my recent reads..

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters; From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima
Power Sources and Supplies: World Class Designs
Red Storm Rising
Locked On
Analog Circuits Cookbook
The Teeth Of The Tiger
Sharpe's Gold
Without Remorse
Practical Oscillator Handbook
Red Rabbit

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Blog Stats

I want a t-shirt just like this for my birthday, except I'd change it to "..than MY blog" and add my url;-).

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The (original) Office

.. but Slough is still my favourite office.

Forgotten benefits of moving to the cloud..

Out of sight, out of mind.. no more gadget-purchase grief;-)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tu Plang, Unit and the Green Papaya

I've had Regurgitator's Tu-Plang and Unit since when I was working in Sydney around 98/99. These albums are classics. I love their sound, and the lyrics are smart. They still get a regular listen, and that's not going to stop.

In a twist, I saw recently on the Food Lover's Guide to Australia that Quan's mother established a Vietnamese restaurant in Brisbane called Green Papaya, and it has great reviews.

It was Hanoi-born Lien Yeomans's dream come true - opening her own restaurant. At Brisbane's Green Papaya she cooks dishes from North Vietnam. She says she has her rock star son Quan to thank for her fame (he’s with the band Regurgitator) but we think it’s her recipes, each one linked to a personal story from her incredible life.

So next time I'm in Brisbane...

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hash brown or shoestring fries, sir? Service!

Another xkcd classic..


Day to day, our time is marked by weeks, months and years. We take it for granted that no matter where you are on earth, you always know where you are in time.

The calendar is such a routine concept that it takes a book like David Ewing Duncan's excellent and most engaging Calendar to make you stop and think.

A 7-day week is completely arbitrary for instance, apparently originating circa 700 BC in Babylon, and probably influenced by the seven known planets (at the time).

Months are confusion personified. Inspired by the lunar cycle, one is left with the dilemma of trying to fit the cycles within the solar year. The chart below (produced with the open source lcap program) is probably the easiest way to see how the lunar months drift in relation to the solar year. Some, like the Greek astronomer Metron, attempt to rationalise the relationship with great precision (the 19-year Metronic cycle has 7 years of 13 lunar months followed by 12 years of 12 lunar months. Even that is not completely accurate). To most calendarists however, months scarcely retained a notional relationship to the moon, becoming little more than convenient units of time upon which to hang the names of Gods and Emperors.

NB: the difficulty in tracking the moon also came up in relation to the challenge of measuring longitude. Accurate moon charts would have allowed mariners to determine their position even in the absence of accurate time-keeping devices. Predicting the moon's course in the end proved to be much more challenging than building a clock that could survive a nautical adventure and still keep good time. See Dava Sobel's Longitude.

The idea of the solar year - the complete cycle of the seasons from one solstice to the next - is fundamental to how we conceive the passage of time. But we don't often think about the difference between a sidereal year (time for the earth to complete one complete orbit of the sun), and the tropical year (time from one vernal [spring/March] equinox to the next). Or the fact that the year is so very slightly different if you measure between the June or December solstices or the September equinox. And then consider that the Earth is a huge object hurtling through space and subject to varying gravitational forces and other bumps and jitters.

Once you have boiled all this down, it seems a "day" is about the only fundamental unit of calendar time that makes sense. Everything else is just convention and approximation!

Considering the difficulty of measurement, and the many social, political and religious factors involved in common convention, it is quite extra-ordinary that we even have a universally accepted calendar today.

It is easy to forget just how recent a phenomenon this is, and how long its introduction was in the making.

The introduction of the Gegorian calendar required 11 days to be lost for ever!The Gregorian calendar we use today was officially launched by Pope Gregory in 1582, but it wasn't introduced in Britain until 1752 with many countries not adopting it until the 20th century (for example, Russia in 1918 and Greece in 1924). Many quote Mao Zedong declaration of the People's Republic of China in October 1949, which included a point on the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, as the final triumph for a universal calendar (although many cultures still maintain parallel systems such as the Chinese lunar calendar). But do not forget that the flaws in Julius Ceasar's previous calendar had been know long before - the cause of much consternation at the Council at Nicaea in AD325 over the scheduling of Easter, and the subject of the monk Roger Bacon's must distressed entreaty to Pope Clement in 1266 to:
.. apply excellent remedies in this particular .. If then this glorious work should be performed in your Holiness' time, one of the greatest, best, and finest things ever attempted in the Church of God would be consummated.

All of this is of course the background to an epic tale that finds a thread through all peoples over all time.

Which is really the genius of David Duncan's work. He is a great explainer, and in telling the story of the calendar, he tells the story of much of human civilization. And where other "histories of the world" tend to struggle to fit a narrative thread across time and place, the story of the calendar provides Duncan with a perfect segue. The result is the most enjoyable, understandable and effective history lesson I have ever had.

If you have just the slightest interset in history or how the calendar came about as we know it, I couldn't recommend this book more highly.

Other interesting facts:

  • In Britain, New Years Day was celebrated on March 25, the Feast of the Assumption, until it was changed to January 1 in 1752. There are over 30 definitions of New Year listed on wikipedia.

  • Until the modern era of atomic clocks, the most accurate measurement of the year was by Abu Allah Mohammed Ibn Jabir al-Battani in AD 882 (22 seconds short). al-Battani's work came from the same period of Arab innovation that produced modern algebra and added "zero" to the nine Indian symbols that eventually became our familiar number system.

Calendar for December from a French Book of Hours, written around 1470:
Calendar for December from a French Book of Hours, written around 1470
Easter table, England, 1073:
Easter table, England, 1073

Monday, May 05, 2008

Mas Escape - In Lego!

Sunday, May 04, 2008


Long on my "must read" list, I finally picked up Freakonomics (by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner) this weekend, and discovered a fascinating book about interesting questions.
  • What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?
  • Why do drug dealers still live with their Moms?
  • Where have all the criminals gone?
  • What makes a perfect parent?
  • .. and so on

Questions that are not often asked, but once posed are seen at once to cut to the fundamentals of our society, but also usually discarded as unanswerable.

That seems to be the trick that Steven Levitt has perfected (the economist in the writing team): fixing on an "imponderable" question, and then ingeniously hunting down the situations and data that let him lock an answer within his sights.

What seems to set him apart from other economists is his willingness and ability to collaborate across disciplinary lines when it is the best way to an answer. What the authors talk about as an a-disciplinary approach. Levitt apparently has more in common with Sherlock Holmes that Milton Friedman.

There is an interesting congruence with Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (which I've also recommended before). While they intersect on some common examples (such as the broken windows theory), each book takes away something different. Gladwell is of course intrigued by the inflexion - how closely can you isolate and identify the point at which things tip? What is the mechanism that causes the worm to turn?

Freakonomics on the other hand is seeking to explain why things are the way the are (whether steady-state, trend or tipping point). The search for causality not just correlation. No less than the search for truth! Of course the more interesting investigations are the ones that show truth to be at odds with conventional wisdom!

NB: if you like this kind of questioning, checkout PsyBlog. I came across this recently and it has some great articles.

The authors are strident in professing that there is no central theme to this book, but I think that is disingenuous. I'd suggest that the book as a whole is an object lesson in the dangers of being lead by theories based on observation, which can lead to very different conclusions than those based on careful data analysis. It is a convincing polemic warning us against naive acceptance of conventional wisdom, theorists and experts of all kinds.
An expert must be bold if he hopes to alchemize his homespun theory into conventional wisdom.

As Gil Grissom would say:
Let the evidence speak for itself..

Monster Moth

By far the biggest moth I have ever seen! It was in the bushes at my place in central Singapore, but I have never even had the hint of anything so large flying around at night.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Sorry - we've upgraded!

Upgrades: just what customers look forward to, for the new features, stability and performance?

Or as this supermarket admits: source of pain, frustration and disappointment!