Sunday, 19 October 2008

Autumn in the Forest

After getting a bit lost last week in the New Forest, we returned today to make best use of the continuing good weather. This time we brought our bikes, so heading off down lanes of unknown length posed less of a problem for getting back to the car.

Having complained to Adrian about never having seen any wild pigs in the New Forest, this trip furnished a whole herd of them ... ... although the rings through their noses were suggestive of them either being Goths or less wild than their reputation suggested. They were quite impressively sized beasts either way.

We also took in the arboretum down Ornamental Drive for some autumnal colour (plus, obviously, lemon meringue ice cream from the car park). The latter can be seen here, but here are my "best" shots of deciduous leaf action.

Green ...
Yellow ...
Red ...

Flickr sorted

Finally sorted out my Flickr account. Unlimited (I think) uploads beckon - quality control can safely go out of the window!

One of the first things uploaded were the (quality controlled) photos from our recent trip to the Brecon Beacons. I've also posted up (selected) photos from Dr. Morris' birthday bash. These supplant those uploaded last week.

Anyway, these seem to have worked out OK, although there are issues for me to sort out about image rotation and image ordering. Paint Shop Pro 7 strips the EXIF information from my photos, so makes Flickr's job organising my photos difficult. Have to think about that one - Photoshop, a possible alternative package, is a pain in the arse to use (sorry Graham).

Thursday, 16 October 2008

A new toy

Our home PC is getting on for 5 years old. It's also getting on for being the slowest computer that I've used (short of my parents' Windows ME monster). Perhaps more significantly, it has become rather constraining given certain interests/addictions. Anyway, I've just ordered its replacement: a XPS 420 from Dell. Probably not the best value in the world (though it was on special offer), but our current PC, as well as several of my work PCs, have been Dell boxes and have all done pretty well, and I've had very bad experiences before with other suppliers. Still, it's not all bad news for our home PC - assuming Parcel Force's prices aren't prohibitive, it's being put out to grass with my parents (thus relieving them of the burden of Windows ME).

Wednesday, 15 October 2008


Bit of a bonanza today on on-line material about potential future VP Palin (i.e. nothing from me).

First, a quality point-and-click website depicting her in the White House.

Second, an interesting "concerned citizen" e-mail that appears to be doing the rounds in the US, but which (at least according to a few Republican blogs I've come across) appears to be broadly credible. I've reproduced it below for future reference (though hopefully only in a "dodged that bullet" sense).

I am a resident of Wasilla, Alaska. I have known Sarah since 1992. Everyone here knows Sarah, so it is nothing special to say we are on a first-name basis. Our children have attended the same schools. Her father was my child's favorite substitute teacher. I also am on a first name basis with her parents and mother-in-law. I attended more City Council meetings during her administration than about 99% of the residents of the city. She is enormously popular; in every way she's like the most popular girl in middle school. Even men who think she is a poor choice and won't vote for her can't quit smiling when talking about her because she is a "babe". It is astonishing and almost scary how well she can keep a secret. She kept her most recent pregnancy a secret from her children and parents for seven months. She is "pro-life". She recently gave birth to a Down's syndrome baby. There is no cover-up involved, here; Trig is her baby. She is energetic and hardworking. She regularly worked out at the gym.

She is savvy. She doesn't take positions; she just "puts things out there" and if they prove to be popular, she takes credit. Her husband works a union job on the North Slope for BP and is a champion snowmobile racer. Todd Palin's kind of job is highly sought-after because of the schedule and high pay. He arranges his work schedule so he can fish for salmon in Bristol Bay for a month or so in summer, but by no stretch of the imagination is fishing their major source of income. Nor has her life-style ever been anything like that of native Alaskans. Sarah and her whole family are avid hunters. She's smart. Her experience is as mayor of a city with a population of about 5,000 (at the time), and less than 2 years as governor of a state with about 670,000 residents. During her mayoral administration most of the actual work of running this small city was turned over to an administrator. She had been pushed to hire this administrator by party power-brokers after she had gotten herself into some trouble over precipitous firings which had given rise to a recall campaign. Sarah campaigned in Wasilla as a "fiscal conservative".

During her 6 years as Mayor, she increased general government expenditures by over 33%. During those same 6 years the amount of taxes collected by the City increased by 38%. This was during a period of low inflation (1996-2002). She reduced progressive property taxes and increased a regressive sales tax which taxed even food. The tax cuts that she promoted benefited large corporate property owners way more than they benefited residents. The huge increases in tax revenues during her mayoral administration weren't enough to fund everything on her wish list though, so borrowed money was needed, too. She inherited a city with zero debt, but left it with indebtedness of over $22 million. What did Mayor Palin encourage the voters to borrow money for? Was it the infrastructure that she said she supported? The sewage treatment plant that the city lacked? or a new library? No. $1m for a park. $15m-plus for construction of a multi-use sports complex which she rushed through to build on a piece of property that the City didn't even have clear title to, that was still in litigation 7 yrs later--to the delight of the lawyers involved! The sports complex itself is a nice addition to the community but a huge money pit, not the profit-generator she claimed it would be. She also supported bonds for $5.5m for road projects that could have been done in 5-7 yrs without any borrowing. While Mayor, City Hall was extensively remodeled and her office redecorated more than once. These are small numbers, but Wasilla is a very small city. As an oil producer, the high price of oil has created a budget surplus in Alaska. Rather than invest this surplus in technology that will make us energy independent and increase efficiency, as Governor she proposed distribution of this surplus to every individual in the state. In this time of record state revenues and budget surpluses, she recommended that the state borrow/bond for road projects, even while she proposed distribution of surplus state revenues: spend today's surplus, borrow for needs. She's not very tolerant of divergent opinions or open to outside ideas or compromise. As Mayor, she fought ideas that weren't generated by her or her staff. Ideas weren't evaluated on their merits, but on the basis of who proposed them.

While Sarah was Mayor of Wasilla she tried to fire our highly respected City Librarian because the Librarian refused to consider removing from the library some books that Sarah wanted removed. City residents rallied to the defense of the City Librarian and against Palin's attempt at out-and-out censorship, so Palin backed down and withdrew her termination letter. People who fought her attempt to oust the Librarian are on her enemies list to this day. Sarah complained about the "old boy's club" when she first ran for Mayor, so what did she bring Wasilla? A new set of "old boys". Palin fired most of the experienced staff she inherited. At the City and as Governor she hired or elevated new, inexperienced, obscure people, creating a staff totally dependent on her for their jobs and eternally grateful and fiercely loyal--loyal to the point of abusing their power to further her personal agenda, as she has acknowledged happened in the case of pressuring the State's top cop (see below). As Mayor, Sarah fired Wasilla's Police Chief because he "intimidated" her, she told the press. As Governor, her recent firing of Alaska 's top cop has the ring of familiarity about it. He served at her pleasure and she had every legal right to fire him, but it's pretty clear that an important factor in her decision to fire him was because he wouldn't fire her sister's ex-husband, a State Trooper. Under investigation for abuse of power, she has had to admit that more than 2 dozen contacts were made between her staff and family to the person that she later fired, pressuring him to fire her ex-bro the r-in-law. She tried to replace the man she fired with a man who she knew had been reprimanded for sexual harassment; when this caused a public furor, she withdrew her support. She has bitten the hand of every person who extended theirs to her in help. The City Council person who personally escorted her around town introducing her to voters when she first ran for Wasilla City Council became one of her first targets when she was later elected Mayor. She abruptly fired her loyal City Administrator; even people who didn't like the guy were stunned by this ruthlessness. Fear of retribution has kept all of these people from saying anything publicly about her. When then-Governor Murkowski was handing out political plums, Sarah got the best, Chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: one of the few jobs not in Juneau and one of the best paid. She had no background in oil & gas issues. Within months of scoring this great job which paid $122,400/yr, she was complaining in the press about the high salary. I was told that she hated that job: the commute, the structured hours, the work. Sarah became aware that a member of this Commission (who was also the State Chair of the Republican Party) engaged in unethical behavior on the job. In a gutsy move which some undoubtedly cautioned her could be political suicide, Sarah solved all her problems in one fell swoop: got out of the job she hated and garnered gobs of media attention as the patron saint of ethics and as a gutsy fighter against the "old boys' club" when she dramatically quit, exposing this man's ethics violations (for which he was fined). As Mayor, she had her hand stuck out as far as anyone for pork from Senator Ted Stevens. Lately, she has castigated his pork-barrel politics and publicly humiliated him. She only opposed the "bridge to nowhere" after it became clear that it would be unwise not to. As Governor, she gave the Legislature no direction and budget guidelines, then made a big grandstand display of line-item vetoing projects, calling them pork. Public outcry and further legislative action restored most of the se projects--which had been vetoed simply because she was not aware of their importance--but with the unobservant she had gained a reputation as "anti-pork". She is solidly Republican: no political maverick. The State party leaders hate her because she has bit them in the back and humiliated them. Other members of the party object to her self-description as a fiscal conservative.

Around Wasilla there are people who went to high school with Sarah. They call her "Sarah Barracuda" because of her unbridled ambition and predatory ruthlessness. Before she became so powerful, very ugly stories circulated around town about shenanigans she pulled to be made point guard on the high school basketball team. When Sarah's mother-in-law, a highly respected member of the community and experienced manager, ran for Mayor, Sarah refused to endorse her. As Governor, she stepped outside of the box and put together a package of legislation known as "AGIA" that forced the oil companies to march to the beat of her drum. Like most Alaskans, she favors drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She has questioned if the loss of sea ice is linked to global warming. She campaigned "as a private citizen" against a state initiative that would have either a) protected salmon streams from pollution from mines, or b) tied up in the courts all mining in the state depending on who you listen to. She has pushed the State's lawsuit against the Dept. of the Interior's decision to list polar bears as threatened species. McCain is the oldest person to ever run for President; Sarah will be a heartbeat away from being President. There has to be literally millions of Americans who are more knowledgeable and experienced than she. However, there are a lot of people who have underestimated her and are regretting it.

  • "Hockey mom": true for a few years
  • "PTA mom": true years ago when her first-born was in elementary school, not since
  • "NRA supporter": absolutely true
  • social conservative: mixed. Opposes gay marriage, BUT vetoed a bill that would have denied benefits to employees in same-sex relationships (said she did this because it was unconsitutional).
  • pro-creationism: mixed. Supports it, BUT did nothing as Governor to promote it.
  • "Pro-life": mixed. Knowingly gave birth to a Down's syndrome baby BUT declined to call a special legislative session on some pro-life legislation
  • "Experienced": Some high schools have more students than Wasilla has residents. Many cities have more residents than the state of Alaska . No legislative experience other than City Council. Little hands-on supervisory or managerial experience; needed help of a city administrator to run town of about 5,000.
  • political maverick: not at all
  • gutsy: absolutely!
  • open & transparent: ??? Good at keeping secrets. Not good at explaining actions.
  • has a developed philosophy of public policy: no
  • "a Greenie": no. Turned Wasilla into a wasteland of big box stores and disconnected parking lots. Is pro-drilling off-shore and in ANWR.
  • fiscal conservative: not by my definition!
  • pro-infrastructure: No. Promoted a sports complex and park in a city without a sewage treatment plant or storm drainage system. Built streets to early 20th century standards.
  • pro-tax relief: Lowered taxes for businesses, increased tax burden on residents
  • pro-small government: No. Oversaw greatest expansion of city government in Wasilla's history.
  • pro-labor/pro-union. No. Just because her husband works union doesn't make her pro-labor. I have seen nothing to support any claim that she is pro-labor/pro-union.

    First, I have long believed in the importance of being an informed voter. I am a voter registrar. For 10 years I put on student voting programs in the schools. If you google my name (Anne Kilkenny + Alaska ), you will find references to my participation in local government, education, and PTA/parent organizations. Secondly, I've always operated in the belief that "Bad things happen when good people stay silent". Few people know as much as I do because few have gone to as many City Council meetings. Third, I am just a housewife. I don't have a job she can bump me out of. I don't belong to any organization that she can hurt. But, I am no fool; she is immensely popular here, and it is likely that this will cost me somehow in the future: that's life. Fourth, she has hated me since back in 1996, when I was one of the 100 or so people who rallied to support the City Librarian against Sarah's attempt at censorship. Fifth, I looked around and realized that everybody else was afraid to say anything because they were somehow vulnerable. CAVEATS I am not a statistician. I developed the numbers for the increase in spending & taxation 2 years ago (when Palin was running for Governor) from information supplied to me by the Finance Director of the City of Wasilla , and I can't recall exactly what I adjusted for: did I adjust for inflation? for population increases? Right now, it is impossible for a private person to get any info out of City Hall -- they are swamped. So I can't verify my numbers. You may have noticed that there are various numbers circulating for the population of Wasilla, ranging from my "about 5,000", up to 9,000. The day Palin's selection was announced a city official told me that the current population is about 7,000. The official 2000 census count was 5,460. I have used about 5,000 because Palin was Mayor from 1996 to 2002, and the city was growing rapidly in the mid-90's.

    Anne Kilkenny
    [e-mail address withheld]
    August 31, 2008
  • Sunday, 12 October 2008

    Dr M birthday

    Up in London on Saturday for Dr M's birthday. Did a spot of art stuff too ...

    First, Rothko at the Tate Modern. Can't say I was a fan beforehand. Certainly can't say I'm a fan afterwards. His sort of über-abstractism (monotone canvases labelled as "untitled [1967]") does nothing for me. In his defense, I'd say that the one bit I did (mildly) enjoy was one room from the exhibit in which a number of canvases had been hung, partially in line with his own plan for them. That kind-of gave me a hint of an inkling of what some people might see in him (i.e. whole greater than the sum of its parts), but it was small consolation for me. Still, it was a hugely popular exhibition judging from patron numbers, and everyone else did seem to be drawing a lot more from it than me.

    Next, after meeting up with Dr M and Sarah, we wandered over to the Courtauld Institute (one of Sarah's old haunts) and took part in an "art happening". Equipping ourselves with paper, pencils, chalk and charcoal, we did a bit of sketching for half an hour.

    In a postmodern vein, here's my sketch of Dr M making a sketch of me ...
    And here's my sketch of one of the dancers that the Institute laid on as subjects for visitor's to sketch ...
    It's been years and years since I did any drawing at all, so the fact these weren't completely awful (to me anyway) came as something of a relief.

    Next up was a trip to the National Portrait Gallery, not for art this time, but to use their rooftop bar. Here's the view south from the bar taking in Nelson's Column and Big Ben ...
    Finally, we washed up in a pub near the LSE for drinks, company ...
    ... and food ...

    Not just an Oasis album title

    Romance is a difficult genre to pull off in film, at least for me. In my experience, syrupy messes are the most frequent result. The best (only?) way to salvage something, and garner brownie points with me, is to aim for the tricky "romantic comedy" sub-genre.

    This Friday's DVD-in-the-post was the unlikely sounding Definitely, Maybe. Despite the anodyne description that accompanied the disc, and which almost put us off from the get-go, this was a surprisingly good addition to the stable. It didn't get off to a great start, with what appeared a treacly framing device involving the lead character's young daughter. However, this was deftly offset by giving her a sex education-inspired vocabulary and deploying it to good comic effect. The framing device itself borrows from The Princess Bride, but tells a very different story in which the lead character presents how he met his daughter's mother as a comical mystery involving three very different women. The daughter, showing a movies-only level of childhood intuition, picks up on the subtext in this tale, ultimately leading to the obligatory (if still enjoyable) happy ending.

    Particularly helping the movie's palatability is Kevin Kline in a supporting role as a lecherous novelist and sometime lover of one of the leading female characters. There's a great gag involving his being accused of leaving this character for a sophomore student, to which he responds that he did no such thing, and that it was actually two freshmen students. Acting as a foil for the lead in this way he steals laughs whenever he's on screen (even as his character is seriously ill in a hospital bed).

    Another interesting recurrent strand is the film's use of former President Clinton. The film begins with the lead working proudly on Clinton's ultimately successful campaign in 1992, but its timeline then charts the creeping disillusionment caused by the subsequent "scandals" (sidenote: which now seem completely ridiculous relative to the true scandals of the Reagan-Bush-Bush presidencies). However, despite this disillusion, the film still seems like a love letter to Bill to me. The lead character may have been let down by him, but he still loves him (even waving forlornly and unnoticed at Clinton as he, and his bodyguards, jog passed him in Central Park).

    Anyway, clearly the lesson/cliché here is not to judge a book by its cover.

    Thursday, 9 October 2008

    Testing, testing ...

    Can I link my Flickr images here without consuming my Blogger diskspace allowance ...

    ... Looks like I can. That's worth knowing.

    Art or Madness?

    Dipping once again into C's birthday stash, another intriguing read is The Reserve by Russell Banks, author of the novel that became the memorable film The Sweet Hereafter.

    Taking place in the summer of 1936, primarily within an isolated and exclusive resort for the rich (the eponymous "reserve") in the Adirondack Mountains of northeast New York state, The Reserve focuses on Jordan Groves and Vanessa Cole. The former is a self-made man, renowned for both his art and for the books that describe his travels and adventures in far-flung parts of the world. The latter is the troubled daughter of a rich family, recuperating from a divorce (and suspected breakdown) with her emotionally distant parents at their retreat within the Reserve. Despite the former having a wife and the latter possessing fragile mental health, the two are attracted to one another when Groves visits to assess the art collection of Cole's father. When Cole's father subsequently dies, her mother begins moves to put her in the care of European psychiatrists, and arranges passage for her across the Atlantic on the Hindenberg airship. However, somewhat unhinged and fearful of receiving a lobotomy, then a novel en vogue treatment, Cole kidnaps her mother and imprisons her in the family cabin at the Reserve. Quickly realising the limitations of her "plan", Cole then involves Hubert St. Germain, a local Adirondack guide, and Groves in it, with unintended but fatal consequences. Interspersing this main narrative are interludes with Groves' wife, Alicia, and St. Germain who, unbeknownst to Groves, have been conducting an affair. And bookending the novel's chapters are short flash-forward sections which follow Groves and Cole in the months immediately after the events of the main narrative.

    While written well enough, the novels falls down for me for a number of reasons. For one, the two main characters don't work at all well. Groves is a rather over-achieving and over-blown caricature of an Ernest Hemmingway figure, while Cole is an unconvincing parody of the insane-but-alluring femme fatale stereotype. Neither is particularly convincing, nor are either engaging. It's left to more peripheral characters like Groves' wife, Alicia, and her obedient lover Hubert, to establish the novel's connection to reality.

    Structurally, I found the intermittent flash-forwards rather cumbersome and damaging to the novel's narrative. While Banks tries to make their connection to the main narrative obscure at first, it doesn't take a genius to see what's going on. Furthermore, since the events that they describe are clearly heading towards a stereotyped tragic conclusion, they sort-of deflate the central narrative ahead of time. Using flash-forwards (or flash-backwards) is a not uncommon feature of modern novels, and is often used to good effect (c.f. Use of Weapons by a different Banks). But here seems a less skillful example that actually damages, rather than heightens, the central narrative. While they allow the conclusions of the events on the Reserve to coincide with the events that take place in the months that follow, that's about the only way the flash-forwards help here.

    One niggling thing that bothered me during the novel was Cole's concerns about receiving a lobotomy. While it's been known for a long time that this procedure is basically serious brain damage that mostly serves to improve patient compliance, the first lobotomy in the US was only performed in 1936 (according to the WP). So Cole's fears about the procedure (justified, as it turns out) seemed somewhat anachronistic to me. Understandable now, but rather unlikely for a society heiress in 1936. It's probably just ignorance on my part, but knowing how slowly the negative aspects of novel medical procedures become clear even today, Cole's concerns seem to indicate precognitive powers.

    Anyway, not a novel I'll be recommending any time soon.

    Sunday, 5 October 2008

    End of my mercenary days

    I should have posted this up before, but I was fortunate to bag the "marine biophysical modeller" job in the end. In fact, I officially started it earlier this week. I've still got some odds and ends to wrap up from my old job first, but I'll probably get round to starting with NEMO (my new modelling framework) later this coming week. It sounds like I've got to get a major running going pretty damn quick, so it could be quite a learning curve.

    First, though, I've got a seminar on my OCCAM work to knock out. Perhaps unwisely, I've decided to fuse two separate pieces of work together under the auspices of a talk about the joys of synthetic data (i.e. "model output"). That might just wind up annoying all of those scientists (the majority at NOCS and the world in general) who collect real data. Still, I think that modelling's viewed all too often as an after-the-fact chore that needs bolting on for "completeness" rather than something that can more directly inform studies. We'll see if my colleagues agree on Wednesday. After which, the plan is to celebrate the end of my mercenary, post-doc-for-hire days at the Platform. Doubtless there'll be photos ...

    New Amsterdam

    Every year C tries to get a couple of the contenders for the Man Booker prize under her belt before the winner is announced. One of the bookies' favourites this year was the long-listed Netherland by the Irish ex-patriot novelist Joseph O'Neill. However, against the odds, the book never made it to the short list, so C was no closer to having an opinion about this year's competition. Still, as a fêted book, I thought I'd give it a go.

    Netherland is a primarily New York-set tale concerning a Dutch banker, Hans van den Broek, his English wife, Rachel, and a businessman formerly from Trinidad, Chuck Ramkissoon. Prompted in part by the events of September 11th 2001, but foreshadowed by earlier and growing lapses in communication in their marriage, Rachel leaves Hans in New York and returns with their son to stay with her parents in England. Alone in New York, and lacking direction, Hans returns to a childhood passion for cricket, and through this strikes up an ill-defined and unlikely friendship with Chuck. Chuck's dream is to open his own cricket pitch in New York and to create the foundations for the acceptance and growth of the game in the cricket-agnostic United States. As Hans gradually fumbles his way through his disintegrating trans-Atlantic marriage, his friendship with Chuck grows, but increasingly reveals questionable aspects to Chuck's "business".

    Quite an interesting book this one, with a number of rather incongruous themes intersecting in its pages. A major theme (as outlined above) is an exploration of a dissolving marriage: the loosening of the bonds of Hans and Rachel's marriage, the no-man's land that opens up in their lives while they are separate, and their gradual coming back together. Another major theme is that of (male) friendship between Hans and Chuck: the first tentative encounters, the shared good times, but the distance that still persists between them as they keep separate the various facets of their lives. This latter aspect is used to give the novel some plot structure, by prefacing the novel with a flash-forward that reveals the demise of Chuck in questionable circumstances.

    Where the novel really succeeded for me was in its beautiful prose. O'Neill is clearly an excellent writer, and he does a great job both describing characters and events, and by blending together the themes and time-lines of the novel. His writing really is effortless as he shifts from Hans' memories of growing up in Holland, to his solo predicament in New York, to his omniscient future self looking back on the events of his time with Chuck. Many writers would simply fragment the text through chapters to achieve this, but O'Neill simply skates from one strand to another and back again (is this why the novel's cover depicts an otherwise unconnected skater?). It's great writing.

    Where the novel succeeded less well for me was what the point of it was. In blending quite disparate themes (post-9/11; male-female relationships; crime), it's not entirely clear what the reader's to draw from it. An obvious contrast can be drawn between the tense relationship between Hans and Rachel, who share much together (including a son), and the rather easy relationship that Hans forms with Chuck, who ultimately share very little in common. But this contrast is clouded by the connections to 9/11 and the criminal underworld. In the end, while I really enjoyed reading the novel, I just wasn't sure what to make of it. Each aspect on its own is telling an interesting story, but splicing them together just left me wondering if I was completely missing some key subtext.

    Still, I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for whatever O'Neill does next.