Monthly Archives: May 2010

Deciduous azaleas

We haven’t been out to Richmond Park for a couple of weeks – and we missed the peak of the deciduous azaleas. But the reds and oranges and yellows and peachy shades in between were still pretty amazing.

A winning plan for Europe

So, I watched the Eurovision Song Contest last night. Surely, of all the things that America misses out on by not being Europe (long history, great architecture, pedestrianised city centers, affordable universal health care) this one has to be the greatest loss.

In Eurovision, a whole continent, plus honorary members Israel, come together to cheer and jeer a range of ridonculous pop monstrosities. From the positively suicidal dirge of unrequited love from a Russian group wearing moth eaten sweaters, to the somewhat surreal Spanish entry with dancing toys, to the epilepsy inducing Turkish strobe-laden entry complete with a self-harming robotknight to the straightforward catchy pop song of winners Germany it’s a wild collection of all that is cheesy in Europe.

But despite being pop behemoths and key sponsors of the televised event (meaning an automatic place in the finals), the UK has consistently done badly in recent years. And last night was no exception. A forgettable Josh D-something-or-other delivered a poor song in lack-lustre style.

A lot of countries want to win and a lot of countries put a lot of effort into it. Azerbaijan (linked above) brought in Brittney Spears choreographer and had a light up dress and a light up set of stairs and commissioned a song from a chart topper and yet still failed to crack the top 5. But the UK brought in a pop svengali Pete Waterman and used the tried and tested Idol style elimination competition to choose the singer. And while it wasn’t quite as shameful as nil points efforts of the past the UK finished DEAD LAST.

So here’s my plan for a winning UK entry:

1. Further devolution

The UK’s constituent countries, Norther Ireland, Wales and Scotland now enjoy their own assemblies or parliaments and so should have their own Eurovision entries. Upon splitting Yugoslavia has done much better in Eurovision – Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and FYR Macedonia have all done well in recent years – some even producing winners. Yeah, sure they’ve paid a heavy price for Eurovision glory, but I’m not suggesting civil war – just multiple entries. And England – the largest and only country without its own parliament and the biggest financial contributor via BBC television license fees would get the automatic pass to the final.

The benefits are that the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish could all vote for each other and through diversity a cool song might emerge. If they all have different International football teams, why not different International song contest entrants?

2. Pick a decent entrant

This second option could be deployed alone or in combination with the first plan. The BBC’s desperately sad Song for Europe competition hasn’t produced a winner yet. So why not take someone who’s been honed by the really tough competition and proven hit generator – The X Factor. But don’t pick the winner, pick the runner up, and then have the competition be related to the song. On one night only viewers could watch the nearly-had-it perform three different songs by proven, recent UK song-crafters and the voting public would choose the song they liked best. This year we would have had the lovable bouncy Olly Murs, last year we would have had the charismatic boy band JLS, and the year before we would have had the extremely odd Rhydian – well, it’s not a perfect plan. But surely it would save the UK from complete Eurovision shame.

Remarkable Creatures – Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years

My dad sent me a really nifty article in the NY Times about the original development of the corn we know today. Geneticisits and archeologists have discovered the ‘cradle of maize’ in Mexico. And this article speculates on those original agriculturists, their methods and ingenuity.

My grandfather described in his memoirs a similar process in the development of corn nearly 9000 years later by one forbearers, William Haskell Neal and his selection that produced the first reliably double-eared open-pollinated corn – Neal’s Paymaster.

Eurovision heats

What with Balkanisation and accession and the fall of communism and other forms of proliferation, there are just too darn many countries in the Eurovision Song Contest these days.  There are two qualifying heats, shown in hinterlands of the BBC’s digital channel offerings in advance of the big Saturday night finale.

And I had to watch it, and of course, Tweet about it:

  • Moldovans kicking off the Eurovision qualifying heats on BBC 3 – spinning fiddle player, 80s pop feel- I like it
  • Husband: Why can’t we vote in the Eurovision qualifiers? It’s only for loser countries?
  • OMG Russian #eurovision entry makes me want to neck some vodka and throw myself into the Volga
  • @paulhenderson is that a velvet smoking jacket that Estonian is wearing? #eurovision – that is some dire pop
  • Slovakian forest death maidens – I love me some Eastern European turbo folk pop #eurovision
  • C’mon the Finns! a pearlescent accordion is a brave choice. I like Finnish folk and it’s got the boy bouncing along.#eurovision
  • Latvian girl in the bathrobe and gladiator sandals needs to keep her day job. Pitchy to say the least #eurovision
  • Holy Hoppin’ Serbian in a pixie haircut. Is he sayin “Polka, polka, polka c’mon”? #eurovision
  • Bosnia knows how to run a fog machine but not a rock band #eurovision
  • Screaming and chomping on apples and headlocks in ballet folklorico dresses, What’s not to love about the Poland#eurovision entry?
  • Wow. Belgium gives a stripped back honest pop ballad from a presentable young man. It’s good. Disqualify immediately. #eurovision
  • Just the sentence “He came second in the Flemish X Factor” has made me LOL #eurovision
  • Malta’s ingenue with her wavy dress is washing over me like drier lint #eurovision
  • Now we know where all the surplus 70s Star Trek Klingon outfits went: Albania #eurovision
  • Opa! be-hoodied greek dancing and a front man that’s a holiday romance you can’t retsina away #Greece#eurovision
  • Portugal’s #eurovison entry so boring I can’t summon the snark. Nice hair, almost.
  • Wise choice FYR Macedonia, you need some strippers to liven this one up #eurovision
  • Iceland, je ne sais quois, wearing an interpretation of volcanic eruption in chiffon – standard pop fare#eurovision

…and I missed tweeting on the Belarus entry, a forgettable song, but impressive butterfly costumes.

During the phone in and tabulation I tweeted:

  • I’m supporting Finland, Slovakia, Albania, Greece and Poland just to gawp at the pop assault again#eurovision

But my choices were largely not those of the European voters, alas Finland, Slovakia and Poland did not make the cut.

The winners of the first heat of the Eurovision qualifiers were:

Bosnia & Herzegovnia

A Piece of Internet History

How does a gal from small town in Tennessee end up living in London and working with local government in England? It’s all down to Usenet, of course. And now it’s shutting down.

DURHAM, NC — This week marks the end of an era for one of the earliest pieces of Internet history, which got its start at Duke more than 30 years ago.

On May 20, Duke will shut down its Usenet server, which provides access to a worldwide electronic discussion network of newsgroups started in 1979 by two Duke graduate students, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis.

Life’s a funny old thing…You make one tiny decision and forever after you follow a different path in life. For me, joining Usenet discussions was one of those little divergences with a butterfly effect.

I met my husband, when he was a graduate student at Sheffield and I was a grad student at the University of Tennessee via a Usenet forum and Unix email. A quirk of the system meant a response to the forum was sent to my personal email. Online etiquette was touchy then…everyone was sensitive to flaming. I sent him a strongly worded email. We entered correspondence. We met up in person in Wales a few months later.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

The young photographer

Our boy Bill is showing some considerable interest in my cameras.  But given his record of high tech destruction (DVD drives being particularly vulnerable) and sticky fingers on precious lenses, I’m loath to let him get his filthy mitts on my cameras.

Budding photographer

But his birthday is coming up soon.

However, when I’ve looked at kiddie cameras online, I’m shocked by their cheesiness and their low megapixels.  Obviously a camera for a three year old should probably have fixed focus and be rugged, including some minimal water-proofedness.  But reading through the reviews on Amazon, I’m disappointed with all of them and it seems like the chances of getting a randomly good photo is low and the possibilities of a bit of adult intervention through cropping and post-processing would be minimal because the size of the original file is too low. Maybe he wouldn’t care, but I think I would. Maybe I just need to get over it, but I’d quite like to have momentos of the world according to Bill.

I looked at shock proof, water proof cameras but they’re all quite expensive. And although some have dropped into the £150-ish range, that seems a bit high for a third birthday.  I’m really not sure what to do.



What’s this – I’m playing a social networking game called Empire Avenue, partly for fun, and partly – believe it or not – for work.  We’re building a new platform for knowledge sharing and I’m looking at fun online rewards for sharing knowledge.  But I need to include this code to verify my blog, so I can get more in-game currency.  The point of this game, eventually, I believe is to provide a big advertising platform with personalised recommendations.  The point of any game features we bring to the Knoweldge Hub will be to support knowledge transfer among local public services.

Four things

There are probably four major policy areas that I care about most in British politics, the prospect of Conservative/Liberal Democrat alliance is probably either good news or a wash.  Being a wonk, it’s all a bit technocratic, but these are the things I care about.

1. Eradicating the poverty trap that hits people at the margins of benefit eligibility.  Many of Ian Duncan Smith’s welfare reform recommendations weren’t taken on board fully enough in the Conservative manifesto.  I think the LibDem proposals of taking people out of taxation on their first £10,000 of earnings is a good one.  Together a Lib-Con alliance could really start to bite at this issue – making work pay and ending the cycle of generational worklessness.

2. Civil liberties. There’s been a chipping away at important freedoms and liberties in the UK – curtailing free speech, increased powers of detention, a surveillance state.  Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both say they’re against this and since this is a clear area of agreement, hopefully returning the basic rights and freedoms to the British people will be given increased priority.

3. Localism. I’m a big fan of local democracy and local management of local public services.   All parties say they support this.  But none of them do much about it.  Not sure a Lib-Con alliance in particular will make much difference, but perhaps any power-sharing agreement will make them more willing to give power back to local areas where it belongs.  It’s also consistent with Big Society aims.

4. Open government. Everyone says they support more open government.  Labour has actually done something about it with initiatives like, but I think it’s hard after 13 years in government to really change your ways.  I believed that a majority Conservative government would do something postive about it, if (and perhaps only if) they did something about it in the earliest days of their government. Will it be even harder in a power-sharing situation? Will it be less of a priority.  Opening up government is a big risk and a step most easily made at the beginning before you get really comfy with the power.  Or perhaps because of a lack of trust between parties, it may make open government a bit less uncomfortable and risky.