Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Total lunar eclipse, 21 December 2011

A lunar eclipse at midsummer, on the shortest night of the year, is pretty awesome.  It also doesn't leave a lot of darkness to view the eclipse!  Here in Christchurch the moon rose already in total eclipse, and wasn't visible for some time as there was cloud low in the sky.  But it was worth waiting for, a spectacular pale pink disk which became rusty red as it rose higher in the darkening sky.  And even as sunlight crept across the moon's surface and clouds partly obscured the moon from view, it was still a freakish and beautiful sight.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Meara O'Reilly's Chladni singing

"Chladni patterns were discovered by Robert Hook and Ernst Chladni in the 18th and 19th centuries. They found that when they bowed a piece of glass covered in flour, (using an ordinary violin bow), the powder arranged itself in resonant patterns according to places of stillness and vibration. Today, Chladni plates are often electronically driven by tone generators and used in scientific demonstrations, but with carefully sung notes (and a transducer driving the plate), I'm able to explore the same resonances." - Meara O'Reilly

Here is a video of O'Reilly making amazing, shifting geometric patterns by singing a sequence of notes:

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Women directors, women screenwriters, and the Bechdel Test

To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie has to fulfill these criteria:

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it

2. Who talk to each other

3. About something besides a man

Doesn't sound too hard, does it?  And yet about half of the movies in the Bechdel Test database fail the test.  More than 10% failed all the criteria.  Just to recap, that means they didn't have more than one named female character in the whole movie.

Here is a list of some of the IMDb's top-rated films, measured against the Bechdel Test.  And here are some graphs.

So where are all the women?  Well, probably the same place all the female screenwriters and directors are.  In Hollywood, 19% of screenwriters are women.  In television it's 28%.

And, far from getting easier, it's actually getting harder for women to get writing work in Hollywood.  You can read more about that here.

As you'd expect, there's a connection between the number of women working as writers, directors and producers, and the number of female characters onscreen.  More on that here.

From The Guardian:
"The irony is that women were in at the birth of cinema. The silent era was a golden age with female screenwriters writing half of all movies between 1911 and 1925. Jane Cussons, chief executive of the industry body Women in Film and Television, says: 'Just think of Alice Guy Blache, who was the first woman ever to direct a movie. She directed 400 films, produced hundreds more and ran her own studio. Then when sound came in, film making became big business. Men moved in and women just got sidelined.'"

[you can read the whole article here

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Extremely scary jobs

"The hazardous career field of commercial diving was once largely defined by the deep-water saturation divers working the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea. But saturation diving isn't the only dangerous diving job around. Someone has to dive the 150-foot-tall water towers on the blizzard-blown Kansas prairies where it's gravity, not gas saturation, that will kill you. Someone needs to slip quietly inside the tangled gloom of a tuna net to check on great white sharks. Someone needs to make sure those scientists chasing penguins under the Antarctic ice cap don't drift away from the hole. And yes, someone has to dive inside nuclear reactors. (But hey, we hear the tan you get is just fabulous.)"

Read the whole article here. It's fascinating, but could give you nightmares!

Thanks to the NZ Geographic for this link.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

A lot of scary amazingness

65 million years ago, a meteor at least 10-km wide impacted Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, causing global catastrophe.  The force of the explosion was significantly bigger than any volcanic event in history and the shock waves probably triggered worldwide earthquakes, a megatsunami, a massive release of gas and dust and heating of the atmosphere which devastated the climate and caused mass extinctions, including most dinosaur species existing at that time.

The site of the impact, Chicxulub crater; is a circle 170km across, with half on the Yucatan Peninsula, and the other half in the water of the Caribbean Sea.

On land, a trough along the outer edge of the crater contains a vast semicircle of "cenotes", deep limestone sinkholes filled with fresh water.

This BBC clip explains:

Many of the cenotes are connected by an even deeper network of flooded caves which leads to the sea.  Freshwater percolating down from rain on the surface and seawater flowing in from the Caribbean form "haloclines", distinct layers of water which don't mix.  This clip shows the strange optical illusions caused at the boundary between the layers:

The first half of this clip shows another peculiar optical effect: a layer of hydrogen sulphide which appears to be the bottom of a cenote but is in fact a cloud of gas suspended deep below the surface:

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Shoelace fanatic

Thanks Andrew for this wee gem, if gem is the word I want...Ian's shoelace site shows you the many options available to you when lacing your shoes.

It also details why there are almost 2 trillion possible ways of lacing a 12-eyelet boot.

And there are some very pretty lacing patterns: check out the hexagram and pentagram, just for starters.

And for those among us who struggle with the basics, there is help to avoid slipping knots and crooked bows!

What a wonderful site. :-)

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Whales, Tuberculosis, Monarchs, etc.

This is also from the 1886 Goldsmith book, this time the outside back cover.
The text reads : Woodhouse's Balsam of Spermaceti or Pectoral Cough Drops for Consumptive or Other Coughs, also for Colds, Shortness of Breath, Asthma, Wheezing and other Afflictions of the Chest.

Spermaceti is produced by whales, you can read about it here. If swallowing bits of whale for the sake of your chest sounds silly, the discovery of streptomycin (the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis) had to wait until 1944. If you'd like to read about the history of tuberculosis and its treatments, the Wikipedia article is interesting.

In former times, the touch of your King or Queen was thought to be efficacious:

"Persons of royal blood were thought to have the 'God given' power of healing by this condition by touch, and sovereigns of England and France practiced this power to cure sufferers of scrofula, a form of tuberculosis of the bones and lymph nodes, commonly known as the "King's or Queen's Evil" or "Morbus Regius". In France it was called the "Mal De Roi". Curiously William the Lion, King of Scotland is recorded in 1206 as curing a case of Scrofula by his touching and blessing a child who had the ailment. Charles I touched around 100 people shortly after his coronation at Holyrood in 1630. It was only rarely fatal and was naturally given to spontaneous cure and lengthy periods of remission. Many miraculous cures were recorded and failures were put down to a lack of faith in the sufferer. The original Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church contained this ceremony."
"The custom lasted from the time of Edward the Confessor to the reign of Queen Anne, although her predecessor, William III refused to believe in the tradition and did not carry out the ceremony."

"Queen Anne, amongst many others, touched the 2 year old infant Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1712 to no effect, for although he eventually recovered he was left badly scarred and blind in one eye. He wore the medal around his neck all of his life and it is now preserved in the British Museum. It was believed that if the touch piece was not worn then the condition would return. Queen Anne last performed the ceremony on 30 March 1712. George I put an end to the practice as being "too Catholic."'
"The monarch himself / herself hung these touch piece amulets around the necks of sufferers. In later years Charles II only touched the medalet as he unsurprisingly disliked touching diseased people directly. He 'touched' 92,107 people in the 21 years from 1661 to 1682, performing the function 8,500 times in 1682 alone." [Wikipedia]

So now you know. The whole bizarre Wikipedia article on "touch pieces" (=healing talismans) is here.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Piglet squid. No really.

Sometimes nature comes up with something so funny-looking you can't quite believe it. Funny-looking to us, anyway. I wonder what we look like to them?

Check out this item on piglet squid. And Google offers a range of other images almost as funny.

In other crazy nature news, jaguars are attracted to Calvin Klein's Obsession for Men fragrance. This is a boon for animal biologists trying to study the elusive big cats, but you might want to think twice before wearing it on your rainforest holiday.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Fascinating story on NZ Scrabble genius

Ever heard of Nigel Richards? Neither had I, but he's the reclusive Kiwi who's been world champion in Scrabble for the last 12 years.

'"Without a doubt he's the greatest player in our sport, ever," says national Scrabble representative Warner, who, like many serious exponents of the game, considers it a sport."

'"You go to international tournaments and everyone's sitting around at the end of the day telling Nigel-stories," says Warner. "Of course, he's never there, so the legend grows."'

"Richards' only two interests are obsessions: Scrabble, and cycling. He cycles 600km a week, including long rides before the 8am start of each day of tournament play. Everyone in Scrabble knows the story of Richards' first appearance at a New Zealand championship, when he knocked off his job in the Christchurch City Council's water department at 5pm, cycled for 14 hours to Dunedin in atrocious conditions overnight, played all his games over the weekend, then cycled home having won his division, spurning offers of a lift."

Read the whole Stuff article here.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Head Soap - now there's an idea

This is from the inside cover of an edition of Goldsmith's plays dated 1886.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010


Cult TV series Carnivale is movie-like in its complexity and attention to detail: you need to watch every episode in order to have any idea what's going on, and even then there are mysteries. But it's hugely rewarding if you pay attention.

Here is the Season 1 trailer (try and ignore the Spanish subtitles!):

And here are the award-winning opening credits:

Amazon has a good deal on box sets of the whole series. Click here to see them.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Swindon's Magic Roundabout

OK I'm posting this here because I try to describe this to people and they either don't believe me or I can't explain it properly. Swindon boasts the original Magic Roundabout, built in 1972, which consists of one counter-clockwise roundabout fed by 5 clockwise roundabouts. That's hard to picture, so have a look at the Wikipedia diagram.

Or watch the animation:

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Seed banks and biodiversity

The BBC recently had this nice story of a minute waterlily brought back from extinction through stored seed:

"Two years ago, this delicate bloom went extinct in the wild due to over-exploitation of its habitat.

Luckily its seeds were kept in storage - and were used by Carlos Magdalena to regrow the plant at Kew Gardens - just outside London.

It took him months to find the ideal conditions for growth. He hopes now that the Thermal Lily will flourish once again in the hot springs of Rwanda...." (read more)

There is also a passionate piece on the urgency of banking seed as a way of safeguarding species for the future:

"Kew's Millennium Seed Bank is a unique, global asset. It is the largest facility of its kind in the world and contains the world's most diverse seed collections.

Over the past 10 years, more than 3.5 billion seeds from 25,000 species have been collected and stored in their country of origin and in Kew.

Species are chosen by country partners according to whether they are rare or endangered or of particular potential use - for example as medicine, food, animal fodder or shelter.

Described by Sir David Attenborough as "perhaps the most ambitious conservation initiative ever", the partnership will announce on 15 October the banking and conservation of 10% of the world's plant species." (read more)

And if you thought cities were a desert, in terms of biodiversity, you couldn't be more wrong:

"There are four bodies lying and crouching in our tiny back garden. The ecologists from the Natural History Museum (NHM) got here only minutes ago, but, while the kettle boils, they are already grubbing about behind our bins, under our windowsills, in the lawn, flowerbed and log pile.

They are doing a "bioblitz" – trying to find as many species of animal and plant as possible in this small, suburban south-west
London garden. Our back garden is only 12 paces long and seven wide, with, now I look at it through the eyes of ecologists, pitifully few flowers. Happily, they appear undaunted. "The great thing is, even with gardens like this that look fairly sterile, there's always something there," says the museum's insect specialist, Stuart Hine. "We'll move plant pots, and we'll have a look through your log pile . . . Lots of spiders, centipedes, woodlice, slugs – they'll all be there."" (read more)

Friday, 21 May 2010


You'd think that online music sales would be more financially rewarding for artists than traditional music sales involving a physical product such as a CD, record or tape. Unfortunately, that's mostly not how it works. Information is Beautiful has statistics and a graph.

Here is a video of Georg from Sigur Ros talking about Gogoyoko, a new music store designed for artists to sell directly to their fans.

Check out Gogoyoko here. It looks very smart.

Update: The Information Is Beautiful figures have been questioned as they exclude a number of important factors, such as marketing costs, recording costs (if these are paid for by the artist they get a much bigger share of the final proceeds, if not costs may be recouped before any royalies go to the artist). And a statutory royalty payment is always made to the writer(s) of a song whether or not the performers receive one. So remuneration in the music business is really very complicated!

The good news is that the Internet offers a multiplicity of options for artists. Some that seem to offer a very good return to artists are: CDBaby, which charges artists a flat $4 per CD sold, and allows them to set the retail price as they wish; Bandcamp, a site which currently delivers 100% of the digital download fee to artists who own their own recordings, less PayPal transaction fees; and Amplifier, which takes a 20% cut on music sold (this compares with the about 85% cut taken by itunes)

I'm indebted to Russell Brown, Simon Grigg, and Samuel Scott for explaining some of these matters to me.

If you're interested, this ars technica article graphs the market shift from albums to individual tracks and from download to streaming content. Things are changing in the music business, that's for sure.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Snap, crackle, pop!

Thanks to Andrew for pointing me to this wonderful electrical rendition of the Doctor Who theme.

The device used here is sometimes known as a "Zeusaphone", because of the, uh, lightning bolts!

According to Wikipedia:

"Zeusaphone, also called a Thoremin, is trademark for a high-frequency, solid state Tesla coil, when its spark discharge is digitally modulated so as to produce musical tones. The high-frequency signal acts in effect as a carrier wave; its frequency is significantly above human-audible sound frequencies, so that digital modulation is able to reproduce a recognizable pitch. The musical tone results directly from the passage of the spark through the air.

This is a variant of the plasma arc loudspeaker, designed for public spectacle and sheer volume rather than fidelity."

If you fancy the musical sparks, you can buy one, here.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The hungry sheep look up

Thanks to Mekayla for sending me pictures from the Museum for Communication in Frankfurt. By Jean Luc Cornec,These sheep are re-purposed telephones.
You can see more of the telephone sheep on Flickr,

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Setting us straight!

A lot of physics as taught in school and printed in textbooks is not just oversimplified but actually wrong. If you want your illusions shattered, read this page! Highlights include:

  • GRAVITY IN SPACE IS ZERO? It's actually strong.
  • A WING'S LIFTING FORCE IS CAUSED BY ITS SHAPE?, no, by trailing edge angle.

  • These and many other points are discussed and explained. Some take a while to get your head around, but it's worth the effort! Thanks to Niels for the link.

    Saturday, 3 April 2010

    The Kindness of Strangers: (Kitchen Memoirs)

    The Kindness of Strangers: (Kitchen Memoirs) by Shonagh Koea

    I have been savouring this wonderful book in which Shonagh Koea's essays about food allow her to discuss many other things about her life, writing, and experiences. Sometimes she is frivolous, sometimes deadly serious; often she makes droll anecdotes out of horrifying things, and finds amusing details even in the saddest parts of her story. Many of the recipes she includes make something good out of unpromising ingredients, and the same goes for her life story: she makes a witty and magnificent tale out of adversity and hardship.

    And the recipes are wonderful! Her "Air India" samosas are the best I've ever had.

    Here are some samples:

    "When I was in High School my mother sometimes used to make marmalade. There were grapefruit trees growing out the back of the house we lived in and they fruited generously, but the fruit was a pale colour, thin-skinned and possibly not suitable for marmalade. She used to mince the fruit using and old metal mincer that screwed on to the kitchen table and I think she added grated carrot to make the mixture more orange. the results were stiff, extremely opaque and they sat in jars with a sort of grimly globular intensity that was almost alarming. I never ate any of it but my mother would spread it dutifully on her toast, saying meanwhile, 'You don't know what you're missing.' In a culinary sense I do not think I missed much, but the point I missed at the time was that there was nothing else for her to do but make the best of what she had and she did so with scant encouragement."

    "I have cultivated quite wild and spreading plants so there is an atmosphere of largess and tropical wildness in my garden and through this I walk carefully with a cup of coffee in one hand an a doorstep of homemade bran loaf spread with marmalade in the other, once I tripped on a low-lying leaf of my big flax plant and fell flat on my face, so I have walked through my garden with greater care since then. I had thought, as it was my very own garden, that I would be able to do anything there and be unharmed but this was just a fanciful thought -- I am apt to have such fancies and think that because it is me that everything with be all right. it mostly is but sometimes not, like the time I tripped over the flax leaf."

    "If you are a writer people always imagine that what you write is true, particularly if they know you. Of course it is not because fiction is fiction and can be manipulated to make a good story, and truth often has no resolution of horrors and terrors so is useless to place upon a page masquerading as a tale simply because there is not one. The truth is mostly a jumble of unresolved and sometimes very unrelated facts that collide in a meaningless way. People would not pay good money to read it. They have difficulty enough living it, I imagine. After I wrote The Lonely Margins of the Sea I lost count of the number of times people sidled up to me and said, in a hasty aside, 'You can tell me who you stabbed -- I won't tell a soul' The novel was about a woman who had stabbed her married lover and had gone to prison. [...] It was flattering, I suppose, to be considered so dangerous when I cannot, in real life, even dismember a chicken from the supermarket. My carving of meat is so inexpert that once, in the days when I used to make some pretence of having people to dinner, I hacked at a piece of beef with such a blunt knife that the candles fell out of the candlesticks and nearly set fire to the tablecloth."

    Friday, 2 April 2010

    Victorian women surveyed on sexuality

    The value of primary historical sources is that they can correct wrong assumptions and interpretations made by scholars in a later era. Stanford professor Clelia Mosher conducted surveys from 1892 to 1920 asking women for their views on sex and reproduction . The results seem surprising to modern eyes:

    "The Mosher Survey recorded not only women's sexual habits and appetites, but also their thinking about spousal relationships, children and contraception. Perhaps, it hinted, Victorian women weren't so Victorian after all. Indeed, many of the surveyed women were decidedly unshrinking."

    Stanford Magazine has a fascinating article about both the survey and the woman who compiled it, here. It concludes:

    "In her own writings, Mosher was acutely aware of her foresight, and of the possibilities that lay ahead for women once sex became less of a secret and gender less of a burden. "Born into a world of unlimited opportunity, the woman of the rising generation will answer the question of what woman's real capacities are," Mosher wrote in 1923. "She will have physical, economic, racial and civic freedom. What will she do with it?""

    Thanks to N for the link.

    Thursday, 1 April 2010

    Marvellous Missie Moffat

    Check out this video of Taranaki singer-songwriter Missie performing live with The Gentle Kings. And there are more tracks on her MySpace page, including the brilliant For You.

    missie & the gentle kings- live at spiegeltent

    missie | MySpace Music Videos

    Hey, Missie, you rock :-) Let us know when we can buy the CD.

    Monday, 22 March 2010

    Kingfishers in action

    The Telegraph has these incredible shots of kingfishers fishing, taken by National Geographic photographer Joe Petersburger.

    Thursday, 4 February 2010

    Migratory birds (the aluminium kind)

    check out this scary little video tracking global air traffic! Thanks for the link, John.

    Friday, 29 January 2010

    On disability and caring

    Philip Patson writes in a guest post on Public Address:

    "A wise society would accept the potential inevitability that through birth, accident, illness or aging we're all functionally incompetent or incapacitated at some point in our lives. We would design environments, systems and structures that accommodate functional diversity."

    Read the whole post here. And Patson's own website, Diversity New Zealand, is here.

    Monday, 25 January 2010

    Hard times for honeybees

    The BBC's Richard Black compares the plight of frogs with that of honeybees:

    "While the chytrid fungus has blown whole [frog] populations away single-handedly in a season's shooting spree, many species undergo a slow, inexorable decline more akin to starvation or an ancient torture; squeezed into corners by the expanding human habitat, poisoned by farmland chemicals, eaten by bigger invasive neighbours, hunted for meat, stressed by temperature rise and stalked by viruses - or any combination of the above."

    "As the plot of that detective story becomes clear, it seems that scientists are beginning to write another with a very similar narrative, but this time with bees cast as the victims."

    "Bee populations - wild and cultivated - have always had their ups and downs, their years of plenty and years of absence. But about five years ago, commercial beekeepers in the US began reporting total wipe-outs of hives on a scale not documented before, leading to the term colony collapse disorder (CCD)."

    Read the whole article here.

    Sunday, 24 January 2010

    Martian sand art

    Does anyone remember those sand pictures that looked a bit like landscapes and the landscape changed when you tipped them up the other way? Well does this look at all familiar?

    Saturday, 23 January 2010

    Larks and owls

    The Guardian has a nice piece on variation in circadian rhythms, which makes some of us bright early in the day and others bright in the evening:

    "Shiftwork is endemic (involving more than a quarter of workers) and keeps increasing with the demands of our 24/7 consumer society. People with a natural rhythm of getting up late and going to sleep late ("owls" as opposed to "larks") are discriminated against. Adolescents, who have a biological tendency to follow an owlish rhythm, are forced to attend school at early hours when they are still half asleep. Managers and other presumably important people are shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic as if jet lag was just a fairytale."

    "There is always going to be a certain amount of night-time work that is essential. A big part of it could be covered by intelligent use of the natural variation between peoples' biorhythms. The larks among us will be happy to start work at 6am, while the owls don't really mind being out until 2am. For the most unpopular hours in the middle of the night, science can help workers adapt."

    Read the whole thing here.

    Friday, 22 January 2010


    Thanks to Matthew for pointing me to this incredible stop-motion animation of cutouts from the pages of a novel. This story sure does leap off the page :-)

    Thursday, 21 January 2010

    Warning: Total Perspective Vortex!

    Douglas Adams thought up the Total Perspective Vortex, a fictional device which shows you exactly how tiny and insignificant you really are. This isn't quite so extreme (it only shows the bits of the universe we know about), but it's hard not to feel humbled by this video.

    Fairy cake, anyone?

    Monday, 18 January 2010

    A riot of flavours

    From the BBC comes this hilarious report of a trip to an ice-cream parlour in Venezuela where 860 different flavours of icecream are made. The selection caters for all tastes, many of them non-traditional.

    The selection includes chilli, tomato, gherkin, onion, mushrooms in wine, garlic, and cream of crab."

    "To put out the fire on my tongue, I go for the plantain flavour which is incredibly realistic. As is the cheese, which I would not at all recommend."

    "Perhaps some things, like cheddar, should not be made into ice cream." observes the reporter.

    Read the whole thing here.

    Photosynthesising sea slug

    Usually only plants can make food directly from sunlight, but a sea slug has been discovered which incorporates algal chloroplasts into its own cells and is performing photosynthesis:

    "Some related slugs also engulf chloroplasts but
    E. chlorotica alone preserves the organelles in working order for a whole slug lifetime of nearly a year. The slug readily sucks the innards out of algal filaments whenever they’re available, but in good light, multiple meals aren’t essential. Scientists have shown that once a young slug has slurped its first chloroplast meal from one of its few favored species of Vaucheria algae, the slug does not have to eat again for the rest of its life. All it has to do is sunbathe."

    Sunday, 17 January 2010

    Giant crystals

    National Geographic has a photo feature of the cave of giant gypsum crystals at Naica, near Chihuahua, Mexico. Click through for more images and information. Thanks Matthew for the link.

    Update: there is a BBC video clip of the cave here which is quite mindblowing.

    PS National Geographic is selling complete DVD-ROM sets of every National Geographic issue since 1888! That also does my head in. When I was a child my family had a shelf with about 6 feet of National Geographics, but that was only a few years' worth....

    Saturday, 16 January 2010

    I hate scrabble, but....

    I like Clockwords! Found on

    (No-one's paying me to say this. I am not a spambot.)

    Tuesday, 12 January 2010

    Falling in love with great poetry

    from Falling in love on the way home by Fiona Farrell

    "a hill stretched
    out its brown arm and
    drew me close I could
    smell the sweat of its
    crevices at every turn

    then a harbour licked
    my ear whispering the
    things harbours say
    to all the girls about
    other places they have
    touched but you’re the
    one babe hey you’re
    the one"

    read the whole thing online here (click the tab that says, "from Fugacity 05 Online Poetry Anthology")

    Sunday, 10 January 2010

    Bicycle with extras

    Made in Christchurch, this hybrid vehicle runs on a combination of pedal and solar power, and seats 2 adults and 1 dog. Read all about it here.