good-sized table to balance it.

    Then we were back on the bikes for the longest leg, to Rathdowney. We were pretty hot and dusty when we arrived, and it's one of those quiet, hot, dusty towns, so icecream was in order. We looked at the topographical model of the surrounding landscape for a while.

    Chris suggested we swap riders for the next stretch, so I sat with Chris as we rode the Lions Road to the Border Loop lookout. It's interesting how completely different different bikes feel.

    The actual lookout isn't that much, but there were a lot of bellbirds in the forest around us. We had decided, with the heat, that we'd basically have an afternoon rest/nap here for a while. I went on the little bushwalk loop, which doesn't get you a better view of the railway loop at all, but does take you through several different kinds of forest, including a rainforest for the end part of the loop. It was interesting and quite dramatic to me the way the bellbirds were the only birds you heard up near the lookout, and then they seemed to disappear entirely, to be replaced by quite different bird sounds in the rainforest.

    Otherwise, there was some indolent newspaper and magazine reading, and some photography. Quite the lazy Saturday afternoon. I did discover that the bike boots I'm using at the moment (an old pair of James', slightly too small for him, and slightly too large for me) are not suitable for bushwalks, even short ones.

    Once we'd been indolent long enough, we hopped back on the bikes and drove down Lions Road to Kyogle, in northern NSW. James just made it into town without running out of fuel, and Chris needed to refill also, so Sarah and I left them at the BP on the edge of town, and walked onwards in search of accommodation. This turned out to be very easy - we walked into the first pub we found and soon had ourselves a couple of rooms upstairs, with newly-cleaned carpets. In fact, they hadn't booked anyone else because they were worried the carpets wouldn't be dry yet. Later, we met a couple of women whose car had broken down and were also staying the night.

    We went outside and flagged down James and Chris and gave them instructions for getting around to the parking at the back of the pub, next to the clothesline. Our rooms were functional, but the (shared) bathrooms were quite something, in high 50s interior decor, with a pink/pale green/beige colour scheme in the ladies, and baby blue/yellow for the menfolk. The plumbing must have been from the same era, as James initially couldn't get warmer than tepid water, whereas the water in the women's bathroom was fine. It turned out that the shower in the men's on the wall adjacent to the women's must have shared the plumbing circuit with the women's, because apparently one could get a hot shower in it.

    Our wild night in Kyogle consisted of getting incredibly cheap but good takeaway from the snack shop next to the pub (this was how the pub served meals) and playing pool in the otherwise deserted "dining room" of the pub (this was where we met the women with the broken-down car, who'd gone for the same entertainment and food option as us). None of us were really up for sharing the smoke and the general ancient aussie male culture of spending Saturday afternoon and evening bonding with other males, in the main pub.

    It turned out that just going for the first pub (the Exchange Hotel, in case anyone should find themselves in Kyogle on a Saturday night), or possibly the carpet cleaning thing, was very much to our advantage, as the local Harley-Davidson gang rode into town while we were waiting for dinner, and they were all staying at Kyogle's other pub. Chris cracked us up with impersonations of the stolid expressions of the bikers, complaining that I was a failure as a bikie moll, because I showed too much expression, in particular, by smiling and looking happy.

    I was generally having something of a "anthropologist on Mars" experience, noticing the general level of homophobia around me, combined with all the macho bonding in the pub, and of the Harley-Davidson riders. (It appeared that the pub was considerably more willing to give us rooms for the night when Sarah and I explained that there were two guys, refuelling up the road, with us, so I couldn't resist, after explaining we were two couples, and the publican had headed off for the room keys, saying something like "actually, a gay couple and a lesbian couple" just loud enough for Sarah to hear.)

    Hmm. This is getting long. I'll do Sunday in a separate entry.

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    What's big and red and likes water?

    I can't really think of much else to say about this:

    very big ship

    Complete layout diagram and more pictures here.

    In the meantime, I've spent most of this week at a conference and I intend to spend most of today recovering. Conferences are not particularly compatible with my requirements for health, like enough sleep, water, vegetables, and chances to stretch. Instead, I find myself lugging around an unergonomic conference bag with a brick-sized conference book, and eating far too many cakes.

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    Medical trivia

    I went for my first ever ultrasound yesterday, which was an interesting experience. The most uncomfortable part was definitely having to have a full bladder for an hour beforehand. Well, you were meant to drink a litre of water an hour beforehand, but it appears I was sufficiently well-hydrated that it went straight through. Fortunately, I got to empty my bladder after the first round, the second lot of investigation was done with an empty bladder.

    They very thoughtfully have a monitor set up above the examination table, letting you see your insides live. I couldn't make much sense of the imagery, but it's excellent for keeping you both distracted and involved at the same time.

    There wasn't anything obvious relating to my menstrual cramps - I have fibroids, but Susie the technician implied they're common as dirt and harmless (at least at the size I have them). I have to take my actual test results back to my GP and get her interpretation.

    However, it turns out I have a small ureterocele on my left side. This means that during my fetal development, the tube from my kidney to my bladder (ureter) didn't finish developing properly, and so I have a cyst inside my bladder that is an extension of the ureter.

    From lurching around the internet, I've learnt that they're more common in caucasians, and occur in something between 1 in 500 and 1 in 4000 people, depending on who's counting and what they're counting. There may be a genetic component, as there are siblings with the condition, and "more common in caucasians" also suggests some genetic component to me. Ureteroceles are more common in women (four-six times) and possibly more common on the left side, so I'm bog-typical. Well, bog-typical for someone with a ureterocele, anyway.

    It appears that ureteroceles come in two broad categories:

    A Usually large ones, that interfere significantly with normal kidney and bladder function, often from birth. They often cause problems like failure to thrive, as well as all kinds of things like recurrent bladder and/or kidney infections, and were extremely hard to diagnose because of the wide variety of symptoms. These days, they're often picked up during pregnancy ultrasounds, and with further checks of the newborn, are more easily managed.

    B Small ones that don't interfere significantly with normal functioning, which are not uncommonly discovered accidentally in the course of looking for something else in otherwise healthy adults during pelvic ultrasounds; or during autopsies.

    In case you hadn't guessed, ultrasounds are the single best way to diagnose suspected ureteroceles; conversely, if you've got one, during an ultrasound is when you'll find out about it.

    As far as I can tell, the fact that I've reached this age, oblivious to any urinary tract problems, means that my ureterocele is mainly a cute piece of trivia. However, if I ever get kidney stones, I may need more aggressive intervention, as they may not get through the left ureter by themselves.

    This was my main reference, but note that the language used is aimed at medicos. The ultrasound in picture 2 looks a lot like mine. This page uses easier terminology, however, it is aimed at parents of children with problematic uretoroceles. It has a nice clear medical diagram. Unsurprisingly, there isn't much information specifically about ureteroceles that aren't causing any bother.

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    Rock Climbing

    James and I went rock climbing for the first time last night at Urban Climb. You hire harness and shoes, you go through a rather thorough safety/how to do it instruction, and off you go.

    The set-up consists of a fake rock wall with regular holes in it, that plastic knobs of various sizes, shapes and colours can be attached to. There are rope anchors at regular intervals, attached at the top and near the bottom of the wall. Each floor anchor has a little card attached to it, telling you which colour routes belong to this rope, and their difficulty level.

    Yellows are the easy routes, blue next, then pink, green, orange, and black. Based on the dates on the cards I read, it looks like the routes get changed and re-designed regularly. There were two or three routes for each rope - the ropes with easy routes tend to have fewer routes, because the easy routes need more plastic knobs on the wall. I usually had to look really carefully to see the black routes - most of the knobs seemed about the size of a 50c piece, and well separated.

    I only made it to the top of yellow routes; I tended to either run out of upper body strength, or get stuck on a bit trying to figure out where to head next without cheating (using plastic knobs of a different colour) for too long to get to the top of any blue routes. James got up several blue routes and had a go at a pink one, I think.

    I discovered that my whole Problem With Down wasn't really an issue, partly because it's all about up, and I've never had a problem with up, and partly because I was so focussed on the bits of plastic within half a meter of my reach that I didn't really notice anything else. At the top, your belayer lets you down, abseiling style, and that wasn't a problem either, once I got over my initial tendency to try to hang on to the knobs as I passed them.

    I also think contact lenses rather than glasses was a really good idea for me. James climbed in glasses and had no problem, but his frames are more robust than mine and my prescription is strong enough that I get edge effects.

    James is really keen to go back, and I'm certainly happy to give it several more goes, but I am wondering if I have the shoulder and finger strength to get very far. I noticed that all the female rock climbers who looked like they knew what they were doing were petite: short, light, and relatively wiry, with not much difference between arm and leg circumference. Whereas I am built like the women who line up for the 100m and 200m sprint finals. The less fit version of course, but still that basic build.

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    Rocks on the brain

    James and I went climbing at Urban Climb for the second time yesterday. We both made some progress - I finally got all the way up some of the shorter, easier blue routes, and James made it up some pink routes.

    The thing that's affecting me most at the moment is that I have to put a lot of effort into particular moves, particularly the "step up", using the quad muscles, including lots of thinking beforehand. That means I'm spending rather too much time hanging on by my fingers, and I don't make it to the top. I expect I'll be able to do it a lot faster once it becomes more habitual.

    Successful rock climbing seems to involve speed and momentum, so your fingers don't have time to get tired, and you don't have time to fall off when you shift your weight in odd directions or scrabble up the blank rock face. It's still funny when James decides he doesn't like where any of the pink knobs are and tries to make like a fly.

    I'm really pleased I'm onto blue routes. There's far more of a selection of routes than for yellow. I'm keen to do this rock climbing some more.

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    Squash boggle.

    Yesterday I played squash for the first time in over a year. I played with Birgit who has played very little squash (but a lot of tennis) so we were roughly equally hopeless, and we had fun. I of course sweated like nobody's business, and James thought I looked like I'd just stepped out of a pool.

    Today, of course, I'm getting a few messages from various muscles. My left tricep, deltoid, and trapezius, not surprisingly, but mainly my glutes. Now when I go running for the first time after a break, it's my quads and adductors that have something to say, so clearly squash running is rather different from running running. I suspect it's all the lunging for the ball.

    Now, James has been having some thigh and lower-back trouble, and his physiotherapist discovered that a major cause of the problem was that James basically had no glutes. I was seeing the podiatrist in the same complex, so I can vouch for the fact that for the first half an hour or so that James tried to contract his left glute, nothing happened (or his hamstring contracted). He's been practising diligently, and he now definitely has more glutes than he used to.

    But James plays squash regularly, preferably five times a week. The boggle is this: How on earth has he been getting around the court without glutes? How has he managed for so long without noticing, or having worse problems than he does?

    I think I can understand the principle of muscles that have never been engaged, so they just don't work, but glutes are big important muscles, pretty basic to getting around, and based on my experience, essential for playing squash.

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    Bouncy evening.

    We've moved the dance mats down into the shiny new downstairs area, and James has StepMania on his laptop, so we can do computer dance silliness again, even if it's not the final version (there will eventually be a PC down there, rather than having to take the laptop up and down).

    Yesterday, Sarah and Michael (and Aidan, but he didn't dance) and Ian came over and curry and cake and gingernuts were eaten, and much jumping around on dance mats was accomplished. I was a bit worried I wouldn't get as much of a go as I wanted with five people taking turns on two mats, but luckily everyone else wore out before me, so the last hour or so I basically had one mat to myself and the other three (Ian had gone home by then) took turns on the other.

    I'm quite pleased with myself as there were several five-foot (difficulty level) songs I managed okay on, and I got more of the half-beats that you see in the more complicated routines. This was partly because we re-set the note "skins" to monotone colours, so the whole-beat steps are red, half-step blue, and quarter (or other?) are yellow. This is making getting used to half-beats much easier for me, and I'll be able to eventually go back to the default out-of-synch changing colours eventually. And I'm also getting to the stage that two-foot songs are becoming mostly pointless (apart from the mislabelled ones).

    We made some jokes about how many good DDR songs start with B (Butterfly, Boom Boom Dollar, Bad Girls, Boys, Bumblebee, Bye Bye Baby Balloon). And Sarah saved me with 9 seconds to go on the "select song" clock when she remembered that Sway has a title in parentheses first - so I wasn't going to find it under S, it was under "Other", and is recorded as (Mucho Mambo) Sway.

    I didn't even get around to my all-time favourite DDR song (Aqua's Cartoon Heroes) but I had so much fun I didn't mind.

    I stretched afterwards, and that seems to have been wise. I don't have any aftereffects today apart from slightly tight calves. I have to remember that seeing as DDR is a lot more "on the toes" than running that I have much more need to stretch my calves afterwards.

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    Gateau too

    James was apparently inspired enough by his first cake-making attempt that he wanted to try it again. He's decided to stick to making this particular recipe for now, what hardship! And so, on Wednesday I came home from work to an almost-finished lamb roast and a new chocolate and orange gateau.

    And a kitchen that was noticeably tidier than it'd been when I left in the morning.

    Admittedly, it sounded like James had been in the kitchen from noon to six to achieve this feat, but I am impressed all the same.

    The lamb roast was very nice, and quite filling, so we didn't actually get to try the gateau on Wednesday. James also said he wasn't sure he could face the actual cake after all that testing and bowl-licking. I think I know what he means.

    So the cake tasting happened last night. This one looked much more like the picture, although if I want chocolate leaves, I have to make them myself. I think it tasted better too, certainly more like the picture - the first version had ended up a bit smudged together, and now the layers and flavours were more distinct.

    There is a rumour that James may have a third go at this cake late next week, in time to push it on anyone silly enough to visit us on Sunday afternoon. Our waistlines are not going to survive having to dispose of three of these cakes in a month. Even if I sweat over another batch of chocolate leaves.

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    Zanth's

    Zanth's is the main, and family-oriented, food service in the resort. It's buffet style, featuring a lot of seafood, and a variety of other dishes that rotate during the week.

    The food was okay - some of it not very good, other bits just fine. The prawns were okay, but neither James nor I seem to be into oysters or mussels. Their "mediterranean" food was also rather mixed - the hummus was nice, the turkish bread and wine leaves yummy, but they have no clue how to make Baba ganoush.

    James scored their "build yourself" chicken kebabs quite highly, and I enjoyed their couscous dishes and the beef stew.

    The dessert buffet selection however was quite up to scratch. About five different ice-cream flavours, chocolate mousse, fresh fruit, apple strudel, and an ever-changing parade of cakes, of which I had a piece of chocolate-hazelnut cake and a piece of a raspberry-white chocolate pudding thingy.

    The dessert buffet also had jugs of sauce to pour over everything - James and I ignored the chocolate and caramel sauces and focussed on the mango and raspberry sauces, which tasted like somebody had pushed fruit though a blender and poured it in a jug. This is fine by me, frankly.

    I was a bit horrified this morning to discover that Zanth's is apparently short for Zanthorrhoea. Even without web access, I'm sure the latin for grass tree is spelt with an X, although I couldn't spell the rest without help. It simply hadn't occurred to me that Zanth's could be short for "Xanthorrhoea".

    Back with net access, I note the "Z" spelling gets 9 google hits (and a "did you mean to search for Xanthorrhoea"?); the "X" spelling gets 10,900 hits. Based on Language Log's use of googling as a linguistics research tool, I say Zanth's (the restaurant) is more or less alone on this one, at p=0.001.

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    'Screaming

    Two batches of icecream: the uncooked cream icecream recipe, with mashed bananas, ginger syrup and chopped cashews. Verdict: tasty, but quite gentle-tasting, the ginger in particular being rather subtle. Obviously more ginger syrup should be used next time.

    The other batch is the cooked, cream custard recipe with rum, cocoa and cinnamom. It's now cooling and won't be made into icecream until tomorrow, when rum-soaked sultanas will be added. It will be much richer-tasting, based on licking the saucepan.

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    Truffles and fish

    I made Rum-balls-but-with-brandy -style truffles yesterday. Actually, an important part of the prep work was done in December, when I discovered some old, darkening dried apricots and some old sultanas which were starting to get those little sugar spots on the outside. Since December is the month for doing things with dried fruit, I chopped the apricots into sultana-sized pieces, and stuck it all in a bowl, and James helped me pour brandy over it.

    In December, some of the brandied fruit got used to make fake mince pies (I have no clue how to make real mince pies: I cut circles of pre-made pastry, press them into mini-muffin pans, put a bit of sugared alcohol-soaked fruit in each, and bake until they look baked.) and some of it was used for our Panforte-inspired Christmas cake (brandied fruit, chopped cashews, citrus peel, green and red cherries, chocolate chips, ginger syrup, spices, a nominal amount of flour and some beaten eggs to hold everything together, baked until done).

    We still had some brandied fruit left, so yesterday I minced some with the big knife until it was more a paste than individual bits of fruit in syrupy goo. Then I added crushed Marie biscuits until I had a reasonably firm playdoh-like substance that tasted rich and decadent, rather than totally overwhelming, like the brandy fruit paste did. I rolled cherry-sized balls, and then I melted some (dark) chocolate and coated each ball in chocolate, and left them to set in the fridge.

    I like it when you can just mush things that taste nice together, and the finished result tastes really good too.

    The fish is just to note that I'm not scared of cooking fish anymore, and I've found a way to incorporate fish into my OneStirFry recipe. It probably should count as my SecondStirFry recipe, since it is a bit different.

    In my OneStirFry recipe, you chop meat of some kind into smallish chunks or slices, put it in a bowl, and pour/shake over it a random assortment of stuff you find in the cupboard and fridge that might go well together, from items such as soy sauce, teriyaki marinade, Thai fish sauce, oyster sauce, lime or lemon juice, vinegar of some description, dry sherry, red wine, yoghurt, ginger, garlic, chilli, green herbs, and the Spicerack of Impressing Most Visitors.

    You let the meat and flavourings entertain each other, while you pick out a selection of vegetables and chop them into whatever shapes you're in the mood for today. Frequently Encountered Vegetables are onions, broccoli, pumpkin, mushroom and capsicum, but it depends on what's on sale.

    The chopped vegetables go into old yoghurt containers (1 litre Bornhoffen buckets which we mysteriously have quite a number of) according to their estimated cooking time, factored based on the vegetable and the size and shape of the chopping. Beans, carrots, and broccoli go in early, pumpkin is an intermediate vegetable if you slice it thin enough, mushroom is intermediate or late depending on how firm they are and if I'm in the mood to show off that firmness. Onions usually go in early, and often almost become part of the sauce, but can go in late for crunch, and spring onions and capsicum tend to be late.

    Cornflour and a small jug of water are put on standby, and the wok is fired up. The meat is separated from its new friends as far as possible, and stir-fried until browned on most sides, then the vegetable buckets are progressively added every few minutes. The leftover stuff in the meat marinating bowl has some cornflour and water stirred in, and once the vegetables are all close to cooked, the liquid is poured over, stirred through and allowed to thicken a bit, before the heat is turned off. We pretty much always eat this with rice.

    In the SecondStirFry recipe, cornflour and chosen representatives of the Spicerack of Impressing Most Visitors are mixed in a bowl, fish is sliced and tossed in the flour-spice mix, extra oil is added to the wok as it heats, the fish is stir/deep fried quickly, and removed to a new bowl.

    Vegetable chopping (actually done before the fish was taken from the fridge) and stir-frying happens as in the first recipe, a bit of liquid is added to the cornflour dregs, and that again is poured on and allowed to thicken at the end of vegetable cooking. The vegetables are served with the fish as a sort of garnish on top.

    Last night's credits: red snapper; paprika, star anise, salt, pepper, cumin, cassia; onion, white cabbage, green beans, pumpkin, capsicum, mushrooms; lime juice, teriyaki sauce. Because there was quite a lot of cabbage and pumpkin, we decided to skip the rice.

    James would have liked more generous amounts of the spices; I really liked the flavour of the lime juice with just a squidge of teriyaki, and thought it was very appropriate with fish. Also, I think the SecondStirFry recipe may be appropriate for making salt and pepper squid, just the fish cooking part. I've never really learnt to cook seafood.

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    Green shade

    Went for a longish'er run this morning - while I'm happy with my fitness for 4k runs, I seem to run out of oomph past that, and I'd like to get back to being able to do 10k runs without having to walk part of the way.

    I ran out of oomph after about 3.5k, but that was because I was nearly up the top of Mt Ommaney Drive, and I was able to get going again once it wasn't so steep, along the riverwalk, and I think I did about 7k all up.

    While I was running along the river, surrounded by lush greenness, and listening to whipbirds, I was reminded of one of my favourite bits of poetry, from Andrew Marvell's The Garden:

    Annihilating all that's made
    To a green thought in a green shade
    I don't know if I'm in favour of annihilating everything, but sometimes, annihilating all my thoughts to green ones is very good.

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    Movement

    I went for a 4k run this morning that even though it felt like hard work, felt like fit-me hard work.

    I had been running regularly last year up to around our holiday. Then with Christmas and Zeki being a bit of a pain (he's not allowed in the bedroom at night anymore) and various other bits and bods, I got out of the habit, and worse, I started going to bed late and thus getting up too late to go running. In summer, basically 5:30 to 7:30 am is the only suitable running time most days.

    The last few weeks, I've been making a concerted effort to get to bed earlier, and getting up and running even if I didn't feel like it. The first few runs were very unpleasant; about the only thing that kept me going was knowing that it would pass, and that if I didn't run now, it would just make more runs more unpleasant in future.

    So, by this morning, it feels like I'm back in a normal running zone. Yay! for persistence, and for knowing my body well enough to read all the signs correctly. Not so yay for getting into that state in the first place, but I've dealt with it now.

    Also I did the second coat of paint on the bit of the balcony where the air conditioner is going. The air conditioning guy, Paul, is currently installing the back balcony air conditioner.

    James has to go sing at a wedding this afternoon, time to help him get ready.

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    By the way,

    When someone asks you if you'd like to buy a tray of slightly overripe mangoes, of a variety you've never heard of before, namely Honey gold, for $5, you say 'yes!'.

    They are seriously yummy. They're a bit of a pain to prepare, as the skin is very, very thin (we think they may be bred to be juicing mangoes), but they have almost no fibrous bits, no resiny taste, and just a touch of honey sweetness in the mango flavour.

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    Book review: Of two minds

    It's the silly crazy season, but I did want to mention that I'd finished Of two minds: The growing disorder in American Psychiatry by T.M. Luhrmann.

    Luhrmann is an anthropologist who spent something like five years hanging out with psychiatrists, finding out how they see what they're doing, and what it all means.

    Her study turned out to happen at an interesting time: she started by looking at the dichotomy between the biomedical "find the right drug to fix them" model of mental illness, and the psychotherapeutic "get them to understand themselves" model. As it turned out, the take-over of medicine by HMOs meant the increasing loss of the psychotherapeutic angle, and she argues that this is a significant loss for mental health.

    I particularly enjoyed the beginning and end of the book and felt it lagged a bit in the middle, although I guess she is trying to supply supporting evidence for her viewpoint there.

    My major discrepancy with the book is that she presents, and apparently believes to be true, these two extremely dichotomous views of mental illness as what is available to psychiatrists, and what they work with, alternating between them as needed. My experience with trying to understand mental illness is that there is value from both viewpoints, and that it doesn't take long before one forms a hybrid model, hard to verbalise admittedly, but requiring data from either model to be modified before it can be used.

    Part of the difference between us might be that the psychotherapy she looks at is largely that derived from psychoanalysis, whereas I see psychoanalysis as an interesting first attempt at psychotherapy, but not particularly practical. Psychoanalysis does seem to require a very extreme frame of mind, and is a process that seems to run a high risk of damaging the patient further. Newer psychotherapies strike me as being far lower-risk. For example, exposure therapy for phobias seems to work extremely well, provided the exposure is gradual, and the judge of that gradualness is the phobic. This is, I think, quite unlike psychoanalysis, which has (to me) always had the weakness that the analyst is always right, and the patient can either agree or be labelled repressed. As far as I can understand Luhrmann, a good analyst needs to be open to their own mistakes, and even the analysand perhaps pointing out the analyst's repressions, but that sounds like a very difficult and time-consuming place to get to.

    I am also coming to appreciate that however much I may be in favour of more recent types of psychotherapy, with clinical trials and brain-mind models of how the psychotherapy might actually work, not all that many psychiatrists are actually familiar with them and practice them. I hope what that means is that in the long run, psychotherapy will not vanish in favour of medicating mental illness, but that the newer, less time-consuming psychotherapies will "come on board" and hopefully get funded by the HMOs.

    Because I do agree with her overall conclusion: attempting to treat mental illness only with drugs, ignoring the person and their volition, does not work particularly well.

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    Lily's on the Lagoon

    Wednesday night, James and I had dinner at Lily's on the Lagoon, at the Novotel Twin Waters resort, although apparently the restaurant predates the rest of the resort. It's definitely the most upmarket, adult place at the resort, and seems a good place to head when the preteens having fun at high decibel levels and the bored teens get too much.

    In the earlier menu research, I'd already determined that I'd rather try dessert than entree, so we were straight onto choosing mains. Lily's is not a place for vegetarians, but I was having a hard time picking between the pork, salmon, chicken... I ended up going for the twice-cooked duck on sweet potato with ginger sauce and coconut-pickled vegetables, James chose the lamb on white bean mash with grilled capsicum and eggplant.

    We also decided to have a slice each of the homemade bread (very soft and very yummy, with salsa-type herbs, and served with oil with pickled ginger), and a side of Asian vegetables.

    The food was very, very yummy, and very, very filling. I don't know if it was the bread that snuck up on us, but I could have made do with one piece of duck rather than the two I got. The duck was incredibly tender - more like duck-flavoured paste than meat in places. The trims were nice and suited the duck well, I wouldn't have minded more of the coconut vegetables which seemed to be more a garnish than a part of the dish.

    James reported favourably on the lamb, its tenderness and degree of cookedness (pink in the middle) and also the white bean mash, trying to figure out if it was something we could do at home.

    We had a glass of wine each - I can't remember the varietal types, but James' was quite peppery on the front, had a very smooth middle, and some very mellow, rounded oak at the back. Mine was (as requested) much fruitier, and had quite a bit of tannin in the middle, but was quite neutral at the back. All the same, as expected, James got one and half glasses of wine, I didn't need more than half.

    The Asian vegetables had some bok-choi type vegetable, snow peas, and much to my surprise, quite a lot of rocket. I haven't tried stir-fried rocket before, and it's such a strong flavour that I'm glad it was just a side - if I was including rocket in one of my stir-fries, I'd add much less - but then again, I'd never thought of adding it before.

    James managed to pretty much clean his plate (he did ask if it was unseemly to leave a plate that clean in a restaurant this upscale). I had to beg leave with quite a bit of the sweet potato left, and all the "difficult" meat next to the bones.

    Dessert was out of the question, we were close enough to exploding as it was, but it had been very nice all the same. We're talking about another visit on Friday night, probably doing the entree+dessert combo then.

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    Cookie monster

    I'd wanted to make cookies a week or so ago, and got the doughs made up and resting in the fridge. Then of course it got hot again and the idea of turning the oven on was torture.

    But now we have air conditioning, so I celebrated the first weekend day with air-con by baking the cookies. I know it's highly energy inefficient to bake, with air-con, on a hot day (34C). Naughty, naughty. I intend to make it a one-off.

    The two recipes I made up (both for the first time) are called Bombay Delights and Gingernuts. Spice city.

    The Bombay Delights turned out as big, filling, buttery-crumbly things, with a flavour gently reminiscent of those Indian curry nibble mixes. In some ways, they remind me of Brune kager, except bigger, and with sultanas and peanuts instead of citrus peel and almonds, and curry spices instead of christmassy ones. They also share the Brune kager problem that I find it really hard to tell when they're baked, because they don't look noticeably browner in the oven, and then when you finally take them out, they're slightly overdone.

    They were fun to make, and I'm now far more inclined to try baking with "unusual" spices, but I don't know if I want to make them specifically again.

    The Gingernuts might be a keeper, though. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised when I laughed at the spice list (half teaspoon of powdered ginger, pinch each cinnamon, cardamon and cloves), looked at the amount of flour and sugar in the recipe, compared to some of my other recipes, and settled on slightly over a teaspoon of ginger, half a teaspoon of cinnamon, and about a quarter each of the cardamon and cloves.

    The finished product is pretty much exactly how I want my gingernuts - the right level of ginger flavour (hah!), crunchy exterior, softer, slightly treacklish interior. The sugar they're rolled in almost pushes them into decadent, but I'm not sure it's wise to omit it.

    The dough becomes extremely sticky as soon as it warms up - you're advised to separate it into quarters, work each quarter separately, leaving the rest in the fridge, and even then, you have to work quickly. Each quarter is rolled into a sausage, cut into 10 pieces, and each piece rolled in a ball, which is then rolled in the sugar, and set on the tray, slightly flattened. They're "safe" to handle once rolled in sugar. Because I was doing all this while the Bombay delights were baking, I actually set them on gladwrap and put them back in the fridge, for safety's sake.

    But they are a complete delight to bake, and I'd strongly recommend them to anyone who wants to make cookies but is scared by the whole "how do I tell when they're done?" thing. They start out as little flattened balls, they swell and expand into pale hemispheres, then widen further into flat domes. Then, after 10 minutes in my oven, cracks form all over the surface, as the domes collapse slightly and darken. From that point, I let them bake another two minutes, for the cracks to dry and brown. Easy.

    And as I pointed out to James, they look just like the picture in the recipe book. I don't think he minded.

    Between the two recipes, I almost filled the large cookie tin. It is fabulous just to smell it.

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    Lily's, again.

    Given how much we'd enjoyed eating at Lily's on Wednesday, and how we'd been too full to get onto the dessert menu, we decided to head back Friday night for an entree/dessert approach.

    We booked for 6pm, and with our window seat, got a fabulous display of swallows, swooping and gathering over the lake as the sun set. We're guessing they roost under the restaurant, over the lake.

    We got the bread again as "entree" - ginger/garlic and coriander leaf this time. James had salmon, actually one of their mains, but light enough for our purpose, and I had the entree of red quail. We also had some salad - more rocket, bean sprouts, and other green vegies, and bits of silken tofu. I still don't really get tofu, but enjoyed the salad all the same.

    The serious part of the exercise was dessert. We ordered three.

    James ordered a chocolate pudding with icecream on homemade biscuit/waffle, which was brought out on a big square platter, with the restaurant logo sprinkled in chocolate powder in the upper corner. Very pretty. I had the ginger-lychee mousse, decorated with sugar-syrup cooked orange slices and orange peel. I thought the mousse would have been a bit bland without the orange trimmings, but was fabulous with the orange.

    We ate half our desserts each and swapped plates. I'm glad we did, both were so rich I'm not sure I could have finished either, but they were sufficiently different that I could eat half of each, and feel completely satisfied.

    The third "dessert" was Vietnamese coffee. It was on the dessert menu and counted as food, rather than drink (we got 50% off food, but not drinks, with the hotel deal we had). It featured a bowl full of coffee, a scoop of icecream to add, a shot of Galliano to add, and a little pile of palm sugar to add to taste, and a cinnamon stick for stirring the whole thing.

    I left the restaurant very happy, satisfactorily full, and wondering about playing around with oranges and sugar syrup at home. James can play with the Vietnamese coffee idea.

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    Birthday surprise

    I got a very strange phone call around lunchtime on Monday at work. James said he couldn't find the cooking chocolate. I said it had gone off - chocolate sort of decays at Brisbane temperatures - it's still edible, but it's no longer chocolate. Based on my experience with the former cooking chocolate, I have learnt that all chocolate products must be in the fridge, but had not had a reason to buy cooking chocolate since.

    Exactly what did he want the cooking chocolate for? He told me it was none of my business, and there appeared to be some other things we didn't have, which it was also none of my business to know what were, so he'd have to go shopping anyway.

    On the way home, he explained that I wasn't allowed to look at anything in the kitchen while I was cooking dinner (!) because the stuff that was none of my business was still none of my business, and it now required the kitchen. I explained it was going to be extremely difficult, particularly now he'd told me not to think of pink elephants. Eventually he relented and declared that, since he was going to be at rehearsal Tuesday night, my birthday would start Monday evening, and besides, he could use some advice.

    James wanted to make me a chocolate and orange gateau. Mind you, he'd never actually baked a cake before. His only previous related baking experience was making muffins with me a few months ago. He tells me stories of quiches he's made in the past, but I've not actually met one.

    So, launching into cake baking with minimal background, he rejected several recipes as too boring, and went straight for the gateau. Three layers of dense chocolate sponge, with orange and cointreau-flavoured cream cheese filling, iced with melted chocolate, with piped chocolate cream rosettes, chocolate leaves, and julienned orange peel.

    I'd like to point out here that in my experience, it takes effort to make chocolate cake boring. None of the rejected recipes were candidates for boring, although they certainly didn't look as spectacular as his choice.

    I read through the recipe, and it looked ambitious but far from impossible. Particularly the basic cake and filling looked quite manageable, which is really what counts when it comes to chocolate cake. So he set to. I did provide help and support, but he essentially made the cake himself.

    He'd already decided he had to skip the chocolate leaves, because he couldn't find any in the shops. I explained you have to make them yourself, that I knew how to do it, but had never tried. If he was going to do something he'd never done before, so was I. So I had my first go at making chocolate leaves while James made the cake, conveniently preventing me from meddling too much. I nicked some camelia leaves from the front garden that worked excellently - the right size, obviously leaf-shaped, and they peel off the chocolate fairly easily once it's set. The final leaves were too thin in places, but they looked like chocolate leaves at least until they broke.

    James had some icing problems - the icing didn't form a thick layer, but mainly poured off and formed a chocolate lake for the cake. In retrospect, it was too warm, and it should have been let cool down and thicken before being applied to the cake. I blame the recipe for not stating this, because I would have done the same thing James did.

    At the end, he looked at the cake a bit disappointed and complained it didn't look like the picture. I explained to him that I would have killed him if he'd produced a cake like the picture on his first attempt. He said he was now happy it didn't look like the picture, because he didn't want me to kill him.

    James also says he now understands why the kitchen is such a mess when I bake. He said he was trying to keep things tidy, but it ended up messier than I make it.

    I am (in case anyone can't tell) incredibly touched by the whole thing. And the cake tastes yummy.

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    Update

    I've been a bit behind, trying to edit all my holiday posts, but here they all are now, dated to roughly when I started composing them.

    Reading over them, I thought it'd be worth mentioning that the scratch on my nose is now healed, but I do have a scar and a tiny bump. I hope it's just the final healing.

    Also, our camera is out for service, so there are no holiday photos, not even theoretically.

    Update to the update: I forgot to report on Sunday's party, I've post-dated it appropriately.

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    Bye bye

    I have to try to survive without my laptop for maybe a day, while a screen problem is fixed. Wish me luck.

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    Hello World!!!!!

    This is my first post to a Blosxom blog. The other posts will be more interesting, I promise.

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